Stretching Our Hearts

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6-21 Stretching hearts“What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” asked the Rev. A. Powel Davies more than half a century ago.[1] I love this question. I love the image of our hearts stretching. Of course, there’s nothing extraordinary about a religious leader asking a question like this. It’s a version of the question that lies at the core of so many religions. It’s the question of ethics, of justice. How shall we live? How can we bring love and compassion into the world, into our encounters with family members, friends, strangers? How can we live peacefully with others, especially those who are different from us in some way? How can we break down the strange and foolish walls that divide the human family? How can we stretch our hearts?

Indeed, the strange and foolish walls were very real half a century ago, and they are very real now. We didn’t need Thursday morning’s news of a white supremacist mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church to be convinced of this. But there it was again, a gut-wrenching and profound failure of “love your neighbor”—not only in the small heart of the killer, but in the small and atrophied heart of the social, cultural and political systems that produced him.  Despite all the progress humanity has made over centuries—despite its enlightenment, its knowledge, its scientific advancements, its faith, its modern conceptions of human rights and social justice—despite it all, the human family feels, to me, as divided as ever; as if we are somehow fated to revert back to a fight-or-flight limbic response to conflict; as if we’ll never be able to overcome the allure and the power of simplistic and false dualisms—‘us vs. them,’ ‘good vs. evil’—whether we’re talking about international, national or local conflicts, or conflicts within the intimacy of our own families—conflicts that seem intractable despite our earnest desire to see them resolved. Despite all our achievements, love—deep abiding love—seems so difficult to sustain. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” though still a potent ethical principle, seems worn down, battered, beaten. Our collective heart seems small and ineffectual.

Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe every age has its insurmountable conflicts. Maybe the goal of a more peaceful, just and loving society always feels elusive to those who care about it most. Maybe each of us struggles to be more loving and compassionate and never quite meets the mark we set for ourselves. In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, was for eternity compelled to roll an immense boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again and again each time he approached the summit. Maybe we each roll our own boulders; and maybe collectively we roll boulders; and we almost get where we think we’re going, and then suddenly, in a flash, we lose our grip—a mass shooting in a church or an elementary school tears through a town, a loved one’s life falls apart, a foreign war we thought had ended suddenly begins again, a suicide rips through a community, a school system fails, a chronic illness debilitates, entrenched poverty crushes—and in a flash the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Maybe there’s always a layer of human existence that is like this.

Maybe, but that’s no excuse to give up. There is also in the human heart a yearning to do better, a yearning to not let hate destroy kindness and compassion, a yearning to make love—deep, abiding love— real in the world. Those families of the nine who died in Charleston, when they faced the killer in court, said, essentially, “you’ve hurt us; we forgive you.” So let us ask the question, and keep asking it, and never stop asking it: “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”

The heart in this question is, of course, a metaphor in which our physical hearts which pump our blood refer to our spiritual hearts—our center, our grounding, the source of our passion and compassion, the place inside where we commune with what is sacred to us, the home in us of love and warmth and joy. It’s the thing that soars when we fall in love, and the thing that breaks when a loved-one dies. How do we stretch that?

My heart has been stretching and growing and breaking and healing and stretching and growing and breaking again all year long, and I sure hope some strange and foolish walls have begun to crumble as a result. I want to say a few words about the way I experience my heart stretching, because it may be more or less the same—or radically different—than the way you experience your heart stretching. One thing I’ve always known about myself, but which I’ve had to contend with at a much deeper level this year than ever before—is that as much as I think I want to stretch and grow and change—as much as I preach the value of stretching and growing and changing—as much as I proclaim that we come to church to be transformed and to tear down those strange and foolish walls—my body doesn’t like it. Some bodies love it. Mine doesn’t. When my heart starts stretching, my body usually says, “wait, before you do that, here’s a slight headache,” or “here’s a backache for you,” or “here are some allergies you’ve never had before,” or, my least favorite, “here is some unexplainable dizziness. Enjoy!”

