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.

Humanism’s Breaking Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

HumanismHumanism isn’t declining in our era because it is dry and cold. And it isn’t declining because it doesn’t make room for God. Humanism is declining in our era because in practice it often fails to make room for actual humans. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS…. 

A Wilderness Faith

Reflecting on his service in Afghanistan, U.S. Army chaplain and Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. George Tyger, writes, “I know love / For it is love that has kept me alive / Not bombs / Not bullets / Not body armor / These only kept me from dying / Love keeps me living.”[1] That is essentially the message of this sermon. If our Unitarian Universalist faith is to serve us well in the wilderness—and I’ll say more about how I’m using the word wilderness this morning—then love must live at its center.

Love at the Center

I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion, that our faith works fine when life is good, but offers no reliable assurances in the face of tragedy, injustice, evil, death; that our faith works fine for those who come for worship on Sunday morning, but does not travel well beyond the walls of our buildings. I’ve not yet finished reading George Tyger’s War Zone Faith, but if his ministry in 2011 and 2012 to the 1500 soldiers of the 1st Squadron, 10th US Calvary Regiment stationed in and around Kandahar City, Afghanistan—the “spiritual home of the Taliban”—is any indication, then I feel confident Unitarian Universalism’s liberal faith—its appeal to reason, its tolerance for ambiguity and difference, its call for social justice, its assertion of human dignity and its emphasis on love—holds up under some of the most dangerous conditions on the planet. If Rev. Tyger’s testimony is any indication, this liberal faith travels remarkably well.

Rev. George Tyger

Though let me be clear: I am not suggesting that any Unitarian Universalist minister, including me, could do what Rev. Tyger does, or that all one has to do is show up in a war zone and start talking about the love at the heart of his or her Unitarian Universalist faith. That’s not what Rev. Tyger does. He has a gift for battlefield ministry. And while he is clear in his writing that he doesn’t want us to romanticize his ministry or present overstated caricatures of his service, in my view his ability to provide chaplaincy to soldiers in combat is extraordinary. His Unitarian Universalism holds up well in a war zone because of who he is, because of his rare courage, and because of his unique ability to communicate his loving faith—to make it relevant in the midst of bullets, bombs, body armor and body bags. When I  say our UU faith travels well beyond the walls of our buildings, I also acknowledge that no faith travels all by itself. People carry their faith with them, and specific people carry their faith into specific situations. Our faith has the greatest impact in the world when our gifts and talents are well-suited to the demands of the situation we find ourselves in—whether we feel called to be there or whether we arrive there by accident. Rev. Tyger has a gift for battlefield ministry. For me, this begs the questions, “What is your gift?” and “Where and how does your love for people and the world express itself most clearly?” I invite you to take these questions into this summer season. It’s important that we know the answer to these questions because, in the end, the measure of the “realness” of any religion has little to do with what that religion says or writes about itself—or how catchy its promotional videos are. It has everything to do with how that religion inspires its people to live their faith by using their gifts to bring more love into the world.

I want to share some thoughts on living our faith not only beyond the walls of our congregation, but in any situation we might call a wilderness situation. As a reminder, our ministry theme for June is wilderness. A few weeks ago I preached about the connection between the wilderness around us and the wilderness within us. I suggested that traditional religion often identifies wilderness as a place of trial, challenge and temptation—a place where something bad happens, where some wicked thing lurks—and if we can overcome it, meet the challenge, resist the temptation, then we can return to the safety of civilization having matured in our faith, having deepened our humanity. While I do think this is one important narrative for understanding the role wilderness plays in our spiritual lives, I also made the case for a second narrative. Wilderness is not only the place where we face challenges and trials. It is also the place where we encounter the things we hold most sacred; where the Holy actually lives and speaks out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions; where we find solace and peace; and where we gain strength to resist the various evils civilization has created and perpetuated among human beings.

This morning I want to explore how we engage the wilderness around us. I’m combining elements of both spiritual wilderness narratives. I’m not talking about the forests, the jungles, the deserts or the mountains—though I do believe the Holy lives and speaks there. Rather, I’m talking about difficult, challenging situations, painful situations that demand a faithful response from us—whether they occur in the actual wilderness of the natural world, or in the heart of civilization; whether they occur within the walls of our meeting house, or beyond them. I’m talking about the wilderness of the devastating diagnosis, the death of a loved-one, or the loss of a job. The Holy lives and speaks there too. It must. I’m talking about the wilderness of mental illness, of addiction, of loneliness. I’m talking about the wilderness of estrangement in families, the breakdown of relationships, watching a loved-one engage again and again in self destructive behavior. The Holy lives and speaks there too. It must.

Pain and Suffering

I’m also talking about the wilderness of war zones, the wilderness of bullets, bombs and body bags, because the Holy must live and speak there too. I’m talking about the wilderness of more than one in five American children living in poverty,[2] because the Holy must live and speak there too. I’m talking about failing schools, gun violence, mass incarceration and the erosion of civil rights for Voting Rights Actpeople of color because, in addition to its positive rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 this week, the Supreme Court also eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, opening the doors to a myriad of efforts to restrict access to voting and, in my view, thereby stunting and even reversing the progress of American democracy. The Holy cries out in that wilderness too, demanding a faithful response. I’m also talking about the wilderness of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, because yes, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA—an enormous victory for people standing on the side of love and justice. But there are still 38 state DOMAs on the books; and while some of those, I expect, will disappear quickly, most of them will not go down without a fight. Winning that fight will require people of faith to continue bearing witness to the injustice of marriage inequality and to express the tenets of their religion in the public square with courage and conviction. The Holy must live and speak in that struggle too.

Oftentimes the wilderness—whatever form it takes in our lives—feels overwhelming. The word “bewildering” makes sense. It is hard to comprehend at first. There’s an opaqueness to it. It is often unbelievable. Receiving a cancer diagnosis, unless you have some strong prior indication, is unbelievable. The tragic death of a loved-one is unbelievable. The statistics on the number of Black and Hispanic men wrapped up in the criminal justice system are unbelievable. The statistics on the educational achievement gap are unbelievable. Child poverty, unbelievable.  Lack of access to quality, affordable health care, still unbelievable. So many lives are at stake. Always at first the wilderness seems overwhelming, unapproachable, insurmountable, dangerous, deadly, bewildering.

Consider this generalization about Unitarian Universalists. Unitarian Universalists often respond to wilderness situations not from the heart but from the head. If this statement rings true to you, please understand it is far less true than it sounds, but it is true enough—and out there in the larger culture enough—that some people allege ours is not a real religion. It’s not the only reason people make this allegation, but it’s one of them. Often our first response to wilderness situations is to seek information and data. These days we Google it. Don’t hear me wrong, I feel strongly that in order to respond faithfully to the wilderness around us, we do need to acquire information about what is going on. We need the facts. Information makes the wilderness less opaque, less bewildering, less unapproachable (though not necessarily less dangerous). Speaking specifically about the wilderness of injustice and oppression, it is essential that we analyze it; that we figure out how it works, why it is so pervasive in so many aspects of our society, and why it is so difficult to dismantle. In conducting such analyses, we ask questions like “Where is the money coming from?” Or “What is the money paying for?” We ask questions like, “Who benefits from this injustice?” or “Who has the power in this institution?” We ask historical questions like, “Why did this injustice come into being in the first place?” In the language of community organizing, we call this a power analysis. For years, working on antiracism organizing within the Unitarian Universalist Association and in different cities and towns in Connecticut I’ve heard myself say over and over again—because I was trained to say it—“We need a common power analysis of racism before we can work to dismantle it.” And those words are true. But in reflecting on this aspect of my ministry over the last fifteen years, I recognize that sometimes I’ve become too mired in analysis. I’ve stayed too much in my head. And my faithful response has been less than effective. There’s some truth to the generalization.

As essential as it is to have an accurate analysis of unjust and oppressive systems, we cannot confuse having an analysis with having a faith adequate for the wilderness. We need something more. We need love. I’m reminding myself of this as much as I’m preaching it to you. Rev Tyger says, “I know love / For it is love that has kept me alive / Not bombs / Not bullets / Not body armor / These only kept me from dying / Love keeps me living.”[3] When I call myself a person of faith, it means I enter the wilderness with a much deeper question than the many analytical questions I might be asking in order to overcome my bewilderment and quell my anxiety. When I enter the wilderness as a person of faith I am looking, quite simply, for opportunities to feel and express love for others. When we enter the wilderness as people of faith, the deeper question is “How can we bring love to bear in this situation?” When we enter the wilderness as people of faith, the deeper question is “How can we be a loving presence to those who are suffering?” “What gifts can we share that will make love come alive in this moment?”

Compassion

Having the facts is essential. Knowing what’s really going on is essential. Doing the power analysis is essential. But the Holy that lives and speaks in the wilderness—in the depths of pain, suffering, loneliness, depression; in the war zone, the grieving spouse, the broken family the impoverished neighborhood, the failing school, the over-crowded emergency room, the addict’s needle, the prison cell—the Holy that lives and speaks there, no matter how we understand it, no matter what name we ascribe to it, cries out for a courageous, loving response. The heart of a faith adequate for the wilderness is love. In the end, the measure of the “realness” of a religion has little to do with what that religion says about itself. It has everything to do with how that religion inspires its people to live their faith by using their gifts to bring more love into the world. What are your gifts? Where and how does your love for people and the world express itself most clearly?

