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Born Right the First Time – 12/24/2013

In Lawrence Stern’s great satire of the English novel, his narrator, Tristram Shandy, attempts to show to his audience why his life has been such a muddle by beginning before the beginning – before he is even born. He explains that a legal agreement between his parents entitled his mother to give birth in London, where greater comfort and medical expertise were available. But if there were any false starts – if she made the expensive journey to London, but then had to return because the baby was not ready, then the entitlement was forfeit, and she would have to give birth at home.

This clause was invoked during Tristram’s mother’s pregnancy, and so he was born at home. And because one thing so often leads to another in life, Tristram’s being born in his family’s country home resulted in his having a rather a flat nose, due to the pressure from the forceps that were used somewhat clumsily during his delivery. This thwarted his father’s hopes of having a son with a prominent, distinguished nose, and more disappointments followed from there. Assessing the justice of the legal agreement Trisram’s father made with his mother and held her to, refusing to pay for more than one trip to London, Tristram declared it to be no less than reasonable. “[A]nd yet,” he said, “as reasonable as it was, I have ever thought it hard that the whole weight of the article should have fallen entirely, as it did, upon myself.”[i]

That author, Lawrence Stern, was a clergyman of the Church of England, and he was playing here a bit with a familiar, long-running debate within the Christian tradition: are we humans born broken or whole? For most of their history, the followers of Jesus, or at least their most powerful leaders, have held the former position: that we are, as a species, sinful, degenerate, or otherwise wrong from the beginning, and that some special activity or grace is needed to correct this. This is the primary justification given for the baptism of both infants and adults: that this affects or at least affirms a transformation in the heart. A new spiritual birth to overcome the limitations of that first physical one.

In this belief, the teacher Jesus, whose birthday gathers us here tonight, has long been held to be the exception to this rule: the only person in human history to have been born right the first time – his mother Mary sometimes being given as the other exception. my butters And I online pharmacy pretty the Thanks.

when he should be specific, and then specific when he has not yet learned to be expansive. It is this tincture of brokenness, common to all humanity, that makes the teacher’s lessons learnable, and the example of his life relevant to my own.

There was a time before I was called to be here when I served as a hospital chaplain in a neonatal intensive care unit, where I met a lot of very beautiful, very sick children, and their very tired, very brave families. That’s where I met Agnes. At more than a year old, she was the elder woman of our floor. She and her family had come more than a thousand miles for a surgery that would allow her eyes to see for the first time. It would address only one of the many ways in which her body worked differently than the bodies of other little girls who did not have to live their lives in hospitals. No one would have suggested this little girl, who loved to play, and be hugged by her dad, wasn’t born right. No one could have said that of any of the children whom I met that year. Parents might rage, and cry out to Heaven for the pain and the hardship, faced by their newborn kids. But they were still always their kids, and to be loved most deeply not despite, but because, of all that they were.

Against the tide of history, though by no means alone in that stand, our tradition as Unitarian Universalists tells us that the nature of our own births was not so different from that of a certain child born a little over two thousand years ago in occupied Palestine. Born right enough. Right enough to be loved, and also to love, if we are lucky. Right enough to know that we are flawed – to not only make mistakes, but to learn from them, and to make amends for them. Born right enough to wait in the dark, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “for the hour when a new clarity is born.”[iii]

My friends and spiritual companions, this Christmas I wish for you the courage and the beauty, to let go of those old stories about why you never were what you or somebody else thought you should be. Instead, may you look towards the birth of new hope and understanding, and with patience and humility, go out and meet it. May we each, moment by moment, grow to become the wonder beyond imagining that it is within us to be. Amen.

[i] From The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

[ii] Between the 5 and 9 o’clock services, one of you pointed out to me the case for Mary. I am grateful, as always, for the correction.

[iii] From Letters to a Young Poet.

The League of Miraculous Children – 12/22/2013

As most of you are already well aware, I am a fan of comic books. The stories of costumed crime fighters and strange visitors from distant planets are sometimes referred to as our modern mythology: our answers to the stories of ancient heroes like Hercules or Sundiata. The stories that we tell and retell speak to what we hope and what we fear and who we are. You can tell a lot about a people by the stories they keep.

