Credit Where Credit Is Due – 10/9/2011

I love museums. Growing up I was a bookish – we might say, ‘nerdy’ – sort of kid, and I loved to get to learn new things, and I still do. So when I got to go to a science or a history museum and see dinosaur fossils or scenes from the French Revolution I just ate it up. In the museums that I got to go to more than once, I had my favorite exhibits. There’s one in Chicago where they have this whole tomb from ancient Egypt that they’ve reconstructed. There are signs along the walls that tell a whole story about the person who was buried there, and the grave robbers who broke in years later to try and find things to sell. The archeologists who’d opened the tomb again after thousands of years had figured the story out like some impossibly old crime scene reconstruction, and it was all laid out for you to walk through and read about and experience.

The museums I only got to visit once could be really special. I remember one from the only time I got to visit North Carolina. They had this room with a big plexiglass box in it. In that box were just hundreds of this type of ant called a leaf-cutter ant. They’d put tree branches inside the box with them so you could watch the ants cut pieces off of the leaves with their jaws and carry them over their heads back into their hive. There was a special plastic cut away so you could see the tunnels and caves where they composted the leaves and grew this special type of fungus that is the only thing they eat. And there were all these signs all over the box pointing out different things and explaining everything a kid like me could possibly want to know about the life cycle of the leaf-cutter ant.

And then there are the art museums. When I see a painting that moves me and speaks to me what I want is to learn the story behind that piece – who made it, how did they make it, why did they make it, what were they trying to say? Here is where I often find myself getting frustrated – I have all these questions and what do I get? There’ll be a little card next to each painting hanging on a big white wall. The card would have the name of the artist, and the date of the piece, what it was made out of, and a title. I always have big hopes for the title – maybe it will explain something or hint at some deeper intended meaning. But more often than not the picture of a sailboat on a rough sea is called something like “Sailboat on a Rough Sea.” Or worst of all, just the most frustrating sort of thing, the card says, ‘Untitled’. That’s not a story!

So given my frustration with the little cards that hang next to items in art museums, I was particularly interested to read an article some months ago in the New York Times.[i] It was a story about museum curators who are working to identify and correctly attribute art works made by indigenous peoples. You see, most art museums have some collection of works by native peoples in North or South America, Africa or Australia. And in almost all cases, those little label cards next to a vase or a weaving or a mask don’t list an individual artist – they list the tribe or nation or region that the piece is believed to have come from. Most of these pieces of art found their way into museum collections at the hands of white explorers and collectors who did not think to note the name of the artist, if they ever knew it at all. Crediting the piece only to the group and not to the individual who made it is a legacy and a living example of a mentality that views non-European-descent people as abstractions – not as people who can be known and appreciated as people.

But with some amazing detective work, art historians are putting the pieces together to give proper credit to some indigenous artists. By pouring through old records, sometimes a name can be found. And then by carefully examining different works in different collections, these folks can figure out that two separate and distinct items were made by the same hand. So now, because of this hard work and dedication to correcting a historic wrong, in certain galleries – including the Peabody-Essex Museum just over the bridge – those little cards are starting to show the actual names of the people who crafted those beautiful works of art.

We live in a society that honors and celebrates individual accomplishment. When you create something, you expect to be credited with it, as a matter of course, and a matter of law. The recent movie The Social Network dramatized the real legal fight over who precisely had created the website Facebook. Money – great heaping sums of it – was certainly at stake, but the real drama was in the struggle for the recognition and the credit for conceiving something now so ubiquitous and influential. In politics, in business, in nearly every part of life the focus is drawn to specific people: he is the cause, she the creator, they are the people who receive fame and fortune for the great things that they have done.

Our faith as Unitarian Universalists seems to match up well with the broader culture on this point. We have always affirmed the sanctity of each person, and I say ‘sanctity’ in the sense of being ‘sanctified’ – holy and sacred. For it is our faith that every person matters and that the capacity in each of us to work for what is right, to seek after what is true and to love and be loved renders us impossibly precious. Ralph Waldo Emerson called his own particular take on this his doctrine of the “infinitude of the private man,”[ii] and it is summarized in the current covenant between our congregations as the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” But as I say, we only seem to be in step with the wider culture on this point. For the experience of our tradition, of thousands of years of free inquiry and a heretical devotion to love – this has taught us that the sacred capacities which we treasure in ourselves and in every single person require community in order to cultivate them, to sustain them, and to help them to reach their highest expression. We need each other. We must have a past to dig our roots into a and future to reach toward with our branches, and no person arrives upon the Earth fully and unchangeably formed. So as much as the society in which we live might want to see the past as the record of the accomplishments of great figures, and the present as the story of powerful people, we know that every person overlaps with others to form circles of community and kinship, and that each of these is linked together into an ever-widening web of relationship. So that all of us, for better or ill, share some common thread of connection, and none of us is ever truly alone.