Compassion

Tomorrow I have the honor of saying a few words at a press conference Senator Blumenthal is holding in response to the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Prop 8. (I received this invitation because I served for many years as chairperson of CT Clergy for Marriage Equality and, later, CT Clergy for Full Equality.) There are many ways to talk about these rulings that involve facts. If you read Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion—which I highly recommend—you’ll find it very factual, very analytical. [4] I expect nothing less from a Supreme Court Justice’s opinion. He clearly understands the nature and the full extent of the injustice DOMA visited upon gay and lesbian couples and their children. Reading his opinion I learned facts I hadn’t known before, like the fact that under DOMA the partner of a gay or lesbian veteran could not be buried next to their beloved in a veterans cemetery.

But I don’t want to address facts tomorrow. I want to speak of love, because I am a person of faith, and a Unitarian Universalist, and love has been at the center of our faithful response to this particular wilderness for a generation. In fact, I want to remind the media that it has largely mischaracterized the sides in the American debate over marriage equality. It has largely reported the debate as one between secular, non-religious people in favor of marriage equality, and religious people against it. But that has never been the case. Unitarian Univeralists, the United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, American Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, the Metropolitan Community Church, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, even some Pentecostals—and the list goes on—have been coming again and again into the wilderness of homophobic laws, of painful silences and closets, of fear and hatred towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people, of bullying, bashing and suicides—people of faith have been coming into this wilderness and proclaiming a message of love, singing “we are standing on the side of love,”[5] singing “Love will guide us,”[6] praying prayers of love, praying, in the words of Rev. Tyger when he gave the invocation at last Tuesday’s LGBT pride celebration at the Pentagon that “love refuses to be constrained by culture, by creed or by fear,”[7]—coming into this wilderness and bearing witness to a Holy power in the world so vast that no one is left out, that all may come as they are, that all may love according to the dictates of their own heart. If I may be so bold, we are winning in this wilderness struggle, because love wins. Love wins.

love wins

We’ve heard it said that the poor will always be among us. Some say there will always be poverty. If nothing else, it’s a Biblical notion. I’ve never been convinced of its truth. But I am convinced there will always be wilderness, and that the encounter with wilderness is part of the human condition, part of the human experience. Therefore, we will always need love—to give it and to receive it—to courageously speak it, proclaim it, sing it, pray it. Love is the essence of a faith adequate for the wilderness. Love wins. I believe it. May we go out from this place and into this summer season ready to give and receive love.

Amen and blessed be.

Standing on the Side of Love



[1] Tyger, George, War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections From Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. xiv.

[3] Tyger, George, War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections From Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013) p. xiv.

[5] Shelton, Jason, “Standing on the Side of Love,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1014.

[6] Rogers, Sally, “Love Will Guide Us,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUS, 1993) #131.

[7] The Pentagon’s June 25 LGBT Pride event is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7vkpOYQiIo&feature=share.

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Rev. Pawelek’s Comments on the Supreme Court’s DOMA Ruling

Friends: 

Pete Marovich/MCT/Getty

Pete Marovich/MCT/Getty

I’m overwhelmed with joy. The Supreme Court’s rulings striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8 are not only legal victories. They are victories for justice, morality, decency, equality and inclusion. They are affirmations that there is no second-class citizenship in the United States of America. They are affirmatiosn that gay and lesbian relationships matter as much as heterosexual relationships. They are affirmations that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people matter as much as everyone else. I am so proud not only of Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay-people who’ve been on the front lines of this struggle for decades, but of all people of faith in this country who value equality and justice above archaic, mean-spirited interpretations of scripture and church tradition. I believe in a God who’s love is so large that no one is left out. All may come as they are. All may love as they feel called in their hearts to love. Today, this theology feels consistent with the law of the land. Again, I am overwhelmed with joy. 

Really . . . What’s Real?

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

Earlier I read an excerpt from Nick Bostrum’s 2003 article, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”[1] To be clear, he does not prove we are living in a simulation (had he proved it, I suspect we’d all be aware of it by now and waiting to meet our maker— or, umm, programmer). What he proves is that it is rational to think we are living in a computer simulation. Or, in the very least, he proves one can argue it is rational to think we are living in a simulation.

Simulation

One can also argue that while it might be rational to think we are living in a computer simulation, it might not be rational to preach about it. And if the minister decides to preach about it anyways, it would be rational to think it might be one of his less useful sermons. Of course, this is the same challenge I accept every year when I put a sermon up for bid at the UUS:E goods and services auction. As most of you know, every year our beloved Fred Sawyer wins a sermon at the auction and challenges me to preach on a topic or question residing at that murky yet evocative crossroads where science, philosophy and theology meet. “Are you living in a computer simulation?” is no exception.

The Truman Show

I’m not sure, in the end, that answering this question is all that useful. But the fact that some scientists, philosophers and theologians take this question seriously; the fact that there are scientists proposing experimental means to answer the question (even if they’re doing it partly for fun); and the fact that this idea that reality is not the same as what our senses perceive shows up again and again in literature and cinema—in everything from the Bible to Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Whoto The Matrix films to The Truman Show—tells us something about human nature which I suspect is meaningful. [And whether or not it is, it is certainly rational to the come to the auction next Saturday evening, February 9th, from 5:30 to 9:00. It’s great fun. It’s an important fundraiser for the congregation. As always, a sermon or two will be up for bid.]

Horton Hears a Who

Imagine today isn’t February 3, 2013. We think it is, and everything we’ve ever been taught tells us that it is. But imagine today is actually a day far in the future. And imagine that some future society—Bostrum calls them “posthuman”—has developed powerful computers that can run programs that simulate human evolution. Bostrum calls them “ancestor simulations.” They would be so fine-grained that the people in them would have consciousness and would not realize they are living in a virtual reality.[2] Again, Bostrum wants to show it is rational to think we live in such a simulation. To do this he says at least one of three propositions must be true.

First proposition (what I call the gloom and doom proposition): “The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.” If this proposition is true, if human beings will become extinct before developing this level of computing power, then we cannot be living in a computer simulation, and today must be February 3, 2013.

Second proposition (what I call the ethical proposition): “Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history.” Imagine that human beings do not become extinct and successfully develop the capacity to run very fine-grained ancestor simulations. Then imagine that, despite having such capacity, they refuse to do it. Why? Doesn’t it seem logical that if it could be done, it would be done? We already run computer simulations for all sorts of things. We track the paths hurricanes; we train astronauts. Simulations are part of every industry that uses computers. We even have computers that simulate computers. If we could simulate human evolution, we could learn so much about ourselves. We wouldn’t do it for moral reasons. An advanced human society would, we hope, have an advanced morality and would recognize that in creating virtual yet conscious people, it would also be consigning them to a life of potentially great suffering. An accurate simulation would include genocides, wars, holocausts, slavery, nuclear explosions, terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, gun violence, poverty, famine, starvation, disease and so on. It would be sadistic, morally objectionable and highly unethical to create virtual people who would have to experience these things. Hence, it would be prohibited, even illegal. If that’s true—if every advanced society with this level of computing power prohibits ancestor simulations—then we cannot be living in a simulation. Today must be February 3, 2013.

Third proposition (what I call the what’s really real? proposition): “We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” That is, if the first proposition is false—human beings don’t become extinct; and if the second proposition is false—advanced societies don’t establish prohibitions against running ancestor simulations—then we are almost certainly living in such a simulation. Today is likely not February 3, 2013.

To understand why this might make sense, consider that Bostrum assumes it would not be just one society that develops this computing power. There would be multiple advanced societies, all of them running multiple simulations at once. And furthermore, at some point in the course of any such simulation the virtual people in it would themselves develop the computing power to run their own ancestor simulations. As Bostrum puts it, “we would have to suspect that the posthumans running our simulation are themselves simulated beings; and their creators, in turn, may also be simulated beings.” It could go on indefinitely.

Simulated Simulators

Michael Rundle, Technology Editor for the Huffington Post, UK, summed up the argument in an article this past December: “any civilization which could evolve to a ‘post-human’ stage would almost certainly learn to run simulations on the scale of a universe. And…given the size of reality—billions of worlds, around billions of suns—it is fairly likely that if this is possible, it has already happened. And if it has? Well, then the statistical likelihood is that we’re located somewhere in that chain of simulations within simulations. The alternative—that we’re the first civilization in the first universe—is virtually (no pun intended) absurd.”[3]

My gut response to all this? I think it’s absurd (no pun needed). It can’t be true. It doesn’t feel right. Something’s missing. It’s too circular. It’s a trick. But I don’t have a rational counter argument. Is it just that I’m so used to thinking I’m an original human in the original universe, that I’m deeply and irrationally attached to this assumption? After all, I’ve never been invited to seriously think otherwise until now. If we assume humans will not become extinct and will one day have the computing power to run ancestor simulations; and if we assume that advanced societies would not prohibit such simulations, then on what basis can we argue we are not now living in a simulation? We wouldn’t know it if we were. It doesn’t feel rational, but it certainly looks rational on paper.

Simulated Cosmic RaysOne rational response to Bostrum is to look for actual evidence. In a recent paper entitled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation”[4] German physicist Silas R. Beane and colleagues discuss how one might approach this problem. He says in any computer simulation there are “observable consequences” of that simulation. There are certain constraints or limits on the laws of physics within any simulation and they leave a signature. The signatures are very slight, but they ought to be observable within the simulation if one knows how and where to look. So they suggest that we begin with the assumption that our universe is a simulation and then ask: What known phenomena are there in the universe that mirror the kinds of observable consequences we would expect to find? Beane names the Greisen-Zatsepin-Kuzmin—GZK—cut off, the outer limit of the energy in cosmic ray particles. What accounts for this cut off? Why does this limit exist? He proposes this limit could be an observable consequence of a computer simulation. I haven’t had time to figure out whether he and his colleagues are just doing this for fun in their spare time or if this is their main research area. Either way, their paper, like Bostrum’s, has a wide popular following. The suggestion that what is real is not the same as what we perceive is a potent one.