I’ve spoken about this before. The reasons why some people have somatic reactions to different kinds of stress are always complex. My simplest understanding of why it happens to me has to do with being raised in a family with an alcoholic parent. As is the case with many adult children of alcoholics, there is, in me, a deep-seeded impulse to not “rock the boat,” to keep the peace, to not create tension, to please others, to accommodate others. I know some of you know condition well. The challenge here is that stretching one’s heart in order to overcome strange and foolish walls inevitably creates tension. Stretching creates tension. It’s good tension, productive tension, creative tension, justice-seeking tension. And it’s necessary: the change we seek won’t come without it.

The insight I’ve had about myself this year is that my body actually mistakes good tension that will lead to good change for bad, unproductive, uncreative tension that will lead nowhere. As a child, perhaps it made sense to avoid tension of any sort and my mind and my body were in agreement: keep steady, keep the peace, keep out of trouble, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep. But now, as an adult, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve changed it for good reasons. I understand some tension is necessary. My mind affirms my heart’s desire to stretch, but my body still says “no, we can’t do that.” It’s unnerving when this happens, but it’s also become for me an important sign: my body feels a certain way because my heart is trying to stretch. And while I have to take my body seriously and attend to how it is feeling, my personal challenge is to teach my body to work with my heart. I can’t let my heart stay little. None of us can. The world needs deep, abiding love. These strange and foolish walls must come down.

Perhaps my most potent experience of intentional heart stretching has been my participation in Moral Monday CT which, as many of you know, held a Black Lives Matter rally in Hartford on June 8th, which included nonviolent civil disobedience—the blocking of a busy, rush hour intersection—for which 17 people were arrested, including me and three other members of our congregation. That didn’t just happen. It required months of heart-stretching. I started telling you the story in my MLK sermon in January. I said then that, given the high visibility of police killings of unarmed people of color—Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.—on top of what we already know about racism in the United States—mass incarceration, health disparities, educational disparities, income disparities, wealth disparities—it was clearly time to do more than talk. The powers that be will listen to talk, but talk alone doesn’t produce the kind of tension needed to subvert racism at its roots. We recognized that we need to use our bodies in a different way, that we need to occupy public space in a different way. I said in that sermon that nonviolent civil disobedience is coming, though I still wasn’t sure what that really meant. I was beginning to stretch my heart, and in my body I felt anxious, dizzy, achy. My body was not intending to do anything differently. As far as my body was concerned, we had a good thing going: “Just keep talking. You’re good at that. People like when you talk. But you in a street at rush hour? They might not like that!”

There is too much at stake. I was determined to stretch. We prepared ourselves to do what we needed to do. We conducted nonviolent civil disobedience training here at UUS:E in early February. That was stretching. Then we did a trial run on Monday, February 23rd in Hartford, stretching further. My body came along—still didn’t like what we were doing, and it let me know.

We picked June 8th as the date for our first major action. We conducted a final training here the night before. And then around 5:00 pm on the 8th we walked into the street. My heart soared. In that street was where I needed to be in that moment, more than anywhere else in the world. My body hated it. I became so dizzy after a while that I walked off the line to talk to our medics. They checked me over, gave me some sugar and water, and said it looked like stress. So I walked back out into the street, heart soaring, body still protesting—“we’re really rockin’ the boat now”—and got myself arrested.

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

My body is still trying to figure it out. It’s going to take a while. But my heart has stretched. And if I had any misgivings about what I had done after the fact, they vanished on Thursday morning with the news from Charleston. Black Lives Matter. These strange and foolish walls must come down. Deep, abiding love will bring them down.

As momentous as that particular experience has been for me, there has been so much more. My heart has been stretching around multigenerational community here at UUS:E. My heart has been stretching around new directions in our music program as we integrate Mary Bopp onto our staff. My heart is beginning to stretch around new growth strategies for our congregation. My heart has been stretching in response to having a teenager in the house. There’s been a lot of good tension, a lot of good, slow, measured change, and more is coming. My body still wants nothing to with it, but I know where that comes from, and I trust its resistance will eventually fade. I don’t want a little heart. I want a loosened, supple, open, expansive, generous heart. I want to be a vehicle for deep, abiding love to come into the world.

