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.


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.


Not Such a Bad Species


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.”


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)
“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.



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.



Our national Unitarian Universalist Association is considering a new articulation of Unitarian Universalist values – as some of you have heard. The new version is graphically represented as a six-petaled flower, with love at the center surrounded by six petals: justice, interdependence, transformation, pluralism, equity and generosity. Our theme for this month is justice. In subsequent months, our themes will explore the other petals, and finally, love, at the center of it all, holding it all together.

The fact that Justice and Equity are both among our values means that we see them as different. When we say justice is one of our Unitarian Universalist shared values, we mean:
“We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all thrive. We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression. We support the use of inclusive democratic processes to make decisions.”
And when we say Equity is one of our shared values, we mean:
“We declare that every person has the right to flourish with inherent dignity and worthiness. We covenant to use our time, wisdom, attention, and money to build and sustain fully accessible and inclusive communities.”
So there’s some overlap there. Both justice and equity are about inclusive community. Justice calls for a community where all thrive, while equity calls for a right to flourish – basically the same thing.

Dismantling racism and all forms of systemic oppression, as the Justice petal calls for, and every person flourishing with inherent dignity and worthiness, as the Equity petal calls for, are pretty much the necessary and sufficient conditions for each other. Still: we might not notice that each implies the other, so it’s good to be explicit about both dismantling racism and providing for everyone to flourish with inherent dignity and worthiness.

What Justice emphasizes, however, that equity doesn’t, is the idea of Beloved Community, and the explicit attention to systemic oppression. So let’s look at that.

Beloved Community

What is this idea of Beloved Community?

Our story begins with Josiah Royce (1855-1916). Royce coined the phrase, “Beloved Community,” and what he meant by it is not quite what you might initially think of when you hear “Beloved Community.” Royce was among the first to bring sustained philosophical attention to what community is and how it functions.

Royce argued communities are logically prior to individuals. That is: the usual idea is that individuals are prior, that individuals come first, and then they get together and form a community. But Royce said that gets it backward. Community relationships create individuals. We are formed as the individuals we are by being nurtured by a community into a place within that community, and our identity comes from that place. Individuals don’t make a community; communities make individuals.

Our Unitarian Universalist congregations are sometimes described as being, or aiming to be, communities of memory and hope. It is from Josiah Royce that we get these ideas of communities of memory and hope. A community of memory is one in which the members have a shared story about their past, and a community of hope is one in which the members share an aspiration going forward.

Royce wrote, “There is only one way to be an ethical individual.” Only one. He said:
“That is to choose your cause, and then to serve it, as the Samurai his feudal chief, as the ideal knight of romantic story his lady.”
But the cause we serve is itself a product of some community or other. The community is logically prior to the individual, remember, so it is communities who bring individuals into existence and, in the process, lay before them causes to which these individuals the community has created may choose to be loyal. So Royce said:
“My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.”
To go further and be an ethical individual entails choosing a cause your community defines and places before you, and being loyal to that.

Royce then said that beyond all actual communities there is an ideal community – a community not realized but imaginable. This imaginary ideal community may nevertheless powerfully guide us. The ideal that Royce asks us to imagine is a community of those who are loyal to truth and reality and loyalty itself. It is this imaginary ideal community that Royce called, “Beloved Community.”

As I was reading about Josiah Royce’s philosophy this week, I was reminded of the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s words in his 1978 book, The Road Less Travelled. “Mental health,” Peck said, “is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” Following Peck, I think of spiritual development, spiritual maturation, in those terms: an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs. In other words, the project of growing spiritually -- or of mental health -- is a matter of vigilant attention to all the ways we fool ourselves, all the myriad tricks of our egos. It is to be constantly searching ourselves for the arising of self-deception, continuously questioning whether we are perceiving reality through the distorting lens of mere self-interest.