Fred was interested in what Bostrum’s theory might say about God and ethics.  It says a lot. Some of you may already be making theological connections. Bostrum said, “it is possible to draw… loose analogies with religious conceptions of the world…. The posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens.” This makes sense. If we are living in a computer simulation, it is fair to say that the programmer plays a similar if not the same role in our lives that many feel the God of the Bible plays. Even the idea of resurrection is plausible in a computer simulation. If the programmers don’t like that someone ‘important’ has died, they can just re-insert the file back into the simulation. Or think about incarnation—the divine taking human form. A programmer could place a file of themself into the simulation and walk among us virtual folk, speaking to us of the errors of our ways. To us it would look like incarnation—spirit-becoming-flesh. The programmer would experience it as flesh-becoming-data. But do you see what I’m getting at? This question—“Are you living in a computer simulation?”—is not a new question. It uses modern concepts. It wears the clothing of science. But it’s actually an ancient question, an ancient thought process. Because we can’t explain our origins, we conclude there must be a Creator who exists in another realm.[5]Whether God or programmer, the net effect is the same. We live at the mercy of an all-powerful entity.

Zeus

And whether we’re talking about an all-powerful God or programmer, the problem of evil and suffering remains. This is also an ancient human question, the question of theodicy: How do we explain evil and suffering if God is all-powerful? What about genocides, wars, holocausts and slavery? Why does an all-powerful God allow these things to happen? Why? There’s no good answer. Some will contend God’s purposes are inscrutable and should not be questioned, but that’s never been acceptable to me. So what justification would some future computer programmer have in creating people who feel pain in so many ways, who are exquisitely conscious of their own suffering and that of others; people who are fragile, flawed and know they must, some day, die. It seems sadistic. It makes sense that an advanced society with an advanced morality would prohibit it.

Except that if it turns out we are living in a simulation, I wouldn’t want it to be turned off. I wouldn’t want life just to end in the blink of an eye, without a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, just like I don’t want life to end any other way—though I know it must. Computer simulation or not, I still recognize in me, in you, and in so many of earth’s creatures a fierce and beautiful will to live. No matter what’s real, we’re here and these are our lives. Whether it’s 2013 or some future day, we’re here and these are our lives. And even if our lives are illusions, they feel real. As far as we know, they’re the only lives we have. The point of living has never been to avoid evil and suffering, but rather, when it happens, to respond to it as best we can: to find our sources of resilience, to remain hopeful, to bring love to bear. Regardless of what’s really real, I can find no excuse to live our lives as if they have no consequence.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in an all-powerful God or an all-powerful programmer. I believe today is February 3, 2013; our bodies are real flesh and blood bodies; and we are among the first people in this universe. That’s what I believe, but I also an open to and curious about any opportunity to connect with a reality greater than or in some way beyond this one. I recall those words of the Apostle Paul, his reminder to the Corinthians to “Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal.”[6] I recall those words of the Sufi poet, Hafez, speaking to the Beloved Presence: “Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you…. You are the breathing of the world.”[7] I’m reminded that from time to time we catch glimpses of something else—some other world, some other realm. Maybe we don’t see it with our eyes—we feel it, we imagine it, we dream it. Maybe it comes to us in our quiet, peaceful moments— our mountain top moments, our walking-at-low-tide-moments—moments when we lean back from our daily lives and suddenly realize we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Maybe it comes to us in our moments of great celebration or exertion—moments when we’ve danced, sung, run, whirled or stretched our bodies so far beyond their normal positions that somehow we’ve become available to something else—or something else has become available to us. Reality is not always the same as what our senses tell us.

So many religions, folkways and spiritual practices; so many prophets, gurus, teachers, poets, guides and spiritual leaders; so many scriptures, myths, stories and dreams hint at the existence of something else: some Heaven, some Olympus, Elysium, Valhalla, Zion, Sheol, Shangri-La, Shambhala, Svarga Loka, Nirvana, some celestial sphere, some great oneness, some kingdom coming. But our glimpses are always fleeting. We may never know what’s really real. Given this, what seems most rational to me is staying open and curious. And what really matters is not whether a proposition is ultimately true or false, but whether it keeps us resilient in a hurting world, keeps us hopeful, and keeps love overflowing in our hearts.

Curiosity

Amen. Blessed be.


 


[1] Bostrum, Nick, “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? “Philosophical Quarterly(2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243?255. (First version: 2001). For a detailed exploration of the various debates sparked by Bostrum’s article, go to http://www.simulation-argument.com/.

[2] Bostrum argues that, though it is controversial, a common assumption in the philosophy of mind known as “substrate independence” suggests that computers should be capable of consciousness. He writes: “It is not an essential property of consciousness that it is implemented on carbon?based biological neural networks inside a cranium: silicon?based processors inside a computer could in principle do the trick as well.”

[5] I recommend Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s description of ‘The Cosmological Argument’ for the existence of God in 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010) p. 348. In my view this is possibly the most common and most ancient argument for the existence of God. Goldstein convincingly dismantles it.

[6] Second Corinthians 4:18.

[7] Shams Ud-Dun Mohammed Hafiz, “Beloved Presence,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #607.

Instead of Rifles: Reflections on American Violence

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video here.]

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.”[1]

the Cornel West Theory, circa 2009The band is the Cornel West Theory from Washington, DC. The piece, from their 2009 album “Second Rome” is called “Rifles.” The speaker of these particular words—the poet—is the Rev. Yvonne Gilmore.[2] On this Sunday one day before the nation celebrates the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.; on this Sunday one day before the nation inaugurates President Barack Hussein Obama to a second term; on this Sunday just over a month after the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT that left 28 people dead including 20 first graders; on this Sunday after a week in which the debate over gun control in our state and our nation has been feverish and fierce; on this Sunday at the beginning of a new year, following a year in which Hartford witnessed 22 homicides, 17 of which involved guns; on this 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, following a year in which the United States witnessed more than 10,000 gun-related homicides (depending on how one counts) and more than 30,000 gun-related deaths—the majority of them being suicides;[3] on this Sunday I find these words from Rev. Gilmore to be both a deeply pastoral and powerfully prophetic response to violence, one that speaks to us about what is necessary for the work of repair, healing, justice in a grieving nation.

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” I don’t pretend to understand every reference in this piece. But I understand it enough to know it addresses those urban youth who are caught up in these seemingly endless, intractable cycles of drug and gang violence, repeated from city to city across the nation, this “bullet play,” as Rev. Gilmore calls it, “this petty crime on the front lines.” The other poet in the piece, Tim Hicks, offers a litany of violence-laced images and makes veiled and not-so-veiled references to the troubling experience of young, urban black and brown-skinned men within the United States criminal justice system, a system we know is fundamentally flawed; a system that, after decades of America’s war on drugs, has resulted in the mass incarceration of young black and brown-skinned men and, increasingly, women; a system that Ohio State University law professor and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander, among others, calls the New Jim Crow[4]—Jim Crow being the popular name for the Michelle Alexanderpost-Civil War, post-Reconstruction system of both legal and illegal methods of keeping black and other peoples of color from participating fully in American society—the broken and racist system the Civil Rights movement sought to overcome; the system Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS sought to correct once and for all; the system the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Urban League, the NAACP and so many others (including the Unitarian Universalist Association) sought to dismantle forever; the system the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom riders, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail sought to end forever; the system the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to abolish forever.

1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

That was the old Jim Crow and somehow, in 2013—the fiftieth anniversary year of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,”—here it is again, the new Jim Crow.

New Jim Crow

The poet says: “I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” This piece addresses urban violence. It does not address the more rare phenomenon of mass shootings, like the Newtown tragedy, like the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, like the Tucson, Arizona assassination attempt on the life of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords—shootings which typically seem to disturb and galvanize the nation much more than the endless reports of tragic gang-related homicides in cities. This piece, “Rifles,” does not address what we might call suburban gun violence, but Rev. Gilmore’s wish still applies. And let us make no mistake: the two phenomena—urban and suburban gun violence—are intimately related.

Down the hill from Sandy Hook Elementary School, 12-14-12

Shafiq AbdussaburShafiq Abdussabur is a New Haven, CT police officer and the current Chair of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. He named this intimate relationship between urban and suburban violence this past Tuesday on WNPR’s “Where We Live.” He was talking about the differences between urban and suburban violence—differences in the profiles of the shooters, differences in how they come by their weapons, differences in what kind of weapons education and training they typically have, and differences in the factors that lead to violence. But then he said this: At the end of the day there’s still people killing people with guns, [whether] legally possessed [or] illegally possessed…. And the key here is this: It’s our young people…. We’re missing something with our young people in both suburban America and urban America.”[5]

I agree. We’re missing something with our young people. That’s the essence of what I’m calling the intimate relationship between Fallingurban and suburban violence. There are tears in the social fabric—cracks, clefts, rifts, gaps, holes, fractures, fissures, ruptures. They are many, they are increasing and they cannot be narrowed down to one factor or one simple solution. They are social, economic, educational, psychological and spiritual. They emerge out of poverty, broken families, lack of resources, boredom, bullying, sexism, violence in the media, violence in video games, failing schools, warped national priorities, hyper-militarism, political polarization and on and on. Not every child falls into these tears in the social fabric. Thankfully most don’t. But those who do become stressed, numb, frightened, angry, isolated, alienated, stunted in their moral development, stunted in their ability to discern right from wrong, and they can become—not always, but sometimes—violent.

