Tag Archives: Theology

when compassion seems like a stretch.

19 Jun

The Opposite of Compassion
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 19, 2016


Back in April, when we sat around the table at our Worship Planning meeting for this month’s services, there was a lot we knew, and a lot we didn’t know. We knew the theme for the month was compassion. We knew we wanted to integrate that theme into the service each week: we had Linette kick off the month by connecting our flower communion to the Flower Sutra in Buddhism, which links compassion and mindfulness. Last week, we had a sort of primer on compassion that got us thinking and reflecting about it in our own lives. For today, we planned on presenting a service on the opposite of compassion. And then we decided to round out June next week by having the chance to practice embodying compassion for youth across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums.

We had no idea that there would be an immediate example of the opposite of compassion that I could utilize today. And no idea how urgently our service next week for young people would be needed.

947a732ac5e8f78f057f5328d70b50baacb1f551But now we know. Last Sunday, in the early morning hours, a male, American-born citizen – raised in our country, claiming allegiance to ISIS, choose a holy time of day, in the holy month of Ramadan, to go to gay bar that was celebrating Latinx night – a gay bar which the shooter had frequented many times and at which he was known. He went in with an assault weapon and pistol – and he proceeded to kill 49 innocent people and injure more than 50 others before he was finally brought down and killed by police.

And so we add another chapter to our country’s stories of sanctuary being defiled by gun violence: the sanctuary that the GLBT community finds in these few, rare spaces, that are theirs, where they can dance, hold, and enjoy their loved ones without fear of reprisal.

The cynical side of me supposes that was to be expected. There really is no safe place – senseless violence occurs anywhere these day – schools, churches, movie theaters; and now gay bars. What’s next? Hospitals? Plays? Concerts? Sporting events? Probably.

Meanwhile, President Obama gave another anti-gun-violence speech. Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, pointed out that Obama has hosted 12 state dinners but has had to give 16 mass shooting addresses during his tenure.

Meanwhile, after sending thoughts and prayers to Orlando, the GOP House Chair blocked an LGBT protections bill. And even after a filibuster, there’s still no deal for either gun control proposal on the table right now – one that keeps people who are on terror watch lists from obtaining guns, and another that requires background checks for sales at gun shows and online.

Meanwhile, much of the media ignores that the victims were mostly people of color. This tragedy is a poster-child for intersectionality, a concept used to describe ways in which social constructs like -isms & -phobias are interconnected and not magically separate issues. The reality is that queer people of color still have the highest fatality rates for transgender murder, HIV/AIDS, and youth homelessness. They are often rejected by both communities.

The blaming has been intense, if not surprising. Blame guns, religion, sexual orientation. But there are some things we don’t want to look at – like the fact that the shooter was raised in this country. He was one of ours, a byproduct of our culture, our educational systems. The reality is that it’s very difficult, and complicated, to have conversations that look at all the intersecting factors in this tragedy. But as Chris Hedges points out, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Have we reached the point where our civilization is condemned to die? My colleague, The Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, summed it up beautifully on her facebook page: “Let’s be clear: In our current national climate, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, White Supremacy, Misogyny, Homophobia, and Transphobia are at a loud, fever pitch. One of our presidential candidates explicitly spouts all of them and STILL BECAME A MAJOR PARTY NOMINEE.”

And not only has hatred personified become a major party nominee, but there are tens of millions of people in this country willing to vote for him. Tens of millions of people to whom his message of hate appeals.

Mr. Rogers, in the moment for all ages, said that in scary times, to look for the helpers. There we will find hope, and comfort.

And I love Mr. Rogers – I really do. I was shaped by his theology as a young child and continue to be inspired by him today.

But looking for the helpers is not cutting it for me right now. I don’t think it is enough for any of us. Fred, I want to ask him, that is great, but what about after the urgency of a crisis? Then what? Where do we find hope in the ongoing struggle? And, more importantly, how can we fight this rising tide of hate, of dehumanization, of oppression?

Now, here is the point where you might expect me to get all ministerly and say that we need to be more compassionate, that we are called to love even our enemies. Yadda yadda yadda. But frankly, right now, that type of response feels trite. Insufficient. Unrealistic.

The reality is that there is no one single answer, no one theological exercise, no one piece of legislation, no one solution that will bring all this pain and suffering towards healing. As Rev. Gordon points out, “We cannot, cannot, cannot decry one [of these forms of oppression] without actively and passionately resisting all of them. They are inextricably linked and rooted in a basic failure to recognize both our common humanity and the beauty of our unique differences.”

But for many of us right now, the idea of passionately resisting all of them, heck maybe even passionately resisting one of them – well, it makes us want to crawl into a cave. But there is something we can do that is not as overwhelming as compassion or passionately resisting, and not as insufficient as crawling into a cave. And that is this: we must not allow ourselves succumb to the hate and dehumanization of those who brought us to this point.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and I know many of you know this quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We often focus on the last part – that we need love to drive out hate. But if we are not in a place of love, then, perhaps we can be in a place of not hating.

I am not talking about hate in the way I would say, I hate beets, or I hate predictable movies. No, I am talking about hate that dehumanizes. Hate that is born of judgmentalism. Judgmentalism that is, at its root, the opposite of compassion.

Judgmentalism tells me that I am better than someone else. That I am more worthy. It leads to a belief that my rights are more important than your rights.

Terry D. Cooper, in his fabulous book “Making Judgments without being Judgmental” lists a number of characteristics of judgmentalism.

When we are judgmental, he says, we are not concerned for others. We presume to know people’s motives without reasonable evidence rather than trusting someone else’s motives unless we have reason to do otherwise.

When we are judgmental, we cling tenaciously to moral and religious concepts with disrespect and intolerance for those who differ, rather than being respectful and tolerant of differences.

When we are judgmental, we denounce the personhood, the humanity, rather than the behavior of those to adhere to erroneous ideas or destructive behavior. We refuse to recognize problems or limitations with our own viewpoint and we insist on absolute certainty rather than having humility.

It is judgmentalism, in part, that leads fundamentalist Christians to focus on the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that peripherally deal with homosexuality rather than focusing on Jesus’s call to love one another, and to judge not, lest ye be judged.

It is judgmentalism in the form of white supremacy that allows Trump to say that Mexicans are rapists, and that we are going to build a wall to keep them out.

And it would be judgmentalism to blame all Muslims, or all gun owners, for what happened in Orlando.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe my morals are superior to those of the shooter. And I absolutely believe that our liberal religious values are superior to those who preach or teach hate.

But while we can condemn behavior, if we are to condemn people, to see them as less than, or unworthy as human beings, then we are likely to fall prey to the same dehumanizing behavior that we find so troublesome. Cooper points out that “Reactivity begets reactivity. It’s hard to keep our balance when we’ve been clobbered by [someone else’s] judgmentalism.” And so, rather than calling for compassion or love, I ask that we combat the judgmentalism in ourselves that might leads us to hate. The judgmentalism that is the opposite of compassion.

Perhaps, if we are able to not succumb to judgmentalism and hate we might find a way forward that works for us all. And, one day, we might better embody the compassion of the Samaritan, who helped out a broken man on the road, simply because another human being was in pain. For there is a twist in this ancient story – one that not many people realize. Jews and Samaritans – they did not get along at ALL. For generation upon generation, over 500 years, the two cultures were at odds. And so it was absolutely relevant that Jesus, a Jew, talking to a Jew who asked who our neighbors were, told a story in which other Jews passed the injured man by, but it was a Samaritan, a despised Samaritan who not only stopped to help, but paid for the injured man’s care out of his own pocket.

If we cannot be compassionate, then at least may we not succumb to hate, to judgmentalism. For perhaps, as we heal, as we seek comfort, we might eventually get to that place of compassion after all. As Rev. Gordon writes “It is each of our job to listen to the experience AND the pain of others, and to stay open to the pain that we ourselves feel- not to harden our hearts in fear or defensiveness. It is only then that we can collectively turn our pain into resistance, solidarity, compassion, and a more just community.”

