Friday, December 30, 2005

A Heretic for Our Times

He spoke in tongues. He cast out demons from his parishioners. Oral Roberts claimed him as his spiritual "son." He rubbed elbows with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, had special access to the White House, and flew in private jets. He built a Pentecostal mega-church in Tulsa. And then he underwent a conversion... to universalism!

NPR's amazing radio-documentary "This American Life" devoted an entire hour to profile Bishop Carlton Pearson, his conversion to the "Gospel of Inclusion," and the effects of this change on his life and ministry in their December 16, 2005 program.

It is worth an hour of your time. It is an amazing tale of honesty, conscience, struggle, tribulation, and perseverance.

Worship Around America

My colleagues from Cleveland, Reverends Kat Rolenz and Wayne Arnason, co-ministers of the West Shore UU Church, have been studying and experiencing worship on their sabbatical. They track their visits to mega-churches, emergent churches, and their conversations with leading UU ministers on their web-site.

Who wouldn't be intrigued by a church which calls itself "Scum of the Earth"?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Preparing to preach on Davidson Loehr

My sermon on January 29, 2006 will be an examination and a response to the provocative writings of Rev. Davidson Loehr, senior minister of the First UU Church in Austin, Texas. In 2004, Loehr preached the sermon "Living Under Fascism" and followed that up by writing a book entitled, America, Fascism, and God. Two lively discussions can be found here and here.

I encourage you to explore his writings as we gather on 1/29 to consider his arguments and their rammifications.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Quoted by Bill Tammeus

The Kansas City Star's religion writer Bill Tammeus quoted me in his 12/17 article, "Who do you say that I am?" This article compared and contrasted how different religious groups thought about Jesus. The section on Unitarian Universalism said:
In this tradition, Jesus is often honored as a wisdom teacher but is not considered divine and certainly not part of any Trinity, which Unitarians reject.

The Rev. Thom Belote, pastor of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, says that “if you ask a Unitarian Universalist if they believe Jesus was God, most would probably answer no. And it would be a tremendous mistake to interpret this reply as a negation, a rejection or a denial.

“We say that Jesus was fully human, no different than you or I, except that he made use of that humanity more fully than you or I ever will. … Jesus’ ministry did not so much point to a kingdom in a time to come. It said that the kingdom is already here.”

In my sermon on 12/18 I offered a more complete answer to Tammeus' question:
Dear Bill,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute to your article. You ask how members of my religious tradition would answer the question, “Who was Jesus?” The question underlying this question is certainly, “Is Jesus God?” So it is probably worthwhile to examine the origins of this question. Long before there was such a thing as Unitarianism, theologians and philosophers debated the issue of Jesus’ identity and divinity. These Christians, like someone straddling a fence, had one foot squarely in the history and scriptures of Judaism and the other foot squarely in Greek philosophy. The creeds formulated in the early Christian churches were written in the language of Platonic and neo-Platonic metaphysics – substances, bodies, forms, and the like. The options available to them were not a simplistic dualism: “Jesus is either God or he isn’t.” There were many options: The Trinity is one substance in three bodies, or one body in three forms. Jesus could be co-equal with God, or a lesser deity, or a divine substance in human form, or a distinct body altogether. But, my point is, unless you happen to be a scholar of Patristic theology, most of us don’t spend a lot of time steeped in Platonic thought anymore. We are more comfortable thinking of this as a simple yes-or-no, take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

If you surveyed the members of a Unitarian Church asking them if they thought Jesus was God, most would probably answer you by saying, “No.” This answer gives the appearance of being an absolute, authoritative, and conclusive declaration. But, I believe this one-syllable, two letter answer says more than it seems to say. At least I hope it does, because the answer “No” doesn’t seem to say much at all. It would be a tremendous mistake to interpret this reply as a negation, a rejection, or a denial. We know that saying what we don’t believe does not a religion make, that a community bound together by what it opposes is not bound well. If you dig deeper, you will find that the “No” effectively – all too effectively – conceals what is actually a radical affirmation. We affirm that Jesus was fully human. And, we radically affirm that to be fully human is a good thing. We don’t so much deny Jesus’ divinity as much as we affirm his full humanity. We would say that Jesus is as fully human as you or I, except that he understood what it is to be human much better than we do most of the time, and made better use of his humanity than you or I probably ever will.

(Actually, if you did survey Unitarians, you’d probably get a number of answers that claim that we hold Jesus to be a “great moral teacher.” This answer may say more about us than it says about Jesus. We Unitarians tend to enjoy learning and promote education. Educational imagery is imagery we are comfortable using.)

But I digress. I’m not sure that the question of whether Jesus was divine or not is really the right question. A better question would be to turn this question on ourselves and ask, what does it mean to say that the spark of divinity resides within each and every one of us? Just as Jesus’ ministry did not point to the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven in some future time to come, but said, “No, look around, the Kingdom of Heaven is here if only we could open our eyes and see it,” so does Jesus’ life not point inwardly to his own divinity, as much as it points outwardly towards an embrace of the God-within each and every human being. Jesus’ example commands us to challenge those bigotries and prejudices, those hatreds and delusions, those injustices and ignorance, those principalities and powers that conspire to keep us from seeing what has been in front of us all-along: every human beings’ “Likeness to God.”

If you come to a Unitarian church during the Christmas season, you’ll probably hear the words of a woman named Sophia Lyon Fahs. Those words say, “For so the children come and so they have been coming. Always in the same way they come, born of the seed of man and woman. No angels herald their beginnings. No prophets predict their future courses… yet each night a child is born is a holy night.”

What Fahs is saying here is that it is not just the powerful and the privileged, favored and blessed, elect and select who get to be the chosen sons and daughters of God. We all are. We are all holy.

Sincerely,

Rev. Thom Belote
Shawnee Mission UU Church

Likeness to God

Here is an excerpt from William Ellery Channing's 1828 sermon, "Likeness to God." Click here for a great Channing site with complete versions of many of his sermons and essays.
What, then, is religion? I answer; it is not the adoration of a God with whom we have no common properties; of a distinct, foreign, separate being; but of an all-communicating Parent… To honor him, is not to tremble before him as an unapproachable sovereign, not to utter barren praise which leaves us as it found us. It is to become what we praise…

I regard this view of religion as infinitely important. It does more than all things to make our connexion with our Creator ennobling and happy; and, in proportion as we want it, there is danger that the thought of God may itself become the instrument of our degradation. That religion has been so dispensed as to depress the human mind, I need not tell you… To a frail, dependent creature, an omnipotent Creator easily becomes a terror, and his worship easily degenerates into servility, flattery, self-contempt, and selfish calculation. Religion only ennobles us, in as far as it reveals to us the tender and intimate connexion of God with his creatures, and teaches us to see in the very greatness which might give alarm, the source of great and glorious communications to the human soul. You cannot, my hearers, think too highly of the majesty of God. But let not this majesty sever him from you. Remember, that his greatness is the infinity of attributes which yourselves possess.

But remember, that this attribute is particularly proposed to you as your model; that God calls you, both by nature and revelation, to a fellowship in his philanthropy; that he has placed you in social relations, for the very end of rendering you ministers and representatives of his benevolence; that he even summons you to espouse and to advance the sublimest purpose of his goodness, the redemption of the human race.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Sermon: "What Type of Heretic Are You?" (Delivered 10/12/2003)

[Here's a blast from the past! A sermon I originally preached back in 2003.]

This month marks the 450th anniversary of the execution of Michael Servetus for the religious heresy of denying the Trinity. A quick recounting of his life will set the stage for the message of this sermon.

Miguel Serveto was born in 1511 to a noble family in Northern Spain. A young man of great privilege, Servetus had access to wealth and education. At age 14 he was sent to study under a Franciscan Monk. Guess what happens when you give an adolescent the tools to think for themselves and think critically about the Bible and theology? Well, what happened was the same thing that happens to our teens when they do Coming of Age. Servetus had an eagle-eye for finding inconsistencies, irregularities, and logical fallacies and was as argumentative as any teen would be. At age 20, he published “On the Errors of the Trinity.” a long theological treatise of disputes and complaints against Orthodox doctrine. The book was filled with vituperative rhetoric and scornful attacks. It was not received well. At the time he was living in an early Protestant community in France. They grew tired of his theological disputes and asked him to leave. Down in Spain, the Inquisition had gotten hold of his book and were looking to try him. Servetus went underground, adopting a pseudonym and going to medical school in Paris. While there he made the discovery that the lungs played a role in the circulatory system.

But theological dispute kept drawing him back. During his schooling he formed a relationship with John Calvin and the two debated theology. Both he and Calvin got into trouble with the Inquisition in Paris, and each left town. Calvin went into hiding and resurfaced as a Protestant leader in Geneva. Servetus meanwhile moved to Vienna. At this time, Servetus began work on his magnum opus, “The Restitution of Christianity” and engaged in a long written correspondence with Calvin. Filled with moxie, Servetus had the chutzpah to publish a version of this book prefaced with the correspondence between himself and Calvin, an argument he had clearly won. This upset Calvin, so he betrayed Servetus’ identity to the authorities. They arrested him, convicted him, and sentenced him to death. However, Servetus managed to escape right before his execution. On the run, wanted in Spain, Vienna, and Paris, where does he go, but to Geneva and tries to start up yet another fight with Calvin. There, he is arrested, sentenced to death, and was burned at the stake 450 years ago this month. The Catholics, meanwhile, were so mad that they didn’t succeed in executing him, that they burned him in effigy a month later.