In urban areas in particular the appeal of gangs—safety, camaraderie, intimacy, money, power, even purpose—is overwhelming for young people who’ve become alienated. But what a set-up: As a society we fail them. We drive them away. We drive them into dangerous, violent situations. If they aren’t killed, eventually we arrest and imprison them. It’s the new Jim Crow.

the New Jim Crow

In the suburbs alienation plays out differently. The presence of more wealth, more employment, better access to health care, more effective schools, fewer illegal weapons, less demand on social service providers, more overall privilege keeps most gang activity at bay, and we who live in suburbs report a greater feeling of safety relative to our urban neighbors. Except the Newtown shooting and others like it tells us something different, tells us there are young people falling into those tears in the social fabric, falling off the radar screen. The potential for explosive violence haunts suburban—and we should add rural—America as well.

Aurora, CO

Another important layer to this conversation: most of the violence young people act out once they’ve fallen into these tears in the social fabric is towards themselves. This has understandably not been named prominently in the wake of the Newtown shooting, but I think it’s important to say that the shooter, as outwardly violent as he was that morning, was also suicidal, was also expecting to commit violence toward himself. “I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.”

Obama & Biden

This past Wednesday, President Obama and Vice President Biden, responding to the Newtown shooting, launched the most comprehensive and aggressive gun control effort since the Gun Control Act of 1968. In addition to demanding that Congress pass a new assault weapons ban, institute background checks for all gun sales, ban gun magazines with capacities of more than 10 bullets; and toughen penalties on people who sell guns to those who can’t legally own them, they also announced 23 executive actions dealing with a range of issues including a call for a new national dialogue on mental illness.[6] Here’s what I feel about it: Bravo. Bravo Barack and Joe. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your reasonableness and your sanity. Thank you for proposals that seek to reduce both suburban and urban gun violence while actually not infringing on the right of law-abiding American citizens to keep and bear arms. Thank you.

I recognize some will disagree with my claim that the administration’s proposals do not infringe on 2nd Amendment rights. One could argue that if Congress puts an assault weapons ban back into place, then the government is technically infringing on the right to bear arms. My only response is that I’m still waiting to hear a rational argument for the right to bear an assault weapon. I’m trying to remain open. But the arguments I tend to hear sound like the following: It’s my right. I should be able to have any gun I want. It’s the American way. It’s none of your business. These are not convincing arguments, and because assault weapons are being used in mass shootings more and more, I feel strongly that it is my business. It’s everyone’s business. I support gun ownership. I understand hunting and target practice and self-defense. I do not see a rational argument for owning assault weapons, and therefore I do not feel the Administration’s proposals threaten the right to bear arms.

Obama with children

I also took note of the President’s comments about children: “This is our first task as a society,” he said, “keeping our children safe.  This is how we will be judged.  And their voices should compel us to change.”[7]  I am convinced President Obama believes these words about as deeply as anything else he believes. But he can believe this and still be missing something about our children. I think it’s one thing to protect children from gun violence. It’s another thing to keep children from falling through the tears in the social fabric. He can take this moment to push through the most aggressive gun control measures in a generation and actually succeed in reducing gun violence and still be missing something about our children. And we can choose, individually and as a congregation, to get involved in this post-Newtown effort to control guns in a sane and reasonable way—I personally expect to be involved—and we can still be missing something about our children. We can pass all the laws we possibly can to control guns and young people will still be falling into these ever-widening tears in the social fabric, and some of them will find ways to act out violently towards themselves, others, or both. It is time in this nation for a change of heart in relation to children and young people that is bigger and more lasting than anything our political process can ever hope to achieve. It’s time for a national change of heart in relation to children and young people that requires more than legislation.

Don't Shoot

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles,” enough to carry you through your times of fear and anger, enough to carry you out of alienation and isolation, enough to carry you past the impulse to commit a violent act. I only know one way to make a child love themself enough to carry themself with their head held high, with pride in their heart, with a positive sense of potential and possibility, with trust in their own future: Love them first. Love them—all of them—unconditionally, with everything we’ve got. I’m not talking about parents loving their own children, although that is certainly part of it. I’m talking about all of us—society—resolving to love every child unconditionally and doing everything and anything we can—with that love at the center—to repair these tears in the social fabric into which too many children are falling.

Love our kids

Some might say this sounds naïve, overly idealistic, unrealistic or just plain impossible. Fine. But I prefer to let Dr. King’s words speak to us on this question. I prefer to let Dr. King speak to us across the decades about how we are missing something about our children, about the way too many children become alienated and prone to violence, about the way too many children become caught up in the new Jim Crow. He said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality…. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits…. I still believe 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.”[8] It may be naïve, overly idealistic, unrealistic or just plain impossible to think we can mend the tears in our social fabric. But I also think it’s foolish–utterly foolish–to keep doing what we’re doing and think things will get better on their own.

Hoodies

It’s time for an all-encompassing national change of heart. Imagine a society in which young black and brown-skinned men, walking down the street, perhaps wearing their hoodies, perhaps being loud and boisterous, instill in the hearts of passersby not a feeling of fear, but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which children and young people of a variety of races, from a variety of countries, speaking a variety of languages, all in one school system—like Manchester, like Hartford—instill in the hearts of all taxpayers not a feeling of resentment and anger but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children and young people instill in the hearts of others not the urge to bully, bash, exclude or correct them, but a recognition: these are our children too. Imagine a society in which a child or young person who seems isolated and alienated, moody and withdrawn, perhaps suffering from mental illness, who seems to resist all interventions by parents, school social workers and medical professionals instills in the hearts of still other adults who see the situation unfolding not a desire to turn away, ignore the child, give up on the child, forsake the child, say to themselves ‘this is not my problem,’ but rather a recognition: this is my child too and I will err on the side of reaching out, offering support, being a presence in this child’s life, being an adult they can trust and count on. These children falling though the tears in the social fabric are our children too.

Love our kids

“I wish I could make you / love you / enough / to carry you / instead of rifles.” Friends, in the wake of the Newtown shooting and aware of longstanding and seemingly intractable violence in urban neighborhoods, yes, let’s be involved in efforts to control guns. Let’s be involved in efforts to destigmatize mental illness, to prevent the criminalization of mental illness, and to establish real mental health parity in federal and state law. Let’s be involved in efforts to enhance school climate and school safety. Let’s do all of this. But’s let’s be honest: what’s missing in this nation is profound and unconditional love for all children. The proof is that too many fall into the cracks and gaps and tears. I challenge all of us to discern in the coming weeks and months, as the debate over gun control rages, how we can fill our lives with love for children and young people who are falling—to recognize they are our children too—to help them love themselves enough to carry them instead of rifles, and thereby bring healing, repair and justice to a grieving nation.

love

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Watch the video of “Rifles” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm8SnaH24W0

[2] Rev. Gilmore is pastor of New Song Community Church in Columbus, OH: http://www.newsong4newlife.com/

[3] I’ve drawn these numbers from this December 19, 2012 article at Bloomberg News: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-19/american-gun-deaths-to-exceed-traffic-fatalities-by-2015.html. I also suggest the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov/features/ViolentDeathsAmerica/) and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at (http://www.bradycampaign.org/) as good sources for data on gun violence.

[4] Information on Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness , is at http://www.newjimcrow.com/.

[5] Listen to the entire “Where We Live” roundtable on gun violence at http://cptv.vo.llnwd.net/o2/ypmwebcontent/Catie/Where%20We%20Live%2001-15-2013.mp3

[7] The full text to the remarks from Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama are at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/01/16/transcript-obama-remarks-on-gun-violence/

 

[8] The text to King’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech is at http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-acceptance_en.html.  The video of the speech is at http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1853.

How Do We Know? or Spiritual Discernment in the Information Age

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

[Video Here]

“Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”[1] I offer these words as a way to begin exploring our January ministry theme, discernment. When we discern, we attempt to “see with clarity.”

I love this theme for kickin’ off the new year. It can take us beyond the standard new year’s resolutions which—not always, but often—emerge out of guilt, anxiety, self-nagging: I will lose weight. I will be more open-minded. I will exercise more regularly. I will drink less. I will finally write that novel I’ve been aching to write but keep putting off. I will make an effort to connect more with family and friends. I will unplug. These kinds of resolutions are important. They play a role in our efforts at self-improvement. They help us set personal goals. None of them is easy. But so often we make them in an attempt to fix something we imagine is wrong with us. So often they come from a negative-leaning self-appraisal. And so often that negativity comes from outside of us. That is, it reflects societal values—or what we assume are societal values—what can be quite shallow values—and it has very little to do with what we really want for ourselves. Again, there’s a place for such resolutions in our lives, but I think we can and ought to go further and deeper as the year begins. Exploring discernment as a central feature of our spiritual lives moves us away from making resolutions to fix something about ourselves that may or may not need fixing, and moves us towards discovering what is true for us, what really matters in our lives, and what kinds of living will bring meaning and fulfillment. I like how Kathleen McTigue put it in our opening words: “The new year can be new ground for the seeds of our dreams.”[2]

So, what do I mean by discernment? To begin, I commend to you Jerry Lusa’s essay in our January newsletter (which is also at uuse.org[3]). Jerry writes, “Discernment is about finding the essence of things.” Discernment is about “going past the mere perception of something and making detailed judgments about [it]. It is the ability to judge well.”  He includes a quote from Anne Hill, a California-based neo-pagan writer, publisher, teacher, musician and blogger. She says discernment is “the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again.”[4]

One could argue—and Jerry’s essay hints at this—that we practice discernment all day long in every context imaginable. Much of our discerning is about our daily routines and feels more or less inconsequential. We discern what we shall eat for breakfast. We discern whether we should take an alternate route in heavy traffic. We discern whether we shall read or watch television before we go to bed. Meaningful living and a life of the spirit aren’t necessarily tied to this level of “everyday” discernment, though certainly one could also argue from a Buddhist, or perhaps a Taoist, perspective that the more mindful we are about even the most mundane aspects of our day, the more meaningful our living will be.

