Climate Change is a Spiritual Issue
a sermon by Carol Cole-Lewis
My mother, my father and I were sitting down one evening after dinner not that many years ago enjoying a nice cup of tea after one of my mother’s fantastic Italian feasts. The discussion wandered around to the Prius I had just purchased. “Why do you own one of those things?” my father asked (my father, as many of you know, was quite a conservative kinda’ guy....). I can’t exactly remember my initial reply, but then I asked him a question: “If you could buy any car you wanted, which car would it be?” He thought a few moments, then replied, “a Humvee”. “But why, Dad? You live in a fairly suburban area, and the gas mileage of that huge, originally military vehicle is measured in single digits.” He looked at me straight in the eye, squared his shoulders and proudly declared “Because I can.”
Because I can.
Americans have been blessed over the last two hundred or so years. We came from all parts of the world to seek a place where lives could be lived in peace and freedom, and wealth seemed to flow out of the very cracks of the rich fertile soils that covered our lands. Our mouths were quenched by the clean, cool pure waters of our rivers and streams. Our lungs were filled with the sweet air laced with the scents of thousands of varieties of wild flowers. Our eyes feasted on herds upon herds of deer, elk, buffalo and countless other species of fur or fowl that graced the seemingly unlimited expanse of plains and mountains. Ah, The American Dream!
“Actually, the phrase “American Dream” was invented during the Great Depression. It comes from a popular 1931 book by the historian James Truslow Adams, who defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone”.
In the decades that followed, the dream for many Americans became a reality. Thanks to rapid, widely shared economic growth, nearly all children grew up to achieve the most basic definition of a better life – earning more money and enjoying higher living standards than their parents had.”1
Now, I’m all in favor of living in comfort. I like a warm house and a cozy fire with a cat on my lap as much as any other cat lover out there. However, no matter what your vision is of the American Dream, the problems start to arise when we forget what we were trying to achieve by living the American Dream in the first place.
What do YOU think What do YOU really want to achieve in your life? I’m going to make the assumption that what everyone really REALLY wants in the deepest part of their being is to be
We want happiness for ourselves, our children, our friends, our loved ones. Indeed, if everyone WAS happy, would there ever be a reason for violence or war? I don’t think you can be fearful or angry at the same time you’re happy, can you?
So, as human beings, we seek happiness and flee pain.
Think back to your childhood. I don’t know if your mother did what mine did, but I can remember in the summertime, if my sister and I were really, really good, she would give us a quarter to get ice cream from Freddy the Good Humor Ice Cream salesman that used to drive down our street. That ice cream sure tasted good, though it was gone in a flash, and the happiness that it brought me melted away with it. There had to be a better, more permanent way to happiness than this.
And I suppose it was a good thing I asked myself that question. Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan, in their 1996 study “Further Examining the American Dream: Differential Correlates of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals”2 suggested that LOWER wellbeing is associated with individuals having goals focused on external rewards or praise, in comparison to those people whose goals were more internal and not based on the approval of others. People who have aspirations for financial success, an appealing appearance, and social recognition actually were associated with “lower vitality and self-actualization” and had more physical symptoms. Conversely, an individual seeking internal self-acceptance, and an ability to embrace community showed higher states of wellbeing and less distress.
Susan Linn is the director of the Campaign for a CommercialFree Childhood and is the author of “The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.” She says in a recent New York Times Article that “Children need opportunities to find joy and meaning in what can’t be bought, like friendship, creativity, love and the natural world.”3
Consuming more is not the answer to happiness. Yet, we consume because it makes us feel good. A few years ago I was a part of a team implementing a Community Transformation Grant in Lake County. This grant was awarded to improve the health of Lake County residents. One of the focus areas of the grant was smoking cessation. Through the course of working on various brochures and programs designed to address this focus area, I learned something very important about the habit of smoking: people smoke because there is a real benefit for them to do so – it meets a deep generally unconscious need that is so overpowering that even after they watch a loved one suffer a horrible death due to lung cancer, they continue to puff away. The only way one can truly stop smoking is when you can fill that deep void that smoking fills with something else something more beneficial. No “stop smoking billboards” or laws prohibiting smoking will have an effect on the committed smoker.
Like a smoker, we, too, are addicted. We are addicted as a culture to oil and coal. The problem is this issue is not just one person, or one community it’s the entire human race (even those who don’t yet have much, still lust for the riches of the west)
Why is it so difficult for us to take care of our bodies, our planet?? Is it because of a deep spiritual crisis a lack of understanding of who we truly are and how we look for God and/or happiness? A deep self hatred and loathing that causes us to want to destroy? We need to cure the root of this problem but this may not be possible until we hit rock bottom. We ALL have to find a way to fill the void and find happiness true happiness or our planet is doomed.
Spiritual teachings and teachers have a good deal to say about our inner void and how to find this true happiness.
In “The Art of Happiness”, the Dalai Lama gives us some clues. He says, “we need to learn how to want what we have NOT to have what we want in order to get steady and stable Happiness.”4
Eckhart Tolle, who in 2011 was listed by Watkins Review as the most spiritually influential person in the world, says “The pollution of the planet is only an outward reflection of an inner psychic pollution: millions of unconscious individuals not taking responsibility for their inner space.”5
The Reverend Forrest Church was a minister of a very large Unitarian Universalist church in New York. When he learned he had cancer, Reverend Church decided to document his trip through this part of his life by writing the book “Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow”. Forrest found the real answer to living a joyful and happy life was based in three simple things. These three thing became his mantra: Want what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are.”
