Food Revolution

Rev. Josh Pawelek

This sermon is about food and diet. That’s not exactly a trigger warning, but the 15 people who purchased this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction and asked me to preach on the rationale for veganism—or plant-based diets—probably should have warned me. I’ve never encountered more anticipation and anxiety about a sermon. I’ve never received as many suggestions for reading from people within and beyond this congregation who have strong opinions about veganism (for and against), vegetarianism, what comprises a truly healthy diet, eating disorders, body chemistry, blood type, DNA, what hunter-gatherers supposedly ate, Big Agriculture, Big Manure, the meat and dairy industries, factory farming, food processing, sugar, salt, racism, classism, poverty, hunger, food deserts, land rights, water rights, water scarcity, animal rights, animal cruelty, species extinction, antibiotics, declining biodiversity, ocean dead zones, environmental justice, climate change, global warming, Oprah and church pot lucks! I’ve also never received as many recipes or invitations to lunch in advance of a sermon. This topic doesn’t just touch a nerve. It is explosive.         

I intend to make a case for plant-based diets—that is my assignment. However, I’m not asking anyone to change their diet. There’s no hard sell. Changing diet is one of the hardest things we do. It may lead to health or compromise health. It may bring feelings of confidence and self-worth or guilt and shame. It is not just a physical experience, but a deeply emotional and spiritual experience. My hope for this sermon is that those of you who currently eat meat but who would like to explore a vegan or vegetarian diet will be inspired to join together and support each other in that exploration.

In a worship service last January I spoke about deforestation as a major driver of climate change—right up there with burning fossil fuels. However, earlier that weekend, a group of you had watched the documentary Cowspiracy,[1] which argues that the leading driver of climate change is not the fossil fuel industry, but animal agriculture. When you consider the level of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere by the approximately 70 billion animals on the planet whose only purpose is to be eaten—or for their eggs and milk products to be eaten—by human beings—it far outweighs emissions from fossil fuels. When I mentioned fossil fuels last January, a number of people spoke up, saying animal agriculture is a bigger problem. People don’t cut down rainforests to drill for oil. They do it largely, though not exclusively, for animal agriculture. More than 90% of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is for animal agriculture.

This sounds strange because the global story about climate change focuses on fossil fuels. We ‘get it’ that the gas in our cars is problematic. We ‘get it’ that burning coal, oil and gas for energy is problematic. But we don’t look at steak, pork, chicken, eggs or cheese on our plate and think “global warming.” Cowspiracy argues that despite evidence animal agriculture is the largest greenhouse gas emitter, the public, including major environmental organizations, is oblivious.

The amount of data on this topic is mind-boggling. I’ll include in my online text a graphic from Cowspiracy which provides statistics and links to 25 articles from sources like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the World Bank,[2] that reveal the negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture. But simple comparisons are often more helpful than plowing through journal articles. According to John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution, if every meat eater in the United States swapped just one meal of chicken per week for a vegetarian meal, the carbon savings would be equivalent to taking half a million cars off the road.[3]

But emissions are only the beginning of understanding the threats animal agriculture poses. Many of you know that certain regions of the planet lack clean water; and in other regions, including in the US, clean water is becoming increasingly scarce. Animal agriculture, because it requires enormous quantities of water to keep 70 billion animals fed and hydrated, is a major driver of water scarcity. According to Robbins, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association claims that producing one pound of California beef requires 441 gallons of water. To me, that sounds outrageous. But evidently that number is low. According to the Water Education foundation, it takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce a pound of California beef. And according to soil and water specialists at the University of California Extension, it actually takes 5,214 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Chicken and pork production use water more efficiently. It only takes 815 gallons to produce a pound of chicken, and 1,630 gallons for a pound of pork. California is very dry, so producing meat there requires more irrigation than in areas of the country with higher rainfall. Comparisons are helpful. Robbins calculates that if you take a seven minute shower every day for an entire year, you would use 5,200 gallons of water. Which means, using the Water Education Foundation’s more conservative number, you save the same amount of water by not eating a pound of California beef as you do by not showering for six months.[4] Comparisons are helpful. It takes 23 gallons of water to produce a pound of lettuce or tomatoes, 24 gallons for potatoes, 25 gallons for wheat, 33 gallons for carrots, and 49 gallons for apples.[5] Reducing or eliminating meat from our diet would radically reduce the pressure on global water resources.

Then there’s the question of land. Not only does it take enormous amounts of land to farm 70 billion food animals, but where does their food come from? In a very passionate 2012 speech, the Australian philanthropist, former Citibank executive and vegan, Philip Wollen, said: “If everyone ate a Western diet, we would need two Planet Earths to feed them. We only have one. And she is dying…. Poor countries sell their grain to the West while their own children starve in their arms. And we feed it to livestock. So we can eat a steak? Am I the only one who sees this as a crime? Every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a starving child. When I look into her eyes, should I be silent? The earth can produce enough for everyone’s need. But not enough for everyone’s greed.”[6]

Large segments of Earth’s arable land are used to produce food for animal consumption, and then we eat the animals. It’s a two-tiered structure. But consider the data that show 1.5 acres of arable land can produce on average 37,000 pounds of plant-based food but only 375 pounds of meat.[7] An obvious conclusion emerges: if humanity stopped eating animals on a mass scale, it would no longer require as much land to produce food, and it could easily produce enough food to end hunger on the planet, not to mention reclaim carbon-trapping forests.

And this is still only the beginning. There are problems with the storage of animal waste, waste spills more damaging than the worst oil spills in history, fertilizer run-off, ocean dead zones, over-use of antibiotics. Animal agriculture does immense harm to the environment. I cannot help concluding there is no sustainable meat-based diet for human populations. This is not to say that meat production can’t continue on a small scale, especially in regions that are inhospitable to plant-based farming. But given the data, it is unsustainable for a large-scale human consumption of meat to continue. Planet Earth will not survive it. Some argue that if they just keep a few chickens or a goat for milk, surely that would be sustainable. Yes, for individuals it would be. But if every family on the planet had a few chickens and a goat—mindful that billions couldn’t afford it—that’s still 20 to 30 billion animals, still unsustainable.  Our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle is “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” Given this principle, as one who eats meat, it’s difficult to learn of the degradation animal agriculture causes and not begin to wonder how I can, in the very least, reduce the amount of meat in my diet.

Some people are moved less by the environmental arguments and more by the many studies that show plant-based diets are more healthy for the average person. I commend to you John Robbins’ The Food Revolution for his discussion of how plant-based diets correlate with positive health outcomes while animal-based diets correlate with negative outcomes. This is familiar to many of you: consumption of meat correlates with higher rates of heart disease, obesity and cancer, while no such correlation exists for fruits and vegetables. Having said that, Robbins doesn’t address the negative health outcomes from consumption of sugar and highly processed foods. There are competing studies that show low to moderate consumption of meat has little or no long-term health impact when compared to consumption of high amounts of sugar and highly processed foods. Robbins’ also doesn’t account for people who simply cannot maintain health without some consumption of meat, eggs, milk or cheese. I know people who’ve tried desperately to become vegan but simply cannot stay healthy without some animal protein and fat in their diet. That’s real for some in this room.

