Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon: "The Economy of Fear" (Delivered 9-14-08)

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we do not restrict our sources of inspiration to a single holy writ, nor to a single set of practices, or to a singular creedal formulation or catechism. Instead, in the tradition of free and liberal religion we remain open to the wisdom which can come to us from a multiplicity of sources: many different scriptures, philosophies, practices, arts, and, most certainly, the prophetic words and deeds of women and men through the ages.

If there is a text that we can look to for inspiration this morning, I know of none better than two speeches by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his 1941 State of the Union address, FDR famously developed his idea of four universal human freedoms: First, the freedom of speech and of expression; second, the freedom of belief; third, the freedom from want; and, finally, fourth, the freedom from fear. Offering commentary on this speech, one observer claimed that these four freedoms are not equal. Rather, the four freedoms include two original freedoms and two derivative freedoms.

The original or basic freedoms are the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. The derivative or secondary freedoms are freedom of speech and the freedom of belief, as well, we might add, those freedoms enumerated in our Bill of Rights, namely freedom of the press, of assembly, of petition for the redress of grievances, as well as the freedom to vote and the rights of personal privacy.

When this observer argued that freedom from want and freedom from fear are original and primary, he was saying that without these, no other freedom can be secure. Or to put it in far more blunt terms, if you want for food to eat, the exercise of free speech is not all that important. And, if you live in a war torn region, with the perpetual threat of danger to life and limb, having the freedom to compose, say, poetry loses a lot of its value.

Which is to say that people who are hungry, who lack clean water, who lack shelter from the elements, who live daily with the fear that they will die too young from curable disease or military aggression, will always eagerly trade civil liberties for bread to eat and political freedom for safety. This helps to explain the rise of European fascism three quarters of a century ago and the rise of the Taliban and other fundamentalist Islamic regimes in more recent times.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have tended to be eloquent and spirited in defense of secondary or derivative freedoms. As a major part of the “free church” tradition, our faith has lifted up the rights of conscience, the freedom of the pulpit and of the pew, and the practice of democratic values in our shared congregational life. We’ve been pioneers in interfaith understanding and dialogue which has allowed us to be sensitive to violations of either the establishment clause or the free exercise clause of the first amendment. Our strivings to be a religion that practices transparency and equity has led us to be outspoken about the integrity of the democratic process, whether it has been Unitarian and Universalist women like Susan B. Anthony and Olympia Brown fighting for women’s suffrage or our own Beacon Press being the only publisher in the United States that wasn’t too chicken to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Susan B. Anthony and the editors of Beacon Press are the heroes of those derivative freedoms of which Roosevelt spoke, the freedom of expression and belief. But, this morning I want to speak of the two original freedoms: the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.

(This, by the way, is the second sermon in a four part series I’ve titled, “The Economy: Your Wallet, Your Faith, Your Life.” In two weeks I will preach a sermon on the “Future of the American Dream.” Next month, I will preach on the “Economy of Faith,” in which I will ask what our Unitarian Universalist values tell us about our country’s economic situation.)

But today I want to talk about the connection between the economy and fear. The Four Freedoms speech was a powerful address opposing American isolationism and calling on the citizens of the United States to accept, in Roosevelt’s words, “personal sacrifice” in order to battle the illiberal forces of fascism that threatened the entire planet.

However, it was in a speech that FDR delivered eight years earlier, as the United States faced not the rise of fascism abroad but financial ruin at home, that he linked fear and economics, beginning his first inaugural address with those defiant words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Taking over a country with its economy in shambles, at the deepest pit of its greatest depression, Roosevelt named the fear that gripped the hearts of Americans.

Fear: it is an emotion that is hardwired deep inside the reptilian parts of our brain. Along with anger and lust, fear is an animalistic emotion that has been with us long before we ever evolved into human beings. One theorist of religion, Stewart Guthrie, went as far as to claim that our desire to ease the grip that the emotion of fear has on us actually led to the development of religion practice.

Guthrie asks us to imagine this scenario. You are a caveman (or, to use the more politically correct term, cave person) and you are walking through an alpine meadow. Ahead of you, you see a big, brown bump. From where you are standing, you can’t tell whether it is a big rock, which is more likely, or a big grizzly bear, which while less likely, also has far more serious consequences. Although it is most likely a rock, you act as if it is a bear.

Now, you are a caveperson and you are back at camp and a gigantic thunderstorm comes blowing through, like those thunderstorms that have come through Kansas City all this week. The storm is obviously scary, but you, the cave person, look up at the clouds and you recognize one of the clouds has the vague features of a human face. (At some point in our life we have sat on a park bench or lain down in the grass and amused ourselves by looking for familiar shapes in the clouds.) But, this thunderstorm is scary and seeing a human face in the clouds is reassuring because if the cloud has some human qualities it might also have other human qualities, namely the ability to use language. This means the cavepersons in the camp can offer to appease the storm by offering the storm God roasted mammoth. Voila! Religion is born.

