Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Holiday of Rising Energy

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois on May 1, 2016

Opening Words

The opening words are from Camelot:

It’s May! It’s May!

The lusty month of May. 

That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.

It’s here! It’s here!

That shocking time of year.

When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.

It’s May! It’s May!

The month of great dismay.

When all the world is brimming with fun,

Wholesome or un.

It’s mad! It’s gay!

A libelous display!

Those dreary vows that everyone takes,

Everyone breaks.

Everyone makes divine mistakes

In the lusty month of May.

Responsive Reading

(by Henry David Thoreau)

Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?

We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.

I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.

I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.

I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear.

Nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.

I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. 

I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

If it proves to be mean, then to get to the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.

Or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.

Meditation

I want you to imagine that you are two years old, and running is something you have just recently gotten good at. 

All the energy that someday will animate a big clunky adult body is already in you right now. It's been compressed down into a tiny package, and you’re just bursting with it. 

Adults are always so tired and slow. They plop down into a chair or a couch and it seems so hard for them to move. But for you, it’s hard not to move. There’s so much energy in you, you just can’t bottle it up. So you run.

You’re not going anywhere, you’re not racing anybody, you’re just running. You run out to the fence and then run back. You chase the cat. You run around the swing set and then run around it again.

Do you know how amazing running is? Running changes the wind. The day can be perfectly still, but you run and suddenly there is wind in your face and your hair lifts off your ears and streams out behind you. 

And there’s one more thing you can try that just might work. You’ve seen older kids do it
and it looks so unbelievable: You could jump.

Jumping is like running, but you don’t put a foot down to catch yourself. You get going really fast, and then you just pick your feet up and let yourself be in the air. 

You’ve tried it before and it hasn’t worked, you screwed the timing up or something. But that was days ago, when you were practically still a baby. You’re faster now, and this time maybe you can do it. 

So you go to the top of that little incline and start running down. You push it harder than you ever have before, and when you think you just can’t go any faster you give one last push and pick up your feet. 

You’re in the air.

It probably doesn’t look like much to anyone else. You don’t get very high. You don’t go very far. But for one timeless instant you are off the ground, touching nothing but air. 

It’s like flying.

Readings

Arguing with that spirit of May and Thoreau's ambition to suck the marrow out of life
is the belief that a truly enlightened person, someone of broad vision, would know that it’s all pointless. 

That child who runs in circles is, after all, running in circles. She’s not getting anywhere, and her feeling that what she’s doing is intensely meaningful and important is just one of those illusions that people are prone to. 

To this mindset, what it means to grow up and get educated is that you expand your scale of reference beyond your self-centered frame; maybe all the way out to the Infinite and the Eternal. And when you do that, you inevitably see the sheer insignificance
of anything human beings might ever achieve.

Shelley expressed that nihilistic view in his poem Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear --

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.' 

But the curmudgeonly statement that has had the most influence in Western culture comes from the Bible. According to tradition, the Book of Ecclesiastes was the last thing written by Solomon, the wisest of the kings of Israel. 

“All is vanity,” he says, and it is foolish to think you are going to accomplish something that will last. Because the scale of the universe is utterly beyond you.

What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes,
and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down and hurries to the place where it rises again. The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow there they continue to flow. 

All things are wearisome more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing or the ear filled with hearing. What has been will be, and what has been done is what will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 

Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has already been in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.

Ecclesiastes is the voice of the old man who has seen it all and done it all and lived long enough to realize that it was all pointless. He pursued every possible pleasure, acquired every kind of possession, built great works, ruled over a kingdom. 

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind.

Even then, you might think: Oh, but reaching that place of grand perspective — that must have been satisfying. Solomon denies us even that consolation. 

This also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

Talk

When Ellen asked me to speak on May 1st, I warned her that the first word of the talk might be: Comrades! 

Because Mayday is famous as the holiday of revolution. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union would hold huge Mayday parades in Red Square, demonstrations of military might
that promised the eventual triumph of the workers’ revolution over capitalist oppression.

But the connection between Mayday and the workers' struggle actually predates the Soviets. Here in the United States in 1885, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions threatened a general strike across the country if the 8-hour day didn’t become standard by May 1st. 

The unions weren't really strong enough to pull off a nationwide strike, but some large cities did see several days of strikes and marches. In Chicago, a confrontation with police response became the Haymarket Riot, for which several labor organizers were sentenced to death. In subsequent years, the American labor movement held demonstrations on Mayday to honor the martyrs of Haymarket. The European socialist community, and eventually the Russians, picked it up from us.

But as the opening words reflected, Mayday celebrations predate the labor movement too. They go all the way back to the pagan festival of Beltane. 

Beltane is the holiday of rising energy, and falls halfway between spring equinox and summer solstice. In the British Isles, where I think the growing season
runs a few weeks behind what we see here in central Illinois, Beltane marked the beginning of the season of generativity, the lusty month of May. 

Beltane is a celebration of potential. In the same way that the meditation envisioned all the energy of an adult body compressed inside a two-year-old who just has to run, at Beltane the lushness and bounty of July and August and September is imagined as already existing in the Earth, waiting to explode into manifestation through these tiny sprouts and buds. 

To quote another show tune, by the end of the lusty month of May, June will be busting out all over. Because all the ram-sheep and the ewe-sheep are determined there’ll be new sheep.

And so on Beltane, a maiden would be crowned Queen of the May, and would lead her village in raising a Maypole, (which is basically just a giant phallus), to remind everybody that, yeah, it’s that time of year. 

It’s time to renew your fire — literally. Communities kindled a central bonfire, and households extinguished all their hearths and stoves and candles to relight them from the new flame. People would ritually walk between fires or jump over fires. 

Young couples would have sex in the fields, partly to participate in the energy of the season, and partly as sympathetic magic, to make sure the plants were getting the right idea: It’s time to be fruitful and multiply.

Independent of Haymarket or any other anniversaries, it makes a certain symbolic sense that Mayday becomes the holiday of revolution. In the same way that a farmer might see the crops of the fall already existing as potential in the sprouts and buds of May, a 19th-century revolutionary might look at the discontented miners, the secret workers’ study groups, and the fledgling union organizing committees, and see the sprouts and buds
of a fully realized socialist society, where working people would not just make a subsistence wage, but would enjoy all the fruits of their labor. 

Society might only have made it to May, but the imagination of a revolutionary can see August and September and October, when everything comes to fruition. All the energy needed to make that happen is already here, if we could only channel it and rise up.

Mayday is also the holiday of adolescence and first love, of the May Queen and her partners in the dance. When we use the calendar to symbolize a lifetime, May represents the adolescent. In the same way that the shoots and buds of May are ready to burst out into every kind of grain and fruit and flower, adolescents are ready to burst out into every kind of role and profession. Just as physical energy wells up inside toddlers, emotional energy and sexual energy and social energy wells up in adolescents, yearning to erupt into the world and become something. 

Adolescence is a time of almost pure potential, neither anchored by manifestation nor disillusioned by experience. Nothing has happened yet, but everything seems possible,
even things that appear impractical to their more prudent elders. 

Two and a half centuries ago, Adam Smith observed, “The contempt of risk, and the presumptuous hope of success, are in no period of life more active than at the age at which young people choose their professions.” 

If I’m 17, I could still rule the world someday, or I could fail totally and be a complete nonentity. Day to day, and sometimes even hour to hour, an adolescent’s expectations can swing from one extreme to the other. 

That unfulfilled potential is also the source of young people’s enviable resilience. A teen-ager’s dreams can crash and burnin a way that would be devastating in middle age. But in a week or two there can be new dreams, because the energy of life just keeps rising up, and it has to go somewhere. 

But what about those of uswho aren’t in the May of our lives? What should Mayday or Beltane mean to us?

In a few months I’m going to turn 60, which puts me in the October of life. By October, the harvest might not all be gathered in yet, but you can pretty well see the shape of it. All around me, friends are retiring, or retired already, or bringing their careers in for a landing. Friends who raised children have seen those children graduate, and maybe even marry and have children of their own. If I'm hearing someone's plans for bigger and better things than they’ve ever done before, I'm probably talking to one of those children I watched grow up, and not to anyone my own age.

Physically, the late 50s are a period of decline. So, for example, I still go out for runs. But not with the idea that I’m going to go faster or further than ever before. Instead, I’m just trying to hang on to my vitality as long as I can. I run cautiously, with my medical insurance card in my pocket, in case I injure myself. I’ve gotten very far away from that two-year-old who runs just for the thrill of running.

