Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

November 5, 2006

 “When the Eternal Light is Extinguished
Thoughts on elections and revivals”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

Election day is coming up on Tuesday. Anyone planning to vote?

What a year this is. The conventional wisdom is that there is a “Throw the bums out” mood that will hand the House, and maybe the Senate over to Democrats.

The big issue on everyone’s mind, of course, is the war in Iraq and the intransigence of administration in its policy on the war. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was convicted today of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death for the slaughter of 148 innocent people in one town as revenge for an attempted assassination whose plotters came from that town. Violent reactions in the streets of Iraq have already been reported.

The New Yorker magazine published a short piece in its October 30th issue which began, “When the National Security Council met to discuss Iraq earlier this month, in Washington, the sense of urgency was palpable. The director of national intelligence described the deterioration of security in Baghdad and Basra; the Iraqi Army was near collapse, he said, and another explosion of sectarian violence was imminent. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported needs for huge new influxes of troops. “We’ve just heard a very dour intel briefing,” the national security advisor said, opening the floor to discussion, and an intense discussion followed, weighing all the evidence, acknowledging that Plan A has failed.

The article goes on to say that the Council asked hard questions and agreed on new plans based on the realities before them, and not based on wishful thinking or blind loyalty.

The trouble with the article was that this “National Security Council” was not the real Council in the White House, but a group of military officials and members of previous administrations, conducting a war game at the Brookings Institute.

Much of the public, like this artificial National Security Council, sees that Plan A has failed. If we are to revive hope, old hopes must die.

All 435 House seats are on the ballot, as you know, as well as one-third of the US Senate and 36 gubernatorial races.

We New Yorkers will be voting on whether to give Hillary Clinton another six years in the Senate or her opponent, John Spencer. We’ll be voting for a new Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and whether to re-elect Comptroller Alan Hevesi or oust him in favor of his challenger, Chris Callaghan, Hevesi having misused government funds. More locally there are state assembly members and senators to be elected.

It is exciting to be part of a democracy, isn’t it?

Our wonderful guests, the choir of the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock, sang a song earlier named Lux Aeterna—eternal light. It is a prayer for eternal light to shine on those who have gone before us, and, by implication, that there might be an eternal light which will not shine us only upon our deaths, but during our lives, to guide us, to warm us, to be our source of hope, insight and joy.

As Susan Jacoby relates in her book, Freethinkers, from which Anne read a short excerpt, the framers of our constitution saw the light of democracy as shining brightest when religious tests were absent from our political life. The strongest message about the relationship of God to the working of democracy was the glaring absence of any mention of God in the Constitution.

So the lux aeterna of divine light was extinguished, in a sense, from the Constitution that the lux aeterna of a vibrant democracy might shine powerfully throughout the centuries.

For many of us, the very heart of our democracy seems to be at stake. Amidst all the nail-biting about which party will prevail on Tuesday, there swirls around us the question of how legitimate our votes are. Politicians have gerry-mandered districts to make seats safe for their party. Other party loyalists have purged voter rolls in an effort to knock out as many members of the opposing party as possible. And questions swirl around us about the electronic voting machines, which are unquestionably a bad idea, but which may even have been hacked into in the 2004 elections.

I haven’t read the book, “Dude, Where’s My Country?”, but I love the title. Many of us have asked ourselves that very question in recent years— “Excuse me, I seem to have misplaced the United States of America, have you seen it anywhere?”

Basic systems that we thought were in place in our democracy seem to have given way, like so many Louisiana levees. The beautiful art in our foyer is by two men from El Salvador. I had the privilege of visiting El Salvador not long after the civil war which had devastated their country in the 1980’s had ended. I traveled there with Equal Exchange, the fair trade coffee company whose delicious coffee we sell in our foyer. Equal Exchange buys from the cooperatively owned coffee farms there, and a group of us went to meet the coffee farmers and with political leaders and journalists. One woman we met was Nidia Diaz, a member of their national congress. She had been a leader in the guerrilla army during the civil war, and had been imprisoned and tortured, and I thought, implicitly, “That would not happen in the United States.” Only days before we met her, there had been an attempt on her life. Someone had opened fire on her car, killing her driver. She had escaped unharmed and back at work the next day. Being shot at was something that didn’t faze her much. And I thought, “That would not happen in the United States.”

While in El Salvador, I was aware of how dangerous it was to stand for right against forces of greed. I was aware of how safe America was. And, of course, for the most part, our democracy is still much stronger than it has felt in recent times.

But over the past few years, that innocent feeling of living in an eternal light here in the United States has given way, for me, to a whole new consciousness, especially in light of my experiences in El Salvador.

It was one thing to be in solidarity with a country whose democracy was so frail, so under attack. Suddenly, without having to move, I found myself in a country whose democracy was exposed as frail, and under attack.

It is one thing to be in solidarity with those who suffer. It is another thing to suddenly realize that you were not as safe from their suffering as you had believed yourself to be.

If we are to revive hope, old hopes must die.

Our democracy is frailer than it had always seemed to be. That does not mean that it is dead, but it is not the strong beacon, the lux aeterna, the eternal light, that it once seemed.We don’t know what will happen on Tuesday. We may be over-joyed at the outcome, we may have our hopes crushed—no matter which side of the political aisle we are on. But if we are to live in the light, if we are to revive hope and health to our communal lives, the lux aeterna—the eternal light—can never be external to us.

The mistake I made when I was visiting El Salvador, thinking, “What happens here doesn’t happen in the US,” the mistake I made was the belief that democracy was external to me. That the eternal light was an external light. But democracy is not external to us, it is what we believe in, in our hearts and how we act in the world. We act upon the highest ideals of democracy because democracy lives and burns in our hearts and souls. The eternal light shines not down upon us, but out from us.

And just so in our personal lives; it is not what happens to us—it is not whether we are in favor with those whose high opinion we seek. It is not whether the one we love loves us. It is not whether we have a job that lends us prestige. If we depend on the light that shines upon us to be eternal, we are sure, at some time or another, to be disappointed; the eternal light is not an external light—it is only the light inside us that is eternal—and not eternal as in unchanging, but eternal as in ever-changing.

Vote on Tuesday. I hope your candidates win. But whatever happens, it is not those we elect that make our democracy. It is we, in our committed action, who shine our distant beacons into the future. We shine our light eternal forward, forward.