Monday, May 12, 2008

Sermon: "Reclaiming Mother's Day" (Delivered 5-11-08)

[On, Mother's Day, May 11th a group in our church called "Julia's Voice" hosted a peace rally that attracted an estimated 500 people who stood shoulder to shoulder over two long blocks in front of a large Mall in Overland Park. I delivered this sermon-in-three-parts at the worship service that morning. For the first part, I give thanks to Sara Sautter who helped with the editing and to Dr. Valarie Ziegler, the author of a biography of Julia Ward Howe entitled, Diva Julia. This book taught me most of the facts of Julia's life that I describe here.]

Part I: The Life of Julia Ward Howe
Julia Ward was born in New York in 1819 into an upper-class family. Her father was a strict Calvinist and feeling it was his duty to “protect” her, limited Julia’s exposure to society which he deemed sinful and a bad influence. This was particularly hard on Julia, a creative, free spirit who aspired to a career in letters and enjoyed flirting and mixing with society. Fortunately, learning was treasured in the home in which Julia was raised and she was a prodigious reader and writer. By age nine, she was reading works like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Paley’s Moral Philosophy.

She immersed herself in writing poetry, reading philosophy, and learning foreign languages. Remember, this young woman was bright, so she frequently found ways to subvert her father’s harsh restrictions. One evening she asked permission to invite a few friends over. Permission granted, she planned a gala ball with dozens and dozens of attendees. Surveying the noisy, busy, crowd, her stunned father remarked, “Well, I guess we have different notions of what was meant by ‘a few friends.’”

Following the death of her father when Julia was twenty, she enjoyed a brief period of great freedom before once again coming under the control of her brother and uncle. She made a name for herself as a New York socialite and her delicate features and bright red hair combined with her intellectual refinement and playfulness made her the “belle of the ball”.

Though many men noticed her, only one captured her heart. At age 24 she married Samuel Gridley Howe, eighteen years her senior, who hailed from a Unitarian family in Boston. At first, it would appear that their marriage would be the matching of two dynamos.

Julia was a literary star in the making and Samuel was a handsome young doctor; a truly dashing figure who returned a hero from military service during the Greek Revolution. In Boston, he had turned his attention to educational innovation and care for the blind. Later he would become an ardent abolitionist. In fact, Samuel Howe was among the Secret Six and used a portion of Julia Ward Howe’s inheritance to help support John Brown’s abolitionist activities. What had the potential to be a powerful marriage of equals turned out not to be. Samuel believed that a woman’s highest calling was to be a mother whose actions were limited to the domestic sphere.

Like her father, Julia’s husband disapproved of her literary and public aspirations. Soon enough, Julia was entrenched in motherhood, bearing six children in the span of twelve years. Pregnancy was difficult for Julia. She suffered physically with each birth, her life on the line several times. In addition, she suffered from what we now know as post-partum depression, sinking deeply into a melancholy that plagued her spirit. Though she loved her children and found her life better for being a mother, she was always somewhat resentful of motherhood, especially for the way it cut into her desire to study and write.

Julia Ward Howe was a special mind. In the few moments of peace she could find she relaxed by reading Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason.” Notice, I said “Immanuel Kant” not Janet Evanovich. She also found time to publish poetry collections and plays. Her husband was deeply critical of these activities. On the positive side, her husband’s efforts as a doctor-philanthropist exposed Julia to social causes. During a visit to camps of Union soldiers to work on sanitation, Julia Ward Howe penned the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Julia Ward Howe was widowed in her mid-fifties. It was finally at this stage of her life that she could take on the public role she had always desired. She combined her literary talents with her developed ideas about justice and became an outspoken leader in the causes of women’s suffrage and pacifism. Despite the restrictions of Victorian society that prevented women from having a public role, Julia found ways for her voice to be heard.

Julia twisted Victorian notions of gender and in order to advocate for women to have a greater public role. The culture assumed that men belonged in the public sphere and women belonged in the home, but the culture also said that women were naturally tender, nurturing, and compassionate. So, Julia argued that women needed to play a public role to help balance out man’s brutality and militarism.

Until her death at age 91, Julia Ward Howe traveled tirelessly as a lecturer and organizer. She spent her 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s this way:

She founded and served for 23 years as President of the Association of American Women.
She was President of the New England Women’s Club.
For 10 years she was President of the Massachusetts Women’s suffrage Association.
She headed the New England Women’s Suffrage Association.
She helped found a General Federation of Women’s clubs.
She helped to organize clubs committed to the advancement of women from San Francisco to Newport, Rhode Island.
She founded a woman’s journal and served as its editor for twenty years.
She published at least six books during this time, ranging from an autobiography of Margaret Fuller to collections of poetry.
She preached in pulpits across the United States, founded a group for women clergy, spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 and became president of the United Friends of Armenia in 1894.
She continued as an active member of at least three different philosophy clubs in Boston.
She traveled to France and Italy and delivered addresses on women’s rights in fluent French and Italian.
She was the only women elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters before 1930.
She received honorary degrees from Tufts, Brown, and Smith College.