We can never rid ourselves entirely of a proclivity to self-deception, but we can get better at catching such delusions sooner and releasing them once we spot them. That’s the “ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” Scott Peck calls that mental health. We might call it spiritual growth. We might also call it love – because to see through the ego’s defense mechanisms to a reality of flowing interconnection where everything is everything else – to see that there are no permanent distinct things but only things temporarily appearing distinguishable – this is to participate in the Universal love that holds us always, that has never broken faith with us and never will.

When there is a community of people all together dedicated to reality, to truth, at all costs – no matter how inconvenient, no matter our self-interests – then you have a community participating in that Universal Love. So Royce called it Beloved Community. This imaginary ideal is, as I said, not quite what you might initially think of when you hear “Beloved Community.”


Martin Luther King, Jr’s theology studies – at Morehouse, at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and at Boston University, where he earned his PhD – included substantial philosophy study, including of Josiah Royce. King appropriated Royce’s “Beloved Community” and specifically tied it to his campaign for nonviolent social change. King wrote in 1957:
“The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
He added:
“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love — which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies — is the solution to the race problem.”
Throughout his career, King emphasized not winning, not ending segregation by defeating segregationists. He emphasized, instead, reconciling with segregationists, and he identified beloved community with this condition of reconciliation. For King, Beloved Community was the name of the end goal of all positive social change. In his “Sermon on Gandhi,” he wrote:
“The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor....The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”
What Does All This Mean for What Justice Requires of Us Today?

So here we are, in the Fall of 2023, here today to reflect on what justice is, what justice requires of us. And what we’re seeing is that what justice requires of us is love. The language in our national association’s new bylaws, as proposed, puts beloved community at the center of its conception of justice.

Beloved community is conceived with some different emphases by Josiah Royce, who originated the term, and by Martin Luther King, who brought it to his social justice activism. For Royce, it’s more about participating in universal love as manifested and realized in and through participation in an imaginary ideal community committed to truth, to reality at all costs. For King, it’s more about directly living by the injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to Love your Enemies.

Justice is about beloved community and beloved community is about love. Cornel West says that justice is what love looks like in public. Or we might say love is what justice looks like – or simply, as Zen master and African American woman Angel Kyodo Williams writes in Radical Dharma: “Love and Justice are not two.”

We live in polarized times – in some ways even more polarized now than in the Civil Rights Era of the 50s and 60s. And what justice requires of us in these times, just as in any time, is love. In these times – when almost half of our country consists of people who deny women autonomy of their bodies, who glorify guns and facilitate the ongoing carnage of 30,000 gun deaths a year, who are persecuting LGBTQ folk, whose embrace of white supremacy is all but explicit, who deny climate change and obstruct any efforts to reduce carbon emissions, who are undermining democracy on every front, embracing authoritarianism, and taking to cruelty not as an unfortunate means but delighting in it as a sufficient end in itself – in the face of all this, what must we do for justice? What we must do is love.

Since Martin Luther King, Jr. did so much to advance the concept of beloved community, and since beloved community is so central to our Unitarian Universalist conception of justice, let’s look more closely at how King explained Jesus’ injunction to love your enemies.

In a 1957 sermon called “Loving Your Enemies,” King speaks the passage that has become one of the best-known King quotations. I will quote more than is usually quoted, to give you a little more context:
“Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical why. Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
Only love can drive out hate. Only love. King goes on to speak of the damage that hating does to the one who hates. He says:
“Another reason we must love our enemies is that hate scars the soul and distorts the personality. It certainly harms the hated – and is just as injurious to the person who hates. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity....Psychiatrists report that many of the strange things that happen in the subconscious, many of our inner conflicts, are rooted in hate. They say, ‘Love or perish.’ Modern psychology recognizes what Jesus taught centuries ago: hate divides the personality -- and love, in an amazing and inexorable way, unites it.”
King then adds:
“A third reason we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. We get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
So far, what King has said seems anodyne. We have heard it many times. For most of us, grasping King’s point so far does not seem a difficult challenge. But when he says it means loving even the white racists and violent segregationists, it gets a bit more challenging.

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

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

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

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

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