Michael Singer, the author of the highly successful book, “The Untethered Soul” has an interesting view on life and happiness. He says:
“The highest spiritual path is life itself. If you know how to live daily life, it all becomes a liberating experience. But first you have to approach life properly, or it can be very confusing. To begin with, you have to realize that you really only have one choice in this life, and it’s not about your career, whom you want to marry, or whether you want to seek God. People tend to burden themselves with so many choices. But, in the end, you can throw it all away and just make one basic, underlying decision: Do you want to be happy, or do you not want to be happy? It’s really that simple. Once you make that choice, your path through life becomes totally clear.”
Most people don’t dare give themselves that choice because they think it’s not under their control. Someone might say, “Well, of course I want to be happy but my wife left me.” In other words, they want to be happy, but not if their wife leaves them. But that wasn’t the question. The question was, very simply, “Do you want to be happy or not?” If you keep it that simple, you will see that it really is under your control. It’s just that you have a deepseated set of preferences that get in the way.” 6
Spiritual teachers also have a thing or two to directly say about our collective approach to life on our planet. As many of you know, I tend to be more Christian in my Unitarian faith than my husband. My hero, Father Richard Rohr, has allowed me to reclaim my Christian heritage and has shown me the deeper meanings of the Bible and how it is entirely congruent with my current spiritual path. This excerpt is from a recent daily meditation of his I subscribe to:
Christ is the Archetype and Model for the rest of creation as Scripture clearly teaches. Yet Christians have instead focused on proving that Jesus is “God,” which felt necessary to put our group out in front and to solidify our own ranks. We were more eager to make Jesus the “top” than to make him the “whole,” and thus we ended up with a religion largely concerned with exclusion.
If the Eternal Christ is forgotten or ignored, Jesus becomes far too small, a mere local “god” instead of a universal principle. Many Christians still see the universe as incoherent, without inherent sacredness, a center, direction, or purpose beyond personal survival itself. Many Christians focus on “saving their own soul” with little care for the world as a whole. Massive disbelief is the result. It is hard to feel privately holy or good when the universe is neither holy nor good.
No wonder science and reason have now taken over as “the major explainers” of meaning for much of the world. Jesus was indeed a deep and life changing encounter for some people, but the official Church often showed little evidence of his universal love. Christians brought Jesus to the “New World,” but hardly ever Christ, as we see from our treatment of indigenous peoples and the earth. Most slave owners and proponents of apartheid fully identified as “Christians.” Lots of mop up work is required of Christianity for the rest of history, after we dragged poor Jesus through our mud.
We failed to offer the world universal meaning, and now we live in a postmodern and largely postChristian world that denies any “big story line” or purpose to existence. So instead of universal hope, we live inside of cosmic cynicism and we retreat into small identity politics. This is a major crisis and loss of inherent dignity to the whole human project. All the extravagances, technologies, and entertainments will never be able to fill such a foundational hole in the human psyche. In other words, the world—even most of the Christian world—has yet to hear the Gospel!
A few months ago, Denise Rushing and I were enjoying the beauty of our Dancing Treepeople Farm. We were sitting around a fire pit which we use for spiritual ritual and for the routine necessity of burning broken branches that fall from our walnut trees as we started to discuss climate change and paganism. She shared with me profound thoughts from Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox, Brian Swimme and others. One particular viewpoint she shared hit me as squarely between the eyes as enlightenment struck the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. I’m going to paraphrase it here, but I think I’ve captured the essence of what she told me:
One of the reasons our planet is in the shape it is in is because the dominant and most affluent countries adhere to a worldview that is based on a Fundamental Christianity. When you believe this way, you are taught you are “In” the world and not “Of” it. You are told your treasure is in heaven and not on earth. The focus is on salvation away from the evils of this world. Is it any surprise that a culture that believes this way could never see creation as sacred, and therefore would NOT see dealing with climate change as a priority.
I attended the People’s Climate March in Sacramento yesterday. I do love going to these marches. I love lending my body and voice to thousands of other like minded people as we demonstrate our dissent towards this administration’s agenda of attacking climate action and promoting fossil fuel development. And this type of protest is important, as I believe large scale protests like these can have an affect on the hearts and minds of our elected officials as they seek to keep their jobs by serving the citizens they are sworn to represent.
Yes, Governments and Corporations may be guilty of atrocious environmental calamities that have damaged the lives of many people (and especially the poor who usually bear the brunt of toxic fallout). And, with third world nations striving to compete with the consumption of the west, they must turn to cheaper coal and other polluting fuels as they seek their version of the “American Dream”.
Ultimately, though, corporations and governments won’t change until the people who are their customers and citizens change WE Change Ourselves. We must find a more effective way than consumption to fill the void of existence we must make the choice to be happy. We must make the choice to recognize and value the importance of right relationship with each other. We must choose to see our God as One with, and not separate from, Creation. When we deeply know these things and are truly happy, we will naturally stop consuming our precious planet, and the words “climate change” will take on an entirely new and hopeful meaning.