The legacy of Michael Servetus in Unitarian Universalism is interesting. We claim him as one of our upper-echelon martyrs. At least two UU churches, one in Minnesota and one in Washington, have named themselves after Servetus. It is somewhat ironic that we celebrate Michael Servetus, because every single one of American churches traces its historical roots back to the Reformed tradition of John Calvin, not to the watered-down Christology of Michael Servetus. But, as Unitarian Universalists, we like rooting for the underdog. We like celebrating people who have opposed Orthodoxy, even if the heresy proposed as an alternative is not a particularly desirable one. (My family’s roots go back to the Cathars of France, a heresy within Catholicism during the Thirteenth Century. It is tempting to cheer my ancestors for what they rejected, but what they accepted wasn’t exactly much of an improvement.)

So, as many Unitarian Universalists gather this month to remember Michael Servetus, a powerful theological mind, a victim of religious intolerance, a man who faced his own death courageously, part of me does begin to wonder. Is this the end of the story? Is this all there is? Do we stop there with the simple proclamation: Hooray for Heretics! Boo for religious intolerance! I want to travel deeper here.

The word heresy is interesting. The word means deviation from orthodoxy. In fact, if there were no orthodoxy, there could be no heresy. This is an important point: the two are bound. You can’t have heresy without an orthodoxy. There is a second interesting meaning to the word as well. In Greek, the root of the word “heresy” means to choose. To choose. And this idea of choice is fascinating, because when it comes to what we believe, we do not have choice. I can no more choose to believe in God or not believe in God, or believe in the Trinity or not believe in the Trinity, that I can choose to believe that the sky is blue. You either believe or you don’t. In Unitarian Universalism, we don’t say that you can believe in anything you want to. We say that you are required to act in accordance with what you do believe. The matter of choice, then, in the word Heresy, signals a different kind of choice. A choice whether to follow what you believe. The heretic chooses to follow their conscience.

And boy, was Servetus good at following his conscience or what? He followed that conscience all over Europe, followed straight to Geneva, followed to the stake, followed his convictions all the way to the end.

But here is where I want to shake things up a little bit. I want to say that in our Unitarian Universalist heritage, which is a heritage of heretics, a heritage of choosers and conscience-followers, not all heretics are created equal. So, I ask, what type of heretic are you? What type of heretic are you?

Let’s face it, if Michael Servetus walked through that door, sat down, I would hope that he would not stay very long. Servetus would not be very patient with me, and he would probably strain my patience. Servetus was argumentative and arrogant. Belligerent and bellicose. Combative and cantankerous and contentious. Debate-prone and disputatious. He was rancorous, truculent, inimical, polemical, and irascible. He was the very embodiment of a confrontational, contrarian, an oppositional personality. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a jerk.

Servetus represents the kind of heretic we should not aspire to be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire towards following our convictions or being determined, only that we should not aspire to destructive or self-destructive behavior. With Servetus one gets the impression that he did not only believe in his ability to believe differently. He believed he was absolutely right, and he was going to flaunt it in the face of everybody else. So that is one type of heresy: It says to the Orthodoxy, “You’re wrong and I’m right!”

There are others ways to be a heretic too. One can be a heretic just by choosing to reject orthodoxy. This is the second type of heretic who does not know what they believe, only what they do not believe. This is the kind of heretic who says “no.” God – nope. Jesus – nope. Father, Son, Holy Spirit – nope, nope, nope. Grace – nope. Heaven – nope. Sin – nope. Prayer – nope. Church – nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. If the word Heretic means to make a choice, this type of Heretic has not really chosen, so much as this type of heretic has narrowed down the list of choices. In fact, one wonders whether this is really heresy at all, or whether it is an extreme form of anti-orthodoxy.

The “nope-nope-nope” heretic is not so much choosing as rejecting, not so much constructing as rebelling. People make powerful lives rebelling. We all know people who live lives of rebellion. Rebellion from parents, from religions, from the authority in general. Parents tell you not to smoke – you smoke. Parents tell you not to move to California – you move to California. Or maybe they don’t even tell you, maybe you just think they might, so you do. Many people live lives of intentional rejection of this or that. It is not like the orthodoxy of their parents or their religious homes have disappeared. That orthodoxy still lives in their minds, is constantly there for them to say “no” to.

There is a third kind of heresy that is not so much based in rejection as based in construction. This kind of heresy involves the stitching together of an alternative system of belief. It is not so much the choice to believe differently, as the choice to do the work of exposing yourself to an environment in which you can deepen and grow. This the heresy of building your own theology. Not an oppositional personality, but a constructive personality. The oppositional person has not moved very far from the orthodoxy. They can move to California, but their parent’s voice stays with them. They can reject the Trinity, but the Trinity is still very much with them.

In the book, “The Search for God at Harvard,” there is a story about moving from rejection to construction. In this book a Jewish religion reporter for the New York Times spends a year studying at Harvard Divinity School. At first he has these visions of his childhood Rabbi waving a finger and accusing him. He writes, “Rabbi Siegel still catches up with me sometimes, waving his finger and warning of the dangers of interfaith encounters. But I have other visions as well. Sometimes I see my Catholic neighbor who inspired me to be my own rabbi. At other times, I see my classmates, whose lives show me that deep and abiding spirituality can express itself through many paths. Or, in my mind’s eye, I see Prof. Diana Eck, who taught me that one can look at religion from within.” In this passage, Ari Goldman, the Times reporter, is moving from the voices of orthodoxy, to his own constructed faith, a constructed heresy built on his own.

Many of us have our own voices of disapproving authority figures, but are trying to build a spiritual system with a new cast of characters, a cast of characters that perhaps include the person sitting next to you, the person in your adult education class, the person in the choir or in your small group.

There is though, even another kind of heresy. It is not the argumentative and belligerent heresy of Servetus. It is not the anti-orthodox heresy of rejection. It is not even the constructive heresy as you form your own positive faith. What I am going to try to describe is a fourth way of being a heretic that isn’t oppositional or distant towards orthodoxy, a way of being a heretic that closes the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy, because the two are perpetually bound. There can be no heresy without orthodoxy.

If you are or have ever been in a close relationship, I want you to imagine that. It can be your husband, wife, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, even a real close friend, or a relative. Now imagine something that you are different, or opposite about. You are clean and they are messy. You are introverted and they are extroverted. You are reserved and they are adventurous. In relationships, we do this, don’t we: I’m messy; she’s clean. I’m a morning person; he’s a night owl. I’m organized; she’s disorganized. Got it? Take a moment and come up with your own example? I want to propose that some of these dualities we think of are not absolutely true, but are for us sort of a myth. That we are not really all the time either one thing or the other, but we are a lot of times both. And your partner is both too. Most people are both messy and clean. Both outgoing and shy. Both reserved and adventurous. Sometimes one and sometimes the other, but that within each of you individually there lies some trace of both of these. However, we tend to polarize our differences to construct our own identities, but these identities, in turn, don’t allow us to be wholly who we are.

I’m proposing that we are all, in a way, actually both orthodox and heretical. What if there was a way to build a bridge between the polar opposites? The orthodox with a place for heresy within it and the heresy with a place for some orthodoxy. Not everything there so bad. Not everything here so good. The realm of what is possible expanding. It is my belief that in our relationships we sometimes build these myths that make things predictable, reliable. Roles that we follow. But sometimes these roles can be barriers as well. There is room to expand the roles, to leave the known roles and bring forth another side of your identity.

This is perhaps the greatest heresy of all. The heresy that ever seeks to expand upon any belief system or doctrine or religious institution, the heresy that proposes that yet more may be possible. The heresy that may bring back as new what had formally been rejected, that sings old words but sees them made new. The heresy that connects things and makes them whole, and frees us from assigned roles, frees us from reactivity and rejection, that frees us even from the new roles and definitions we’ve constructed for ourselves.

What I’m speaking of is the heresy of transformation. Not only in our actions, but in our minds and spirits, and in our whole selves. That is the greatest heresy of all, that there is something more as well as something else. It’s going to, I suspect, take a whole army of heretics such as these to transform this hurting, confused world, that always seems to be looking for another orthodoxy to adopt and follow. May we be shaken from the orthodoxies where we roost and always desiring a higher perch and a larger vantage point. May we not take for granted the freedoms and protections which Michael Servetus did not enjoy. For if we only build new orthodoxies, his martyr death would be for naught. Let us celebrate then, if not his personality, if not the theological system, now outdated, he proposed; then perhaps this, as Duncan Howlett has written of Servetus:

His was a very contemporary problem. What does a person do when they find themselves thinking what the rulers of society regard as “dangerous thoughts”? . . . Michael Servetus was not able to remain silent. He spoke the truth that was in him, and paid with his life for doing so. His was the problem of the ages, and so it is ours.


So, I ask that we strike some balance between speaking the truth we do know with bravest fire, and heretically remaining ever open to newer truth, that makes us whole and sets us free.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Humorous Church Video

This video has been making the rounds among some of my Mainline clergy friends. (The other videos at this web-site are not nearly as funny.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Sermon: "Loneliness" (Delivered 12/4/05)

First Reading by Rev. Judith Walker-Riggs

“For every person stuck at home on Christmas Day, with nothing but a box of Kleenex and a good book, an orange and a mug of Cocoa, weeping in their isolation, there is another person stuck in a mélange of mismatched family members, bombarded by Uncle Thorvald’s political opinions, and Aunt Mildred’s religious rantings, and sister-in-law Sylvia’s greasy corn dressing, not to mention a group of high-pitched, excited children, carelessly breaking whatever they can before bedtime, who would give anything in the world to be alone, with a good book, an orange, and a mug of Cocoa.