I give the final word this morning to Greg Zanis, who built 49 wooden crosses then drove 1,200 miles from Illinois to Florida to place them outside the Orlando Health Medical Center. “My message today is love your brother, love your neighbor. Don’t judge ‘em.” May it be so. May we make it so.

an angry God.

27 Mar

Easter Sermon delivered March 27, 2016
First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY


So, let’s say that I am at your house. We are sitting down, talking, drinking some tea. We are talking about something and I am getting passionate. I tend to gesticulate quite a bit when I speak passionately, so my arms are flying all over the place, and I knock over your favorite lamp, which shatters. Of course, I am apologetic! And so now you have two options: you can either demand that I make restitution and pay you back for the lamp, or you can decide to forgive and forget.

Forgiveness has been our theme this month, and as Linette shared, we have looked at it from a variety of angles: forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and what forgiveness could look like when practiced in public schools. And so we come to Easter. Among other things, in the Christian tradition Easter is about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is about atonement – that is, how to put right the relationship between God and humanity when humanity has sinned, has fallen short. There are many different atonement theologies that look at how the life and death of Jesus allows or assists us becoming reconciled, at one, with God. Some atonement theologies deal with original sin – the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve humans have carried with us the stain of their actions. Some atonement theologies deal more with individuals and their relationship with God. Some understand Jesus as a model for an at-one-ment with God, while others believe that his blood and his suffering were necessary for salvation.

It is one of these latter atonement theologies that I want to address today, and from which the lamp metaphor comes. It is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA. After I break your lamp, if you decide to forgive and forget, then PSA says you end up paying a cost: either you do without the lamp, or you have to buy a new one.

Now, imagine that you are God. And I have not broken a lamp, but I have sinned. PSA says that just as you as a lamp owner had to pay a cost if you decided to forgive and forget, then God, too has to pay a cost if God decides to forgive and forget our sins.

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches...

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches…

In the lamp-scenario, I would probably offer you the money to buy a new lamp. But according to PSA, as sinners, we “are not capable of making a sufficient payment to rectify our sin problem because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Since we are not capable of making a sufficient restitution payment, the only one left to do this is God.”i And not only that, but the only restitution God will take is not money, but death. Someone has to die.

PSA sees humankind as unworthy and our natures as inherently sinful. Our sinful natures keep God from allowing us into heaven when we die, and doom us to an eternity of suffering in hell. Salvation can only come from some form of restitution. It says that God can’t break God’s own law, since God is just, and so God took our sinful debts, piled them high on Jesus, and had him killed instead of us. And so the law is satisfied, our debt is repayed, and we are forgiven.

This theology looks at the cross, at Easter, in purely legal terms. “You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free…”ii

I know a number of us came to Unitarian Universalism in direct reaction to our horror at this merciless, angry theology. Many former-Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, when the water is tainted with PSA. But believe it or not, PSA is actually a relatively new theology of atonement, and it is not what the Christians originally believed. And our history as both Universalists and Unitarians demonstrates that we have been in opposition to this faulty theology since the very beginning.

The PSA theory began to emerge approximately 1000 years ago. Before this time, Christians didn’t focus on the death of Jesus at all. In researching their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker found that images of the crucifixion did not even appear in churches until the tenth century. Instead, the early church focused on “how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.”iii

It was in the 16th century, in the Reformed Church, led by John Calvin that PSA really blossomed. Reformers found that the atonement theologies of the time stressed a merciful God rather than a just God. And so it is not surprising that PSA has legalistic overtones. “This idea is also called the ‘satisfaction’ theory because it asserts that’s God’s righteous requirement for justice was satisfied by Jesus’ death.iv Calvin even claimed that it was “necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation).”v

Today, PSA is the dominant atonement theology for Evangelicals. Al Mohler, of Southern Baptist Seminary up the road, has emphasized the significance of PSA for galvanizing “the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”vi Mohler tells the story of how, when he attended the seminary in 1980, his “first early morning class was with Frank Stagg on the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Stagg repeatedly and emphatically rejected what he called ‘bloody cross religion.’ He vociferously denied the necessity of the cross, insisting that ‘God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.'” Mohler disagreed, and now Southern Baptists are known for their belief in PSA.

Outside of the Southern Baptist Convention, one can see PSA’s influence woven in to the weft and weave of our country. Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. Writing for Sojourners in 2014, he said:

“For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” …Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled…

Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration.

And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored .”vii

Brock and Parker agree, and they are astonished how, in retrospect, they never questioned the centrality of this theological framework to contemporary Christianity. They write “The doctrine of substitutionary atonement uses Jesus’s death as the supreme model of self-sacrificing love, placing victims of violence in harm’s way and absolving perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior.”

Theologian and activist Brian McLaren see’s the influence of PSA in our demonization of people who don’t agree with us. He writes that his “special concern with the theory comes up in relation to our attitude towards ‘the other’ – people of other faiths. If God’s default mode is ‘against’ all in hostility, then those who identify with this vision of God will find it too easy to justify a similar attitude towards ‘the other.’ ”viii

And if you believe in an angry God, how far of a leap is it to follow an angry man? Indeed, a powerful, angry man might seem God-like. Cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff found the theological connections between Strict Father Figure conservatives and Nurturing Parent liberals years ago. In a recent article examining why Evangelicals are drawn to Trump, Lakoff writes:

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.<ix

White evangelicals are drawn to someone who represents a strict father-figure identity, and who does that more than Trump? He is authoritarian, he says the things they wish they could say, he operates in moral absolutes – there is no grey area. Something is right, or it is wrong. There are winners, and there are losers. Losers, and wrong-doers, must be punished. Strictly. In fact, because PSA removes all mercy from God, “sin must be paid for, even if an innocent person must die. It can never be simply forgiven.”x So it is not a far leap to see how those with a penal-substitution view of atonement could be drawn to an angry, hate-filled, authoritarian rhetoric.

But PSA is not the only or final way to understand the Easter story. Far, far from it. Remember, as Brock and Parker found, the early Christian church focused on creating paradise, here on earth. It wasn’t for 1000 years that PSA evolved.

An earlier atonement theory is called moral influence view, and this is one in which both the Universalists and the Unitarians have their roots. “The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history.”

In the 16 century, as PSA was being developed by John Calvin and the Reform tradition, Fausto Sozzini, an Italian theologian, was advocating instead for a moral influence view of atonement. Socinianism, as Sozzini’s theology was called, was an early form of Unitarianism.

Sozzini wrote a pamphlet supporting a moral influence view of atonement that came into controversy with PSA because the two systems have very, very different criteria and definitions of salvation and judgment. PSA says that the blood of the cross saves us from an eternity of suffering in Hell while Socinians rejected the concept of original sin, rejected the concept of Hell, said that Jesus was fully human, and that his sacrifice serves to inspire us to abandon our sins.

Fast forward a few hundred years and, we find that “as a result of these conflicts, a strong division has remained since the Reformation between liberal Protestants (who typically adopt a moral influence view) and conservative Protestants (who typically adopt a penal substitutionary view).”

One of those liberal preachers who had a strong moral influence view of the atonement was Hosea Ballou. Ballou was raised in a the Reform tradition, in a Baptist home that was very Calvinist. But he could not reconcile his “belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the idea of eternal punishment for most of humanity.”xi And so he searched through the Bible, and ended up at the concept of universal salvation.

In 1805, Ballou published his Treatise on Atonement, which outlined his beliefs on atonement and universal salvation. In celebrating the 200th anniversary of this pamphlet, Charles Howe wrote in the UU World:

Orthodoxy [that is, the set of doctrines approved by the Church] considered humanity’s punishment for its infinite sin as separation from an angry God. Ballou, by contrast, saw [people] struggling to turn toward moral good and away from the sins that separated them from a loving God.