3 https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/12/20/howshouldchildrenlearntoshop/consumptionisth elastthingchildrenneedtolearn
A sermon by Linda Laskowski.
Download pdf here. Listen to sermon here.
A house is on fire. A baby is inside. Do you save the baby? A house is on fire. Adolf Hitler is inside. Do you save Hitler? A house is on fire. A baby named Adolf Hitler is inside. Do you save baby Hitler?
[end of quote from Nate Walker]
What does our Universalist heritage call us to do? Eat all the guns and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table? Or save baby Hitler?
Universalism believes that a God of love is too good to damn us. In the first 300 years of the Christian church, early Christians could choose from a variety of beliefs, including the ideas that Jesus was an entity sent by God rather than part of a trinity, and that no one would be condemned by God to die in a fiery pit. That all changed in 325 CE with the Council of Nicea, whose purpose it was to choose a single set of beliefs, keeping Christianity “pure”.
For centuries afterward, anyone who strayed from the chosen set was persecuted – including my ancestor Nicolas Erb who came to what is now Pennsylvania at the invitation of William Penn in the late 17th century to escape persecution in Switzerland. My great ++ grandfather was a Mennonite, a sect that believed, among others things, in non-violence, separation of church and state, and faith by consent, whereby one was not baptized until they reached the age to decide for themselves. Penn was a Quaker, but one inclined to believe in the Universalist view of salvation.
Universalism developed in America out of many of these liberal sects, including liberal Methodists. Among other things, its adherents did not accept the Calvinist doctrine of eternal punishment, and read their Bibles to say God lovingly redeemed all. They also led the battle to separate church and state, and reached out to people often marginalized by society. The first Universalist Church, in Gloucester, MA, included a freed slave as one of its charter members in 1779. Elhanan Winchester organized a Universalist Baptist congregation in 1781 in Philadelphia that preached to both black and white – and was excommunicated by the Baptists shortly thereafter.
Universalists were the first to ordain women, Olympia Brown in 1863. Other Universalists who put their faith into action included Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross; Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing; and some say Abraham Lincoln, who argued in 1833 for ““predestinated universal salvation in criticism of the orthodox doctrine of endless punishment.” At its peak in the mid 1800s, Universalism was the 9th largest Christian denomination in the United States.
Headquartered in Boston just a few blocks from each other, the Unitarians and Universalists finally joined together in 1961 with a great deal of commonality and some differences as shown in these words from Thomas Starr King. Starr King was a Unitarian and a Universalist minister who came to serve the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco in 1860, and is credited with keeping California on the Union side. Union Square is named because of his fiery speeches there:
“Universalists believe that God is too good to damn humankind, and the Unitarians believe that humankind is too good to be damned...”
Universalism shows up in our first principle: We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
This principle is not without its controversy. Former UUA president Bill Schulz, who served 12 years as the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, said one of the things torture taught him was that not all people are inherently good:
“our doctrines about human nature, such as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” rest uneasily in a world full of torturers. In what sense can we defend the notion that a torturer is a person of inherent worth and dignity?”
After his stunning opening, Rev. Nate Walker goes on to describe a situation in his church, First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, founded in 1789 by Joseph Priestley, in which a racist, homophobic anti-semitic group had been booked to perform in their church, which was a popular music venue. Within 48 hours, he had been contacted by the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania State Commissions on Human Relations, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, two detectives from homeland security, and countless UUs and UU ministers across the United States, nearly all excoriating him for supporting hate speech. I was on the UUA board at the time, and we were bombarded by UUs insisting we “do something” about Nate Walker.
Yet, true to his Universalist principles, Walker handled it by applying 3 principles of what he calls “the healing power of a Ministry of Mediation rooted in Universal Love”. It may be instructive to apply those to our post-election environment - as well as our own personal lives – at the same time that we are standing on the side of love against human rights abuses.
The first principle in Walker's Universalist Ministry of Mediation is direct communication. Rather than sending a letter to cancel the concert, Walker invited the band to come and meet with him, an openly gay minister, and
discuss the difference between free speech and hate speech. Over the course of two meetings, the band ended up cancelling the event, saying “You have shown us respect so we’ll respect the church.”
It can be difficult to have direct communication with someone who believes Obama was not born in the United States, or that Hilary Clinton was responsible for the suicide of Vince Foster, or that homosexuality is an “abomination”. If you read Walker’s account of his meetings, you will see that he is not trying to convince the Skinhead band that they are wrong and he is right, nor does he back off on his own beliefs. He is appealing to the band as “individuals worthy of respect and dignity”. How can this shape our own conversations?
Marshall Rosenberg, creator of “Nonviolent Communication” did a superb job of identifying ways of approaching others in a way that allowed real communication. In my view, there are two keys to NVC: learning to separate observation from evaluation, and getting in touch with your own feelings and needs. For example “you are so inconsiderate” is probably not helpful; “I am upset that you turned the TV volume up when I am trying to sleep because I've got a tough day tomorrow” is probably more useful. I highly recommend two of his books, “NonViolent Communication, a Language of Life”, and “Speak Peace in a World of Conflict”, or taking some of the courses available on Non-Violent Communication.
