2023-01-15

Only Love

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:43-47)
On this day, January 15, in 1929, Martin Luther King Jr was born in Atlanta. He went to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, and got a BA at age 19. Then: Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he got a Divinity degree at age 22. Then directly to Boston University for doctoral studies.

In 1954, he was called to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The next year, 1955, he finished his PhD, and began organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which brought him to national prominence. He was just 26.

Martin Luther King’s book, “Strength to Love,” came out in 1963. It’s a collection of 17 of his sermons on a wide range of topics, including love, nonviolence, racism, and social justice. The book is widely considered one of King's most important works and continues to be read and studied today for its powerful message of hope and change.

Chapter 5 is a sermon called, “Loving Your Enemies” – which was probably originally delivered in 1957. In that sermon, King takes as his text the passage from Matthew where Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” About half-way through that sermon comes the passage that has become one of the best-known King quotations. I will quote more than is usually quoted, to give you a little more context:
“Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical why. Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
Only love can drive out hate. Only love.

King goes on to speak of the damage that hating does to the one who hates. He says:
“Another reason we must love our enemies is that hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.”
It certainly harms the hated – and,
“is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity....Psychiatrists report that many of the strange things that happen in the subconscious, many of our inner conflicts, are rooted in hate. They say, ‘Love or perish.’ Modern psychology recognizes what Jesus taught centuries ago: hate divides the personality -- and love, in an amazing and inexorable way, unites it.”
King then adds:
“A third reason we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. We get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
So far, what King has said seems anodyne. We have heard it many times. For most of us, grasping King’s point so far does not seem a difficult challenge.

We can’t be sure how challenging it was for Jesus’ audience when he said “love your enemies.” Jesus was definitely calling for a shift. He says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies.”
Jesus is referencing Hebrew Scripture with which his audience would have been familiar. The love your neighbor part is Leviticus 19:18 --
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This, however, does not apply to enemies, such as Ammonites and Moabites, about which Deuteronomy 23:6 says:
“You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.”
And, concerning one’s personal enemies, Psalm 41:10 beseeches,
“But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them.”
Other passages of Hebrew scripture point in a different direction. Leviticus 19 also says:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native-born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
So Jesus, within a tradition that sometimes seemed to endorse animosity, sought to overthrow those parts of his tradition, which he could do by drawing on other parts of the tradition.

In a context where his people were terribly oppressed by Romans, Jesus told his people to love their enemies. Love the Romans. That is the tradition King draws on when he urges loving even the white racists. Now it gets a bit more challenging.

King cites the example of Abraham Lincoln, who appointed some of even his bitterest critics and enemies to his cabinet. King then says:
“It was this same attitude that made it possible for Lincoln to speak a kind word about the South during the Civil War when feeling was most bitter. Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln said, ‘Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’ This is the power of redemptive love.”
For King, what it comes down to most fundamentally is:
“We are called to this difficult task in order to realize a unique relationship with God....We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.”
We might prefer to say that only by loving them can we be whole.

Anytime you hate, any time you reject, any time you simply cannot accept another person, that person represents a part of you that you are seeking to excise. Our own wholeness requires that we accept all parts of our ourselves, accept all of who we are.

Nowadays we don’t like to use the word “enemies.” I don’t know if I’ve ever in my life identified someone as an enemy, except maybe in a facetious reference to my opponent in some game we were playing. Even our military now prefers to say, “hostiles.” And, yeah, maybe you can’t, or wouldn’t, identify anyone as an enemy, but you can think of times when someone was hostile toward you. You may have felt some hostility back.

There are people who you find difficult. And I’m suggesting to you that what you don’t like about them is a reflection of a part of yourself that you don’t like. Accept them, welcome them, love them. For only then can you accept, welcome, and love all of who you are. Even a certain former president is manifesting parts that are in all of us, and any part of ourselves that we try to excise and exile simply goes subterranean and becomes more powerful. But what we accept, welcome, and love can play its useful role and stay in its place. Only when an inner voice is heard and respectfully acknowledged will it, in turn, acknowledge and be willing to bow to your other and countervailing voices. Only love -- inward and outward not distinguished -- brings us into our wholeness.