Rev. Davies asked, “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” What can we do to bring more love into the world? What can we do to assure we are loving our neighbors as ourselves? My response is to start small. Start simply by naming the strange and foolish walls in your life or out in the wider world that that you feel must come down. Name them not just to yourself, but to others. Naming them out loud is the beginning of commitment. Name them, and then ask yourself what you need to dismantle them. Find others who’ve stretched in the way you aspire to stretch, and ask them how they did it. What preparation do you need? What training? What support? Where can you practice before you take your action? Who will work with you? Is your body on board?

And here’s what we also need to remember: as much as we prepare ourselves, as much as we stretch, as much as we love, there will be moments when it falls apart. Events, often beyond our control, will crash through our lives. We’ll lose our grip on the boulder. We’ll tumble down. We’ll find ourselves at the base of the mountain looking up, tired, sad, angry, demoralized, wondering how to get back up again. I’m thinking, of course, about Pawel Jura’s death by suicide in late winter, which deeply impacted this congregation, brought so much of our congregational life to standstill. I’m thinking now also about the death of Carol Shapiro, whose bodily remains were finally identified last week, after eight years. Receiving this news brought me back to the time she disappeared. It was similar to Pawel’s death in the sense that everything came to a halt—boulders tumbling down the mountain.

Our hearts stretch differently in moments like this. No preparation, no training, no practice, no warm-up. They stretch too quickly. They stretch beyond their capacity. They stretch to the breaking point. They break. When Pawel died I found a reading from the late Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about what happens to love in the wake of loss. She wrote, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[2] Looking back on that time now, looking back at all those broken hearts—including mine: so much love spilled out. Deep, abiding love. Whatever strange and foolish walls might have existed among us, they melted away in the presence of that love. They melted away as you held each other, ministered to each other, carried each other, cried with each other, sang with each other.

This isn’t an answer to A. Powell Davies’ question about stretching our hearts. We don’t wish for broken hearts. We don’t wish tragedy upon ourselves or anyone. But strange and foolish walls have a tendency to vanish in the wake of tragedy. We saw it after 9/11. We saw it after Sandy Hook. We saw it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We see it in the outpouring of love for “Mother Emanuel,” for Charleston, for South Carolina. We hear it in those powerful, loving words, “we forgive you.”

In the end, it shouldn’t take a tragedy to get there. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for love—deep, abiding love—to come pouring out, every day, all the time. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to wake us up to the littleness of our hearts. Yes, we are up against so much. The strange and foolish walls are multitudinous and well-fortified. In Sisyphusian style we lose our boulders down the mountain. And maybe this is an enduring part of the human condition. But it can’t be an excuse for giving up. It can’t be an excuse for not stretching our hearts. Stretching is part of their design. I’ve learned that this year. So, my counsel is for all of us to name our strange and foolish walls, and start stretching—warm-up, practice, get training, talk to those who’ve done it before. And then do what we need to do to make that deep, abiding love real in the world, to let it circle the world, to let it bless the world. We have it in us. Stretch, and keep stretching. No wall can stand forever.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Davies, A. Powell, “Strange and Foolish Walls,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #662.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Legacy,” Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House, 1998) p, 56.

Confronting Evil: A Role for Violence?

Rev. Josh Pawelek

MLK“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”[1] Enduring words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; words that matter to me; words that matter to Unitarian Universalists; words I have repeated again and again over ten years in this pulpit—not only King’s articulation of them, but also as they manifested in the words and deeds of Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ceasar Chavez, Delores Huerta, Rosa Parks, Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Henry David Thoreau, Jesus, the Buddha, the Hebrew prophets. We rightly trumpet the values of nonviolence, peace, justice and love, not only on this long, January weekend when the nation pauses to remember King’s life, but whenever we witness violence, oppression, injustice, poverty, inequality—these social , political and economic evils that are real in our nation and still place harsh, often deadly limits on the lives of so many people across the globe.

