2023-11-19

The Thanksgiving Story, As Amended

READING

From Isabell Call, “Thanksgrieving"
Although both Native American and Europeans had feasts expressing gratitude during harvest time, the Europeans who arrived on this continent were incredibly destructive to Native American communities. The Wampanoag man often celebrated as a friend of the pilgrims, Tisquantum, spoke English because traders had enslaved him and forcibly taken him to England. When he finally escaped and made his way back home, his community had all died from smallpox his captors had left behind. He was friendly to the pilgrims who moved into the land of his people because none of his own people were left. He was able to find work with the pilgrims as a translator and helped them negotiate treaties. But as we know, treaties between European settlers and the indigenous residents of America have not been honored by the new arrivals.

And although there's some evidence of a shared meal between Europeans and Wampanoag people in 1621, the holiday may actually have started a few decades later, in May 1637, when English and Dutch mercenaries attacked the Pequot Tribe. They killed over 700 people, and the next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a day of Thanksgiving in celebration.

Since then, various governors and presidents called for days of Thanksgiving to commemorate various events, but it didn't get formalized into an annual holiday until Abraham Lincoln chose a Thursday in November in 1863 to celebrate Civil War victories.

The 400-year-old story we've heard about harmony between people of different backgrounds just isn't true. The United American Indians of New England have commemorated a National Day of Mourning every fourth Thursday in November since 1970. They write:
"Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”
We celebrate Thanksgiving because gratitude is essential to human life. But grief is essential for healing our history of violence. It's really hard to be thankful and sorrowful at the same time. But this is life: sometimes, joy and sorrow come together.
REFLECTION: STORIES

Religion is stories, and music, enacted in ritual. Our ancestors gathered around campfires. There would be drumming and dancing, chanting or singing. And there would be story-telling. The stories helped them make sense of themselves. The stories told the people’s history. They would tell of how the world came to be, and how the plants and animals came to be, and how they themselves, the people, came to be. They didn’t know how the world, and life, came to be so they guessed, using imagination to fashion a tale that seemed to them credible.

We do the same thing today. Long ago, people attended to the stories of the wise ones in long cloaks called shamans. Today we attend to the stories of the wise ones in white coats called astrophysicists. Our story today is that there was a singularity 14 billion years ago that expanded into the universe as we know it. Our story today is continually revised by the results of experiments that we designed for the purpose of learning things that would compel us to revise our story.

The astrophysicists’ story has a lot more math in it than the shamans’ story of old. But our story, like the ones our first story-telling ancestors told, has, at its heart, mystery. We don’t know what made the singularity happen, and our early ancestors didn’t know what force had brought forth the soil, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals – and themselves. It all began in mystery. The old stories and the new story alike begin in mystery.

And then it unfolded. When the unfolding involved something that didn’t seem to fit what people could do, what animals or plants could do, what earth or sky or wind or fire or water could do, the story-teller brought another character into the story – with an agency that could do what otherwise seemed un-do-able. We might translate the name of that character as spirit, or Great Spirit. It was something mysterious, and there were a lot of very different stories about it, but what the stories had in common was: the great and mysterious agent knew things and wanted things. It had knowledge and desires and intentions. How else could mountains, or people, come to be, except through the intention of some creative force? (It turns out, there is an answer to that question. But it’s an answer with a lot of math in it.)

The stories and the music and the dance were done in a ritualized way – or were done together with ritual. These were ways, maybe, our ancestors sought to influence the mystery that had powers, knowledge, and desires. They were ways to help them feel connected to this mystery with powers and intentions. It helped them be at peace with the mystery they could not control or influence.

We continue today to gather – have music, a little ritual, and tell stories about where we come from, to help us know who we are. Different religions have different stories, different rituals, different moral codes, and play different music. They aren’t so much different paths all headed up the same mountain as different paths headed up different mountains. But they are all religions – which means they have stories, music, and ritual to convey a sense of who we are, what is our place in the family of things, what is ours to do, what we are here to try to be.

Who are we? Where do we come from? And why do we share in practices of Thanksgiving? Therefore, we will today retell the ritual story of Thanksgiving. It is that time of year, so let that story be today re-told. But we Unitarians are not only a story-telling people, as all people are. We are also a story-revising people, continually updating our story in light of new evidence, new understandings, and new sensibilities. Our openness to new evidence and readiness to revise is a distinguishing characteristic of our liberal faith.

So when we re-tell again the Thanksgiving story, we will be considering amendments as we go. You will have the chance to vote on those amendments by raising your voting card like we do at General Assembly – your voting card is your Order of Service.

PLENARY

BIRCH: [gavels] I call this story telling session to order. Story teller, you may proceed.

MEREDITH: Our story. The Pilgrims were not the first people to land on the shores of New England. The area was first discovered in 1524 by Giovanni de Verrazzano, who explored the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New Brunswick.

[Delegate 1 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Norwalk.

DELEGATE 1: Mx. Chair, I move to amend. Giovanni de Verrazzano did not discover New England. There were people already here. Say instead, “Verrazzano was the first European to explore the Atantic Coast of what is now called North America.”

BIRCH: Those in favor of incorporating the amendment, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

[Delegate 1 sits]

MEREDITH: Let’s back up further, then, and say who did discover this land. This region we call North America was discovered by peoples who came over the Bering land bridge about 16 thousand years ago. They split into branches and spread across the continent. These were the discoverers of our land. [Delegate 2 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from the south side.

DELEGATE 2: Mx. Chair, move to amend. These people did not discover this region either. There were animals already here. I might mention in particular the Carolina Parakeet, extinct since 1918. I’d nominate them for discoverers of our region.

BIRCH: Perhaps we should remove the word “discover” altogether?

DELEGATE 2: Yes, that’s the amendment I propose.

BIRCH: All in favor of striking the word discover, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

[Delegate 2 sits]

MEREDITH: As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches, about 14 or 15 thousand years ago, became the first humans to inhabit the area we call Massachusetts. Then in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazzano explored this area. John Cabot and Jacques Cartier also charted in the vicinity. In 1609, Henry Hudson made his way up what we call the Hudson River. These explorers sometimes captured and enslaved natives – and they brought diseases. Europeans had developed immunity to these diseases, but the natives had not. The Wampanoag, for instance, in 1600 numbered 50,000 to 100,000, occupying 69 villages scattered throughout the region that is now southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. The plague from Europe killed up to two-thirds of them. Many also were captured and sold as slaves.

In 1614, a Wampanoag boy named Tisquantum was abducted from his village, Patuxet. Tisquantum was sold as a slave in Spain, then escaped to England. After several years, Tisquantum was able to get back to Turtle Island (what we call North America). When he returned to his village, he discovered there were no other surviving Patuxet -- the rest were either killed in battle or died of disease brought from Europe.

In 1620, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock bringing 102 Pilgrims.

[Delegate 3 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Clive.

DELEGATE 3: Mx. Chair, point of factual clarification. Did these people call themselves “Pilgrims”?

BIRCH: Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: They did not. Not until the 20th-century did “Pilgrim” come to refer to the people who came over on the Mayflower. They called themselves “Saints”.

DELEGATE 3: It’s disrespectful to them to call them something they didn’t call themselves. I move we call them Saints.

[Delegate 4 raises hand, comes to microphone and nudges aside delegate 3]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Beaverdale.

DELEGATE 4: Mx. Chair, I oppose this amendment. It may be disrespectful to them to call them Pilgrims, but it’s disrespectful to us to call them “saints” – because we’re pretty sure they weren’t.

BIRCH: Fact checker, was there some other name?

ELLIOTT: They were Puritans.

BIRCH: Will the delegate accept an amendment to the amendment, to call them Puritans.

DELEGATE 3: I will.

[Delegates 3 and 4 sit]

BIRCH: The amendment is to call the people on the Mayflower “Puritans.” All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

MEREDITH: These . . . Puritans settled in an area that was once Patuxet, the Wampanoag village abandoned because of the plague. The English did not see any Wampanoag that first winter at all. They only caught a rare glimpse of a fleeting shadow of the land's inhabitants until March 1621 when Samoset, a Monhegan from Maine, came to the village. The next day, Samoset returned with Tisquantum.

Tisquantum had learned English during his abduction, so he could talk to the settlers and serve as a translator. Tisquantum showed them how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts. The crop seeds the colonists had brought with them failed, so without the help of Tisquantum – also called Squanto -- there probably wouldn’t have been a harvest to celebrate that fall.

[Delegate 5 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Polk City.

DELEGATE 5: Mx. Chair, I move to include what the Puritans wore.

BIRCH: Which was?

DELEGATE 5: Beats me. I was wanting to find out!

BIRCH: Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: The Puritan colonists did not wear black, large hats with buckles on them, nor buckled shoes. The 19th-century artists who painted them that way did so because they associated black clothing and buckles with being old-fashioned. Actually, their attire was bright and cheerful.

DELEGATE 5: I move to include that information in the record.

BIRCH: All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... The information is incorporated. Pick up from there.

[Delegate 5 sits]

MEREDITH: The harvest celebration of 1621 was not a solemn religious observance. It was a three-day festival that included drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even shooting practice with English muskets -- a not-so-subtle way to warn the indigenous peoples that these colonists could shoot them. The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, and 90 warriors made their way to the settlement in response to the sounds of the gunfire. They thought the colonists were under attack, so they came prepared for battle to help defend the colonists. The Wampanoag were probably not invited, and the settlers were probably rather nervous having them around.

[Delegate 6 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from West Des Moines.

DELEGATE 6: We’ve heard what the Puritans wore. What did the Wampanoag wear?

MEREDITH: They were not wearing what is often pictured: woven blankets on their shoulders and large, feathered headdresses. They wore breechcloth with leggings -- and perhaps one or two feathers in their hair in the back.

DELEGATE 6: How long did the Wampanoag stay?

MEREDITH: The Wampanoag stayed for three days, during the course of which they contributed a large portion – perhaps most – of the food.

DELEGATE 6: Was the 1621 harvest celebration in November?