On this day each year, our young people work together to tell us one particular story about the early life of the teacher Jesus. In comic book terms, it is an origin story: some people are bitten by radioactive spiders, others are born in barns. I do not say that to be flip: Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists counsels us to take seriously the ideas and messages of a story – any story – whether or not we believe it to be an exact literal account of historical fact. And just as comic book superheroes have certain themes and

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ideas that occur again and again in their stories – wearing a cape or a mask, training for years in a far-off land, or gaining strange powers through an industrial accident – themes also recur in the stories of the world’s religions. So that the miraculous qualities of Jesus’ origin story puts him into a prestigious club with many other great figures of human faith.

Some of the other stories of strange and wondrous nativity include Sarah, the first matriarch of the Hebrew Bible. When she heard the prediction that she would have a child, she laughed. It was a very reasonable reaction: she had lived 90 years without ever conceiving a child. But then she had her son, Isaac. Just as Jesus’ mother Mary was said to be a virgin at the time of his birth, the same is reported of Devaki, the birth mother of Krishna, the 8th incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The three wise men who attended Jesus’ birth have a parallel in the Buddhist tradition. It is said that eight sages were consulted when Siddhartha Gautama was born, and predicted that he would either become a great king or a great religious leader – only one of the eight was certain that he was destined to become the Buddha.

Japanese folklore contains a character named Momotaro, who is said to have been cut free from a giant peach by a childless couple grateful to have found an adoptive son. And there is an even quirkier story about Lao-tse, the mythical founder of Daoism. The tradition is that he never was a child, but was born an old man, already profoundly wise and experienced. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button, however, Lao-tse did not age backwards – he just stayed old.

The roster of religious figures with spectacular nativity stories is so impressive that it would make for quite a team-up issue – to further extend the comic book analogy. Especially because so many of these teachers and prophets are reported to have had spectacular childhoods as well. The story goes that young Krishna started an argument with the storm god Indra, who was abusing his power over humans. Indra hurled a torrent of wind and lightning at the boy and his neighbors, but Krishna just picked up a nearby hill, and held it over them all like an umbrella. In the Gospel According to Luke, a tweenage Jesus manages to lose his parents on a family trip to the temple in Jerusalem, and spends his time schooling the priests and sages he encounters there. And in some of the Apocrypha – the books that never made it into the canonical bible – the boy Jesus tosses around miracles left and right, sometimes giving life: animating a clay bird, resurrecting a dried fish; and sometimes taking life away.

We human beings tell a lot of stories about the births and beginnings of great and inspiring people

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and characters. This makes sense for reasons of drama and suspense: we are never more vulnerable than at the very beginnings of our lives. But more than this, I believe we tell these stories, like the one we are about to hear, because we recognize the phenomenal promise contained in new life. Each child unfolds and develops without possibility of prediction or certainty. At the beginning, nothing is fixed. No one could have said, at the hour of our birth, that we would never grow up to be prophets or heroes. But remember one more thing, friends: no matter the age we wear, no one can say that of us now, either. No person’s future is fixed. The promise that entered the world when each of us was born, is always with us. We were all of us miraculous children, and we remain miraculous children still.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part – 12/15/2013

The celebration of a holiday – any holiday – is marked by traditions both big and small, both common and uncommon. There are rituals we perform, formulas we recite to one another, signs with which we adorn our houses or our persons – and then, there is the food. In the family I grew up in, my mother had a particular challenge each Christmas, after our family had driven out to Illinois to be with her dad and her brothers for the holiday. She’s a great cook, and she always wants to make sure everybody gets what they like. At Christmastime, this meant both preparing a sort of generic American Christmas dinner – turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes – and the elements of a traditional Swedish Christmas – tiny meatballs, and a type of beef, pork, and barley sausage called korv. Everybody seemed to have something they wanted and something else that they didn’t want on the table.