Accepting, welcoming, and loving does not mean complacency or quiescence in the face of harm. It does not mean complicity with injustice. Dr. King’s “Loving Your Enemies” sermon made this point -- a point he reiterated many times in his career. He said:
“This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community. To our most bitter opponents we say: 'We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you....One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.'"
The victory to which King refers is not a once-and-done conquest, but an unfolding victory the earning of which is never completed. Under his leadership, the victory unfolded some. Yet “Chains still there are to break; their days are not finished. Metal or subtle-made they’re still not diminished” (Belletini, Hymn #220)

May we, with our lives, unfold further the double victory. Only love can do that.

2023-01-07

UU Minute #103

Transcendentalism and Unitarianism



Ralph Waldo Emerson left behind Unitarianism – but Unitarianism went running after him, nevertheless.

Emerson, at age 29, resigned from Unitarian ministry to become a lecturer and essayist: the pre-eminent voice in the Transcendentalist movement. Key features of Transcendentalism include:
  • People and nature are inherently good. In fact, divinity pervades all nature and humanity.
  • Thus, Divinity may be experienced in the everyday – rather than only in a distant heaven.
  • Individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention or deference to past masters.
  • Accordingly, people are at their best when truly self-reliant and independent, resisting the corruptions of society and institutions.
  • Subjective intuition warrants emphasis over objective empiricism.
  • Physical and spiritual phenomena are not discrete entities, but part of dynamic processes.
Transcendentalism brought together influences from English and German Romanticism, David Hume’s skepticism, Immanuel Kant’s idealism, and the Hindu Upanishads.

Before Emerson, Transcendentalist tendencies were already taking shape within Unitarianism. So Emerson wasn’t rejecting Unitarianism, but only taking it the next step, building on the Unitarian emphasis on free conscience – that each of us must take up the project of articulating for ourselves the religious, spiritual, and ethical conclusions to which our reason and intuition guide us.

Yet transcendentalism did change Unitarianism, moving it away from mild, calm, sober rationalism toward greater intensity of spiritual experience. Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838 laid out a Transcendentalist position. Moral intuition is present in everyone, he said, and is a better guide than religious doctrine, including the doctrine that Jesus performed miracles.

While the Divinity School Address shocked and appalled many old-line Unitarians, it was attractive to many younger Unitarians as a logical extension of basic Unitarian commitments.


NEXT:

2022-12-10

UU Minute #102

The Divinity School Address, part 2



One thing Emerson did in his Divinity School Address was criticize the style of preaching of his day. And because it is a style liable to creep into any era, Emerson’s words on this point are taught to every Unitarian ministerial student to this day. Through Emerson we are given to understand that to be called to ministry means being called to deal out to the people our lives, passed through the fire of thought.

In this famous passage in the Divinity School Address, Emerson describes attending a Unitarian service. Emerson said:
A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.


NEXT: Transcendentalism and Unitarianism

2022-12-03

UU Minute #101

The Divinity School Address, part 1

“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine. At night the stars pour their almost spiritual rays.”
Thus Ralph Waldo Emerson began his divinity school address, delivered in 1838, when Emerson was age 35.

When he strolled into the chapel that Sunday evening to address the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School, their professors, and assorted local clergy, he was a former Unitarian minister who had resigned from Boston’s Second Church six years before. He was pursuing a career as an essayist and lecturer, though he still used the title, “Reverend” and was frequently a guest preacher in Unitarian pulpits. His audience was at the center of academic Unitarian thought. From that gentle and reassuring beginning, before his hour-long talk was ended, his audience would be stunned.

