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It’s Not That Simple – 4/10/2011

I want to begin this morning in a far away country, in a tiny nation hidden away in the European Alps called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Grand Fenwick sits within borders roughly five miles long  and three miles wide, and consists of three valleys, one rive, and one mountain. In Grand Fenwick nearly every aspect of life, from their system of government, to their economy and their manner of dress, is entirely medieval. The Fenwickians still live much as they would have a thousand years ago. Most of them farm the land or work as weavers and blacksmiths, and their national army, such as it is, consists of a handful of soldiers in heavy metal armor and a few dozen folks with bows and arrows.

Grand Fenwick is a fictional country at the heart of the action in Leonard Wibberley’s novel The Mouse That Roared. Impossibly small and ridiculously simple, the whole basis for its relationship with the outside world was the trade in just one export: its signature brand of wine. In the story, some upstart vintner in the United States starts bottling a knock-off brand, sending the economy of poor little Grand Fenwick into a tailspin. An emergency meeting is called by the national leadership and a bold plan is conceived. The Duchy of Grand Fenwick must declare war on the United States – not in the hope of winning any conflict against a reigning super power, but with the intention of capitulating unconditionally at the first sign of actual hostilities. The hope is that once they are victorious the Americans will pour out billions of dollars in aid money to support the nation-building they’ve become so famous for.

But all does not go according to plan. Grand Fenwick is so small and so obscure that the declaration of war goes entirely unnoticed by the American government. In growing desperation, a plan of invasion is drawn up and put into action, and the less-than 30 people who make up the Fenwickian armed forces set off for the USA. There follows a series of misadventures and misunderstandings as the tiny band of Europeans, outfitted in metal helmets and full mail find themselves, entirely by accident, in the possession of an experimental US super-weapon; a bomb so powerful that it threatens the whole world.

Things have really gone off the rails now, crisis following calamity and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick finds itself holding the whole world hostage, under the threat of global annihilation. These are a tiny committee of medieval anachronisms, mind you; none of them have any modern military or scientific training. None has any basis on which to understand a weapon so monstrously and dangerously complex as this bomb that strange fate has place in their hands. But the Field Marshall of the Fenwickian army is not worried by this; he is confident in his ability to make good on the threat to detonate. He has it all figured out, you see; he will simply strike the weapon with his club.

The simplest solution to a problem is not always the wisest. The forgoing illustration leans heavily on absurdity, but we all can think of examples where the solution with the fewest moving parts is not the road to success. Consider the story of the young bachelor who lived alone for some time before becoming engaged. One day in the process of consolidating their households his fiancé opened an innocuous-looking closet door and was almost buried in an avalanche of well-used slacks and t-shirts and socks. Buying new clothes whenever the old ones get dirty might seem like the simpler answer, but if the cost and waste somehow do not catch up with you, one day, the laundry will.

But even though we know that the easy way is rarely easy in the long run, there is something so seductive about the simple answer, the simplified version of events, and the reductive way of looking at the world. We can spend far more energy trying to cheat our way out of a problem than we ever would devote to facing it head-on. One of my favorite films is the movie Rushmore, and in it the main character, Max, has an all-consuming crush on one of the teachers at his school. He goes to ridiculous lengths to get her attention, conspiring without any funding or permission to build an aquarium on school grounds, after discovering her affection for fish. He fakes a bicycle accident in order to gain her sympathies and plots deviously to embarrass and injure his romantic rival. Max is obsessed with the idea of the grand gesture, the one great demonstration of his love that will make his beloved swoon and the curtain close on a happy ending. In some romantic stories, that sort of thing actually works, but not so in the world of actual human relationship. Grand gestures can be very nice, and they can be meaningful and important but they cannot substitute for the million tiny kindnesses, the hard conversations and the long days of struggling to love when it does not come easily that form the basis of a lasting human relationship. Its good work, for love is among the greatest gifts of life; but it is anything but simple.

Just as we often fall prey to overly simple solutions we also frequently find ourselves at the mercy of whittled-down understandings of history. This coming Tuesday will mark the 150th anniversary of the shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina; the official beginning of the American Civil War. The common story is that the Civil War was completely and entirely about slavery – the South wanted to continue it, and the North wanted to end it. But this is a projection backwards in time – an attempt to make the complicated, messy reality of history conform to a simple and palatable story of absolute right and absolute wrong. While the leaders of the Confederacy did choose war in order to continue the great evil of slavery, the leaders of the other did not have equal and opposite intentions. President Lincoln declared in his first inaugural address that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”[1] Maintaining the Union, and not ending slavery, was the top priority of the federal government.

So when, a little more than a month after the attack on Fort Sumter, a small row boat crept up in the night on a different federal installation, in Virginia, it was with the very strong possibility of disaster. In that boat were Frank Baker, Shepherd Mallory and James Townsend – three men who had been born and raised in slavery, and had escaped in the hope of finding protection from a northern army which was officially disinterested in their plight. They were taken before the commander of the fort to determine whether they should remain or be sent back into Confederate territory. Just before the war broke out, another young man had attempted exactly the same sort of escape and sought asylum in Fort Sumter; he was immediately returned to those who claimed to ‘own’ him. Frank, Shepherd and James clearly hoped for a different outcome, but they still might have expected to get much the same treatment.

