Ecological Spirituality and Our Congregation

Sermon is copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

This sermon is one in an occasional series where I attempt to relate one of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association to current events, and to our congregation.

This week I thought I’d speak to you about the looming environmental disaster. The second reading this morning serves as an adequate reminder of the challenges we face, and I don’t think we need to rehearse the details of environmental disaster. I am sure most of us here this morning are all too aware of the problems we face. Nor do I want this to turn into one of those doom-and-gloom sermons. Instead, I’d like to reflect on what we might do as a religious community.

And it seems to me that we need a spiritual response to environmental disaster. Technological fixes will be necessary. Changes to our neoliberal capitalist economic system may be in order. Yet it seems to me technological and political and economic fixes are necessary, but not sufficient, for addressing environmental disaster.

This is not an original argument on my part. Back in 1966, historian Lynn White, Jr., presented an influential paper titled “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White contended that our current ecological crisis began in the Western world when our culture made the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. During the Enlightenment, the Western world began to draw a firm boundary between human beings on the one hand, and on the other hand all non-human organisms and rocks and soil and air and everything else. Furthermore, the Western worldview began to believe that we human beings are more important than anything else. And Westerners justified this new worldview with religion. For example, there’s a passage in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1:28, which reads: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” [KJV] This was interpreted by many Westerners to mean that we humans were separate from the rest of Nature, and we could do whatever we want with everything else on earth. Even now, in our allegedly secular age, this religious worldview still dominates our thinking.

We may not quote the Bible any more in our secularized world, but it is an unquestioned axiom for most Westerners that we human beings have dominion over the non-human world. We humans get to make all the decisions. We humans don’t really need to consider any non-human viewpoints. If we do consider non-human viewpoints, we do so at our sole discretion.

This new Western worldview set up categories of binary opposites. We Westerners like to believe that there is humanity on the one hand, and Nature on the other hand. Nature is waiting to be tamed or subdued by humanity. Similarly, we tend to believe that mind and body are separate, with body waiting to be tamed by mind. And again, we Westerners believed for many centuries that man and woman were binary opposites, with women waiting to be tamed or subdued by men. Many people here in the United States still believe this about women. And we Westerners have believed for many centuries in a binary distinction between Civilization and Savagery, with Savages waiting to be tamed or subdued by civilized men (and I do mean men; in this worldview, it’s the men who do the subduing). So Westerners gave themselves permission to kill off the indigenous peoples of the United States, and to develop the brutal system of chattel slavery for people of African descent.

Our post-medieval Western worldview tends to categorize everything into binary opposites: mind – body; man – woman; civilized – savage; humanity – everything else. For each of these binary opposites, one of the opposites is more powerful and has dominion over the other binary opposite. This worldview helps justify colonialism, sexism slavery, and so on. This worldview gives license to the more powerful of the binary opposites to dominate the Other.

This remains the dominant worldview in the United States, and has real-world effects. Many people in our country still believe in the binary opposite of men and women, with the result that transgender people are discriminated against, women are no longer allowed to have abortions in many states, and women still earn less than men for the same work. Many people in our country still believe in the binary opposite of white-skinned people and non-white people, with the result that we can document significant differences in health and wealth among people simply on the basis of their skin color, and we also have a loud minority of white people who say that people of color should be ruled by white people. Many people in the United States still believe in the binary opposite of humanity versus the non-human world, with the result that it is considered perfectly acceptable to exploit the non-human world, as long as it benefits at least a few human beings.

I suggest that this is a religious or spiritual problem. We Westerners think of religion in terms of belief, but religion and spirituality are really about worldviews. Thus it becomes a spiritual exercise to stop thinking that one binary opposite should subdue or dominate the other binary opposite. We need to figure out a different worldview. And we Unitarian Universalists are especially well placed to do this work. We’re already heretics. We already know how to reinterpret Western religion so that it becomes less destructive.

Let’s return to that passage from the Hebrew Bible: “God blessed [the human beings], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” As Unitarian Universalists, we have already come up with alternative ways to interpret this passage from the Hebrew Bible.

Our first reinterpretation of this Bible passage comes from feminism. As the second wave of feminism took hold within Unitarian Universalism, way back in the 1960s, we began to understand that “to have dominion” and “to subdue” are not the same thing as “to completely destroy.” As feminists, we would agree with Rosemary Radford Reuther, who in her book “Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing,” pointed out that the role of humans in this Bible passage is not that of “an owner who can do with it what he wills,” but rather that of a steward who is caring for the earth. We have not been given permission to cause some of God’s creations to go extinct.