For King nonviolence was virtually inviolable. I say virtually only because I hear it said that regarding certain historical events—the conflict with Nazi Germany, perhaps—he conceded the necessity of violent confrontation with evil.[2] What I’m wrestling with this morning is not the depth of King’s commitment to nonviolence, but ours—as Unitarian Universalists, as people of faith. We repeat and affirm the value of nonviolence again and again—it resonates deeply with us. Though our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources do not use the term nonviolence, they clearly imply it. But are there limits? In confronting evil—and I’m speaking specifically about larger, systemic evils—abuses of power, often carried out through war, often perceived by victims as terrorism, whether we’re talking about al Qaeda suicide bombings or United States drone strikes, whether we’re talking about human rights violations and torture in countries like China, North Korea and Iran, or human rights violations and torture in the United States; or systemic evils that cut along lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, that lead to widespread poverty, inequality, hopelessness, despair, nihilism, suffering and death—in confronting such evils, is there a role for violence?

The question makes me cringe. To my ears it sounds strange. On my tongue it feels wrong, especially on the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Frankly, it has never occurred to me to ask this question from the pulpit. It’s not that we UUs can’t imagine scenarios where violence is necessary; it’s that we don’t spend a lot of energy reflecting on them. We tend to focus our attention on situations in which violence seems unnecessary and tragic—gang violence, domestic violence, state violence, unjust wars, terrorism, etc. Everything I believe in, the influence of King, Gandhi, Jesus and others on my thinking, my approach to ministry, my understanding of effective social justice work, and that place in my heart where I know my truth—it all cries out: No, there is no place for violence in the confrontation with evil! “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence.”[3] After years of affirming the power and the moral superiority of nonviolence, my gut response to the question is a resounding No!

But there’s one difference for me this year, which has always been there, but which I hadn’t looked at closely until now. Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela died on December 5th. He was and continues to be a global moral hero—the father of South Africa, Madiba, the liberator, the freedom fighter, the 27 year prisoner who expanded the moral imagination of the world with his call for truth and reconciliation when revenge would have been so easy. Mandela went to prison for committing acts of violence which he admitted in great detail at the 1964 Rivonia trial. And although it is true that through the course of his imprisonment he found sustenance and hope as he recognized the humanity of his oppressors, he also never renounced violence. In answer to the question, is there a role for violence in the confrontation with evil, Mandela’s life suggests there is.

Following his conviction and sentencing, the prevailing view of Mandela in white South Africa, as well as in many western countries, was that he was a Communist terrorist. It was the height of the Cold War. The South African government garnered western support by portraying its enemies as Communists (many of them were) and itself as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “strategically essential to the free world.”[4] Reagan put Mandela on the US international terrorist list. It sounds unbelievable, but he was not removed from that list until 2008.

There’s a debate over the extent to which Mandela was a Communist. He says he wasn’t, though he certainly considered the South African Communist Party an ally.[5] I don’t find the question compelling. What matters to me is his leadership in the African National Congress (ANC) which, through the first 50 years of its existence, pursued its goal of a non-racial state through nonviolent means. Mandela and his ANC colleagues were deeply committed to nonviolence. “It may not be easy for the Court to understand,” he said at the Rivonia trial, “but…for a long time the people had been talking of violence—of the day when they would fight the White Man and win back their country—and we, the ANC, had always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to pursue peaceful methods.”[6] After reading his autobiography and many of the tributes that emerged in the wake of his death, after watching him act as a free man on the world stage through my entire adult life, I’m convinced nonviolence (peace, reconciliation, love, etc.) continued to be his highest aspirations, the approach he would choose under virtually any situation—but not every situation. He also said, without apology, “nonviolence was a tactic that should be abandoned when it no longer worked.”[7]

ANC

By the early 1960s, white South Africans had voted to form the Republic of South Africa; blacks had no vote, no representation, no voice; the ANC and its allies had been banned; the government routinely used brutal, deadly force to break up nonviolent demonstrations; the apartheid state was in full bloom. As Mandela said at Rivonia, “the hard facts were that fifty years of nonviolence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.”[8] The ANC now faced the question, is there a role for violence in the confrontation with evil?