Robbins’ also doesn’t account for the reality that it can still be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to eat a healthy diet. So many people live in so-called food deserts—often low income, urban areas where there are no supermarkets or farmers markets to offer fresh food at affordable prices. This is changing slowly. I name it to remind us that often it isn’t possible to change one’s diet, even if one wants to. That is true for some in this room too.

A final argument: animal cruelty. César Chávez, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association, once said: “Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized society.  Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves.”[8] Animal cruelty in factory farming is widely documented. For me, it speaks less to our seventh UU principle than it does to our first. Except, as currently worded, our first principle isn’t adequate. For years I’ve heard Unitarian Universalists call for changing that language from “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” to “every creature.” Many do look at the cruelty of factory farming and say, “I don’t want to eat meat because I don’t want to support that.” But I think there’s a more fundamental question that applies even if every food animal’s life were free from suffering and their death free from pain. To eat animal meat we must take a life. Maybe that is an unavoidable law of Nature, just the way the food chain works. But if we claim a principle of respect for inherent worth and dignity, a principle that, for some, implies ‘do no harm,’ do we have the moral right to take an animal’s life for food, especially when there are alternatives that are more healthy for most people and clearly more sustainable for the planet?

I don’t have a definitive answer. Though I will say that while for me this question is more gray than black-and-white, my heart says no, we don’t have that right. Our culture makes it far too easy to ignore this question altogether. If nothing else, let’s at least be willing to wrestle with this question and the others I’m raising this morning.

One of the ways I’ve chosen to wrestle is to attempt to cut meat out of my diet. In our family we prepare or purchase approximately four meals a week with meat in them. Those meals, plus left-overs, means that about 1/3 of my meals have meat in them.

I became a vegetarian on Labor Day. By Thursday of that week I was hungry. I was eating, but I had gnawing hunger. I fried up a few eggs that morning, but it didn’t help. By noon I feeling weak and dizzy. So, I broke down and ate a 6” turkey sub from Subway. The following week I started again. This time I lasted longer. By Friday I was feeling wonky again. On Saturday, I felt so physically bad that I went to Subway for a 6” turkey sub. I felt better.

Apparently I couldn’t go cold turkey without a little cold turkey. I realized I needed to wean myself off of meat. So the next week, I set out to eat a vegetarian diet with a plan to have a meat-based meal late in the week. That worked very well for a few weeks. Then I went to New Orleans. I had to eat a few meals with shrimp and a few with sausage. Actually, I probably ate more meat in New Orleans than I would normally eat on my old diet. But guess what happened: I started not wanting it. On my fourth day in New Orleans, I switched back to vegetarian.

In a matter of six weeks I have reduced my meat consumption from approximately seven meals to three or four meals per week. And on many of those days I’ve cut out cheese, milk and eggs as well. I’m learning. And I recognize I need to try it for a much longer period of time before I know for sure what the impact is on me. But I am committed to weaning myself completely off meat. I’m going to take it slowly, but I am going to do it. And once I’ve succeeded, I will maintain that commitment for a few months before making any decisions about whether or not it is truly right and healthy for me, and whether or not I can move on to weaning myself off of milk, eggs and cheese.

This is personal. But I’ll end with this: We need to balance “what is right for me” with “what is right for the planet and future generations.” Although animal meat will likely never disappear from some regions of the world and from some peoples’ diets, I am convinced there is no meat-based diet that is sustainable for the mass of humanity. And for that reason, I am attempting to change my diet. For that reason, I invite those of you who eat meat to consider how you might reduce your consumption of meat. And I invite all of us, together, to continue this conversation with these two questions in mind: what food system is most consistent with our UU principles? What is best for the planet?

Amen and blessed be.  

[1] This film can be downloaded for $4.95. Visit http://www.cowspiracy.com/ for more information.

[2] Visit the Cowspiracy inforgraphic at http://www.cowspiracy.com/infographic.

[3] Robbins, John, The Food Revolution (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2010, second edition) p. xxix.

[4] Robbins, John, The Food Revolution, pp. 235-237.

[5] Robbins, John, The Food Revolution, p. 237.

[6] Free From Harm staff writers, “Philip Wollen, Australian Philanthropist, Former VP of Citibank, Makes Blazing Animal Rights Speech,” June 24th, 2012. See: http://freefromharm.org/videos/educational-inspiring-talks/philip-wollen-australian-philanthropist-former-vp-of-citibank-makes-blazing-animal-rights-speech/.

[7] Visit the Cowspiracy inforgraphic at http://www.cowspiracy.com/infographic.

[8] Lauren, Jessika, “Human Rights, Animal Rights, and Nonviolence: César Chávez’s Lasting Legacy,” 2013. Visit Peta Latino at http://www.petalatino.com/en/blog/human-rights-animal-rights-nonviolence-cesar-chavez/.

Raising Moral Children (in the Era of Katniss, Ender and King Joffrey)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

TheatersI’m fascinated by the popularity of a series of recent films and TV dramas, based on phenomenally successful books, that depict fictional children living in morally corrupt societies that force them to do morally objectionable things. I’m referring to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.[1] I understand the popularity: the story-telling is excellent. What fascinates me is the question of what it means: what it suggests about our society’s view of children, and whether or not it has anything to teach us about how (or how not) to raise moral children. In referring to us I mean those of us who are parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors of children. I also mean us as the adult members and friends of this multigenerational Unitarian Universalist congregation whose stated vision for religious education is to “provide a solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists.”

The treatment of children’s moral lives in these books and films is different than what we find in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where the teenage characters encounter difficult, even traumatic situations, but they maintain their moral center in part because good and evil are crystal-clear in these stories, but also because they have the support of morally-grounded adults. They have role models. This also isn’t the dynamic we find in William Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies, where a group of plane-wrecked boys attempts to govern itself on a tropical island, but descends into savagery in the total absence of adult moral guidance. Rather, in these stories powerful adults design systems that intentionally obstruct children’s moral reasoning. I assume these books are not the first to treat children’s moral lives in this way, though I’m fairly confident this treatment has never been as wildly popular as it has been over the last year or so. Some of you may not be familiar with these books, so I’ll say a little about each.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

The Hunger Games is young adult literature, though tens of millions of adults have read it and seen the films. Some children read it by third or fourth grade. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, governed by a corrupt, oppressive capitol that requires each of 12 districts to send two children every year to fight to the death in an elaborate arena. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, an older teenager who volunteers for the arena to prevent her younger sister from having to go, cobbles together a moral center, but the adults in her life who would normally support her moral development are damaged in some way and are of very little help to her in this regard as she enters the custody of the morally depraved capitol. That is, she’s largely self-guided in her moral growth, and spends much of her time lost, confused, and searching for a moral anchor that matches her instincts. More than providing her moral clarity, her ordeal in the arena hones her survival skills and draws out her resilience and courage. She learns how to play and win the adults’ game; and she learns how to play it against the adults. But fighting fire with fire doesn’t make fire right. She recognizes this and she suffers psychologically and emotionally.

Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin

Ender’s Game, published in 1985 but released as a feature film this past November, is typically read by adults but is occasionally assigned in high school English classes. Ender, a gifted child, is being groomed as a starship fleet commander. His training is psychologically and emotionally abusive. He successfully learns military strategy, tactics, politics and leadership, but struggles to discern right and wrong beyond mere obedience to his teachers. He also struggles to find a warm and human sense of self as opposed to the cold, calculating person he observes himself becoming. As with Katniss, there is no adult he can turn to for authentic moral guidance. He masters all the educational games his teachers present to him; but then, without him realizing it, his teachers deploy him as a weapon of mass destruction. When he finally understands the enormity of his crimes, his emotional and psychological suffering are correspondingly enormous.