MEREDITH: November would have been much too late. It was some time between late September and the middle of October.

DELEGATE 6: So the first Thanksgiving, then, was in September or October?

MEREDITH: The colonists celebrating in 1621 did not call their event "Thanksgiving." For them, “thanksgiving” was a day of fasting – and this was a feast -- the opposite of a Puritan thanksgiving observance. Calling any event involving white settlers in North America "the first Thanksgiving" overlooks the fact that, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island (North America) celebrated seasons of Thanksgiving. "Thanksgiving" is a very ancient concept to the first nations of this continent. The 1621 celebration was a one-off that was not repeated -- and, in any case, wasn't thought of as a "Thanksgiving."

DELEGATE 6: Last question: What is the source of the misinformation we have about the 1621 harvest celebration?

[Delebate 6 sits]

MEREDITH: Uh . . . Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: Everything we know about that 1621 feast came from a description in one letter by colonist Edward Winslow. That letter was lost for 200 years. After it was rediscovered, a Boston publisher, Alexander Young, in 1841 printed up the brief account of the feast. Young dubbed the episode “The First Thanksgiving.” White Americans, craving a romanticized story of their past, latched on to it. And that’s the story of how we got the story.

BIRCH: Thank you. Story-teller, please resume.

MEREDITH: The first European-recognized Thanksgiving came in 1637, when Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving. The proclamation focused on giving thanks for the return of the colony's men who had traveled to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they had gone to join in battle. The thanks that was foremost in Winthrop’s proclamation was thanks for their “great victory”. The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of a massacre of hundreds of Native people.

It grew into a general celebration of genocide. For example, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1676 thanks god that the "heathen natives" had been almost entirely wiped out in Massachusetts and nearby. Thanksgiving proclamations a century later continue to be connected with war. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued Thanksgiving Proclamations each year from 1777 to 1784. Thus was the way paved for Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to make Thanksgiving a US National Holiday. Lincoln set the US National Holiday of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November.

[Delegate 7 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Johnston.

DELEGATE 7: Mx. Chair, I move to include how the holiday moved from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November.

BIRCH: Would the Assembly like to hear how the holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday? All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... Opposed?... The motion carries, so tell us.

[Delegate 7 sits]

MEREDITH: Five times out of seven, the fourth Thursday in November IS the last Thursday. The other two times – like this year – November has five Thursdays, and then the fourth one is not the last one. The holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in 1941. Franklin Roosevelt made the change because November 1941 had five Thursdays, and by moving the holiday up a week he gave merchants a longer Christmas shopping season every year with five Thursdays in November.

[Delegate 8 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The Chair recognizes the delegate from Waterbury.

DELEGATE 8: Mx. Chair, I move the following resolution. Resolved: That those present at this worship service of First Unitarian Church of Des Moines give thanks for all the good in our lives and all the blessings we enjoy; that we remember also the pain and loss of the Indigenous people; and that our list of gratitudes include thanks that we have the capacity to face the truths of the past, to learn from them to love others better, and love the rich diversity of humanity and of life.

[Delegate 8 hands the motion up to Birch, then sits]

BIRCH: The motion is: [Birch repeats the motion.]

Resolutions require a second. Is there a second? [Waits for a second] All in favor of the motion raise your Order of Service.... Opposed?... The motion carries. Seeing no one else at the microphone -- and there being no further business -- this story-telling session stands adjourned until it’s time to review our Christmas Story. [Gavels]

REFLECTION: GRATITUDE AND COMPASSION

Sometimes you feel happy. Sometimes you feel sad. Those are opposite feelings, and life brings them both, though usually not at the same time. Usually being happy means not beings sad, and being sad means not being happy.

How about these two: being grateful and remembering suffering? These are not even opposites at all. They are the natural extensions of each other.

There is much to be grateful for. Air! Take a breath, and be thankful for air! Thank you air. And we have trees and sunshine to be grateful for – the beauty of this world. We have cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks. Thank you, trees! Thank you, sunshine! Thank you, cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks!

Gratitude chases out loneliness. You can’t be lonely when you’re feeling thankful – because as soon as you say, “thank you,” you have company, companions, friends. The air, trees, sunshine, birdies and wee beasties: your company.

Compassion also chases out loneliness. Caring about other people, caring about whether they suffer are treated unfairly, also chases out loneliness. Compassion brings other people into our lives, even if only in our imagination. We have company. Thankfulness recognizes the companionship that is all around us.

Compassion reaches out to extend our companionship outward. For as the world is our good company, it makes us want to be good company for the world. So gratitude and compassion – thankfulness and remembering suffering and unfairness – are not opposites. They naturally go together, for they are both about: having company in our life.

We are not alone. We have the companionship of everything that we are grateful for and everything we have compassion for.

When I was a kid, the extended family and always a few unrelated guests gatherered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner each year. My Mom found a recipe for oyster stew one year early on, and liked it so much she made it every year thereafter, so, I know it’s weird, but in my mind, Thanksgiving is associated with oyster stew. Thank you, Oysters. Thank you, Mom.

And we’d go around the table and talk about what we were thankful for. I don’t remember if it ever came up at the Thanksgiving tables where I was, but it seemed a common thing around Thanksgiving to talk about being grateful for how well we’re doing when others are doing so much worse. That seems weird to me. I suppose the point is to remind us not to take our blessings for granted, and that’s a good point, but the even better point is to be reminded that none of us are free until all of us are free. As long as there are others doing worse, then we’re doing worse. As long as any being isn’t treated fairly, none of us has the blessing of living in a world where everyone is treated fairly.

We have the great good fortune to be able to care. The greatest blessing is to have the capacity for compassion. As Isabell Call said in the opening reading:
“We celebrate Thanksgiving because gratitude is essential to human life. But grief is essential for healing our history of violence. It's really hard to be thankful and sorrowful at the same time. But this is life: sometimes, joy and sorrow come together.”
Actually, I would say, if you’re paying attention, joy and sorrow always come together. When we seem to be having only joy, or only sorrow, it’s because we’re not paying attention to the other. Noticed or not, grounds for each is always right where we are standing.

Joy and sorrow manifest as gratitude and compassion. Gratitude and compassion are dishes best served together. May you find them both amply supplied at your Thanksgiving table.
AMEN.

2023-11-12

Trust

Interdependence is our theme for November, and trust is what allows our interdependence to best function and flourish.

Trust. Sissela Bok says:
“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”
Whatever matters, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives. How is that atmosphere in your life? How is it in our congregation? Maybe it could be better.

In the 1992 Disney cartoon movie, Aladdin, there are two moments when Aladdin holds out his hand to Jasmine and asks her, “Do you trust me?” The first time, Aladdin is a street urchin, and Jasmine’s in disguise as a commoner. The second time, he’s in disguise as a prince and she’s in her element as a princess in the palace. Would you trust him?

Neither time does she have any reason to trust him. But both times she says yes – and takes his hand. It’s a risk. She might get let down, hurt – maybe killed if she falls off that magic carpet when it takes a swerve. She takes the risk. Why? We don’t know. I don’t think she knows.

Jasmine’s world has been trustworthy enough that she feels she can trust a stranger – take that leap. And because she can trust, what opens up for her and Aladdin is, well: “a whole new world . . .”



It’s important to note that Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue she has. If we said it were, then we’d have to say that if she’d said “no,” she’d be lacking some virtue. But no: if she’d said, “No, I don’t trust you, I am not taking your hand,” there’d be no basis for finding any fault. Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue of Jasmine, but it is a virtue of the conditions in which she grew up that those conditions have taught her that trusting strangers is a risk she can sometimes take. The conditions of her upbringing also taught her that she can trust herself in new situations. As the saying goes: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.” Because of that combination of trust in herself and just-high-enough willingness to trust strangers, she answers yes. She takes his hand; takes the leap.

Trust is a virtue of social systems, not of individuals. So we need to think about trust in a different way than we think about trustworthiness. Trustworthiness IS a virtue of individuals. It’s your responsibility to be trustworthy, but it’s not your responsibility to trust. Trust may come to you as a grace, but don’t force it. If you don’t trust some situation, then trust your mistrust and back away.

At the same time, I want to urge today, that, after you have backed away, and you’re in a space that feels safe, interrogate that experience. Was that a situation where maybe daring the risk of trust would have been worth it? Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. It's good to reflect on the question.

Trust, in any case, is a collective rather than an individual virtue. Trust is built – if it is built -- collectively. Our individual task is to discern how we can contribute our part to collectively building it – not take foolish outsize risks in clearly untrustworthy situations. David Brooks gives this example:
“In a restaurant I trust you to serve untainted fish and you trust me not to skip out on the bill. Social trust is a generalized faith in the people of your community” (Brooks, "America is Having a Moral Convulsion," Atlantic, 2020 Oct 5)
It’s trusting that most people will do what they ought to do most of the time. Not everybody. Maybe not anybody all the time. But most people, most of the time. Some level of shared norms – general agreement on what counts as “what one ought to do” – is necessary.
“If two lanes of traffic are merging into one, the drivers in each lane are supposed to take turns. If [one] butts in line, [others] honk indignantly. [They] want to enforce the small fairness rules that make our society function smoothly" (Brooks)
Francis Fukayama’s 1995 book, Trust, coined the phrase "spontaneous sociability." He said that where social trust is high, spontaneous sociability increases. We can spend less time and energy checking each other out, looking for signs of untrustworthiness – less time and energy guarding and protecting ourselves from being swindled – and can much more efficiently move into cooperating and helping each other out. Spontaneous sociability means that people are “able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good.”

Increased trustworthiness, the individual virtue, helps. When more people have the virtue of being worthy of trust, that facilitates trusting. But that’s not enough. Social trust has been falling precipitously in this country, and it’s not clear that the institutions that are less trusted are any less trustworthy than ever.