So whether we’re seeking clarity about the mundane or the transcendent, the common or the extraordinary, the secular or the sacred, discernment becomes relevant to our spiritual lives—in fact, it becomes an essential and intimate feature of our spiritual lives—when we pursue it as an intentional process—a thought process, a contemplative process, a process of reasoning, reflecting or ruminating; a process of assessing or analyzing; a process of deliberating, of musing, of praying, of feeling, of intuiting—any process that we use intentionally to bring some sense of order and meaning to our lives; to help us distinguish between truth and falsehood; to help us distinguish between what matters most and what matters least; to help us distinguish between what is coming from within and what is coming from without. It’s any process we use intentionally to guide us to our center—or to guide us back to our center if we’ve lost it; to guide us to our own voice—or to guide us back to our own voice if it has grown silent; to guide us to our most authentic self—or back to that self if we’ve somehow grown distant from it; or to guide us to some reality greater than ourselves that we experience as sacred, holy, life-affirming, life-giving, saving, salving, healing, sustaining. In short, spiritual discernment is an intentional process that leads us deeper into ourselves or out beyond ourselves. “Light shine in. Luminate our inward view. Help us to see with clarity.”

And once we arrive there, once we’ve gained clarity, once we have truth, once we have our authentic self or that reality greater than self, then we have the capacity, the grounding, the confidence, the nerve, the will to make good decisions, to judge well, to select wisely, to act with integrity, to move forward on our path, to plant the seeds of our dreams.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not easy. I think what I’m describing as discernment is very difficult. Even with great intentionality, great focus, great discipline, the line between truth and falsehood is not always clear. The line between what matters most and what matters least is not always clear. Our most authentic self is not always clear. And certainly the nature of some life-giving, sustaining reality greater than ourselves is not always clear. Light shines in but doesn’t always luminate.

This week I’ve been imagining our capacity for discernment as a continuum. On one end of the continuum discernment begins, and there are reasons it is difficult to begin. On the other end … it ends. Discernment meets its limit—we can only gain so much clarity. I want to say a few words about each end of the continuum.

At the beginning we have a situation about which we need clarity. We have raw data, information, thoughts, sensations, joys and sorrows, problems to solve, dilemmas to manage, decisions to make, conflicts to resolve. Discernment begins as we pause, as we lean back, as we enter into that intentional process of thinking, contemplating, reflecting, musing or praying in order to gain clarity about the situation. And, keep in mind, we’re not simply thinking about the situation. We’re thinking beneath the situation; we’re looking for our truth in relation to it, our sense of what matters, our voice, our center, and at times we’re looking for our relationship to a life-giving, life-affirming reality beyond ourselves. But note: the act of pausing to think about a situation, let alone beneath a situation, is difficult in its own right. I’m pretty sure it’s not a natural human tendency. It’s a skill we develop. It takes practice. How often do we admonish our children and grandchildren to “think before you act?” How many times as children did we hear that advice? And ignore it? Pausing, leaning back, taking a breath—for the sake of discernment—is not a natural human tendency.

But there’s more to the difficulty in this information age. The world has changed remarkably in the last decade. When we lean back from a situation today, we are more and more likely to find ourselves leaning into a mighty river of information. When we lean back from a situation today, we are less and less able to pause and  reflect on a situation because the space—mental or otherwise—in which we had hoped to do our reflecting is filling up with more and more information. We are firmly ensconced in the information age. Things move and change so quickly that whenever we pause to discern, we risk falling behind—at least that’s how it feels, and the feeling is potent.

And then one of our devices beeps. Our pop-tune ring-tones interrupt. Even with our phones on ‘vibrate,’ it’s still an interruption. We have to see who’s calling, or texting; who’s pushing what new message.

And of course, sometimes we mean to pause for discernment, but instead we check out our Facebook page. Ohh, my friend (who is not an actual friend) posted an article with an interesting headline at Huffington Post. I’ll check it out. Hmm. Not so interesting, but there’s another author I know. They link to her blog. I’ll check it out. Hmm. This is funny. And wise. Might work for a sermon. Think I’ll tweet it. Oh, a colleague just tweeted the link to a sermon video. I’ll check it out. Uh, this is great, but I don’t have time to watch the whole thing. Wait, Colbert said what? I have to check it out. Hilarious. Ooh, a new video from one of my favorite bands. Gotta check it out. Very cool. I have to share this. Quick, back to Facebook. And so it goes.

Within the span of a decade the number of ways for people to communicate, connect, network, conduct business, report, offer opinion, advertise, sell, barter, share ideas, books, music, movies and inventions has exploded—perhaps not beyond measure but certainly beyond our wildest Y2K imaginings. Information now comes at us constantly. Constantly. We live in a message-saturated society with the potential for hundreds, if not thousands of voices to enter our consciousness every day from all corners. I suspect we’ve all developed unconscious filters to help us ignore most of it; but even still, the flow of information is staggering.

Don’t misconstrue my intent. I am not complaining. I’m not lamenting. I’m not pining away for some lost pre-internet golden age where there were three corporate TV networks, rotary phones, and newspapers printed on actual paper. (Remember Newsweek?) I’m not interested in going back. I’m not one of those clergy who talks about how much we’ve lost in this information age—how terrible it is that we interact as much online as we do in person, how we’ve lost some bit of our soul because of it. We have lost something. No question. But I feel strongly that as long as we can manage ourselves rather than the information managing us, then we’ve gained far more than we’ve lost. I like all the new tools. I’m not an early adopter, but I adopt. I feel very much at home working with email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, I-tunes, and I’m moving towards e-books. I like figuring out how to use the tools to best express and promote our liberal religious message. But I’m also aware that in an information-soaked, data-infused, message-saturated, device-permeated culture, spiritual discernment becomes all the more difficult: discerning the line between truth and fiction, discerning what matters most, discerning one’s voice, discerning one’s authentic self becomes all the more difficult because there is so much information. How do we know which information is accurate? How do we know which information is relevant? How do we know which information will guide us in a healthy, productive, life-giving direction? Where on earth is clarity?

The answer, at least for me this morning, strangely, lies at the other end of the continuum where our capacity for discernment ends. Earlier I read Tracey Smith’s poem “It and Co.” For me this poem as a provocative yet oddly comforting statement about the limits of our capacity to discern. I take “It” to be a reality larger than ourselves—reality in an ultimate sense—God, Goddess, Gaia, the earth, the universe, the cosmos. The “Co.”—the company—is us, humans. We are curious.  We are curious about It. We are trying—we’ve been trying for millennia—to discern the essence of It, but the light we shine never reaches far enough. We never gain clarity. “Is It us,” Smith asks, “or what contains us?” And then: “It is elegant / But coy. It avoids the blunt ends / Of our fingers as we point. We / Have gone looking for It everywhere: / In Bibles and bandwidth, / …. Still It resists the matter of false vs. real …. / It is like some novels: / Vast and unreadable.”[5]

She’s got us out at the far reaches of the universe, the limits of our perception, the end of the continuum. She’s got us at the door to the Holy of Holies, but we can’t peer in. She’s got us at the entrance to the mountaintop cave, but we can’t peer out. In traditional religious language, we can’t gaze upon the face of God. There’s no more clarity to gain no matter how much light we shine in. This ultimate reality is “vast and unreadable.” It “avoids the blunt end of our fingers as we point.” It rests behind an unpiercable veil. It is, in the end, utterly mysterious. And knowing this is important. Because here is a space that will never fill up with information.

Here we can pause, lean back, breathe. And while we can’t name what we’re leaning on, here we also aren’t caught in a river of constant data. Here we aren’t drowning in a sea of new facts and opinions. Here we can discern. We can’t discern It with a capital I. But we can move beyond the beginning of the continuum where information is flowing relentlessly. We can look closely at the situations of our lives. We can gain clarity. We can’t discern ultimate reality, but in the space it provides we can certainly discern our truth, our own voice, our most authentic self, and the things that matter beyond ourselves.

And we don’t have to go to the far reaches of the universe to enter this space.  There are hints of this everywhere: in the dark of winter; in the cry of a newborn baby; at the mountain peak; in the lover’s embrace; in the watery depths; in the nonviolent resistor’s courage; in crashing waves and tidal pools; in the wild abandon of children in summer (acting before they think); in those old stone fences running through New England woods; in the farmer rising before dawn; in crocuses breaking through the still frozen March ground; in elders sharing their stories and their wisdom by the light of a blazing fire. In all of it some mystery abides just below the surface constantly calling to us, constantly beckoning—some vast and unreadable essence, some beautiful and compelling but obscure essence, some take-your-breath-away, put-goose-bumps-on-your-fore-arms, send-chills-up-and-down-your-spine essence, some holy hallelujah cry just below the surface. And yes, the second we try to name it, the second we point our blunt fingers at it, the second we shine too bright a light, it slips away. But it keeps calling.

Some will find this confounding. I don’t. I find it comforting. There is something deeply comforting for me in the constant presence of a mystery constantly calling out to us, constantly presenting itself to us, constantly inviting us to seek, to search, to discern, even if it remains elusive. Its presence makes us curious. Mystery makes us curious. One of the most central and endearing human qualities is curiosity. If the presence of a vast and unreadable mystery inspires curiosity in us, then it invites us to be human. It invites us to discern. It invites us to plant the seeds of our dreams. Consider this: the absence of mystery doesn’t offer such invitations. Curiosity is a lot more challenging in the absence of mystery. I prefer the mystery. I know it may never be revealed, but there’s a lot we can clarify along the way. Thus, may we continue to seek. May we continue to discern.