By your late 50s, the rituals of Beltane have lost a lot of their appeal. Jumping over a bonfire seems like an unnecessary risk. And even the fantasy of sex in the fields sounds inconvenient and probably uncomfortable.

But getting older isn't the only reason a person may not feel like celebrating a season of unbridled potential and explosive growth. At any age, the future might not be filling you with anticipation. Maybe, instead, you’re facing defeat or recovering from failure or grieving for someone you’ve lost. Maybe the bright green cheerfulness of May doesn’t excite you, so much asit mocks your lack of excitement.

Yes, energy is rising out there in the world, but what has that got to do with me?

At such times, it is tempting to echo the curmudgeonly attitude of Ecclesiastes: Yeah, I tried all those things that people get so whipped up about, and I was even good at some of it, but now I’ve risen above all that. I’ve gotten wise enough to see that it was all pointless. 

The child runs for the thrill of feeling the wind in her hair, and the old man says, “Vanity, vanity. It’s all just chasing the wind.” What does it matter than I ran and I jumped? That I ate good food and saw beautiful sunsets? That I built things or made things or owned things? That I read thick books and thought grand thoughts? The wind continues to blow this way and that, the rivers never manage to fill up the sea, and there is no new thing under the sun, or at least nothing that anybody will remember after a generation or two. 

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

But while I was preparing for this talk I re-read Ecclesiastes. (It’s short, you can do it in one sitting.) And this time, Solomon (or whoever the author really was) seemed to have a different message for me. He wasn’t trying to beat down my hopes or disparage my drive. 

Instead, he was warning me not to try to justify my life through some external result. Because ultimately, the result of life is death. And if I think I can rise above that biological reality by getting rich or becoming famous or writing a book or building a company or even founding a dynasty, in the long run it’s not going to work. Because sooner or later the deserts return and the sands cover whatever we make. 

Life is not a story where things work out in the end; in the end we die, and so does everybody we teach or help or influence. So the place where life needs to work out is in the middle. The point of life has to be in the living of it.

This time, Ecclesiastes wasn’t telling me to rise above life and all the silly things people do. Quite the opposite, it was saying that the two-year-old has it right. It’s fine to imagine
that you’re running to somewhere and that something wonderful will happen when you get there. But the best reason to run is for the joy of running.

Now, this point of view has gotten the reputation of being immature or unsophisticated. The sophisticated point of view is supposed to be that of the pessimist or the cynic. 

But I think that’s because we describe it badly. The examples we usually give are like the one I just used: the two-year-old, the innocent. In the archetypes of the Tarot, the card that represents the joy of life is the Fool, who is happily striding towards the edge of a cliff. 

Or we say “Eat, drink, and be merry” — something else sophisticated curmudgeons can feel superior to: Just indulge your animal desires, because if you thought about things at all, you’d realize that life is pointless and you’d get depressed. The attempt to enjoy life on the terms that it offers is sometimes portrayed as denial, like the partiers in “The Masque of the Red Death” who dance ever more frantically the clearer it becomes that something is horribly wrong.

But the physical pleasures of motion or consumption just symbolize the joy of life; they aren’t the whole story. In fact, there is no pinnacle of cold wisdom that rises above joy the way that an icy mountaintop rises above the treeline. Life-affirming experiences are possible at every level of consciousness. So on this holiday that celebrates possibilities, let’s recall a few of them.

Just as you can identify with your body and completely submerge yourself in whatever is happening physically, you can also identify with the role you’re playing, and for a period of time you can just be that role. For a moment or an hour or an afternoon, you just are a teacher or a healer or a friend. Sometimes doing the right thing, fighting for justice or uncovering the truth can give you a feeling of being exactly where you’re supposed to be, independent of how things ultimately work out. 

Maybe you’re doing something entirely mundane, something you’ve done a thousand times before. You’re a plumber looking for a leak or a carpenter framing a house or a chef making a sauce, but you lose yourself in the activity, and for a while that’s all you need. Or maybe this moment is special. You are the father of the bride, or the grandmother who has brought the family back together for one perfect Thanksgiving.

Just as you can run for the joy of running, you can also think for the joy of thinking. Maybe you’re making the breakthrough that completes the Grand Theory of Everything or maybe you’re just working on the Sudoku puzzle in The Herald Whig. But you experience your mind in motion and it feels good. 

Sometimes you can even blow your mind. Two or three ideas you’d always kept in their own little boxes turn out to be related, and suddenly a vast new landscape stretches out in front of you, and you have no idea how far it goes. The intricacy of the Universe is just more wonderful than you had ever imagined.

There are epiphanies of beauty. Sometimes you find them in the natural world when you look out at a sunset or up at the stars or down into a microscope. Sometimes you find them in the arts, when a painting or a sculpture hits you just right. Or you listen to a poem or a song or symphony for the hundredth time, but this time you really hear it. Such moments don’t have to mean something or lead anywhere. They just are.

There are mystical epiphanies, when you see the world in a grain of sand and discover that you love it, when you have compassion for every being that suffers, or when you make contact with a grace so enormous that it forgives everything.

And if you believe the mystics, they have maps of human experiences that keep on going from there. To tell the truth, I have no clue what some of those higher spheres or upper chakras are supposed to do. But those who claim to have experienced them describe them as bliss. There is no wisdom so advanced or enlightenment so grand, that all the joy of living is now beneath you.

So those of us who might have trouble identifying with May right now, whether because of physical decline or some other reason, if we refuse to become curmudgeons, if we refuse to use Mayday as an excuse to look down on these foolish teen-agers with all their dancing and flirting and impractical ambitions, how should we celebrate the holiday of rising energy?

I suggest that we take a broader view of what the season represents and what it might mean to us. There is a virtuous cycle, in which the energy of life rises up in you and through you. And if it manages to express itself as joy, a circuit gets completed that draws up new energy. 

There are times when that process seems so easy. Energy becomes joy becomes energy,
round and round, as if it were happening on its own and didn’t require your attention at all. 

But yes, there are other times, when energy and joy will not come to you no matter how loudly you call. You go through the motions of the activities that used to invoke the joy of life, but nothing happens. Poetry is boring and puzzle-solving is drudgery and every role you know feels like a trap you can never escape from. Sometimes your compassion is burned out, and even good food just makes you nauseous. 

Eat, drink, and be merry indeed! As if things were just that simple.

And if someone suggests that a life-affirming experience is supposed to be available here ... that just increases the frustration and anger and despair that comes from not finding it.

One sunny day a year or so before he died, I picked my father up at Sunset Home and drove him out to the farm my grandfather bought almost a century ago, the one my father grew up on and still owned and had worked for most of his life. We looked at the fields, the crops, and the machinery, and he seemed to enjoy himself. But the next time I offered he didn’t want to go. He said it would just remind him of all the things he couldn’t do any more.

So how should we celebrate the holiday of rising energy if our own energies aren't rising? Perhaps Mayday could be a time of taking stock. Where does joy still manifest in our lives, and how can we help that process along? 

It may not be happening where we’ve been expecting it, in the places where we used to find it. In a time of decline or defeat or depression, Mayday can be a reminder to search the garden of life for the shoots and buds it still produces, in whatever odd places they might be. 

Socrates, when he was old and had lost his trial and was waiting in prison for his death sentence to be carried out, found himself drawn to write poetry for the first time in his life. Who would have predicted?

Those little shoots and buds, those tiny ways that small amounts of joy still enter your life, may seem unimportant, even trivial. But they are the offer Life is making, an indication of the energy it still wants to invest. And energy can become joy and draw up new energy. Small as they seem, if you nurture them, they could grow. Any tiny spark could be the beginning of new fire.

These tiny sprouts, these little flames, they may not bear comparison now or ever to what we’ve seen in the past. And they may look like nothing when viewed from the perspective of Eternity. 

But they are what they are. And what they are is a sign that Life is not done with us yet. That, I believe, is worth celebrating. 

Happy Mayday.

Closing

The closing words are from Ecclesiastes, because after all that discouraging talk about vanity and chasing the wind, the author does not advise us to lay down and die. Quite the opposite:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your insubstantial life. 

Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Who Owns the World? (2016 version)


presented at First Church in Billerica on March 6, 2016

Opening Words

When I give food to the poor, 
they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, 
they call me a communist. — Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil

Readings

Pope Francis is often thought of as a progressive
 or even radical pope, 
but much of his message has been 
to re-emphasize Catholic social justice teachings 
that go back more than a century, 
and have been restated by every pope since. Our first reading is from one of those prior encyclicals, Laborem Exercens, written by John Paul II in 1981. (One progressive thing popes didn’t do in 1981 
was to use gender-inclusive language. So I apologize for that in advance.)

Working at any workbench, 
whether a relatively primitive or an ultramodern one, 
a man can easily see that through his work 
he enters into two inheritances: 
the inheritance of what is given 
to the whole of humanity in the resources of nature, and the inheritance of what others 
have already developed 
on the basis of those resources, 
primarily by developing technology, 
that is to say, 
by producing a whole collection 
of increasingly perfect instruments for work.

The second reading is from Ayn Rand, 
a favorite author of Speaker Paul Ryan 
and many other conservatives. This paragraph is from her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, and in particular from the John Galt speech 
that is the philosophical climax of the novel. Here, Galt is also talking about 
those “increasingly perfect instruments for work” — specifically, the steel factory owned 
by one of the novel’s other heroes, 
the industrialist Hank Rearden. 

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, 
is the power that expands the potential of your life 
by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist 
of an iron bar produced by your hands 
in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day 
if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim 
that the size of your pay check 
was created solely by your physical labor 
and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith 
is all that your muscles are worth; 
the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.

I’ll hit this point harder later on, 
but look at what Galt has done 
to what the Pope called “the second inheritance”, 
the inheritance of technology. In Galt’s view, Hank Rearden is not just the inventor 
of the specific new products his factory produces, 
he is the sole rightful heir 
of all technological progress since the Middle Ages. Having been disinherited from the legacy of past inventors, the workers’ standard of living rises 
only through their employer’s generosity. Anything more than a medieval wage 
is essentially just charity. It is “a gift from Hank Rearden”.

The final reading is “The Goose and the Common”, 
a protest poem from 18th-century England. For centuries, the people of England 
had been suffering through a process 
known as Enclosure, in which a village’s common land 
would be fenced off 
and become the private property of the local lord.  To appreciate the poem’s biting humor, 
you need to know this piece of 18th-century slang: a goose was not just a bird, 
it was also an ordinary person — 
a usage that survives today 
in phrases like “silly goose” 
or “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” 

The law locks up the man or woman

who steals the goose from off the Common,

but leaves the greater villain loose
,
who steals the Common from off the goose.

The law says that we must atone

when we take what we do not own,
but leaves the lords and ladies fine

when they take what is yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don't escape

when they conspire the law to break.

This must be so, but they endure

those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman

who steals the goose from off the Common.

And geese will still a Common lack

until they go and steal it back.

Meditation

The meditation is a vision of peace and prosperity 
that comes from the prophet Micah: “They will sit under their own grapevines 
and their own fig trees, 
and no one will make them afraid.”

Sermon

Unitarian Universalists talk a lot about social justice. And when we when talk among ourselves, 
we all more-or-less know what social justice means: Things should be more equal. 
The disadvantaged should be less disadvantaged. 
No one should be hungry. 
The sick or injured should be cared for. 
Education should available to everyone. 
And so on.

We’re much better making these kinds of lists 
than we are at explaining 
why this world we’re envisioning is just. Where is the justice in social justice?

Among ourselves, 
we usually don’t need to answer that question. Most people with UU values just feel it, 
without explanation. You say, “Isn’t it awful that in such a wealthy country, 
so many people are hungry or homeless
 or go without healthcare or education?” And whoever you are talking to probably says, 
“Yes, it is awful.” And the conversation goes on from there.

There’s nothing wrong with that conversation. But if that’s what we’re expecting, 
then we’ll be at a loss 
when we talk to people 
who have a different notion of justice. For example, justice could also mean 
that people get to keep the things they own, 
unless or until they decide to give them away.

If that’s what justice means to you, 
then when you hear that list of social justice goals, you’ll wonder where the money is going to come from. Who is going to pay the farmers and teachers and doctors who provide those goods and services? And more specifically, 
is the government going to take that money by force from the people who rightfully own it. Because, what’s just about that?

In one of the 2012 presidential debates, 
a young man asked the Republican candidates: “Out of every dollar that I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?” Afterwards, Ron Paul had a clear and simple answer: “All of it.”

Former Judge Andrew Napolitano, 
a frequent Fox News contributor, 
has generated this fantasy:

You're sitting at home at night, 
and there's a knock at the door. You open the door, 
and a guy with a gun pointed at you says: 
"Give me your money. 
I want to give it away to the less fortunate." You think he's dangerous and crazy, 
so you call the police. Then you find out he is the police, 
there to collect your taxes.

Napolitano saw the income tax 
as representing “a terrifying presumption. 
It presumes that we don't really own our property.” 
We only own the part of it 
that the government chooses not to take.

No wonder Glenn Beck told his listeners: “Look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can.”

When people respond to your social justice talk 
by grabbing their wallets and running away, 
it’s tempting to write them off 
as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way 
are quite generous. 
They give money away. 
They volunteer. 
They put themselves out for other people. 

But the model they put on this behavior 
isn’t justice, it’s charity. They do it out of the goodness of their hearts, 
not because they are under some obligation. And they expect the beneficiaries of their generosity 
to receive those gifts with humility and gratitude. Because, after all, beggars shouldn’t be choosers. 

And if the amount 
that individuals are willing to give away 
doesn’t match the need 
— which it never does — 
then the charity mindset sees that 
not as a flaw in the system, 
but as a problem of personal morality. We need to do a better job of preaching generosity, 
not change the way our economy works.

Ultimately, if our social justice work is going to succeed, we need to do more than just talk to each other 
and shake our heads at people who disagree. We need to critique that charity-based worldview 
and explain why it’s inadequate. In short, we need to explain what’s just about social justice. 

The beginning of that critique was in our opening words: It’s fine to give food to the poor, 
but we also need to take the next step 
and ask why the poor have no food. Why can’t everybody buy their own food,
 save for their own retirement, 
pay for their own health insurance, 
and educate their own children? And if they can’t, 
what does that have to do with those of us who can? Why should our property or income 
be entailed with some kind of obligation 
to provide for them?

Those are hard questions, 
and so right away you notice a major difference between a charity mindset
and a social justice mindset: Charity comes from the heart, 
and often finds itself in conflict 
with more practical thinking. 

But social justice demands 
that head and heart work together. It’s not enough feel sorry for the poor, 
we need to understand how poverty happens, 
and how the system that creates 
such a gulf between rich and poor justifies itself. If the system that your reason supports 
leads to a result that your compassion rejects, 
social justice suggests 
that maybe you're taking something for granted 
that you shouldn't. Social justice doesn’t ask you to give up on thinking 
and follow your heart. Instead it tells you to check your assumptions 
and think again.

Whenever I try to rethink things, 
my first instinct is to go back in time 
and read works that are a little closer 
to the era when the original assumptions were made. In this case there’s also a considerable irony 
in the author I want to tell you about, 
the Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine. 

You see, at about the same time 
that Glenn Beck started telling everybody 
to run away from social justice, 
he was also styling himself 
as a modern-day Thomas Paine. He named one of his books Common Sense, 
and claimed to be updating Paine’s classic 
to call for the Tea Party revolution that we need today. Now, if you actually know something about Thomas Paine, this is perversely hilarious. Because in addition to his role in founding our country, Paine is also one of the founders 
of the American social justice tradition.

Thomas Paine was one of the true revolutionaries 
of the American Revolution. After we won our independence, 
he moved to England to stir up revolution there. And when the British deported him, 
Lafayette invited him to Paris 
where he tried to be the conscience 
of the French Revolution. That got him thrown into prison during the Reign of Terror, and only a bureaucratic mistake 
delayed his execution 
long enough for Robespierre to fall. Eventually the American ambassador, 
future president James Monroe, 
got him released. And in 1795, while he was staying with the Monroes 
and recovering from his ordeal, 
he wrote a little book called Agrarian Justice.

Agrarian Justice is addressed to the English, 
and proposes that when each young adult comes of age, the government should give him or her
— I’m not being politically correct, 
Paine wrote gender equality into his system — 
a stake of capital to get a start in life. Also, those who survive to old age should get a pension. And all this should be funded 
by an inheritance tax on land. 