The second principle is study. Walker and key leaders from his congregation studied what they could find about the band, researched their lyrics, and learned about the individuals in it. When they met, Walker was able to “meet them where they were”, being knowledgeable about the band and what they had done. They even had a respectful conversation about the complexities of homosexuality. The band leader thanked him: “Thank you for not making me out to be a monster”.
What do we know, really know, about the 63 million people who voted for Trump? Given the number of my family members and childhood friends who are among them, they are not as a group all uninformed, badly educated, un-or under employed, or stupid. Do we know enough to sit down and have a conversation about the things that matter to both of us?
Last November, Van Jones, who was the Ware Lecturer at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2008, ran a series called “The Messy Truth”, where he interviewed a number of Trump supporters. Clearly a left-leaning African American, Jones was able to come to common ground without violating his own integrity. The most interesting thing to me was the degree to which he listened – really listened to the people he interviewed, without judging them. He sat through vitriolic comments directed at Hilary Clinton, liberals in general, and people like him – and still managed to break through to the humanity and fear under it all. I recommend watching the series – search “messy truth” and “Van Jones”.
J.D. Vance, in his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”, tells the story of white working class people in the South – his grandparents starting out poor but the family eventually living the American dream, sending J. D., the third generation, to Yale Law School. That dream disintegrated for his family, and is disintegrating for so many of working class Americans, as jobs are mostly replaced by technology, and fear of losing everything you value takes over:
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing, and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it: It must be someone’s fault: NAFTA, the Obama administration, too much regulation, too many immigrants taking our jobs. The world is shifting underneath my feet, and no one cares. They’re turning all my daughters into Lesbians....
When I was growing up on a North Dakota farm, you could farm 600 acres (just under a square mile) and eke out a living. My grandparents homesteaded in North Dakota around the turn of the century, and had families of 8 and 9 children. All but 6 of the 17 aunts and uncles farmed North Dakota land. None of their children or grandchildren do today. Young people left in droves, as farming was no longer an option – not only because of technology, but because prices for crops were low, and loans were high and nearly impossible to get.
A similar situation existed in North Dakota in the 1920s, with a different result. The grain merchants in Minneapolis were paying almost nothing for grain, and the bankers were dispossessing farms and refusing to make more loans. It finally came to a head when a state legislator told a group of farmers to “go home and slop the hogs” (though he did say later that his comment had been misinterpreted).
So the good people of North Dakota formed the Non- Partisan League, a third party that dominated North Dakota state government. The NPL created a State Mill and Elevator, to buy their own wheat for flour, a state- owned brewery to buy their own barley for beer, a state- owned railroad to ship it, and a state-owned bank to fund it all. But don’t ever suggest to those North Dakota farmers that this was socialism at its finest...
Both houses and the governorship were held by the NPL. Gov. William Langer was forced out of office in 1934 after a felony conviction, whereupon he was promptly re- elected in 1936, and served as US Senator from 1940 until his death in 1959. As an isolationist, he was one of seven senators to vote against joining the United Nations. There were scandals throughout all of it – and the people loved him.
Populism is not new, and supporting deeply flawed characters as leaders is not new. And lest we think this is just history, let me remind us of a similar outcry very recently – the elites have rigged the system, which was filled with greed and corruption. People were watching everything they valued being taken away. Occupy Wall Street hit a chord with the frustration against the 1%, the widening income gap. They took out their frustration in massive demonstrations and encampments.
And Trump voters took out their very similar frustrations on the ballot box. An article in Fortune last March said:
But while different in many respects, both groups shared one common characteristic: a deep and abiding disdain—and even hostility—for the political elites and political establishment they believe betrayed them, betrayed the nation, and left them to fend for themselves. Yes, Tea Partiers are particularly bitter at what they see as an out-of-touch Republican establishment and an utterly arrogant federal bureaucracy, while Occupy Wall Street- ers have vented their frustration at what they see as the financial elites of Wall Street and multinational corporations, but the broader critique of American politics is not drastically different. For both groups, the founding principles of...government and representative democracy no longer work. The system, in their view, is broken.
The third principle in Walker’s ministry of mediation is imagination:
We use our imaginations to picture ourselves as the other. We observe how misperceptions are born and how fear is fueled. We imagine the pain that has built up over time with those who have been in conflict for over a decade. We imagine what it must be like to be raised in an environment where one is groomed to be a skinhead. We imagine what it must be like to be so fiercely committed to an anti-racist agenda that even the police and the government and churches become one’s enemy – because these are often the institutions that perpetuate systems of oppression. Our imagination leads us to a simple but terrifying truth: “hurt people hurt people.”
In his book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey tells about riding the subway home one night, sitting in the same car as a father who had three young sons. The boys were out of control – running around the train, throwing things, and being noisy. They were clearly annoying the other passengers, while the father just sat there, totally unperturbed.
Covey was irritated by the father’s lack of consideration, and as he happened to get out at the same stop as the family, he approached the father. “Excuse me, but I wonder if you realize how much your sons were bothering the other passengers.” The father looked dazed, and shook his head. “No,” he said. “I am sorry. I didn’t. We have just come from the hospital where their mother died, so I just wasn’t paying attention.”
