Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast
Rev. Rod Debs
December 12, 2010
A number of the Founders of our nation were Unitarians: John Adams was a member of the Quincy, MA, congregation of Unitarians. Thomas Jefferson identified himself in his private letters as Unitarian. The elder statesman of our nation’s Founders, Benjamin Franklin was a member of Joseph Priestley’s Unitarian Chapel in London, England.
This is important because the Founders of our nation believed in “the right of conscience.” They had seen religious coercion and even violent religious discrimination practiced in the American colonies. The Anglicans in Virginia were especially brutal in their suppression of Baptists. So the Founders wanted the new nation to guarantee religious freedom, the right of conscience and religious integrity.
Benjamin Franklin became very influential throughout the colonies because of his common-sense advice published in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Speaking of peace, Franklin’s advice reads: “He that would live in peace and at ease, must not speak all he knows, nor judge all he sees.”
Franklin’s advice is to “keep your own council” rather than to contradict or set straight everyone you think is in error. At his place in history, science and reason were daily contradicting popular views. Without even disputing with anyone, Franklin was called a devil by clergy because his invention of the lightning-rod had saved many homes from burning. Some clergy believed that Franklin’s invention thwarted God’s intended punishment of the wicked by burning their barns, businesses or homes. Better to avoid endless disputation and let the evidence speak for itself. Better to resist judging others’ beliefs and behaviors, and, at most, ask, “How is that working for you?”
One of the favorite Christmas carols this holiday season tells of angels appearing to shepherds: “… `Peace on the earth, to all good will, from heaven the news we bring.’ The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing” (Singing the Living Tradition, #244). I am reminded of the words of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah who declared, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, `Peace, peace’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Kids sometimes watch sporting competitions and dream of receiving the huge trophy. Alright, I love trophies myself as you can see from these that Katrina and I won for our rabbits years ago. We dream of winning the big game, performing before thousands, receiving the parchment that we can hang on our wall with letters after our name!
But do I love the process of getting there? Feeding and watering the rabbits day after day after day come rain or snow, building cages and shoveling waste, breeding and keeping meticulous pedigrees, with lots of rabbits showing poorly. How many aspiring football heroes dream of the process of running stadium steps, the bruises and sprains and injuries of practice? Or is it making the winning touchdown, holding high the trophy, receiving praise of peers we want.
Politicians, preachers and well-wishers declare: “Peace be with you” and “Peace on earth to all goodwill,” but do we celebrate the work that makes for peace, the work of justice and of compassion?
The prophet Jeremiah declared: “To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold their ears are closed, they cannot listen;…” (6:10) “… among my people; they lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men…. Their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy” (6:26-28). “For from the least to the greatest of them, every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, `Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (6:13-14).
Perhaps we should not be greeting or singing of peace this holiday season, but saying, “Compassion be with you,” and sing: “Justice on the earth, to all goodwill…”. No. We prefer dreaming of the trophy more than visualizing the work required to make it so.
This morning I will not focus on just social policies that build peace. If you wish you can look up the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission and the eight Millennium Development Goals necessary for peace: 1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; 2) Achieve universal primary education; 3) Promote gender equality and empower women; 4) Reduce child mortality rate; 5) Improve maternal health; 6) Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; 7) Ensure environmental sustainability; 8) Develop a global partnership for development.
Locally, I believe we are already at work at Peacebuilding in our local community by our work together and individually in support of Opportunity Place, Shelter House, and Sharing and Caring of Niceville and of Fort Walton Beach, to name the most obvious. I believe that many in our community recognize the truth of the saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.” We are engaged in seeking to extend the privileges we enjoy in our nation to ever greater numbers of marginalized and disenfranchised people. Right now, I will not “preach to the choir” on social justice.
The spiritual insight where the rubber of relationships hits the road is expressed by Ben Franklin: “He that would live in peace and at ease, must not speak all he knows, nor judge all he sees.” Do we believe that we will build peace in our relationships with neighbors and coworkers by abstaining from disputation and from judging? If we do avoid confrontation, if we refuse to stand up against what we judge to be mistaken and ill-advised, are we simply “going along to get along”? Is there a way to engage others that facilitates spiritual growth on our part as well as theirs? Emily Dickinson clarifies Franklin’s advice for living “in peace and at ease” with others:
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
“As Lightning to the Children eased
With Explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every (one) be blind—“
I confess, over the years I have sharpened my sword for intellectual battle with intimidating religious dogmatists. I have my zingers. I could characterize the blood redemption plan that God’s only begotten son die on the cross in sacrifice for the sins of the world—I could call it, “divine child abuse.” Touche’! I could ask what kind of a God cannot accept His sinful children, as we human parents forgive our children without the barbaric brutality of blood sacrifice?
Speaking with those who read the Bible according to modern literal interpretations, what about Balaam’s talking donkey in Numbers 22? “Do you really believe Balaam’s donkey talked?” Do they read John 1:29 literally that Jesus is the “Lamb of God”—complete with wool and little hooves! I’ve got my little “gotchas.”
My experience is that such arguments don’t really work. Rather, “success in circuit lies,” toning down these “gotchas” so that others don’t feel like I am trying to destroy their faith. Whatever we say in dialogue with people of diverse faiths, will cause pain and alienate unless it is tempered by compassion, unless we “tell it slant.”
In talking with people of other faiths including Biblical literalists, I have more success in asking about and listening to the meaning of their faith, and finding what I can affirm in another’s religious sentiments. Each of us must have “the right of conscience” to believe what our integrity demands of us, and that means fundamentalists too.
The World Peace Newsletter offers this insight:
“When we are selfish and judgmental, we fail both separately and together.
When we all give, we ALL receive. We get what we give. Give hate and anger, get war and poverty. Give love and compassion, get peace and prosperity. That is the way of both the individual and the world.
“Peace is not merely the absence of war and hatred… but also the presence of cooperation, compassion and worldwide justice” (www.worldpeacenewsletter.com).
So much is said about creating peace in the heart as well as peace in the nations. But it’s not the goal, the trophy at the end that will bring success. It is the path of peace, the process of acting with compassion and cooperation and justice that will build inner peace, relational peace and global peace.
It is the practice of loving-kindness that overcomes all differences, that heals all wounds, that puts to flight all fears, and that reconciles all who are separated (Frederick Gillis, adapted).
Though many say our nation is a Christian nation, and certainly Christianity has shaped much of our nation’s character for good or ill, nevertheless, the hearts of our nation’s peoples are diverse in religious sentiments regardless of what church the attend or don’t attend, regardless of the beliefs they articulate or reject. Ours is a gloriously interfaith and secular society, a wonderful society in which to explore and bless one another’s faiths.
May we walk the path of compassion, kindness and mutual respect and know peace in all our relationships that goes far beyond holiday sentimentality.
“Go forth in fellowship—that quality of relationship among human beings that respects, listens, and invites hidden possibilities, and gently summons each to our better selves.”