Paine writes: “It is justice and not charity 
that is the principle of the plan.” In his mind, young adults were entitled 
to a stake in the economy, 
and old people were entitled to a pension. And the rationale for his inheritance tax 
would strike fear into the heart of Judge Napolitano: Paine believed that we don’t entirely own our property, 
and that all property comes entailed 
with obligations to others.

So Paine was not trying to appeal to people’s compassion and preach personal generosity. He was challenging their fundamental assumptions, 
and asking them to think again 
about one of the most basic concepts 
of the 18th-century economy: landed property.

When people have lived under a property system 
their entire lives 
-- as the English had then and we have today -- 
they tend to take it for granted. But Paine did not take the property system for granted, because he had seen the example 
of the Native Americans. He writes:

The life of an Indian is a continual holiday compared with the poor of Europe; 
and, on the other hand, it appears to be abject 
when compared to the rich. … Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, 
has operated in two ways: 
to make one part of society more affluent, 
and the other more wretched, 
than would have been the lot of either 
in a natural state.

But wait, European-style civilization 
is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Paine agrees:

The first principle of civilization ought to have been, 
and ought still to be, 
that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, 
ought not to be worse 
than if he had been born before that period.

Now that’s a fine heartfelt sentiment. But if our heads are going to come along on this trip, 
we need to understand 
why things didn’t turn out that way. Was there some reason why the poor had to be wretched, 
or did European civilization make some early mistake 
that led to that result? Paine says there was a mistake, 
and it has to do with 
how we invented the concept of property.

Let me stop here for a minute, 
because I just snuck in a radical idea: Property is a human invention. Today, a lot of people write about property 
as if it were natural, 
something that exists prior 
to all societies or governments. But that’s just not true.

Paine uses theological imagery to lampoon this belief: "The Creator of the earth," he says,
 did not "open a land office 
from which the first title deeds should issue."

He might also have pointed to the animal world, 
because nothing remotely like property 
exists in nature. Animals have territory, 
which is a very different idea. A bird may chase rival birds away 
from the tree where it nests. But no bird has ever sold a tree to another bird, 
or rented a nest, 
or taken in someone else’s egg 
in exchange for a few worms. The tree and the nest are not property.

Similarly, land as private property 
is not a natural concept at all. Paine writes: 


The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, 
and ever would have continued to be 
THE COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. In that state every man 
would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest 
in the property of the soil, 
and in all its natural productions, 
vegetable and animal.

Being a practical man, Paine recognizes 
that modern agriculture would not work on those terms, 
because it requires a long investment of effort 
before you see any product. You have to cut down the trees 
and pull up the stumps 
and dig out the rocks. Each year you have to plow and plant 
and fertilize and weed. And who would do all that if, in the end, 
he had no more right than anyone else 
to gather the harvest?

So Paine believed it was right and just 
for the difference in value 
between cultivated land and uncultivated land 
to be private property. Not the land itself -- 
the difference in value 
between cultivated and uncultivated land. And here he locates the original mistake, 
the original sin for which the poor pay the price. Rather than just let people own the value 
of their improvements in the productivity of the land, we created a system 
in which they own the land. We created a system in which the Earth itself is owned, 
not by humanity in general, 
but only by the people who have their names on deeds.

Consequently, a hungry Indian 
could go hunt in the forest or fish in the pond 
that was part of his tribe’s territory, 
but a hungry Englishman could not, 
because those natural resources 
were owned by some other Englishman. In short, the poor of Europe 
were worse off than the Native Americans 
not because God created them that way, 
and not because they were lazy or stupid, 
but because they had been disinherited; 
their share of the common inheritance of humankind had been usurped.

Paine was just talking about land, 
but it’s easy to see how his ideas extend to other areas. No one would dig a mine or drill a well 
if they had no claim on the resulting iron or gold or oil, but some part of that output 
also has to belong to the common inheritance. It can't all be private property.

And consider not just our physical inheritance, 
but our cultural inheritance. I’m a writer. I work in words and sometimes I sell my words. But I did not invent the English language, 
or teach it to all of you 
so that you could understand me. And the ideas I’m telling you this morning: 
I have some claim to them, 
but large parts come from Thomas Paine 
and Pope John Paul II 
and other benefactors of our cultural legacy. So if there is value in my words, 
I didn’t create that value out of nothing. Part of that value should belong to me, 
but part rightfully should go back 
into the common inheritance.

The same is true for the Hank Reardens of this world, 
the inventors, researchers, and industrialists. They do indeed create value, 
but they don’t create it out of nothing. As Newton put it, they stand on the shoulders of giants, 
and the legacy of those giants 
should belong to everyone.

In short, I’m endorsing that idea 
that so scares Judge Napolitano: We don’t really own what we own, 
free and clear, with no obligations. And to that young man at the presidential debate, 
I would say: 
“You earned that dollar 
by using the common inheritance. 
Some part of it needs to go back.”

We all owe a debt to the common inheritance, 
because none of us makes things 
by calling them out of nothing, 
like the God of Genesis. Everything we make 
relies on the resources of the Earth 
and the tools that have been passed down to us. Paying our debt to the common inheritance -- 
and particularly to those 
whose share of that inheritance 
has been usurped -- 
is the “justice” in social justice.

The flaw in the charity mindset 
is that it refuses to recognize that debt. It accepts, without question or objection, 
disinheriting the poor from the common legacy. Once you have done that, 
they have no rightful claim on anything 
beyond what the rest of us volunteer to give them. And any tax collector who shows up 
demanding money to help the less fortunate 
is just a well-intentioned thief. 

But if you do accept that the poor 
are owed a share of the common inheritance, 
how should they collect it? Paine, as I said, was a practical man, 
and he recognized that he couldn't even calculate 
the rents and royalties that the poor have coming, 
much less collect and distribute them. 

Instead, he proposes that everyone be offered a deal: In payment for your share of the common inheritance, 
in exchange for your acceptance 
that you were born into a world 
where virtually everything of value 
was already claimed by someone else 
-- we’ll offer you this: When you reach adulthood, 
we’ll give you a stake, some bit of capital 
that can get you started in life. And if you make it to an age 
where you can’t reasonably expect to work any more, we’ll give you a pension. That's how he proposes to make good on the principle 
that civilization should benefit everyone, 
and not just some at the expense of others.

Notice that Paine does not propose a dole, 
or some program of bread and circuses, 
or make-work projects 
that will give everyone a meaningless job. His proposal is much more radical than that: 
The poor should be capitalized. Everyone should have a stake, 
a chance to launch themselves 
into the middle of the economy 
rather than start at the bottom.

In Paine’s day, that didn’t take much.

When a young couple begin the world, 
the difference is exceedingly great 
whether they begin with nothing 
or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, 
and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; 
and instead of becoming burdens upon society … would be put in the way 
of becoming useful and profitable citizens.

A similar idea has popped up in many other guises. In Biblical times capital meant land, 
which is why Micah envisioned every family 
under its own vines and fig trees. Later on in the encyclical I quoted, 
Pope John Paul II envisions the ideal society 
not as a Great Feeding Trough 
but as a Great Workbench, 
where we all have our place 
and access to the tools we need to be productive.

Launching yourself into today's information economy 
may be more complicated than in Paine's day, but the value of the common inheritance has grown. Exactly what deal it makes sense to offer now, 
in lieu of the inheritance we still can’t deliver, 
is a topic for another day. But certainly education must be part of it, 
and childhood nutrition. In general, people should be freed from poverty traps, 
from situations in which their short-term survival depends on doing things 
that harm their long-term interests. No heir of a rich inheritance 
should ever have to eat the seed corn.

The Pope’s image goes a long way 
towards helping us evaluate the adequacy 
of any proposal: Everyone should have a seat at the Great Workbench. That seat should belong to them by right, 
and not depend on anyone's approval or generosity.

Even if we had such a program, 
if we had a way to deliver 
to each and every person 
the value of their share of the common inheritance, things could still go wrong. A Prodigal Son might waste his inheritance. Unlucky people might lose their stakes 
to accident or illness. Some people's abilities might be so limited 
that no tools we can provide 
will make them productive. There would, in other words, still be occasions for charity.

But that is not where we are now. In the world we live in today, 
people are poor 
because the common inheritance has been usurped 
by people who believe that what is theirs is theirs, 
and they owe no one for its use; who believe that only land-owners 
are beneficiaries of the Creation; that businessmen and industrialists 
are the sole heirs of technological progress; that only the educated rightfully inherit our cultural legacy.