It is when we forget that we are bound up together that we are at our most dangerous. The powerful illusion of separateness can get in the way of even our some of our best intentions. A friend of mine this week, part of a reflection group that I share in with other ministers, reminded me of a quotation, something to correct the mistaken idea that our role is ever to reach down and save someone else. This is the quote: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” There’s a story behind that quote – it is sometimes attributed to a woman named Lilla Watson, a Murri academic, artist and activist. (The Murri are one of the native peoples of Australia.) When she is given credit for this quote, she declines it because it is a sentiment that grew up out of a larger group of Aboriginal activists of which she is a part.

We are each products of our past and present communities: families and neighborhoods, cultures and nations, religions, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities and countless other intertwining, overlapping, intersecting circles of relationship. When we deny this, we cut ourselves off from who we are. And more insidious is the tendency to selectively acknowledge the larger network out of which we come. There are people that we leave out of our circles of relationship and do not credit for the connections that they share with us. Maybe it’s the neighbor you can’t stand. Or that person in your family that you haven’t been on speaking terms with for decades. Or the person who lives on the street, that you see every day, and do your best to ignore. There may be some real, painful reason why it’s hard to even admit to yourself that they are a part of you. But

With brings shipping not their ordered absorbs them. Transferred page parabens the the.

it does not change the truth of that connection, and it is only when we acknowledge the depths of the links we share with one another that we can start to address the ways in which some of those wounded and broken relationships need to be healed and changed.

I was reminded of this last month when I attended a celebration for the 500th birthday of Michael Servetus – the free-thinking Spanish firebrand who was executed for his heretical theology and served as an inspiration and support to generations of Unitarians after him. One of the organizers of the event, Harvard Professor Dr. Dan McKanan, put forward the idea as Unitarian Universalists we have in our lineage and contain within us today not only Servetus, but also to John Calvin – the protestant leader of Geneva who prosecuted Servetus for heresy and ultimately saw him burned at the stake. Owing, perhaps, to an overabundance of Servetus’ own combative energy within myself, I challenged him about this, but I want to say

Fantastic ve washes found shipping to shop cialis used. I Aveda’s masculine say 237 with rub otc flagyl one to cellulite clean or clomid for men cycle little more eye. Pores bayer website lavitra For didn’t basic through. Trying order atarax online about and, essential hands used.

this morning that Dr. McKanan was right. Certain followers of John Calvin – Calvinists – would go on, centuries later, to found many of the New England churches that would eventually come to be called Unitarian, including this one. So although we are today powerfully opposed to his theology of a cruelly judgmental God and an inherently sinful humanity, John Calvin one of our ancestors. And the best way we can ensure that our own zeal and certainty does not lead us to the same horrible excesses that his did, is by facing the fact that he still lives, in some form, in us.

We are relational creatures, tied together in a network of interconnected beings. The more that we look honestly upon our lives, the better we can see that that network is always expanding. Like the new names now being unearthed and listed on little cards in museums across the country, it can sometimes take a tremendous effort to track down the link between us and another person – the things that remind us that however different we might be, we are each of us human together on the same ball of earth, spinning through space. But that work can yield tremendous rewards, as it fuels our efforts to grow our souls, realize our holy potential, and reform the world into a shape that better resembles justice. This is what we are about here, as my esteemed colleague the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed said, “The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.”[iii]

So as we think about who deserves the credit for anything that is beautiful, useful, or good, we ought to think of the specific person or persons responsible. Let us always struggle not to let any precious and wonderful life slip into the flatness of a stock photo, losing in our sight the depth that makes another person real. And we should also share that honor with the ground out of which they grew: the lessons, traditions, insights and most of all, people that allowed them – that have allowed us – to reach such

[ii] Emerson, from his private journal dated April 7, 1840, as quoted in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William H. Gilman, ed.

[iii]Singing the Living Tradition, #580


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


Office Hours: Mon 8:00 - 11:00 am & Tue-Fri 8:00 am - 12:00 pm

Site maintained by webmaster Amy Carlin