I learned a very useful approach from NVC when I am faced with what appears to be completely wrong behavior: let’s pretend (without having to believe it) that we have this person’s world view and/or experiences. How would I act if I did? And how do I know what that person’s worldview is?
To imagine is to empathize, to sympathize and to understand. And while understanding need not imply agreement, understanding is necessary in order to heal the poison found in a heart bound by fear and to heal the poison found in a mind bound by judgments. The discriminatory mind is healed when we imagine ourselves as the other.
The Other. The need to identify with our “tribe” was honed through thousands of years of needing to know who we could trust – who had your back or who would stab it. Breaking that cycle takes courage – in any human interaction, the only behavior we control is our own.
Yet most major religions have at their heart a version of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Not “wait to see how they treat you, and then respond in kind" but “treat others as you would like to be treated”.
Let me close with a paraphrase of Nate’s words: A nation is on fire. There are people inside. Who do we save?
Get your April newsletter here.
A sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carrie Knowles on 2/12/17 at the UUCLC. All copyrights reserved to the Author.
You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.
Burning Bridges of Hope
The 45th president issued on January 27th a travel ban that immediately suspended for 90 days the entry of immigrants and nonimmigrants into the US from seven countries with majority Moslem populations. It suspended for 120 days the entry of all refugees—and indefinitely suspended refugees from Syria. It contained the further significant provision that, when refugee admissions resume, it would prioritize “refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” That is, provided the individual is not a Moslem.
Foreign born doctors who serve people in small towns through the US were stranded. Patients from the affected countries in dire need of expert medical care were cut off from access. Exchange and foreign students were blocked from returning from visits home. Researchers and other professionals were stuck either at American or foreign airports. Longterm legal residents with green cards found themselves held for hours at entry points in many cities. Iraqis who had served for more than a decade with our armed forces as interpreters and fighters and now were fleeing threats to their lives found their refugee status cancelled.
With a 3-0 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, a Temporary Restraining Order was kept in place that blocks enforcement of most of the president’s travel ban. The Ninth Circuit’s very readable opinion lays out powerfully the many legal challenges to the president’s order that loom ahead. A long process now seems to lie ahead, with uncertain outcome.
As the week’s events unfolded, as I read the words of the president’s executive order, as I heard the ban being defended by powerful American lawmakers of his party, I found deep questions welling up in me. Is this who we are?
I felt repeating in my mind, like some deep songs we hold for always in our memory, or some prayer I learned before I even knew what I was chanting, words written 240 years ago:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
– Declaration of Independence
The declaration, that all men are created equal, didn’t say only Americans were created equal, or only white men were created equal or only Christians were created equal. The Bill of Rights enshrined in our constitution states, “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.…” That text makes no exception for the foreign born.
When I found my spiritual home with the Unitarians, and made a covenant to affirm and promote;
The inherent worth and dignity of every person, and
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
these principles seemed to echo those enshrined values.
As Americans, who are we? Are these truths indeed self evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Over these days, I have been confronting a troubling reality. From the beginning of our history as a nation, we have time and again tossed those lofty words aside.
In 1789, our Constitution’s preamble promised the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” but “ourselves” included none who were slaves. It took a civil war and incredible political pressures to draw from Abraham Lincoln the Emancipation Proclamation.
Our early settlers, the Puritans, fled persecution in their homeland, England, to Massachusetts—the Mayflower arrived in 1620. In 1845, a calamity of monstrous proportions struck Ireland—the great Irish Potato Famine. The blight that destroyed this staple that fed the people was an airborne fungus originally transported in the holds of ships traveling from North America to England. It blackened and withered the leaves of the potato plants and rotted the potatoes underground.
Through the famine years, nearly a million Irish migrated to the United States. Their roughest welcome was in Boston, Massachusetts, then an Anglo-Saxon city of about 115,000. In 1847, the first big year of Famine emigration, the city was swamped with 37,000 Irish Catholics. They were ridiculed, relegated to unskilled jobs, and found themselves victims to unscrupulous landlords who rented them rooms with no water, no sanitation, no ventilation and no daylight.
Under these conditions, diseases like cholera took the lives of 60% of Irish children before age six, and adults lived on average six years after stepping off the boat.
By 1850, the Irish made up 43% of the foreign born. Irish immigrants were derided in the press as “aliens” who were mindlessly loyal to their Catholic leaders, to the Pope, rather than any allegiance to America. American born workers felt displaced from jobs. These fears led to violence—Protestant workmen in Boston burned down a Catholic convent. Violence against Catholics erupted in Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans and Louisville, Kentucky. Militant anti-Catholics formed a third political party nicknamed the “Know Nothings” who wanted to cut Irish immigration and keep them from becoming naturalized American citizens. In Massachusetts, Know-Nothing candidates won every statewide office including the governorship, in 1854.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Yet the most famous Famine descendant was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the great grandson of Patrick Kennedy who left Ireland in 1849.
We have other grievous times that challenge our identity, who we are, who we have been.