“I learned this the hard way, when I accepted an invitation from a man to have Christmas with his family. And I’ve also learned this: that a lot of loneliness is the story you tell yourself about it. Not all, but a lot. Changing the story we tell ourselves is often the key to moving from losing ourselves in loneliness, to being able to use it, even to enjoy it.”


Second Reading by Emily Dickinson

The Loneliness One dare not sound --
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size --

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see --
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny --

The Horror not to be surveyed --
But skirted in the Dark --
With Consciousness suspended --
And Being under Lock --

I fear me this -- is Loneliness --
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate -- or seal –


Third Reading “Adam’s Complaint” by Denise Levertov

Some people,
no matter what you give them,
still want the moon.

The bread, the salt,
white meat and dark,
still hungry.

The marriage bed
and the cradle,
still empty arms.

You give them land,
their own earth under their feet,
still they take to the roads.

And water: dig them the deepest well,
still it's not deep enough
to drink the moon from.


Sermon

As we move into the Holiday season, as the Calendar turns from eleven to twelve, as we draw closer to Christmas and Hanukkah and New Years, I want to lift up that this is a time of the year when loneliness becomes a powerful and painful thing that many people feel. For many people, the Holidays are a big old mind-trip mash-up of idealizations, projections, anxieties, insecurities, expectations: This is what my family should be like. This is what I should feel like. This is what I should give or get or have.

Speaking as a minister, you’d think that since helping people to get over the mind-trips they’re stuck in is something we’re charged with, that we ministers would have all those idealizations, projections, anxieties, and insecurities figured out. But during the Holidays, ministers may be particularly prone to these things as well. After all, we’re expected to express a lot of the magic of the season – as least as far as religious services go – and we’re expected to create it whether or not we really feel it.

In a book by UU ministers Jane Rzepka and Ken Sawyer, they tell the story of a minister about to celebrate Christmas eve but struggling to get into the mood. How could he speak to a packed sanctuary, “standing room only, pew after pew stuffed full of families reunited for the holidays, gathered in church if only for this one time all year to participate in the pageantry, the nostalgia, the beauty and the joy of the season… [all attention focused] on the miracle of birth itself, with the nativity of tale as an emblem of all such stories” when – to the month – it is the first anniversary of when he and his partner “gave up on the effort to repeat the same story… [their] fifth pregnancy end[ing] unsuccessfully, each [only having] begun with much cost and effort.”?

What I’m saying is that the Holidays can have the effect of magnifying any discrepancy there is between what we wish things were like and what they are actually like, what we’re told we should feel like and how we actually feel, what we should enjoy and what is not enjoyable, who we should be and who we are. A big old mind trip, I say. For some people, this discrepancy leads to anger, to snappiness. Others, melancholy. And for many people loneliness can be a big part of this.

There are a couple of caveats I might offer:

First, while I am aware that this morning I am no doubt speaking to some people who experience loneliness, I’m also preaching probably to some who do not, who feel connected and accompanied, and who do actually get jazzed for the whole Christmas season in a big time way. But I do guarantee that everybody here knows somebody who struggles with and suffers from loneliness. And I believe it is a good thing for those people here who do not struggle with it personally, to be reminded that loneliness is something that is a deep struggle for many people.

The second caveat I might offer is to say that while I cannot deny the reality of the deep pangs of loneliness experienced by many folks, there is a certain part of me that is quite hesitant to speak on the subject. The hesitancy is not in having nothing to say – to the contrary, “loneliness” is something that I struggle with and feel like I have something to say on the topic – but I am hesitant because even though it is a subject that has so much relevance, part of me wants to say, “Oh, that is not an important topic.”

There is a voice in me that says, “Hey, look at the world. War, poverty, hunger, disease, genocide, torture… that’s desperation, that’s need, that’s real pain and real anguish. And you’re going to worry about how the Holiday Season makes you feel?” I will admit that there is this part of me that rails when someone says they find the Holidays stressful, or painful. I want to say, “No, stressful is those folks living in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake. Or the Tsunami. Or Hurricane Katrina. Tough is being a Sudanese refugee, or a Guantanamo detainee.”

This type of reasoning reminds me, surprisingly, of a comedian from about a decade ago named Denis Leary. (Yes, this is the unlikeliest and most obscure sermon illustration of all time.) Denis Leary had a skit in which he played a brash therapist whose responses were what might be politely termed an “empathetic break.” People would come to him with their problems and he would say things like “Tough luck,” and “Who cares?”, and, “Nobody wants to listen to your whining.” The punch-line was that in the comedy routine people’s problems were resolved in this manner. If only real life were like this, if only we could say cavalierly, “That’s of little consequence.” I want to suggest to you this morning, as we enter into this discussion of loneliness and longing, that the solution is not found in some minimizing, some dismissing of this sense. The solution is not to be found in distancing, or rationalizing, or intellectually writing-off. Rather, we’re going to face what we’re faced with.

So, I want to tell you a bit of what I know, or at least what I think I know, about loneliness. The first thing to know about loneliness is that it is not the same thing as being alone, not the same thing as solitude. In the great religions, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, the proverbial enlightened sage sitting cross-legged on the mountain top: they all spend time in solitude, and yet, we would not call them lonely.

Loneliness is not a physical isolation – I suppose it is possible for it to be. But it is not likely for us to become castaways at sea, or to become lost in the rugged wilderness. These things don’t usually happen to us; for us, our floating adrift on turbulent seas and our wilderness wanderings are more likely to be metaphors of the soul than physical locations. Loneliness, paradoxically, is a thing that is sensed in the presence of others. Loneliness is often felt most acutely in the crowd. Our loneliness is magnified in the presence of others. What is this all about?

What loneliness is about, I might wager to suggest, is not so much a physical isolation, but a kind of non-connection with the many, many people who are actually very much all around you. This is I think what Emily Dickinson is saying, “The Loneliness, whose worst alarm / is lest itself should see / and perish from before itself / for just a scrutiny.” Emily Dickinson is not the most transparent poet, but what she is saying is actually something so profoundly upsetting that she uses lines of poetry in order to obscure and obfuscate the unsettling truth of it. And I’m going try to say plainly what I take that unsettling truth to be. As I read her, what she is saying is that if you probe that loneliness, and ask what it really is about, you will discover that the loneliness may in fact be rooted in realities that are something different than what we tell ourselves about loneliness.

The surface reasons we tell ourselves: I’m not likeable by others; I’m undesirable to others. I haven’t found the right other person. I’m so unique that it is impossible for others to understand me. I’ll just get rejected by others. This is not a place where I fit in with others because I’m different. But in the final stanza, Emily Dickinson offers a different resolution. She basically says, that if you plumb that loneliness, you’re really reading a map, not of other people, but of your own soul, and that such an expedition – a kind of spelunking of the soul – can either avoid all those closed off spaces, or unseal them, open them, illuminate them. And it is up to you to unseal them.

That is the great paradox of being around so many, but being so alone. Denise Levertov writes poetically of that person who is never fulfilled, never sated, never comfortable, always longing. Wanting the moon. She describes a type of longing – still hungry, still empty, still not enough – that, ironically, keeps one from moving beyond their own loneliness. Some people, no matter what you give them, still want the moon. Some people, no matter who they are with, are still lonely.

Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen, whose writings are the required reading of every seminarian, interprets Biblical stories as parables of loneliness. Fascinating is his telling of the story of the prodigal son, where the father welcomes back his ne'er-do-well progeny not out of a principled righteousness, or a particularly developed sense of forgiveness, or even love. In Nouwen's telling, it is actually a profound loneliness that was the motive force leading to the re-acceptance of the prodigal son. He welcomes him back because without him he was lonely.

Similarly, and more fitting a sermon delivered at the beginning of advent, the story of Mary and Elizabeth, is an instructive story on the subject of loneliness. And to read it this way, it does not matter if you read it literally, metaphorically, historically, or skeptically. According to the gospels, Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, becomes pregnant at an advanced age, and not without cost to their family. Basically, the Angel Gabriel arrives and says, “Elizabeth, the good news is your wish to have a child will be granted, but the bad news is that we will have to turn your husband, a priest (a speaking profession) into a mute.” Several months later, and several miles away, Mary conceives a child – the story tells us – under even more unusual circumstances. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to imagine that this would have been a lonely experience – whatever we think the experience really was. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to imagine that both women experience isolation, worry, a feeling like there is no one else in the world who could possibly understand. And then, Elizabeth and Mary meet. And it is in this joining of two lonely souls, they are able to say words to one another that no one else, not even Joseph and Zechariah, are able to say: I understand what you're going through, you are not alone.

A big part of loneliness, not all, but a big part is the story we tell about ourselves... and about others. Changing the story that we tell may make us a little bit more OK at those times when we feel alone. And changing the story may serve to unseal those caverns and corridors, let a little light, or another person, in.

Change the story: you are not the only one; there is somebody else who gets what you are going through. Really, they do. Change the story: welcome the prodigal one and ease your lonely heart. Change the story: Face a crowd full of faces that struggle with what you struggle with, who feel in the ways that you feel.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Charge to the Congregation

[On Sunday, Nov. 27, I traveled to Cedar Falls, Iowa to deliver the "Charge to the Congregation" at the Installation service of my friend and colleague, Eva Cameron, as she was installed as the new minister of the UU Society of Blackhawk County. Word is a podcast will be up soon, and I'll post it here when it is.]