Wow! Simply, wow!

Part II: “Let the Voice of Julia Ward Howe Speak”
Today is Mother’s Day, May 11th, 2008. Today is the 1,880th day of the Iraq War and the 1,826th day since President Bush announced that the mission had been accomplished. We have been in Iraq longer than we were at war with Korea, longer than we fought in World War II, longer than we fought in World War I, and longer than we were engaged in the Civil War. To date, the war with Iraq has claimed the lives of 4,075 American soldiers. On the fifth-anniversary of the Iraq War, my colleague The Reverend Don Southworth held a public reading of the name, age, hometown, and military rank of every member of the United States armed services who had died in Iraq. With only a five-minute break to use the rest-room half-way through, the reading lasted over five and a half hours (and nearly wrecked his voice for Easter Sunday.)

Today is Mother’s Day, May 11th 2008. This is the first of three sermons on the subject of war that I will deliver over the next four weeks. Two weeks from today, on Memorial Day weekend, the service will consider the life and poetry of William Stafford, a Kansas native and conscientious objector during World War II. Two weeks later I will preach about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan and about what moral responsibility we have to the people of Darfur. Concerning conscientious objection during World War II, the worship committee engaged in a rich discussion about the way that our involvement in that war has been mythologized in our collective memory. And yet, and yet it is impossible for me to imagine a persuasive argument that military action against Nazi Germany was not warranted. And, concerning the Sudan, we need to ask the question of whether there is a peaceful way to end the genocide, bring justice to the refugees, and hold accountable the perpetrators of genocide?

These are all hard questions. They are hard questions that demand from us tremendous depths of moral and religious discernment. This morning we are going to wrestle. Two weeks from now we will wrestle. And two weeks from then, we will wrestle some more.

As a result of the religious and intellectual freedom we affirm as Unitarian Universalists, I must state that we are not all of one mind regarding the War in Iraq. Are Unitarian Universalists ever all of one mind? The diversity of thought in our church includes absolute pacifists who believe that all war is wrong. We include people who believe that military force is sometimes warranted, but hold that this was not the case in Iraq. We include people who believe that we have an obligation to stay in Iraq until it has been stabilized and others who hold that our continued presence there is inherently destabilizing. And, we do include some people who do subscribe to a political philosophy that holds that nations like Syria, Iran, and North Korea constitute threats to the world and who would support the United States proactively disarming the threats that these nations pose to us and to our allies.

And, good for us. Good for us. Because our church is not a place for people who’ve already figured out all the answers. Our church is a place of discernment, dynamic encounter, a context for listening and learning. And, at the end of the day, we may not all think alike. But that isn’t the point. We aspire to neither theological nor intellectual orthodoxy. As Francis David said, “We need not think alike to love alike.”

The other part – and listen very carefully – is that our church is not a place where we talk for the sake of talking. We shouldn’t get stuck in a state of analysis paralysis. Rather, our discerning and our encountering should lead us to act based on our careful moral discernments. Later in the service you will hear the voices of our Julia’s Voice organizing team about their decision to take action. What they have done is what I hope everyone will do on matters that concern them deeply. Discern. Organize. Act. And lift up this church as a place that aids in discernment, values your conscience, and inspires you to act on your convictions.

1,880 days is a long time. Our country is experiencing war fatigue and, for many people, the fact that we are at war is not something we consider on a daily or weekly basis. The front page of the newspaper or the lead story on the news concerns the latest news of the stock market or gas prices, the role of super-delegates in deciding the Democratic nominee for president, Britney Spears, or whatever else. The latest news from Iraq gets pushed back further and further. One colleague of mine begins the “candlelighting” portion of her church’s worship service by lighting a candle as a solemn reminder that our country is at war.

Of course, for so many people in our larger community and in our own church community, there is no danger of forgetting that we are at war. Our own church contains those whose spouse, whose niece or nephew or cousin, whose close friend is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Several members of our church, including a number of the leaders of Julia’s Voice, sponsor soldiers with whom they correspond with on a weekly basis. Many of us – counselors, social workers, employers, others – see the soldiers who return injured physically or psychologically or who are just trying to readjust to life again after being on the battlefield for a year or longer.

Emerson once quipped that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. In the life of Julia Ward Howe we see not only a brilliant mind, but a woman who evolved tremendously over the course of her life. From the “belle of the ball” to one of the leading figures for women’s freedom and agency. Early in her life she pooh-poohed women’s suffrage; on this subject she changed her mind one hundred and eighty degrees. She went from the author of a battle hymn and a donor to the activities of John Brown in Bleeding Kansas to a strict pacifist who declared that, “We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” Her story is the story of an evolution of thought, conscience, and the capacity for bold commitment.