Scammers prey on the elderly. Why is that? We tend to suppose, well, the elderly don’t think as clearly and can’t follow how they’re being scammed. That’s sometimes a factor. Another factor, though, is that those who are now our older citizens come from a generation that was much more trusting – a generation whose trust allowed them to accomplish together such things that they are called the greatest generation.
“In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time.”
Then came Vietnam, and Watergate, which certainly undermined trust in government. And Reaganomics -- not just economic policies that said government isn’t here for you unless you’re rich, but a stream of rhetoric that said government is the problem. You may remember Reagan had that line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." That one line may have done more harm than his policies. Many people trusted that their government actually could do a lot of very helpful things – which is to say, they trusted their neighbors to be able to work together collectively through elected officials for the common good (which is what trust in government is). Reagan turned that trust into the butt of a joke.
“By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing.”
In 30 years, then -- from 1964 to 1994 -- trust in the government to do the right thing fell from 77 percent to 20 percent.

Even so, when phrased as a question of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens, most people still affirmed that -- for a while. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens. “Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump.” Today only a third of Americans say they trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens.

The distrust turned explosive.
“Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate” (Brooks)
It’s not that way everywhere. In Denmark and the Netherlands, trust has been growing. In Denmark, “about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy.” In the Netherlands, “two-thirds say so.”

In the US, on the other hand, in 2014, only 30 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” That’s the lowest number since the survey started asking the question in 1972. It becomes a vicious downward spiral: when we don’t trust each other, we don’t form or sustain networks that we can trust, and then trust falls further. When people believe they can’t trust others, that others aren’t trustworthy, they become less trustworthy themselves.

So our younger people, growing up under conditions of mistrust, have more mistrust.
  • Percent of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who agree "most people can be trusted": 40
  • Percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) who agree "most people can be trusted": 31
  • Percent of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) who agree "most people can be trusted": 19
We need to acknowledge that sometimes, in some ways, American social trust has been intermixed with delusion.
“Only 35 percent of young people, versus 67 percent of old people, believe that Americans respect the rights of people who are not like them. Fewer than a third of Millennials say America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 64 percent of members of the Silent Generation.” (Brooks)
Believing the US to be the greatest country in the world has always required highly selective measures of greatness – and on many measures we’ve been falling further and further behind. And the gap between how highly Americans thought of themselves for respecting the rights of people not like them, and how much they actually did respect those rights is only recently beginning to narrow. So, good for the younger generations for increasingly disavowing those delusions of grandeur.

Yes, it seems to be the case that those delusions did foster social trust. But delusions inevitably collapse. Sustainable, nondelusive social trust is possible, and maybe we’ll get there. In the meantime, it’s helpful to name the condition we’re currently in – name the water that, like a fish, we might not notice because we’re immersed in it.

What we’re in the middle of right now doesn’t have to stay that way. Our country was once a place of trust – and might be again. But as I was saying, it’s not up to you to try to make yourself a more trusting person. That might not be a good idea. If you get an email from a Prince of Nigeria asking for your help transferring some funds – or an email purporting to be from me asking for Apple Gift cards – don’t trust it. Making ourselves more trusting in a world that is often untrustworthy is not the issue.

What we can do is be on the lookout for opportunities to relate to others in ways that grow trust, and to do that, we have to know how that happens. What grows trust between two people? What grows trust among members of a group, or within a congregation?

I turn here to Brene Brown, who wonderfully combines a scientist’s respect and quest for data with a heart-centered gift for understanding it. She says Trust is built in very small moments. When people talked about trust in the research, they said things like, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom's chemotherapy was going.” Or, “I trust my neighbor because if something's going on with my kid, it doesn't matter what she's doing, she'll come over and help me figure it out.”

One of the top things Brown found as a small thing that engenders trust: attending funerals. Someone shows up at your sister’s memorial service, it really adds to your sense of trust in them, that they care for you.

Another big factor: asking for help when you need it. Trust emerges between and among people through the accumulation of little things done for each other. Looking over the data, Brene Brown discerned seven factors that develop trust. Don’t try to make yourself trust people or situations that are untrustworthy -- but do be on the look-out for these factors. Be attentive to the emergence of where a higher level of trust might be warranted.

Brown arranged the seven into an acronym that spells: BRAVING. When we trust, we are braving connection with someone.

B, boundaries. Healthy boundaries define who we are in relation to others. They also help us to know what the extents and limits are with others. Personal boundaries are how we teach people who we are and how we would like to be handled in relationships. Boundaries help you to say, “This is who I am.” Be explicitly pro-active about what you’re not comfortable with, and what your needs and commitments are. If you’re not clear about who you are, I can’t trust you. I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you're clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.

R, reliability. I can only trust you if you do what you say you're going to do -- over and over and over again. In our working lives, reliability means that we have to be very clear on our limitations so we don't take on so much that we come up short and don't deliver on our commitments. In our personal life, it means the same thing. The key part to keeping commitments is not committing more than we can keep.

A, accountability. I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. I can only trust you if when I make a mistake, I am allowed to own it, apologize, and make amends.

Next is keeping confidences – but since she needs a word that starts with V, she calls it the vault.

V, the vault. What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. It goes in the vault, and it’s sealed from public view. And it’s not just whether you hold my confidences. If you gossip with me about someone else -- share with me a story that isn’t yours to tell – then my trust in you is diminished. The Vault means you respect my story, and a key way that I come to believe you will respect my story is that I see you respecting other people’s stories.

I, integrity. I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity -- and encourage me to do the same. Integrity has three pieces: choosing courage over comfort; choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing your values.

N, nonjudgment. I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart, and be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me.

Under some conditions, helping people can actually lower trust. That can happen if we feel that the help is coming from someone who’s judging us for not being able to work it out ourselves, judging us for needing their help. If you’re the helper, you can offer reassurances: “Oh, this happens to me all the time.” “There’s no way you could’ve known how to do that.” “Wow, it’s great that you got this far on your own.” “I’m impressed.” But there’s still that little edge of suspicion that your assessment of the person’s competence might have slid just a hair. The only way to really remove that hint of judgment from helping someone is for you to take turns asking them for their help. Only then are the vestiges wiped away of the thought that competence is a ground where we’re competing with each other to see who has more of it – which is not a ground of trust. Whether I’m conscious of it or not, if I think less of myself for needing help, then when I offer help to someone, I think less of them too. You cannot judge yourself for needing help but not judge others for needing your help. Real trust doesn't exist unless help is reciprocal because only when it’s reciprocal is it free of judgment.

G, generosity. Here we’re talking about interpretive charity – charitably interpreting what the other person says. Trust requires that we evince a generosity of spirit in how we understand and interpret each other. Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors, and then check in with me.

Arriving at the most charitable possible interpretation of someone else’s words and actions often takes practice and imagination. "Assume best intentions" is a wonderful slogan. I’ve noticed, though, that its usefulness is limited if our imagination is limited. If the only two interpretations you can imagine are “they are evil” or “they’re stupid” – you may have a hard time deciding which one is the more generous explanation.

When you’re hurt and betrayed, your imaginative capacity shrinks. At those times all you can do is just say you don’t know why they did that. You just don’t know. As you heal a bit, get a little distance from the wound, your creative empathetic imagination can start to do a better job of imagining a more generous interpretation.

This BRAVING acronym works with self-trust, too. If braving relationships with other people is braving connection, self-trust is braving self-love. We can't ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we're worthy of receiving. An African proverb says, Beware the naked man offering you his shirt. And you will know you're worthy of receiving trust when you trust yourself above everyone else.



These are Brene Brown’s tools for interpersonal trust. To do our part in rebuilding social trust, we take those tools and join organizations, using those tools of trustbuilding in the development of clubs, associations – and congregations. That you are a member of a congregation – in these times when increasing numbers of people aren’t – already puts you at the forefront of builders and nurturers of social trust.

As David Brooks writes:
“Whether we emerge from this transition stronger depends on our ability, from the bottom up and the top down, to build organizations targeted at our many problems. If history is any guide, this will be the work not of months, but of one or two decades.”
Amen.

2023-11-05

Interdependence

It’s November – the month of elections, and of Thanksgiving – and Veterans Day, which used to be called Armistice Day. Leaves fill up the yards. Sweater weather segues into parka weather. And our theme of the month this November is Interdependence.

You might be thinking: What kind of theme is that? It’s like saying our theme was bipedalism. Yes, we humans walk on two legs – as do birds – so what? How is that a spiritual value to explore, to cultivate, to unpeel layers of meaning of? In the same way you might say yes, we are interdependent. If you use money, you can’t make it yourself – that would be counterfeiting. So we are necessarily dependent on customers or clients or an employer. And if you went off into the woods to live by yourself surviving on nuts and berries, you’re still dependent on Earth and sky and plants to provide nuts and berries. Besides, that’s a miserable way to live. So, yes, we are interdependent. But how is that relevant to the spiritual path?

Let’s look into how this interdependence works and let’s just see what we discover about spirituality, shall we? We are made to need each other, to rely on each other. We are a social species. We aren’t the only social species. The list of species that are highly interactive with their own kind to the point of having a recognizable society and whose psychological well-being is associated with social interactions is a long list. According to the Animalia web site, 2,826 species have so far been identified as social species. These include: wolves, lions, raccoons, rodents, sheep, horses -- chickens, ravens, pigeons, and many other bird species – whales and dolphins – otters and beavers. Even a number of reptiles are counted as social species.

Some social species, however, take their sociality to a much higher level. These are called eusocial. The eusocial species have cooperative brood care (including care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. Eusocial species include ants, bees, termites, wasps, some shrimp species, the naked mole-rat – and -- some biologists argue -- humans.

Perhaps the better term for characterizing homo sapiens would be hypersocial. Not only are we fantastically cooperative – which ants, bees, and naked mole-rats also are – but our ability to imagine ourselves into each other’s heads is amazing. Your brain is not only looking out for you, but it is also simultaneously running a sub-routine mimicking how the brains of people around you are looking out for themselves – including, mimicking the part of their brain that’s running an analogous sub-routine to mimic your brain. You see me – and you see me seeing you – and you see me seeing you seeing me.