 

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon

Game of Thrones, published in 1996, is the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series; it’s also a hit HBO series based on the books. Not for children. Its gratuitous violence, sex and violent sex makes The Hunger Games look like what we normally imagine when we use the term child’s play, except that some of Game of Thrones’ more heinous violence is child’s play, ordered by the child king, Joffrey. Joffery has been raised by cunning and brutal adults whose only motivation is the acquisition of power by any means necessary. Joffrey displays no longing to know the difference between right and wrong, or to experience himself as good and decent. He doesn’t know he’s missing a moral core. In essence, he has been nurtured to be a psychopath, and he’s too far gone to recognize the suffering this causes him.

In reviewing a recent episode, New York Times critic Jeremy Egner sums up the main conflict in Game of Thrones. “It’s not right versus wrong, but a many-faceted quarrel over whether ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ even exist.”[2] All three of these series explore this conflict in some form. In Game of Thrones, if right and wrong exist, right is power and wrong is weakness. Any more elaborate moral system is largely absent, or falls apart in the face of violence. In Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, the child characters know something is horribly wrong about their world, yet an authentic right answer remains elusive. As far as they can tell, the games are rigged to benefit the authorities regardless of who wins. Winning doesn’t assure the end of evil. In fact, winning may just create more evil. In terms of what it takes to raise moral children, I think these books and films get it right: If you teach a child only to be cruel, and then make him king, there’s a good chance he’ll be a cruel king, as Joffrey is. And if you put children in situations where they are forced to do morally objectionable things, and you provide them with no moral guidance beyond “obey the rules” or “just survive,” in the very least they will become confused, angry, and wary of adults in authority, as Katniss and Ender are.

We can draw an obvious lesson about raising moral children fom Game of Thrones: don’t teach children to be cruel. In the The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, the lesson is less clear. Readers and viewers love Katniss and Ender, suffer with them when they suffer, want them to succeed, enjoy their creativity, intelligence, skills, endurance and courage. There’s a risk here: we can confuse their victories with moral vindication. That is, they win, so they’re right. And if we do this, we miss their deeper struggle: they don’t trust they are right because they’ve had very little opportunity for moral reasoning. They aren’t sure what right is.

Of course, all this is irrelevant fiction. Real life doesn’t work this way. Real life is more like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, where right and wrong are always crystal-clear. The good inevitably triumph; the bad inevitably falter. Children learn this by watching television and playing video games. Yeah, right.

Jeffrey Lockwood

Jeffrey Lockwood

I found a provocative real-life reflection on raising moral children in the midst of morally ambiguous systems in an essay entitled “Like Father, Like Son,” by the entomologist Jeffery Lockwood. He compares his father’s work during the Cold War testing nuclear weapons to his own work developing powerful insecticides to fight grasshopper infestations. He says, “perhaps there are more similarities between my father’s employer and my institution, nuclear bombs and pesticides, nation states and multinational corporations, and his enemy and mine than I could have imagined when I was [first] hired…. Certainly we both struggle with how to tell our stories to our children and ourselves. It’s tempting to turn them into a screenplay for a James Bond movie. The unambiguously bad guys are blown to bits, but the gory results are not graphically portrayed. This sanitized version of reality creates the illusion that we can drop bombs and spray poisons without immense suffering. But in the end, our children will know otherwise.”[3]

If I’m reading him accurately, children may not detect moral contradictions in adult society when they’re young—contradictions like the production of enough Cold War nuclear weapons to destroy the world thousands of times, or like his own participation in the corporate agricultural system which, he says, ultimately “destroys land and people”[4]—but they’ll see it eventually. They’ll recognize we live in a society that asks us to accept half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice; a society that takes risks with our health, our lives, our future. We don’t raise moral children by pretending these things don’t exist, or by offering them black and white appraisals of the world, especially as they get older. We must figure out how to talk to children, as best we can, about the contradictions and about how we struggle with them. And when we find ourselves upholding a morally debatable position, say through our work or our politics, we need to own it. We may even need to question the value of our victories.

More importantly, we need to demonstrate with our own decisions and actions how to move these contradictions towards resolution. An Aprl 13th New York Times op-ed entitled “Raising a Moral Child,”[5] highlights the importance of role modeling. Its author, Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, cites research confirming that across cultures and nations, a majority of parents, when asked to report their guiding principles in life, consistently rate caring, compassion, helpfulness and kindness above achievement.[6] However, “despite the significance that it holds in our lives,” says Grant, “teaching children to care about others is no simple task. Inan Israeli studyof nearly 600 families, parents who valued kindness and compassion frequently failed to raise children who shared those values.”[7]

Father SonHe covers some familiar territory in terms of how we respond to children’s good and bad behaviors—in short, praise good behavior and reinforce the message you’re a good person. In response to bad behavior, “[express] disappointment and [explain] why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation.”[8] But what Grant is most excited about is the power of good role models. What we say really does matter much less than what we do. Grant cites research showing that children behave more selfishly when they witness adults behaving selfishly, even when the adults are encouraging them to be generous. And children behave more generously when they witness adults behaving generously, even when the adults are advising them to be selfish. It strikes me that as we here at UUS:E move forward into a more explicitly multigenerational congregational life, and as we build a religious education program that provides that “solid foundation for our children and youth to feel spiritually at home in the world and to mature into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking UUs,” we ought to be asking ourselves as adults: how are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we feel spiritually at home in the world? How are we demonstrating to our children and youth that we have matured into responsible, accepting, courageous, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists? We can assume they’ve heard us say it. But let’s not assume they’ve seen us do it. Let’s do it.

The presence of moral role models in the lives of Katniss, Ender and Joffrey may not have changed their circumstances, but may have enabled them to feel more spiritually at home in the world—or at least more grounded and sure of themselves. Similarly, our moral role-modelling to our children may not alter the half-truths and dubious justifications for oppression and injustice in the world; it may not resolve the pervasive moral contradictions in our society. But I believe it will make a difference in our children’s lives—and that matters.

I’ll close with Jeffrey Lockwood’s reflections on his own moral upbringing. My parents, he says, “would have replaced the ethical admonition ‘First do no harm’… with the more realistic principle ‘First do some good.’ We were a family of positive incrementalists, wherein the task of life was to constantly do better, one step at a time.”[9] “I know that in 1987, we blanketed a typical 10,000-acre grasshopper infestation with five tons of neurotoxic insecticide, and this year we used forty pounds of an insect growth regulator, applied to just one-third of the infested land. I don’t know if doing less evil is the same thing as doing good, but it’s better than doing nothing. I don’t know if gradual, continual progress from within our roles as bit players in the military-industrial complex and industrial agriculture will be sufficient to create a healthy human community embedded within a vibrant diversity of ecosystems, but then I don’t know what else to do.”[10] Even if we don’t know what else to do, may our children bear witness to us “doing some good.”

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series may utilize a version of this same adult-child dynamic, though I’m not as familiar with them (and they don’t have the word game in their titles).