Before I commence my charge to you, I want to praise you for doing something more important than anything I will say to you in these next few minutes. I want to praise you for the making the splendid decision that you have made in calling Eva as your minister. If you have not yet discovered, you will soon learn – as those of us who know her well know well – that Eva is a fiercely compassionate and fiercely intelligent human being. Among colleagues she is deeply respected. In ministry, Eva models a profound understanding of shared ministry that brings out the best of those around her. In life, Eva models an openness and curiosity. She connects easily with people from all walks of life; if you spend any amount of time around her, your life cannot help but become more connected, your soul expanded.

You have called a fine, fine minister, but I’m going to charge you to do even more. I’m going to charge you to do even more because… well, because I can. That’s the great thing about these “Charges to the Congregation”: I get to tell you what to do and with complete immunity. All of the power and none of the responsibility!

I am a life-long Unitarian Universalist, having grown up in the historic First Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts, which has gathered for worship since 1640, and as a Unitarian congregation for the last 200 or so years. Those of us who grow up Unitarian Universalist have, perhaps, a special sense for what this faith means. It is a tradition that we know from the cradle, perhaps from the womb.

Standing before you today, I can say to you that growing up as a Unitarian Universalist saved my life. When I say that to you, I’m not sure that I’m talking about being saved in a physical sense, in the sense of pulse or no pulse. And when I say that it saved my life, I’m not sure that I’m talking about being saved in a metaphysical sense either, in the sense of heaven and hell. When I say that it saved my life, I’m saying it more metaphorically. It saved my soul by teaching me powerful lessons of mercy, acceptance, understanding, hope, and justice. It taught me a way of being religious that was life-affirming instead of life-dismissing. Were it not for having grown up in this church, I am certain my life would be something much, much less than what it is.

My first charge to you is a challenging one: Be about the work of being a context in which lives are transformed, in which lives are saved. What you do here as a church matters. It matters in so many ways, known and unknowable. It matters to the person who comes in and sits in the back, who has decided to give church – or life – one last shot. It matters to the family blessed by the work this religious community does in the wider community. It matters to the person who didn’t know that a religious community could be like this, could possibly embrace him or her. It matters to the youth who grows up not scared or scarred by doctrine, and not condescending to faith either, but in the possession of a life-opening religious view.

This life-saving work is what makes you different from a country club, or a community center, or a debating society, or a half-way house for the orphans of organized religion. It is this transformation of life that makes you a faith community. Be about this work.

My second charge to you is this: Living out a life of faith will not make your life easier. It will demand more from you than you expect. My church outside of Kansas City is located on a road with many other houses of worship. As you drive West, the churches seem to get bigger and bigger. One day, prior to a meeting with a leader in my church, I drove down this road picking up stewardship literature for each church. As you move West, the asking becomes more bold and more demanding. I decided to show these pamphlets to the leader from my congregation, and their response was one of horror, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly ask like that, we don’t have Hell.” And yet, we would never say that we could not work passionately for justice because we don’t have hell. And, we would never say that we can’t help people to live ethically informed lives because we don’t have Hell. Our faith ought to demand more of us, ask more from us.

If the life of Gandhi, or Jesus, or Martin Luther King, or Theodore Parker showed us anything, it is that the authentic life of faith will require more from you than you expect. It makes your life better, not easier. The opportunity that Unitarian Universalism provides you with to build your own theology, to figure out what you believe, to debate theology – these opportunities are challenges, not conveniences. They are the first step of a long and difficult journey, not a cozy destination unto themselves. I charge you to be a church of high expectations, and high standards to live up to.

My final charge to you is to be a beacon rather than a bunker. A bunker faith is separate from the world; it is a place where you go to get away, to hunker down, to survive, to remove yourself from the winds that are a-blowing. A beacon faith, sticks out in the world. It signals where it is and what it stands for. People look to it. It shines out on the harsh and frightening world. My final charge to you is to be a beacon, not a bunker.

Let this community know who you are, what you stand for, where your convictions lie. Tell them what you are all about and tell them that you wan them to be a part of what you are all about. Invite your friends, your neighbors, your dentist, your dog-groomer to come on Sunday morning. Go out and drive around and tell Sunday morning joggers that they look tired and that you would be happy to give them a ride to the UU society of Black Hawk County. Demonstrate your presence through works of direct service and social action.

These are my charges: Be a context in which lives are saved. Live a life of faith in which more is expected from you. Be a beacon, not a bunker.

As I thought about traveling up here to charge you as your congregation begins this new relationship with your new minister, I wanted to find out a bit about you. So, I studied up on you, and I was intrigued (and maybe even a bit perplexed) to discover the symbol of the Golden Rectangle (or Golden Proportion, or Golden Ratio) that you display prominently all around the church. I'm not sure I completely understand it, but it is interesting symbolism. Now, I’m no math scholar, but I did a little research and found the equation for the Golden Ratio.

φ = a/b = (a+b)/a

So, I thought I might leave you with some equations to consider. Don’t worry, you don’t have to know math. In fact, not knowing math may place you at a distinct advantage. I charge you to remember the Unitarian golden ratio, the equation for making coffee:

Coffee = 1 tbsp. coffee grounds / 6 oz. water

I happen to believe this equation works better with pie.

1 tbsp. coffee grounds / 6 oz. water + π

I considered trying to suggest a formula for Unitarian Universalism…

U² = Σ [7(p+p) + 1819 + (√exp.)t(m+w)] / 25

… but thought better of it! (Don't ask...)

However, one equation that is important to share is this one:

f C = 10% - t%

You will notice that this equation shows that complaining is negatively correlated to tithing. As tithing approaches 10%, complaining approaches zero. Even if you don’t believe this equation, I dare you to try to prove it false.

My final equation, that I leave you with is one that I don’t know how to write, for it is seemingly non-mathematical, illogical, and irrational. It is simply this, that somehow, somehow, when a fine congregation and a fine minister come together, they make each other more than what they already are. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Blessings to you as a congregation. Blessings to this new ministry. Blessings to your shared ministry, together.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sermon: "Hypocrisy is Hip Again" (Delivered 11/6/2005)

[This sermon is inspired by the writings of Doug Muder, especially the sermon version of his "Red Family, Blue Family" essay.]


Reading: James 3:1-13, 17

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by Hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. Who is wise and understanding among you… without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy?”

Sermon

You can always count on a good scandal. When I decided several months ago that I was going to preach on the subject of hypocrisy, I couldn’t help but wonder which scandal would surface for my use as a contemporary sermon illustration. As it turns out, this past week would prove to be rich in scandal considering it was a week in which the adviser to the vice-President would be indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, a week in which the conspiracy and money laundering trial against House Speaker Tom Delay gained momentum as the investigation of insider trading against Senate Majority leader Bill Frist continued. And never mind the release this past week of the email correspondence of ex-FEMA director Michael Brown in which Brown, in the midst of the Katrina crisis, wrote emails cracking jokes about needing to be rescued, complaining of his difficulty finding a dog-sitter, and proclaiming, “I am a fashion god.”

I think hypocrisy may be defined as such: hypocrisy is a kind of insincerity, a claiming to believe things that you do not really believe. Hypocrisy is a kind of dissonance between our public words and private actions, between what you say should be done and what you actually do. And more to the point, hypocrisy involves a kind of tangible benefit – in which one derives honor or prestige or gain by claiming to have principles that one does not actually have.

If there is a lesson that I want for you to take away from Church this morning, it is that you should be a bigger hypocrite, because hypocrisy is hip again. Actually, that is not the lesson I want you to take away. I’ll explain this later on.

According to legend, we in this congregation have hypocrisy to thank for our being here today. And I don't mind telling this story, because it is not our own hypocrisy that we have to thank, thankfully. (The hypocrisy of others is always easier to spot and condemn.) According to legend, we as a church originally lost out on purchasing this land when it was bought by an evangelical church, whose pastor then turned around and left his wife for the church secretary, and left town with all the cash, leaving the church with a mortgage it couldn't pay and requiring them to put the property back on the market, allowing us to purchase it. How many of the ten commandments is that?

Of course, there is no commandment against hypocrisy, exactly. Hypocrisy is not a sin; it is more of an accessory, an enhancement, a bonus. The poet Matthew Arnold famously quipped, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." What Arnold is saying is that while vice can exist anywhere, hypocrisy can only exist when vice exists amidst claims of virtue.

Claims of virtue invite hypocrisy. My favorite example of this is the author William Bennett. Bennett, as many of you know, wrote the "Book of Virtue." It was actually called the "Book of Virtues" and, checking in at an enormous 831 pages, it clearly had a lot to say about virtues. So, it was only fitting that the man who wrote the “book of virtues” would accumulate a reported eight million dollars in gambling losses. Now, Bennett is a wealthy man. After all, it was his many books instructing people in the practice of virtue, and condemning others for their moral shortcomings, that made Bill Bennett the type of guy who can easily afford to blow eight million dollars without having to worry about how he will feed his family. He was not gambling the milk money. And lots of people lose a million or two in the casinos: Pete Rose, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, nameless business men in Armani suits... but Dennis Rodman’s autobiography is called “Bad as I want to be”, not "The Book of Virtues." Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

So hypocrisy thrives amidst claims of virtue. So, it is only fitting that it would be found most pronounced among those who claim to be the most virtuous. It thrives amidst adulterous preachers like Jimmy Swaggart, and fraudulent and adulterous preachers like Jim Bakker, and preachers like Jerry Johnston, who had the nerve to preach to his flock about not cheating on their taxes while he himself was apparently over a year behind and ten thousand dollars in arrears on taxes he owed on his half-million dollar Johnson County home. He promptly paid up though; in fact he paid up on the very same day a reporter asked him about his unpaid taxes. (Now, if Jim Bakker or Jerry Johnston had been a little bit creative, they would have found a way to skip out on taxes legally, like Rick Warren did. From 1993-1995, Rev. Rick Warren paid not one single cent in income tax on his $80,000/year salary. He found a small loop hole for clergy and made it a big loop hole. And he got away with it. Of course, he had to win a Supreme Court case in the process, but that’s what you have to do when you’re doing God’s work.)