And yes, we often make mistakes when we imagine how the world looks through another person’s eyes, and we do need to be humble about claims to know what someone else is going through – but the amazing fact is, we kinda do know what others are going through. We inevitably miss some of the details that may be quite important to the other person, but it’s actually astonishing that human brains can get the basic gist of what it’s like for other people in completely different circumstances.Sometimes someone else might know me even better than I know myself.

How did evolution produce brains that can read other brains so well? Our brains – like all vertebrate brains – are built to do three things: find food, avoid becoming food, and find a mate. That’s their purpose. Keep us alive long enough to reproduce – and maybe also stick around to help our offspring do likewise. Each species has its own unique set of abilities that dictate its strategy for reproducing itself and there are a gazillion different workable strategies – and, of course, a gazillion squared strategies that don’t work.

It’s a very challenging problem for genes to make an animal that can stay alive long enough to reproduce, and most of its experiments end up failing. Still, there are over 2 million known animal species currently extant, and about 380,000 known plant species, not to mention the fungi, protista, and monera – and, while some of them are endangered, many of them are doing fine – and they’re doing fine without the ability to imagine what’s going on in each other’s heads with anywhere near the level of detail that humans can. It’s kind of amazing that a species that can do what we do could ever have emerged.

The earth has had five mass extinctions:
  • 440 million years ago,
  • 365 million years ago,
  • 250 million years ago,
  • 210 million years ago, and, most recently,
  • 65 million years ago.
Six times life has covered the globe with ecosystems full of species, and five times mass extinctions wiped out between 70 and 95% of all Earth’s extant species. In the wake of each mass extinction, very different new species popped up, and all those millions of species, over the 2 billion years life has been on earth, emerged and lived out the arc of their extancy being reasonably good for their time at keeping themselves alive to reproduce – and every one of those millions of species except a handful in the genus homo, of which just one species survives today, did so without needing more than a rudimentary ability to imagine themselves in each other’s heads.

Through this super-power, at some point in about the last million years, our ancestors developed shared intentionality – that is, the ability to share mental representations of a task so that multiple people can work on it. Take something as seemingly simple as one person pulling down a tree branch so that another person can pluck the fruit, and then both of them can share the meal. That’s a simple example of shared intentionality. Chimps don’t do this. Chimps are highly intelligent and highly social: they have hierarchical leadership structures, they monitor their status within the group, they bargain, they do favors for one another, expecting and usually receiving reciprocation later – yet even a simple case of shared intentionality seems to be beyond them.

We humans are profound collaborators, connecting our brains together to solve problems that single brains can’t. We distribute the cognitive tasks. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, or an aircraft.

Our species success comes not from our individual smarts but from our unparalleled ability to think in groups – to make bigger brains by interlinking our individual brains. Our great glory is how well we rely on each other’s expertise.

So even if you could be independent – by yourself in the woods surviving on nuts and berries – that would be a miserable way for a homo sapiens to live and no sane human manages it for very long. We aren’t made to be that way. We are made to be dependent – not just on the earth and its provision of food and air – but on each other. Now that we understand that about each other, what shall we do with that understanding?

The first thing to notice is that interdependence feels good and is good for us. It feels great to be on a team working together, contributing our part to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

We have this amazing capacity for interlinking our brains, for cooperating and collaborating, for shared intentionality, but we don’t always have it fully activated, and we don’t always notice the ways that it is engaged. The fact about what sort of species we are becomes a path of our spiritual growth when we commit ourselves to cultivating mindful awareness of connection, interrelationship, and mutual reliance. We can more consciously notice our interdependence with each other in our hypersociality, and also more consciously notice the interdependence of all life on our planet.

As Unitarian Universalists, this is our faith path. Our denomination’s current statement of purpose, adopted 40 years ago, describes our covenant in seven principles, the seventh of which is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The proposed new statement of purpose includes interdependence as one of seven values of which love is the central one. It says:
“We honor the interdependent web of all existence. We covenant to cherish Earth and all beings by creating and nurturing relationships of care and respect. With humility and reverence, we acknowledge our place in the great web of life, and we work to repair harm and damaged relationships.”
To understand who we are is the central mission of the spiritual quest, and who we are is each other. To commit to live in the unwavering awareness that the self, what I am, is the whole Earth, the whole universe – that’s the spiritual path. To commit to live in the unwavering awareness that anyone’s suffering is mine – and also that anyone’s act of violence, anyone’s cruelty, anyone’s evil is also my very own – that’s the spiritual path.

The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it this way in his poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names.”
“Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.”
This awareness is ultimately what spirituality is. It’s why I, materialist that I am, use the word spiritual: because this awareness of interbeing is not intellectual, not cognitive, though it includes and draws upon intellection and cognition. Nor is this awareness emotional, though it includes and draws upon emotions. There is something not reducible to head or heart and that is, in short, awareness of interbeing – or, even shorter, spirituality.

WORLD AS BATTLEFIELD

We haven’t always seen, and don’t always see, awareness of interbeing as the primary spiritual task. Sometimes the world feels more like a battlefield, or a proving ground than like our very selves. Joanna Macy describes the “world as battlefield” paradigm that some people explicitly embrace and that sometimes sneaks into the thought patterns of all of us. In this paradigm, good and evil are pitted against each other, and we are on this earth to fight on the good side against the evil side. The world is our battlefield.

This is the worldview of George Lucas’ Star Wars movies -- the forces of light battle the forces of darkness. It’s not clear, in the universe of those movies, what’s so bad about the Empire, or why life for beings throughout the galaxy would be any better if Luke Skywalker and the rebels were to prevail, but we’re told Luke is the good guy, that Darth Vader has turned to the dark side of the force, so we cheer for Luke.

People for whom some “world as battlefield” story is the context for making meaning of their lives, will be oriented toward “courage, summoning up the blood, using the fiery energies of anger, aversion, and militancy.” The “world as battlefield” paradigm is good for building confidence. It’s a story that reassures you that you are on the right side, and your side will eventually win. Even if you don’t really believe this paradigm, it’s fun to indulge it sometimes, which is why so many people, including me, have flocked to Star Wars movies.

A variation on the “world as battlefield” paradigm is the “world as proving ground” paradigm. The “world as proving ground” paradigm views the world as a kind of moral gymnasium for showing your strength and virtue at the snares and temptations of the world. We are here on this Earth so that the mettle of our immortal soul may be tested prior to admittance to some other realm. That’s only a slight variation on the “world as battlefield.”

WORLD AS TRAP

The second paradigm is the “World as Trap.” As Joanna Macy describes this one, our spiritual objective “is not to engage in struggle and vanquish a foe, but to disentangle ourselves and escape from this messy world . . . to extricate ourselves and ascend to a higher, supra-phenomenal plane.” Not in some future life, but in this life, the objective is to escape the trap, to live with contempt for the material plane, prizing only the rarefied life of mind and spirit, aloof from the world of strife and desire.

This “world as trap” paradigm engenders a love-hate relationship with matter – for aversion inflames craving, and the craving inflames aversion. Wherever we see people vigorously denouncing something and then being caught at doing that very thing – whether it’s extramarital relationships, or eating fatty foods – we are seeing the playing out of a love-hate relationship that comes from seeing the world as a trap.

I have seen people be attracted to Buddhism out of a feeling that the world is a trap, and a hope meditation will take them to a place removed from worldly entanglements. I tell them that the Buddha taught detachment from ego, not detachment from the world. And that even with ego, he taught being present to it, seeing it clearly for what it is, not suppressing it or ignoring it.

For people who see the world as a trap, social justice may still be a concern, but their approach is to get themselves detached and then help others detach -- escape the trap of the material world.

WORLD AS LOVER

A third paradigm Macy describes is “The World as Lover.” This view beholds the world as an intimate and gratifying partner. With training, one can see in every experience something of the beauty and sweetness of primal erotic play. Since lovers are impelled toward union and oneness, this view can then segue into the final paradigm: “world as self.”

WORLD AS SELF

In the Western tradition there is more talk of merging self with God rather than with the world, but the import is about the same. When Hildegard of Bingen experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience words like Thich Nhat Hanh’s. She wrote:
“I am the breeze that nurtures all things green....I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don’t want it to and can’t control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by). Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind.

These paradigms – world as battlefield, proving ground, trap, lover, or self – are ways to answer the crucial question: “In the face of what is happening, how do we avoid feeling overwhelmed and just giving up?” How do we not give up our responsibility, not simply succumb to the many diversions and distractions of our disjointed, frenetic, consumer society? Each paradigm provides an answer. I think most of us are attracted to numbers 3 and 4 – world as lover and world as self. But most of us probably waffle a bit. Sometimes the world does seem like a battle-ground or proving ground: everything is a test, and I am constantly being judged – sometimes well, sometimes poorly.

The simple act of identifying “world as lover” as a world-view helps me feel the joy of that view, helps me live into it more consistently. Identifying “world as self” as a world-view helps me stay in it. As Joanna Macy says,
“We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again – and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before in our infancy.”
May it be so.

Amen.

2023-10-29

What Is Growing Spiritually?

This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That.

O, it is This
and it is Thus
and it is Them
and it is Us
| and it is Now
and Here It is
and Here We are --
So: This is It
--James Broughton

We return, today, to the first prong of our congregation’s mission: Grow ethically and spiritually.

Five weeks ago, on Sep 24, I addressed growing ethically. I said then that there is teachable cognitive knowledge that is a big part of ethics. Learning propositional knowledge is an important chunk of growing ethically. You can take a class or read a book. That’s not all there is to it. Ethical growth also requires habit formation – the forming of the habits to behave at a higher and higher ethical level – and having the cognitive propositional knowledge doesn’t mean you’ll have the habit of reminding yourself of that knowledge at the moments when you need it. Still, cognitive learning of propositional knowledge is a crucial part of ethical growth. To treat people well we have to know about their situation, what harms them and what benefits them, and they can’t always simply tell you. So: some study is called for if we are to grow ethically.

