Posts Tagged accountability

Why?

UUFP Changing the World

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardRev. Andrew Clive Millard

Many parents dread that age when their child starts asking “Why?”  Not because they don’t want their child to be curious, but because whatever the answer, it usually leads to another “Why?” until the final answer, out of frustration, is something like “Because I said so!”  (The theological problem that answer represents is a topic for another time…)  Olivia hasn’t reached that phase yet, but she certainly asks plenty of other questions and I know it’s just a matter of time!

While it’s a phase that’s usually outgrown within a few years, the question still sticks with us throughout our lives.  And “why” is distinct from the other question words: “what”, “where”, “when” and “who” often have concrete answers, and in fact the rule of thumb for announcing an event is to include those answers as the most important details.  Even “how”, though more…

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We’re All in This Together

20141228 BlackLivesMatter sign(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 28th 2014.)

Video: “Five Tips for Being an Ally” by Franchesca Ramsey

Franchesca Ramsey describes herself as an actress, a comedian, a graphic designer, a consultant and a natural hair geek, but not always in that order.  She is perhaps best known as a video blogger, and has two YouTube channels with over 150,000 subscribers and over 23 million views.  Chescaleigh, as she is better known on-line, published this video last month.

Sermon: “We’re All in This Together”

Since my daughter was very young, we’ve been teaching her that she doesn’t need to be afraid when she hears sirens.  Not that she’s exactly old now — she’ll be two-and-a-half in January — but her level of comprehension and articulation is much greater now than when we first started telling her that a siren meant that somebody was going to help someone.  “Help” was the operative word, back then when she could only say a word or two at a time.  “Help” was something that she understood, given that we had to help her do a number of things that she couldn’t do for herself at the time.

Nowadays, of course, my daughter’s an active, curious toddler who talks non-stop except when she’s asleep.  I’ve already apologized to our Director of Religious Education for what she’s likely to do during the children’s story once she starts coming here with me on Sunday mornings.  It does mean, though, that we can now talk about how an ambulance, for example, helps someone get to the hospital for the medicine they need.  She’s seen and even sat inside fire trucks a couple of different times, even though, in her mind, the main reason for being of a fire truck is to rescue cats that are stuck in trees.  And we’ve continued to reinforce the idea that police cars are there to help people.

But then, we’re the white parents of a white child.  If my daughter were not white, we know we’d be having a different conversation.  We’d be having a conversation much like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife have been having with their son.  As part of a speech about the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, Mayor de Blasio said the following:

Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face.  A good young man, a law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong.  And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him — as families have all over this city for decades — in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.

Now for most white American families, the idea that you’d need to warn your otherwise good, law-abiding children against the very people we know are also there to protect us from real criminals, well, that idea seems very foreign.  But the fact is that it is far from foreign for black American families.  I first heard about it following the death of Trayvon Martin, the advice that many African-American parents feel compelled to give their children, and their sons in particular, even before they become teenagers, advice that has been passed on for generations, advice that is often named “the talk”, as follows:

Pay attention to where you are and who is around you.  If you go into a store, lower the hood on your sweatshirt and keep your hands out of your pockets.  If you buy something, put it in a bag and be sure to get a receipt.  If you’re confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, don’t argue or run away or put your hands anywhere but up.  Always address them as “sir” or “ma’am”.  Do not make any sudden moves, even to reach for identification.  Do not raise your voice or resist or run.  As Dana Caneday, a senior editor at the New York Times, described it, it’s a “nausea-inducing discussion” to need to have with your eight-year-old child.

Remember Chescaleigh’s first two tips for being an ally?  (And I’m taking it as a given that we want to be allies, but I’ll come back to one big reason why — other than simple human decency — a little later.)  They were, first, understand your own privilege and, two, listen and do your homework.  Actually, it’s hard to do the first without doing the second, and that’s because privilege is almost always hidden to those who have it.  I’m not aware of my male privilege, for instance, until I hear from women about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  I’m not aware of my hetero privilege until I hear from lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  I’m not aware of my cis privilege — “cis” meaning that my gender identity as a man lines up with my anatomy as a male — until I hear from transgender people.  And I’m not aware of my white privilege until I hear from people of color about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  And when they tell me they have experienced disadvantage to the point of oppression, I need to listen to them and believe that that is what they have experienced, rather than automatically trying to explain it away or getting defensive as if I were singlehandedly to blame for the way our society is structured.

And when news reports describe the same pattern of events over and over again, and when the profit-driven media fails to report many similar events, too, then it’s clearly time to pay attention.  The conversation we’re now having about race is about much more than Ferguson.  Ferguson may have been the place where the conversation erupted, but while that was triggered by the death of Michael Brown, it was caused by the decades-long predation of the suburb itself on the majority black population, using the mostly white police department to gather much of the city’s revenue rather than going after, say, actual crime.  As Reuters reported, “Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb’s second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably.  Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and, at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.”  With budget shortfalls following the recession, Ferguson is literally criminalizing its own residents in order to fund itself.  In 2013 alone, the municipal court issued an average of three warrants per household, raising an average of $321 in fines and fees, in a city where the crime rate is about the national average.

Then there’s the fact that some of the conversations about Michael Brown and Eric Garner have focused on how they were breaking the law and otherwise resisting arrest.  The case was made that police officer Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot and killed Michael Brown, but that certainly wasn’t true for police officer Daniel Pantaleo when he put Eric Garner in a chokehold that is forbidden by his own police department.  And then there’s the question of how resisting arrest deserves being put to death on the spot.  Or, in other situations, not resisting arrest. Or not even having a chance to resist arrest.  A video shows that John Crawford III was fired upon just seconds after police encountered him; he had been holding an air rifle that was for sale by the Walmart in which he was shopping.  And then there was twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot within two seconds of police arriving at his location; he had been playing with a toy gun.

In these two cases, there was an obvious common factor, namely something that looked like a real gun.  But another common factor was the state in which those events happened.  John Crawford III was killed near Dayton and Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland… and Ohio is a so-called “open carry” state, meaning it’s completely legal to openly carry a gun whether you have a license for it or not.  But during all the commotion over “open carry” in Starbucks and Target and other places, how many of those white people brandishing very real guns were killed?  How many of them were even charged with reckless endangerment for leaving their guns on shelves where anyone, including children, could get at them?  (What about the two white men who took guns off a Walmart’s shelves, loaded them and started shooting?)

But guns don’t need to be involved to show how differently people get treated on the basis of race.  Looking at some of the things that people have tweeted recently under two particular hashtags is quite illuminating.  Here are some examples of one of those hashtags.

What this says to me is that if you have a story about some interaction with law enforcement where nothing bad happened to you, and if you’re white, then your story doesn’t prove anything, because “nothing bad happening to you” is the norm for white people, even if they’ve been committing a crime.

Here, by contrast, are some examples of the other hashtag.

I worked with someone in Connecticut, a white woman who was married to a black man.  She had a number of stories where they were pulled over while out in their car — her husband in the driver’s seat, her in the passenger seat — and the first thing the police officer would do is ask her if she was okay.  In short, all of this is why African-American parents need to have “the talk” with their children.

And actually, being a police officer yourself is no protection if you’re black.

Reuters interviewed twenty-five African American male officers on the NYPD, fifteen of whom are retired and ten of whom are still serving.  All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.  The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing ‘stop and frisk’ while shopping.  The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving.  Five had had guns pulled on them.

Then there’s the conversation I observed a couple of weeks ago on Facebook.  It started when someone who was a couple of years ahead of me in theological school posted a segment from The Daily Show where Jon Stewart expresses such disbelief over the grand jury decision not to indict Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, even when the video showed him putting Eric Garner in a forbidden chokehold, even when the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, that, for once, Stewart couldn’t find the words.

Posting that video led to a conversation about the subject that was, for the most part, quite civil.  Now I don’t know most of the people involved in that conversation; I assume they are friends of my fellow seminarian, and I could see from their Facebook profile pictures that they are white.  I also have no reason to believe that they are anything other than “good” people who would never intentionally cause pain or suffering to another person.

So the conversation meandered as Facebook comment threads tend to do, and somewhere along the way one person — I’ll call him Mark — expressed concern that there wasn’t enough appreciation for the challenges and dangers of being a police officer.  At that, another person wrote: “Mark, I agree that cops are badly compensated and have a super tough job, but you can quit being a cop.  You can’t quit being a person of color.”  And to that, Mark responded with this:

Yes, I agree you can quit being a cop, but can’t you also quit being perceived as a target for racism?  The one consistent theme I see in all of these events, is not one of the victims were dressed in button-down shirts or slacks with the appearance of self-respect or responsibility.  […]  If you don’t want to be a target of racism, don’t LET yourself be a target for racism.  […]  All I saw from many of these recent events, were people who were complacent, and downright comfortable being the victim.

There’s something called Poe’s Law that, applied in particular to discussions that take place via the Internet, says that without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it’s difficult or even impossible to distinguish between a sincere expression of an outrageous opinion and a parody of such an opinion.  Unfortunately, from the rest of the conversation, which soon went downhill from there, I’m pretty sure that Mark was being sincere.  But let me get this straight, the reason Eric Garner died was because he wasn’t dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks?  Because he didn’t try hard enough not to be a victim of racism?  Really?  How is that any different from saying that the reason any woman who was raped got raped was because of what she was wearing?  Talk about blaming the victim!

It’s not surprising that most of the conversation about these events has been labeled with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.  The fact is that a black man, woman or child is killed every twenty-eight hours by police officers or self-appointed law enforcement.  It’s also not surprising that there’s been backlash against #BlackLivesMatter.  Some otherwise well-meaning people have said that it would be better to use the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.  Well, yes, all lives ought to matter.  But unfortunately, that’s not what our society looks like to all those parents who know they need to have “the talk” with their children.  The ever-growing list of names — Jordan Baker, Donitre Hamilton, Yvette Smith, Pearlie Golden, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tyree Woodson, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Victor White III, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and that’s just some of them from 2014 alone — those names prove that our society values black lives less than others.  So insisting that #BlackLivesMatter be replaced by #AllLivesMatter is like, as others have said, crashing somebody else’s funeral and insisting that the mourners put your loss before their own.  Or, to look at it another way, taking offense at #BlackLivesMatter is like being offended that people are working on a cure for diabetes when there are other diseases out there, too.

Of course, it got a whole lot harder to have a reasonable conversation about this when two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were killed last week by a man who had that morning bragged on Instagram about avenging the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Without wasting any time, people who had been critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement claimed that the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos were the direct fault of those calling for racial justice, or that New York Mayor de Blasio was to blame for disrespecting the police, or that it was President Obama’s fault, just because.  Needless to say, though, many groups under the #BlackLivesMatter banner have condemned the killings of the New York police officers, and have recommitted themselves to a non-violent movement for change.  The fact is that Asian police officer Liu and Latino police officer Ramos, in being killed by a black man who shot his black ex-girlfriend, Air Force reservist Shaneka Thompson, earlier that day, the fact is that they were just as much victims of institutional racism as any of the black men and women killed by their fellow police officers.

Because that’s the thing.  Racism isn’t personal.  It’s certainly not rational.  It’s not about who your friends are or who you’d be willing to share a drink with, because in those situations you have time to stop and think.  And most of us, when we have time to stop and think, can remember that we believe that most people are pretty much the same as us, and so we’d do our best to respect their inherent worth and dignity just as we’d hope they’d offer us the same courtesy.  But Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson didn’t have time to stop and think.  He was afraid for his life, and a combination of police training, human instinct and cultural conditioning kicked in, and he shot Michael Brown without stopping to think about it.  And that’s the point.  When we don’t stop to think about it, then our higher cognitive functions don’t have a chance to overrule the much greater part of our brain that otherwise runs on training, instinct and conditioning.

To demonstrate this, there’s something called an Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations.  One version of the test has you first sort descriptive words into categories such as good or bad and then sort pictures of faces into categories such as African American or European American.  Then it mixes them up so that you’re sorting both words and pictures at the same time.  By running different combinations, the test can determine if you have subconscious preferences one way or the other.  As hosted by Harvard University, more than seven hundred thousand people took the Implicit Association Test with pictures of African American and European American faces over a six-year period, and more than half showed either a moderate or a strong automatic preference for white people compared to black people.  And while the majority of white people who took the test showed an implicit preference for white people, so did about half of the black people who took the test.  Again, this is not about what happens when we stop to think, because the test doesn’t give you time to think.  It’s about how we’ve been conditioned by our culture, by our training, by our upbringing.

And that’s why it’s necessary to be active in addressing it.  Racism isn’t just going to go away if we stop talking about.  That’s not taking the moral high ground; that’s being complicit in a system of oppression.  So it’s entirely appropriate to demand that police departments adopt policies that end racial profiling and prevent the criminalization of people of color, as well as to be much more transparent and accountable when someone is killed.  Some have said that demanding accountability in police actions is anti-police, but that’s like saying that calling for faulty brakes to be fixed is anti-car.  If anything, we should hold something to a higher standard when we value it, and a police force made up of our fellow citizens — and police officers are citizens just like us — who have agreed, on our behalf, to all the risk and danger that goes with the enforcement of the laws that we, the people, have passed in order to protect ourselves, well, that’s something we should value greatly and thus hold to a very high standard.

Of course, the case can also be made that nothing is broken, and that the system is working just the way it was intended ever since Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which took place not far from here in Southampton County, and in the aftermath of which racism was, if not invented, then at least applied as never before in support of class privilege.  But I’d like to think we can do better.  The “Universalism” part of Unitarian Universalism originally meant the belief that all souls would finally reach heaven.  Today, it usually means the belief that heaven on Earth is possible, that salvation can be reached in this life, that the Beloved Community can be brought into existence, that a universal commonwealth of love and justice is attainable.  But here’s the catch: none of that is possible on an individual basis.  It can’t be done piecemeal.  It’s all or nothing, everybody or nobody.  So if entire groups of people are systematically oppressed to the point that their lives are altogether too much like hell, then there’s no heaven for anyone else.  After all, there’s no privilege in heaven.  Until black lives matter as much as white lives, then nobody gets to say that all lives matter.

And that’s why we should want to be allies, because our own salvation, our own wholeness, our own well-being is inextricably connected to everybody else’s.  Some of us may be part of particular struggles already, given one or more identities that mean that the very structure of our society puts us at a disadvantage, but if our other identities mean that we are privileged in other ways, then we have a responsibility to use that privilege to support and empower those whom our society judges as less worthy.  So men can be allies to women by understanding their own male privilege.  Heterosexual and cisgender people can be allies by listening to and taking seriously the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  And white people can be allies by speaking up in support of people of color, not speaking over them or taking the megaphone from them, but learning to take a supporting rather than leading role for once.  As Chescaleigh explained, we’ll make mistakes in trying to be good allies, and it’s important to apologize when we do make mistakes, because it’s not our intent that matters, but our impact.  And, then there’s the fifth of her five tips: we need to remember that ally is a verb, which means doing something.

So to that end, outside the Sanctuary this morning, there are a couple of copies of what is known as the Birmingham Pledge.  This was created sixteen years ago by an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, to express a grassroots commitment to combating racism and racial prejudice, and it has since been used in anti-racism programs in all fifty states.  I would ask you to take a look at it and, if you are willing to make that commitment, and then live it to the best of your ability, to sign it as well.  Here’s what it says:

“I believe that every person has worth as an individual.  I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.  I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.  Therefore, from this day forward: I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions; I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity; I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.”

May it be so.

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But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 8th 2013.  At the time, it looked like a military strike by the United States on Syria was imminent; that’s no longer the case, though Iran is now the object of our saber-rattling instead.  The first service used a pre-sermon reading while the second used a multigenerational drama to tell the story.  Both are included here, but you can jump down to the sermon.)

Reading: “Songs for the People” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Harper was born in 1825, the only child of free African-American parents living in Baltimore.  During her long life, both before and after the Civil War, she applied her skills as a writer and a public speaker in political activism for the abolition of slavery, for civil rights and women’s rights, and for other social causes.  She died nine years before women gained the right to vote, and her funeral was held at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, where she had been a member.

Harper wrote “Songs for the People” at the very end of her life as “the culmination of [her] literary goals as well as her self-conception as a writer, speaker and activist”.

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of [all]
With more abundant life.

Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.

Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.

I would sing for the poor and agèd,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of [all] grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.

~ ~ ~

Drama: “Jonah” (based on the New Revised Standard Version of the Book of Jonah)

Scene One: In Jonah’s Home

Jonah is sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper, the Joppa Daily Press.  A prominent headline says, “Wickedness on the Rise in Nineveh?”

Narrator:  Now the word of the Lord his God came to Jonah son of Amittai.

God:  Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

Jonah:  Do I have to?  It won’t do any good, you know.

God, a little taken aback:  Wait; what?  Why do you say that?

Jonah:  Er…  Well, look.  You are a gracious God and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

God, flattered:  Well, that’s kind of you to say so.  Ahem!  In any case, [speaking more commandingly] you will go at once to Nineveh and cry out against their wickedness!

Jonah:  But I don’t want to go to Nineveh!

God:  Tough luck, sunshine.  That’s an order.  Now go!

Narrator:  But Jonah decided instead to flee to Tarshish, hoping that there he would be safe from the presence of God.  He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, so he paid his fare and went on board.

Scene Two: In the Hold of the Ship

Jonah is asleep in a chair to one side of the platform.  The mariners, including the captain and the sailors, are huddled fearfully in the middle.

Narrator:  Now God hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm arose that it threatened the ship.  The mariners were afraid, and each cried to his own god as they threw their cargo into the sea, to lighten the ship.  Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and was fast asleep.

Captain:  Okay, what’s next?  What else can we throw overboard?

Sailor #1:  Captain, look!  There’s that passenger we took on in Joppa.  How is he managing to sleep through this storm?

Captain, waking Jonah:  What are you doing?  Get up, call on your god!  Perhaps your god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.

Sailor#2:  Captain, we’re out of cargo, and out of ideas.  I think we should cast lots.  Then we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.

The captain produces a handful of sticks.  Everybody takes one and then holds it up for the others to see.  Jonah’s is shorter than the rest.

Captain:  Tell us why this calamity has come upon us.  What is your occupation?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  And of what people are you?

Jonah:  I am a Hebrew.  I worship the Lord who is God of Heaven and Earth, who made the sea and the dry land.

Narrator:  And the mariners grew even more afraid.

Sailor #3:  Oh, that doesn’t sound good.  What is it that you have done?

Jonah, sighing in resignation:  I am fleeing from the presence of God.  [Looks sheepish.]  Didn’t I mention that as I was getting on board?

Captain:  No, you didn’t!  And look, the sea is growing more and more tempestuous!  What should we do to appease your god, that the sea may quiet down for us?

Jonah:  Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.

Sailor #4:  Captain, we’ve tried rowing as hard as we can to bring the ship back to land, but the sea is too stormy against us.

Sailor #5:  We don’t want to perish on account of this man’s life, but we don’t want to be guilty of spilling innocent blood either!

Narrator:  But they knew that God had brought the storm on Jonah’s account, so they picked him up and threw him into the sea.  [The mariners push Jonah off the stage.]  And the sea ceased from its raging.  Then the mariners feared God even more, and they offered praise and made vows.  And God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in its belly for three days and three nights.

Scene Three: In the Belly of the Great Fish

Narrator:  Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the great fish.

Jonah:  I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.  You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.  Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?”  The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.  I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.  As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.  Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.  But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

Narrator:  And the word of the Lord his God came to Jonah a second time.

God:  Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.

Jonah:  Okay, if you let me out of this great fish I will, sure.

God, skeptically:  No running away this time?

Jonah:  Nope.  I’ll go.  I could do with a hot meal, too, if you want to throw that in.

God:  Don’t push your luck.

Narrator:  Then God spoke to the great fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Scene Four: In Nineveh

Jonah is off stage.  The people of Nineveh are going about their business on the platform, while the queen of Nineveh sits on a chair to one side.

Narrator:  So Jonah went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord his God.  Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, requiring three days to walk across it.  Jonah went into the city, going a day’s walk.  And he cried out,

Jonah, stepping onto the platform:  Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

Narrator:  And the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s words.  They proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.  When the news reached the queen of Nineveh, she rose from her throne, covered herself with sackcloth, and had a proclamation made in Nineveh.

Queen of Nineveh:  By the decree of the queen and her nobles:  No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.  Who knows?  God may relent and reconsider; God may turn from this fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

Narrator:  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God reconsidered the calamity that was to befall Nineveh.  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

Jonah:  O Lord my God!  Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O Lord my God, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.

God:  Is it right for you to be angry?

Narrator:  But Jonah did not answer.  Instead, he went out of the city and sat down to the east of it, making a booth for himself there where he could watch the city.

Scene Five: In Jonah’s Booth

Jonah sits on a chair in the middle of the platform.

Narrator:  Jonah sat, waiting to see what would become of the city.  Meanwhile God appointed a bush, and made it grow up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.  And as the Sun rose, God prepared a sultry wind from the East, and the Sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die.

Jonah:  It is better for me to die than to live.  For I can’t help but feel, O Lord my God, that you’re just messing with me.

God:  Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?

Jonah:  Yes, angry enough to die.

God:  You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

~ ~ ~

Sermon: “But I Don’t Want to Go to Nineveh!”

One of the traditions of the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur is that the Book of Jonah is read at the afternoon prayer service.  It’s one of the shortest books in the Hebrew Bible, but it tells a great story that many people have heard — or, at least, they’ve heard part of it.

I remember, as a young child in Sunday school, hearing the story of Jonah and the Great Fish.  It’s certainly a tale that captures the imagination, particularly the part about being swallowed by a large sea creature as a key stage of character development, something that’s been used in stories from Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio to Pixar’s Finding Nemo.  In the case of Jonah, this half of the story appears at first sight to be simply about refusing, but ultimately accepting, responsibility.

Jonah hears God tell him to go and be a prophet, but he doesn’t want to do that.  Rather than heading east, inland, to Nineveh where he’s been told to go, he tries to head west, across the Mediterranean, to what is now Spain.  That’s not part of the divine plan, of course, so God hurls a storm at the ship to stop Jonah from getting away.  After arguing about what’s going on, Jonah finally admits to being to blame for the storm, and the sailors reluctantly throw him overboard.  The storm ends, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish, where he is kept for three days and three nights while he thinks about what he’s done.

The reluctant prophet is a fairly common theme in the Bible, of course.  Being a prophet isn’t supposed to be a happy, healthy occupation.  When you go up against wealthy and powerful people who aren’t treating their fellow beings very well, telling them to mend their ways can get you into a lot of trouble.  As for Jonah himself, he seems to be a good person, taking ownership of his decision to run away, holding himself accountable for the storm, offering himself up to the sea in order to save the mariners, and eventually agreeing to accept the responsibility that had been given to him.  But that isn’t the end of the story.

For all that the first half of the story seems to be a fairly straightforward tale of someone running away from great responsibility, that’s hardly what the second half of the story is about.  And it’s certainly not a typical story of wicked people refusing to listen to one of God’s own prophets.  So let’s think about what the person who wrote the story, and wrote it something like two-and-a-half thousand years ago, might have been trying to say through the whole book, not just the first half of it.

When Jonah gets to Nineveh, when he’s barely gone any distance across it and has only said what in Hebrew is just five words, he has the most amazing success of any prophet at any time in history ever.  The people of Nineveh change their ways instantly.  They refuse to eat or drink, they put on sackcloth and cover themselves in ashes, and even the animals fast and repent and go into mourning, too!  But is Jonah happy with his amazing success?  No, he is not.

In fact he’s not just unhappy with it, he gets so angry about it that he can’t see the point in living any more.  He thinks that God is taking it way too easy on the people of Nineveh.  If it were up to Jonah, in fact, he’d give them what they surely deserved for their wicked ways, rather than letting them off so easily.  God asks Jonah if he’s really justified in being so angry, but rather than answering, Jonah leaves the city, finds a place to sit and watch and then, well, he sulks.

So now it’s God’s turn to teach Jonah a lesson.  First, a bush grows up, in just one day, right next to where Jonah is sitting and sulking, and it gives him some shade from the Sun.  Well, he likes that.  It’s hot out there, after all.  But then a worm eats away at the roots and just as quickly the bush dies.  Now Jonah is getting hot and sunburned and thirsty and faint.  Angry about the bush, Jonah again says it’d be better for him to die.

Finally God tries to put it all into perspective for him.  If Jonah was concerned with a mere bush, which he didn’t plant and he didn’t help to grow but he received its benefits anyway, why shouldn’t God be concerned about a whole city full of people and animals?  The people of Nineveh didn’t know good from bad — they even thought it would be a good idea to dress the animals in sackcloth, after all — but at least they were trying.

So maybe the story isn’t really about Nineveh.  Other Hebrew prophets certainly denounced the city’s wickedness and described its inevitable demise, something that did happen when the Assyrian Empire disintegrated.  Since that empire had previously destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, there was definitely no love lost there.  Rather, having Jonah go to hated Nineveh just makes all the more incredible the amazing success of one lone Hebrew in convincing them to change their ways so easily.

And moreover, given Jonah’s evident personality flaws when everyone else in the story — from the ship’s captain and the mariners, to the people and king and even the animals of Nineveh — ends up being saved from perishing, a number of rabbis and other religious commentators have identified the Book of Jonah as a form of satire, poking fun at someone who was a lousy prophet in spite of his success.  I mean, never mind that he saved more than a hundred and twenty thousand souls: Jonah ends up arguing with God about a plant.

So maybe the entire story is actually about getting Jonah to be a better person.  Perhaps the fact that he had such unbelievable success — not to mention being swallowed whole by a never-before-or-since known giant fish — means that it was actually a nightmare-ish dream that Jonah had, and maybe it helped him to realize that he shouldn’t be quite so self-righteous or judgmental toward others.

As Unitarian Universalists, of course, we are called to make courageous choices that lead to greater justice.  That’s because Unitarian Universalism is a prophetic faith, in that we are called to speak truth to power, to try to make the world a better place in everything we say and do.  But we have to be careful not to end up like Jonah, sitting in the Sun and sulking because our own self-righteous need to judge other people gets in the way.  There’s a lot in our world, in our nation, in our state and in our town that needs our help to get right, but we are called to offer that help from a place of love, and to do so with compassion and kindness.

Now in about ninety minutes’ time, this is where our staging of the Book of Jonah — the drama that takes the place of this sermon in this morning’s second service — will come to an end.  That’s appropriate for a multigenerational service, telling a story that starts with a well-known tale before telling the rest of it that isn’t so well known, and then thinking about what it means and what lessons it has for us today, some two-and-a-half thousand years after it was written.  But as I prepared for these services this week, I realized that it wasn’t going to be enough for this sermon.  I realized that I couldn’t just leave it bundled up so neatly with a shiny bow on top. Real life isn’t like that.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, in the last decade of a life filled with ceaseless struggling for freedom and justice, declared that

Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

I’d love to be able to create or even play music that could do that.  Since I can’t, I appreciate it even more when people like B— and C— share their gifts of music with us.  But I also try to bring about some of the same effects using spoken words, even though they’ll always be, as far as I’m concerned, a poor substitute for “music, pure and strong”.  So I strive for sermons that are like Harper’s “songs for the people”, calling us to embrace a “more abundant life”, helping “hearts [to] relax their tension”, raising “anthems of love and duty”, and leading us into a vision of the future that “girdle[s] the world with peace.”  But I’ve realized that I can’t do that this morning unless I respond to something that is going on right now, something that is causing a number of people within this community considerable heartache and anguish, and that’s the possibility of a US attack on Syria.

Now I know you don’t come to church to get a debate about current affairs.  If that’s what you wanted on a Sunday morning, you’d stay home and watch television rather than come to services.  Or maybe you do that before you came here or after being here, but you’re not here for more of the same.  But I don’t want to talk about the politics of such foreign policy.  That’s not why I’m here either.  I’m here to be your minister, and the e-mails I’ve received and the posts I’ve seen on Facebook tell me that some sort of pastoral response to this situation is required.

So here’s my response.  I don’t want us — by which I mean both the United States as a nation and also all of us as individuals — to be like Jonah.  And I don’t mean the nice Jonah who ran away from what he thought was his responsibility, the brave Jonah who becomes a sort of role model to Sunday school children because, well, it can be hard to do the right thing sometimes.  No, that’s not why Jonah ran away.  He didn’t run away because he was afraid of trying.  He ran away because he wanted so badly to see Nineveh destroyed that he didn’t want to be any part of offering it any possibility of being saved.  Reading it in English it’s not clear, but the Book of Jonah actually uses the same Hebrew word to describe both the wickedness of Nineveh and the angry sulking of Jonah himself.

Now, Peter Morales, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, released on Friday a statement “urg[ing] the Obama administration to explore and then exhaust all peaceful diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the ongoing violence in Syria.”  Also on Friday, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee released a statement “call[ing] on the president and Congress to ensure that any American actions taken are designed to protect the rights and lives of the Syrian civilians above all other considerations and to conform with international humanitarian law.”  And Jim Wallis, one of the few outspoken liberal evangelical Christians, whose opinions and work with the Sojourners Community I respect even though I usually need to translated his theology into my own, notes that what is happening in Syria “is a profound moral crisis that requires an equivalent moral response.  Doing nothing is not an option.  But [… our] first commitment must be to the most vulnerable and those in most jeopardy.  […]  The other task for people of faith and moral conscience is to work to reduce the conflict.

For myself, I have a hard time believing that the missile strikes that are being proposed will do much good, either in helping the Syrian people being currently brutalized by the Assad regime or in contributing to the long-term security of the United States.  My understanding is that there are still options available through the United Nations — including some ways to make Russia take responsibility for its actions in supporting Assad — and for that matter the United States could choose to join — or re-join, actually — the International Criminal Court.

Now I realize that not everyone who is part of or connected to the Fellowship sees the situation the same way.  Perhaps not all of you listening to me now agree with me either.  That’s okay.  I didn’t get up here this morning thinking that I could say a few words and — lo! — everyone’s hearts and minds would be magically changed.  It’s okay for us to disagree, and I preached about how to do just that a few weeks ago, after all.

What’s not okay — in this, or in any other matter of dispute — is for us to cast one another as Nineveh, to refuse to stay connected to one another for fear that we might actually help someone redeem themselves.  We wouldn’t want to end up like Jonah, sitting all alone and sulking because our need to judge other people gets in the way.  There’s so much in our world, in our nation, in our relationships with one another that we can get right, but only if we locate ourselves in a place of love, reaching out to one another with compassion and kindness.

So may it be.

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Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 28th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry seems to have been a hard one to fill.  Another teacher even suggested that the position was jinxed, resulting in its extraordinarily high turnover.  During Harry Potter’s first few years at the school, for instance, Defense Against the Dark Arts was taught, in turn, by one of evil Lord Voldemort’s minions, by a best-selling author who turned out to be a complete fraud, and by a closeted werewolf.  For Harry’s fourth year the school recruits a retired Auror (or Dark-wizard catcher) named Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody who had been single-handedly responsible for capturing many of the world of magic’s criminals.  Paranoid, eccentric and more than willing to defy the system, Professor Moody accepts the invitation to teach so long as he’s allowed to show his students the reality of the Dark Magic they might encounter.

[Moody demonstrates the three “Unforgivable Curses”: the Imperius Curse that controls another’s will, the Cruciatus Curse that induces terrible pain, and the Killing Curse.  Harry is the only person who ever survived the third.]

Anthem: “Double Trouble” by William Shakespeare and John Williams (from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”)

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil”

I’ve had something of a soft-spot for the “Scottish Play” since studying it as part of my high school English Literature class.  You may have recognized some of Shakespeare’s lines in our anthem, which was composed by John Williams for the Hogwarts choir.  (Our version, sadly, lacks the part scored for toads, which some of the students at Hogwarts keep as familiars.)  In the original play, of course, these lines are chanted by the three witches as they prepare their cauldron for a visit by Macbeth.  “By the pricking of my thumbs,” the second witch intones when they are ready, “Something wicked this way comes.”  And that is Macbeth himself, of course, knocking at their door.

I remember being taught in that English Literature class that Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy because Macbeth, while capable of both good and evil, chooses the latter as the way to fulfill his ambitions, but given the results of his choices he eventually loses everything, including his life.  The witches, who are certainly practicing the Dark Arts if the list of ingredients they add to their cauldron is any guide, don’t actually tell Macbeth what to do — his bad decisions are his own — but in their fortune-telling they do give his ambitions a nudge, sinking the whole kingdom into chaos.

J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that the Scottish play may well be her favorite of Shakespeare’s, and so its influences can be found within the Harry Potter stories.  The band that played at the Yule Ball during Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts, for instance, was named the “Weird Sisters”, part of their weirdness being, no doubt, that all eight band-members were actually male.  More significantly, perhaps, one of the themes driving the story arc through all of the books is the tension between fate and free will, particularly in terms of the danger that comes from knowing one’s destiny.

So Shakespeare’s Macbeth murders King Duncan because the witches have predicted that he will “be king hereafter”.  By similar logic, Rowling’s Voldemort attempts to kill the baby Harry Potter because of a prediction that one of them “must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.”

Where the comparisons between Macbeth and Voldemort break down, however, is that while the Scot was driven by his ambition for power, the wizard, much as he hungered for power, too, was really driven by his fear of death.

We find out in a later books that, while still a student at Hogwarts, Voldemort learned that there was a way to safeguard a piece of his soul by storing it in some other object, such that even if his body was killed, he would not actually die but could be resurrected.  While granting the wizard immortality, such magic comes at a terrible price: as explained by a former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, it requires the wizard to commit murder, which, as “the supreme act of evil […] rips the soul apart.”  That is a price, of course, that Voldemort is willing to pay, and in the end it costs him everything.

From the very beginning of the stories, Rowling makes it clear that in the epic struggle between good and evil, Voldemort’s primary opponent has been Albus Dumbledore, whom Harry knows as the Headmaster of the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At first, Dumbledore comes across as something of a kindly old eccentric, with a twinkly goofiness that hides his true power.  He genuinely loves his students and does everything he can to protect them, but in doing so, Dumbledore demonstrates the inevitable tension between being good and being kind.  In his struggle to prevent Voldemort’s ultimate designs, Dumbledore discovers he must, in some cases, withhold the truth from those who otherwise have a right to know it and, in others, resort to various forms of manipulation, to the extent that Rowling described him as “quite a Machiavellian figure”.

If Dumbledore is Harry’s mentor, then Potions Professor Severus Snape is Harry’s antagonist, at least amongst the grown-ups.  The two get off on the wrong foot right from the start, with Snape apparently taking delight in tormenting Harry and never failing to malign the memory of Harry’s father, and with Harry casting Snape as his first suspect in every sinister plot, in spite of the number of times that Dumbledore vouched for him.

And yet almost at the very end of the entire series, we find out that Dumbledore was right about Snape, when his great secret is revealed in what is surely the most powerful scene in any of the books or movies.  If you don’t know what that secret is, I won’t spoil it for you, but I will tell you that Rowling always planned for Snape to find redemption, and in the end Harry sees the good in him and forgives him.

Harry’s antagonist amongst his fellow students, of course, is Draco Malfoy, and there’s a whole psychology thesis’ worth of material contained in the antics of the Malfoy family.

Draco first appears as a thoroughly arrogant snot of a boy, and he quickly becomes a typical school bully.  We gain some insight into Draco’s character when we meet his father, Lucius, a condescending bigot who doesn’t hesitate to abuse his power over others — or to do whatever he can to save his own skin when someone else has the power.  Another family member is Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco’s aunt, and she’s simply insane.  Utterly faithful to Voldemort and trying to find out what had happened to him after he failed to kill the baby Harry, Bellatrix had tortured Neville Longbottom’s parents with the unforgivable Cruciatus Curse and was sent to Azkaban prison.  Bellatrix’s sister and Draco’s mother, Narcissa, on the other hand, is far more concerned with the welfare of her own family, to the extent that she lies to Voldemort in order to protect her son and then, in the final battle between Voldemort and Harry, simply stays out of it, taking both Draco and Lucius with her.

Now if you’ve never read any of the books, nor even seen any of the movies, I hope that this quick survey of some of Rowling’s principal characters at least shows some of the complexity that she brings to her portrayal of the epic struggle between good and evil.  In the first book, sure, it’s pretty simple to identify which characters are good and which are bad, and though there are still a couple of surprises, the lines separating them are fairly clear.  But as the books progress, some of those lines become rather blurred.

Rowling herself made it clear that, just as Harry and Neville and the other students got older through the years, so would her stories invoke more mature and more challenging themes.  Sure, Voldemort is as evil as it gets, but we discover that Dumbledore is willing to lie and manipulate if that’s what’s needed, and we get confused about whether Snape is really bad or good a double-agent or perhaps even a triple-agent, and we even find that we can feel, as much as we might resist it, just a little bit of pity for Draco, if only for a short while.

That adds to the appeal of Rowling’s stories, of course, since an essential part of growing up is realizing that the world is never neatly divided into red and blue, but consists of all sorts of shades of purple.  As Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote during his time in the Soviet Gulag, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.  Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.  […]  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Solzhenitsyn lamented, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Now “evil” isn’t a word you’ll hear used very often by Unitarian Universalists.  Aside from being one of those words that’s been used to hurt and oppress, or at least to promote a world-view that seems at odds with our claim of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it’s all too easy to reduce evil to the cartoonish images that have become embedded in our culture.  One of those images, which I’m sure has already popped into your head, consists of a figure all in red, with horns and cloven feet and a spiky tail and a probably a pitchfork, but unless it’s a costume worn by our own J— to preach his sermon about the subject, you won’t see that image on display within this Sanctuary.

And yet a number of Unitarian Universalist theologians have observed that in refusing to use the word “evil”, in failing to challenge the cartoonish imagery left to us by the Dark Ages, we short-change not only Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition, but also our individual spirituality.  Cutting out a part of the religious vocabulary to which we have just as much a right as anybody else, we only make it harder for ourselves to address brokenness and pain and hatred and suffering.  As Dumbledore cautions Harry when he struggles to choose between referring to Voldemort by name and using the common euphemism of “You-Know-Who”, “Call him Voldemort, Harry.  Always use the proper name for things.  Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

So let’s face this business of how Unitarian Universalists might use the word “evil”.

First, let’s deal with the First Principle — you know, the one that is usually taken to say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  How do we reconcile that with the reality that people lie to one another, hurt one another and generally screw up, whether intentionally or accidentally, just about all the time?

Sometimes it’s much worse than that, but we don’t have to invoke the likes of Hitler to call the First Principle into question; we just have to pick up the newspaper or watch the evening news.  But the First Principle isn’t some existential claim that everybody is really a saint, or a requirement that we should permanently attach rose-colored glasses to our faces, or a demand to never call anybody on bad behavior.  The First Principle, in fact, is precisely about how we ought to treat one another — particularly when, inevitably, we screw up — and for that matter about how we ought to treat ourselves when we realized we’ve screwed up.  So how do we “affirm and promote” someone’s inherent worth and dignity?  We hold them accountable for their actions, and we insist that others hold us accountable for our actions, too.  If we are to take all of the other Principles seriously, particularly the Seventh in its announcement of the interdependent web of all existence, then such accountability is essential.

Second, what do we mean by evil?

In classical theology, goodness is like the water in a fountain, welling up and out from the godhead and overflowing into the rest of creation.  Anything that blocks or removes that goodness is then evil.  Within Unitarian Universalism, we might think of it in terms of the interdependent web of all existence, where a higher quality of interdependence — as gauged by the health of human relationships, for example, and the sustainability of our relationship with the environment — corresponds to greater goodness.  Evil is then damage to the threads of the interdependent web.  Both natural events and human actions may break the threads, reducing interdependence and diminishing the web’s goodness.  Some evil is natural, part of what process theologian Catherine Keller notes is an inevitable part of the creativity of what she describes as “a living, whirling, open system of a world[, …] this real world of finite creatures who live, feed, risk, exult and die, a world of change and interdependence in which suffering is inevitable.”  And then we are faced with a choice: we can learn and grow from it or we can respond with further evil, because in refusing to realize our place in the web, we break the threads of interdependence, resulting in the violence of injustice, ecological damage and unhealthy communities.

Third, how do we respond to evil?

Well, if evil is doing damage to the threads of interdependence, then the good response is healing those threads, healing relationships, healing the community and healing memory.  We don’t need to be able to explain why bad things happen to be able to identify them and call them out, to respond to another’s pain and suffering, to address injustice wherever it takes place, and to find ways to live upon the Earth so that wholeness may be restored to the interdependent web.

There are a couple of aspects of this that, in bringing this sermon to a close, I’m going to lift up by referring back to the Harry Potter stories.

In the second book, havoc is wreaked at Hogwarts when Lucius Malfoy tries to dispose of a magical artifact that had once belonged to Voldemort, namely a diary in which he had stored a piece of his soul.  Malfoy slipped it amongst the schoolbooks being bought for Ron Weasley’s younger sister, Ginny, and soon enough she writes in the diary.  In doing so she awakens the piece of Voldemort’s soul and leads to the unleashing of a terrible serpent that had been hidden in the bowels of the school itself.  When Ginny disappears and Harry and Ron go to try to find her, Harry eventually succeeds in destroying the diary, but not before he is troubled by some of the apparent similarities between himself and Voldemort — like their ability to speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes.  Harry later takes it up with Dumbledore, in one of the sections of the book that Unitarian Universalist ministers love to quote.

“Professor,” [Harry said, “the] Sorting Hat told me […] I’d have done well in Slytherin.  Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while … because I can speak Parseltongue …”

“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Voldemort — who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin — can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he [first tried to kill you.” …]

“So I should be in Slytherin,” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face.  “The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it …”

“[It put] you in Gryffindor,” said Dumbledore calmly.  “Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students.  His own very rare gift, Parseltongue — resourcefulness — determination — a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his mustache quivering again.  “Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor.  You know why it was.  Think.”

“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in Slytherin.”

“Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more.  “Which makes you very different from [Voldemort].  It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It is our choices that make all the difference and, what’s more, we don’t have to make those choices alone.  Throughout the books, one of the two great themes is love.  The baby Harry Potter survives the Killing Curse because of his mother’s love in sacrificing her life to protect his.  Dumbledore, Snape, Narcissa Malfoy — they’re all motivated by love, and that’s where they find their redemption, too.  And Voldemort is ultimately defeated because he neither loves nor is truly loved.

It’s not for nothing that the Second Source of Unitarian Universalism consists of the “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love”.  It’s no accident that the Unitarian Universalist campaigns for marriage equality and immigration reform and other interfaith public advocacy issues come under the heading of “Standing on the Side of Love”.

Love in our world may not literally be a mystical force that magically grants protection from evil, as it is in Harry Potter’s world, but it comes very close.  It is love that gives us strength in the face of suffering.  It is love that gives us courage to call injustice to account.  It is love that heals our relationships with one another and with our world.  So how do we respond to evil?  We choose love.

May it be so.

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The Pilot Light of the Soul

During his ordination examination, a Presbyterian seminary student was being questioned by an elderly and very conservative minister.  One of the exam questions was: “Do you believe in the Doctrine of the Total Depravity of the Human Soul?”  The student’s immediate smiling reply was: “Yes, but I find it very difficult to live up to!”

When the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association consolidated in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, they merged in primarily administrative and organizational ways, without much discussion about theology.  The consolidation made sense, of course, because both religions were on similar pages theologically, each having evolved beyond their Christian origins, but there were still differences, given those origins.

The Universalists had emerged from Christianity around the central belief in universal salvation: that God so loves every soul that everybody is (ultimately) admitted to heaven.  As Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou put it, “Your child has fallen into the mud, and his body and garments are defiled.  You wash him and array him in clean robes.  The question is, do you love your child because you washed him or did you wash him because you love him?”

The Unitarians had also emerged from Christianity, with their central belief being in the humanity (rather than divinity) of Jesus.  As such, Jesus was not somebody to worship so much as someone to emulate.  Indeed, the Unitarians put their hopes for the afterlife in “salvation by character”, that heaven must first be attained as an internal state of the soul, as inward goodness.

As Thomas Starr King — the Universalist and Unitarian minister who is credited with preserving California within the Union during the Civil War — drew the distinction, “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, whereas the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!”

Five decades after the consolidation that formed the UUA, today’s Unitarian Universalists are most often in line with the classical Unitarian position: even if we might slip up from time to time, we believe that people are intrinsically good.  This can be empowering, but it can also come across as too optimistic: we’re right to emphasize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but we can’t forget to acknowledge real brokenness and pain and how easy it is for us to cause brokenness and pain.

I know a Lutheran minister who says she tried Unitarian Universalism but found that our “high opinion of humans” didn’t fit with her experience.  “People are flawed,” she says.  Whereas classical Unitarianism has a high opinion of the human being — what is known theologically as a high anthropology — Lutheranism has a low opinion — a low anthropology — such that we are incapable of contributing to our own salvation and only through divine grace have any hope of being saved.

However, to pit Unitarianism’s high anthropology against Lutheranism’s low anthropology is to set up a false dichotomy, for Universalism offers a third way.  Arguing whether humans are intrinsically good or intrinsically bad is to miss the more important point: we are intrinsically human.  Yes, Unitarian Universalism affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect, that we never screw up.  Rather, it’s a call to hold ourselves and one another accountable for our actions.

Another way of thinking about this is that we each have a spark of the divine within us.  It’s the pilot light of the soul.  All of us, if we are being honest, are broken in some way, and sometimes — due to illness or terrible circumstances or simply the stress of today’s world — the fire of love and compassion and all that is good within us stutters or even goes out.  But the pilot light of the soul remains, ready to re-ignite only if we clean away the debris by holding ourselves accountable for our actions, only if we reset the system by earning forgiveness, and only if we provide enough fuel by treating ourselves and one another with tenderness.

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Doing Justice as Faith-in-Action

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 28th 2012.)

Reading: from “When Love Speaks in Public” by Kate Lore, from A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists

My sermon theme this month has been “Works”, given the simple message expressed in the Biblical Letter of James that “faith without works is dead.”  For me the takeaway message from James is that “faith should be neither quietly hidden nor displayed ostentatiously, that salvation isn’t something that happens privately, individual by individual, but only happens when faith leads to service to the greater community and when such service is a natural expression of that faith.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

For its part, “Unitarian Universalism[ …] draws a distinct contrast between deeds and creeds[ precisely because, when you get into the nitty-gritty,] everyone believes something different, [and yet] it is possible to come together with common goals such as clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.”  Moreover, if we are able to live our “commitments to see past the specifics of creedal differences and to participate in good deeds,” we find that “Unitarian Universalism doesn’t really distinguish between faith and works.  We recognize that it goes deeper than the truth that ethical action must be based on faith for it to be effective, so we speak of the hyphenated ‘faith-in-action’ instead.”  “This is neither faith as a list of prescribed beliefs nor works as a set of empty observances,” I said, “but faith-in-action that calls us all into salvation in this life, bringing heaven into being here on Earth.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

Well, that’s all well and good.  It sounds nice, it rings the right bells, but how do we actually do it?  “Justice is what love looks like when it speaks in public” makes a nice bumper sticker, but what does it mean for how we actually live our lives, how we work together as a congregation, how we grow the Beloved Community?  It needs to be fleshed out, and put into practice, to actually make a difference.

Now Kate Lore is right that “a set of best practices”, an extensive collection of detailed recipes for what has worked in some other place, isn’t much use outside of the congregation in which they were developed, any more than the weather forecast for Portland, Oregon is helpful for deciding what to wear here in Newport News, Virginia.  (And vice-versa: nobody in Portland should be preparing for a hurricane!)  There are ways, though, in which we can think about faith-in-action that can help congregations and their social justice committees to figure out their own practices, without trying to shoehorn in some other church’s policies and procedures.  There are, as it turns out, some types of ways of putting faith into action that, when congregations take a balanced approach to all of them, can help produce the sorts of social justice programs that make First Unitarian, Portland the envy of the whole denomination.  There are, in fact, six such ways, and I remember them using the acronym S-E-W A-C-T, only “so” is spelled “S-E-W” not “S-O”.

The “S” stands for Service, something that generally comes pretty naturally to churches and other religious organizations.  Service is about meeting the immediate needs of people facing hardship.  It’s about the obvious ways in which we can alleviate the symptoms of poverty, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, things that we do here at the Fellowship through the Weekend Meal Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as well as the Winter shelter program known as PORT organized by the Living Interfaith Network or LINK.

Service also includes efforts such as after-school tutoring, teaching English as a second language, and visiting the elderly, hands-on activities that address a particular social need while also affirming the inherent worth and dignity of those we are serving.  For that reason, the most effective forms of service are those where the people providing services are accountable to those being served, as is the case at both St. Paul’s and LINK where past and present clients are involved in running the programs.

What’s more, service not only meets the immediate needs of people facing hardship, but it also meets many people’s need to feel useful, that they can make a difference in the world.  I’ve seen time and again, in congregations of all shapes and sizes, that while visitors and new members are cautious about joining committees — and understandably so! — they will happily sign up to help out at a food pantry or a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  They do it not out of any fanciful expectation of recognition but simply to feel good about doing good.

And there’s nothing like the hands-on engagement of service to gain a much better understanding of social problems.  Spend even a little time with a veteran who’s unable to find work or a homeless person who can’t pay for diabetes medication or a single mother who works two minimum wage jobs but still needs to line up at a food bank to feed her child and, if you’re fortunate never to have been in such a position yourself, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation of the strength of the human spirit in spite of disadvantages and even oppression.

The next way of putting faith into action, then, is education.  Well, this one seems to come pretty naturally to Unitarian Universalists.  Our religious education for both children and adults lends itself quite readily to talking about social issues, and as well as classes we have fairly regular services on topics from marriage equality to environmentalism.  Over the last four months alone, we’ve had sermons on religious freedom, compassion, war and peace, slavery and civil rights, LGBT equality and immigrant justice.  Include M—’s sermon on compassion, which is another form of faith-in-action, and more than a third of our services since July have been about some aspect of social justice.

That trend will continue next month, with services honoring the commitments and struggles of our military service personnel and families, services about the work of the UU Service Committee and a special service in observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Then in 2013 I’m going to be doing some joint sermons with our Share-the-Basket partners, including the Sierra Club, LINK and Planned Parenthood.  We’re also planning a Friday evening and Saturday daytime workshop on Social Justice in mid-January, so keep an ear open for more information about that as it develops.

So imagine you’ve been exposed to the daily reality of some injustice through your involvement in hands-on service and then through classes, sermons and workshops you’ve educated yourself even more about the issue.  What’s next?  Obviously talking about a problem can only take us so far, and there comes a point when we must take action on it.  That brings us to the next way of putting faith into action, which is witness.

Witness is a way of taking what we know about a social issue and expressing our desire to change it.  Going to demonstrations, holding vigils, writting letters to newspaper editors, creating short YouTube videos for Facebook — all of these are ways of bearing witness to our values and speaking up about an injustice that we believe needs to be addressed.  If the media takes note, so much the better.

The more obvious examples of witness, of course, are the rallies and protests that take place each year at General Assembly, particularly the Phoenix GA’s massive vigil at “Tent City” that J— talked about last Sunday.  It’s hard to come up with an image that appeals more to the media than thousands of people wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts!  Closer to home, the Fellowship has been a part of public demonstrations on issues such as women’s rights and health care reform and has held vigils right here in response to problems such as global climate change and violence toward transgender individuals.

Now rallies and protests and demonstrations and vigils are great for raising the wider social consciousness, but sooner or later any group that wants to bring about social change must engage in the next way of putting faith into action, which is advocacy.  This is a matter of direct engagement with legislative processes in order to impact public policy, something that is particularly effective when lawmakers receive letters and even delegations from churches that can provide a clear theological basis for their moral positions.  (And, for that matter, when those lawmakers realize that not all people of faith stand for regressive, oppressive social policies.)