After the inheritance 
or some fair compensation for it 
has been delivered to all people, 
then charity might be enough. But until then, we should never stop demanding justice.

Closing words

The closing words are 
by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.

Rich relations may give you
crusts of bread and such.
You can help yourself,
but don’t take too much.
Cause Mama may have,
and Poppa may have.
But God bless the child that’s got his own.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Humanism, as simple as I can make it

Last Sunday, I got pulled into a Unitarian Universalist classroom to tell 11-year-olds about Humanism. As so often happens, attempting to simplify something for other people made it clearer for me.

I started with the New Testament story in which Jesus boils all the commandments down to two: love God and love your neighbor.

Just about every religion, I told the kids, has some version of that: Start by loving God, and then (because you love God) treat other people well.

The problem is that when religions start interacting, they get so caught up in arguing about God -- does God exist? is my God the same as your God? who was God's prophet? what book describes God? who can speak for God today? -- that they often don't get around to Step 2: treating other people well. At the extreme edge, you have groups like ISIS, who treat other people horribly on the way (they think) to establishing some perfect Kingdom of God that will eventually make all that suffering worthwhile.

Looking at that mess, Humanism says: Do it in the opposite order, and start at Step 2. Let's all focus on treating each other well, making the world better, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, giving hope to the hopeless, and so on. After we've worked together on that for a while, then some evening we'll be sitting around the fire talking about what motivates us to do this work. That would be a good time to tell me about Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha or the Tao or whatever else gets you out of bed in the morning.

From a Humanist perspective, even the hard-core atheists who want to start by explaining why God doesn't exist are still missing the boat. Start at Step 2. We can talk about God later.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Hope, True and False

I keep forgetting to post the link to the text and audio of the talk I gave at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, IL in September. It's called "Hope, True and False", and it's my answer to a question I get asked all the time: "How do you follow the news so closely without getting depressed?"

Searching for a UU Identity

a service presented by Doug Muder at First Parish Church of Billerica, Massachusetts on November 1, 2015
Opening Words
In the early days of Unitarian Christianity, William Ellery Channing wrote: 