Of course, it is not just preachers who are hypocrites. There are politicians as well. In the last national election cycle there was a story out of Virginia that didn't get picked up by the media as one might have expected. The story involved incumbent Congressman Ed Schrock representing Virginia Beach, the same congressional district where Pat Robertson resides. Now, Representative Schrock earned atrocious ratings from gay rights groups because of his support of anti-gay legislation in Congress. The incumbent withdrew from the election at the last minute when it was discovered that he had a habit of making 1-900 calls to homo-erotic phone sex lines. Now, of course, neither political party has a monopoly on sexual misconduct, just as high stakes gambling can embrace both bad-boy athletes and former members of cabinet alike. But hypocrisy, hypocrisy is the sole possession of those who confess and profess a higher moral character. It is the tribute vice pays to that higher moral character.

Now, if my aim today were to instruct you not to be hypocrites, I could recommend two different courses of action. One course of action would be to tell you to be morally pure and ethically perfect. “Be ye perfect…” And, of course, you're not going to succeed, because who do think you are, Jesus? The other course of action, to perfectly safeguard you from ever being accused of hypocrisy, is to tell you to never make any sort of moral claim whatsoever, which doesn't of course mean that you need to live life full of vice. You might just as well live a life of model virtue, just don't say that's what you're doing and don't tell anybody else what to do either.

But, that's not why I'm here this morning. I'm not here to prescribe an antidote to hypocrisy, but to invite you to become hypocrites. Because hypocrisy is hip again, it's always been. Of course, that's not really what I'm going to do.

So, when I say the word "hypocrisy" to you, what do you think of? I would imagine that what you think of is something like the Jim Bakker's and Jimmy Swaggart's of the world. Or of the religious authorities we imagine Jesus rebuking for demonstrating showy piety but living lives of ethical shortcoming. I would imagine that you think of someone self-aggrandizing, arrogant, and holier-than-thou.

But I want to see if I can't suggest a different way of thinking about hypocrisy. What if we saw hypocrisy not as the emperor without any clothes, but something different. Unitarian Universalist Doug Muder, who is a political commentator and writer on culture, faith, and politics, writes, “[The Religious Right has] a fundamentally negative view of where the world is going. The Anti-Christ is coming. Armageddon is coming. Things are going to get really bad. And so, if Tom DeLay or Rush Limbaugh or Jimmy Swaggart get into trouble -- and they have -- that just shows how strong the winds of temptations are in this fallen society. It just shows how strong Satan is in these last days, [that even those paragons of virtue could stumble.]” [Scroll down to the June 03 entry] What Muder is suggesting is that scandals, paradoxically, often have the effect of strengthening and confirming people’s allegiances to their own biases. If it is your enemy that who goes down in shame, it just goes to prove how right you were to have that enemy. And if it is your own hero is the one who succumbs, then imagine how much worse your enemy would succumb to that same temptation!

Doug Muder argues that pointing out the hypocrisies of others is to engage in ineffective rhetoric. To paraphrase, “pointing out another’s vice has no ability to change them. Displaying your own virtue is the only thing that will change them.”

Thus, my invitation to you all to become hypocrites. Well, not actually. Thus, my invitation to you all to risk being hypocrites: My invitation to you to display virtue. To display liberal religious virtue. Because pointing out another’s vice has no ability to change them, but displaying your own virtue does.

A story from our tradition: the great Universalist minister Hosea Ballou was traveling along the road and got to talking salvation with a person traveling along the road with him. When Ballou admitted that he believed in Universal salvation and that there was no such thing as Hell, the traveler asked, “But if you do not believe in Hell, why do you not kill me and steal my horse.” Ballou’s response, “Because I am a Universalist the thought would never cross my mind.”

When I talk about this church, this faith in public, people will sometimes ask me, concerned, “Well, if you don’t all believe the same thing, then how do you get along?” “If there is no Hell, then what is the incentive to do good?” I say, we get along because we respect each other even though we do not all believe the same thing. We do good not for some future reward but because doing good is its own reward.

Although I feel that sometimes we internalize this notion of inferiority. Two years ago I was driving down 87th street and I decided I would drop in to each church and pick up their information on stewardship. I had a meeting with an officer of our church and I showed that individual the brochures I had picked up, comparing their challenging message about stewardship to our more relaxed message. And the officer says to me, “Oh, we can’t possibly ask like they do. We don’t have Hell.” But we would never, ever, say, “We can’t possibly help people to live ethical, principled lives because we don’t have Hell.”

Because we do help people to live ethical, principled lives. In this congregation we have amazing families. We have astounding kindness, understanding, compassion. We have passionate commitment to causes that make the world a better place. Our teenagers grow into these fantastic human beings with ethics and vision. Our children are the ones at school who speak out when a racist epithet or homophobic insult is spoken; they are the ones sticking up for the kid getting picked on, befriending the kid who is left out. These are our values.

Doug Muder writes, “the personal is political again.” By this he means that the everyday ways we live our lives are an expression of our deepest values and that we should choose to be out-spoken about the role those values play in our lives. This means that the conduct of our everyday lives, the virtues we embrace, and demonstrate, and live-by, if articulated, are a source of influence and moral force. How we take care of each other is a source of influence and moral force. How we spend time together as a family is political again is a source of influence and moral force. How we volunteer and give and serve the community is a source of influence and moral force. How we face the tough stuff life throws at us, and get back up again, is a source of influence and moral force.

So, I invite you to risk being a hypocrite: as you live out our values in community, as you walk the walk of justice and mercy, inclusiveness and love, don’t be afraid to speak up and say, “These are my values. These are my morals. These are my virtues.”

Friday, September 30, 2005

Name in the Papers

Over the past several months, I have been volunteering with a group called "Kansans for Responsible Sex Education." If you live in Kansas and support what this group is about, take a few seconds to sign the petition!

On Tuesday, September 13 I traveled to Topeka with over two dozen participants in this campaign and testified in front of the Kansas School Board, urging them not to enact an "opt-in" policy. You can check out some of the media coverage below (not sure when these links expire):

The Kansas City Star
Johnson County Sun
The Lawrence Journal-World
The Wichita Eagle
KMBC-TV9 (Check out the video!)
Fox4 News

Sermon: "Should Religious Liberals Reconsider Paul?" (Delivered 7/31/2005)

[Two key books informed this sermon: "In Search of Paul" by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed and "A Radical Jew" by Daniel Boyarin. I've indicated places below where I've quoted/paraphrased their words by ending those paragraphs with brackets.]

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, it was announced that Peter Gomes – a bit of a celebrity professor to us Harvard students – would be giving a series of evening lectures on the subject, “Preaching on Paul.” Now the thing about being a student in Cambridge was that on any given night, you had your pick of talks from Nobel prize winners, literary geniuses, politicians, international diplomats, and experts in any field you could imagine… and somewhere in there you were expected to do your homework too. Let’s just say, “Preaching on Paul” was less intriguing to me than going to hear, say Jared Diamond or Gary Trudeau or a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

One day as I was walking through the halls of the Divinity School, a classmate stopped me and queried whether I’d be going to hear Peter Gomes’ lectures on Paul. I remember replying with the wittiest, and maybe the most arrogant, thing I’ve uttered. Would I be going to the lecture? “Oh, no, it all sounds like so much ‘what Peter says about Paul.’” But the truth was that as a UU, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever preach on Paul.

In late antiquity, a great and powerful empire dominated the western world. It was cruel and violent and unjust and oppressive – not particularly more so than other empires before or since, but oh, the scale. Its imperial reach was military, but also cultural. It imposed its culture upon others. And in many ways, this culture was cutting-edge. [Crossan/Reed preface]

This empire believed that it had God on its side. Its coins, temples, statues, roads, buildings, landscapes bore these inscriptions, “God, Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the World.” These inscriptions described none other than Caesar Augustus. And this empire did desire to save the world, to achieve peace… but to achieve it through victory and domination. [Crossan/Reed preface]

And on the outskirts of this empire, a member of an oppressed minority religion had a powerful spiritual awakening, began to articulate a vision of a new world and a new creation. This vision forever altered the group out of which he came and eventually would threaten the empire itself. At the same time, this vision was threatened on two fronts. It was threatened by those who would bind it to a particular group, possess it exclusively. And it was also threatened by forces that would subsume it into the larger culture, to make it a servant of that culture rather than a challenge to it. [Crossan/Reed]

We might say that today we are living in late, late antiquity. In which a great and powerful empire dominates the Western world. An empire that in some ways is at the cutting edge of civilization, but that also is no stranger to violence, cruelty, injustice and oppression. An empire that flexes its muscles militarily, but also culturally. Whose leaders envision God on our side (at the very least) and who perceive a mandate to be saviors of the world, salvation through victory and domination. [Crossan/Reed]

And what word shall we hear of a different vision? What word shall we hear of a new creation? And can it be said, without binding it to our narrow possession? And can it be said, without bending it so that it becomes a servant to and an accomplice with the same imperial culture that is a disservice to it.