Orthodoxy required Christ to take on the burden of humanity’s sin by being sacrificed on the cross, thereby atoning for sin and making it possible for an appeased God to be reconciled with humanity.

Ballou, on the other hand, contended that Christ’s death released a great spirit of love into the world, making [people] who were receptive to this spirit better able to atone for their own sins and be reconciled with God.

This is so different from what we normally hear about the resurrection, isn’t it? The idea that in that final act of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus’s death released a great spirit of Love…??? Howe continues…

Thus Ballou argued that the orthodox had things backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Moreover, this atoning spirit of love was available not only to Christians, but to all people, irrespective of “names…denominations, people, or kingdoms.” In no case would anyone be sent to eternal punishment by a loving God. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.xii

Ballou detested PSA and the concept of eternal suffering. It was repugnant to him. In his Treatise, he wrote “A false education has riveted the error in the minds of thousands, that God’s law required endless misery to be inflicted on the sinner.” Instead, Ballou saw God as a nurturing parent, who loves us unconditionally.

And again, you can hear Lakoff’s theory about the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Ballou was firmly in the nurturing parent view, even 200 years go. In his Treatise, he wrote “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away sin, but love; and we have reason to be thankful that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of [humankind], and to make us free from the law of sin and death, to reconcile us to God, and to wash us pure in the…life, of the everlasting covenant.” We see a modern interpretation of Ballou’s theology in our affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Today, the divide between those who believe in PSA and those who take a moral influence view of the atonement could not be more strained, or more obvious. Liberal theologians ask, “how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?” We ask this of theologians, and we ask this of our court system.

Others point out that the problem with PSA is that it is based on a faulty premise that sin needs to be punished, that God “cannot just sovereignly decide to forgive us, he also has to punish sin.” xiii Once this premise is dismissed, PSA makes no sense logically.

Additionally, going back to the metaphor of the loss of a lamp, if one believes that God is infinite, one assumes God could just write off the loss. If God is infinite, then “infinity minus five million billion trillion is still infinity. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, even the worst sin in the world is like a drop of water in the burning pyre of God’s love.”endnotes

These days, as much as we still seem to love the themes of peace, love, and hospitality embodied in the Christmas story, Unitarian Universalists have a mixed relationship with the Easter story. We love the idea of hope and rebirth. We connect it to Spring, and renewal. We like the bunnies, and egg hunts. But talk about the cross and watch us squirm. I think the reason why is because the metaphor and magic of Easter have been lost to penal substitutionary atonement. PSA has become, in some ways, the loudest, if not the dominant, view of atonement. And so we want to make sure that we are not celebrating THAT view of this important, culture-shaping, story.

Our own history provides an antidote to the toxicity of penal substitutionary atonement and it’s angry God. And it is an antidote that the world desperately needs. Like the early church, in the face of imperial power, violence and death, we believe that salvation is something for this world, for this life, here and now. As inheritors of a tradition of a moral influence view of atonement, we understand Easter to be inspirational rather than a form of punishment. That Jesus’ final act of forgiveness of the imperfections of humanity is something we can aspire to for ourselves and for others. And as our early forbears taught, we know that the divine, by whatever name we call the numinous, mysterious wonder of the universe, is love – the very spirit of life itself. May we share this saving message, broadly, with a world so in need of it, and in this way love the hell out of the world and love one another out of hell.Blessed Be!



i. https://carm.org/is-the-substitutionary-atonement-doctrine-immoral

ii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system#sthash.deJFTKcQ.dpuf

iii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/early-christians-emphasized-paradise-not-crucifixion

iv. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

v. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_substitution

vi. http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/08/12/the-wrath-of-god-was-satisfied-substitutionary-atonement-and-the-conservative-resurgence-in-the-southern-baptist-convention/

vii. https://sojo.net/articles/how-poor-theology-cross-created-americas-broken-justice-system

viii. http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/q-r-penal-substitutionary-atonem.html

ix. http://georgelakoff.com/2016/03/02/why-trump/

x. http://www.christian-history.org/substitutionary-atonement.html

xi. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xii. http://www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto

xiii. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

xiv. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/11/thoughts-against-penal-substitutionary-atonement/

missing the mark.

21 Feb

a sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 14, 2016


I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day, so I’m going in a totally different direction this morning, inspired by this month’s ministry theme of “Good and Evil.” But perhaps the ideas are more connected than I originally thought. I leave that decision to you.

One of my most vivid memories is of excruciating guilt. I was around 9 years old, and had gotten into a fight with my best friend, Keisha. In my anger, I had intentionally vandalized the door of her home. When her parents returned home and saw the damage, they called my mother. I was, not surprisingly, afraid of the repercussions, afraid of the punishment I would endure, should my mother find out the truth. And so I lied. I said that it wasn’t me.

Wise as mothers often are, mine saw right through my lying. Knowing me to be quite pious for a child, she pulled out the family Bible and asked me to swear before God that I had not been the vandal. I collapsed in tears of guilt and shame. I knew I had sinned by committing the acts of vandalism. And I knew I had sinned by lying about it to my mother. I simply could not bear the guilt, the fear of how my soul would be damaged, if I tried to lie to God about it, too.

Growing up, my understanding of sin was pretty straightforward. It was a sin to disobey my parents, and it was a sin to break any of the 10 commandments (chief of which, as a child, was making sure to obey my parents).

As I grew older, the list of what was a sin grew longer. It was a sin if I cursed, a sin if I had sex before marriage, it was a sin if I was jealous of something my friends had, and on, and on. I was taught that each time I sinned, God was disappointed in me and I further separated myself from God. Since I wasn’t Catholic, and didn’t have the sacrament of confession to regularly wipe the slate clean, I instead found myself recommitting to God and Christ at regular alter calls, each time promising to be better. Hoping that my sins would not be so heavy that they would damn me to hell.

Not surprisingly, I gave up when I was in college. I could no longer believe in such a vengeful, mean-spirited God breathing down my neck, ready to abandon me to the fiery pits of hell for eternity for my transgressions. Transgressions which mostly felt like just being human. I realized that the concept of sin that I had grown up with used peoples’ fear of hell to control their behavior. I had not yet heard of the loving God that Universalists propose, who we heard about in our Moment for All Ages, from whom sin might temporarily separate us but with whose presence we will eventually be reunited. As is often the case with those of us who grow up in such rigid traditions, I threw out the baby with the bathwater.

When I entered seminary, I had to learn how to translate a whole lot of religious language that I had stopped using a decade before. I had to look through my own religious baggage and figure out which concepts still were useful to me at and which were not. I became excellent at translating. I can give you my Unitarian Universalist understanding of salvation, hell, prayer, God, redemption, atonement, evil, and so much more.

But at first glance, the concept of sin wasn’t something that I could easily translate. My former experiences got in the way. I found the concept both too small, in that it did not cover enough of the important stuff that I considered wrong, and too large in that it covered too much of the stuff that just felt like being human. As my colleague and mentor the Rev. Sharon Dittmar writes in her paper on this topic for the Ohio River Study Group group, traditional Protestant and Catholic “ideas about sin are literal (follow the Ten Commandments) and [they] notoriously skirt deeply concerning issues like domestic violence, child abuse and hate crimes.” This limited common theology has stuck around for years, because, as she says, “people like their truths easy” – easy enough to be explained with a checklist.