Amen and blessed be. And Happy New Year!



[1] Kimball, Richard S., “Winds Be Still,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) # 83.

[2] McTigue, Kathleen, “New Year’s Day,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #544.

[3] Navigate to http://uuse.org/topics/monthly-ministry-theme/ and scroll down to “January Ministry Theme: Discernment” (posted 12/31/2012).

[4] Anne Hill, The Baby and the Bathwater (Bodega Bay, CA: Serpentine Music, 2012).

[5] Smith, Tracy K., “It  & Co.”  Life on Mars (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011) p. 17.

P.E.A.C.E.

P is For (Chris Sims)

Peace can enhance a performance. Endurance peacefully is enormous. Eradicating indifference, this is significant.

We pursue the kindred with a purpose. Peace is incredible. Indicating that we can stop hating.

Hope in peace is definitely possible. Predicting bright futures, we connect in person, on cell phones, through the connections on our computers.

Connecting, six degrees of separation, we imagine a most peaceful nation. Liberation. A continuation.

Visualizing a world yet to come. Peace is the sun. We sit on Sundays hoping for a peaceful transformation.

P makes a sound. We pronounce prophetically the “peace language.” Which equates love, life, positive energy, divinity. Peace is who I am. Peace is what I was born to be.

We take peace to the people, peace to the streets, peace to the Occupy movement, peace as improvement to politics gone bad. Peace is needed now, not to be considered something we used to have.

Worldwide: marches, gatherings, demonstrations, war torn nations, in soup lines, empty factories and assembly lines, we all seek peace.

 

E is for Energy (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Energy is necessary for peace. Energy unleashed and available for the work of hands holding hands, hands holding hammers for pounding nails, hands holding sandbags before storms, hands holding blankets around homeless children, women, men.

Hands holding signs against war, holding signs against greed, holding signs against hate, holding signs for peace, for fairness, for justice, for loving who you love, for being who you are.

Hands holding hands, keeping us together, connected, one, whole, unified.

Energy is necessary for the making of peace because so much energy is harnessed for the making of war. So many hands hold in place systems that build the weapons of war: the same systems that can’t seem to house every person, can’t seem to feed every person, can’t seem to give health care to every person. The same systems that put a bullet in every gang-banger’s gun, that launch a drone strike over every village in Waziristan, that build a new Jim Crow prison cell for one out of every three black and brown men.

This is no time for entropy, for running down to disorder.

This is a time for organizing our energy for the waging of peace, organizing our hearts for the collective, common yearning for peace, organizing our voices for the collective common speaking of peace, organizing our melodies for the collective, common singing of peace, organizing our bodies for the collective, common dancing of peace, organizing our lives for collective, common peaceful living.

Peace is gonna take energy, organized energy.

 

A is for Ascension (Chris Sims)

A is for us ascension, not for us depending on politicians to pull us out of poverty and homelessness. There is no peace in not having any progress.

We can ascend if only we begin to take another look at being our brothers and sisters  keeper. At “we are the change we’ve been waiting for.” Taking a collective attitude towards allowing ourselves to recognize our own leadership.

Peaceful people asking the right questions of our leaders, our representatives, our school districts, our bosses. The losses have cost us too much.

What impoverished woman knows peace? What homeless man sees peace? What unequally educated child experiences peace?

We can acquire this ascension. We can remain determined. We can create our own jobs. Self-sufficiency in a time where talk is too much. We need real answers.

All we have is us. All we need is us.

Conversations, collectives, calls for action.

We will rise. We will elevate. We will accomplish a better way by being in unison and peace amongst one another.

 

C is for Contemplation (Rev. Josh Pawelek)

Yes we will accomplish a better way.

We each have a role to play in making peace, crafting peace, waging peace, sustaining peace.

What is my role? What is your role?

Ah. . . . Good question. Pause. Wait a moment. Wait another moment. Breathe. It’s OK. Take time for contemplation. Don’t skip this part. The movement won’t move that quickly, won’t leave you behind, won’t leave us behind. Building a lasting peace takes time—takes time after time after time.

Take time for contemplation, because starting out, we must be centered.

Starting out, we must be grounded.

Starting out, we must be mindful.

Starting out, we must be peaceful inside.

Starting out we must know, trust, believe in our minds, hearts, bones, spirits:

All life is sacred.

All life is holy.

All life is music, is magic, is mystery.

All life matters.

Knowing, trusting, believing this in our minds, hearts, bones, spirits will keep us steady,

keep us focused,

keep us resilient,

keep us strong,

keep us gentle,

keep us creative,

keep us courageous

keep us keeping our siblings.

Take time for contemplation. Don’t skip this part. Only peaceful people build peaceful neighborhoods, peaceful communities, peaceful cities, peaceful nations, a peaceful world.

Take time for contemplation.

 

E is For…  (Chris Sims)

Elevation; equality; Echoes of ancestors and freedom fighters Who once fought for peace. Who could see the coming nations living in a land of peace.

E is for elegance: the elegance of children smiling, because they know peace and can teach us adults more about peace.

E is for education: we must educate one another about calm, serenity, collective behavior that creates peace.

Positive. Energy. Always. Creates. Elevation.

We need that in this leading nation. This struggling nation.

Peace is patience. Peace is power. Let peace be the word of the hour. The word of the hour.

May all of the children whisper peace in their sleep. May all of the women sing about peace. May all of the men gather in peace as we live in multitudes and moments of community.

Imagine Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, John Lennon’s, and Ghandi’s peace existing today.

May we have peace.

May we seek peace.

E is for an eternal peace.

Peace for eternity.

Miracles Abound

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“The leaf unfurling in the April air, the newborn child, the loving parents’ care, these constant, common miracles we share. Alleluia!”[1] Words from Don Cohen which he wrote in 1980 for the ordination of his wife, the Rev. Helen Lutton Cohen. They remind us that the everyday, mundane world——the leaf unfurling, the newborn child—the world all around us, the world at our finger tips is, if we’re paying attention, astoundingly beautiful; is awe-inspiring; is—though we so often take it for granted—miraculous. The everyday, mundane world is filled with constant, common miracles. As Jenn sang, in the words of rock star Sarah McLachlan, “It’s not unusual / When everything is beautiful / It’s just another ordinary miracle today / The sky knows when it’s time to snow / Don’t need to teach a seed to grow / It’s just another ordinary miracle today.”[2] Check out “Ordinary Miracles” here. I also hear echoes of that Peter Mayer song, “Holy Now,” which we hear in worship from time to time. Mayer sings about feeling sad as a child that the Biblical miracles he learned about in Sunday School don’t happen anymore, but then realizing as an adult that everything’s a miracle.[3] Check out “Holy Now” here.

Our ministry theme for August is miracles. We picked this theme knowing it’s the time of year when we offer the least amount of programming and we probably wouldn’t spend all that much time formally exploring what we mean by miracles; but knowing also that summer, like all seasons, offers its fair share of everyday miracles. I want to speak about the power—or at least the potential power—in our lives of everyday miracles. I’m making a distinction between everyday miracles and the traditional religious definition of a miracle as some extraordinary, phenomenal, even magical event attributed to divine intervention. This ought to be a familiar distinction to many of you. I’m drawing on the Humanist tradition within Unitarian Universalism, a tradition that places strong emphasis on the role of reason in religion and does not answer the questions of life’s mysteries with otherworldly, supernatural answers. Miracles of the extraordinary sort do not figure prominently in Religious Humanism. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s version
of the New Testament in which he cut out all the supernatural elements including the miracles. But even without a belief system that includes extraordinary, divinely inspired miracles, one can still encounter the everyday world as miraculous.

Before the hymn I read a brief passage from Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, in which the futuristic Catholic priest, Quim, acknowledges to his futuristic scientist brother, Miro (who is looking for a healing miracle) that some supposed miracles “might have been hysterical. Some might have been a placebo effect. Some purported healings might have been spontaneous remissions or natural recoveries.”[4] Quim and Miro both make the distinction: some things are miracles in the traditional sense and, if they aren’t miracles, then they’re something else: a placebo effect, natural healing, etc. But I think the body’s capacity to heal itself—sometimes with the help of this-worldly, medical intervention—is miraculous, and I put it in that category of everyday, ordinary miracles.

Earlier we heard two summer meditations from the Rev. Lynn Ungar. They focused our attention on the summer harvest. Blackberries, “summer’s last sweetness,”[5] and watermelon: “How could you be ashamed at the tug of desire?” she asks. “The world has opened itself to you season after season. What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?”[6] Although Rev. Ungar doesn’t use the word miracle, for me she’s pointing at what it means to witness or experience a miracle. In short, miracles beckon to us. They urge us down pathways for the deepening of our spiritual lives. “What is summer’s sweetness but an invitation to respond?” Miracles are invitations into greater faith, greater hope, greater love.

As a way of beginning to illustrate this, consider that in the Christian New Testament, in the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, Jesus performs miracles (the ones Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe.) Jesus cures the sick, heals the lame, resurrects the dead, exorcises demons, transforms water into wine and feeds  thousands with a few loaves and fish. Put aside the question of whether these miracles actually happened. Instead, ask yourself: why would the writers of these books include the miracle stories in their narratives? While we can’t know for sure what the writers intended more than 1900 years ago, one thing of which we can be fairly certain is that each of them was writing to a specific audience and they wanted to help that audience deepen its faith which, in this case, was the emerging Christian faith that Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. The writers included miracle stories in their books to help convince their audiences that Jesus was the person they said he was. The miracles lent an air of credibility and authority to their claims. The miracles helped them persuade people to join their budding movement. Certainly today there is a debate even among Christians about whether or not these miracles really happened, but that’s irrelevant here. I’m trying to tease out an important assumption about miracles. That is, if you believe a miracle of any sort has happened, that belief can strengthen and deepen your faith, hope and love. It beckons you down the path of spiritual growth. If a person sincerely believes Jesus performed miracles—and many do—that belief is likely to draw them more deeply into their Christian faith.