[2] Egner, Jeremy, “‘Game of Thrones’ Recap: A Regression to the Mean,” New York Times, April 20, 2014. See: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/game-of-thrones-recap-a-regression-to-the-mean/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

[3] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) pp. 77-78.

[4] Ibid., p. 95.

[5] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[6]For the abstract of “Parents’ Goals and Values for Children: Dimensions of Independence and Interdependence Across Four U.S. Ethnic Groups,” by Suizzo,,see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/38/4/506.short. For the abstract of Value Hierarchies Across Cultures: Taking a Similarities Perspective,” by Schwartz, Shalom H. and Bardi, Anat, see: http://jcc.sagepub.com/content/32/3/268.short.

[7] For the abstract of “Accounting for parent-child value congruence: Theoretical considerations and empirical evidence,” by Knafo, Ariel and Schwartz, Shalom H., see: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2008-19090-011.

[8] Grant, Adam, “Raising a Moral Child,” New York Times, April 13, 2014. For the online version, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/opinion/sunday/raising-a-moral-child.html.

[9] Lockwood, Jeffery A., Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002) p. 103.

[10] Ibid., p. 104.

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.

Speechless in the Face of Evil

Rev. Josh Pawelek

PeaceBang writes: “My liberal religious tradition would say that … people who are one bad turn of events away from sheer desperation, may do bad or criminal things because of that desperation. I agree. They certainly might. I certainly might do that if I was in their position. What my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge is that on top of this level of human misery, fear, need and desperation is a pre-existing human condition called evil.”[1]

Shhh

For the moment I’m less interested in the idea of “a pre-existing condition called evil;” I’ll come to that. I’m more interested first in “what my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge.” Yes, Unitarian Universalism is not known for its robust discourse on evil. This is not to say we’re oblivious to evil—we aren’t—or that none of us has any direct experience of evil—some of us plainly do. But evil is not the typical starting place for our theological reflection. It doesn’t drive our spiritual lives. When asked to describe the purpose of our spiritual practice, very few of us will answer: “it’s my way of confronting evil.” I can’t tell you how many of you, upon learning our January ministry theme would be evil, asked Why? Why talk about that? One member summed it up well. “Evil,” she wrote. “THAT is, to my mind, an un-Unitarian concept.” She’s right, as is PeaceBang. We are the exact opposite of those charismatic Christian churches anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann described in her New York Times editorial last Sunday. “In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra (Ghana) imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living.” [2] We UUs know human beings can and do inflict enormous pain and suffering on each other. Yet when we imagine the world theologically, we’re more likely to say it’s essentially good. People, essentially good. Creation, essentially good. Evil, at most, plays a minor role.

This is not new. I’ve named it before from this pulpit. Many of my colleagues preach about it. They write blogs, articles and books about it. In his 2005 book, Faith Without Certainty, liberal theologian and UU minister Paul Rasor writes that in order to effectively confront racism it is critical that we understand it theologically as a form of evil. However, he goes on, “it is hard for liberals to talk in these terms because we have no real theology of evil and therefore no language or conceptual reference points adequate to the task.”[3] Six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an article in the UU World magazine asked whether we were theologically prepared to respond to evil. “Now that terror spreads from shore to shore, now that Islamist militants are calling the United States a terrorist nation because U.S. bombing has killed Afghan civilians, is this one of those rare moments in history so powerful that we have no choice but to re-examine even something so fundamental as our historic trust in the basic goodness of humanity?”[4] 

But this question is older than 9/11. It first came to my attention in the mid-1990s when I entered seminary. I can’t remember who first said it, but I heard it early and often during my ministerial education. It probably sounded like this: Unitarian Universalists have much to say about humanity’s more positive traits—love, caring, compassion, generosity, selflessness—all of which we are capable of expressing in word and deed. But for the more negative human qualities—violence, greed, hatred, selfishness—all of
Darth Vaderwhich we are capable of expressing in word and deed—we don’t have a deep theological understanding of the roots of these things in us and the world.
I remember as a seminarian realizing that I had learned more about evil reading The Lord of the Rings and watching Star Wars than I had attending UU Sunday School in the 70s and 80s. My grandmother—a Bible-reading, pietistic, Pennsylvania Dutch Lutheran with evangelical edges—used to tell my brothers and I stories about Satan, how he tempts you to sin, how he wants your soul in Hell. She was helping us get into Heaven, an act of love; and we loved her for it. But by the time we understood what she was talking about, we were already living in a different theological world with no Satan, Hell, angels, demons, divine punishment and, we were pretty sure, no Heaven—at least not the one she anticipated.

That same UU World article following 9/11 quoted Lois Fahs Timmins—daughter of the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs—talking in 1996 about her Sunday School experience in the 1920s and 30s. “‘We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity,’ she said…. ‘I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.’”[5]

Genocide

I suspect the charge that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t acknowledge evil is as old as liberal religion itself. Any time we put human goodness at the center of our faith, someone else may ask, “What about genocide? What about fascism, killing fields, gas chambers, mass shootings, torture, racism, slavery, sexual abuse? With its positive view of humanity, liberal religion has always faced this line of questioning. There is, therefore, some truth to the claim that, unlike our counterparts in more conservative religious traditions who encounter the world as a spiritual war zone,[6] we are, at least theologically speaking, speechless in the face of evil.

Speechless

Some truth, yes, but there may be more to our speechlessness than we realize. This is my message: speechlessness in the face of evil is not the same thing as powerlessness in the face of evil. Let me say a few words about what I think evil isn’t; and then a few words about what I think it is, and I hope it will become clear what I mean when I say speechlessness does not equate to powerlessness.

What Evil Isn’t

No SatanFirst, there is no ‘Prince of Darkness.’ This is the Universalist in me speaking. Evil does not result from Satan or his minions swarming around, causing illness, sowing social discord, and harming livelihoods. If you agree, you’re in the minority. Luhrmann says 57 % of Americans believe in demonic possession.[7] Of course, it’s important to me to respect and honor diverse religious world-views, to try to understand what value they may hold for their practitioners. While I might not agree with someone who believes their condition is caused by demons, I also won’t tell them they’re wrong. My pastoral instinct is to receive them with an open-mind and try to fathom how they understand their predicament. If demons are important to them, then we talk about demons. While I can’t do what an evangelical Christian minister or a Catholic priest exorcist might do, I can have a conversation. More often than not, the person just needs to be heard. More often than not, there’s trauma in their background, driving their belief. That is, more often than not some violence has been done to the person. Even if I don’t believe the demon is real, certainly the person’s pain and suffering is. I may be speechless in their theological world, but I’m not powerless. I can still bear witness to trauma. I can still respond to pain and suffering. And so can you.

Second, natural disasters are not evil. Tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes, typhoons, floods and fires can and do bring chaos and tragedy. But they are natural and largely indiscriminant, not the result of a vengeful deity. Of course, many people believe natural disasters are divine punishments for some transgression. It makes me angry—and theologically speechless—whenever I hear such pronouncements. I have nothing to say. But, again, speechless does not equate to powerless. In the wake of natural disasters I hope we aren’t wasting time and speech debating theology. I hope we are responding to pain and suffering in whatever ways are within our power.