It has been the fault of all sects that they have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite. 
Christianity, as it exists in the mind of the true disciple, is not made up of fragments, of separate ideas which he can express in detached propositions. It is a vast and ever-unfolding whole, pervaded by one spirit, each precept and doctrine deriving its vitality from its union with all. 
When I see this generous, heavenly doctrine compressed and cramped in human creeds, I feel as I should were I to see screws and chains applied to the countenance and limbs of a noble fellow-creature, deforming and destroying one of the most beautiful works of God.
Readings
The Apostle's Creed. 
A few minutes ago in the Affirmation of Faith, we made a covenant, a commitment to each other that we are going to be together in a certain way: in peace, in freedom, and in fellowship. 
In the Lutheran church where I grew up, and probably in the churches where some of you grew up, that spot in the service was filled by a creed, a statement of the common beliefs that defined the community.
As I read the creed that I grew up reciting, I want you to imagine two things: First, how alienating it would be if you realized that you didn't believe some of the things that your entire community was pledging that it believes. And second, if you did believe the creed, what a sense of belonging and common purpose you would feel to be surrounded by people publicly announcing that they agree with you.
Our creed went like this:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.
The UU Principles 
By contrast, Unitarian Universalists have rejected creeds ever since Channing. In particular, the UU Principles are not a creed. They were never intended to be a creed and, for reasons I'll discuss later,
they wouldn't work particularly well as a creed. While they describe some widely shared UU beliefs and values they don't define our faith. So we don't throw people out if they don't agree with all the UU Principles. 
But we do use the Principles in one way that resembles how my childhood church used its creed. Namely, if you find yourself in a discussion of what Unitarian Universalists believe, sooner or later someone is going to pull out the Principles. This is what they say:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community
with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Sermon
In 1822, a Dr. Cooper from Pennsylvania wrote to ex-President Thomas Jefferson, complaining about religious fanaticism in his state. In his reply, Jefferson pointed hopefully to Massachusetts, where “Unitarianism has advanced to so great strength, as now to humble [the] haughtiest of ... religious sects.”
Jefferson prophesied the ultimate defeat of religious fanaticism by more reasonable modes of thought. “The diffusion of instruction, to which there is now so growing an attention, will be the remote remedy to this fever of fanaticism; while the more proximate one will be the progress of Unitarianism. That this will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.”
Well, it didn't quite work out that way, did it?
Again around the beginning of the 20th century, Unitarians were optimistic, because everywhere they looked, the myths of religion were being replaced by the evidence-based theories of science. Darwin had explained the origins of humanity. Before that, Pasteur gave us the germ theory of disease, Franklin explained lightning, and Copernicus and Kepler the motions of the planets. 
And in this dawning 20th century, scientists were doing or about to do things that religion could only tell stories about: fly through the air, stop epidemics, and communicate instantaneously across oceans. If you were a young person who longed to do miracles, then you belonged in a laboratory, not in a pulpit or a monastery.
Surely, in this bright and promising new century, the old-time religion would fade away, beaten at long last by what Jefferson had called “the diffusion of instruction”. Soon everyone would be educated, and they would have no need for ancient tales about six-day creation or the virgin birth or Jesus ascending above the clouds, where, after all, there is only the dark vacuum of outer space.
And who would pick up the pieces after the inevitable collapse of myth and superstition? Why, we would: the Unitarians, the Universalists, and the other liberal faiths that were welcoming science rather than resisting it. We would sift through the wreckage of the old religion and preserve those nuggets that were worth saving, like the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount. The rest would blow away like dust, and a more enlightened civilization would rise above its ruins. 
But History was actually headed in a different direction.
In 1910, conservative Christian theologians started publishing a series of books called The Fundamentals. And that was the beginning of a new movement called fundamentalism. Today's fundamentalists like to think of their movement as the old religion – Jerry Falwell called his TV program The Old-Time Gospel Hour – but in fact it was yet another new development of the 20th century. Fundamentalism is slightly younger than the airplane. 
The real old-time preachers and prophets had been innocent of science. They explained the world through myth because that was what they had. But fundamentalism wasn't innocent or ignorant, it was defiant. That was new. Fundamentalists knew that there were scientific explanations, but they didn't care. They would not listen, and they would not change.
And they succeeded. All over the world, in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and many other faiths, wherever modern society threatened a traditional way of life, a fundamentalist movement developed. In religion, that – and not the triumph of rational liberalism – was the big story of the 20th century.
So why am I telling you this? What does it have to do with my topic of Unitarian Universalist identity? I started there because I think it's important for us to understand why fundamentalism succeeded when so many voices in our movement were predicting the exact opposite. 
The answer is fairly simple, and it leaves us a lot to think about. 
You see, religion has always been about more than just who made the world or why there are seasons or even how to get to Heaven. Religion is also about identity, about who I am and who my people are and why it's important that we live the way we do. As change accelerates, those questions become harder and harder for individuals to answer on their own. So they come to church.
Think back to village life in pre-modern times. In those days, being your parents' child might be all the identity you needed. A man quite likely would grow the same crops on the same land as his father and grandfather,  or perhaps practice the same profession in the same shop. A woman would marry and raise children, sew clothing from the same patterns her mother and grandmother had used, and feed her family the same foods prepared in the same ways. The question “Who are you?” didn't require deep introspection; it was a public fact. In the village, everybody knew who you were.
Today, though, you might live in half a dozen cities in the course of your lifetime, with a different set of friends and co-workers in each one. They can't tell you who you are, because they won't know until you tell them
And what will you say? There is almost nothing about you that can be counted on to stay the same from the beginning of your life to the end. In your lifetime, you might practice three or four completely different professions. You might have more than one marriage, each with its own children. Your identification as gay or straight might shift from one decade to the next. You might even change your gender. Everything about you is potentially fluid; nothing is solid. 
So who are you? Why does it matter that you are alive now, doing … whatever it is you do? Today, those are the kinds of questions that bring people to religion. 
Fundamentalism succeeded because it has compelling answers to those questions. When you join that movement, you become one of the people who are preserving God's true revelation. You are a warrior in the cosmic battle of Good against Evil. That is a story that will get you out of bed in the morning. In uncertain times, it will tell you what you ought to be doing with your life, and build a strong bond with all those who share that mission.
As I was reading the Apostles' Creed, many of you were probably picking apart all the places where it is unreasonable, unsupported by evidence, or in defiance of common sense. But perversely, that's why it works so well to bond people together. The more outlandish a statement sounds, the more rejection it provokes from outsiders, the better it establishes the common identity of the people who say it. 
Think about it: If you sit next to a stranger on an airplane, and during the flight you agree that water is wet and chocolate is tasty and the airline should make these seats bigger, then you don't necessarily develop a sense that you have much in common. But if it turns out that you both believe the same bizarre conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination or 9-11 or the secret cabal that rules the world, then by the time you step off that plane you're practically family.
An outrageous creed is like a military haircut. It makes a statement that binds people together. If the boot-camp buzz cut were stylish, if everyone were imitating it, then it wouldn't mean anything. It wouldn't tell the other recruits: “I am one of you. I value being one of you so much that I am willing to look like this.”
By contrast, we UUs often struggle with our religious identities. Because we are all about freedom and the individual conscience we've never had a creed. And trying to write one now would violate something deep in our covenant with each other. Who would dare claim the authority to tell other UUs what they have to believe? It's unthinkable.
And because we don't insist that you believe unlikely things or submit to institutional authority, we have the reputation of being an easy, undemanding religion. Do you disagree with what you hear from the pulpit? Fine. Don't want to come every Sunday? Don't. You don't have to embarrass yourself by trying to convert your friends and co-workers. There are no onerous rules about what you can eat, or who you can love, or what you have to wear. You don't have to tithe, or give anything at all unless you want to. Make up your own mind about that. You are a free individual.
And yet, in this era when it is so hard to know who you are, the religions that grow are the difficult ones. Easy religions just don't create that sense of common challenge and shared hardship that builds a group identity. All that UU freedom and individuality often leaves us at a loss to explain what we stand for, what we have in common, or why we are here together at all.
In my congregation over in Bedford, in our Coming of Age program, one of the exercises we assign our teen-agers is to write what is called an “elevator speech”. The premise is that you are on an elevator when someone asks you what Unitarian Universalism is about. You have less than a minute before one of you gets off. What can you say?
Back in 1970, if my Lutheran confirmation class had been given a similar assignment, it would have been simple. I could have just said: “Because Jesus died for our sins, we can go to heaven.” Even in a short building with a quick elevator, that would have left plenty of time to move on to discuss the weather or the Patriots. 
But a UU elevator speech is very challenging, and I am always a little ashamed to admit that I've never come up with one I really like. I wrote a column for UU World about that once. It's called “Stop the Elevator, I'm Not Done”. 
Another project we assign the kids – which also appears in some adult-ed classes –  is to write a credo, a personal creed, a statement of your own beliefs, whatever they might be. 
A credo a marvelous exercise in introspection, and the service in May when the teens read their credos to the congregation is one of the most inspiring things we do. Not because they necessarily come up with such wonderful answers to life's big questions – some are always more thoughtful than others – but because the act of standing in the pulpit and telling us their ideas marks a commitment to begin a lifetime of thinking for themselves. 
And yet sometimes I wonder how much good it does to have a creed that no one will say with you, and that you yourself may change at any time. How does that give you a sense of identity as a Unitarian Universalist?
Now, some UUs might say that we don't need that. We're a loose association of individuals who enjoy each other's company, and maybe that's enough. 
But I have to say that for myself, it isn't enough, and I doubt that I'm the only one. I suspect a lot of Unitarian Universalists long to feel that we are part of something larger than ourselves, part of something that is big enough to go “forward through the ages” and grand enough to be worth singing about. 
So today I want to suggest a third kind of statement UUs might work on. Not an elevator speech to describe Unitarian Universalism in general,or a credo that states your personal beliefs, but something that brings the two together in a statement of your own identity as a Unitarian Universalist. 
I'm still working on the best way to phrase the question I have in mind, but it might go something like this: How does what I am trying to do with my life relate to what Unitarian Universalists are doing together? Or, more concisely: What am I doing here?
Rather than just read you a personal statement that might apply only to me, I thought it might be more usefulto walk you through some of my thought process as I tried to answer that question.
Now the individual side of the question is already fairly difficult, because it requires at least some notion of what you are trying to do with your life, or what you want to be doing. As I wrestled with that, I noticed two important shifts: First, unlike the elevator speech or the credo, this question is about doing, not believing. Deeds, not creeds.
And second, I found my focus shifting away from freedom and towards commitment. If the question is what I want to do with my life, then yes, I need to be free. But that's a prerequisite, not a goal. If I'm not free to look at the world with my own eyes and draw my own conclusions and choose my own actions, then someone else is deciding what I'll do with my life, and what I want doesn't really matter. 
But the point of that freedom is not so that I can live whimsically from one day to the next, doing whatever comes into my head. To me, the point of being free is that if a goal bubbles up inside me, I have the power to commit myself to it. My best days, the ones that I look back at with a sense of “Yes! That's the person I want to be.” are not my idle or whimsical days, they're the ones in which I have felt driven to pursue a vision that comes from deep inside. 
We don't talk a lot about vision in our churches. Visions tend to be those things that aren't there that crazy people see. But vision is also how freedom turns into commitment. When you have seen something beautiful in your mind and had the thought, “Yes, this can happen. I can do this.” then nobody has to push you or goad you or make you feel guilty. When you are possessed by a beautiful vision, you don't resign yourself to tasks and say, “Oh, I suppose I ought to be doing that.” It's more like, “Look! It's right over there! Come on!”
That's the personal side of the identity-statement process, the what-do-I-want-to-do-with-my-life side, but what about the community side? In other words, what kinds of visions can I hope to have in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? What visions can I hope that other UUs will share and get excited about?
And that brought me back to the UU Principles. When I started asking those questions, suddenly the Principles began to sound very different to me. 
If you think of the Principles as beliefs, then they quickly become nice ideas that it feels good to nod your head to. That's why they make such a terrible creed; reciting them is too easy. Run the Principles past somebody who would never in a million years become a UU, and they're likely to say “Yeah, sure, why not? Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations? I mean, I'm not for injustice, unfairness, and hard-heartedness. So sure, why not?”
But if you think of the Principles as visions, as things that we are trying to see now in our minds so that we can bring them into reality in the future, that becomes a lot more challenging. For example, it's easy to nod your head to the idea that every person has worth and dignity. But when you're alone on the T, and somebody gets on who is so different from you that you find them scary or disgusting, do you see that person's worth and dignity? Is it present to you, like a physical reality?
Developing that kind of vision is not just a nice idea, it's a challenging spiritual practice.
That's the whole point of Black Lives Matter. Of course you believe as an abstract principle that lives matter. But can you look specifically at African Americans, who have been demonized and stereotyped for centuries, and see their value?
Similarly, it's easy to nod your head when someone says that everything is connected. But the interdependent web of all existence – is it real to you? When Boko Haram wipes out an entire village in Nigeria, or when refugees stream out of Syria with nothing but the clothes on their backs, do you feel that vibrating down the web until it shakes something inside you?
When you're trying to envision rather than just believe, suddenly this isn't such an easy religion any more.
Justice in our relationships – of course we believe in that. Who doesn't? 
But what about all those relationships we don't usually think about? What about your relationship with the people – probably poor people living somewhere like Bangladesh or Indonesia – who made the clothes you're wearing, or the phone that's in your pocket? What about your relationship with people all over the world whose lives are affected by the government that represents you? Can you bring those relationships into your mind at all? Can you envision a world where those relationships are all just and equitable and compassionate? How would that world come to be?
So for me, the community side of the question, the part about what Unitarian Universalists are trying to do together, boils down to this: We're not just trying to believe in these seven principles, we're trying to make them real, first to ourselves, so that we actually see them rather than just nod our heads when we hear the words – and then, having seen in our minds a world where the principles have become reality, we are committed, maybe even driven, to push the real world in that direction.
Is there anything in that project that echoes what you personally want to do with your life? Does any of that reverberate in your soul and make you say “Yes, that's what I want my life to be about.”? 
It may not. It doesn't have to. You are free. Free to see the world through your own eyes and draw your own conclusions and set your own goals. 
But if some part of that vision and that mission does overlap with what you want your life to be about, then I believe that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a good place to work on it, and Unitarian Universalists are good allies to have. If that is true for you, as it is for me, then I believe this is a place you can belong, and Unitarian Universalists can be your people.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Universalism, Politics, and Evil

May 3, 2015 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.