***

Saul of Tarsus was believed to have been born in the first decade of the Common Era. A contemporary of Jesus, he never actually met him. In the early stages of his life, it is reported, he participated in the persecution of followers of Jesus. Then, on the Road to Damascus, he had a powerful conversion experience, changed his name from Saul to Paul, and became an apostle. He traveled the Mediterranean, assisting, supporting, and directing the communities of Jews who were following Jesus. Paul was martyred in Rome in the year 65.

The New Testament contains twenty-seven books, of which thirteen are letters bearing the inscription that they were written by Paul. These letters, epistles, are among the most remarkable pieces of literature ever written. They are part the spiritual autobiography of a first century Jew, part theological treatise, and part advice columns. They are also among the most criticized pieces of writing ever written. Let me enumerate these criticisms, giving special attention to the criticisms of him that have come from liberal religious circles:

First, Paul has been called an inventor of Christianity, and a betrayer of Jesus and distorter of Jesus’ message. This criticism holds that Paul theologized Jesus’ teachings, over-emphasized the death and resurrection and under-emphasized Jesus’ ministry. He took the religion that Jesus practiced and made it a religion about Jesus. This is the Paul who was portrayed in Martin Scorcese’s movie the Last Temptation of Christ as a zealous defrauder, who fashions an invented Jesus.

Second, not only has Paul been called the apostle who betrayed Jesus, but he’s also been called the apostate who betrayed Judaism. In this reading, Paul’s criticism of The Law is coded as an attack on Judaism. It is true that Paul’s writings and arguments were later interpreted in a way that would lead to Jewish stereotypes, and, eventually, Anti-Semitism.

Thirdly, Paul was also accused of being racist. Paul lived in a time and society in which the owning of slaves was a commonly accepted practice. The racism accusation comes from passages like Ephesians 6, where we find the commonly referenced formula of who-should-obey-whom which includes “slaves obey your masters”, and in the letter to Philemon where Paul instructs a runaway slave to return to his master. These passages were frequently used by Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries to condone the practice of slavery in North America.

Fourth, Paul is also accused of being homophobic. Paul’s words in passages like Romans one, First Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are among the most-used by the Religious Right in their efforts to legislate discrimination against homosexuals today.

And fifthly and lastly, Paul is sexist. Wives obey your husbands it says in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5. Women, do not speak in church, it says in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.

So there we have it, Paul is a dishonest, anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, misogynist. Let’s send him away, cast him out. Why even bother to reconsider him? I believe that any reconsideration of Paul needs to begin with an open hearing of the charges against him I’ve listed above. Fortunately, it isn’t that difficult to find evidence that will lead to dismissing many of these charges and reducing of the rest. Mainstream Biblical scholarship has made these findings available to us for decades, but for some reason it has been more convenient for many to continue to see Paul as a villain to demonize rather than an ally, albeit a flawed one, to cooperate with.

The first thing to understand is that Paul didn’t write everything that has got his name on it. Of the thirteen epistles, Paul only wrote seven. Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy are not authentically Paul. Neither are Ephesians, Colossians, or 2 Thessalonians. About 90 percent of the offensive stuff that we think Paul wrote appears in these non-Pauline epistles. How do we know this? Biblical scholarship clearly shows it. One of the key tools used to distinguish Paul from non-Paul is this thing scholars call “Pauline Embarrassment.” This theory works like this: if Paul says something that dramatically challenged the dominant culture in a way that would have been embarrassing to the church, Paul most certainly said it, because somebody had to come back later and write pretending to be Paul to try to make it fit the culture. And it is embarrassing things like radical equality, like non-hierarchy that later writers tried to correct or obscure.

You want to know about Paul’s views about women? Try 1 Corinthians 16: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church, so you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you.” In other words, “Do what this woman says.” Paul then goes on to supply a list of leaders. A third of the list are women. But of the ones on the list who he singles out for special praise, half are women, including Junia. Junia is so controversial that the church tradition later pretended that she was a man, however, archeology has accounted for over 250 Junia’s living in the first century and all are women. Junia, it is said, is “prominent among the apostles.” Meaning, she had authority over the leaders of the church. [Crossan/Reed]

Or consider 1 Corinthians 7, where the advice to married couples is egalitarian, and ends with the final piece of advice, “And however that may be, let each of you lead the life to which God called you.” And if you decide to go and read 1 Corinthians, make sure to look for the passage where Paul writes to a group who cross-dress during the religious services. [Crossan/Reed]

Similarly, arguments can be made against claims of Paul’s supposed homophobia. (After all, the concept of homosexuality did not exist in Paul’s day.) So what he was writing about was not specific acts, but specific attitudes – states of egoism, self-absorption, excess, self-worship – forms of idolatry all. It is almost never specific acts that concern Paul, rather it is purity of heart. Paul is saying that sexual desire can be a cruel master. [Peter Gomes, "The Good Book"]

And arguments against his racism are possible as well. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free,” is the famous formula in Galatians 3:28.

As for his anti-Semitism, we should remember that Paul was a Jew who believed he was living out Judaism through offering a radical critique of it. His philosophy may be Greek, but his rhetoric was surely Jewish.

There might be one final thing to say about reading Paul. Reading Paul is like reading the answers to a Dear Abby column without reading the questions. They are one side of a dialogue and the other side has been lost. And the questions that we may be most concerned about are probably not the questions he is answering. I doubt the church at Corinth or Rome were asking, What do you think of women’s suffrage? Or should we adopt a marriage amendment?

So, if what I’ve argued, if the knowledge I’ve introduced, is at all plausible to you, I hope you will welcome this act of reconsidering Paul that I will attempt in the remainder of this sermon.

I believe that central to Paul’s teachings and writings was an egalitarian ideal that was a response to the non-egalitarian structure of Roman civilization and also a response to his separate status as a Jewish other. Roman civilization was highly stratified, according to gender, according to class, according to nationality, and according to religion. Paul, however, envisioned a new creation in which there would no longer be Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female. Paul was especially concerned about Jewish particularity and so attempted to open up the Jewish world to gentiles, to make what was particular universal.
However, he immediately ran into problems: were Gentile converts expected to keep Kosher, to become circumcised, to keep the law? For that matter, were Jews still expected to keep the law? And was the universal oneness that Paul dreamt of compatible with people doing differently and being different? Asked succinctly, do people have worth because of a shared common humanity? Or are we valuable because of our differences? [Boyarin]

That is the first question that reconsidering Paul helps us to better answer: What is the nature of human worth? And do we accept Paul’s universalizing answer? Or do we need to continue this work?

The second question that reconsidering Paul will help us to engage with is the question of empire, of imperialism, and our relationship to it. In Paul there is a strong wrestling with what it means to live under an imperial rule, and as a part, albeit a minority part, of an imperial civilization. As I read Paul, there is time and time again an insistence that peace needs to be achieved through Justice, not through Victory, and most certainly not through death. In this regard, Paul represents the continuation of, rather than the departure from, Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God. I read Paul as being in line with Vaclav Havel who wrote, “The faithful attitude is and must be fundamentally hostile towards the notion of violent change – simply because it places its faith in violence. An attitude that turns away from abstract political visions of the future and towards concrete human beings and ways of defending them effectively in the here and now is quite naturally accompanied by an intensified antipathy to all forms of violence carried out in the name of ‘better future’ and by a profound belief that a future secured by violence might actually be worse than what exists now; in other words, the future would be fatally stigmatized by the very means used to secure it… It is not that we should shy away from the idea of violent political overthrow because the idea seems too radical, but on the contrary, because it is not radical enough.” The Pax Romana was a peace through domination and victory in the name of piety. The Peace of Paul was a peace through justice and non-violence in the name of covenant. [Crossan/Reed epilogue]

Finally, thirdly, a reconsideration of Paul will help us to further discern the relationship between ourselves as religious people and the culture – or we might say today, various sub-cultures. To what degree should our religion be a part of the culture around us? To what degree should it be distinct, set-apart from that culture? To what degree should it be counter-cultural? In Paul’s writings almost an embarrassing amount of time is spent addressing cultural practices that we may have a difficult time thinking are important. He spends an awful lot of time worrying about keeping the Jewish food requirements. He also spends a lot of time on subjects like marriage between Jews and Gentiles. But these practices are value-loaded; they are extremely important to the communities to which he is writing… because the answers to these questions are also going to be the answer to the questions of whether in the new Kingdom there will be slave and free, whether there will be male and female. And we know that the answer that Paul comes up with is going to be so troubling to others in the church that they will write letters in his name arguing for keeping the old cultural standards in place.

These are the three questions: What is the meaning of diversity and difference? What does it mean to live in an imperial time? And to what extent should the church conform to or question culture? These three questions are not ones that Paul offers perfect answers to, in fact far from it. But they were at the core of what this little church was struggling with living under the thumb of the Senatus Populusque Romanus. And perhaps, just perhaps, we might profit from asking these same questions in our little church right here smack dab in the middle of the Senatus Populusque Americanus. [Crossan/Reed]

I close with words from Paul’s epistle to the Romans:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Sermon: "The Conviction of a UU" (Delivered 8/21/2005)

[I know of at least two colleagues, Rev. Richard Gilbert and Rev. Ken Sawyer, who have preached on the hypothetical question, "If you were accused of being a UU, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"]

When I was in college, a professor of mine began a course on Judaism with the fascinating pronouncement that the religion of Judaism – its history and traditions – could be best understood by imagining that there was a central question that lies at the heart of it, a lens through which things Jewish could be comprehended. He then went on to propose that the question, at the heart of the tradition, is: "Who is a Jew?" Which is to ask, “Who is included in the covenant between Yahweh and Yahweh's chosen people?”