So what about blackberries and watermelons in the waning days of August? What about those everyday miracles? How do they beckon? How do they invite us to deepen our spiritual lives? Do they point us towards some reality or truth worthy of our faith? Mason, Max and I have been picking peaches since late July at Scott’s Orchard around the corner from us in Glastonbury. We all get so excited to pick fruit for the week; the orange-red-yellow skin so vivid, the juice so sweet. Something is beckoning. And now the apples are starting to come. Actually, the Paula Reds are almost done, but the Ginger Golds and Mcintoshes are ready for picking. What about these constant, common miracles of late summer? What invitation do they offer? If we’re going to use the language of everyday miracles—and I think we should—if we’re going to accept the idea that miracles abound in the ordinary, mundane world, then we ought to have real responses to these questions. Otherwise, this idea that “everything’s a miracle” becomes just a sweet-sounding, liberal religious cliché.  I want to know: can one’s experience of the miraculousness of the ordinary day lead to a life of greater faith, hope and love?

I believe it can, but following that lead requires a certain discipline on our part. Consider this question: What is typically on your mind and in your heart when you wake up in the morning? Does it have anything to do with how miraculous the world is? I’ll tell you what’s on my mind and in my heart upon waking these days. First and foremost, my back is sore because I threw it out this summer while walking around in sandals too much of the time, sleeping in a few too many lousy motel beds, and tossing my kids into pools and
the ocean a few too many times. So, the first thing I think when I wake up is “I need to take some ibuprofen, heat my back and stretch.” Then, like clockwork virtually every morning, my boys, who’ve gone downstairs to watch TV, start fighting. I think it means they’re hungry. But I’m not ready to get up and deal with my back pain. So I reach my leg down and stomp on the floor, which is right above the television, which is my way of saying “be quiet, stop fighting,” which unfortunately makes my back hurt even more; and while it makes the fighting stop, the ceasefire only lasts about 90 seconds, during which time it inevitably occurs to me that my vacation and study leave are almost over, that Stephany’s vacation is over—she goes back to teaching tomorrow—that the boys will go back to school in a few days—they start Wednesday—and that while I’m looking forward to getting back into our regular routine, it always brings with it a certain amount of stress and anxiety—sometimes an enormous amount of stress and anxiety.

And then, still in midst of that 90 second ceasefire, I might start thinking about the drought plaguing most of the country that hasn’t yet begun to impact the cost of food, but most likely will this fall; or the fires out west which are setting all sorts of records for size, duration & destruction; or the surge of West Nile Virus and other tropical diseases in the United States; all of which brings up my fear that this is just the beginning of the new “weather normal” brought on by global climate change. Then, still in that blessed 90 second ceasefire, I remember the ugliness of the current political campaign season, a result—at least in this election cycle—of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission which prevents the government from restricting the political expenditures of corporations and unions and which therefore has brought to the center of our political consciousness (if we’re paying attention) the strange assumption—which admittedly has a long history in the United States—that corporations are people; compounded in my mind this week by the latest right wing discourse on the difference between legitimate (I’m sorry, I mean forcible) rape and—I don’t know, is there some other kind?—and whether women’s bodies possess some magical ability to prevent pregnancy during rape; and yes, though it may be a political slogan, there is in my view a war against women happening in this nation, just as there is in my view a war against poor people happening in this nation. We’ve confirmed that corporations are people but, at least in the minds of some, women and the poor don’t quite merit that status. 90 seconds have passed and the boys are fighting again. Where’s my ibuprofen? Where’s my heating pad? Where’s my science fiction novel? I need to escape! By the way, if you’re at all familiar with Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, the third in his Ender Wiggin series, then you know it really is no escape from any of this. Suffice it to say, the last thing on my mind and in my heart when I wake up these days is the revelation that everything’s a miracle. The sun breaking through the trees beckons; birds singing their morning songs urge; fresh peaches from trees in our neighborhood sitting on the cutting board in our kitchen awaiting breakfast offer a profound invitation. Everyday miracles abound, but I’m not quite there.

I don’t think I’m alone in this kind of experience. I don’t think I’m alone in forgetting the abundance of miracles all around, in failing to hold that sense of the miraculous at the center of my heart and mind such that it’s there when I wake up in the morning. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds, when I do catch a glimpse of the abundance of everyday miracles—when I become open to how beautiful, incredible, stunning, and miraculous the world is—it’s still difficult to sustain that awareness beyond a few precious, peaceful moments.

I think that difficulty is normal for most people at different points in life. From time to time we get caught up in and focus on the things that bring stress into our lives—raising children, finances, work, retirement, illness, aging, strained relationships, concerns about our adult children, caring for aging parents, existential fears; what does the future hold?—the list goes on.  It’s easy to start feeling trapped by these things; it’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed by these things; it’s easy to start rehearsing the same details, the same scripts, the same dilemmas over and over again. I suspect many of us are familiar with that kind of rut. Being in it can sap our energy and our sense of hope for the future. It can make us wonder, is there anything worthy of my faith? There was a time when I would encounter people spinning around in these kinds of ruts and think to myself, that’s not me, I’m resilient, I can handle that sort of thing, but I don’t have that reaction anymore. I don’t always feel so confident and competent. Maybe it has to do with being a father, or having a sore back. Whatever it is, I accept it and I suspect it’s normal. I suspect it’s part of what it means to mature more fully into adulthood, to start having a sense of one’s limitations. So be it. But when you add to this a palpable layer of anxiety and stress in the larger culture stemming, in my view, from ongoing economic uncertainty, from a growing environmental challenges, from frustration with our political system, from a perceived increase in violence in the larger society, from a general sense of scarcity, it doesn’t surprise me when I notice I’m not waking up to the miraculousness of the world. I’m not surprised at all when people tell me it’s hard to focus on the everyday miracles. “I’m glad those peaches taste so sweet Rev., but I’m troubled today and I may need a little more in order to get through it.”

Yes. Absolutely. But sometimes an everyday miracle is precisely what we need. This is why I used the word discipline earlier. In the midst of troubled thoughts and feelings—whatever their source may be—we need some discipline, some practice, some way of training our awareness on the beauty of the earth, on the gift of life, on the astounding, miraculous fact of our existence. Stress, anxiety, emotional ruts, racing, worrying minds, existential concerns, deep-seeded fears—all these things have their roots in many places—but they have in common a negative spiritual impact. That is, at their worst they sap our spirit. They sap our energy. They undercut our sense of wholeness. They can make us feel unwell in our bodies. They can make us feel small, incomplete and unworthy. They prevent us from recognizing our connections to a reality and a power larger than ourselves. They weaken our faith. They prey on our hopefulness. They even attack our capacity to love. In the midst of it we easily forget that all around us, everyday miracles abound. All around us are invitations to encounter the world differently. All around us, in the words of Lynn Ungar, are reminders that the world opens itself to us, season after season, and we are invited to respond.[7] “Reach gently,” says Ungar, “but reach.”[8] And when she says “reach,” I take it to mean “live.” Live the life you feel called to live, not the life your fears and anxieties dictate. Live boldly, live creatively, live faithfully, live with love at the center of your heart. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our fears but with the beauty of the earth. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our anxieties, but with our hopes. In living in response to everyday miracles we align ourselves not with our small, self-centered, scarcity-oriented selves but with the truth of  our connection to a reality and a power larger than ourselves, pointing us always towards lives of openness, caring, generosity, grace and dignity.

I am at heart a hopeful, faithful, loving person, who at times does not feel very hopeful, faithful or loving. But I’ve learned that if I can discipline myself to stay aware of the everyday miracles, if I can sustain a practice of noticing, observing, welcoming, naming, embracing and responding to everyday miracles, if I can wake up in the morning with miracles in my mind and on my heart, I can remain a hopeful person, a person of deepening faith, a person capable of great love. I trust you can too. Miracles abound. May we respond!

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Cohen, Don, “The Leaf Unfurling,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #7.

[2] For music with lyrics for Sarah McLachlan’s “Ordinary Miracle,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8rh_48pLqA.

[3] For music with lyrics to Peter Mayer’s “Holy Now,” see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiypaURysz4.

[4] Card, Orson Scott, Xenocide (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1991) p. 134.

[5] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 46.

[6] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[7] Ungar, Lynn, “Watermelon,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 49.

[8] Ungar, Lynn, “Picking Blackberries,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) p. 47.

 

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

Last month the rock band Garbage released its most recent album entitled “Not Your Kind of People.”[1] The lyrics to the title track seem so relevant to what I want to say this morning that I’ve decided to share them with you as a starting place:

We are not your kind of people / You seem kind of phoney / everything’s a lie  / We are not your kind of people  / Something in your makeup / don’t see eye to eye / We are not your kind of people / Don’t want to be like you ever in our lives. . . . We are not your kind of people / Speak a different language / We see through your lies  / We are not your kind of people / Won’t be cast as demons / creatures you despise.[2]

I don’t know if the band intends to convey a specific meaning with these lyrics or if they are describing a specific situation. It isn’t clear. I assume at some level they want listeners to find their own meaning and apply it to their own situation. Although the music is gentle (especially for Garbage) the lyrics convey a strong—even harsh—sentiment. We are not your kind of people conveys a feeling of disconnection, separation, alienation—a feeling, even, of brokenness in the human family. It’s akin to the feeling—a mixed feeling to be sure—that arose in me when I watched the film, “No Greater Love,” a 2009 Lionsgate and Thomas Nelson film. (Thomas Nelson is the world’s largest Christian book publisher and is Lionsgate’s exclusive distributor to the Christian entertainment markets.)[3] I don’t normally watch films like this. Alan and Kathy Ayers suggested it to me as background for this sermon which they purchased at last year’s goods and services auction. Alan and Kathy wouldn’t normally watch a film like this either. They watched it thinking it was something else.