But at the end of the meal, there was one item that everybody looked forward to, even her most notoriously picky child [points at self]. The famous chocolate wafer dessert. It’s not particularly complicated: it’s just a log made out of these chocolate wafers – like Oreo cookie caps – alternated with whipped cream and left in the refrigerator long to get the cream a little stiffer and the wafers a lot softer. The recipe is hardly unique – you may consult Google if you would like to see several dozen versions of it. But my grandmother used to make it for her

family at Christmas, so my mom made it for hers. There were plenty of other things to look forward to in my family’s celebration of Christmas, but that was always what the holiday tasted like, for my brothers and I.

And then one day, several years ago, my mother was making plans for a party sometime in the middle of the year. She said she might make that chocolate wafer dessert and one of my brothers heard this with a great deal of surprise. “But you can only get those wafers in December, though.” “Oh no, they sell them all year round.” “But they only have them in Illinois, right?” “No, they’re just in the baking aisle; I’ll get some when I go to the store later.” “You mean, we could have had this anytime we wanted to?” The look on my brother’s face at that moment spoke of hundreds of moments, hundreds of holidays, wasted. Of birthdays and Halloweens and 4th of Julys, Groundhog’s Days, Arbor Days, of any conceivable excuse to celebrate – when he could have asked my mother to make the famous chocolate wafer dessert, but didn’t. All those years spent looking forward to that treat for months, when he could have been enjoying it right then.

This sermon is the last in a series on the spiritual dimension of the eight basic human emotions described by Robert Plutchik. The emotion we are considering this morning is anticipation. We are in the midst of a season of anticipation right now – most of us are looking forward to the arrival of Christmas, whether with excitement, or dread, or a little bit of both. In the Western Christian calendar, today is the third Sunday of Advent, the season for anticipating the birth of Jesus and the hope and renewal that story represents. Waiting is a huge part of living, but it is not always easy, and as my brother’s story demonstrates, it can sometimes feel like there’s no point to it at all.

The skill and discipline of waiting can be life-saving and meaning making. The King James version of the book of Isaiah reads, “…[T]hey that that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” When we point ourselves towards a purpose that is deep enough to sustain our efforts, it allows us to wait to act until the time is right, and to keep struggling, even when it is hard and the end is not in sight. And yet the virtue of patience is also the tired excuse of every voice that would postpone the work of justice and shirk the struggle for what is right out of complacency or fear.

When considering what sort of waiting we are doing and whether or not it is the sort we want to be about, it may be helpful to think about cookies. When you make cookies – just as when you make the famous chocolate wafer dessert – there’s a bit of waiting involved. In fact, the waiting is most important part, because the time they spend baking is what makes the difference between sugary goo – tasty, but risky if you used actual eggs – and actually ready-to-eat cookies. But if you never make up the batter, if you never spoon it out on sheets, if you never put those sheets in the oven, well then it doesn’t matter how long you wait: the cookies ain’t coming. Now there’s always the outside chance that while you are waiting patiently with an empty oven, a friend might call you up and say, “Help, come quick; I’ve got too many cookies and I need you to eat some!” But that should be chocked up to the generosity and mercy of the universe, not the fact that you were aimlessly waiting. So you can draw a dividing line between anticipation and just waiting around by asking yourself, “Are there cookies in the oven?”

In one of his sonnets, the poet John Milton wrote about doubt and patience at a time when he was losing his sight, and finding that he knew how to do less and less without it.

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts: who


Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

At a time when he found he could do little more than wait, a voice of comfort came to Milton to remind him that there was something sacred even in the waiting.

The ability to wait to wait towards a purpose – the virtue of patience – is affirmed throughout human religion and culture. The story of the would-be pupil who must wait for days exposed to the elements before being allowed to enter a school or monastery appears in Chinese Buddhism, in early Egyptian Christianity, and in the book and movie Fight Club, among other places. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the six perfections – the stages of purification on the route to enlightenment – is kshanti. Kshanti means patience, particularly the ability to endure in the face of harassment or violence. It is a particularly hard thing to master. In one story of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Patrul Rinpoche, he happened upon a cave in the mountains where a monk sat by himself. He shouted into the cave, “Hello there, what are you doing?”

The monk tried first ignoring him, and then he tried giving back his own questions: “Who are you, where do you come from?” But he only got puzzling, unsatisfying replies: “I come from behind my back, and I am going in the direction I am facing.” Eventually, the monk gave in a bit and explained that he was cultivating perfect patience.