I am not alone in having difficult baggage around the concept of sin. Speaking with a number of my UU colleagues, some who were raised UU pointed out that that they were raised without a belief in sin, and that this did not match their experience of the themselves or of the world. They struggled with the disconnect between the world in harmony they were learning about in their religious education classes and the world in conflict that they experienced. My colleague, the Rev. Christian Schmidt, shares that “Telling people that they are sinful when they aren’t, what fundamentalists sometimes do, is harmful. But telling people they are sinless when they aren’t, the liberal heresy, is also harmful.”

missedbullseyeThe struggle with the concept of sin is not confined to Unitarian Universalists. Not even close! In fact, the translators of the original Hebrew and Christian scriptures must have had a tough time themselves! When we look at the original texts, there is not just one word being translated as sin, but several! In the Hebrew scriptures, 6 different nouns and 3 verbs are all translated as “sin,” as well as several different Greek nouns, verbs and adjectives. The original wordings range from going against God, to doing something which makes us feel guilty. They may mean to go astray, or to do something deserving of punishment. One of the most common Greek words, from which I took the title of this service, simply means “to miss the mark”, which is an archery term that means not hitting the bullseye of the target. You still hit the target, but just not the center.

For hundreds of years, progressive theologians have been redefining the concept of sin. After the Civil War, both Unitarian and Universalist theologians understood sin to be a violation of moral law. Rather than a checklist, it could be understood as anything that violated the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto do”. Building on this, at the beginning of the 20th century Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbsuch wrote that classical theology had neglected the social aspect of sin. He understood that while human beings sin against God, at the same time, we sin against fellow human beings because we are all connected to one another. His definition was that sin is essentially selfishness.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in the mid 20th century, stated that sin is “the consequence of man’s [sic] inclination to usurp the prerogatives of God, to think more highly of himself than he ought to.”

My Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues had a wonderful conversation about this recently. Our understandings of sin, if we choose to the use the term, generally follow more recent theological thinking. Like that of process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. She goes back to the Greek understanding of missing the mark. We also follow Liberation theologians who suggest that sin is found in injustice, in our inhumanity to one another and equates loving your neighbor with loving God. Many contemporary theologians also understand sin not as an action, but as a state of being – that sin is the state of living separate from God, from the divine.

Yet for all the debating over what sin is, and is not, the concept is still not something we talk about very much as Unitarian Universalists. Hollis Huston, writing also for the Ohio River Group, shares that we are “not now [at this moment] talking about sin. We’re talking about injustice, inequality, oppression, exclusion…When we speak of sin it is generally to ban the word.”

But this is to our own detriment. Dittmar explains: “so we have thrown out the baby (sin) with the bathwater (moral rigidity and illogical checklists) in an attempt to free ourselves. In doing so we have lost language to explore, bear, and act upon collective responsibility.” She goes on to explain that “People do wrong every day and the systems of evil revolve around us. And we need a way to say this and reflect this and make personal changes about this when possible so that we are not buried under the weight of collective wrongdoing, and, if we keep it secret, lies.”

Utilizing the concept of sin is a way to engage collective responsibility, to claim the prophetic voice. It is powerful to say that it is a sin for a police officer to beat an unarmed black man to death. It is powerful to say that it is a sin for legislators to vote for legislation that makes the lives of the poor and oppressed more difficult. And it is powerful to say that it is a sin to engage in something as seemingly benign as talking poorly behind someone’s back. To call these tragedies, or horrors, or crimes or just bad decisions is all true, but to call them sins does two things: first, it adds a theological dimension that calls to mind an ideal that is larger than the individual, an ideal to which the individual is responsible – whether that ideal is God or the divine, or the interdependent web.

Second, as strange as it may seem for some of us, the language of sin offers hope for change. Think about it: A tragedy occurs, and there is nothing that can be done about it. It is done. A horror implies some perversion that can not be made right. A crime is something that must be punished but makes no allusion to making things right for the victim. Likewise, even a bad decision does not include those who may have been harmed by the actions. To call these actions sins, however, means to enter into an ancient process, whereby a person may sin against another, but then may realize the pain they have caused, and thus have the opportunity to repent, to be sorry for their actions, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Dittmar points out that “Saying that I am a sinner reclaims my role as someone with the ability to make change.” To call these and other actions a sin is to give hope that the sinner may yet still redeem themselves and right relations may be restored. And, as Huston points out: “Awkward is it to take a prophetic stance without language of judgment.”

In addition to calling ourselves to a higher standard, and entering a process that enables change, I see another advantage to restoring the concept of sin to our common vocabulary. That is, by eliminating the concept of sin from our theological language and constructs, we have reinforced the idea of human perfectibility and thus turned humility into a character flaw.

Let me explain. For generations, we liberal religionists have pursued the modern idea of humankind’s “onward and upward” progression. Though it is often left out, what is insinuated in this concept is the perfectibility of humanity – that we will continue onward and upward until we reach perfection.

When we apply this lens to our own individual lives, it means that we should be pursuing perfection. This then makes any flaw an outward indication of our lack of progress. It means we are obviously not good enough, not perfect enough. And so showing our imperfections becomes something to be ashamed of, something that is embarrassing. Something to avoid. Which then shoves all our failings, our struggles, our falling short, into the shadows as deep, dark, secrets. Something we want to deny not only to others, but to ourselves. Our imperfections becomes humiliating. Owning how we miss the mark, how we fall short, how we sin – against each other, against our best selves, against the divine – requires humility, it requires being humble.

It is impossible to call others to justice when we do not acknowledge ourselves how we ourselves contribute to injustice. Now, this may seem like quite a leap from the concept of sin, but think about it. If we understand sin as missing the mark, where do we miss the mark more than in our interactions with one another? We transgress. We microaggress, we contribute to systems of privilege and injustice and oppression whether we want to or not. But we can’t call out the speck in another’s eye unless we can acknowledge the log in our own. It is not surprising that our UU collective conversation around sin decreased as we continued to embrace the modern ideal of perfectability.

Though sin is not something we talk about very much in our tradition these days, it is fascinating to me that both authenticity and vulnerability are key words in our movement right now – because both of these start in being humble, in knowing and owning our not only our limitations but our humanity. Both of these require acknowledging how we have missed the mark. How we fall short. How we break each others’ hearts again, and again, and again. The increasing conversation and desirability of authenticity and vulnerability indicates a shift in our worldview, away from modern perfectibility and towards a more nuanced understanding of human nature. Schmidt says “we should regularly acknowledge that we are neither perfect nor awful, as is our world.”

And so I wonder if we might reclaim the language, the concept of sin. We can continue to talk around it, talk about our imperfections, talk about failures, talk about missing the mark and how we fall short. We can use all sorts of euphemisms, but the thing about euphemisms is that we often use them to soften the blow, to make something more palatable. And is this really what we want when we are coming clean? I can’t help but think about when I am cleaning grease off my hands – the nice smelling soft-soap won’t do it. I need the gritty borax.

Saying that I have sinned, that I have transgressed, that I have fallen short, does not mean that I am unworthy. It does not mean I am wicked. It does not mean I am going to hell. It simply is a way of acknowledging my humanity and setting the stage for reconciliation – with myself, with others, with the divine. In this way, the antidote to sin is not perfection, but grace. Grace that comes from those we have harmed. Grace that comes from ourselves. Grace, in the form of forgiveness and reconciliation. For as difficult as the concept of sin may be for some of us, what is so wonderful about it is that when we miss the mark, we can try again. We can be redeemed, we can begin again in wondrous love. And this is a form of grace in itself – that when we sink down, when the depths of our humanity are revealed, there is still hope. When we are lost in sin, in selfishness, obsessed with our own lives without a care for others, we can experience grace.

We all miss the mark occasionally. Heck, sometimes we miss the target completely. This is part of what it means to be human. If we want to be a prophetic people, perhaps it is time to consider becoming more comfortable with the concept of sin. Not because it makes us afraid for our immortal souls, but because it calls to mind the understanding that we are both saint and sinner, and it creates the opportunity to try again, to seek reconciliation, and to work for change. May it be so. Blessed be.

embracing mortality.

2 Nov

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
November 1, 2015

Opening Words
excerpts from Mortality by William Knox

O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a fast-flitting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
He passes from life to his rest in the grave.

The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high,
Shall moulder to dust, and together shall lie.

So the multitude goes, like the flower and the weed
That wither away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that hath often been told.