Part III: The Voices of Julia’s Voice
I asked those who have been involved in planning today’s Julia’s Voice event to speak to what their participation has meant to them. Let us listen to the voices of Julia’s Voice:

Several members of the group told me stories of emerging consciousness and faith development. One woman wrote that she became a pacifist in third grade and was confirmed in this identity when she saw her older sister’s friends agonizing about the Vietnam draft. She became a feminist by participating in high school athletics and witnessing the resistance to Title IX. She wrote that Julia’s Voice has provided her with, “a group that lets me speak from my faith as a UU; from my assertiveness as a feminist; from my passion as a pacifist; and from my overwhelmingly powerful and uncontrollable instinct-turned-rage as a mom to protect my sons, and other mothers’ children from the senseless devastation that is war.

“Mothers have a unique voice vehemently objecting to this international pattern of responding to difference, misunderstanding, financial greed, and a concept of “self-interest” with violence. Mothers also have centuries of experience negotiating peace in our families, and our communities – skills that are urgently needed everywhere.

“Julia Ward Howe’s example gives UU mothers a long, historical mandate to find our voice and urge others to join us in speaking out not only against war, but for learning and using the tools for peace.”

She wasn’t the only person to use the word rage in her personal statement. Another woman wrote that she, quote, “became involved in Moms Against War because I am saddened by the many lives lost in this… war. Not only are thousand of young American men and women dying, but many innocent Iraqi men, women and children have perished as well. This movement has caused me to reflect on my beliefs and values. I believe that it is our duty to speak up, stand up, and show our outrage… Women have the gift of bearing life; and they also have the passion to preserve it.”

Likewise, another member of Julia’s Voice chimes in, “As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe in the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Mothers and others can be role models for defending principles without violence and destructive behavior…. Hopefully this event, where we stand side-by-side together for peace, will demonstrate to the people of Johnson County, Kansas, and beyond, that mothers and others are a powerful force for good. We will be heard!”

The youngest member of the Julia’s Voice group, wrote these powerful words, “Despite not being a mother myself, the idea of honoring your mother struck home for me. My mother was in college during the Vietnam War, and was active in anti-war actions. And yet, I thought about my own generation and how silent it has been. There is no draft in place pulling my peers overseas, yet the war still strikes a nerve with me through the media, and due to the proportionally high number of my peers who chose to enter the military right out of high school. When you are from a small town, military service is an economic opportunity where there are few, and is also seen as a right of passage for many young men. In 2004, a childhood friend of mine, Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Wasser died of injuries in Iraq.

“For the sake of mothers of fallen soldiers, such as Chris's mom, who are steadfast in their belief in our presence in Iraq, I cannot stand here to question whether he died in vain, but I can say that I can think of how much good could come from putting our military to a [different] use... Mothers bring children into the world to bring light to the world, and we can all stand for peace in order to bring an end to this time of darkness.”

Similarly, the lone man in the Julia’s Voice group wrote that, “I had never been involved in a protest or stood for anything really. As you know, [my son] was on the trip to Boston for the Coming of Age trip where Sara and Nancy came up with the Julia's Voice idea. When [he] came back he had changed and he had taught me to look at my own coming of age at 45 and to take a stand on what I might do in my place in the world. I had supported the start of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had felt misled and keep thinking what my response might have been if someone had invaded Kansas City.

“I have always felt that Moms had a greater capacity for love and caring in the world. They also have a great ability to create community and for the most part they always lead with love and understanding. Therefore, I know that if Peace in the World is possible, it would start with Moms.

“My own Mother's loving voice, even though she has been gone for many years, is with me in all I do in my life. We owe it to our Moms to have world peace. With out them we wouldn't even be here.

“With three boys of my own, I can't imagine losing one of them to war. I don't know how any Mom can handle losing a child to war and every child we have lost to war today hurts me so.”

Finally, our own Sara Sautter eloquently writes, “Occasionally I watch the New Hours with Jim Lehrer. At the end of these nightly broadcasts, the program pays homage, in silence, to the fallen soldiers in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Smiling faces, 22, 24, 19 years of age flash upon the screen. The silent fresh faces of young men and women who will never have the privilege to craft a full life – to love and to lose, fail and succeed, follow a passion, anticipate the blooming of dogwoods, watch their own children grow into adults.

“I can also feel the pain that the mother and father must feel. An aching, gnawing ‘how-will-I-survive-this’ pain. The pain I was feeling for the fallen soldiers and their parents was not alone. It was accompanied by anger. Anger because the deaths of these young people were preventable.

“Where is the justice here? Where is the mercy? This is why I became involved in Julia’s Voice. To give voice to the pain that mothers in this country, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Rwanda, in Israel, in Palestine, in every single country on this planet feels, and feels so deeply, when she loses a child. To resolve that each of our children deserves a full life to love and to lose, fail and succeed, to follow a passion.”

These are the voices of Julia’s Voice. This afternoon, they will be heard.