What Evil Is

I don’t know if evil is a pre-existing condition. I’m also not sure it matters. Whether it pre-exists, or we learn it along the way, or it’s in the social order and we become accustomed to it without ever realizing it—I think there’s some truth to all three—I’m convinced evil Abuse of Poweris real. It has an impact on the world. Recall the UUS:E member who said evil is an un-Unitarian concept. She is also a victim of evil—the survivor of relentless child abuse by more than one family member. (Please know she gave me permission to share with you.) It’s a story of people wielding power harmfully over a more vulnerable, dependent and weaker person—at least a person who is perceived to be weaker. It’s a story of people killing the spirit of another, attacking their emotional and physical well-being, silencing them. Of course there are many more stories like this, and multitudes of stories of all kinds of violence people visit upon people. When any of us hears a story like this, does it matter whether we have a well-developed theology of evil to understand it? In that moment of hearing the story, I wonder if trying to restate the experience of evil in theological terms may do more harm than good. If we’re really hearing the story—if we’re really taking it in, encountering the horror of it—I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response we can have is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing contradicts everything we love about humanity. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

It’s the same with stories about the ways in which our systems and institutions visit violence upon people—the violence of warfare, of suicide bombings, chemical weapons, terrorism, torture, racism, sexism, mass incarceration. And there is that more subtle yet increasingly visible evil of which PeaceBang writes in her blog, that evil that lies atop human misery, fear, need and desperation, that evil of an economic and political system that cares less and less about poor people, unemployed people, homeless people; that system that tolerates an unprecedented, unsustainable and immoral level of income inequality. When we pause to hear the stories of pain and suffering this evil breeds; when we pause to take them in, to let them wash over us, to recognize the insidiousness of this system, is any theology “adequate to the task?” Again, I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing dashes our hopes for a more just and loving society. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

In the end, when encountering abuse, trauma, violence, war, racism, poverty, whether it pre-exists or we learn it along the way or its embedded in the system; whether we name it evil or not, does our theology really manifest best in what we say? Or in what we do? That’s the real question. What do we do to confront evil once we’re aware of it? Speechlessness may look to some like inadequacy. But I find lack of action far more damning. This is the message I take from PeaceBang’s blog. She’s issuing a call to action. She says, “A popular Unitarian Universalist slogan right now says, ‘Go love the hell out of the world.’ Perhaps in 2014 we might make a shared, community resolution to hearten each other for this work, for this steady confrontation with forces that lie, steal, starve and shame a huge percentage of the population which regards its lack of financial success as a personal failure. Perhaps in the new year we might refrain from one or two in-fights … over relatively small matters or semantics and stay focused on the hell in the world, which I believe we can successfully discern if we stay clear about where and what it is.”[8]

Which brings me back to my liberal religious tradition. I know this: if I’m going to confront evil with courage and resolve, I need human goodness at the center of my faith, despite my awareness that people, myself included, aren’t always good. I need the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—even those who commit atrocities—at the center of my faith. And I need to keep a positive, hopeful attitude about the future at the center of my faith, despite what I know about the human penchant for war, oppression, and destruction of the natural world.

And while I don’t want my children or the children of this congregation to be ignorant of evil, I expect to continue teaching them about good people doing good things. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people hear the traumatic message over and over again that they are wicked and sinful by nature and must accept unbelievable teachings and engage in hollow rituals in order to be saved from eternal punishment. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people have been identified as evil and consequently abused, imprisoned and murdered based on their sexual orientation, gender, disability, mental illness, skin color, healing practices, culture, folkways,  perceived proximity to the earth, any unorthodox beliefs, and even their scientific world-view and methods. When I read of a congregation shouting “The witches will die. They will die. Die. Die!”[9]—which is not just a phenomenon in the Ghanian Charismatic Christian churches, but happens in a myriad of ways all across the globe—I hear people with a robust theology of evil using it to perpetuate more evil against innocent victims. That’s the risk with any theology of evil. Those who believe it can use it to justify their own evil actions.

Our liberal, Unitarian Universalist, positive view of human nature as loving, compassionate, generous, caring and self-sacrificing—though it may not present the whole picture—is no light-weight, naïve, sheltered theology. It is a life-saving, life-giving, life-enhancing religious response to all those theologies that drive arbitrary wedges between people, that seek to frighten people into faith, and that teach people of their inherent sinfulness rather than their beauty, worth, and potential. If the price of such a faith is speechlessness in the face of evil, then so be it. It may be just what is needed. So, may we find power in the midst of our speechlessness, and may our faith lead us to action—action that loves the hell out of the world.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Read PeaceBang’s “Go Love the Hell Out of the World” at http://www.peacebang.com/2013/12/28/go-love-the-hell-out-of-the-world/.

[2] Read T.M. Luhrmann’s New York Times op ed,”When Demons are Real, at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/opinion/sunday/when-demons-are-real.html?_r=0.

[3] Rasor, Paul, Faith Without Certainty (Boston: Skinner House, 2005) p. 176.

[4] Read Warren Ross’ “Confronting Evil: Has Terrorism Shaken Our Religious Principles?” from the January/February 2002 issue of UU World at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[5] Ross, “Confronting Evil” at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[6] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[7] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[9] [9] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

 

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, But Everything’s Gone Blue


Blue Christmas“Drops of pain, flow like rain, tell why your tears are falling: for humankind, so frail, unkind, or for your own life’s calling?”[1] Words from Unitarian Universalist songwriter Shelly Jackson Denham. “Tell why your tears are falling.” There’s really only one message I want to bring to you this morning, and that is, very simply, not everyone, every year, can enter fully into the joy, merriment and hopefulness of the holiday season. It isn’t always possible. For some, the bright lights, the season’s greetings, the festive music, the Christmas trees, the messages of peace and good will—all of it clashes with their internal state, clashes with recent painful experiences, clashes with difficult childhood memories of the holidays. For some there is dissonance. We’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and yet for some, everything’s gone blue. We wish you a merry Christmas, and yet for some, “tears are falling.”

We call it “Blue Christmas.” I don’t know how long this term has been in vogue. I don’t remember ever hearing it used in this way prior to 2000. I don’t know if it has any connection to the song, “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis Presley recorded in 1957, and which was first recorded in 1948 by an artist named Doyle O’Dell. Whether or not there’s a connection, the song doesn’t really express the depth of sadness and pain some people can experience during the holiday season. Some churches hold special services—often at night—for people who are grieving, lonely, in despair or anxious during the holidays. Sometimes these services are called Blue Christmas services. Sometimes they’re called “Longest Night” services, a reference to the winter solstice.

Blue Christmas

On one hand, I think it’s important to hold such services. I think it’s important for the church to make a space for people who don’t want to—or simply can’t—be present at holiday services and other activities where the predominant mood is joy. On the other hand, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of saying, essentially, “everyone who’s depressed, you come to church at this special time and we’ll take care of you; the rest of us will have our Christmas joy and holiday merriment on Sunday morning.” As if we can—or even should—somehow keep all the difficult emotions in a separate place so they don’t intrude on “normal” Christmas. I don’t want to isolate Blue Christmas feelings from the regular holiday worship life of the congregation. It makes sense to me to spend time when we’re all together naming the reality of Blue Christmas for many among ourselves and in the wider community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into our spiritual community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into worship. And sometimes that means bringing sad selves, grieving selves, lonely selves, uncertain selves, regretful selves, hopeless selves, selves in pain. And those of us who don’t feel that way, myself included, might have a gut reaction that says, “no, the holidays are about joy, peace, hope, festivity, etc.” But if some of us are feeling blue, that’s part of the holidays too. So, let’s name it and honor it. That, in my view, is what spiritual community is for—to meet each other where we are, no matter where we are.