Opening Words: "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham

Introduction to the Reading: Historically, Unitarian Universalism gets the “Universalist” part of its name from the Christian doctrine of universal salvation, the belief that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the freight for everyone, so sooner or later — no matter what they believe or how evil they are — everyone is going to wind up in Heaven. There couldn't possibly be a Hell, because God is too good to create one, and God loves each human soul too much to give up on it and cast it away forever. 

As you might imagine, the Catholic Church considered universal salvation a heresy. They started stamping it out in the third century, but no matter how many books or heretics they burnedit kept popping up every few generations, until in colonial America it became the Universalist Church.

What made universal salvation so hard to suppress was that unpredictable people at unpredictable times kept having the same religious experience: a vision of the goodness of God and the unconditionality of God’s love. 

Christians are still having that vision, whether they’ve ever been exposed to Unitarian Universalism or not. Occasionally they have it at very inconvenient times. In 2005, the radio program This American Life devoted an episode to the extremely inconvenient universalist awakening of Carlton Pearson.

Carlton was a rising black televangelist, a protege of Oral Roberts. He had appeared in the pulpit with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. His Higher Dimensions megachurch in Tulsa was drawing 5,000 people a week. And then this happened:

Reading: From This American Life (December 16, 2005)

Well, my little girl, who will be nine next month, was an infant. I was watching the evening news. The Hutus and Tutus were returning from Rwanda to Uganda, and Peter Jennings was doing a piece on it. 

Now, Majeste was in my lap, my little girl. I'm eating the meal, and I'm watching these little kids with swollen bellies. And it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains. Their hair is kind of red from malnutrition. The babies, they've got flies in the corners of their eyes and of their mouths. And they reach for their mother's breast, and the mother's breast looks like a little pencil hanging there. I mean, the baby's reaching for the breast, there's no milk.

And I, with my little fat-faced baby, and a plate of food and a big-screen television. And I said, "God, I don't know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell," which is what was my assumption. 

And I heard a voice say within me, "So that's what you think we're doing?" 

And I remember I didn't say yes or no. I said, "That's what I've been taught." 

"We're sucking them into Hell?" I said,

"Yes." "And what would change that?" 

"Well, they need to get saved." 

"And how would that happen?" 

"Well, somebody needs to preach the Gospel to them and get them saved." 

"So if you think the only way they're going to get saved is for somebody to preach the Gospel to them and that we're sucking them into Hell, why don't you put your little baby down, turn your big-screen television off, push your plate away, get on the first thing smoking, and go get them saved?"

And I remember I broke into tears. I was very upset. I remember thinking, "God, don't put that guilt on me. You know I've given you the best 40 years of my life. Besides, I can't save the whole world. I'm doing the best I can. I can't save this whole world." 

And that's where I remember, and I believe it was God, saying, "Precisely. You can't save this world. That's what we did. Do you think we're sucking them into Hell? Can't you see they're already there? That's Hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I'm taking them into My presence."

And I thought, well, I'll be. That's weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That's where the pain comes from. We do that to each other, and we do it to ourselves. Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create Hell on this planet for each other. And for the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of Hell.

Talk: If you read my Weekly Sift blog, you probably know that I reliably take the positions that are known as “politically correct”: I support marriage equality, I think black lives matter, I believe women when they talk about rape, I defend Muslims, I wish the rich paid more taxes, I advocate negotiating with unpopular countries like Iran and Cuba, I think voting should be easy, I believe in unions and a higher minimum wage, I think poor people usually work harder than rich people, I want everyone to have access to health care, and the idea that a few cheaters might be abusing food stamps doesn’t bother me nearly so much as the possibility that there still might be some hungry people out there. 

Down the line, politically correct.

Now, describing those positions that way is disparaging, because it implies that they are just a fashion. These are the chic ideas among the liberal tribe these days, and we display them so that we will recognize each other.

And it works. If I meet a stranger and she says, “It’s a shame Elizabeth Warren won’t challenge Hillary” I think: “Ah, one of my people.”

Because human beings are like that. We’re tribal. It’s evolution — another one of those fashionable liberal ideas. One explanation for why the brains of primates got bigger was that we needed to do a lot of social processing to hold together larger groups. Larger groups have a survival advantage, so evolution favors larger brains. 

If you compare humans to other primates, our brain size says we should run in tribes of about 150, compared to under 100 for chimpanzees and bonobos. That’s called “Dunbar’s number” and even today, it shows up in the literature about church size. In congregations with less than 150 members, everybody can have a personal relationship with everybody else. But 150 members is often a crisis point, and requires some kind of reorganization. It’s biology.

Now, one way our ancestors got around those limitations and held together tribes larger than 150 was to invent fashion. We learned to identify with each other's external trappings even if we didn't have a personal relationship. So we’d paint our bodies red or put bones through our noses, and that way if we met someone we didn't recognize, we could tell whether or not he belonged to our tribe. And if the next tribe started to copy us, then we’d have to change to a different color or a different kind of bone. Because that's how fashion works. It’s how like-minded people recognize each other.

Naturally, it’s easier for me to spot political fashionability in people I disagree with. For example, I’ll bet most of you know some smart, scientifically literate conservative who for some reason is blind to the evidence for global warming. You can be having a perfectly intelligent conversation, but something strange happens when climate change come up. He just can’t go there.

It’s tribal. Ten or fifteen years ago, a John McCain or a Newt Gingrich could acknowledge global warming. But fashion shifted, and climate change became a global socialist conspiracy. Today, a conservative who admits to believing in it risks being ostracized from his political community.

Of course, liberals and conservatives aren’t perfect mirror images of each other, so just because the other side has some fault doesn’t mean my side necessarily has it too. But in this case I think it’s fair to say that sometimes we do. Because tribalism and fashionability aren’t flaws in the conservative worldview, they’re part of basic humanity. We are all tempted to bend over backwards to fit in with the people we recognize as our own.

But just because an opinion or a practice is fashionable doesn’t mean it’s just fashionable. There also might be some good reason for it. For example, children are still reciting “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe”, but they say it differently than I did. Today they say, “Catch a tiger by the toe.” But if you’re my age or a little older, maybe you remember saying, “Catch a nigger by the toe.” We didn’t necessarily think about what we were saying, that’s just how the rhyme went in those days.

That version is out of fashion now, but it’s not just fashion that keeps us from teaching it to our children. There’s a reason to say it the new way, and I don’t think the old rhyme is ever going to come back.

So yes, I understand that all the opinions I listed at the beginning of this talk are fashionable among liberals, but that doesn’t mean that nothing more than fashion links them all together. 

Conservatives usually will grant me that. My views aren’t just liberal chic, they come from a higher principle. Like: I hate America. Or I want to destroy western civilization. Or maybe I just hate myself, so I push against whites and men and Americans and anybody else who resembles me. 

Those certainly are unifying principles. But they’re not the one I had in mind. To me, all those positions on all those diverse issues arise from the spirit of Universalism as I understand it. Which is not to say that Universalism has a political dogma, or that you can’t be a good Unitarian Universalist if you disagree. But this is where Universalism takes me.

When I introduced the reading I talked about the origins of Universalism in the doctrine of universal salvation. When you describe it that way, Universalism seems very etherial and other-worldly. It’s all about God and the afterlife, and doesn’t seem to have much to do with food stamps or foreign policy. But those theological ideas laid the groundwork for a radical kind of Humanism that we're still practicing today.

You see, in orthodox Christianity, as in many other faiths, the afterlife isn't one place, it's two places: a blissful Heaven and a torturous Hell. And that creates a fundamental division in humanity between the Saved, who will be on the boat to Heaven, and the Damned, who will be on the boat to Hell. Orthodox believers see this not as some unfortunate accident, but as divine justice. The Damned are bound for eternal torment because that is what they deserve.

That vision of the afterlife doesn’t force believers to take a harsh view of life here and now — many people who believe in Hell are kind and generous here on Earth. But if you have any harshness already in you, this vision of the Saved and the Damned will magnify it. Because it does lend itself to the harsh view that once you step off the path of righteousness, you deserve whatever you get. 

So if a young woman gets raped, well, what did she think would happen when she went to that party dressed like that? If a gay man gets AIDS, if a petty criminal gets killed by police, if a Muslim villager becomes collateral damage in a drone strike, why do they deserve our compassion? They stepped off the path laid out in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, and they got what was coming to them.