They died, ay! they died! and we things that are now,
Who walk on the turf that lies over their brow,
Who make in their dwellings a transient abode,
Meet the changes they met on their pilgrimage road.

Yea! hope and despondence, and pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together like sunshine and rain;
And the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud,—
O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

Summer has faded, now, and we can feel the coming of Winter. Nights have grown longer, the time has changed, the ground has frosted, the leaves are falling. Last night, our children played with death and fear. Pagans celebrated Samhain, the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead. Today, our Hispanic neighbors celebrate the Day of the Dead. Today and tomorrow, Christians are marking All Saints and All Souls days, both holidays commemorating the dead.

This is the time of year we pay attention to death and to dying. A time to be hyper-aware of our mortality. Death, we know, comes to us all.

“Facing Mortality” by Xobius

But it comes to us all in different times, and in different ways. For some, it will come after a long life well-lived. Others will die much too soon. Some of us will go quickly, and others will experience prolonged suffering. Some will have warning, some will have what feels like too much warning, and for others of us, no amount of warning will be enough. Some of us, indeed, are already in this place of contemplation – know that either due to age, or disease, death is knocking.

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death…

In between is our lives – the story of our lives. With heroes and villains, ups and downs, plot twists, and more. Forrest Church said that the main task of religion is to figure out how to live knowing that we will die. We live our lives making meaning, finding the way to live our stories. What we sometimes forget is that how our story ends matters, too – it matters to us, and it matters to those who are left behind.

It’s difficult when the end of our lives doesn’t match up with what we hoped the end might be like. It is hard for us, and it is also hard for our loved ones. There is a higher case of depression in our loved ones if, when our times comes to die, we don’t have the death we hoped for – if our loved ones question whether they made the right decisions, the ones we would have communicated to them if we could have.

This is why it is vitally important to have these sacred, values-based conversations with our loved ones about our wishes for the end of our stories. It is vitally important for our own well being, and for well being of our loved ones. Atul Gawande writes “our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.”

Gawande is an American surgeon, author, and public health researcher. Wikipedia says that he is a general and endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, professor in both the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Department of Surgery at Harvard Medical School. And he is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He believes “we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.” Gawande’s recent book, Being Mortal, can be a part of that refashioning process.

Being Mortal is Gawande’s fourth book. In a very readable style, he shares his experiences with approaching death not just as a surgeon, but also as a son watching his father’s health decline. He writes about how modern medicine is geared toward fixing, trying one thing after another as a patient approaches death – often subjecting them to increased pain and both physical and emotion suffering. Try this treatment, this surgery, this chemotherapy, doctors suggest – most of which will not prolong a patient’s life in the quality they expect. In the process, Gawande says, “our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.”

Gawande cites study after study, and his own personal and professional experiences, which show that “people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.”

These conversations often start with technical details: who do you want to make decisions for you when you no longer can? What sort of medical treatments do you want, or not want? How comfortable do you want to be?

But the conversations don’t stop there. Ideally, the types of conversations we have with our loved ones will include talking about our priorities, knowing, of course, that these priorities will likely change over time as we change. Gawande talks about a patient of his, who evaluated whether or not to have surgery based on whether it would allow him to eat ice-cream and watch football. Those were his goals. If the surgery would allow him to do that, then he would go ahead with it, but if not, he was content to continue the course he was on.  Until he was unable to eat ice-cream and watch football, he said no to the surgery. When he no longer was able to do so, he agreed to the surgery since it would give him back these capabilities – otherwise, he would not have had it done.

Gawande says that

“People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives. Surveys find that their top concerns include avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete. Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars. The question therefore is not how we can afford this system’s expense. It is how we can build a health care system that will actually help people achieve what’s most important to them at the end of their lives.”

Part of the problem is that medical advances have outpaced our ability to adapt. When there is no way of no how much longer we have, and particularly when we imagine ourselves as having much more time than we actually do, then “our every impulse is to fight, to die with chemo in our veins or a tube in our throats or fresh sutures in our flesh.” Gawande says “The fact that we may be shortening or worsening the time we have left hardly seems to register. We imagine that we can wait until the doctors tell us that there is nothing more they can do. But rarely is there nothing more that doctors can do.” There is always one more thing to try.

In the process of trying one treatment after another, we rack up massive medical bills. Millions of dollars are spent each year to prolong life without attention to quality of life. “In the United States, 25 percent of all Medicare spending is for the 5 percent of patients who are in their final year of life, and most of that money goes for care…that is of little apparent benefit.”

Gawande writes extensively about hospice, and how it is a way to return to a model of treating the dying with dignity, rather than as a medical problem hat needs to be solved. Prior to the 1940s, most people died at home. But then there was a shift in family life structure, and in the capabilities of medicine, and so most people began dying in hospitals or hospital-like environments. This medicalization of aging put the elderly’s physical safety as more important than their emotional well being. We turned aging into a medical problem that needed to be solved. However, the trend is changing. An increasing number of people are now dying at home, under care of hospice, especially when hospice does not require them to give up other treatment options. Gawande cites an experiment from the Aetna insurance company in 2004:

Instead of reducing aggressive treatment options for their terminally ill policyholders, [Aetna] decided to try increasing hospice options. Aetna had noted that only a minority of patients ever halted efforts at curative treatment and enrolled in hospice. Even when they did, it was usually not until the very end. So the company decided to experiment: policyholders with a life expectancy of less than a year were allowed to receive hospice services without having to forgo other treatments…A two-year study of this “concurrent care” program found that enrolled patients were much more likely to use hospice: the figure leaped from 26 percent to 70 percent. That was no surprise, since they weren’t forced to give up anything. The surprising result was that they did give up things. They visited the emergency room half as often as the control patients did. Their use of hospitals and ICUs dropped by more than two-thirds.

In addition, these patients often lived longer than expected, with a better quality of life.

When we communicate our priorities with our doctors and with our loved ones, our end days are more likely to match up with the rest of our stories. We are more likely to die in the way we want, which is good for our well being and for that of our families.

As a person with aging parents, I found the book to be very educational on how to approach my parents and in-laws as their health inevitably begins to fade. But it also made me realize that I need to have more conversations about my own wishes and priorities with my spouse. Though we have wills and advanced directives already filled out, I anticipate an enlightening conversation about priorities – about how the interventions we would want are very much based on how we would be able to interact with one another, our children, and our families.

Let’s hear from two other people who have found Being Mortal to have been formative in their own processes. First, Vida Vaughn is Assistant Director of the Kornhauser Health Science Library at the University of Louisville. Then we will hear from our own Rita, and her experience of the book.

Reflections from Vida Vaughn
In my role as a clinical librarian I work with physicians on a daily basis who are often confronted with the complexities of aging and dying patients. The majority of them are young enough to be my children. These are bright young men and women well-schooled in the science and art of medicine. The focus of their education has been on preventing, treating, and curing disease. Very little of their didactic instruction has been about having the difficult conversations associated with dying. As Dr. Gawande points out in his book Being Mortal, “The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seems to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”

I have been in many meetings where doctors have wrestled about what their approach should be when counseling patients on difficult choices. Should they tell the patient what they think is best for them with expectations of compliance? The paternalistic approach. Should they be a source of facts and figures but remain detached from influencing the patient’s choices? The informative approach. Or should they act as counselors and contractors, guiding the patient with information and questions that help the patient determine what is best for them? The shared decision making approach. While medical literature generally promotes the shared-decision making approach it is not without its own challenges.

Rarely in the emotionally charged circumstances of aging or death is a doctor interacting exclusively with a patient. The physicians I work with regularly discuss the trials of addressing the desires of family members…especially when those desires contradict that of the patient’s. There are times when the doctor feels confident a plan of action only to have that plan dissolve as a result of second thoughts the patient may be having. My heart has truly gone out to these young men and women as I have listened to their well-intentioned efforts to do what is best for their patients as they navigate the minefield of sorrows, fears, lost dreams, and the non-absolute science of medicine. The only true absolute being that all of us will die at some point.