According to Guthrie, religion originated as a way to suppress fear by animating and anthropomorphizing the natural world so that we might talk with it, negotiate with it, and thereby control it.

Our reptilian brains are still very much a part of our being and we still behave a bit like those ooga-booga cavemen and cavewomen. Last I checked, our hurricanes still have eyes and we give them names. Last I checked, the stock market is still described as bull or bear: the bull an ancient sign of abundance and virility and the bear, a fearful, monstrous creature.

Fear, the primal emotion embedded in the reptilian part of our brain, is such a powerful emotion. In extreme cases of sudden fear, our brains fill our bodies with powerful chemicals causing us to have a fight or flight reaction. In other cases, fear can paralyze us. People who live with chronic anxiety suffer from all manner of health ailments and can even manifest many of the symptoms of a heart attack, so great is the power of anxiety.

In social contexts, fear can lead a nation to place unlimited power in the hands of a tyrant or a strongman, to willingly suspend the rules of law and to turn away from the deepest principles it professes. Fear also causes us to look for scapegoats. In Europe, anytime a plague would beset a city, you could be sure that there would also be a pogrom, a raid on the Jewish community leaving buildings torched and people killed. In the 20th Century, Hitler’s rise to power can largely be attributed to the German’s complex feelings of national shame, economic hardship, and the feeling of victimization following the treaty of Versailles. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic in the United States led some people openly to call for gay men to be quarantined in concentration camps. Following September 11th, whose seventh anniversary we marked this past Thursday, Americans with stereotypical middle-eastern appearances – whether they were Muslim, Jain, Sikh, or Hindu – were the targets of harassment, violence, and suspicion. And today, in a country with such profound economic uncertainty, Latinos and immigrants feel wary.

Which leads me to ask you: Whatever happened to the African killer bees? Let me explain this question: During the mid-1990s, television news frequently would report about the impending invasion of Africanized honey bees, aggressive killer bees that would come from Central America and Mexico to take over the Southwestern United States. There was even a made-for-TV horror movie about the bees. Now the 90s were a pretty safe time. The expansion of the internet triggered an enormous stock-market bubble. Our wars consisted of Somalia and Kosovo. Then September 11th happened and we all forgot about the killer bees. Instead, we had Al Qaeda terrorists, anthrax, dirty bombs, avian bird flu, global warming, Iraq, high gas prices and a sluggish economy. Some of these were legitimate concerns. Others are, for the most part, media inventions. Fear gets great ratings.

The writer Dan Savage, who I suppose could be called a cultural commentator, has written about our addiction to fear. In an essay, Savage set out to write about greed, spending several weeks visiting depressing river boat casinos in the American Midwest. In the essay he discovers that greed does not lead people to the casinos; rather, greed leads people to build casinos. He writes that life in the United States is basically safe for a whole lot of people, that this safety is monotonous, and that people go to casinos to add a contrived element of risk to their fairly safe lives. He points out that after September 11th, business at the casinos was first non-existent and then sluggish for months on end. If you are already on edge, you don’t need go to the casinos in order to stimulate your brain chemicals by risking and losing money in the slot machines.

Which brings me back to the point of this morning and a few comments about the economy of fear. These first two sermons in the series have been more to set the scene for my last two sermons, but the points I would have you take away this morning are as follows:

First, take all media reports about the economic downturn causing cataclysmic doom with a grain of salt. Much of the media delights in elevating our levels of anxiety and worry. Fear, while it serves its purpose, can trigger individual health problems and can cause societies to fall short of their great aspirations. Search out those sources and resources that allow us to respond in our own lives with creativity, courage, and wisdom instead of those messages that keep us trapped in fear.

Second, I would have you go back and read FDR’s first inaugural address. The line, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” is the most famous line of that speech, yet the speech was not sanguine or cheery or naively upbeat. Rather, the speech only gets stronger. It is a short speech, only 1,905 words or about 400 words shorter than this sermon. Roosevelt brings his message home in the seventh paragraph telling the citizens of the United States,
“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”
Through the rest of the speech he lays out a plan for action, for the reform of financial institutions and other important steps, but in this paragraph he sets the tone that his words are not about promised services, but rather they are a call to shared service and mutual commitment to a common cause.

It seems to me that our politicians and would-be politicians today could learn something from this, Democrat and Republican alike… and yes, I did say Democrat and Republican alike. If there is any cynicism in me it is that any candidate who stands up and says that they are not here to promise you things but rather to ask for you to step up, for you to go above and beyond, and personally sacrifice (to use Roosevelt’s exact words) for the common good would be crucified rather than hailed. I don’t think I am off-base in thinking that the solution to our economic and environmental problems will require shared efforts and cooperation.

Reading his words, it strikes me how they disarm fear. They disarm fear by calling on people to do actual things as a part of a larger, shared effort. Perhaps that is the final lesson: that fear breeds and multiplies in the distances that separate us from one another. To the extent that we can come together, shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, to the extent we can meet together and share some purpose together, we can shake the grip of fear.