Henry David Thoreau came up with another way to rethink that old passage from the Hebrew Bible. In 1862, in his essay “Walking,” he said, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” It should be remembered that Thoreau was raised as a Unitarian. However, he became an ardent abolitionist, and he left Unitarianism in part because the minister of the Unitarian church in Concord, where he lived, was at best a lukewarm supporter of abolitionism. So you can see that Thoreau rejected the binary opposition of white people over black people, of free people over enslaved people. Similarly, he rejected the binary opposition between humanity and the non-human world. He acknowledged that human beings could indeed “fill the earth and subdue it.” But he felt that our preservation depended upon reserving parts of the world for wildness.

Still a third interpretation of that old passage from the Hebrew Bible comes from theologian Bernard Loomer, a Presbyterian who joined the Berkeley, California, Unitarian Universalist church late in life. Loomer said that we misinterpret Jesus. Jesus was not God, but rather proclaimed the Kingdom of God. What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God was precisely what Loomer termed the interdependent web of life. (Loomer, by the way, was the one who introduced Unitarian Universalists to the phrase “the interdependent Web of Life.”) In the Kingdom of God, not a sparrow falls but God knows about it; in the interdependent web of existence, all living beings are intimately connected, and not a one dies but that all are affected. We humans have dominion, but not in the sense of having power over other living beings. Instead, God told us humans that we have dominion, God was telling us that we power with, not power over, the non-human world.

More recently, we Unitarian Universalists have been exploring yet another spiritual worldview. We have been listening carefully to other spiritual worldviews. In fact, we’re experiencing this in the musical selections that Mary Beth has chosen for us this morning. I would especially draw your attention to the offertory music, a piece by Navajo composer Connor Chee titled “Hózhó” (and I’m afraid I’m mutilating the pronunciation of this Navajo word). In the composer’s notes, printed in your order of service, Chee explains the concept of hózhó, or balance. By listening carefully and respectfully to his music and his explanation — by listening to his spiritual worldview — we can experience another understanding of how human beings could relate to the non-human world. We don’t want to be condescending or impose Western standards onto the Navajo worldview, nor do we want to try to coopt Chee’s spiritual worldview and try to take it over for ourselves. We remain who we are, but through this cross-cultural encounter we can learn and grow.

So these are just some of the ways we Unitarian Universalists have already become aware of emerging worldviews, emerging spiritual outlooks. We need to shift our spiritual worldview, because the old Western religious worldview is what got us into this environmental mess. That old Western religious worldview showed us how to have absolute power over other humans and non-human beings. In these days of ecological crisis, we need to shift our focus slightly. An ecological worldview allows us to see, not how to have power over other beings, but how all beings are interconnected. The science of ecology expresses this in terms of systems theory, and interlocking feedback loops, and non-linear systems. Since all beings are connected, the harm we do to the least of those beings is harm done to the entire ecological system.

And actually, ecospiritualities aren’t really all that new. There is an ecospirituality in what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There is an ecospirituality when the Dao de Jing says, “…in giving birth you do not possess it, in doing it you do not retain it, in leading it you employ no authority…” [10b, trans. Robert Eno]. There is an ecospirituality in the traditional Navajo concept of hozho, balance.

That narrow old Western worldview is still dominant in our society. I find myself slipping into that old way of thinking. That’s one reason why we bring our children here, to nurture them with a different worldview. That’s one reason why we come here each week: to remind ourselves of other ways of being in the world, so we need not slip back into that old dominionist worldview. It might look like we’re just sitting in these pews, here in this two hundred and seventy five year old meeting house. Yet what we’re really doing here, week after week, is reminding each other of another way of being in the world. And when we leave here and go out into the world each week, we begin to reshape the worldview of rest of our society. What we do here affects the rest of the world, because we are all part of the interdependent web of life.

Another way

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

We Unitarian Universalists are known for our openness to the beliefs and practices of other religions. But we also have our own native spiritual practices, and today I’d like to tell you about spiritual practices from our own tradition, rooted in the relationships between human and non-human beings. I have to warn you, though, that this native Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice is a challenging spiritual practice to follow; which might explain why we have mostly ignored it, and instead turned to popularized spiritual practices from other traditions that aren’t so demanding.

And this native Unitarian spiritual practice starts with the story of how Henry Thoreau, who was raised a Unitarian, went to live at Walden Pond.