To grow spiritually, on the other hand, well, it’s a rather different kind of study. To illustrate, let me back up and use this opportunity to tell you some of my journey. I’m the first-born child of rationalist humanist academic parents. I grew up and went into the family business: being a rationalist humanist academic. Mom was a physics professor, and later in her career a chemistry professor. Dad was an English professor – who specialized in 18th century British Literature – the Age of Reason. Thus I grew through childhood imbued with the implicit sense that the reason for being alive and on this planet was to do two things: Learn stuff, and teach it to others.

I was in fourth grade in a small town in Georgia when I first heard the word “atheist” – and asked what it meant. Shortly afterward, I decided I was one. This was a scandal to my classmates. The scandal rather settled down after a week or so, but from then on through high school I was “the class atheist.” Even so, apart from a few kids who were hostile, and a few others who undertook to try to save me, my classmates by and large politely ignored our differences of theological opinion. If there was a disconnect between us because of religion, looking back, I’d say the distance-making, the wall-building, came more from me than from them. As a child and teenager, my sad heart hardened and chose contempt as its protective strategy.

I was not the sort of atheist that went for “spirituality” – did not use that word for my experiences. Nor did I think in terms of sacred, divine, transcendent. Wasn’t so keen on awe, mystery, or wonder either.

But then life happened -- as it tends to do. And even though I was learning more and more cognitive knowledge, and was working as a teacher to tell others about it, life and I didn’t always seem to fit together very well. I sensed that somehow more joy was possible – more peace – a greater belonging.

Life has such tragedy in it. Loved ones die. Wars kill thousands. Millions, sometimes. People behave cruelly to each other – whether it’s petty street thugs or corporate CEO thugs.

And life also has such beauty in it. The birth of a child, a flower in springtime, an act of kindness, my beloved’s kiss. The tragedy and the beauty were more than my academic fields of study could comprehend.

The development of spiritual virtues – loving all of life, even the hard parts; equanimity, compassion – may be entirely a matter of getting our neurons wired a certain way, but the circuitry of spirituality draws on but is different from purely cognitive intelligence – draws on but is different from the emotional circuitry.

Native disposition – genetics – accounts for some of a person’s spiritual virtue. Can you cultivate the spiritual virtues beyond your native disposition? Maybe. Sort of.

The term spirituality encompasses transcendent love, inner peace, “all-right-ness,” acceptance, awe, beauty, wonder, humility, gratitude, a freshness of experience; a feeling of plenitude, abundance, and deep simplicity of all things; “the oceanic feeling,” Sigmund Freud spoke of, calling it “a sense of indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal.” In moments of heightened spiritual experience, the gap between self and world vanishes. The normal experience of time leaves us, and each moment has a quality of the eternal in it.

Symptoms of developing spirituality include: increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen; more frequent attacks of smiling from the heart; more frequent feelings of being connected with others and nature; more frequent episodes of overwhelming appreciation; decisions flow more from intention or spontaneity and less from fears based on past experience; greater ability to enjoy each moment; decreased worrying; decreased interest in conflict, in interpreting the actions of others, in judging others, and in judging self; increased nonjudgmental curiosity; increased capacity to love without expecting anything in return; increased receptivity to kindness offered and increased interest in extending kindness to others.

By orienting toward the elevated – whether in compassion, ethics, art, or experience of divine presence – we transcend the ego defense mechanisms by which most of us spend our lives governed. Psychologist Robert Cloninger and his team at the Center for Well-Being of the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis sought a way to define spirituality more definitely, empirically, and measurably. Their 240-item questionnaire called the "Temperament and Character Inventory,” includes spirituality (they call it self-transcendence), as one of the dimensions of character. As Cloninger measures it, spirituality is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness; transpersonal identification; and acceptance.

First, self-forgetfulness. This is the proclivity for becoming so immersed in an activity that the boundary between self and other seems to fall away. Whether the activity is sports, painting, playing a musical instrument, we might sometimes lose ourselves in it, and the sense of being a separate independent self takes a vacation.

Second, transpersonal identification. This is recognizing oneself in others -- and others in oneself. If you have ever found yourself looking at another person -- or another being -- with a feeling that you are that other, their body embodies you -- or if you have looked at yourself with a sense that your being embodies others -- then you have experienced transpersonal identification. Spirituality involves connecting with the world's suffering and apprehending that suffering as our very own. Transpersonal identification goes beyond "there but for the grace of God go I.” It's not that grace saves you from the unfortunate circumstances others endure. Nothing saves you because, in fact, you are not saved from those circumstances. If anyone is hungry, then you are hungry, for the hungry are you. That's transpersonal identification.

Third, acceptance. This is the ability to accept and affirm reality just as it is, even the hard parts, even the painful and tragic parts. Spiritually mature people are in touch with the suffering of the world, yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection. "Acceptance" does not mean complacency about oppression, injustice and harm. Indeed, the spiritually mature are also often the most active and the most effective in working for peace and social justice. They are energized to sustain that work because they can accept reality just as it is, even as they also work to change it. Because they are not attached to results of their work, they avoid debilitating disappointment and burn-out and are able to maintain the work for justice cheerfully. Because they find joy in each present moment, they avoid recrimination and blame. They see that blame merely recapitulates the very reactivity that is at the root of oppression.

Add together your scores for self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. The sum is your spirituality score. Here's the thing, though. It's not a matter of will – not a matter of volition. Spirituality is not volitional. It's not a matter of weighing the pros and cons and making a decision. You can't decide to be more spiritual or more spiritually mature. If you are low in spirituality -- that is, as Cloninger finds, you are practical, self-conscious, materialistic, controlling, characterized by rational objectivity and material success -- you can't wake up one morning and decide you are no longer going to be that way. It's who you are, and your own rational objectivity will very sensibly point out to you that you don't even know what it would mean to not be that way.

What you can decide, what is a matter of will and volition, is whether to take up a certain kind of discipline called a spiritual practice -- and just see where it takes you. Spirituality is not volitional, but taking up a spiritual practice is. What, you may ask, is a spiritual practice?

I know that these days all kinds of things get called a spiritual practice. But let's differentiate spiritual practice from just something you do. Quilting, piano-playing, or hiking might or might not qualify as spiritual practice – that is, might or might not tend to produce the symptoms of developing spirituality. An activity is more likely to work as spiritual practice if you seriously treat it as one.

First, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means engaging the activity with mindfulness -- focusing on the activity as you do it, with sharp awareness of each present moment.

Second, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means engaging the activity with intention of thereby cultivating spiritual development – reflecting as you do the activity (or just before and just after) on your intention to manifest those symptoms of spiritual development in your life.

Third, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means sometimes engaging the activity with a group that gathers expressly to do the activity in a way that cultivates spirituality – sharing each others’ spiritual reflections before, during, or after doing the activity together.

Fourth -- and most of all -- it requires establishing a foundation of spiritual openness. There are three basic daily practices for everyone that over time develop a foundation upon which some other practice can grow into a real spiritual practice.
(a) Silence. 15 minutes a day being still and quiet, just bringing attention to your own amazing breathing.
(b) Journaling. 15 minutes a day writing about your gratitudes, your highest hopes and your experiences of awe.
(c) Study. 15 minutes a day reading “wisdom literature” – the essays of Pema Chodron or Thomas Merton, the poems of Rumi or Mary Oliver, the Dao de Jing, the Bible’s book of Psalms – just to mention a very few examples of wisdom literature.

With these three daily practices building your foundation of spiritual awareness, then gardening, yoga, or throwing pottery are much better positioned to truly be spiritual practices for you.

Suppose you got serious about maintaining a spiritual discipline. You engage your practice daily; you do it mindfully, you do it with intention to cultivate compassion, connection, nonjudgmental curiosity -- self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance; you get together regularly with a group that helps you maintain and explore the spiritual focus of your practice, and you develop your base with daily silence, journaling, and study. What then? What will happen? If you do everything to ensure that your practice is a true, bona fide spiritual practice, and you do that spiritual practice long enough – every day for a year, or 10 years, or 30 years – will you then exude equanimity and compassion while unperturbable calm inner peace and beauty continuously manifests as you gracefully, lovingly flow through your life?

Maybe. I offer no guarantees. Spirituality, as I mentioned, is not a matter of will. Strong muscles aren’t either. That is, you can’t just decide to bench press 500 pounds, and then go do it. But at least with muscles, there’s a fairly predictable timeline by which exercise increases strength. If you have a normal and healthy physiology, and you adopt a regimen of exercise, and stick to it, then you will get stronger. There’s a smooth curve by which you’ll progress toward the limit to which that regimen can take you.

Spiritual strengthening doesn’t go like that. It’s not a reliable product of putting in the time doing the exercise. The spirit has its own schedule. Committed serious spiritual practitioners can go for years when their practice just seems void and useless. Then they can hit a patch where they actually seem to be regressing. They’re acting as cranky, unkind, disconnected -- as withdrawn, on the one hand, or as controlling, on the other – as they ever had before they started any spiritual practice. There is no smooth curve of progress.

I started my primary spiritual practice for the worst reason: because an authority told me to. Twenty-two years ago I was in Chicago trying to pass muster to become a minister, trying to prove I was good enough. I had just finished my first year of divinity school, and I was meeting with the Midwest regional subcommittee on candidacy.

"Do you have a spiritual practice?" the committee asked me.

Before starting seminary, I had spent two years as the congregational facilitator and preacher for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee. Before that, I'd served as a president of our Fellowship in Waco, Texas, as Vice President of our church in Charlottesville, Virginia and had worked as the church secretary for a year at our Nashville, Tennessee church. But did I have a spiritual practice?

I was a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist. I had a Ph.D. I'd been a university professor of philosophy for four years. I could debate about metaphysics, metaethics, metatheology, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism. If it was meta-, or post-, I was there. But did I have a spiritual practice?

Well, no, I didn't. “Get a spiritual practice,” the committee told me.