“Ah,” said Patrul. “That sounds like a worthy scam. The locals must be very gullible around here. How much do you make in the meditation racket?” Exasperated, the seated monk burst out angrily, “How dare you? This is my cave, this is my holy work, no one invited you in here, now kindly leave!” “And where,” asked Patrul Rinpoche, “is your perfect patience now?”[i]

We Unitarian Universalists have a story from our history that is really all about the power of anticipation. I want to give credit here to my colleague Seth Fischer, because while I’ve heard and told this story many times before it didn’t occur to me to connect it to anticipation until he did so himself. The story may be familiar to many of you; I’m going to try to tell it in a way it’s not usually told, and if you recognize it right away, I invite you to try to hear it with fresh ears. In 1760, there was a farmer living near the New Jersey coast who was a Universalist. By Universalist I mean in this case that he believed in a God too loving and too merciful to condemn any person to an eternity of suffering, and so held that all human beings share the same destiny: we are all one day, one way or another, going home. Exactly how he came to be a Universalist is a little bit uncertain. He had friends and family who were Baptists and Quakers, and seems to have been influenced by both. There were a few communities of both groups that seem to have been anti-Hell, and he might have been influenced by these. There was even a Universalist missionary active on the east coast in those days, and it’s fascinating to think that he might have met with this isolated farmer. We know that the man could not read, but he did have folks in his life who read the bible to him. So it might also be that he came to his theology, with a little help, through the single most common means by which Universalists have been made, historically: actually reading the bible for yourself.

This man, a Universalist in America, was a novelty because in 1760, according to our history as we usually tell it, there were no Universalists in America. This illiterate farmer had the gumption to join our movement even before it had begun. Although, as I’ve said, he was not the only person then alive who contradicted the idea that Universalism in American had not begun yet, he does seem to have been fairly lonely in his beliefs. He was isolated enough that he built a chapel on his acreage, which was free and nonsectarian and open to worship by just about anyone. But his hope was that one day a Universalist minister would preach a Universalist sermon in that place. That farmer’s name was Thomas Potter, and it just so happens that there came a day when he met another man named John Murray.

We sometimes call John Murray the founder of American Universalism – he was the founding minister of the first Universalist congregation in North America, not far from here, in Gloucester. So when we tell this story, Murray usually takes the lead. It is sometimes said to be our one-and-only miracle story. Murray was a Methodist preacher who had lost his community after becoming convinced of Universalism. He left England alone and in disgrace, determined to ‘lose himself in America,’ and with no religious ambitions. But his ship became stranded off the coast of New Jersey. He and the other passengers went ashore. Asking where he might find supplies, John was directed to Thomas’ house. It is not clear how the one recognized the other as a fellow Universalist; John had been tormented for it, and was not likely to be wearing it on his sleeve. But once Thomas knew that this stranger brought his way by a strange chain of events was a preacher of Universalism, he was convinced that his vision for his little chapel would be fulfilled. He eventually wore John down, and he preached his first sermon in America on September 30th, 1770.[ii]

Told from John’s perspective, this is a story about the force of history – perhaps the hand of Providence – winning out against all odds and driving a famous man on to an important destiny. But told from Thomas’ perspective, it is a story about patience and bold anticipation – the wherewithal to build a church with no minister or congregation, and to wait ten years still hoping to see it put to use. The playwright-turned-politician Vaclav Havel said that “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Even against impossible odds, conviction is enough to turn waiting into anticipation.

When the things we hope for, long for, plan for – anticipate – when one of these things comes to pass, the moment can taste very sweet. So sweet, in fact, that there is a powerful temptation to rush it along, to convince ourselves that the moment has arrived when it is still as yet far off. The history of a number of religions, including Judaism and Christianity, offers many examples of millennial thinking. People certain that the end of history was just around the corner and that the world was about to be completely upended and transformed. These predictions seem, so far, not to have come to pass. And less you think of this as just a habit of fundamentalist minds, I would remind you of the way in which some folks, perhaps some of us here this morning, viewed the first election of our nation’s current president. Just as my brother might have wanted to eat famous chocolate wafer dessert every night for a month in the middle of summer, it is tempting to think that we can rush what we can only actually contribute to. But the things that are truly worthy of our anticipations, the struggles that deeply deserve our energies, require patience to achieve. If you have the treat in August, it might taste good, but it will never be everything that it would be in December. Anticipation is not a good all by itself, but it is good for how it can point our living towards a more meaningful life, and for the sweetness that it adds when the own visions finally begin to take form.