If you’re not careful, the Saved and the Damned can come to seem like two different species. In the New Testament, Jesus uses Judgment Day metaphors that seem to say that. He talks about God separating the sheep from the goats, or about the harvest, when the grain is kept but the weeds are burned. 

John Calvin went a step further. Not only would humanity be divided at the end of time, but it had been two species all along. From the moment of Creation, God had predestined some souls for Heaven and others for Hell. That was the kind of Christianity that many of the early American Universalists grew up with.

Human beings, as I was saying before, have a tendency towards tribalism. And if you’re not careful, this theology of the Saved and the Damned can ally itself with your tribal impulses. And then the Saved become the Good People, the people like us, and the Damned are the Bad People, the people like them. It becomes easier to look at someone who is different, and see not a fellow human being, a child of the same God, possessed of the same rights and faculties I have, but rather someone whose ticket to Hell is already punched and only the formality of death is delaying the completion of his damnation.

That is certainly how colonial Americans behaved sometimes. These heathen Indians — why shouldn’t they be driven off this land where I want to build my City on a Hill for the greater glory of God? These pagan Africans — why shouldn’t they be my slaves? And if I convert either of them to Christianity, well then they should thank me. I get their land and their labor, but they get eternal salvation, so it works out for everyone. 

Universalism said no to all this. There aren’t two afterlives or two boats to the afterlife, no Saved and Damned. There are just people. Humanity is one species, and we are all in the same boat. We all have the same basic set of emotions, the same drives, the same temptations, and the same yearnings for a better life. 

From the very beginning, that had political implications. When American Universalists began to think of themselves as a national movement, one of the first things they did was to call for the abolition of slavery. (They were the second denomination to do that, after the Quakers.) And perhaps the beginning of American feminism was the essay “On the Equality of the Sexes”, written in 1779 by Judith Sargent Murray, the wife of Universalist leader John Murray.

The political upshot of Universalism — which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don't believe in God or the afterlife any more — is that since God isn’t writing anybody off, we don’t get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.

That’s an easy thing to say, and easy to nod to when somebody else says it. But in actual practice, it is difficult and radical. Not many people manage it consistently, and I know I find it a struggle. 

When people live far away from us, or live so differently from us that we are afraid of them, or if they act in ways we find inconvenient, or if they are unpopular and lack the power to make us respect their point of view, it’s easy to slip into imagining them in stereotyped ways rather than seeing them as human beings as deep and as complicated as we are.

When this country first started debating marriage equality, I’d often hear someone say, “I can’t understand why two men would even want to get married.” Of course the people who said this were often married themselves and knew exactly why they had done it: They wanted to share a life with someone, to tell the world that this relationship was special, to build a secure household for raising children. Why a same-sex couple might want to marry was a mystery only to straights who could not let themselves imagine that gays and lesbians could be so much like them.

When protest — and sometimes violence — was erupting in Ferguson, and again last weekend in Baltimore, I heard the most amazing explanations of why people were out in the streets: Looting and burning weren’t isolated responses to mistreatment, they were the whole point. Michael Brown or Freddie Gray were just excuses to throw off the constraints of law and civilization. 

Again and again, I heard TV pundits talk about our fellow citizens as if they were animals to be tamed or vermin to be controlled. So few called on us to imagine our own neighborhoods being similarly tamed and controlled, or to ask ourselves how we would respond to such treatment.

Even when the poor are quiet, I hear astounding things about them. They are “lucky duckies” because they don’t have to work or pay taxes. They have no pride or ambition, and they don’t want their children to work hard and get an education and succeed. Somehow, that description is easier to believe than that the poor want the same things from life we do, but just have a harder time getting them.

Foreign countries are also split into the Good People and the Bad People. The Good Foreigners accept the place in the world order that the United States has assigned them, and the Bad Foreigners don’t.

And the reason they don’t is not because they love their land and their people the way we love ours. It’s not because they want their country to find its own place in the world or to shape its own system of government like we did. It’s not even because they fear and distrust us the same way we fear and distrust them. 

No, they oppose us because they are all madmen and monsters. They hate freedom. They are enemies of all human civilization. There is no understanding them or talking to them; all we can hope to do is go to war and kill them.

Universalism says no to all that.

It says that if you want to understand other people, the place to start is with our shared humanity and all that it implies. People living very different lives from us may have been shaped by different experiences, but underneath all that nearly all of them have the same needs, the same drives, the same fears, and the same hopes that we do. They aren’t a species of Bad People pledged to the Devil with a reservation on the boat to Hell. They have the same ticket to life and death that we all do.

Now I can’t just stop there without responding to the most common objection to Universalism: Universalism, people will tell you, is a rose-tinted worldview. Everybody is nice. Everybody is trustworthy. Everybody is like us. If you believe that, the critics say, you’ll be a sucker. Because bad people exist, evil exists, and you won’t be able to deal with that evil, because you have made yourself blind to it.

There is a difficulty there, a challenge. But it’s not the one the critics claim. If you approach the world as a Universalist, if you envision all people as human in the same way that you are human, then you won’t be able to deal with evil — if you imagine that there is no evil in you.

But if you give in to the tribal temptation to say “We are the Good People”, if you give in to the egotistic temptation to say “I am Good”, then you need to believe in the Bad People. Because how else could the world be this way? We didn’t do it. 

Earlier in the talk I criticized a couple of things Jesus said. Now I’d like to give him credit for an observation I find insightful: “Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer.” 

A lot of people interpret that in a way that doesn’t do Jesus much credit. They think he’s holding us responsible for the bad thoughts we don’t act on. But I think he’s saying that you’re kidding yourself if you imagine that some great moral divide separates you from the Bad People. 

Have you ever hated someone? Then you know where murder comes from. Have you been afraid and humiliated? Then you know why people lash out. Have you ever wanted to slough off inconvenient responsibilities? To forget a promise? To look at someone else’s suffering and say, “I don’t have anything to do with that” when deep down you know you really do? Then you know why people cheat and betray each other’s trust. Don’t act like evil is some great mystery; it isn’t. We all live with it all the time.

Universalism doesn’t deny the existence of evil, or the struggle between good and evil. It just refuses to frame that struggle as an external battle between Good People like us and Bad People like them. It doesn’t see the battle between good and evil as something that’s happening far away in Syria or the Ukraine, or in Washington, or in the poor neighborhoods of St. Louis or Baltimore. 

Good and evil are both part of our human inheritance, and not even an Almighty God can divide them so neatly as to send the Good to Heaven and the Evil to Hell. The battle between good and evil is always happening, right here right now, inside each and every one of us. We win some and we lose some. All of us.

I want to close back where I started, with political correctness and the liberal tribe. One consequence of recognizing that humanity is one species and we’re all in the same boat is that we have to own up to feeling the same tribal temptations that we see in our opponents. Universalism can warn us against that human tendency, but it can’t completely inoculate us. 

And so every day on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I see link after link about the horrible things the other side is saying or doing;links that are there mainly to raise my anger, and to reinforce the idea that I and my friends are the Good People fighting the Bad People. And the Bad People do not have their own, perhaps misguided, view of right and good. They are monsters and maniacs, committed to falsehood and impervious to reason or compassion. So if my side doesn't do whatever it takes to win, the world will plunge into eternal darkness.

That’s not a Universalist style of rhetoric.

I face that issue every week when I put the Sift together. Whatever outrageous thing Michele Bachmann or Louie Gohmert said this week, am I tempted to include it because my readers need to know the full range of the ideas that are out there? Or am I just trying to raise their blood pressure and build their sense of our common righteousness?

I can't ignore that question. Because there is a weakness in the Universalist position, one that the other side doesn’t share: We can lose by winning. If we win by demonizing and stereotyping, if we win by casting ourselves as the Saved and our opponents as the Damned — then we’ve lost. If good vs. evil is a battle inside each person, then evil can win in us at the very moment that we are winning in the external world. 

Polarization is a fact of today’s political landscape, and we have to deal with it. But we can’t afford to lose ourselves in polarization. Because our virtues are not divine, they’re human. And their vices are not demonic, they’re human. 

Good and evil are both part of the human inheritance that everyone shares. And whenever we forget that, no matter what is happening on the battlefield out there, we’re losing.

Closing words: “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost