Posts Tagged ethics

One Planet Indivisible

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 16th 2014.)

Reading: from Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God by Karl Peters

I first met Karl Peters at the Summer 2000 conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  That was the first time I went, whereas Karl and his wife Marj Davis had been stalwarts of the Institute for many years.  When they weren’t at the Star Island conferences, Karl was Professor of Religion at Rollins College in Florida and Marj was a minister with the United Church of Christ in northern Connecticut.  As it turned out, not long after I moved to Connecticut the following year, Karl was retiring, and we both met again at the Unitarian Society of Hartford.  We quickly found that we had much in common, and that what he called naturalistic theism was a whole lot like what I called pantheism.  So when Karl published Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God, it gave us lots to talk about!

This reading, then, is excerpted from chapter nine of Dancing with the Sacred, entitled “Our Natural Family”.

I’m trying to change my mind about the way I look at the natural world and its creatures. […] It’s not easy to do this when I find a wasp in my basement or when a cockroach scurries away from the light I’ve just turned on as I enter a room.  Yet, I think it’s important for all of us to see ourselves interconnected with other creatures and the Earth — as members of the same natural family.

One reason it’s important is to help resolve the problem […] of moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants.  Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it. [… T]echnology has given us the power to affect the lives of other species and the entire ecosystems of our planet in ways that are unprecedented.  Many scientists are concerned that our burgeoning population is challenging the carrying capacity of the Earth.  Others point out that [it’s the use] of automobiles and some other technologies [that] is threatening our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  We are putting future generations of humans and other species in a crisis that we are just beginning to discern. […]

There are many things that must be done to help us change our ways of living to insure that life and civilization will continue and flourish in a sustainable manner.  New energy efficient technologies, many already invented, must be placed in the market.  Producers and consumers need economic incentives to create an environmentally responsible economy.  Politicians need to exercise courageous leadership in passing regulations that can guide [our] living in ways that promote our own well-being and that of our planet.  [And especially important, n]ew ways of understanding ourselves in our world must be cultivated to help our minds change so that we will live more in harmony with other creatures on our planet.”

Sermon: “One Planet Indivisible”

I took a somewhat indirect route to my decision to go to seminary.

When I went to my second Star Island conference in 2001, I met someone who worked for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford.  Jeanie was (and still is) Environmental Justice Coordinator for the Archdiocese, and hearing that I was interested in matters of religion and the environment, she mentioned an event being planned for that Fall by an organization called the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.  Founded to “empower[…] and inspir[e] religious communities in Connecticut to be faithful stewards of the Earth”, it wasn’t just interreligious in name, either: the lead organizers at the time included an American Baptist minister and a Jewish Renewal rabbi.

The event itself was called “A Sacred Trust: a Forum on Religion and the Environment” and featured speakers from many faith traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Timed to take place near the saint’s day of Francis of Assisi in early October 2001, it was overshadowed, of course, by recent events.  September 11th definitely called for a religious response, but the main portion of the forum was still devoted to looking at human stewardship of the Earth from a variety of religious perspectives.

Now the forum was held at Hartford Seminary, which was just a few blocks down the road from where I was living, and while I was there I looked to see what else they were doing, just out of curiosity.  I didn’t know what to expect because I never thought I’d actually be standing in such a place, much less that I might enroll in seminary.  But then, only a few months before that I’d joined a congregation, so there went fifteen years of certainty in my life!

One of the courses caught my eye.  It was a course on Environmental Ethics, and it sounded interesting not only academically — given that I’d never taken such a class before — but because I was genuinely curious about what was needed to really address the environmental problems that I was hearing so much about.  It is, as Karl Peters put it in Dancing with the Sacred, a matter of “moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants” and so I thought a course on Environmental Ethics would help me understand that.

Another draw was that this was the first course being taught at Hartford Seminary by its new president, Heidi Hadsell, who had a distinguished career as an academic, interfaith and international ethicist.  So I signed up, paid my non-enrolled registration fee and attended my first seminary class in early 2002.

One of the themes that quickly emerged was mentioned by Karl Peters in the reading: “Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it.”  Prof. Hadsell referred to a paper she’d written a few years before (“Environmental Ethics and Health/Wholeness,” Bulletin Vol. 24 No. 3/4, The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, September/November 1995) when attending an American Academy of Religion conference on the topic of human health and wholeness.  Asked to speak to the relationship between her specialty and the conference theme, she looked at the effects of environmental problems on human health, not so much in terms of what those are — damage to the ozone layer, for instance, resulting in an increased incidence of skin cancer — but from the question of why we are, in her words, “fouling our [own] nest to [such] an unprecedented extent[… that] our habits turn back around and bite us”.  Hadsell writes,

I can understand, though I may not agree with, those who insist that the snail darter or […] the spotted owl have value only in relation to human well-being and human abilities to survive reasonably well in places like the northwest […].  But when the matter becomes human health itself directly, not in future generations but now, and not the survival of what to many are exotic species of plants and animals [but of ourselves], why don’t we react?

This, as I said, is a question to which I’ve wanted an answer, too.  It’s a large part of why I even started going to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the first place.  That’s because, after a few years of getting on the mailing lists of what seemed like just about every environmental group in the country, I had no shortage of return address labels.  I also had no shortage of environmental problems and emerging crises without much that I could really do about any of them.  I needed help dealing with it all if I wasn’t going to end up severely depressed.

To illustrate this, in the very first sermon I gave at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, a few months after I started at Hartford Seminary, I related the story of a “Doonesbury” comic strip that had been printed some previous Earth Day.  In that particular cartoon, Mike Doonesbury is complaining by telephone to his friend Zonker that he can’t spend his every moment trying to figure out the environmental consequences of his actions.  “If I consider the impact of everything I do, I’ll never get out of bed!  I’ll just lie there all day, lights off, heat off, munching organically grown celery!”  And in the final panel of the strip, we see that this is, of course, precisely what Zonker is doing.

Before I come back to Prof. Hadsell’s paper on this subject, I want to explain why I bring it up this morning.

Today we are participating in the 2014 National Preach-In on Climate Change.  This is something that Interfaith Power and Light has organized for a few years now, coordinating thousands of clergy and lay leaders across the country over a weekend in February to offer religious responses to the global problem of climate change.  We’re participating in it this year because we’ve also been participating in the Thirty Days of Love, and one of the purposes of the Preach-In is to share our love of the world that is our planetary home.  At the same time, my sermon theme for the month is Stewardship, and our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is the cornerstone of all Unitarian Universalist efforts to practice good stewardship of the Earth, including for this congregation to earn the designation of Green Sanctuary.

Now many sermons that are part of the Preach-In, whether they took place on Friday evening or sometime yesterday or are being given this Sunday morning, will include a litany of facts about climate change.  In fact, in their Preach-In Kit, Interfaith Power and Light provides an information sheet entitled “The Facts about Climate Change”.  It reads, “Here are the latest findings from the 2013 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by the United States Global Change Research Program.  This is why we must act now.”  And then it lists a number of facts and provides further information about each:

  • Climate change is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
  • Extreme weather is underway.
  • Sea ice is disappearing and seas are rising.
  • Crop and livestock production is increasingly challenged.
  • Threats to human health will increase.
  • Warming will continue to increase.
  • Delays will make a big difference.

The fact sheet even includes web addresses for various “Global Warming Reports and Resources” where you can get more information.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though.  Is the problem, really, that we don’t have enough information?

The first Earth Day was in 1970.  The Kyoto Protocol was figured out in the late nineties.  Most mainstream media outlets now recognize the legitimate science of climate change, and are even taking steps to actively reject the pseudo-science that has been peddled by Exxon and the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Global climate change is part of our cultural vocabulary, and Unitarian Universalists in particular understand the validity of the 99.5% scientific consensus.  (The other 0.5% comes, and this should be no surprise, from scientists paid to speak for private, corporate interests.)  We even know the difference between climate and weather.  The problem in our society is not a lack of information.  The problem in our society is a lack of motivation.

And that brings us back to Heidi Hadsell’s question about why our apathy in the face of environmental problems.  Answering her own question, in fact, Hadsell offers a number of reasons why we’re not acting.

First, there’s the plain, old-fashioned concept of denial.  “Far from being unknown,” Hadsell explains, “the environmental problems, including those that affect human health directly, are so evident and so vast and complex.  The reason that we are not doing much about the environment is that the problems are so bad that we can’t or won’t allow ourselves to look them squarely in the face.”

That’s why information about climate change is only helpful up to a point.  Anybody who knows enough to be concerned isn’t going to be convinced any further by having more data.  If anything, litanies of facts about climate change and other environmental issues and the myriad ways that humans are damaging the Earth just get really depressing, really fast.

Second on Hadsell’s list is individualism.  “We may intuit the problem,” she writes, “but we lack the moral and political language to get our heads around them.  Our language is tied to rights and freedoms as individually construed; we can only cope when things are tied to the ways we are used to thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals.”

There are, of course, things we can do as individuals that do add up to make at least something of a difference, particularly if we have other reasons for taking those actions.  For instance, I have a single-cup coffee maker.  I like it, and I think it’s more energy efficient than a regular multiple-cup machine.  But I’ve realized I’ve been drinking a lot more coffee since my daughter was born — and I moved from decaf to regular, too — and all those little plastic cups with a single-serving of coffee in them add up to a lot of waste in the landfill.  So rather than buying boxes of the cups, I switched to bags of coffee instead, using a reusable cup that I empty and refill as needed.  That’s somewhat less convenient but it’s also cheaper per cup of coffee, and the only waste (other than the bag the coffee comes in) is the used coffee grounds rather than a non-reusable and probably non-recyclable cup.  The more people who did that, the less waste there’d be in our landfills, not to mention whatever waste is generated in making those cups in the first place.  But the fact is that we’re not going to solve our biggest problems by tackling them as if they were simply bigger versions of smaller individual problems, and that takes us to Hadsell’s third reason: materialism.

“Another explanation, and one that we cannot discard,” she writes, “is that in the end most people don’t care.  They like what they have and would rather have what they have — and by that I mean the stuff they have — than protect the environment, or protect their own or the public’s health.”  There’s even a term for this syndrome, though it hasn’t made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet.  The condition known as “affluenza” was, in fact, used by criminal defense lawyers last year to argue that their teenage client’s drunk driving, and the subsequent crash that killed four people, was a result of his privileged upbringing by parents who never set limits on his behavior.

Hadsell goes on to list: group egoism, as in the “Tragedy of the Commons” where the people in a group all assume they won’t be the ones impacted by the results of their decisions affecting that group; structural relationships, where political and economic forces determine many of our choices for us; lack of resources, namely the intellectual, material or organizational resources to bring about change;
and finally collectivism, whether that’s excuses such as corporations being too big to fail and governments being too bureaucratic to change anything, or the selfish short-sightedness of the human race as a whole that is so collectively irrational that it might be considered a form of death wish.

Happy stuff, eh?

I know many of you watch The Daily Show and so some of you here probable saw last week’s interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, a new book about the massive reduction in the diversity of life on Earth that is going on right now thanks to, well, us.  Jon Stewart did his best to make the interview something other than a seven-minute bummer, but in trying to wrap it up he started to say, “On a hopeful note…” but then caught himself and asked, “Was there a hopeful note?”  Kolbert had to admit that, no, there wasn’t.

Thankfully, Hadsell’s paper doesn’t end by talking about the possible death wish of the human race.  And since she is someone who studies religion and was presenting her paper to others who study religion, she continued by looking at the role of religion in addressing these reasons for failing to act.

Religion needs to be active in helping to shape humanity’s social world, for instance, making meaning in ways that help us to see ourselves as part of the natural world rather than in ways that pretend we’re better than and can somehow exist independent of the natural world.  Religion offers the ministries of “preaching and teaching, marshaling the evidence,” as Hadsell puts it, “and giving [people] the context in which to let it all sink in.  One hopes that this role of the church will chip away at the defense of denial so prevalent, at least in this society.”

Then there’s the core capacity of the religious imagination to lift up a vision of something other than “an endless extrapolation of the present”, a vision of, say, the Beloved Community where people live in relationships of mutuality and justice with one another and in relationships of sustainability and respect with the Earth.  And in practical terms, religion can offer the physical resource of space for talking about these matters, the social resource of a community with which to talk about them, and the organizational resource of committees and coalitions and networks to make plans and put them into action.

We’ve been doing all of these here, of course, from the work of L— and our Green Sanctuary Committee to the course that B— is currently teaching on the “new cosmology”, a religious perspective on creation that R— and the late Jack Dougher have promoted here, too.

Moreover, Hadsell notes religion’s ability to provide “a language which carries moral sensibilities significant to human health and environmental survival[, encompassing m]oral values such as regard for the other, the insistence that meaning is not the possession of things, a sense of history which extends beyond the boundaries of national identity, and a language which provides motivation for courage and the commitment of all kinds of personal and institutional resources we may not even know we have.”

This, I think, is the key.  If we’re going to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, we need moral motivation in terms of moral sensibilities and moral values.  It’s no accident that the tens of thousands of people, perhaps a hundred thousand people, who gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina a week ago did so under the banner of a Mass Moral March.  Reporter Jaimie Fuller, in an article in The Washington Post, explained that a large part of the success of that movement is the central role of “morality as a way to fight for progressive issues, and a way of challenging the Christian Right’s use of religion”.  In his speech that day, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, certainly made it clear that this is not about political parties or partisan ideologies but about right and wrong.

Now if all this talk about moral this, that and the other is triggering nightmarish flashbacks to being caught in a childhood transgression by an overly strict nun at some parochial school — even if that wasn’t actually your childhood — consider what Jay Michaelson, who writes about spirituality, Judaism, sexuality and law, has to say not just about morality but about sin.

[T]he grammar of sin — [only] without its vocabulary — is [in fact] alive and well in progressive religious circles.  Consider how progressives respond when we learn that someone we know is racist, or sexist.  If you’re like me and every other progressive I know, you probably recoil in disgust.  That moral disgust — which neuroscientists tell us activates the same parts of the brain as physical disgust — is […] the quintessential reaction of a purity violation.

This is from a recent article of Michaelson’s entitled “Climate Change Is a Sin — Here’s How to Repent For It”.  He explains what he means by this as follows.

Climate change is a sin, but it’s a special kind of sin.  It’s not a personal failure but a societal one.  We sin collectively (interestingly, in Jewish liturgy, almost all confessionals are in the first-person plural), and if we are to repent, we must repent collectively.  That means re-engaging with the people we can’t stand — including people who talk about “sin” — and finding ways to communicate with them, rather than preach to the already converted.

This, really, is our challenge.  This, I think, is the real point of the National Preach-In on Climate Change.  It’s certainly not to “preach to the already converted.”  Rather, it’s to figure out how we can work in moral coalitions just like Rev. Barber’s Forward Together Movement.  As Michaelson puts it,

Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance: alliances with the evangelical-led “creation care” movement, recasting the issue in public moral terms rather than the language of progressive cul-de-sacs, and a de-partisanization of moral good and evil.  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.

So, since I don’t like ending a sermon in which I’ve described a big problem without giving you something you can do about it, here’s something you can do about it.

Outside the Sanctuary, we have a table set up where you can fill out postcards to our Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, asking them to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Pollution Standards for new and existing power plants.  These postcards have been provided by Interfaith Power and Light, and we printed extras to hopefully have enough.  They read, “I believe we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged by climate change.  We all need to do our part as stewards of Creation.”  Please fill out a postcard with your name and address to one Senator, or fill out one to each, and we’ll mail them all in together,* along with tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of postcards from Preach-Ins in congregations all over the country this weekend.

These postcards are one way we can raise our collective voice to not only be the change we want to see in the world, but to fight for it.  This is the work to which we are called, the work of realizing the Beloved Community, the work of co-creating a sustainable future for human society and for all life on Earth.

So may it be.

* We mailed a total of eighty-eight postcards to the Senators!

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Why can’t I own a Canadian?

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 14 2012.)

Reading: “Open Letter to Dr. Laura”

Laura Schlessinger is an American talk radio host who goes by the name “Dr. Laura”.  She’s most well known for responding to callers’ requests for advice, doing so from a socially conservative perspective.  Indeed, the stated purpose of her radio program is to “preach, teach and nag about morals, values, ethics and personal responsibility.”  As such, Schlessinger responded to a caller, around the time the state of Vermont legalized “civil unions” in 2000, by re-stating her often-aired opinion that homosexuality is “a biological error”, backing herself up with a reference to the Bible.  It’s not clear who wrote the tongue-in-cheek “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” that appeared around that time, but it quickly became one of the most frequently shared e-mails and was even adapted for one episode of the television show “The West Wing”.

You can read the full text on Snopes.com.  The letter begins:

“Dear Dr. Laura,

“Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law.  I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.  When someone tries to defend homosexuality, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination.  End of debate.  I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them.”

A later part of the letter reads as follows:

“Leviticus 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations.  A friend of mine says that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians.  Can you clarify?  Why can’t I own a Canadian?”

Sermon: “Why Can’t I Own a Canadian?”

I’d like to start my sermon today with a question.  How many commandments are there?

If you answered “ten”, you’re probably thinking of the Ten Commandments, as given to Moses on Mount Sinai, according to the Book of Exodus.  Though, according to the great Jewish scholar Mel Brooks, there were fifteen up until one of the tablets slipped out of Moses’ arms.

If you answered “two”, you’re probably thinking of the New Testament, and Jesus’ response to a question as to the most important part of Jewish law.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said: “The first of all the commandments is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord your God is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  And the second commandment is, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”

And if you answered six-hundred-and-thirteen, you’re probably a rabbi.  That’s because twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (aka Maimonides) scoured the Torah and came up with a list of 613 commandments or mitzvot.  Each mitzvah might be positive — saying something someone must do — or negative — saying something they must not do, while some apply only to men or only to women or only apply at certain times or in certain places.  Many of the 613 mitzvot cannot be observed, in fact, given the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era.

Now according to Maimonides’ list, over two-hundred-and-fifty of these mitzvot come from the Leviticus.  That’s more than any other book of the Torah, though Deuteronomy comes close, so obviously Leviticus is a particularly important book for understanding the Jewish law.  During the first two centuries of the Common Era, in fact, Leviticus was known in Hebrew as Torat Kohanim, which means the Law-book of the Priests.  The priests were descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother, and were of the tribe of Levi, hence the name by which we know the book, Leviticus being Greek for “relating to the Levites”.

While Leviticus is the third of the five books of the Torah, it is not a narrative like Genesis and Exodus.  It is set, though, during the forty years when the tribes of Israel wandered between Egypt and Canaan, when the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a portable tent known as the Tabernacle, though the same instructions continued to apply once the Ark was installed in the Jerusalem Temple by Solomon.

Those instructions fill the twenty-seven chapters of Leviticus and divide into sections, addressing such matters as: how the people are to bring offerings of different types and how the priests are to handle them; how priests are consecrated, starting with Aaron; how the dietary laws of kashrut are to be followed; how the people are to restore ritual cleanliness following conditions such as disease; how Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is to be observed; how certain transgressions are to be punished; and how the Israelites are to maintain themselves as a holy people.  The underlying theme that runs throughout the book is that the world was created “very good” and, though it has fallen through sin, it still has the potential for being returned to its original state through the faithful enactment of ritual.

With so many very specific instructions prescribing or prohibiting so many different behaviors — ranging widely from food and sex to disease and economics — it’s perhaps not surprising that Leviticus is the most blatantly cherry-picked book of the Hebrew Bible.  The “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” provides a good demonstration of this.

Leviticus tattoo

“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD.” Lev. 19:28

In fact, Leviticus 18:22 is probably the most cherry-picked verse of the Bible.  Weirdly enough it’s also a not uncommon tattoo, even though Leviticus 19:28 expressly forbids tattoos.  (It’s number 72 on Maimonides’ list.)

There’s also the fact that Leviticus 18:22 (number 157, according to Maimonides) appears to ban only homosexual activity between men.  Like a lot of the Torah, it’s addressed to men, commanding them “not to lie with a male as with a woman”.  Lesbianism, by contrast, is only indirectly forbidden through Leviticus 18:3, which prohibits following the customs of Egypt and Canaan, but that one didn’t make it onto Maimonides’ list, for some reason.

Now many Orthodox Jews, I am given to understand, strive to follow the 613 mitzvot, at least those that can still be followed in twenty-first century America rather than Iron Age Israel.  I witnessed this a little over a decade ago when I took a course on the “Fundamentals of Jewish Thought and Practice” at a local Chabad House, a center for study, worship and outreach run by Hasidic Jews, and the rabbi did indeed talk about the 613 mitzvot and the ways in which they are observed in some detail.  Indeed, a mitzvah to learn the Torah is number 22 on Maimonides’ list; another to honor those who know the Torah and teach it is number 23.

Then there are mitzvot 580 and 581 which prohibit adding anything to or removing anything from the Torah, so great care must be taken in writing a Torah scroll, something that every male must do according to number 82.  (If a mistake is made in writing the Hebrew name for G-d, for instance, the entire parchment cannot be used in a scroll but must be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  Number 7, after all, is the prohibition against profaning the holy name.)

Christians, however, do not benefit from such clarity as a list of concrete requirements and prohibitions.  On the one hand, there’s Jesus’ explicit statement of the two Great Commandments, but there are endless possibilities for debate over how to actually put them into practice.  On the other, and when it comes to the 613 mitzvot, Christian theology speaks of Jesus having fulfilled or satisfied the law — all of the laws — in large part because, as Paul and James explain in their letters, it’s impossible for humans to get them all perfectly right.  There’s a reason why Christians call the Hebrew Bible the Old Testament, and that’s precisely because the New Testament supercedes it.

Tony Warren of the Center for Biblical Theology, for instance, explains how, for Christians, Jesus fulfilled all of the laws.  For example, laws prohibiting labor on certain holy days — such as Yom Kippur (number 92) and the first and seventh days of Passover (numbers 97 and 99 respectively) — became spiritualized, in that Jesus himself became the true Sabbath in whom Christians can find their rest.  Warren similarly explains that Christians are freed from the dietary laws against eating non-kosher meat (as in numbers 180, 181 and 184) because, through God, Jesus made clean what had been unclean.  Warren makes his broader point, though, when he says that “the law isn’t a salad bar where we take what we want, and leave the rest.”

And that’s a point that another blogger, Evangelical Christian Scott Fillmer, tries to address, particularly when it comes to Leviticus, which he describes “one of those books that Christians tend to want to ignore, while those in the opposite camp tear it apart Hebrew letter by Hebrew letter.”  Fillmer provides five reasons why Christians should read Leviticus, the first of which is that it’s an easy target for anyone critical of Bible literalism.

“This is generally because they don’t understand the book in context any more than we do,” Fillmer explains, “but they can read the obvious to make stupid arguments like Christians still eat pork and wear polyester, therefore homosexuality is not a sin.”  That, of course, is precisely the point of the “Open Letter to Dr. Laura”, though Fillmer doesn’t mention it.  He goes on to try to explain why it’s okay to invoke Leviticus in some situations but not others, in other words why he’s not mis-using it as a sort of scriptural salad bar, by asking, rhetorically, “Why is it acceptable for Christians to get a tattoo, or eat pork, but not put adulterers to death?  Understanding this book in proper context shows exactly why some laws are historically customary for their culture and time, and why some are moral obligations that transcend time.”

The problem is, how do we distinguish between historical customs given a particular culture and “moral obligations that transcend time”?

We can so easily look back a few thousand years to a culture that was striving to set itself apart from its neighbors and recognize that a prohibition against planting two kinds of seed in the same field (number 234) makes some sort of sense in that context, but who knows whether any of the social practices that we in 2012 assume are universal moral standards will, in hundreds of years, be judged as barbarous?

Fillmer also notes, of course, that the Torah in general and Leviticus in particular, especially that part of it known as the Holiness Code, sets the stage for much of Christianity.  After all, the second of the Great Commandments — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” — comes from Leviticus 19:18, which is mitzvah number 13 on Maimonides’ list.  The problem is, when we get into such territory as bacon-wrapped shrimp and tattoos of other Torah verses, it’s all too easy to poke fun at the likes of Dr. Laura who do their own cherry-picking, particularly when they do it not out of humor, but to de-humanize a whole group of people.  One might also argue that calling someone’s sexual orientation “a biological error” violates the prohibition on slander, which is mitzvah number 19.

Another problem is that, beyond the usual complaints about pork and polyester, other Biblical laws have much, much bigger social implications were they actually to be followed.  I became interested in this whole topic, in fact, thanks to an article entitled “The Economics of Leviticus” by Doug Muder.  Muder is both a Unitarian Universalist and a prolific writer.  You may have read some of his articles in UU World and he also has a blog, The Weekly Sift, which provides his take on each week’s events, both those that make it into the major news publications and programs and those that don’t.  In addition to his religious liberalism, Muder is unashamedly politically liberal; he makes no claim to be unbiased, but he says he does try to be honest about his biases.

In any case, Muder wanted to take a look at the economic parts of Leviticus that don’t get as much air-time.  Leviticus “clearly denounces business practices that wring out every last dime of profit”, Muder argues, given the examples of the mitzvot against reaping a harvest to the very edges of the field (number 240) and to leave what has not been harvested for the poor to gather for themselves (number 239).  Or, more directly, there’s Leviticus 19:13, which commands that “you shall not keep the wages of a laborer until morning” (number 518), but how many of us get paid every two weeks or even once a month, in clear violation of Biblical law?

Then there’s Leviticus 19:33–34, which states: “When foreigners reside among you in your land, you shall not oppress them.  The foreigner residing among you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the foreigner as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”  One commentary calls this “the summit of Biblical ethics” and, as Muder points out, it doesn’t say anything about green cards.  This is a slightly expanded version of Exodus 20:21, which provides numbers 502 and 503 on Maimonides’ list.  More importantly it’s a key sentence in the Haggadah, which is the order of service for a Passover Seder.

Muder goes on to note, however, that the most radical part of Leviticus is chapter twenty-five and the institution of the Year of Jubilee: “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.”  In the Year of Jubilee, slaves are to be freed (number 290) and debts are to be forgiven (number 285).  Property is also returned to its original owner (number 294) because land may not be sold in perpetuity (number 295): Leviticus 25:23 makes it quite clear that the land belongs to God, and as far as God is concerned, humans only live on the land as foreigners and tenants.  How’s that as a Biblical mandate for environmental stewardship?  It’s even spelled out as to how, should land be temporarily sold, the price should be proportional to the number of years until the Jubilee, since what is being sold isn’t really the land itself, but the number of harvests that land will produce.

In other words, as Muder puts it, “[t]he Bible does not support private ownership of the means of production”, one of the foundational ideas of our capitalist society.  So an absolute rejection of capitalism is right there in Leviticus, the same book used to argue, in similarly absolute terms, that homosexuality is sinful.  Muder concludes his article by noting that “[t]aking Leviticus 25 seriously would force a sweeping re-visioning of [our] economic system.  That would be a lot of work, and cause a certain amount of distress for the people who own property under our more free-trading definition.  Why go to all that trouble?  Unless you think this is the Word of God or something.”

What are Unitarian Universalists to make of all this?  Obviously I think we should make something of it, or I wouldn’t be standing here preaching about it.

Consider that there are self-identified Jewish UUs, such as those who have formed Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness, but they’re hardly the same as Orthodox Jews.  There are also self-identified Christian UUs, such as those who gather as the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, but they’re certainly not the same as Evangelical Christians.  Then there’s the fact that both Universalism and Unitarianism evolved, in parallel but separately, within and then out of Christianity, each of them becoming post-Christian until they were able to join to form Unitarian Universalism as a theologically diverse, spiritually inclusive and religiously progressive faith.  So we’re not likely to quote scripture to one another as if that’s all that needed to be said to end debate, and yet our hymn books are full of readings and hymns that are based on or even directly quote passages from the Bible.

So what is scripture to Unitarian Universalists?

During my first year in seminary I took a course as part of the Peace and Justice Program on the topic of “Talking about Homosexuality in Congregations”.  Many of the students were from various Christian denominations, so part of the course involved what scripture says about homosexuality, or at least what some people claim it says about it.  There were a number of Unitarian Universalists taking the course, so we needed to figure out, first of all, what our scripture was.  I came to the conclusion that scripture is some text — poetry or prose, written or oral — that speaks to our own truths in profoundly meaningful ways.  Scripture is like a mirror, in that we see the sacred in it only to the extent that the sacred is already in us.  A number of my fellow students, whether Christian or not, liked that way of thinking about it, which isn’t too surprising at a theological school that’s long been notorious for its liberalism, but I’ve continued to find it helpful when I try to understand the human impulse toward religion, too.

In this case it says to me that cherry-picking the Bible is a way of both hiding our own biases and avoiding our own authority.  It need not take much courage to point to a verse in Leviticus and say, “Look, God says that whatever you’re doing is wrong, and you can’t argue with God, so end of discussion.”  It takes more courage to own up to our own prejudices and to speak honestly on the basis of our own convictions.  Now if something speaks to us more poetically or uses words more effectively than we are able to do ourselves, then there’s nothing wrong with quoting it as an illustration of what we’re trying to say, but that’s in support of our own capacity for reason and judgment, not the other way around.  That’s why we can have a hymn book with a whole section of readings from the Bible, and at the same time trust that it’s not necessary to have a warning label on each copy about not using the hymnal to hit someone else over the head.

The message of the “Open Letter to Dr. Laura” comes across most strongly, then, when its unknown author asks the question: Why can’t I own a Canadian?  It’s a deliberately absurd question and it would be just as absurd to look to the Bible and only the Bible to answer it — and that, of course, is the point.  We could start a discussion of the Biblical position against slavery by considering Leviticus 25:42 (number 505 on Maimonides’ list) and then generalizing it via the second Great Commandment, but the Bible has just as easily been used to support slavery as to oppose it.  Rather, we are called to answer such questions on the basis of our own convictions, using our own reason and judgment: I believe that slavery is wrong, for instance, because my Unitarian belief is that we are all one human family and because my Universalist belief is that we are all children of the divine.  This, for me, is the foundation of Unitarian Universalist ethics, calling us to gather the courage of our convictions and to share love, hope, peace and joy with one another in equal measure.

So may it be.

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