[i] From Sarah Conover and Valerie Wahl’s collection of Buddhist stories, Kindness


Hosting Hope for the Holidays

Folklore and sacred stories love the trope of the mysterious visitor: someone who comes to a town or into a home as a stranger. Usually they are judged harshly by others: they are unclean or foreign or frightening or all three. But someone takes them in, or shows them kindness, and then somehow the story turns. The stranger is revealed to be a king or an angel or a prophet or a spirit or a saint. Through wisdom and miracle some crisis is averted or injustice undone. The hospitable are rewarded or the indifferent are punished. In one way or another, the moral follows the famous quotation from the Christian Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing.”

There are a great many good and inspiring stories in this genre, but what about all those paupers who aren’t royalty in disguise? What about the strangers who aren’t angels, and the vagabonds who are only and simply vagabonds? The core values of our tradition instruct us: every person is precious and worthy and it is an honor and a joy to come to the aid of another. We don’t need to be looking for the magical Secret Shopper, who will report to the celestial head office on the quality of our customer service. It is miracle enough to get to welcome or to help someone else who is just as wonderful and mundane and beautiful and imperfect as we are. The quotation might be amended: “Do not neglect hospitality, because through it we make life possible and worthwhile.”

Each year in the late fall-early winter season, we engage in a project together called Simple Gifts. It’s an annual discipline of trying to refocus our celebrations of Christmas, Hanukkah, Solstice or what have you, towards the generosity of spirit and hospitality of heart that is too often lost in our consumption-driven world. This year, we are following this practice by joining the Guest at Your Table program. Guest at Your Table is an annual fundraising effort by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee – our movement’s global aid and development organization. Each household or family is invited to take a small paper box to be a guest in their home throughout this season. At meal times, or whenever you do something special for this time of year, think of having an additional guest in your house: someone else to feed or buy presents for. Then set aside the real cost that welcoming someone into your home would mean, and place this money into the box, to be collected in January and sent on to the UUSC.

This is not meant just to be abstract: there are real people all over the world whose lives will be impacted by your contribution. Each year, the UUSC collects stories from the people its efforts touch as part of the Guest at Your Table program. This year, they are featuring some of the amazing activists and organizers that they partner with around the world – you can check out some of their stories here. If you don’t already have a box, you can get one at church throughout December. This is an opportunity we are eager to share not because the UUSC is an organization worth being proud of and worth supporting (though it is both), but because sharing with others and inviting them into our lives helps us realize the holy potential in us as human beings. It makes us more ourselves in a world that too often wants to make us less. And it allows us to practice giving without having to practice buying first. I hope that you will join me and my family in welcoming a guest to your table this holiday season.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

Why We Fight – 12/8/2013

In April of 1917, the United States entered the First World War. When the Unitarians of the US and Canada held their General Conference in Montreal a month later, tensions ran high. Their congregations were not of one mind on the subject of this or any other conflict, according to a report presented at that meeting by John Haynes Holmes, a prominent minister from New York City. Many supported the decision to go to war, but many also had reservations about it. In particular, there was grave concern about the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it illegal for any person or organization to speak out publically against the American war effort, or to encourage conscientious objection or draft resistance. And there were also some, like Holmes, whose faith called them to stand against war in all of its forms.

At the conference, John Haynes Holmes said, “I am a pacifist, a non-resistant, I hate war and I hate this war; and so long as I live I will have nothing to do with this or any war.” Aware that he was in a small minority within the denomination, Holmes did not argue that all his fellow Unitarians should adopt his same position, but called instead for a free expression of belief and opinion, to work towards a “ministry of reconciliation” between conflicting positions, in order ultimately to realize a “gospel of peace.”