Political changes in Japan and a serious recession led many Japanese to migrate to the United States, beginning in 1868. By 1924 about 380,000 had immigrated to Hawaii and the West Coast, where they established farms or small businesses. As the Japanese-American population grew, European Americans on the West Coast resisted the newcomers. They were scared of competition, and spread the idea of the “Yellow Peril”—we must fear the hordes of Asians would take over white-owned farms and businesses. Groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, the California Joint Immigration Committee, and the Native Sons of the Golden West organized and lobbied successfully to restrict the property and citizenship rights of Japanese immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively banned all immigration from Japan and other “undesirable” Asian countries. US law prohibited Japanese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.
In 1936, President Roosevelt ordered the Office of Naval Intelligence to compile a “special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble” between Japan and the US, and in 1939 the President ordered the ONI and FBI to work together to compile a larger Custodial Detention Index.
Early in 1941 and again in 1942, Roosevelt commissioned studies of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast and in Hawaii to document the threat. Both reports concluded there was no Japanese problem. Yet after the Pearl Harbor attack, political pressure escalated against Japanese-Americans, urging internment.
Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command, who administered the internment program, testified to Congress:
I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.
By February of 1942, Earl Warren, then the Attorney General of California, had begun his efforts to persuade the federal government to remove all people of Japanese ethnicity—including those who were as little as 1/16th Japanese (those who had one great great grandparent who was Japanese) and send them to internment camps. A Colonel, Karl Bendetsen, declared,
I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp.
A series of proclamations culminating on May 3, 1942, ordered all people of Japanese ancestry, whether citizens or non-citizens, to report to assembly centers and then “Relocation Centers.”
White farmers were delighted. California newspapers took up the cry. The Los Angeles Times signed on to the message:
A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched… So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents…notwithstanding his nominal brand of citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…
Not all voices joined the chorus. The Orange County Register argued that the internment was unethical and unconstitutional. Its publisher, R. C. Hoiles, wrote:
It would seem that convicting people of disloyalty to our country without having specific evidence against them is too foreign to our way of life and too close akin to the kind of government we are fighting…. [A]s Henry Emerson Fosdick so wisely said, ‘Liberty is always dangerous but it is the safest thing we have.’
One hundred and twenty thousand people were incarcerated. People were convicted of crime if they evaded internment.
In 1944, two and a half years after issuing Order 9066, Roosevelt rescinded the order and closed the camps. Ultimately, the courts found that the government had intentionally withheld the original racist versions of the testimony by General DeWitt and Colonel Bendetsen about the disloyalty of Japanese Americans. The government had held from evidence the two reports commissioned by Roosevelt in 1941 and 1942 that found Japanese Americans posed no threat to national security. The court found the justifications for internment were based on “willful historical inaccuracies and intentional falsehoods.”
Does any of this ring a bell?
One more story of who we are. While our Unitarians, Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha risked their own lives to bring to safety Jews and others whose lives were threatened in Nazi occupied Europe, the United States government turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, fearing that they were Nazi spies.
Most notoriously, in June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis carrying 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami. The ship was forced to return to Europe and a quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust.
Rhetoric of unfounded fears spread the belief in a supposed “fifth column” of spies and saboteurs who had infiltrated the country as refugees. US Attorney General Francis Biddle declared in 1942,
..every precaution must be taken…to prevent enemy agents slipping across our borders. We already have had experience with them and we know them to be well trained and clever.
Until the end of 1944, Attorney General Biddle warned Roosevelt not to grant immigration status to refugees. All foreigners became suspect, including Jews. In this climate of disinformation—shall we say “alternative facts”—immigration restrictions were actually tightened as the refugee crisis worsened.
Some journalists challenged these assertions. Then in 1944, in the face of mass murder of Jews, the Treasury Department released a damning report that saw wartime paranoia and bigotry in the actions of the State Department:
…certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.
The Trump administration’s assault on Moslems, those who are citizens, those who are recent migrants, those who are refugees, will go on as long as his party buys into the rhetoric of hate. We are living again our woeful past of injustice and intolerance, fueled by falsehoods: that Moslem refugees swarm with terrorists, though not a single act of terror has been carried out by a migrant from any country listed in the ban. We’re told our visa vetting process is a total failure, yet it already consumes 18 months to three years.
Remember that old saying—insanity is repeating over and over what you have done in the past and expecting a different outcome? With no benefit to our nation, in past generations, we destroyed the lives and well-being of those we saw as “other.” Our country was moved by flagrant lies that fed the rhetoric of bigotry. Belatedly, we faced the wrongs we committed, but nothing could undo the harm we did to people we saw as “Other.”
We don’t have to relive our shameful past. We gain nothing by burning the bridges of hope for men, women and children seeking refuge and survival.
We can affirm the self-evident truths that all of us, from all continents, of all skin color, people of all faiths are born equal and have certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We can grow as a nation as Abraham Lincoln grew, as he wrote in his second inaugural address,
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
We can reach out in justice, equity and compassion, and welcome the stranger, and draw all people into the circle of love and peace. May it be so.
Given January 29, 2017
You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.
Rev. Dr. Carrie Knowles
Nine days have passed since the 45th president of the United States was sworn in to office. I am mindful of the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
So many issues are now at the forefront: religious tolerance, the well-being of immigrants and refugees, racial justice, affordable healthcare for Americans, the dignity and equality of women, the rising temperature of the earth, to mention only a few. And each one of these is a matter of faith, not politics. Each one of these, for us UU’s, touches on our covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person which must include women, Moslems, Blacks, refugees and immigrants; our covenant to affirm and promote justice and compassion in human relations, which is violated when we bar refugees from any nation; our acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations as we reach out to all.
