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?