On the other side of this debate stood William Howard Taft, a Unitarian layman and former president of the United States, who was once a worshipper in this congregation – he liked to sit in that pew over there. Taft was then serving as the president of that year’s general conference, and believed that the Unitarian movement needed to make clear and certain its strong support for America’s entrance into the war and made a motion to that effect. He said, “Our house is afire and we must put it out, and it is no time for considering whether the firemen are using the best kind of water.” Taft’s motion carried overwhelmingly, and the American Unitarian Association ultimately voted to deny aid to congregations served by ministers who opposed the war. For many, this meant that they were forced from their pulpits. For John Haynes Holmes, it meant that he and his congregation both officially broke from the wider Unitarian movement.[i]

This morning’s message is the third in the series, “Why Should We Care?”, on the theological roots of our faith’s great social concerns. This morning’s topic is the dilemma of war and the quest for peace, and I began with this story about Taft and Holmes to illustrate how great our divisions have sometimes become in this area. We have never all seen eye-to-eye on when or whether the waging of war was permissible, and our tradition contains many differing voices on the subject. Yet, it is one of the greatest ethical questions faced by humankind, and though we have spoken with disparate voices, we have never been quiet about it. International conflict and the conduct of war are the subject of nearly 100 statements and resolutions made by our association in the last fifty years. These include opposing wars before their beginning in South-East Asia, Central America and the Carribean, Africa and the Middle East, seeking to end conflicts already in motion there and elsewhere, and calling for the abolition of certain highly destructive weapons and tactics, including nuclear, chemical, and biological arms, land mines, and depleted uranium munitions.[ii] And, at the same time, many Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists serve in the military and we, including members of this congregation, have fought in every American conflict from the present battles in Afghanistan back all the way to the Revolutionary War.

The sixth principle espoused by our movement is, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” As is

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the case with each of our seven principles, this is not something we believe because it is in our statement of principles; it is in our statement of principles because it is something we believe.

This is our shared eschatology, friends – eschatology being a ten-dollar word for one’s belief about the ultimate goal of history. It is the same thing, essentially, as Christianity’s Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven, the Olam haBa or “World to Come” in Judaism, or Hinduism’s Satya Yuga or “Age of Truth.” Our plain and simple wording – world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all –describes none of the grand pageantry found in other religious visions of the future. There are no angelic trumpets or boiling seas; no mention is made of the great monster fish Leviathan being caught and served as a meal for the righteous, or of Kalki, the final incarnation of Vishnu, banishing all ignorance from existence and filling the universe with light. Which is not to say that any of that is entirely unimaginable or unwelcome in our understanding. As long as we get where we’re going, I don’t particularly care whose car we take. A final end to all violence and war is common to the dreamed-of futures of nearly all human religions. Though, in light of our experience as a species up to this point, that one simple goal seems as much a matter of hope and belief – rather than of reason – as mass resurrection or the moon turning red.

If international, universal peace is among the chief goals of our movement, how then can there be justification for war of any kind? The same question could be asked in its own way for most of the religions of the world. How is any Christian to take up arms when the teacher Jesus is said to have said, “If a man assaults you on your right cheek, turn and offer him your left”?[iii] How could any Jew go to war, when the Talmud declares that the destruction of a single soul is equal to the destruction of the entire world?[iv] How can any Muslim stomach violence, when the Qur’an proclaims that the killing of even one person is as wrong as the slaying of all humanity?[v] There is a very serious answer here and it is nothing as simple or easy as hypocrisy. It is that peace is not the only ideal or cause worth struggling for – not in our religion or in any other. And when life or the freedom that gives life meaning is threatened with violence, pure pacifism becomes more difficult to justify.