We UU’s affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning—which calls us to confront blatant lies and the bland denial of solid fact.
We covenant to promote the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large that calls us to live by our core values of what is right, by advocacy and action in our communities. We affirm the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all which counsels us to stand firm for peace and civil rights, and to preserve the earth, our home. And lastly, we affirm respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—an ideal that includes all the other principles of our faith.
I admit—all of these calls to live by my faith right now feel a bit overwhelming. I feel like the mosquito at the nudist society picnic: no question what to do, just where to begin.
But then I thought of an essay by Virginia Safford where she tells of walking in an old cemetery in New England where she came upon a tombstone with an epitaph I hold in my heart. The name and dates of the dead had been erased by time and weather, but the epitaph was still readable: “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” [repeat]
Today, the worthy thing I want to attend to, is the issue of immigration and the undocumented. It is about as many as 11 million people, in the US. And the first of our principles I want to address is, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
I have a special care in my heart for immigrants. Some of you may remember my own family story: my father migrated here when he was 12, fleeing the massacre of Jews in Russia. I have a strong feeling about Mexican immigrants. I broke out my ankle one Sunday morning some years ago, when I lived here, in Riviera West. I had walked to the top of a steep hill and then slipped on gravel. No houses nearby, no cell phone. A Mexican worker nearby heard my screams. He lifted me into his pickup truck and took me home so my husband could drive me to the ER. The worker’s name was “An-hel,” Angel. A close friend of mine now is a young woman in the East Bay who came as a teenager from Mexico without documents. She has a job, but no health care coverage, and no benefits. Her children are citizens, they were born here and they go to public schools.
The political campaign of the 45th president opened with a profound assault on the truth: among his lies, his assault on the truth about immigrants and the undocumented. Here are some of the lies.
It is a lie that we have open borders.
President Obama has often been referred to by immigration groups as the "Deporter in Chief.” Between 2009 and 2015 his administration removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. This doesn’t include the number of people who "self-deported" or were turned away and/or returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). [ABC News]
It is a lie that immigrants account for high rates of crime.
We have heard over and over from the now-president of the US that about 2 million illegal immigrants are criminals, and must be deported.
In truth, newcomers to the U.S. are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or be incarcerated. For over a century, innumerable studies confirm two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime. This holds true for both immigrants here legally and the unauthorized, regardless of their country of origin or level of education. In other words, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are not “criminals” by any commonly accepted definition of the term. [American Immigration Council, 2015]
According to data from the American Community Survey (ACS) in 2010, roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 were incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born. This difference in incarceration rates has existed for decades. In 1980, 1990 and 2000, the incarceration rates of the native-born were anywhere from two to five times higher than that of immigrants.
The exact number of undocumented immigrants, out of the 1.9 million, whom the new president has offered to deport at once, is not clear.
Calculations by the Migration Policy Institute show about 820,000 (43 percent) of the 1.9 million are unauthorized
immigrants with criminal convictions. But more than half of the 1.9 million immigrants who are convicted of crime are lawfully in the country with green cards or visas. And of the undocumented with criminal convictions, only about 690,000 committed felonies or serious misdemeanors that could make them a threat to society. [Washington Post]
Despite these realities, the most recent language about deportation priorities, tucked into the president’s border wall order out this week, expands the definition of who is a criminal.
The president’s order focuses on anyone who has been charged with a criminal offense, even if it has not led to a conviction. It includes anyone who has used a false Social Security number to get a job, as many unauthorized immigrants do.
It further allows the targeting of anyone who “in the judgment of the immigration officer” poses a risk to public safety and national security. Now immigration officers have broad authority without review from a supervisor before targeting individuals. This goes further than any previous administrations in the number of people targeted for deportation.
It is a lie that the undocumented immigrants are mostly those who cross our southern border. It is false that a “wall” between Mexico and the US could seal off unauthorized migration.
Since 2009, the origin of unauthorized immigration has shifted from Mexico to other countries. The number of the undocumented, 3.5% of our population, has stabilized in the last three years at 11.1 million, down from its peak of 12.2 million.
Mexicans are a bare majority of the undocumented—52%, about 5.8 million people. The number of unauthorized immigrants from countries other than Mexico is about 5.3 million, or 48%. These people come from Asia, Central America and sub-Saharan Africa. [Pew Research, 2014]
It is false that unauthorized immigrants have been flooding over the border. About 2 out of 3 undocumented adults have been in the US for at least a decade. Ninety-three percent of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico have been here more than 5 years.
I think many Americans recognize these grave distortions of the truth.
Yet there are beliefs and concerns that override the facts. Some feel that no matter how many or how few, unauthorized immigrants are depriving American workers of jobs. I have heard from an elderly woman that they take jobs away from older Americans.
I have heard from a disabled immigrant from Europe that they take jobs away from disabled persons.
In fact, the undocumented have strikingly different occupational profiles than those born in the US.
One out of three unauthorized immigrants hold service jobs such as janitor, child care worker or cook—nearly twice as many as the share of US born workers in these jobs. An additional 15% work in construction, compared with 5% of US born. A small percentage—4% work in farming and forestry, compared with .4% of US born workers.
None of these jobs would deprive the elderly or disabled of employment.
In better paid work, in the fields of sales and office jobs, and professions, in management, and business and finance, 62% of those jobs are held by US born workers, compared with 26% of the undocumented. [Pew Research]
That’s a lot of numbers I’ve thrown at you. Let me step back. Most jobs held by the undocumented and by other recent immigrants are jobs that few US born workers compete for.
Yesterday, a home care worker from LA joined the Women’s March in Washington DC. She’s a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She wrote a piece for the New York Times, published on Inauguration Day.
Teresita Villasenor herself is a legal immigrant from the Philippines who works as a caregiver, supporting people with disabilities—work that takes patience, understanding, and sometimes hard physical work. She writes,
I have faced low wages for long hours, discrimination, abuse and exploitation. Ninety percent of care workers are women and many are immigrants, some living undocumented in this country….. What we want Mr. Trump to recognize is that undocumented immigrants are a blessing. We challenge him to figure out who will take care of him when he’s old. Who will take care of his wife, his daughters and his sons? For too long, immigrant families in this country have been separated, deported and detained.
This immigrant caregiver reminds us of our core principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and our commitment to justice and compassion. Yet the narrative that has resounded with many millions of Americans is that immigrants are “Other,” less than “us,” and a threat to our identity as a white so-called “Christian” nation.
As more of the undocumented have been rounded up for deportation, we have seen profound violation of their civil rights and due process. By law, people accused of crimes have a right to a hearing before a judge and to release on bail, within six months, unless they present the risk of flight or further wrongdoing. Yet undocumented immigrants rounded up for deportation, not for any crime but only because they lacked authorization to enter the US, have been held in detention centers without a hearing and without bail for much longer than six months, sometimes as long as five years.
Interestingly, those held for the longest times are those most likely to be found legitimately seeking refuge, and they are released, and they ultimately become citizens.
Our Congress has failed for decades to deal rationally with the presence of undocumented immigrants. Finally, former President Obama took executive action to limit deportation of undocumented immigrants who came here as children, and who are now in school or the military—it’s called DACA—and he took further action to limit deportation of undocumented parents of citizens—called DAPA— who have committed no crimes.
Obama’s executive orders seem to many the embodiment of justice and compassion. But the order to suspend deportation of undocumented parents was blocked in the courts. The order to hold off deportation of those who came as children can now be reversed with the stroke of the new president’s pen.
The fate of 752,000 young immigrants brought to the US as children—a third of whom live in California—now rests with an unverified executive order that was leaked to the media but had not yet been signed as of this weekend. Further, the president has made no commitment to honor the promise of the US government to DACA kids that their information will not be shared with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
I stand here today near the altar in this Fellowship Hall in fear this will happen, and soon. I have been living since November 8th with the fear that young people called “Dreamers” will be torn from their lives and hopes and find themselves detained and ultimately deported to a world they never knew. I have been living with the fear that parents will be torn from their children, kept endlessly in deportation centers, then sent back to countries no longer their home.
My fear is tempered with hope, exactly because I stand here near this altar in sacred space.
This consecrated place that contains us all is called a sanctuary. More generally, a sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety.
There is a tradition going back thousands of years in many ancient cultures including the Israelite culture that all who came for refuge at the altar or in the consecrated space of the temple or to those cities designated as sanctuary cities were safe there.
Those seeking refuge could include criminals, debtors, escaped slaves, priests, and ordinary people. It was considered a greater crime to drag someone from the sanctuary or kill them there than it was to defile the sanctuary itself.
This tradition was revived in American churches when they offered sanctuary to soldiers who refused to serve in the Vietnam War. And in the 1980’s congregations opened their doors to Central Americans fleeing wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The movement was revived again in 2006 and grew during President Obama’s two terms.
Today, 450 houses of worship in the United States have offered to provide sanctuary or other assistance to undocumented immigrants. More than forty of these are Unitarian Universalist congregations—with the full backing of the UUA.
Protecting immigrants is becoming a priority for religious liberals of many faiths and ethnicities since Trump’s victory and his selection of an attorney general nominee who supports a crackdown on immigrants. While few congregations have the space and determination to risk harboring undocumented immigrants indefinitely, they can connect with neighboring churches that have such resources. They can line up to contribute money, legal assistance, food, clothing, medical care, child care or transportation.
So I bring my heart and soul here today in the trust that we can start consideration here about supporting the sanctuary movement. I will be in the Fellowship Hall after the service to meet with all of you who are interested in further discussion.
A first step is understanding what undocumented immigrants and their families confront now and hearing their stories.
A further step is to reach within ourselves and ask what we may be called to do by our faith, our guiding principles, by our compassion and love of justice.
Then, for those of us who see providing for the safety of vulnerable unauthorized immigrants as one of those “few worthy things” we desire to undertake, we can together develop our priorities for action.
May we find deep in our hearts those few worthy things that fill our spirit with light and hope and may we attend to them well and faithfully in the coming days.