Blue Christmas

Another reason I feel strongly about observing Blue Christmas in the way we are this morning is that, while I suspect most of us, in most years, experience the joy, merriment and hope of the holiday season, it is also true that our lives can change—sometimes tragically—in the blinking of an eye. I’m thinking of those who’ve lost loved ones over the past year. Christmas can be so hard in the midst of grief. And I’m thinking of the Benson and Mills families, who lost three family members in last weekend’s shooting in Manchester. And I’m thinking of Christine Keith, and her son, 14-year-old son Isaac Miller. Christine was a Unitarian Universalist from the Lansing, MI area. She and Isaac were shot and killed in a similar domestic violence tragedy a week ago Thursday. And I’m thinking of the people of Newtown, Connecticut, marking the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Manchester Vigil

Human beings are resilient in so many ways. We have such incredible capacity to meet challenges and to persevere through hardship. But it’s also true that a fragility lingers at the edges of our lives and none of us can outwit it forever. Loneliness comes. Anxiety comes. Fear comes. Hopelessness comes. Pain comes. Illness comes. Death comes. It might not be us this year. But it might be us next year, or in five years. Naming it now not only affirms people who experience it now, but it prepares each of us for the day when we’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but everything’s gone blue.

And not only might it be us next year, or five years from now, but it’s also more than likely that it has been us at some point in the past. We each carry a bit of Blue Christmas with us every year. How many of us have had to endure a first Christmas without a beloved family member—a grandparent, a parent, a spouse, a child? How many of us have dealt with illness—our own or that of a loved one—through the course of a holiday season? How many of us have had years wherein the joy and merriment of Christmas was overpowered by some anxiety, fear, pain or grief?

My grandmother died some years ago. Reflecting on her death reminds me that for nearly forty years, I would travel to her hometown of Hanover, Pennsylvania after Christmas Day. It was family time—and it was idyllic. I have wonderful memories. Since my grandmother died—and since my children have grown older and we’ve begun to develop new holiday routines—we don’t make that Christmas pilgrimage anymore. Most of the time during the holiday season this change doesn’t faze me. Most of the time I don’t think about it. But every once in a while something grabs my attention, tugs at my heart—I hear a brass quartet playing “Silent Night,” or I pull that John Deere tractor tree ornament out of its box, or I pass by a snow-covered farm on a cold, clear winter night—and I’m back there again, six years old, ten years old, eighteen years old. For a moment my heart aches. For a moment everything is blue.

Blue Christmas Farm

Blue Christmas. It may be any one of us this year. It surely will be each of us some day. It likely has been all of us once upon a time. Therefore, let us be honest about the holidays. Let us name the full range of feelings we may bring, will bring, have brought into this season. Let us name them not because we want to fix them or somehow miraculously make them disappear, but simply because they are real. In the midst of all our Blue Christmases, if nothing else, may we find comfort in being together in the fullness of our humanity. And with the fullness of our humanity laid bare in front of us may we, when we are ready—when we are truly ready—feel once again the joy, peace and hope, that are also real, and eventually come to each of us, like midwinter’s returning sun, like the lightly falling snow.[2]

returning sun

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Winter Night,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #256.

[2] “The lightly falling snow” is borrowed from Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen’s poem, “Solace,” written in response to the December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Listen to Allen’s reading at http://wnpr.org/post/simple-solemn-tribute-sandy-hook-victims

Rooted, Planted, Grounded

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Come back as a flowerThere it was again, the phone call. This time it was my father. “Did you see what happened at the Boston Marathon? Turn on the television. It’s awful.”

There it was again, that feeling of profound sadness. Tears welling up. Utter disbelief. How can this be real?

There it was again, that feeling of fear. Am I safe to leave my home? Are my children safe? What will I tell them? They love Boston. We visit friends and family there. Mason was born there. I’ll bet we’ve walked up and down Boylston Street at least twenty times in his eleven years of life. His beloved green line runs right beneath the spot where those bombs exploded. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS….

Planted Souls

MollyMolly Vigeant, a youth member of our congregation, wrote and performed this poem for our Earth Day service on April 21, 2013. I asked her to write a poem that makes the link between our disconnection from the natural world and the phenomenon of mass violence. Thanks Molly! 

 

 

 

 

The disconnect between life and the living
Longs to be mended
And yet,
We’ve pretended
Day after day
That it’s all okay,

A man enters a school,
Intentions clear
Not a single fear
In him,
But fear radiated
Shook the whole world,

 Marathon Bombing

Runners going to the finish line
Now blind
In the fires,
Runners now running
To escape
This hopeless fate

 

Pain in exchange for pain.
Grief for grief.
Perhaps,
Just perhaps,
If we listen to the wind
And free ourselves,
Maybe then the pain of the world can be lessened.

earth

The people alive and dead,
Have souls here to stay
We are in nature
And nature is in us
This planet is our home,
We need to feel it in our bones
Connect and stop ignoring 

 

When a child is born
We welcome them,
Nurture them
Tell them to be who they are,
Tell them they can be anything they dream of,
We tell them to
breathe in the world,
yet our air is stale
were you ever taught to breathe?

We ignore the nature outside of us
in attempt to nurture the nature within us
But the imbalance
breaks both
weakens both
Kills off both,
We don’t realize what we’re doing,
We don’t mean to do it.
We don’t think about it.
We don’t feel it.
This is how we live.

But the disconnect 
Between life
And the living,
May unearth these planted souls,
Be yourself
Or we may wash away
Without another day
To say
All the things,
We never got to say
And without another day
To say
All the things,
We may never get to say

Rev. Pawelek’s Comments on the Boston Tragedy

4-15-13 Marathon BombingAs I sat down to write my column for the church’s May newsletter, my dad called to tell me about bombs exploding at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Very soon after I learned of a distant relation (my brother’s brother-in-law) who was at the finish line. He escaped unharmed, but his friend was injured. Then I learned that my other brother, who was running the Marathon, is OK. Then my wife sent a Skype video message. She’s traveling with a group of exchange students in Italy, and heard about the bombing from a waiter in a restaurant in Rome. Already my colleague, the Rev. Lynn Ungar, has written a grounded, comforting piece in response to the tragedy. At least for me, her words say exactly what needs to be said in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like this:

We don’t know, and we can’t imagine. And maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to sit with those two facts. We don’t know. And so it does no good to speculate about foreign terrorists or domestic terrorists or mental illness or right-wing or left-wing conspiracies. We don’t know. Maybe by the time you read this, we will. But for the meantime we just have to live with horrible suffering for no known reason….

However many of these horrible, heart-wrenching events happen, they will only be perpetrated by the most infinitesimal fraction of the population, while the rest of us watch and pray and donate blood and do whatever we can to hold safe not only our children and our friends, but also complete strangers whose suffering we can, alas, imagine. I can’t say whether it’s enough, but it’s how we live in this world.

