Actively Engaged- CUC Vision Statement

“Actively Engaged: a sermon on the CUC Vision Statement”  Rev. Brian J. Kiely

The service began with a video clip from a presentation by Henry Rollins.  Punk musician, writer and raconteur, Rollins is a dedicated liberal and calls ‘em as he sees ‘em.  He walks out on stage in his black pants and tee shirt and simply starts talking and goes for two hours without a break for even a sip of water.  And he is riveting.  He is funny, poignant, acerbic, passionate, blunt – though he uses pretty clean language.  About 15 minutes of his 2 hour presentation dealt with the election of Donald Trump.  In another city someone recorded 4.5 minutes of that bit and that’s what I have for you today.

My sermon today is about active engagement and Mr. Rollins’ remarks seem to speak to a similar call.  It picks up as he is offering a historical challenge to the idea that America was ever great.


Well, it happened.  Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the President of the United States on Friday, January 20.  As close as I could tell, the sun rose yesterday…and today!

This month’s theme has us considering the Vision Statement adopted by the Canadian Unitarian Council – our national body – last May.  As you saw in the shared reading they cast the vision as ‘five aspirations to help us grow’.  They see this statement as something to be used alongside our Principles and Sources, and not really as a separate ‘thing’.

Last Sunday I considered the first two parts of the statement.  This Sunday we consider:

Actively Engaged  We strive to work joyfully for a just and compassionate society, experimenting with new forms of community.

You know, I didn’t plan it this way, but the timing for this sermon couldn’t be better after the events of Friday in Washington, DC.  I think the only other time I stood before this congregation and said, with conviction, that the world has changed was the Sunday after the 9-11 attacks.  In that week we westerners learned a hard lesson about fear, about terror and many of us felt uncertain for the very first time in decades.  That night we opened the old church to both congregations and held a vigil in which we expressed fears and spoke of our hopes.  It was a moment to reform as a community and reemphasize our shared values. As Laura Horton-Ludwig writes, “We are here because we need encouragement, because we need strength.”  That 9-11 night, many of us found a connection that allowed us to move forward more positively.

I have found myself thinking along the same lines in the months since the November election.  The world has changed in a significant way.  Sure, it’s not our nation, but as the elder Trudeau once said, Canada-US relations are a lot like a mouse in bed with an elephant.  The mouse ALWAYS knows what the elephant is doing.
Like Unitarians who often start describing themselves as not-Christian, Canadians have a tendency to highlight how we are not like our American neighbours.  And in many ways we aren’t, thank goodness.  But it is always wise to be aware of what they do and to reflect upon it.

But with this presidential election the wheel has turned somewhat further.  Though our government (and those of most of the world) are making the polite diplomatically hopeful noises, there is a global fear of just what this President might do.  Much has focused on him having access to nuclear codes, but that might be a bait and switch deception.  While we watch that, we might miss the dismantling of much of what in American society is progressive: government that includes all people, government that respects differences, government that plays by the rules, government that stands for the people, not just over them, government that is responsible for water and air and earth as well as business interests.

We have seen an eight year battle between a forward looking administration and a congress intent on thwarting any progress that could be attributed to the previous President.  With this election, progressivism lost to venal, self-obsessed populism.  This weekend Pope Francis warned of the danger populism brings reminding us that Hitler did not seize power, but was elected on a populist agenda.  There appears to be a new and very different agenda coming – although to be fair, very few definite policies have been put forth to date.

Still there is a widespread swing to the populist right, unmistakably.  British PM Theresa May signalled her clear plans to go active on Brexit in the next few months.  The European Union is very shaky right now as several other nations face elections with strong right wing isolationist candidates- Italy, France and the Netherlands to name a few. Mr. Trump has challenged the value of NATO and the UN, and seems ready to tear up any international agreement he does not like, expecting to bully trading partners into more favourable terms for the US.  Here at home we have the Conservative leadership races provincially and nationally.  Some candidates appear eager to borrow from the Trump playbook.  I could go on, but I won’t.

The world has become a very nervous place.