I was so struck by this idea that there might be a central question at the heart of each religion – a central question around which a tradition wrestles, a central question shaping discourse and understanding. I was so struck by this idea that I began to wonder if each world religion might have a question at its center.

In Islam, the question might be: "What does it mean to surrender, to submit to God?" In Christianity it might be, "What must I do to be saved?" Or, perhaps, "What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?"

And I wondered, I wondered, what the central question at the heart of Unitarian Universalism might be... But for now, I want to ask a different question:
That different question is, "If you were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

If you were arrested for being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you? If the attorney general launched an inquiry into those practicing Unitarian Universalism, would your name turn up? If Alberto Gonzales started files on all those suspected of engaging in "Unitarian Universalist activities" would your file be thick or thin? Would there be enough evidence to convict you?

During the nineties, there were a number of sermons preached in UU churches on this question. And the reason for these sermons being preached might have been a very, very puzzling statistical finding. Every time a research company tries to estimate the size of different religious groups in the United States - every time a poll is conducted or a random sampling is performed = the results fairly consisently estimate the number of Unitarian Universalists in the United States to be around 600,00. Which is not a large number, about the size of Johnson County. However if you add up the number of all the members in all of the UU churches in the country you get around 150,000. 600,000 estimate; 150,000 actual. Meaning three quarters of those who answered a telephone survey and said that their religious affiliation was Unitarian Universalist were not actually on the membership lists of their local UU church. If you compared us to other religious traditions, our rate of involvement may not actually be all that unusual, or all that bad comparatively speaking, but I still found and find it to be incredible. Mathematically speaking, the results of that survey would indicate that there are thirteen-hundred individuals living in Johnson County who if you asked them what religion they are, they would say “Unitarian Universalist.” Remember the question posed was not, "this is what our church is like... would you be interested in a church like this?" but rather the question is, “what religion are you?” Thirteen-hundred. I wish I had their phone numbers.

Around the time that all these conviction sermons were being preached, there also rose this interest in Unitarian Universalist identity. UU Identity meant in some way being open and public about your religious identity. Being in some way publicly visible about your faith... not having a secret religious identity that would only be known if it was leaked, as if by a Whitehouse official. "I’m not naming any names, but the wife of the ambassador is… a UU.” UU Identity… that our faith identity need not be something “top secret.”

These two trends – the trend of being open about your religious identity, and the trend of it not being enough to just say what religion you were, that there should be some evidence – these two trends had ramifications. First, the idea that if you claimed to be Unitarian Universalist, there should be some supporting evidence, indicated that being a Unitarian Universalist required some participation. If you asked someone what political party they were, and they said they were a Republican or a Democrat, but then they explained, "Oh, but I don't vote, don't support candidates, and I can't even be bothered to put a bumper sticker on my car," you might wonder, "OK... so what exactly is it that makes you that political party?" Religion might be the same way, if you said, “Oh, I’m Catholic or Baptist, but I don’t go to church, don’t really give a lot of thought to what it might mean to live accordingly…” then it would give us cause to wonder.

And the idea that you should be in some way public about your religious identity meant that there was a component of responsibility. If you wear chalice jewelry, or are open about which church you attend, you should be expected to be able to articulate or explain what Unitarian Universalism is.

Last Spring I had the chance to interview each of the members of the Coming of Age class. To each of them I asked this question: If someone accused you of being Unitarian Universalist, what evidence would they cite? The responses varied. One teen suggested they might search his home for subversive literature, like the UU World Magazine or our church newsletter. Another offered that they could find someone to testify that they went to church here on Sunday. But other teenage youth answered the question by suggesting that the evidence would be connected with something they did. And for those adolescents, the something they did almost universally resembled a daring act of inclusiveness, tolerance, and acceptance -- a sticking up for a person, or type of person, or idea, or way of living that was being mercilessly ridiculed or denigrated by their peers. (That answer swelled me with a wonderful sense of pride.)

What makes you one particular religion or another?

Is it a thing you possess -- a piece of literature, a scripture, a piece of jewelry or ceremonial garb, an icon or relic? Is a search warrant required to prove it?

Or is it a company you keep -- a group you associate with? Sort of like guilt by association.

Or is it a way you believe -- a set of doctrinal statements to accept, creeds to affirm... In order for there to be a conviction, must there be a confession?

Or maybe it is an action you perpetrate? Can I get a witness?

Or maybe it is it some combination of these, some mix of belonging and believing, some combination of deed and devotion.

Really, this morning I have indulged in a bit of wordplay. Conviction being both a judgment against a criminal and the adhering to a set of ethical values. If you were accused of being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you? And we might say, that your conviction might depend on how well you lived by your convictions.

Perhaps, in this day in age the idea of such tribunals being set up to try suspected Unitarian Universalists is too scary an idea to be joked about. We recall, for example, Michael Servetus, the sixteenth century Unitarian burned at the stake for publishing Unitarian views… or Abner Kneeland, the nineteenth century Universalist who was the last man publicly tried on the charge of heresy. And while it is very, very unlikely that anyone here will ever be put to death on account of their religious affiliation, or brought up on charges for it, we do know that we do live in a world in which many of us do have to contend with the persecutions of stand-offish neighbors, proselytizing employers, uncles and aunts with our email addresses.
Currently, though we may never be tried, though we do live in trying times, on a certain level each day is its own trial of our Unitarian Universalist convictions. In the company cafeteria do you have the strength to call foul on a racist or sexist or homophobic joke told at the expense of the dignity of another member of the human family? And do you take up the work of working for the betterment of people through action? Do you resist orthodoxies of the mind, challenging them by passing them through the fire of thought? Do you strive for difficult understanding when conventional prejudice would be so much easier? Are your values reflected, not only in the percentage of your wealth that you give to the church, but in what you do with the rest of it? When you are asked about your moral values, do you have the strength to answer boldly?

The word "conviction" in the title of this sermon is intended to have a dual meaning. I want to continue with the play on words by suggesting that Unitarian Universalists are not so much a "chosen" people, but a "choosing" people.

The concept of a “Chosen people” is a Biblical concept, referring to the particular relationship between the Deity and his people. The story is of Abraham and Sarah. Yahweh bestows the blessing of a child as a sign of blessings to come, and in exchange the descendents vow to be faithful to God and keep the commandments. It might be noted that the status of being a Chosen People is not held to be some kind of special perk. It is a privileged status, but with that privilege comes a burden. Of you more will be asked, more will be expected, you are to live by a higher standard.

In our own Unitarian Universalist heritage, there is a strand of this idea of being a chosen people. It was our forebears, the Puritans that first conceived of their errand into the wilderness as an adventure of God’s chosen people. John Winthrop preached aboard the Arabella, that the Puritans were to be as a city upon a hill, a beacon and example to the world. A Chosen people.

It has been said that Unitarian Universalists are not so much a chosen people as we are a choosing people. In publications, we frequently refer to ourselves as heretics, noting that the root of the word means, “One who chooses.” Notice, I’ve selected the word “choosing”, not “choosy”. But there is this element of discernment, of conscience and conscientiousness, of sifting, of applying reason, of probing and wondering that lies close to the heart of our faith, our chosen faith. “Since what we choose is what we are and what we love we yet shall be, the goal it ever shines afar, the will to reach it makes us free.”

I want to end this morning by suggesting that it is our ability to choose that makes us a chosen people. It is the fact that for us religion is something we choose that means that more is asked of us and expected from us. The act of choice is demanding, not easy. To choose is a burden. It would not be a burden if the choice did not matter, but it does, and therefore, it is demanding. What we choose is what we are.

As one contemporary UU has noted, “Being UU is not permission to choose to believe anything you want. It is the freedom to choose and to pursue that which you are compelled to believe.” To choose that for your own. To choose authenticity over some prefabricated doctrine.

And such a choice, such a choice is intimately connected with responsibility. Since what we choose is what we are. Responsibility and consequence and expectation. Such it is for us, this choosing chosen people. And so it that I might suggest that the question that lies at the heart of our tradition is this: “As a people free to choose, how is it that we are most wisely and responsibly use that awesome choice we are given?"

Sermon: "The Question of Evil for Religious Liberals" (Delivered 9/11/2005)

A colleague of mine recently wrote an entry on her blog on the subject of "evil" and quoted the lyrics of gospel singer, Shirley Caesar:

“Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down;
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down;
You’ve been building your kingdom all over this land,
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down!

The mothers are gonna pray your kingdom down;
The mothers are gonna pray your kingdom down;
You’ve been building your kingdom all in the house of God;
Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down.”

You don’t usually hear words like that in a Unitarian Universalist church. This morning I’m going to be tackling the topic of “The Question of Evil for Religious Liberals.” The fancy theological word for this is “theodicy” – the explanation of why bad things happen in the universe and what the forces and powers underlying those bad things are.

It occurs to me that religious liberals tend not to have a strong sense of a supernatural motive force of evil and ill that is at work in the world. Unitarian Universalists tend not to believe in a “Satan” lurking in the shadows. We do not think in terms of demon possession or the devil. We do not think in terms of a great Deceiver (as Jerry Johnston would phrase it) or the Antichrist (as Pat Robertson would phrase it) operating in the worldly realm that grows in power in order to overcome and afflict God’s good people. We haven’t been known to say, “Satan, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down.”