I was originally going to share a few thoughts on enlightenment in my newsletter column. Enlightenment is our ministry theme for May. I was wondering whether I should address the Buddhist concept of enlightenment or offer a few reminders about the influence of the European Enlightenment on Unitarian Universalism. But not now. After listening to the news; after watching the footage of carnage and chaos on Boylston Street in downtown Boston; after connecting with friends and family who live in Boston; and after explaining once again to my boys that “something bad” happened, that someone set off a bomb in Boston (my boys love Boston), that I wanted them to hear it from me and not someone else, and that we are safe (how many times can I keep assuring them of this before they start to doubt my words?)—after all this I am reminded that whatever degree of enlightenment we’ve attained in our lives, however spiritually advanced we are, there are moments in which, as Rev. Ungar says, “we don’t know, and we can’t imagine.”

This is one of those moments. How to understand it? How to explain it? Yes, there will be answers. The authorities will likely figure out who did this and why. The perpetrators will likely “feel the full weight of justice,” as the President said in his remarks about the bombing. But how can we ever fully understand what goes through the mind of someone or someones intent on wreaking this kind of havoc? How can we ever fully understand what drives someone or someones to carry out this kind of violence? What could have possibly broken them so much that they would feel so driven to break others in this merciless way?

Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

At the time of the Newtown shooting I counseled our congregation that in the wake of tragedy we are required to do three things: ground ourselves; attend to the suffering, whatever form it takes; and then enter into the work of repairing the world. This same advice applies now. I think it’s the right pastoral advice. But I admit it feels like a lot in the sense that so many people are still working through the trauma of Newtown. “Now we must add the trauma of Boston?” asked one of my parishioners on the phone.  ”Yes, I think we must,” I said. “Whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready or not, what choice do we have?”

We may not be ready. But life has taken a tragic turn. My prayer for us is that we may turn with life into this tragedy and respond to it in all the ways it asks us to respond. My prayer is that we may respond to it with all the grace and dignity we can muster.

A Life Redeemed

 

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Bottles

“What happens when we recycle bottles and cans?” asks Kathleen Mctigue in her meditation.[1] “They are transformed; they are made into something else. Though it may seem a homely analogy for something as lofty as our souls,” she continues, “that’s exactly what we’re after. In our inconsistent and often clumsy ways, we’re aiming for transformation. Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”

redeemed bottles

Our April ministry theme is redemption. The spiritual questions I’m introducing into our congregational life this morning are “What redeems you?” and “What redeems us?” I suspect for many of us the answers to these questions do not flow easily off our tongues. There may be some stumbling blocks. Redemption is one of those haunting religious words for Unitarian Universalists. Its history leaves an odd—even unpleasant—taste in our mouth. What is that taste?

pointing fingerBroadly speaking, when the minister suggests that we are somehow in need of redemption, even if we call it something else like change or transformation, there’s always the possibility—the risk—that the congregation will hear it as an allegation that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re somehow broken and need fixing, that we’re fallen and need salvation, that we’re estranged and need reconciliation. This contradicts an oft-stated assumption at the heart of our spirituality, that each of us—all people—possess inherent worth and dignity just as we are; that our spiritual lives are not about becoming someone or something else—better, fixed, perfect, saved—but rather becoming more fully who we already are. As we just sang, “Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again.”[2] It’s not that we think we’re perfect as we are. We know we’re not. But we are who we are, and if we understand the quest for redemption as an attempt to reach some idealized spiritual standard, it will likely distract us from that central spiritual task of learning to accept and embrace who we are.

That’s one potential stumbling block. We typically encounter another when we consider a particular way (not the only way, but a particular way) Christians (not all Christians, but some) have interpreted and used the suffering and death of Jesus as a model for what Crucifixion iconit means to live a spiritual life. In short—and please understand I am speaking very generally about a highly nuanced conversation that has been going on for nearly 2000 years—humanity’s sinfulness is so great that there is nothing anyone can do to fully redeem themselves. There is no price any human can pay to bring themselves into right relationship with God. We are stuck where we are. But we aren’t without hope because God has the power to redeem humanity. To exercise this power, God takes a human form, lives a human life, and suffers a violent human death. In so doing, God pays the price for human sinfulness. God’s suffering and death redeem humanity. Some Christians argue that this redemption only works if one professes faith in it. Others, like our Universalist (and some Unitarian) forebears, felt that Jesus’ suffering and death redeem all people regardless of belief.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this understanding of redemption will be a stumbling block for many of us if our goal is to reclaim Walesa communionredemption as a useful spiritual concept. For so many of us, myself included, it’s just unbelievable. And, to be sure, there are many Christians who wrestle with this unbelievability as well. But I want to be very careful not to disparage the beliefs of others. That’s not my intent. While I may find it unbelievable, I also recognize this particular belief has provided immense comfort and inspired incredible strength and resilience to millions upon millions of people throughout history. For people who’ve lived—and who live—under the yoke of social, political and economic injustice, the idea that God would take human form and experience human suffering—the idea that God’s story is the story of a victim succumbing to but then overcoming violence and oppression—has profound resonance. In the midst of suffering, the idea that “God paid the ultimate price for my redemption” is a source of great hope and courage. For those who have nothing else, such faith is everything. It literally saves lives. Far be it from me to argue it is incorrect simply because I don’t believe it.

Having said that, it is also true that this scheme of redemption is at times applied in a way I find highly abusive and I have no misgivings about naming it and confronting it when I encounter it—the same way I would name and confront religiously motivated terrorism, honor killings, sexism or homophobia. It’s the idea that because Jesus suffered on the cross, one’s suffering at the hands of others is somehow warranted, that one’s suffering at the hands of others is itself redemptive because it mirrors Jesus’ suffering. Slaves sacred violencewere at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their masters because it was Christ-like and they would be rewarded in Heaven. Battered women are at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their abusers just as Jesus endured his. This is not OK, not a path to redemption. I agree with the cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I understand suffering is part of the human condition. I have witnessed people suffer through disease, grief, even the violence of oppression and emerge from it stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more loving. This is part of the beauty of the human spirit. But I object to the notion that the violence anyone suffers at the hands of others is inherently redemptive and we should just accept it, or that God—and this is the implication—wants some people to suffer at the hands of others because it’s good for their souls. In my view, this is an abuse of Christianity for the purpose of justifying violence whether in the home or on some more grand scale. It is an attempt at misdirection, an attempt to make violence invisible by calling it something else, rather than exposing it for what it is: a diminishing of the human spirit. Or, in more traditional language, evil.

So, there are stumbling blocks in our encounter with redemption. If you’re wary about a sermon entitled “A Life Redeemed,” there are any number of reasons why your wariness makes sense. Nevertheless, I find spiritual potency and power in this word. I believe it can help us think differently about those places where we’re stuck. It can, in Rev. McTigue’s words, help us “loosen the pinching in our hearts and live with more wonder, serenity, kindness and wisdom.”[3] It may can us deepen our spiritual lives. What redeems you? What redeems us?