This is, though, an area where both congregations and ministers need to be careful, given the considerable privilege that has already been extended to us in the form of religious freedom.  While we, as a church, are free to discuss social issues and to promote particular positions on those issues within our own membership, we are only free to engage in advocacy for or against specific pieces of legislation as an “unsubstantial” portion of our overall activities.  (The IRS doesn’t define “unsubstantial”, but in cases where they have ruled on the lobbying activities of non-profits, the rule of thumb is no more than five percent of money, staff time and volunteer effort.)  In no way shape or form, of course, may we take positions for or against candidates for public office, something that we need to remember at around this time of year every four years!

There is, of course, only so much that any individual person or any individual congregation can do by her-, him- or itself.  And that’s why the fifth way of putting faith into action is community organizing or, equivalently, coalition building.  We can be much more effective in just about every effort, from service and education to witness and advocacy, if we can work with others who care about the same issues of neglect, injustice or oppression.  We don’t have the resources to help every person who comes to our office door asking for, say, money to buy food, but we can help by combining our resources with other congregations in supporting LINK.  We don’t have the resources to do much advocacy for policies that promote environmental sustainability or women’s reproductive health just by ourselves, but we can make a difference by partnering with the Sierra Club and with Planned Parenthood.  There’s power in numbers, but there’s also synergy that comes when different people and groups come together around a common cause.

I’ve now described service, education, witness, advocacy and coalition building.  The sixth way of putting faith into action is the T in S-E-W A-C-T, namely transformation, by which I’m referring to the transformation of ourselves, or our own house of worship.  This is a necessary result of humility — which tends to be forgotten as one of the often core virtues in just about every religion — in that we can’t assume that everything that’s wrong and unjust in the world is only outside our own walls.  So we are called to transform ourselves to live up to our own standards, to walk the talk with integrity.

That’s why we worked to become a Welcoming Congregation a few years ago, to begin a process of being more intentionally inclusive toward LGBT individuals, and it’s why we’re working to become a Green Sanctuary, to build environmental awareness into everything we do.  There are two more examples of transforming ourselves that I want to mention as well, both of which touch on matters of accessibility.

Last month, B— and J— installed in this Sanctuary a hearing-aid loop that S— had donated to the Fellowship.  It’s basically a wireless transmitter that allows anyone with the right sort of hearing aid to patch directly into our sound system.  The loop was installed in the overhead light fixture, so the best signal is in the center section of seats within the footprint of the light; then, activating the T-coil or telephone program on hearing aids will let the wearer pick up the signal and hear what’s being said more easily than relying on the loudspeakers.  This means that all of us really need to make sure we use microphones when we speak, not only for those sitting in the library and listening through the loudspeakers in there but particularly for those using hearing aids to listen to the service right here in this room.

The second example of how we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be is part of our effort to pay for the mortgage on the Office Building.  Rather than sensory accessibility, it’s about fiduciary accessibility.  You’re probably all aware that we’re selling mortage bonds, to raise the funds we need to pay off the short-term, high interest, interest-only, private loan on the Office Building, with the bonds being repaid over time at an interest rate quite a bit better than any bank offers.  In other words, we’re asking our members to collectively loan our congregation the money to pay the mortgage, with our congregation then paying that money back to our members with interest.  What you might not realize is that you don’t need thousands of dollars to participate in this.  (Though, of course, if you do have thousands of dollars to invest, you probably won’t find a better place right now to do that than the UUFP!)

You see, there are also bonds available in smaller amounts, amounts like ten dollars, amounts such as a child might get as a gift in a Christmas card from a grandparent.  I remember, when I was growing up, getting Post Office Savings Bonds from relatives, just five or ten pounds that would slowly accrue interest until I received the money a few years later, and it taught me important lessons about patience and the value of money.

When it comes to paying for our Office Building, though, these small denomination “participation bonds”, as they’re called aren’t just for children!  Any of us can be a part of owning our own property here at the Fellowship, since the feeling of satisfaction in being a part of advancing our mission and ministry should not depend on the amount of money we have.  Everything we do is an opportunity to grow the Beloved Community, and it’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.  In fact, compared with creating a dynamic community, being an investment bank would be a walk in the park!  But we’re a congregation, a church, a religious home for diverse spirits, and all of us have an equal right to participate in this community regardless of personal circumstances.  Making these participation bonds available is an important way in which we are transforming ourselves into the people we dare to be.

And, really, that’s the point of the whole shebang.  When we serve others, educate ourselves, witness to injustice, advocate for change, build coalitions with allies, and transform ourselves for the better, we are becoming our best selves, growing the Beloved Community, putting our faith into action, and showing the world what love looks like when it speaks and acts in public.  So let us bring the warmth of community, the light of hope, the beckoning of the holy, the comfort of companionship, the dancing of the spirit, the energy of faithful action, and the fire of commitment to a world that still waits for our good news, for our faith-in-action.  It’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.

So may it be.

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In Service to Love

Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

— Blake Covenant of 1894

Ours is an engaged religion.  Whether we’re cooperating in one another’s faith development, supporting our own members struggling with adversity or working with our community partners to address social needs, Unitarian Universalists are engaged with the lives and the world around them.

Such engagement does indeed take many different forms.  Each of us, for instance, is a steward of our own community, accepting the responsibility to take care of something we do not own.  Membership represents a commitment to not only support our congregation financially, but to also help realize our shared vision of “spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community”.  Every time we teach a class or participate in a discussion group, every time we take a meal to a member recovering from surgery, every time we volunteer at St. Paul’s or the Living Interfaith Network, we help bring that vision alive.

While engagement and stewardship are characteristics of any self-organizing group of freely associating individuals with a vision for themselves and their world, a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not simply another community group working on social or environmental issues.  The overriding characteristic for UUs is that, while we foster community and address issues, we do so in service to love.

That is why we emphasize covenant, the promises we make to ourselves and to each other about how we intend to behave within beloved community.  Love isn’t easy, whether we’re talking about amorous devotion or beneficent compassion.  Covenant brings us back to our best selves, providing a framework for those times when love is proving more challenging that we’d like, and service to one another and the wider world provides a mechanism for cultivating and re-cultivating that love.

It’s tempting, when first confronted with an issue of injustice, to remain at a certain level of theory and abstraction.  There are certainly no shortage of causes that might impel us to write a letter to the newspaper editor or to a political representative, to educate ourselves on the issues or try to convince others of their importance, even to join a demonstration or a protest.  And those are all valuable activities that are essential to changing systems and structures of oppression.  Also essential — and, in my experience, a powerful source of motivation and resilience — is direct engagement with and service to oppressed communities and those who suffer injustice.

After all, no newspaper article or television report will teach you about poverty or hunger or homelessness like volunteering at a food bank or a shelter.  Nothing will build another’s self-esteem like helping a disadvantaged child to read or meeting a homeless person’s eyes with a genuine smile — nor warm your heart and grow your soul, too.  And nothing dismantles privilege like entering in humility what would otherwise be a relationship governed by relative power, deferring to the wisdom of the oppressed and remaining accountable to those whom society renders powerless.

Rather than denying the world and ourselves, Unitarian Universalism calls us to boldly engage with them, seeking ways of being that strive for peace and justice, and living into the beloved community that fully embraces the humanity of every human being and the preciousness of life on Earth.  If love, in the words of James Vila Blake, “is the spirit of this church and service its law”, how are you answering the call of our living tradition?

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