The commander, however, did not send them back to slavery, and his decision was soon challenged by the military authorities in Confederate Virginia. The Fugitive Slave Act then in force required the return of anyone who escaped from slavery to their supposed owners, no matter where in the country they went. To defend against claims under that law, the commanding officer – who was an experienced attorney – split a legal hair. The Fugitive Slave Law did not apply to foreign countries, and though the union government held that Virginia had no right to secede, and so was still a part of the United States, the Virginia authorities could not claim their rights to the return of escaped slaves under the law, without declaring themselves to be still a part of the US. If he had followed the general direction of his government’s policy, the commander would have had to return the three men. And if he had granted them blanket protection in his fort simply on the grounds of slavery’s wrongness, he would have been morally right, but he also would have been replaced immediately by a President who was still focused on restoring the union. That commander, Benjamin Franklin Butler, stood up to the institutional evil of the Fugitive Slave Act not with a grand display but with a subtle solution that came from appreciating the complexities of the situation.[2]

Having the courage and the care to acknowledge the complexities of life and to hold the contradictions of a situation – that is the antidote to easy simplicity; it moves us from a proposition framed by ‘either’ or ‘or, to one using both ‘both’ and ‘and’. We need that capacity badly to guard against the allure of simple solutions and the false comfort of simplified history and also to protect against the damage we do to ourselves and others when we reduce them, or us, to dishonestly simple terms. The will to do violence to other people, or to hate them or oppress them or simply to ignore their suffering always begins with reducing such targets to the level of abstraction. The details and complexities that give a human life shape and color and form are systematically stripped away, either directly, through force, or indirectly, through description. Names, relationships, passions, ambitions, idiosyncrasies and sometimes even faces: all of these must be obscured or ignored, in order for us to really disregard other people effectively. Embracing the gritty details of the lives of others, on the other hand, grounds us in the inescapable truth of their humanness, and makes denying their inherent dignity much, much harder.

I want to address now the problem of oversimplifying ourselves, something that we Unitarian Universalists know all too much about. Because we are not particularly well known in the larger world, many of us are accustomed to getting puzzled looks and questions when we mention being Unitarian Universalists. So several years ago the idea of the elevator speech became a hot topic in our movement: this is an extremely abbreviated explanation of what Unitarian Universalism is, ideally short and simple enough that you can spit it out to a stranger in the time it takes to get from floor 2 to floor 5.

Now, in the basement of the Starr King School for the Ministry, the seminary from which I received my graduate education, there is a room that is sealed off against fire and flood. If you open the door to this room you are immediately struck by the distinctive musty smell of very, very old books. This room holds one of the greatest collections of Unitarian books and documents in the world. The volumes were collected by one of the previous presidents of the school, Early Morse Wilbur. Wilbur travelled off and on for many years in Europe searching for obscure and antique writings related to early Unitarianism. Many of the books he sought after were only ever hand written, and many had been censored, outlawed or systematically destroyed by the authorities in centuries past. Whenever he found some treasure thought lost to time in a private collection or antiquities shop, Earl often had to send word back to America and beg friends and colleagues for the money needed to purchase the precious book. Some of the volumes are great tomes as wide as my torso and as tall as my knee. The smallest ones are barely larger than the palm of my hand; some of them were made that way so they would be easier to conceal, since just owning them could lead to your execution.

When the elevator speech idea comes up, I sometimes find myself thinking about this room. How could I possibly condense all of the contents of that room, together with all the wisdom of our tradition – which is so much larger than just that one book collection – and press and compact it into something I can say in 40 seconds; or maybe a whole minute if the motor’s slow. Even to save the life of a patient, there is only so much the surgeon can be willing to cut.

But, because we do get asked, and because it really does help to have the beginnings of an answer, I would like to offer you some words from Earl Morse Wilbur himself. They attempt some small summary of Unitarianism, and I would say they apply equally well to Unitarian Universalism. I have left his particular religious metaphors and non-inclusive language fully intact: those complexities are yours to practice holding, and to wrestle with at your leisure. These are Earl’s words:

“Freedom, reason and tolerance then are not the final goals to be aimed at in religion, but only conditions under which the true ends may best be attained. The ultimate ends proper to a religious movement are two, personal and social; the elevation of personal character, and the perfecting of the social organism, and the success of a religious body may best be judged by the degree to which it attains these ends. Only if the Unitarian movement, true to its principles of freedom, reason, and tolerance, goes on through them and finds its fulfillment in helping men to live worthily as children of God, and to make their institutions worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, will its mission be accomplished.”[3]

Maybe that needs a little explanation. What I believe Wilbur is saying is that to live in a way that is worthy of our highest ideals and our greatest capacities as human beings is not something that we can do by taking the easy way through. Such a life requires us to confront the complexities of our age and face the hard truths. In our own time, as the gap between rich and poor is growing, as we become more and more divided and polarized as a nation, and as the Earth itself, seems almost to be trying to throw us off, as a wild horse bucking an unwelcome rider; in this context, the calling of our faith continues. It is ours to use our freedom and our reason, and our own great potential for love to make ourselves and the institutions of which we are apart, worthy to live in a world of justice and peace. No one grand gesture can accomplish this, and there is no simple solution to the wounds of the world, but by working together, challenging each other, and holding ourselves accountable to each other and to our grand ideals, we may yet fulfill the great promise of our faith.

[3] Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism



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