Still, some of us have justified it – John Haynes Holmes was neither the first, nor the last. Possibly our most ardent anti-war ancestor was Adin Ballou, who began his ministry as a Universalist and eventually migrated over to the Unitarians. His interpretation of the Gospel – what he called, ‘non-resistance’ – left no space for physical violence of any kind, under any circumstances. He was deeply critical of all nations and the very idea of nations, for they require soldiers and police and the use of force in order to continue to exist. He eventually withdrew from civic participation and argued against voting, though he did continue to pay taxes because refusing would lead to another manifestation of violent conflict. Adin eventually led the founding of the Hopedale community in what is now Hopedale, MA – an intentional, collective utopian farm. Their community’s covenant included the lines, “I hold myself bound…never, under any pretext whatsoever, to kill, assault, beat, torture, enslave, rob, oppress, persecute, defraud; corrupt, slander, revile, injure, envy or hate any human being—even my worst enemy.”[vi] Though that experiment did not outlive Ballou, his influence did. Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist, was an admirer of Adin’s writings. The two men corresponded for a time, and Adin was an important influence on Tolstoy’s own Christian pacifism. There is a chain from there – not of direct transmission, but of influence.

Mahatma Gandhi read Tolstoy’s work, and also corresponded with the Russian author. Gandhi credited him as helping to shape his own philosophy of Satyagraha and the nonviolent campaign to free India. Gandhi, of course, was and is an inspiration to nearly a billion people in India alone, and among the most famous activists he helped to influence were Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who sadly passed from life just a few days ago. What an amazing network to have a relatively obscure figure from our own religious history connected with.

Particularly in the wake of the man’s death, however, it is important to remember that Nelson Mandela believed in minimal violence, but not the absolute absence of it. He said, “Violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance

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of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”[vii] Mandela, in fact, advocated for and eventually founded an armed wing for the African National Congress during the struggle to liberate South Africa from a brutal whites-only regime. His group’s violence was measured – it focused on sabotaging military infrastructure, careful to avoid civilian and even military casualties. But the pursuit of freedom, for him, outweighed risks and evils of violence. Even Gandhi, possibly the first person who comes to mind when you think of a pacifist, wrote, “Nonviolence…is a conscious, deliberate restraint put upon one’s desire for vengeance. But vengeance is any day superior to passive…and helpless submission.[viii]

The problem is as Frederick Douglass described it in a public address about the fight against slavery in 1857: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”[ix] To refuse to act, in the presence of tyranny or injustice, is to be a party to those same crimes. While there is always some alternative to acting through violence, the person or the people who are most in harm’s way have to be able to decide on the response for themselves.

Our tradition is not uniform on the matter of pacifism: you can find in it justification for conscientious objection and the total renunciation of violence, and you can also find there a call to oppose the most egregious injustice by any means necessary, including the force of arms. Yet we can never neglect the truth that war is hell – a literal manifestation of some of the most awful suffering the human beings are capable of experiencing or causing. Seventy-One years ago yesterday, an attack by the Empire of Japan on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor prompted American entrance into World War Two. It is often offered as an archetype for a “good war”. The Unitarian Universalist author Kurt Vonnegut was among the veterans of that conflict. In his most famous book, he makes plain the shocking wrongness of war through a little thought experiment. His character sits down to watch a movie and through a quirk in the time-space continuum, ends up watching the thing in reverse:

It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

War in reverse can only be so magically, impossibly good, because war in its normal course, is hell.

All human life is valuable, so the taking of a life is always a tragedy. In a nation with a volunteer military, any of us who has a vote has a dire responsibility only ever to support calling upon those volunteers to fight and to die when the only alternative is some truly greater form of violence and suffering. The ultimate goal has to be peace – true peace, according to the definition used by Martin Luther King: not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.

Though John Haynes Holmes and his congregation did leave our association, ultimately both did eventually return. And after almost 20 years had passed, our leadership eventually recanted their decision to punish congregations whose ministers opposed the war. If we are serious in our pursuit of peace, it requires the ongoing work of an outflowing reconciliation: beginning within ourselves, then between each other, and then out into the larger world. It is not a matter of perfect agreement between each part of the whole, but the ability of each to accept and abide with the other. Peace can never be attained without forgiveness. From the largest scale to the smallest, then, in this season that celebrates peace and goodwill – from the mountains of Afghanistan to your holiday table, may the work of reconciliation begin anew.



[iii] Matthew 5:39

[iv] Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin 37a

[v] Qur’an 5:32



[viii] Young India, August 12, 1926, quoted in Gandhi: All Men are Brothers, edited by Krishna Kripalani

[ix] From his address, “West India Emancipation,” August, 3, 1857, Canandaigua, NY

[x] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five


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