It is contradictory to take up a path of self-acceptance and trusting in my own inner wisdom because an outside authority told me to. Yet that’s what I did. It is contradictory to judge myself for judging myself too much. Yet that’s what I did, and still do, albeit somewhat more gently. Usually.

I’ve now had a chance to talk with a number of people on a path of serious spiritual practice. All of us, or so it seems, began, as I did, in some form of contradiction. We felt broken, wrong, inadequate, and we thought spiritual practice would fix us.

But spiritual practice isn’t about fixing anything – which is why there’s no smooth curve toward becoming fixed. Spiritual awakening is about realizing that we aren’t broke and don’t need fixing. We aren’t broken and from the beginning never have been. (Earlier, I listed some symptoms of developing spirituality -- increased this and decreased that -- and I mentioned Cloninger's measures of spirituality: self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. Do not, however, imagine that these are the goals of spiritual practice. Any practice that has a goal is not a spiritual practice. Yes, there is a role to play for intending to cultivate those qualities -- but it is a rather small role, and attempting to measure progress toward such qualities is delusion. A spiritual practice will tend -- naturally, on its own, but irregularly and unpredictably -- to bring fuller recognition that we are not broken, that we are whole and perfect just as we are and always have been; and fuller recognition of our intrinsic wholeness will tend -- naturally, on its own, but irregularly and unpredictably -- to bring the symptoms of developing spirituality.)

It’s hard to really believe that we are not broken and don't need fixing. Our culture constantly tells us we aren’t good enough, get better, buy this product, this treatment, this school, this exercise, this method. Spirituality is about remembering the fact of abundance in the midst of the daily barrage of messages of scarcity. Will recognition of abundance happen if you do the practice? I can tell you there will be more ups and downs than the stock market. But over the long haul? Probably, yes.

If you love just doing the practice, and you do it just because it is who you are, and not with any idea that you’re gaining something from it – if judgment about gain and loss, progress and regress, falls away and there’s just you, loving who you are and loving the way you, and the whole universe, manifest in and through your practice, then, yes. The fact of abundance will be clearer to you.

We are doomed, and our time here is short, but we can make it a celebration. You may recognize the picture above. It’s from the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.” At the end of that film, a bomber plane is set to release its nuclear payload, which will set off a nuclear conflagration to end civilization. But the release mechanism jams. Slim Pickens climbs down into the bomb-bay to fix the jam. He succeeds, and the bomb is released -- while he’s still sitting on it. In the film’s most memorable shot, Slim Pickens is waving his cowboy hat and whooping as he rides the bomb down to his – and what will ultimately be the planet’s – destruction.

“Woooo-hoooo!”

Maybe that’s what spirituality looks like. He does seem to be living in the moment.

That was such a striking shot when I first saw it because I knew if I were falling out of the sky riding on a nuclear bomb, I’d be freaked out in fear and despair: “My god, my god, my god, I’ve only got maybe one minute to live.”

But look at what Slim Pickens’ character is doing with his minute! Woooo-hooooo.

All of us are riding that bomb. Our time is so short before life blows up on us. There’s something very pure about this – just one chance at every minute. At every moment: This is it.

2023-10-22

Not Such a Bad Species

READING: LORD OF THE FLIES SUMMARY

In William Golding’s 1954 novel, The Lord of the Flies, a plane goes down near a deserted island in the Pacific. “The only survivors are some British schoolboys, who can’t believe their good fortune. It’s as if they’ve just crash-landed in one of their adventure books. Nothing but beach, shells, and water for miles. And better yet: no grown-ups. On the very first day, the boys institute a democracy of sorts.

One boy – Ralph – is elected to be the group’s leader. Athletic, charismatic, and handsome, he’s the golden boy of the bunch. Ralph’s game plan is simple:
1). Have fun.
2). Survive.
3). Make smoke signals for passing ships.

Number one is a success. The others? Not so much. Most of the boys are more interested in feasting and frolicking than in tending the fire. Jack, the redhead, develops a passion for hunting pigs and as time progresses, he and his friends grow increasingly reckless. When a ship does finally pass in the distance, they’ve abandoned their post at the fire.

‘You’re breaking the rules!’ Ralph accuses angrily.
Jack shrugs. ‘Who cares?’
‘The rules are the only thing we’ve got!’

When night falls, the boys are gripped by terror, fearful of the beast they believe is lurking on the island. In reality, the only beast is inside them.

Before long, they’ve begun painting their faces and casting off their clothes. And they develop overpowering urges – to pinch, to kick, to bite.

Of all the boys, only one manages to keep a cool head. Piggy, as the others call him because he’s pudgier than the rest, has asthma, wears glasses, and can’t swim. Piggy is the voice of reason, to which nobody listens. ‘What are we?’ he wonders mournfully....‘Savages?’

Weeks pass. Then, one day, a British naval officer comes ashore. The island is now a smoldering wasteland. Three of the children, including Piggy, are dead. ‘I should have thought,’ the officer reproaches them, ‘that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that.’

Ralph, the leader of the once proper and well-behaved band of boys, bursts into tears.” Golding writes: “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart.”

SERMON

William Golding lied to you. He did. He lied to us. It may seem strange to say that a work of fiction is a lie, but just as truth may be conveyed in the guise of fiction, so may falsehood. Golding’s 1954 novel, The Lord of the Flies, purveyed a lie.

The Lord of the Flies has sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into more than thirty languages and hailed as one of the classics of the twentieth century. Every year more high schoolers are assigned to read the book. The story is meant to illustrate, as Golding wrote in his letter to his publisher, that “even if we start with a clean slate, our nature compels us to make a muck of it....Man produces evil as a bee produces honey” (qtd in Bregman, p. 23).

That’s the lie. We aren’t such a bad species. The book was written for a readership reeling from the atrocities of World War II and asking themselves how Auschwitz could have happened. The idea that’s there’s a Nazi hiding in each of us just waiting for the chance to come out was grim, but at least it seemed to make sense of the events that had happened. William Golding was an unhappy man: an alcoholic, prone to depression – a man unable to take the trouble to spell acquaintances’ names correctly. Biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal said, “there is no shred of evidence that this is what children left to their own devices will do.” And Frans de Waal had not then heard about the real case of shipwrecked boys on a deserted island.

It turns out there is such a story. And while millions have read William Golding’s fable, almost no one knew about the true story until more than 50 years after it happened when Rutger Bregman, researching his book that came out in Dutch in 2019, dug it up and tracked down the now-elderly survivors.

In June 1965, Luke, Sione, Fatai, Kolo, Tevita, and Mano -- six boys, ages 13 to 16, all pupils at St. Andrew’s, a strict Anglican boarding school on the South Pacific island of Tonga -- were bored. They longed for adventure instead of school assignments. They came up with a plan to escape to Fiji, some 800 kilometers away. Or maybe all the way to New Zealand. The boys stole a 7.3-meter boat from a fisherman they all disliked. They brought two sacks of bananas, a few coconuts and a small gas burner – and that was pretty much it. No map. No compass.

The first night a bit of weather came up. They hoisted the sail, which the wind promptly tore to shreds. Then the rudder broke. For eight days they drifted – without water other than what rainwater they could collect in the coconut shells – which they shared equally, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening.

On the eighth day: a miracle. They spotted a small island – a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than 300 meters out of the ocean. The boys had stumbled upon Ata, an uninhabited island 450 acres in size. A New York Times article reported in 2021 that Ata
“had once been home to about 350 people, but in 1863 a British slave trader kidnapped about 150 of them, and the Tongan king relocated the rest to another island, where they would be protected.” (NYTimes, 2021 Apr 22)
By the time our lads from Tonga landed there, the island had been deserted for over 100 years – and today it is considered uninhabitable.
“At first the boys lived off raw fish, coconuts, and birds’ eggs. After about three months, they found the ruins of a village, and their fortunes improved — amid the rubble they discovered a machete, domesticated taro plants and a flock of chickens descended from the ones left behind by the previous inhabitants.” (NYTimes, 2021 Apr 22)
For 15 months the boys were on that island – a year and a quarter – before they caught the attention of a passing fishing trawler.

The captain that rescued them wrote that,
“By the time we arrived, the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” (qtd in Bregman, p. 32)
Fatai,
“after countless failed attempts, managed to produce a spark using two sticks. While the boys in the make-believe Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in the real-life Lord of the Flies tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year. The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarreled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. The squabblers would go to opposite ends of the island to cool their tempers, and ‘after four hours or so,’ Mano later remembered, ‘we’d bring them back together. Then we’d say, “OK, now apologize." That’s how we stayed friends.' Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat, and played it to help lift their spirits.” (Bregman, p. 33)
One day, Fatai slipped and fell off a cliff
“and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves." (Bregman, p. 33)
The leg healed perfectly. Says Rutger Bregman: “The real Lord of the Flies is a story about friendship, and cooperation, and human resilience.”

In the delayed discovery of this story, the New York Times wrote:
“The six boys flourished in their spontaneous community, suggesting that cooperation, not conflict, is an integral feature of human nature” (NYTimes, 2021 Apr 22)
William Golding lied to us. So why has his novel seemed to so many to be realistic? Let's take a look at why we are so ready to believe the worst about ourselves.

In World War II, German planes dropped 80,000 bombs on London alone. Forty thousand people in the UK killed -- a million buildings damaged or destroyed. Germany’s war planners were sure this would break the British will to resist – that there would be general social collapse. The British famously kept calm and carried on.

As the tide of war turned, the Allies, refusing to learn from the British experience planned a similar civilian bombing campaign against Germany. They, too, fell into the delusion that this would break their enemy’s will to resist. Terrible idea. Crisis brings out not the worst in people but the best. Analyses after the war indicated that Allied bombing
“strengthened the German wartime economy, thereby prolonging the war. Between 1940 and 1944, they found that German tank production had multiplied by a factor of nine, and of fighter jets by a factor of fourteen." (Bregman, p. xvii
The bombs boosted solidarity -- and thereby efficiency.