Here’s the story-line: in a haze of alcohol and drug-use a young woman, Heather, walks out on her marriage and new-born baby due to her depression and disappears.  Ten years later her “ex” husband, Jeff (who she’d known since childhood), accidentally runs into her again when he sends his son to a summer Bible camp where she is working. They start to get to know each other again.  In turns out that during those ten years of separation Heather has become an evangelical Christian. She’s been saved in the traditional sense. Jeff, who is not religious in any sense, realizes he is still in love with Heather and calls off his engagement to another woman. But Heather’s minister, Chris, tells Jeff they can’t be together because he is a non-believer. (That’s when the not your kind of people feeling started rising in me.) This upsets Jeff; but then he reveals that he never actually executed divorce papers—he and Heather are still legally married. Now Pastor Chris tells them they have to stay together based on their church’s interpretation of Biblical law: under any circumstances marriage is better than divorce.  (We can assume they wouldn’t apply this standard to same-sex marriage, or in the event one of the partners underwent sexual reassignment surgery—that would be a very different movie entirely!) Heather is concerned that her unbelieving husband won’t allow her to practice her Christian faith. Jeff is concerned that Heather is now only staying in the marriage because the Bible and her pastor demand it.

I suspect most people can watch this film and, no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they profess, get caught up in its romantic plot, and really root for Jeff and Heather to be in love and to be together. I certainly wanted a happy ending. What Alan and Kathy are reacting to, at least on the surface, if I understand what they’ve said, is the role of the pastor and church law and what appears to be Heather’s inability to think for herself beyond trying to fit herself into the framework her church and the Bible demand. And right there is the border between conservative religious people and liberal religious people. There are many ways to describe this border, but in this case the conservative religious person looks to some external authority—the Bible, the Ten Commandments, church law, the minister, a transcendent God—and the liberal religious person looks to some internal authority—conscience, reason, personal experience, “the still small voice in me”[4] as we just sang, “that place inside where we know our truth,” an imminent God, an inner sense of the divine. In this case the conservative religious person assumes the situation is black and white, that a definitive, correct answer exists, and can be found through a careful reading of scripture and church law—and the minister is the expert in these matters, or at least should be. The liberal religious person encounters a whole lot of gray and will search through that gray looking not for the “right” answer but for what is hopefully the “best” answer given all the nuances of the situation. The liberal minister’s job is to help the individual discern their best answer.

While the differences are more complex than I’ve just described them—some liberal religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as conservative; some conservative religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as liberal—they are very real.  Because of them, liberal religious people typically experience conservative religious people as unthinking and irrational. Conservative religious people typically experience liberal religious people as not actually religious, as non-believers, postmodern, relativistic, rudderless, etc. There’s a border here. (Remember: borders is our ministry theme for June.) It cuts through countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and families. From the perspective on either side of that border it is quite possible to feel we are not your kind of people.

Kathy and Alan asked me to preach on how, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, we can best relate to people like Heather and her minister when we encounter them.  How can we relate to people who live on the other side of this border from us? How can we respect beliefs that at times seem illogical or irrational to us?  How do we accept people who hold those beliefs? How can we resist the temptation to judge?  Even in suggesting these kinds of questions, Kathy said she felt she was coming across as arrogant—but said it seemed like the same kind of arrogance she feels conservative religious people direct at her liberal religious identity.  So that’s the question: how do we relate across the religious border?

I’m pretty sure the capacity to relate across religious borders—and across many of the borders that divide people from people—doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes practice. It requires patience. We need to work at it. And I think we acquire it through a developmental process. That is, we develop the capacity to relate well across religious borders as we move beyond an initial sense of excitement about our own faith, an initial sense of pride in our own faith, an initial sense of feeling special because of our own faith to a deeper place of humility, a recognition that our faith is one of many, that there is room within a family, a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, a town, a city, a state, a nation, a planet for many faiths. None is set above. None is set below. None is set apart as special. It’s a movement from pride to humility.

The film “No Greater Love” does not reach that humble place and that’s not why it was made. The proof is in the title. There’s the romantic meaning, which has to do with how Jeff and Heather feel about each other. And then there’s the Biblical meaning. I read to you the Bible verse that contains this phrase, John 15:13, “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the film nobody lays down their life for their friends, not even remotely.  So, it seems like a bad title. But if you read the next few verses it becomes clear why this title might make sense. Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”[5] In my experience this is one of those Bible passages often used to justify an attitude of Christian exceptionalism. Not always, but often. Jesus says: “I chose you.” I didn’t choose everyone. I chose you. This is not universalism. This is exceptionalism.  And all through the film, although the characters don’t use the language of chosen-ness, they say it in many ways: We’re different. We’re special. There’s something about us that sets us apart from other people. Can’t you see? And Jeff, the unbeliever, who wants to be with the believing Heather, begins to see this difference; he sees that Heather’s faith has helped her resolve the problems that led her to leave him in the first place, and he admires it. He says, essentially, “I want what you have.”

There’s nothing wrong with a movie studio making a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with people being excited about their faith, proud of their faith, even feeling special because of their faith. But let’s be clear: humility is a sign of a mature faith, and this is not humility. This film sets Christians—and a certain kind of Christian at that—apart and above other people. Despite its pleasant, romantic vibe, it contributes to a strengthening of the religious border by proclaiming we are not your kind of people. And that’s why liberal religious people, including liberal Christians, might react negatively.

To emphasize this last point, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious exceptionalism is somehow unique to religious conservatives. We religious liberals have our own version of it. It’s perhaps more subtle than the religious conservative version, because the language we typically use to describe our liberal faith expresses an openness to other religions, an embrace of religious pluralism. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots inform us all are chosen, all are welcome, all matter, all possess inherent worth and dignity regardless of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they live. This is beautiful. It’s exciting. It fills me with pride. It makes me feel special. But I am also aware the line between humility is thin. If I’m not vigilant I can very easily fall into that place of assuming my faith is the more enlightened faith. My faith sets me apart. My faith is forged in the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind, not a set of ancient books that tell an exaggerated if not false history of the ancient Near East and promote a patriarchal culture whose values run completely counter to modern, democratic principles. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred, not from a church doctrine designed to control the people, to wage a war on women, to make sexual minorities invisible by preventing them from achieving full legal status, or to inspire holy war against perceived infidels. Can you hear it? I believe the sentences I’ve just uttered are true; they express who I am; they express my social, political and spiritual commitments. But let’s be honest: they can also be heard as an expression of liberal religious exceptionalism.

This is primarily because of the words I chose to use. I emphasized who I am not as much as who I am. I said “not in a set of ancient books” and then spoke about those ancient books in a condescending way. I said “not from a church doctrine,” and then implied that church doctrine is responsible for a whole host of social evils. I built my faith up while tearing the faith of others down. It’s divisive language, it’s fighting language, it’s us vs. them language, its exceptionalist language. It’s not empty rhetoric, but it is rhetoric all the same. It’s easy. I’m pretty good at it. There’s something satisfying about it. But it’s not humble. And it’s not effective if the goal is to relate well across the border.

Meeting the challenge of relating well across the religious border does not require us to change our liberal religious values. It does not require us to moderate our excitement about our liberal faith tradition, or our pride in it, or the way it might make us feel special and grounded and whole. The first step towards spiritual humility at the border is speaking our truth without denigrating others. My faith emerges from the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind. It is consistent with modern democratic principles: freedom, liberty, human rights. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred. It leads me to support reproductive rights for women and families, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It leads me to reject war and other forms of violence as methods for resolving conflict. It’s the same statement, but it doesn’t intentionally create an us and a them. It says who I am without criticizing who I am not.

But even more important than this is our capacity to bring curiosity to the border; to bring a genuine desire to learn about people who live across the border and to become well-versed in the religious ways of the world. Curiosity does not necessarily change who we are, but it does challenge us to clarify and deepen who we are. How different it would have been—and how much more authentic—if the character of Jeff has said, “Wow, Heather really believes the Bible is true. She strives to conduct her life in response to it. Well, what is true for me? Where do my truths come from? To what truth does my life respond?” Learning another’s faith enables us to become more of who we are, not less. Learning another’s faith challenges us to clarify and deepen our own faith; it challenges us to become more mature in our faith; and it calls us to humility as we approach the borders of our lives.

I suspect it is true there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends or one’s family. But in an age when we are so prone to exceptionalism, often without even realizing it; in an age when we are so divided, especially by religion; in an age when our borders are places of tension and conflict, cheap rhetoric, and deep feelings of  “not your kind of people,” I say it is also a sign of our desire to be more loving, more compassionate, more connected, more related, more peaceful when we approach the borders of our lives with humility, as curious searchers, and as people with strong opinions who may nevertheless be able to find common ground with those who believe differently. It may not be the greatest love, but it is an essential love for our time.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] For more information on Garbage and “Not Your Kind of People, “ explore:  http://garbage.com/ and  http://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Kind-People-Deluxe/dp/B007H9B8FS.

[2] Check out the song, “Not Your Kind of People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEClCAFjYHg.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Blessed Spirit of My Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993 # 86.

[5] John 15: 13-16.