In Emerson’s Journal a year before he had referred to “corpse-cold Unitarianism,” and, though he avoided the phrase in his address, he castigated the church’s ministers for suffocating the soul through lifeless preaching. He critiqued the failures of historical Christianity and advanced the tenets of Transcendentalism against conventional Unitarian theology. Moral intuition, he said, is a better guide to the moral sentiment than religious doctrine – and there is true moral sentiment in every individual. He rejected the notion of a personal God and discounted the necessity of belief in the historical miracles of Jesus.

Emerson was through with Unitarianism, but Unitarianism, it seems, was not through with Emerson. Though many of us staunchly resisted, his ideas began seeping into the pulpits and pews of our congregations.


NEXT: The Divinity School Address, part 2

2022-11-26

UU Minute #100

Young Waldo



William Emerson, distinguished minister of Boston’s First Church, drew his congregation with him into Unitarianism. So Ralph Waldo, born in 1803, the fourth of William’s eight children, grew up in a climate that prized learning, and culture – and became, himself, a Unitarian minister.

William died when Waldo was age 8, and the family was plunged into poverty. His Aunt Mary, William’s sister, was Waldo’s dominant influence. She taught him aphorisms he would teach his children:
  • "Lift your aims."
  • "Always do what you are afraid to do."
  • "Despise trifles."
  • "Turn up your nose at glory, honor, and money."
  • "Oh, blessed, blessed poverty."
She introduced Waldo to Hindu scriptures and Neoplatonism, and her openness to natural religion informed the Transcendentalism Waldo would later develop.

At 14, Waldo entered Harvard.

At 24, he began to preach at Unitarian Churches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. At 26, he became associate minister at Boston’s Unitarian Second Church. A year later, when the Senior minister left, Waldo was made the Senior Minister.

He never relished parish work, but he liked preaching. While most of his colleagues preached from Biblical texts – explicating what the text wanted to say – Rev. Waldo Emerson was more inclined to employ Biblical texts to illustrate what he wanted to say. Yet he conveyed a homely elevation that charmed his congregants, and the membership was growing.

Then in 1832, at age 29, Waldo resigned his pulpit and never served another congregation. He said it was because he could not in conscience serve communion, knowing the members construed the meaning of the rite differently than he did. The real issue was probably vocational calling. He wasn’t sure to what he was called, but he began to feel that it wasn’t the ministry.


NEXT: The Divinity School Address, part 1

2022-11-20

Home, Thanksgiving, and Stories

What is home? When are you home? Home: where you hang your hat; where the heart is. Sweet home.

It is the place of your belonging – a theme of Thanksgiving, and, indeed, belonging is the centerpoint for all our gratitudes – for gratitude flows from belonging, even as gratitude also affirms and strengthens our belonging. We gather in our homes, and maybe gather around with our homies – with our family, or with our friends, or both.

The Thanksgiving story of the pilgrims: they left home – because they didn’t feel at home where they were. They were religiously persecuted, so they headed out to a very distant, very strange new land in order to find a place where they could be at home with their faith.

We know that the traditional story is mostly untrue, and we have made a Thanksgiving practice here at CUUC of saying more accurately what happened. Briefly: In 1621, Wampanoag Indians investigated gun and cannon fire at a Pilgrim settlement to see them celebrating a successful harvest. The Wampanoag -- all male warriors, were fed as a gesture of peace. Apart from starting off as celebratory noise-making upon completion of the harvest, there was nothing particularly "Thanksgiving" about this event -- and it was not repeated annually. The first event we have record of that was identified as being for giving thanks came 15 years later. In 1636, when a murdered man was discovered in a boat in Plymouth, English Major John Mason collected his soldiers and killed and burned down the homes of all the neighboring Pequot Indians who were blamed for the murder. The following day, Plymouth Governor William Bradford applauded the massacre of the 400 Indians, including the women and children. The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Newell, proclaimed: “From that day forth, shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots.”

And so we come to today’s story: a pioneer family heading west to become homesteaders on the great plains. I grew up with stories like this of America’s westward expansion. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books tell about a family moving from Little House in the Big Woods to Little House on the Prairie. It was a comforting story -- an inspiring story of facing hardship and building a better life.

A couple things to notice that are left out.