Sure, the U.S. is not our country, but the border is long and thin.  What happens to their economy, their environment has fallout for us.  We have already seen Kevin O’Leary declare himself for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, though even National Post columnist Andrew Coyne thinks he is unelectable in this nation.  The political system of electing leaders is too different.  Time will tell.

It’s a challenging time  for liberal thinkers…even for a dyed in the wool optimist like me.  If I have a religious belief, a creed if you will, it’s faith in humanity.  I deeply believe that we are a fundamentally good species with great capacity for care and empathy.

It’s just that sometimes we get distracted – we forget to vote. Maybe we focus too much on the failures of the system we know, ignoring what worse thing might replace it.

As a student of history I believe we are progressing towards an ever brighter social future.  We have overcome so much superstition and mistrust of others.  We have overcome so many health and hygiene hazards.  We have overcome famines and respond effectively to natural disasters.  We have even overcome the last flourishing of populism in WWII – though at immense cost.  Again, I could go on about the progress we have made – never denying the horrifying setbacks or terrible failures, but I won’t.  In the long arc of history we are improving.

I found a bright spot this week for my optimism. I discovered an ally.  In his final press conference Barack Obama closed by saying, “We will be okay,” exhibiting some faith in the resiliency of his country and even more faith in the people of that nation.

I have no doubt that the next few years will be challenging, full of face-palming moments and possibly even worse. This is the two or even three steps backwards part of the old adage.  As I said, the world is in fear, holding it’s breath and wondering what the next tweet will hold in store.

That said, my optimistic philosophy teaches me that the worst you can envision does not often come to pass, (sadly neither does the best).  It won’t be pretty, but it might not be that bad.  There might even be some good things.

The scary times are presenting us with an opportunity.  I doubt that the framers of our CUC Vision/aspiration envisaged this election surprise, but the words they crafted fit now more than they might have imagined.

Actively Engaged We strive to work joyfully for a just and compassionate society, experimenting with new forms of community.

It is our time to step up, to stand up, to join in the fray in whatever way we can.  In fact, unfortunate turns of events often bring out the best in people.  You heard the clip from Henry Rollins with his promise to go back and mobilize the arts community to resist and protest and to remain, well “Actively Engaged.”

And perhaps some of the failures of democracy will be stuck down only to be rebuilt better in four or eight years.

The inauguration of Mr. Trump should sound as a call to action for us all.  In all nations on the globe, we must be vigilant, we must be resistant and we need to find ways to support the millions of Americans who will be actively opposing the new administration’s policies if they threaten to demean, disempower and threaten the middle and lower class citizens, the immigrants, or the other nations of the world.

Yesterday in Washington, in Edmonton and in 600 cities around the world there were editions of the “Women’s March on Washington” and millions hit the street, even in Antartica!  I went with my daughters, so did our Religious Educator Lauren Kay, the Raging Grannies and many other folks from this church and from Westwood as well.  And while there was some anti-Trump sentiment in the crowd and on their signs, the march itself was a celebration and an affirmation of the rights of women, of immigrants, of free religion, of LGBTQ community.  It served notice that so many of us will not be moved and will fight for human rights.

In all our Edmonton schools there are active anti-bullying programs in place to teach out children not to stand for it.  In the city there is Jesse Lipscombe’s #makeitawkward campaign asking us to call out racism where we find it and have those awkward conversations.  Mr. Trump is casting himself as the new global bully.  We must stand up and call out his hateful rhetoric wherever we encounter it.  Can we do any lass when we ask out own children to participate in anti-bullying actions?  We have to make it awkward for those who will repeat the ‘alternative facts’/lies.  We have to ask them why they think as they do and then if they speak some untruth ask them why they believe it.  We need not be angry or confrontational, just intensely curious.

Are we entering a dark time in history? Perhaps.  Even so, that is not cause for despair, for history shows that some of our greatest social, philosophical and technological advances have come when the fabric of our core humanity and values have come under threat and attack.    It is our time to stand up for what we believe in not just as Canadians, but as citizens of the world.  It is our time to show up, to be present in whatever way we can.  We cannot let the forces of regression, racism, isolationism and the concentration of money and power hold sway.

We just can’t.