Humans are made to pull together and help each other out. The movie, "Titanic," shows people blinded by panic – except for the string quartet. But the movie was not accurate about that. “In fact, the evacuation was quite orderly” (Bregman).
“Or take the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. As the Twin Towers burned, thousands of people descended the stairs calmly, even though they knew their lives were in danger. They stepped aside for firefighters and the injured.” (Bregman)
Most people, most of the time, are basically decent. Maybe the worst thing about us is what a hard time we have believing that. So why do we have such a hard time believing the truth that we are basically decent, that we care for others, and are, when circumstances require, ready to do enact our caring with considerable courage.

One factor for why it’s hard for us to believe in one-another’s basic virtue is this: The way we got to be such a cooperative species was by carefully monitoring noncooperation when it pops up. Cooperative, pro-social behavior doesn’t grab our attention much. Our brains are wired to focus on anti-social behavior – so that we can bring social forces to bear to bring the offender back in line.

It’s like our attraction to sugar, which was functional when sugar was scarce and we needed a preference for the riper fruit. Now that we can mass produce sugar, our sweet toothes are killing us. Focus on anti-social behavior was a brilliant adaptation when it was a rare thing to see anti-social behavior. But now that we have mass media inundating us with stories of people doing bad things – which the media does because people doing normal, ordinary, everyday good things isn’t very interesting. It doesn't sell newspapers or attract eyeballs or grab the attention of brains wired to attend to misbehavior. Functional, normally cooperative people are boring to watch – which is rule number one of any producer of a reality TV show. (Hence my prayer and blessing for you all is: may your life be one that, if it were a reality TV show, it would have terrible ratings.)

We got to be highly cooperative, hyper-social animals by paying attention to rare uncooperative actions. But then we developed media that overloads us with stories that we’re wired to pay attention to. Thus, we end up with the misimpression that people are usually only out for their own narrow self-interests – that people are no darn good. As Rutger Bregman says:
“Even after the researchers presented their subjects with hard data about strangers returning lost wallets, or the fact that the vast majority of the population doesn’t cheat or steal, most subjects did not view humanity in a more positive light.” (11)
In particular, Bregman notes,
“Catastrophes bring out the best in people. I know of no other sociological finding that’s backed by so much solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored. The picture we’re fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes.”
That’s one factor in why William Golding’s novel seemed to so many to be realistic. A second factor is this. Power tends to corrupt. Lord Acton was right about that one. We are basically decent, but power does tend to corrupt us.

It starts in little ways, mild yet telling. In one study, subjects were put in teams of three and given a task to do together. The researchers would randomly pick one of the three and say, “you be the leader.” As the team of three went about their task, the researchers brought them a snack – a plate of 5 cookies. Five cookies for 3 people. One of the cookies would typically be left on the plate, as per etiquette that inhibits taking the last one. That leaves 4 cookies for 3 people. They all get one – and then one of them takes a second. What the study found is that it was almost always the person randomly selected the designated leader who took that second cookie.

In another study, subjects were assigned a car and told to drive it around the block. Some subjects were randomly assigned a beat-up Mitsubishi or Ford Pinto – while others were assigned to drive a high-end late-model BMW or Mercedes. As they approached a crosswalk, a pedestrian would step off the curb. All the drivers of the clunker cars stopped and let the pedestrian go by. The drivers of the fancy cars, however, 45 percent of the time failed to stop for the pedestrian.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner calls it Acquired Sociopathy. Even a tiny bit of power, and we feel like taking that extra cookie. Why are we like that? At heart, we’re such team players that we adapt to the role we find ourselves in – even adopting some traits unconsciously. If you’re assigned the role of an Important Person, you’ll act like an Important Person -- and Important People don’t have time to wait for pedestrians. We’re funny that way. We are not such a bad species – but we are funny.

People often rise to power by being very friendly, attentive, warm, caring, and helpful. Then they get into power, and it’s like brain damage.
"It transpires that people in power display the same tendencies. They literally act like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centered, reckless, arrogant and rude, they are more likely to cheat on their spouses, are less attentive to other people and less interested in others’ perspectives. They’re also more shameless, often failing to manifest that one facial phenomenon that makes human beings unique among primates. They don’t blush.” (Bregman, p. 227
Neurological brain scans find that
“a sense of power disrupts what is known as mirroring, a mental process which plays a key role in empathy. Ordinarily, we mirror all the time. Someone else laughs, you laugh, too; someone yawns, so do you. But powerful individuals mirror much less. It is almost as if they no longer feel connected to their fellow human beings. As if they’ve come unplugged.” (Bregman, p. 227)
If we are conscious of this tendency, we can counteract it. Many of us have had experience with that boss who was the exception to this tendency – who remained thoughtful and considerate of others even after ascending to power. So it can be counteracted. When it isn’t counteracted, those suffering from acquired sociopathy assume that others are as self-centered and uncooperative as they have become. Having come unplugged, they forget how cooperative and decent most people are.
“The dynamic during disasters is almost always the same: adversity strikes and there’s a wave of spontaneous cooperation in response – then the authorities panic and unleash a second disaster.” (Bregman, p. 6)
Emergency responders don’t respond, believing there’s too much chaos to go in – or armed authorities open fire on peaceful people.

Rebecca Solnit wrote about the aftermath of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She wrote:
“My own impression is that elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image" (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009, p. 131.)
Bregman adds:
“Dictators and despots, governors and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self-interest, just like them.” (p. 7)
People in power tend to purvey the idea that The Lord of the Flies is realistic. Between our sweet tooth for bad news and the projected acquired sociopathy of the powerful, we’re apt to be convinced we’re a terrible species. As filmmaker Richard Curtis observed:
“If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years – something that has happened probably once in history – it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society. If I make a film like 'Love Actually,' which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.”
Sentimental? I suppose you could say so. But unrealistic? Not at all.

So I will leave you, then, with Hugh Grant’s voiceover words at the opening of Curtis’ film, 'Love Actually':
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around.”
Not such a bad species.

Amen.

2023-10-15

Justice v. Mercy

Justice is our theme of the month for October. So what is it? What is justice?

We are a hodge-podge of concepts bouncing off each other in patterns that grow into habits of thought. We are also bodies, and bodily needs, and emotions, and emotional triggers, and reactivity, and ego defense mechanisms elaborate and complex. We are all of that. But if your body is, for a moment, reasonably well taken care of – it is fed and rested, reasonably healthy and pain free – and if conditions are such as to be conducive to being calm and reflective, not consumed by any particular desire, safe, without threat to your well-being or reputation, THEN what’s left of you is a hodge podge of concepts bouncing off each other in patterns that have formed into habits of thought.

And those concepts that we carry around – those concepts that constitute us when we we’re healthy, safe, and calmly reflective – those concepts aren’t always all that consistent, and when this is exposed, we experience cognitive dissonance. Still, we might spend a lifetime happily bouncing around among our concepts along greased grooves oblivious to tensions between them unless some moral dilemma arises. We might not notice, for instance, that mercy is unjust.

Mercy seems so benevolent, so kind – and justice seems like a good thing, too. Could two good things be at odds with each other? These concepts that we carry around – that make up our thought patterns – become part of us bringing with them a history, and those associations are still with them. Justice, going back to classical times, has to do with people getting what they are due. On the one hand, you are a just person if you give to others what they are due. On the other hand, you have a basis to ask for justice from others if you don’t believe you are getting what you are due.

How do we determine what is due? There’s been a lot of variability in that through history, from culture to culture, and even from one individual to another within the same time and culture, or, for that matter within the same individual from one day to the next. The guideline we have, also going back to classical times, is “treat like cases alike.” Nothing can happen among people that doesn’t have some similarities to something previous that happened. If you can describe an incident with words, those words have meaning because of prior experience with them. Those meanings come with feelings, however vague, and the feelings are either good or bad, however slightly – and that is the ground from which our moral reasoning begins and our moral attitudes take shape.

We look for the principles that were followed in other cases, and we try to apply those principles to the case at hand. Treat like cases alike. In fact, this basic principle of fairness is common to humans through every culture and time. We find this sense of fairness not only in homo sapiens, but in hominids – which includes humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans – and not only hominids, but simians, which includes all of the above plus gibbons and monkeys. (Good to know our place in the family of things.)

Simians have been around 60 million years, while the particular simian, homo sapiens, has been on this planet less than 300,000 years. In one study, two capuchin monkeys were in adjacent plexiglass containers. They could see each other. They’d been trained to perform a simple task for which they get a bit of food as reward. They reach through a hole, hand the human a rock – that’s the task -- and the human will take it, and hand them back a bit of food. At first, the food is a piece of cucumber. Cucumber is OK. The monkeys will take the cucumber and eat it. Monkeys will keep performing the task and happily enjoying their cucumber 30 or more times -- it’s hard to get full on cucumber.

But remember, the monkeys can see each other. If, after a couple rounds of doing the task, and getting cucumber, monkey A sees monkey B get a grape in exchange for performing the task, monkey A notices. Monkey A apparently thinks, “Great, now we’re getting grapes.” For a capuchin monkey, a bit of cucumber is OK, but a grape is delicioso. So if monkey A hands the human a rock and gets back only another bit of cucumber, there’s going to be some protest about that. They don't speak English, but it's clear what the content of the protest is: "That’s not fair! He got a grape! Where’s my grape?" The slighted monkey will become agitated and howl. You can watch this on Youtube.



You’ll see that the monkey takes that bit of cucumber and throws it back at the human. The cucumber which a minute before had been perfectly acceptable is now despised. Similar experiments have been tried with dogs and some bird species, and they found similar results.

Treat like cases alike – a very deep principle. If I do the same task as someone else, and there’s payment for it, I want the same payment. The need to be treated fairly is a deep need. We can calmly accept deprivation if others are, too.

So: justice. Giving people what they are due and treating like cases alike. “What is due” might be a better shake. When we talk about justice to racial groups, or women, or to workers, or to the poor, we’re talking about treating them better. But “what is due” might be punishment. If someone has done wrong, we want them punished.