Our story today didn't mention whether the family was black or white. I grew up always imagining white people in these roles. But let us remember that black families as well as white ones migrated West in the 19th century. The brief details of today’s story aren’t enough to identify this family as black or white. But that’s only because so much is indeed left out. The background of racial attitudes and biases would have profoundly influenced our family’s experience – and would have made a white and a black family’s experience of their risks and challenges very different.

On the one hand, parts of the challenge, of course, were the same. White families and black families were bound together by common hardships: the mud, the broken wagon wheels, the torn wagon coverings, the failing horses, the ravages of disease. These factors did not discriminate by race.

On the other hand, a white family and a black family would have been separated by a wide gulf of assumptions of white supremacy that infected the minds of both whites and blacks and made the context of their respective struggles quite different.

So that’s one lens we should have in place as we take in this story. Another lens is that the new home our settler colonizers found was on land that had been someone else’s home. The unmentioned reality of indigenous dispossession is a background awareness that we bring to this story.

So why re-tell this story? I do hope you were wondering that. We re-tell the story – viewing it through the lenses of awareness I mentioned -- because everybody gets a place at the table. All of who we are gets a seat at our Thanksgiving Table.

We are the poor white settler colonizers of Scotch-Irish extraction whose parents fled religious conflict and English persecution in Great Britain, and who wrought persecution in turn upon what, to them, was the New World. And we are the poor black frontier family who were also there, homesteading on the great plains. That’s us, too. And we are the Lakota, Pawnee, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Osage, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Shoshone, Wichita, and Cree – to name but some of the plains peoples pushed from their homeland by the settler colonists. Nineteenth-century white settlers demonized the indigenous peoples, but it is no reparation for that damage to now demonize the white settlers.

We re-tell the story today in order to hold in our minds and in our hearts BOTH the reality of the harm they did AND the reality of their human yearning for a better life. We can hold both those realities at the same time.

The road home is an uneven one. All of us, on our path to find our place of belonging, have made mistakes. We have been unkind and cruel when we didn’t need to be. We have sometimes, in our quest for home, made others feel less at home, or even deprived them of home. But where there is life, there are redemptive possibilities.

Even the settler colonialists, as blinkered and cruel as they were, had inherent worth and dignity. Precisely because they did, we may hold them responsible for the harms they perpetrated. We see their humanity in this little story – and also know they could have done better.

And we can do better.

Thankful for the homes we have, and thankful for the vision of justice we now have, we can build our home in compassion -- while also seeing to it that all the peoples, and all the creatures of our planet have a home – and belong.

2022-11-19

UU Minute #99

Emerson Re-defines Us



“Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, Emerson’s Divinity School Address, and Parker’s South Boston Sermon have long been accepted as the three great classic utterances of American Unitarianism.” (Conrad Wright, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism)
All three were widely controversial – and widely influential.

William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” in 1819 was the manifesto that launched and defined Unitarianism as a new denomination. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address in 1838 spoke for a new generation. Channing had defined us, and Emerson re-defined us.

Invited to address the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School, Emerson, then 35 years old, delivered “Acquaint Thyself At First Hand with Deity” – commonly called simply the Divinity School Address.

Emerson discounted biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. Emerson said:
“The language that describes Christ to Europe and America, is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is appropriated and formal, — paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo. Accept the injurious impositions of our early catachetical instruction, and even honesty and self-denial were but splendid sins, if they did not wear the Christian name. One would 'rather be a pagan, suckled in a creed outworn' [Wordsworth].” (Emerson, Divinity School Address)
If the language of Christianity was like the language describing pagan gods, then, Emerson was implying, the Christ described in those terms was comparable to pagan gods.

There was, as you might expect, considerable outrage. Emerson was denounced as an atheist and a poisoner of young minds. Despite the roar of critics, he made no reply, leaving others to put forward a defense.

We’ll look more into the context and content of Emerson’s remarkable Divinity School Address in our next thrilling episode.


NEXT: Young Waldo