It was because of my experience with physicians that I felt compelled to share Dr Gawande’s book Being Mortal with some of the physicians I work with. I gave it to the head of the internal medicine residency program with hopes this book would become part of the curriculum. I also shared it with one of my extremely bright residency chiefs upon his graduation with the counsel that part of being a great clinician is the ability to have the hard conversations that go beyond the science of medicine.

In conclusion, I feel Dr. Gawande’s book outlines a path for clinicians, as well as each one of us, described by Dr. Feudtner in a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). For the purpose of this meeting, I took license to expand his thoughts beyond the pediatric population he serves:

“How do we best support patients when they confront these most difficult situations? “The task is simple: be straight forward, clear, balanced, compassionate. Stay focused on helping the patient as they search for a way on their own terms. On the other hand, being fully present in the midst of such strong emotions and stress is a challenge worthy of a lifetime’s determined effort. Yet even amid the tumult of some of the worst life puts in front of us, some of the best that life offers also blooms.”

Reflections from Rita
As my parents (ages 92 and 91) started needing help, one of my 5 brothers sent a copy of Being Mortal to each of his siblings. My brother is a doctor and had met Dr. Gawande at a conference and was impressed with his insight and earnestness.

My folks have been in the same 3 story house for almost 60 years. My father plans to die there and my mother regrets that they didn’t move to a manageable space decades ago.

Dad spends his days confined to 4 rooms and has no interests outside of watching TV. He loves playing cards, but being mostly deaf and becoming more confused has robbed him of the ability to participate often in this simple pleasure. Some days are better than others.

Mother yearns for community connections and human contact. She has become Dad’s caregiver and there is little communication between them beyond his physical needs.

As the only ‘in town’ daughter I am relied upon to do a lot of the weekly support for my folks.
This assistance ranges from the simple, “Here Mom, let me take you to the grocery” to the more intricate assessment of what they really want and communicating that to my siblings without adding what I think they “need” to be safe or even comfortable. I have learned that I can do little to address their deepest fears, but can listen to them.

In my job, I resource over 200 people, many of whom are in their 70’s 80’s and 90’s. The range of physical, emotional and psychological health and mental acuity is astounding.

I know that physical comfort can top safety as a priority, that recognizing who is talking to you isn’t as important as being talked with. I’ve learned that we do not “enter a second childhood” as we age, but we may enter a different way of dealing with our world.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there are as many people afraid of dying as people who are afraid of living too long and that we need to respect each fear.

This book has helped me understand that we (our generation and Americans) are really bad at aging, becoming aged ourselves and dealing with aged people. Part of this is because we no longer live in multi-generational homes where our elders die at home.

Americans are independent by nature, seeking our own happiness, security and paths to success. We no longer inherit the family farm and grandma with it. We move out of town and establish lives elsewhere.

Another factor is our youth/beauty obsessed culture that has negated respect for elders. This change has left a void in how we view the aging process. The fact that we view aging as an illness and that dying is done behind a hospital door, often with only medical staff in attendance, makes it hard to see nobility in the elderly.

I hope to apply these lessons to my own aging process and go out on a high note without exhausting my resources, family or friends.

Conversations with our loved ones and medical providers about our priorities as we approach death or as we age not only help us to have confidence that our wishes are understood, but they help our loved ones in their decision making – giving them confidence that they are doing what we would want.

Embracing Mortality, by Atul Gawande, raises some helpful questions about how to have these sacred conversations.

But you don’t have to read the book to get started embracing your own mortality. On Saturday, November 21, from 10am – 12pm, here at First U, we will help you take a step in that direction. On that day, we will have social workers from Hosparus here with advance directive forms, living wills, and more – not only will they be able to answer your questions, they will be able to notarize the forms to validate them. We will also have the forms required in case you want to donate your body to the University of Louisville medical school, and possibly a lawyer who can talk to you about to when to consider guardianship issues.

This is not just for the retired or elderly – parents of young children, we will be providing childcare because we know that it important that you have these conversations as well. Oftentimes, those of us younger than a certain age forget that disease or terminal illness can strike at any time. Having had these conversations in advance of such a diagnosis can give us peace of mind in case something happens to us or to a loved one.

Death comes for all of us no matter how busy we are, how important we are, how much we run away from it. It is an essential part of our stories. Recognizing and embracing our mortality means understanding this, and having conversations with our loved ones about the type of death we want, about what our hopes are as we approach death. In this way, understanding the finitude of one’s time can become a gift that we give ourselves, and our loved ones. It is, truly, a religious act in that it is a final way of making meaning. May we treat it as such. May we make room in our lives for these sacred conversations.

Closing Words
Because hope and despondence, and pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together like sunshine and rain;

Because the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

Because to be human means to be mortal, and to be mortal means to die.

Because whether we speak of them or not, there are ways that each of us would choose to live our end days, and ways we would choose not to,

Because of all of this, let us speak of those priorities we have, those desires and passions beyond merely being safe and living longer, so that we might have the chance to shape our story and thus find meaning in our lives.

all in it together.

30 Oct

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
October 18. 2015


RollerDerbyI used to play competitive roller derby. And I’ve found it to be a useful lens through which to examine sociological, psychological and even theological concepts. But in order to understand it as a metaphor, I need to give you a bit of background on how the game is played.

Each team puts 5 skaters on the track at a time, for a period of play called a jam. A jam can’t last more than 2 minutes, so there are a lot of them during the game. Of those 5 skaters that each team puts out, one is called the jammer, and she is the offensive skater – the one who scores points. The other four are the defensive players, and they are called blockers. In short, the jammer earns a point for every blocker from the opposing team that she passes.

So jammers are trying to get past the blockers to score points.

Blockers are trying to both prevent the opposing jammer from passing them, as well as making holes for their jammer to get through.

That is the gist of it.

I played both positions, but I really loved playing the jammer – mostly because she gets to skate really, really fast.

But I had a problem as a jammer – one that is pretty common to those of us in the position: I paid almost no attention to what my blockers were doing. I was a lone wolf, trying to get through the pack of skaters on my own so that I could score points.

It wasn’t long before I began to feel an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility. It was my job to score the points. The pressure started to get to me. The nervous butterflies that I would get at the beginning of each game got worse and worse, until I was almost having an anxiety attack. At that point, I decided to quit jamming and stick with blocking.

A teammate, a fellow jammer who had been doing it for a lot longer than me, sat me down to talk. She explained to me that when a jammer feels like she is a lone wolf, that the burden of responsibility for the game falls to her and her alone, then she is not acting like a team player. This experienced player told me that she had been in a similar situation, and she had learned that she needed to trust her teammates: both the blockers on the track with her and the other jammers on the team when they got on the track for a jam. She said that she had to learn that the responsibility was not all on her.

With this shift in understanding, I was able to return to jamming – and I became a better jammer. Because we are better together. The lone wolf jammer needs to develop trust in her teammates.

So what does all this mean for those of us gathered here? As individuals, and as a faith tradition, many of us struggle with liberal guilt. We feel like it is all on us, and only us, to create justice in the world, to save the planet, to “insert your cause here”. We have a deep sense of social responsibility, one that, at times, becomes a burden of responsibility not unlike that experienced by the jammer.

This burden of responsibility comes, in part, from a misinterpretation in our theology. We can find this misinterpretation when we look at the 5 smooth stones from James Luther Adams. Let me explain.

James Luther Adams was a Unitarian minister, social activist, scholar, theologian, author, and divinity school professor for more than forty years. “Adams was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists of the 20th century.” According to Adams, there are five smooth stones that are hallmarks of religious liberalism. They are:

1. Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly being revealed. We are always learning new truths.

2. All relations between people ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion. We choose to enter into relationship with one another – it is not forced.

3. Liberal religion affirms the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is our responsibility to work for justice.

4. Good must be consciously given form and power within history. That good things don’t just happen, people make them happen.