I’ve noticed some shift in recent years toward avoiding the word punishment. When people object to police abuse, for instance, they rarely say, “Abusive officers should be punished.” The preferred language seems to be, “Abusive officers should be held accountable.” Accountability could take the form of punishment – and that’s the form that usually seems to be implied -- but I do appreciate leaving the door open for a nonpunitive form of accountability. The movement for restorative justice is all about accountability and restoring relationships but without jail or prison or heavy fines.

Still, some cases arise that reveal that a felt need to punish goes deep in, at least, us humans. The case of George Tyndall was a reminder of that this week. George Tyndall was a former gynecologist at USC, accused of sexual misconduct toward a generation of women students at USC. The University paid a $1.1 billion dollar settlement – the largest in higher education history, and Tyndall was set to stand trial “on sex crimes stemming from his treatment of 16 former patients, a subset of hundreds of women who had accused him of inappropriate touching, harassment and other misconduct during a tenure at the campus health clinic that stretched from the late 1980s to 2016.” Then George Tyndall – out on bail – died in his home of natural causes on Oct 4, a little more than a week ago.

This was profoundly unsatisfying for some of his victims. Many of his accusers felt that his death allowed him to avoid justice. They didn’t want Tyndall dead, they wanted him punished. Even if some of them might have wanted the death penalty for him – and I don’t know that any of them did, but if they had – what they would be wanting would be death as punishment, not death from natural causes, which is what the coroner reported, and which felt like cheating his way out of the punishment that would have represented justice. The felt need for punishment runs deep.

What makes punishment punishment and not simply a mishap, or natural causes, is that it’s deliberately inflicted by the agents of social order for the sake of social order. In the family, those agents are the parents, who might punish a child for the sake of family social order and mores. In the state, those agents are called our justice system. In practice, of course, our penal system today does more damage to social order than it does good, but the ideal, that wrongdoing should be punished – that is, that the perpetrator should endure unpleasant consequences inflicted by an authority. The authority, whether human or divine, must be seen as having responsibility for protecting our collective well-being. That idea of punishment from an authority is deeply a part of us.

Determining what punishment is due involves an evolving system trying to treat like cases alike. Relevantly similar crimes, we feel, should get relevantly similar punishment. Of course, there’s slippage around the notion of “relevantly similar” – if two men, in two separate incidents, have each stolen a loaf of bread, and one of them is starving and trying to feed a family that is starving, while the other is reasonably well-fed and had the money to buy the bread, but just didn’t want to, many of us would call that a morally relevant difference. Javert, in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, didn’t think it was morally relevant, and Javert pursues Jean Valjean accordingly.

So that’s a sketch of some of the ways our concept of justice bounces around in our thought patterns. What, then, about mercy? Do we say that Jean Valjean should get mercy, even though he did steal that bread? Or do we say, forget mercy, our principles of justice themselves should be adjusted? We should understand that justice itself takes into account extenuating circumstances. Do we need a concept of mercy at all?

Justice may call for punishment, but mercy would let you off the hook. That’s the situation that Shakespeare presents to us in “The Merchant of Venice.” Antonio borrows money from Shylock, and offers a pound of his flesh closest his heart as guarantee of a loan. OK, that's very weird, and probably wouldn't be found legally binding even in a renaissance court, but let us allow Shakespeare his conceit. When the loan is not repaid, Shylock claims his pound of flesh. Portia then tells Shylock he must be merciful. Shylock retorts, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.” Portia famously replies:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthron├Ęd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.”
Portia says the quality of mercy is “not strained” -- meaning that it is “not constrained,” that is, we cannot be constrained to be merciful. Mercy can’t be compelled. If it’s compelled, it isn’t mercy. Shylock's question was, “On what compulsion must I be merciful?” Portia's answer is that there's no compulsion. It's not about compulsion. Justice is about compulsion: there are principles of fairness that rightfully do constrain our behavior, but mercy doesn’t work that way. Mercy just happens, the way gentle rain falls on the ground. And when it does, it blesses both giver and receiver.

So: Mercy is what we call it when we are spared from what we deserve. A few lines later, Portia makes the point: “in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.” Wait. What? None? OK, I think I see our problem here.

If justice is understood as that which, strictly adhered to, condemns us all, then we need a new idea of justice. Alas, the idea that we all deserve damnation is our Western heritage. Theologians and priests for centuries emphasized what sinners we are. They gave us a picture of ourselves as fundamentally corrupt at our core. Every one of us is so profoundly, inherently sinful, that if we got what we deserved, we’d all be thrown to the worst punishment we can imagine. So mercy enters the picture. No one is good enough to deserve going to heaven on their own merits, but some people get in just because of God’s benevolent mercy.

The Church has generally avoided stating precisely how many would receive this grace. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses are an exception. They teach that exactly 144,000 faithful Christians will go to heaven to rule with Christ in the Kingdom of God.) Mostly, only a rough sense of the proportions was indicated. In John Calvin’s theology, for instance, it seems like very few. I get the impression from Calvin that he imagines maybe something around 2 percent of all Christian believers (and no one who isn't a Christian believer) will get to heaven. Our forebears, the Universalists, taught that God’s benevolent mercy extends to all -- every person will go to heaven. We get our name, Universalists, from this doctrine of universal salvation. But even the Universalists, for the most part, didn’t think people deserved it, or had earned it. Justice would condemn, but God’s mercy saves. On that point, the Calvinists and the Universalists agreed -- they merely disagreed on how many of us God’s mercy saves.

Through the 20th century, Unitarians and Universalists slowly shed the sense that sin – inner corruption – was humanity’s essential and most salient feature. Instead, we began to see human suffering in terms of disconnection: the deprivation (in the lower classes) and alienation (in any class) that accompanies uprootedness from healthy community of care, respect, meaning, and opportunity.

We stand, as ever, in need of justice – but not justice in the course of which none of us should see salvation, but justice as the construction of fairness in the face of oppressions that undermine community, justice as healing the wounds of separation, justice as the restoration of belonging. If we have real justice in this way – then we could do without mercy.

Mercy, like justice, has historically had a variety of meanings. Sometimes mercy is used to mean compassion and kindness – and we can certainly use that. Our hearts long for compassion, kindness, caring – but to give it and receive it. But Mercy, taken as a decision to deviate from the requirements of justice, perhaps we could do without.

Justice is principled: it follows principles. If there are rules governing the case at hand, justice follows the rules, and if there are no clear rules, justice weighs the principles. Mercy, however, flouts all rules and principles. Mercy is necessarily unprincipled. Principles define justice, and mercy is deviation from justice and its principles.

We might, indeed, think that our principles of justice need to be more compassionate, less draconian, but as long as they are principles – that is, they apply to all like cases – then they are matters of deciding what justice is, not matters of deciding when to forego justice for the sake of something called mercy. If a judge is merciful to one convicted defendant but not others, that’s not fair. And if the judge is “merciful” to all of them, then that’s not mercy – it’s just that judge’s rules of procedure.

Too much mercy and there’s no enforcement of justice at all. If contracts are never enforced, no one will enter into contracts – including ultimately, the social contract – and society falls apart. If our children – or we ourselves -- were always spared any unpleasant consequences of their actions, they won’t learn – or we won’t maintain -- the skills and habits of responsibility.

In a lesser known Shakespeare play, Timon of Athens, a character makes a direct rebuttal of Portia. “Nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy,” the character says.

Mercy is utterly capricious – and we should be suspicious of it not just because it is abstractly unjust but because caprice tends to favor the already privileged. In our schools, for instance, black students are more likely than white students to be referred for disciplinary action for subjective infractions such as disruption or defiance. Across the board, black students tend to experience harsher disciplinary measures at higher rates than their peers in public schools in the United States. Black students are 4 times more likely to experience suspension than their White peers.As mercy overrides the principles that would apply to everyone, what determines when mercy is extended? When the principles which constitute justice are overthrown, what’s left are our implicit, unspoken biases, including implicit racial biases.

Now, before I conclude that we ought to just dispense with the very idea of mercy, that what we need is greater clarity on principles of justice, and that we should then simply live by those principles, I want to acknowledge what I find to be a fairly compelling case for sometimes, indeed, tossing out rules and principles and reasons. Back in 1985, California writer Anne Herbert, wrote an article for The Whole Earth Review titled, “Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” The phrase caught on. You have probably heard it. Herbert's phrase cleverly turned on its head a phrase we had all heard too much in the news: random violence and senseless acts of brutality. What a lovely thing to instead practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty! Herbert writes in her original 1985 article:
“Anything you think there should be more of, do it randomly. Don’t await a reason. It will make itself be more, senselessly. Scrawl it on the wall: RANDOM KINDNESS AND SENSELESS ACTS OF BEAUTY. I used to have fantasies of positive vandalism. Breaking into the school and painting a dirty room bright colors overnight. Fixing broken glass in people’s houses while they’re gone. Leaving full meals on tables in the struggling part of town.”
That really does sound lovely. What makes that kind of random kindness different from mercy’s capriciousness is that mercy is something bestowed by someone in a position of power – whether divine or human: school authorities deciding whether to suspend a student; the criminal court judge pronouncing sentence upon the convicted; a soldier victorious in battle might or might not show mercy to the vanquished; a person of wealth who controls resources that can make or break another’s livelihood may choose to be merciful.

Another way of saying that mercy is uncompelled and unconstrained is to say the option of mercy arises from being in a position of power over someone else. Take away the power relation and instead of mercy, it’s a random kindness – and possibly also a senseless act of beauty.

So that’s the conclusion I leave you with today. My argument is that compassion and kindness – caring and love – are the greatest forces and the highest achievements humanity can strive for. But if we get justice right, then we will have no need for a concept of mercy that is in any way distinct from compassion and kindness.

And: if you’re not in a position of exercising power over, then some randomness, some caprice, just following the whims of impulses to kindness, can also be a beautiful thing – blessing indeed the one that gives and the one receives.