We might even ask whether the term “Evil” should be the part of the operating theological language of religious liberals? Are we allowed to label anything as Evil? Or should we just avoid using the word, and call things “wrong” or “bad” or “not nice” or “in violation of the standards of our community, in my own humble opinion.” Is “Evil” a word that we can use to describe suicide bombers and Osama bin Laden? What about Hitler and Pol Pot? What about members of the Aryan Nation or the Ku Klux Klan? What about serial killers like BTK? Or maybe there is no such thing as an evil person, only evil actions, evil ideas?

In my own opinion, though, we can fairly use the term “Evil.” On some level it is an uncomfortable word to use. We are more comfortable expressing the ills of the world in terms of “neurology and body chemistry, in terms of socio-economic conditions and theological ideologies, in terms of social forces, family forces, ignorance and lack of education, bad parenting, oppressions and repressions, racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia.” This is analysis with which I am comfortable. This is the homework I have done!

But, it is a different sort of homework that is required in order to speak of “Evil” from a theologically-attuned position. For, when we speak of “bad” and “wrong” and “not nice”, when we speak of nurture and upbringing and social conditions and learned behaviors and oppression, when we speak of these things we are speaking as chemists, as biologists, as psychologists, as educators, as social scientists and political scientists, as political creatures, as pundits and observers – and to be fair, liberal religion has said that because these things inform our understanding of the true shape of our world and ourselves, our religion needs to be open to these teachings. But when we speak of Evil, we are speaking as something more than doctors of physiology and psychology, as scientists of culture and society. When we speak of Evil we are speaking as religious people as theologians, conjuring up an understanding of something transcendent, extraordinary. And the fact that we do not have a supernatural Satan, demon, or antichrist – a being with agency who we imagine stalks the Earth stirring up trouble and building a kingdom; since we probably do not conceive of such a creature, it becomes incumbent upon us to develop a more sophisticated theology of Evil.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with someone here at Church and I was getting very excited about preaching this sermon on Evil. That person asked why I had decided to preach on the subject. I responded that it was a fitting topic on the anniversary of September 11th. I also said that I wanted to preach on this subject because, theologically, it seems to be a topic that we do not easily think through, and linguistically, it is a word or concept many of us have difficulty with. The individual responded that he didn’t have any difficulty using the word… and it was upon hearing this comment that I really began to think about it. Because you don't want to be able to use the word too easily.

So, I began to make a list of questions I wanted for us to be able to arrive at an answer to:

What is it that makes something Evil, and not just really bad, or unfortunate, or wrong? And why does evil exist? What is the explanation for evil acts? And are there only evil acts and evil ideas or are there also evil people, “evildoers” we might say? And how does one resist evil? And then there are these big questions: what is the nature of our humanity? What does this study of evil tell us about ourselves? And what are the criteria we might apply so that our understanding is useful and helpful and true?

The first thing I might say about thinking theologically about evil is that we must always use extreme caution in not defining “evil” in a way that separates it from us or denies our own capacity for it.

The example of this that comes to mind is this scene from the Michael Moore movie “Bowling for Columbine.” "Bowling for Columbine" explores the fascination with and prevalence of violence in the United States. It uses the horrific school shootings in Columbine as way of opening up the psyche of the nation. There’s this amazing visual scene in the movie in which a citizen of the town of Littleton, Colorado is interviewed. This citizen works for a military contractor who builds intercontinental ballistic missiles. He’s interviewed standing in front of the missile he is working on, a missile that when armed with a nuclear warhead would be capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people. And this man basically says, “I’m at a loss to explain the violence. I mean, we live in such a peaceful town. We’re peaceful people. Violence is something that our community is not involved in.” There was in this interview, a remarkable lack of self-reflection, perhaps even self-denial on the part of the worker.

How different it would have been if he had said, “I construct missiles that are capable of causing the annihilation of great cities. Our nation builds them in order to threaten other families like mine on the other side of the globe, so that they are deterred from shooting their missiles and killing my family. I believe and I pray that these missiles are used judiciously, by people that have the best interest of the planet in their hearts, but it is impossible to be sure that this will always be the case. I am then a part of a system that includes threats of violence and the use of extreme force. That is a part of the world we live in, and our local community is also then necessarily a part of that world.”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags, famously said, “The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart, not in some abstract moral, celestial space, but right here in each of our individual collective beings.” The line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart.
Surely, that is a daring statement. Its implications are enormous. If it is the truth that the line between good and evil runs down the center of every human heart, then what is it that stops any of us from being the Unabomber, or a serial killer, or a suicide bomber, or a white supremacist? I think that the supernatural idea of a Satan, or devil, or deceiver, or what have you serves as sort of a distancing of ourselves from the potential illness of our own human natures. It is a way of removing human agency; because the idea that human beings are themselves capable of such ill is maybe a scarier idea than the idea of the existence of the devil.

Another distancing tactic is the labeling of those who perpetrate evil as “monsters” or “inhuman.” This is done, I would think, as a denial of our own capacity for evil. A human being could never do something like that! – Surely, that person isn’t human like I am.

Yet, I find myself agreeing with my colleague, Rosemary Bray McNatt, who says that, “people are born good and with the ability to make choices. So along with our inherent goodness there is also an inherent capacity for evil.” [UU World, 11/01] Stanley Millgram’s famous psychological experiment showed that two-thirds of his research subjects would be willing to give another human being a fatal electric shock if prompted to do so by an authority figure.

A theology of Evil will necessarily not define Evil as something that we cannot be involved in. It will not label others as evil while denying that we are part of systems that perpetuate and cause evil. The 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made a very interesting comment on the nature of evil. Niebuhr commented: “Evil is always the assertion of some interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community or the total community of humanity or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels.” I think this might be a good working definition. Evil is a force leading us to some interest that is self-centered and does not take into consideration the integrity of the whole. Evil then is the attempt to get something without regard for the effect that that getting something has on others.

Niebuhr’s definition of Evil – that of have a self-interest that causes harm to others – is also the definition of being anti-social. So, is the person who talks during a movie, the person who takes up two parking spaces, or the person who leaves their dirty socks lying on the couch an evildoer? Clearly not. But, as the action grows from inconsiderate to harmful, as the self-centeredness increases, the action approaches evil. Similarly, when those actions are combined with a bias or hatred of another race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, it becomes all that easier to commit an evil act. The theologian Gordon Kaufman said that “evil is that which destroys life or prevents life from unfolding. Evil is that which dehumanizes.”

If you’ve ever seen the documentary about the rise and fall of Enron called, “The Smartest Guys in the Room”, you know this ability to put self-interest over the humanity. There’s this scene in the movie which plays recordings of the traders on the trading floor as they manipulated the California power grid during a Summer heat wave, jacking up the prices to rake in millions of dollars of profit. The traders try to out-do themselves, contemptuously mocking the clients depending on them for electricity. One trader squeals, “Sorry, grandma just lost her airconditioning! Ha Ha Ha.”

So, evil is the placing of self-interest over humanity’s well-being. It is exacerbated by our capacity to dehumanize others. There is a third aspect, however, and that is that evil is usually systematic. Evil tends to be systematic. And these systems tend to be enormous, so enormous that we are often participants in them, even if we are only passive bystanders.

One example of this is the Genocide in Rwanda. Here you have an extremely poor country, made up of two ethnic groups, one hating the other. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, most of them by machete, during a three month period in 1994. But that is not it, there was also a profound failure of the United Nations and the United States to intervene when hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. That too falls under the definition of asserting a self-interest without regard to the whole.

I have come this far without mentioning today’s anniversary September 11th and the attacks upon our country designed by terrorist with evil plans. Four years into the “war on terror” and with no end in sight, we might realize that it is impossible to kill everyone prone to commit an act of terrorism. A theology of evil would tell us that victory achieved through annihilation does not constitute victory.
Nor have I mentioned the Hurricane and commented upon the human acts of desperation, which can be understood, and opportunism, which is reviling, that arose in the aftermath. Similarly, one cannot speak of the hurricane without speaking of the systematic evils of racism and classism and environmental degradation that exist in our nation. The systematic disregard of the poor and the non-white that occurred not only in the days of the hurricane, but over the centuries leading up to it, creating a vulnerable and susceptible population – that is the true shame.

I want to end with the words of the Unitarian Universalist minister, Victoria Safford, “Sometimes I think I use a very subjective, subconscious barometer in reading the paper or receiving the news of the day and deciding whether some event, some action, bears the weight of that word, evil. It’s not the size of the event, nor the cruelty or self-interest of those involved, or even historical impact. I find more and more that it’s the degree of heartbreak that I feel: beyond horror or shock or sorrow, that sense of something in me has been blasted apart, a shattering of hope, a collapse (and not for the first time) of what I thought I wished was true about the construction of the world and about human nature, the eclipse of optimism by a creeping cynicism, that I begin to call ‘realism.’ Some truths there are, some news there is, that breaks the heart not permanently, but utterly for a while. The wind’s knocked out of you, the light goes out, or flickers, as the realization forms perhaps for the hundredth time: this too is part of our humanity. Evil is the only word for this. And human is the only other for this.”

What can we do? Think of the whole, resist prejudice, build a better system.

Brother we’re gonna build this kingdom up. Sister we’re gonna build this kingdom up. The world that is, is a-fallin’ down. Friends, we’re gonna build this kingdom up.

Sisters, let’s pray this kingdom up. Brothers let’s pray this kingdom up. One day we shall dwell in the house of God. Friends, let’s pray this kingdom up. Amen.