And finally,
5. The resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. There is hope!

Let’s go back to the third and fourth ones for a minute. These are the ones that say that it is our responsibility to work for justice, and that good things don’t just happen, people make them happen. When we hear these two together, we may mistakenly get the idea that it is ALL up to US to make these good things happen – that without our hands, without my hands, without your hands actively working all the time to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice, it won’t bend and we won’t get there. It is UP TO US!

This can lead to a paralyzing sense of responsibility, both in our individual lives and as a faith tradition. There have been times when I have stood for 10 minutes in front of the canned tomatoes at the grocery store, trying to figure out whether I should buy the organic ones, or the low-salt ones, or the ones grown in the United States, or maybe I shouldn’t buy the canned tomatoes but the jarred ones instead because then I can reuse the glass jar, or maybe what I should do is by the fresh ones and cut them myself, but do I buy the local hydroponically grown ones, or…

It can be paralyzing.

And not only paralyzing, it can mean we are afraid to take risks, because so much is on our shoulders that we DARE NOT STUMBLE.

So we end up stuck in place, not moving, afraid to go forward. Crippled by our sense of responsibility.

Adams, or JLA as he is most often called, was a huge proponent of voluntary associations. He never would have said that hope rested on only one small group of people – he was talking about all liberal religionists, not just Unitarians. JLA was famous for recasting Jesus’ saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” into “By their groups you shall know them.” He did this to “emphasize that our ethics are revealed not in our intentions or even in our individual actions but in the relationships and institutions we commit ourselves to.”

So it is not our individual or collective actions that will save us, but our relationships. And so, interestingly enough, the solution for our overwhelming sense of responsibility to save the world and everyone in it is exactly the same as the solution for lone wolf jammers in roller derby: Trust. Trust that we are all in it together.

We don’t have to do this work alone, and it does not rest entirely on our shoulders. Far from it!

Instead, we can be part of a larger team of folks working to love the hell out of the world, working to bring about the beloved community, working to bring heaven to earth. There are many different ways of expressing it – and we do say we need not think alike to love alike, right? We can partner with folks who may be compatible on one issue but very different than us on another.

We are living this reality right now at First U by having joined CLOUT – Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together. We are the first non-Christian entity to join them, but I don’t think we will be the last. We are partnering in areas we agree on: access to jobs & transportation, the destructive nature of payday lending, and affordable housing. When we gather for meetings, I hold an awareness that several of the congregations we are partnering with do not believe that I should be a minister because I am a woman. And some have taken active stances against same-sex marriage. But we join together to work on the issues upon which we agree because we are stronger together.

And then, we partner with the local LGBT Fairness organizations to work on issues with them. And we partner with the local grassroots organization working to end mountaintop removal. We are constantly looking for organizations to partner with, not so that we can lead but so that we can be faithful allies, standing in solidarity. It not only helps these important organizations, it helps us!

To build trust, we must find partners we can be in relationship with so that we know we are not in it alone. Once we have done that, we will find we have more energy free’d up to take risks, to step into the discomfort, knowing that even if we fail, our partners will be there working towards similar goals. Having partners frees us from the paralyzation we feel when we think we are carrying the burden alone, that it is all on our shoulders.

I experienced this first-hand at General Assembly a few months ago. After a very difficult floor session debating the wording for a Black Lives Matter Action of Immediate Witness, there was a Black Lives Matter rally held outside the convention center. Rev. Sekou, a noted Ferguson, Missouri, activist, called on those of us gathered, mostly white, to “be more than allies, but to be freedom fighters.” He gave us directions for how we were going to conduct a die-in – that most people would form a circle around a nearby intersection, blocking traffic. In the center, a smaller group would lay down and perform a die-in, lying on the ground for 4 minutes – one minute for each hour that Michael Brown’s body lay on the road in Ferguson.

I knew I wanted to participate in the die-in, that I wanted to be a part of what I felt was an important “walk the talk” action with my fellow co-religionists. But I was scared. I turned to my colleague, the Rev. Jan Taddeo, minister at our congregation in Lawerenceville, Georgia. “I want to do this, but I am afraid!” I said. “Me too” she said. And so we clasped hands, and went and lay down in the road for 4 very long minutes. We held hand the whole time. I could not have done it without her.

We are better, stronger together. And we are able to take risks, do things, that we would normally not be able to do.

Whether it is the obligation the jammer feels to score as many points as possible, or the feeling that if we don’t save the world, no one will…No matter where the overwhelming sense of responsibility comes from, when we find trusted others with whom we can partner, we are able to recover from our belief that it is all on us.

And as JLA’s fifth smooth stone tells us, the resources available justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. There is hope. May we remember that we are not alone, but instead are in it together.

systemic evil.

26 Feb

Systemic Evil
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered online on February 22, 2015

Video didn’t work out as hoped for for this sermon. Sorry!

When I was preparing to visit Charleston, South Carolina a few months ago, I posted on facebook and asked what recommendations people had for places to visit or things to do there. Along with some fantastic restaurant suggestions, one of my colleagues recommended a popular plantation, but also said that she had found it “very disturbing.” Feeling like I had a pretty good handle on what she meant, my traveling companion and I made plans to go. In fact, on the same day, we visited two plantations: one right down the road from the other. The differences were profound, and I learned firsthand what my colleague found disturbing – it was not the history of slavery that was so disturbing, but the way that they talked about it in the present.

The other plantation, the one right down the road, passed through many generations of family ownership before being transferred to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1974. Today, the site is a National Historic Landmark operated by a preservation trust. The tour of the plantation house started in the basement, where the enslaved people worked. The guide constantly referred to “enslaved people” rather than slaves. This language humanizes those who were kept in slavery, and it suggests that someone was doing the enslaving.

On the tour, we learned about an enslaved woman who had been written about in one of the early owners diaries. The guide pointed out where she would have worked until the day she died. He didn’t whitewash the history – “the only freedom she experienced was in death” he told us. Throughout the rest of the tour, the guide talked about how the enslaved people would have worked in each room of the house – how they would have brought in furniture, set up tables, used the small, hidden stairway to bring food & chamberpots up and down. The enslaved people were present in each room.

Contrast that with the recommended plantation, which, though it is open as a public garden, is still owned and operated by descendants of the the original owners. The tour we took was to the slave cabins that are onsite – one cabin each from 5 different time periods. The guide was very friendly as she talked about the conditions the slaves worked in, and the unique task work system they operated under, and about how former slaves still lived worked on the plantation even after being set free from slavery. She talked about Mr. Johnny, who was born and raised on the plantation, and both he and his children still work there.

My companion and I felt odd. It was not that she was patronizing, and not that she was condescending – we got the feeling she really liked Mr. Johnny and his family who worked there. It was almost as if she were using Mr. Johnny’s story to prove that the white slave owners weren’t so bad after all. This approach is echoed on the plantation’s website, where it says that on this tour, visitors “will experience an engaging and interactive discussion of the dynamic issues that shape this delicate inquiry…This arc of history conveys the tumultuous times continuously challenging African-American families….” On their website and on the tour, there was little about who might have been responsible for the continuous challenges – as if it had been a spate of bad luck that African-American families fell under. There was no ownership of the history of oppression.

This, I realized, is why my colleague found this plantation disturbing. It was not the history of slavery that was so problematic, but the way they treat that history in the present. We had bumped right up against ongoing, systemic evil.

Now, I am not saying the guide was evil, or that the owners of this plantation are evil or that any individual associated with it is evil. Instead, I am talking about a systemic evil, which is also called group or institutional evil. And that is the theme of this sermon today. I am going to explain what it is in more depth, and then discuss ways that we, as individuals contribute to systemic evil, and then share ways that we can counter it.

2015-02-22-OoSIn his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil M. Scott Peck writes that “Evil..is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.” With this definition, either individuals or groups can commit evil acts.