As I seek to answer these questions for myself, it feels important to name that whether I experience myself as redeemed or not, my gut tells me there are no cosmic consequences. This isn’t about the eternal status of my soul, Heaven and Hell, divine punishment or reward. I have this life to live in this world as best as I can. If I’m going to experience redemption, it’s going to be in this life in this world, not in some other life in some other world. It’s going to be “this-worldly” redemption. As Rev. McTigue says, this “isn’t about saving us, but instead shaping us, and it’s the most certain redemption available in this sweet world.”[4]

earth

I like this idea of shaping as a metaphor for this-worldly redemption. Imagine you’re a sculptor and your life is the sculpture. Each day you mold, form and fashion your sculpture, you shape your life, and in the evening you review your work. Some evenings you like what you’ve created. The sculpture captures exactly what you envision for your life. But even so, you recognize the next day may bring new experiences, new insights, new feelings, and thus the work of shaping continues. Of course, some evenings you review your Sculptorwork and realize you haven’t gotten it right. You’re close, but not quite there. Or you’re way off the mark. The way you’ve lived, the decisions you’ve made, the way you’ve treated others, the way you’ve presented yourself to the world—none of it aligns with your vision for yourself. You want to do better, not because you fear divine punishment, but because you feel in your heart you can do better. So, the next day you start to reshape your sculpture: new angles, new edges, new interplay of light and shadow, a different expression, a different posture. This opportunity to make changes, to try again, to reshape your life, is the path to “this-worldly redemption.” Rev. McTigue says, “Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”[5] Each day we have the opportunity to exchange the life we needed to live yesterday for the life we need to live today.

Do we pay a price for this-worldly redemption? Sometimes. If the shaping of our lives today includes recognizing and acknowledging we were wrong yesterday, admitting we hurt someone yesterday, admitting we had a role to play in the breakdown of a relationship yesterday, then yes, one could argue we pay a price. One could argue that offering a heartfelt apology is the price we pay for forgiveness, and sometimes we don’t experience redemption until we’ve been forgiven. This works for me, nut I’m not convinced “paying a price” is a helpful way to think about this-worldly redemption. It reminds me of European elites in the Middle Ages purchasing indulgences to erase sinful behavior and thereby get into Heaven. It reminds me of wealthy corporations going to court, losing, paying a hefty fine—because they can—and then going back to business as usual. Paying a price doesn’t always guarantee a transformed life. Sometimes paying a price is a way of avoiding the work that redeems us. I prefer to imagine a sculptor shaping and reshaping their work, day in and day out. Not everyone can pay; but certainly we each have some capacity to shape and sculpt our lives.

Sculptors

Let me flip this around for a moment. If we each have this capacity; if we can be redeemed by the work of our own hands, what happens if we don’t pursue it? What happens if days and weeks and years go by and the sculptor hasn’t touched the sculpture, hasn’t even looked at it? You’ve brought nothing new to your work for a long time—no new ideas, no new feelings, no new experiences. You wake depressionup and the last thing you want to do is the work of shaping a life. Your muse isn’t singing. At best you’re going through the motions of a life. You don’t feel creative. You lack desire. You’re stuck. Perhaps we call this depression, perhaps melancholy, sadness, despair, a funk, a rut; maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s genuine confusion about your direction in life. Maybe it’s fear you won’t succeed. Maybe it’s that generalized anxiety about the future so many people report these days. Whatever form it takes, this condition is real and common. Sometimes it emerges in response to a genuine crisis in one’s life: the death of a loved-one, the loss of work, the experience of violence or betrayal. Sometimes it emerges in response to the ways life can overwhelm us—too many obligations, too many hours at work, too many details, too many conflicts, too little self-care. Sometimes it’s culturally induced, as in those situations where certain cultural norms—norms for beauty, body-type, success, wealth, happiness, sexuality, family, mental health—seem unattainable. When we can’t reach them we feel diminished, unworthy, imperfect, unsavable and broken, even when we know such norms are arbitrary, unfair, manipulative and often racist, classist, sexist and homophobic.

Again, this experience is real and common. But it’s not destiny. The more I engage in ministry, the more I am convinced we each have a calling. We each have natural gifts. We each have something about which we are passionate—something that lights us up and energizes us, something that makes us come alive. Yes, it is very easy in our culture to grow distant from it. Yes, it is very easy to become alienated from it. But the self that lives in response to a sense of calling, in response to passion—that is our true self. That is the self we encounter in that internal place where our conviction resides, where our voice is strong, where we know our truth. This is who we really are. In those times when we grow distant from this self, it’s as if we’ve actually become someone else—someone we never intended to be. We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be shaped by forces larger than ourselves into a life we never chose for ourselves. Perhaps we’ve been spiritually kidnapped or hijacked. No matter how we name it, in response to such alienation the work of redemption is the work of returning to our true self, the work of accepting and embracing who we really are, the work of pursuing our calling, the work of exchanging the sculptor who refuses to sculpt for one who welcomes each day as an opportunity to shape a life. In all those moments when we come back to our true self, we experience a life redeemed.

Sculptor

If this begins to answer the question, “What redeems you?”—and I hope it does—I also don’t want to lose the question, “What redeems us?” That is, what redeems us collectively? I raise this question because I believe there is much more to this-worldly redemption than the work of redeeming our individual lives. This is not a new message from this pulpit. We live in proximity to infuriating, entrenched and devastating social and economic injustices. We live in proximity to crushing poverty. We live in proximity to urban and suburban violence, domestic violence, gang violence and, despite Connecticut’s new gun laws, I think it’s fair to say we still live with the Helppotential for mass shootings. We live in a time of war. We live suddenly again this week with the renewed threat of nuclear conflict. We live with the specter of environmental collapse. We live with all those false division between people, divisions of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and on and on. And we live in the midst of immense suffering—not the kind that occurs naturally and inevitably in the course of human living, but the kind human beings visit upon each other, sometimes with calculated, malicious intent; sometimes simply by refusing to see it, by looking away, by calling it something else. All of this may have longstanding historical roots. All of this may have the shine or the stink of inevitability and intractability. All of this may point to some apparently fatal flaw in human nature. But none of it—none of it!—is right. None of it is acceptable. None of it is destiny. Unless we give up. But friends, giving up runs counter to the human spirit. Those who give up and accept the reality of oppression are either those who’ve been spiritually kidnapped or spiritually hijacked by greed, power or fear; or those who’ve accepted the lie that their suffering will be rewarded in some other life.

What redeems us in us in light of the reality of injustice and oppression are our collective efforts to subvert and transform them. What redeems us are our collective words and deeds that help shape a more just society. What redeems us are our collective attempts to build the beloved community.

beloved community

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Backside Redemption,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2011) pp. 42-44.

[2] Carlebach, Shlomo, “Return Again,” Singing the Journey (Boston: UUA, 2005) #1011.

[3] McTigue, Shine and Shadow, p. 44.

[4] Ibid., p. 44.

[5] Ibid., p. 43.

Meditation: Easter Lingers and Spring Arrives

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Morning Has BrokenThe warm April sun on our backs; the soft, dark smell of soil turned over; warm, fresh rain on pavement; worms, mice, ants, tulips, daffodils; after winter’s gray days, deep snow and cold, bitter wind, all these heralds of spring enter our lives with redemptive purpose. All these heralds of spring invite us to make a change—to exchange our tired, rusty, frost-nipped winter lives for rejuvenated, reborn, green-tipped spring lives. All these heralds of spring invite us to break through the thawing earth and exchange our entombed lives, our closed in lives, our constrained lives for daylight lives, for free, unencumbered, passionate, inspired lives. All these heralds of spring enter our lives with redemptive purpose. Continue reading….