Mandela was one of the first to say yes. Recalling the ANC deliberations on the question he wrote, “I argued that the state had given us no alternative to violence. I said it was wrong and immoral to subject our people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative. I mentioned…that people on their own had taken up arms. Violence would begin whether we initiated it or not. Would it not be better to guide this violence ourselves, according to principles where we save lives by attacking symbols of oppression, and not people? If we did not take the lead now…we would soon be latecomers…to a movement we did not control.”[9]

The ANC sanctioned the creation of a military organization known as Umkhonto we Sizweor Spear of the Nation (MK). Mandela, a self-described military novice, was given command and told to start an army. He did. That story in itself is phenomenal. What stands out to me is his attempt to identify and hold onto principles of engagement as he entered into violent conflict. MK identified four forms of political violence: sabotage, guerilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution. They regarded sabotage as the most principled because it could be used in a way that would minimize or prevent loss of human life. “Our strategy,” he wrote, “was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines, and transportations links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy. This we hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table. Strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life.”[10] For this he was sentenced to life in prison.

MK Bombing

MK Bombing

In December,1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., on his way to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize, spoke in London about South Africa. He said: “In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States…we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by nonviolent methods. We….know how this nonviolence was only met by increasing violence from the state, increasing repression…. Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organize to register Negro voters, we can speak to the press, we can in short organize the people in nonviolent action. But in South Africa even the mildest form of nonviolent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.”[11] King offers no judgment, no yes or no. Just understanding. Perhaps this is one of those moments when he recognized the necessity of confronting evil with violence.

Many times over 27 years the government offered Mandela release in exchange for renouncing violence, but he wouldn’t accept such offers. Many times the government offered to negotiate if he and the ANC would renounce violence, but he and they never did. “I responded,” he wrote, “that the state was responsible for the violence and that it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle. If the oppressor uses violence, the oppressed have no alternative but to respond violently. In our case it was simply a legitimate form of self-defense. I ventured that if the state decided to use peaceful methods, the ANC would also use peaceful means. ‘It is up to you,’ I said, ‘not us, to renounce violence.’”[12]

I offer this story this morning not to chip away at the moral foundations of nonviolence. Indeed, Mandela’s pursuit of truth and reconciliation as president after a century of racist atrocities announced to the world those foundations are unassailable, enduring and worthy of our ongoing loyalty. But a careful study of his whole life helps us identify the outer limits of nonviolence, helps us say with appropriately uneasy confidence, yes, there is a role for violence in the confrontation with evil. The dilemma of this yes is King’s warning that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence.” Certainly South Africa witnessed such multiplication before the end of apartheid. And while such multiplication may not be a forgone conclusion, it is always likely. No perpetrator of violence, no matter how principled their intentions, no matter how just their cause, can imagine, let alone control, all the consequences of their actions. Once unleashed, violence takes on a life of its own. It may have a role to play, but given its multiplying effect, it must be a role of absolute last resort.

A further risk in acknowledging a role for violence in the confrontation with evil is the descent into the cynical belief that violence is inevitable, that there is an aspect of human nature prone to violence and thus we ought always be prepared for it at some level. For me this is not the lesson of Mandela’s life. For fifty years the ANC refused to prepare for violence. We know King refused. We know Gandhi refused. And Mandela refused once he had sufficient power to pursue a nonviolent future for his country. Whether or not human beings are prone to violence, there are countless stories of people refusing to use it or only turning to it under extraordinary circumstances. Let’s remember that. However prone we may be, in those moments when we witness and resolve to confront evil, let us always begin by placing our confidence in nonviolence, reconciliation and love. Let us always call perpetrators of evil again and again and again back to those unassailable, enduring moral foundations. Let us believe, in those immortal words of King, that what self-centered [people] have torn down [people] other-centered can build up…. [and] that one day humanity will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.[13]

Amen and blessed be.



[1] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62, 63.

[2] Howard Zinn mentioned this in a December 2001 article in The Progressive entitled, “A Just Cause, Not a Just War.” See: http://www.progressive.org/0901/zinn1101.html

[3] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[5] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) pp. 251-252.

[6] See Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in the Rivonia trial, April 20, 1964 at the ANC website: http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3430.

[7] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 272.

[8] See Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in Rivonia trial, April 20, 1964 at the ANC website: http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3430

[9] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 272.

[10] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 283.

[11] See King’s speech on South Africa at http://www.rfksafilm.org/html/speeches/africaking.php.

[12] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 537.