I was first introduced to the concept of group, or systemic evil, by theologian Walter Wink when I was in seminary. In his book Powers that Be, Wink points out that “Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control.” Wink says that these systems of domination are “characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”

Let me take a minute to unpack that, because there is so much there. Wink is saying that where we see these characteristics, we see systemic evil at work. So when we see unjust economic relations, such as gap between CEOs and workers, where CEOs make over 300 times what the average worker makes, then we can point and say that systemic evil is present there.

When we hear about voter suppression laws, we know that oppressive political relations are at work, which indicates systemic evil is present.

When we look at how differently the police treat black men than they do white men, we see evidence of biased race relations and know that systemic evil is present.

When women are oppressed and told that they are a “lesser cut of meat” these are not only the words of one state congressman, they are a symptom of patriarchal gender relations – a sign that systemic evil is present.

And it goes on. Though Wink did not explicitly mention oppression based on sexual orientation or gender identity, we know that systemic evil is at work there, as well. Wherever there are systems of domination over which no single individual has control, we have systemic evil.
But even though one person may not have control over systemic evil, individuals obviously do contribute to it. We see this clearly in Hannah Arandt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem in which she introduces the the expression and concept “the banality of evil”. Otto Adolf Eichmann was a German Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. After the war, he was captured and brought to “Israel to stand trial on 15 criminal charges, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. Found guilty on many of these charges, he was sentenced to death by hanging and executed on 31 May 1962.

Reporting on the trial for the New Yorker, and then writing a book about it, Arandt suggested that Eichmann was neither “a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on cliché rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional.” (wikipedia)

Both Arandt and Peck indicate that two factors allow systemic evil to take hold: selfishness and ignorance. This combination creates in us the narrow-mindedness that allows us to deny, to not see, our connection to others. For many of us, unless we are being directly effected by systemic evil at the moment, it is easier to focus on our own lives and on our own individual struggles to get by. We are like horses with blinders on so that the evils of the world around us do not distract us from plodding forward along the path. Meanwhile, we don’t see the oppression, death, and devastation that is happening just feet away. Those of us with the privilege of having such blinders are not outraged, because we are not paying attention.

If we take our blinders off, we are often immediately overwhelmed with the evil that is all around us and over which we feel powerless. And so we put our blinders back on, and we become inured to it. Evil becomes normalized. We accept, for years, the war on drugs that unjustly targets african americans even though blacks and whites use and sell drugs at the same rate. We accept that the media continues to use the wrong gender pronouns for transgender people, such as referring to the recent murder of a 22 year old transgender woman by her father as a “man who was charged with stabbing his 22-year-old son to death.” We participate in systemic evil if we have other options, yet continue to shop at Walmart, knowing that they make enormous profits and yet continue to pay their employees a pittance (even with the raises they announced last week). We do it when continue to buy pop music because it is catchy and easy to dance to, even though it tells women “you know you want it” indicating that consent is really just about “blurred lines”. Or when we go about our limitless consumption mindlessly ignoring the damage we are doing to our planet. These are all ways in which we participate, daily, in systemic evil. And there are so many more.
I hope you are squirming a bit right now. You probably should be. I know I am! As Peck points out, whenever

“it becomes possible and easy for the individual to pass the moral buck to some other part of the group [evil occurs]. In this way, not only does the individual forsake [their] conscience but the conscience of the group as a whole can become so fragmented and diluted as to be nonexistent…The plain fact of the matter is that any group will remain … evil until such time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behavior of the whole group.”

And therein lies our salvation: holding ourselves directly responsible for the behavior of the whole group. But that is easier said than done. How can we hold ourselves accountable for this systemic evil that is so much bigger than any us? By holding ourselves accountable, I don’t mean that we have to take the total blame for it. I mean recognizing ways we perpetuate the systemic evil, and seeking to stop doing so when we can. I mean taking off the blinders, allowing our hearts to break and our spirits to become outraged. For example, the plantation that talked about the enslaved people took ownership and held itself accountable to the history of slavery it perpetuated. The one that considered it a “delicate inquiry” did not.

I want to offer three concrete ways that we can, as individuals, seek to neutralize evil and hold ourselves accountable. The first is by educating ourselves. Peck says that “The task of preventing group evil – including war itself – is clearly the task of eradicating or, at least, significantly diminishing [intellectual] laziness and narcissism…The effort to prevent group evil…must therefore be directed at the individual. It is, of course, a process of education.”

This might look like educating ourselves about the history of discrimination and oppression perpetrated by our justice system upon people of color so that when an incident of police brutality against a person of color occurs, we are able to understand the event in the larger context. It might look like educating ourselves as to the different Muslim sects so that we are able to affirm a peaceful people while at the same time condemning fundamentalists of all types. Educating ourselves so that we might prevent or eradicate systemic evil might look like learning about the complexities of gender identity so that we we can write to educate the KY state senator who sponsored the infamous bathroom bully bill, who clearly does not understand such complexities himself.

But while we engage in education, we do not want to emulate those who seek to oppress or continue the systemic evil; we don’t want to contribute to the evil – no eye for an eye. Wink tells us that “Evil can be opposed without being mirrored. Oppressors can be resisted without being emulated. Enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed.” This leads to the second way we can address systemic evil in our lives: to engage our sense of wonder and curiosity. Wink points out that “Provoking a sense of wonder…tends to defuse hostility. It seems to be nearly impossible for the human psyche to be in a state of wonder and a state of cruelty at the same time.” We can ask questions – of ourselves, and of those around us. We can ask the Texas Attorney General who is seeking to overturn Friday’s first, and only, same-sex marriage in Texas, how he might feel if one of the women involved were his sister, or his daughter. We can write a quick email to a columnist who refers to a trans person with the wrong pronoun educating them on the issue. We can wonder aloud to our legislators what will happen to our children, or our grandparents, if food stamps, or social security benefits are cut, or if bus service to the poor part of town is reduced. And even if we cannot change it, we can pay attention and wonder about the ways that we benefit from unearned privilege, either from our race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic class, education level, or more. In these ways, we are able to take responsibility for our participation in systemic evil and decrease our unintentional participation.

Of course, we can’t spend every waking minute engaged in this pursuit, and there is a lot of systemic evil around us. So the final, but most important step, is to more frequently take off our blinders and pay attention. Allow ourselves to see things for the way they are. When we do, I believe our empathy cannot help but be engaged, and when our empathy is engaged, we will act in ways that affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of individuals as well as honoring our place in the interdependent web. Such a hope can be found in the story of Annelie Keil, as told by the Rev. Victoria Safford8, which I want to end with today. Safford shares:

A woman writes about her long ago life as a child in World War II. She was six years old, a German child in a Russian prison camp. She tried one day to steal food and was caught by a Russian officer. He grabbed her arm roughly, and then, she says, “looking into my frightened eyes, he recognized the longing and anxiety of his own little daughter who together with [the rest of his family] was killed near Leningrad by the Germans. He started to cry, and as he smiled at me through his tears, we joined hands. Two homeless people, without any words, decided to take care of each other, to be father and daughter. This lasted for nearly two years, the only time in my life that I ever had a father…I began to learn then that life in its fullest sense can exist only when the appropriate conditions for living are provided… life is an invitation, a challenge to take the next step into the darkness of uncertainty and creativity. A decision must be constantly made to make life possible,” a decision you make only partly for yourself and in large part for others. That, [Safford says] to me, is an interesting idea about how good exists in this world: as a series of tiny human decisions, sometimes premeditated, but sometimes seemingly spontaneous – these very small choices to make life possible. He grabbed her arm, then he took her hand.

Systemic evil can be found wherever there are systems of domination and oppression that seek to suppress life. We participate in them daily, we benefit from them. But there is a degree to which we can choose not to. We can choose to remove our blinders, be curious, and to educate ourselves. May we chose to promote life and liveliness, and whenever we realize it, wherever we can, cease our participation in systemic evil. May it be so. Blessed be.

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