When Henry Thoreau got out of college, he had to decide on a career. First he was by his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, as a school teacher. He lasted two weeks. A member of the school committee dropped in to see how the new teacher was doing, and told Thoreau to improve discipline by using more corporal punishment. Thoreau called on half a dozen students at random, beat them, and handed in his resignation that night. (1)

Next Thoreau went to work for his father in the family business of manufacturing pencils. But this was a job and not a vocation; so he also started writing regularly in a journal; and, along with the rest of his Unitarian family, he became an abolitionist, trying to abolish slavery in the United States.

Henry Thoreau still wanted a job that would be a calling, a vocation. So he and his beloved older brother John started their own school. This school, what we today might call a progressive school, was a great success. Their school only lasted for two years, until John’s tuberculosis worsened to the point where he could no longer teach, and so they closed the school. Over the next year, John started to recover from tuberculosis — but then he accidentally nicked his finger with a razor, contracted tetanus, and died a week later.

His brother’s death deepened Henry’s struggle to find his path in life. Henry drifted along, trying different things, until three years after John died, when he got permission to go live on a woodlot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, right next to the railroad tracks on the shores of Walden Pond.

Henry built himself a small cabin there. He cleared some ground and planted a garden. He spent much of his days outdoors. He read deeply in ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the Bible, and in the holy books of other world religions. In his journal, he wrote about what he had seen in the outdoors. He wrote a memoir about a camping trip he and John had taken, rowing down the Concord River to the Merrimack River, then upstream till they could go no further, then traveling by land to the White Mountains, then into the mountains and all the way up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.

Henry Thoreau didn’t got to Walden Pond to pretend to live in the wilderness; he didn’t live there to escape from the world. In fact, the opposite is true: his cabin on Walden Pond was a station on the Underground Railroad. Some people are embarrassed by Thoreau, saying: Oh, but when he was at Walden Pond, he went to his mother’s house to eat dinner and get his laundry done! Yes, and while he was at his mother’s house he plotted with Concord’s radical abolitionists on how to help slaves escape.

So far from trying to escape from the world, Thoreau got himself arrested while living at Walden Pond. He refused to pay the poll tax, which, he said, was an immoral tax because it went to pay for an unjust war against Mexico. He spent just one night in jail because someone — he never learned who it was — paid his poll tax for him, probably out of embarrassment that this Harvard graduate wound up in the town jail with drunks and uneducated bums.

Henry Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years and two months, keeping track of when the flowers bloomed, watching the trees come into leaf, and then he went back to live with his parents and sisters. He had finished the business he had to transact at Walden Pond: his spiritual path led him elsewhere.

I think Thoreau is very difficult for many of us Unitarian Universalists today because he is more concerned with transcendent reality than with his career. He made his money manufacturing pencils and working as a surveyor. But his real concern was not his paid jobs, it was his spiritual life.

Our priorities tend to be the other way around: we think our careers deserve more time than our spiritual lives; or maybe we think that our careers are a spiritual matter. Here in Silicon Valley, we worship our jobs, and we like the fact that we can brag about working seventy hours a week — actually, I’m now down to about fifty hours a week, most weeks, except when I work more than that — and we don’t like it when Henry Thoreau tells us, quite convincingly, that we need only work a couple of months a year to provide for the necessities of life. If we did this, says Thoreau, we could spend the bulk of our lives contemplating the divine reality that we mostly ignore. But rather than confront this embarrassing truth, we turn our attention to other, less demanding, spiritual paths. Take, for example, the current Silicon Valley fascination with mindfulness. “Mindfulness” turns out a mis-translation of the ancient Pali word “sati,” a subtle Buddhist concept that means something like “memory of the present.” (2) But we prefer our Westernized and mis-translated version of mindfulness because it demands so little from us. Mindfulness is pursued by executives from Fortune 500 companies, so it must be good. Mindfulness means we do not have to give up our seventy-hour-a-week jobs, because we can be mindful at work, which will make us more productive, and allow us to spend even more time at work.

“As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence [says Thoreau]. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, there is hardly anyone within hearing, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire.” (3) Today we do not even need to leave to comfort of our cubicle to watch the fire, we just wait for someone to post a video on Facebook. And so we are distracted for a pleasant moment in our seventy hour work week.

Because he will cause you to doubt about the value of your career, I cannot recommend Thoreau as a spiritual guide. But if you are crazy enough to want to follow Thoreau’s spiritual and religious example, I’ll tell you about three life-changing spiritual practices recommended by Thoreau.

The first spiritual practice is to spend a great deal of time outdoors, closely observing the natural world. Thoreau spent hours each day outdoors, checking to see when the various species of flowering plants first bloomed each year, watching how dead animals decay, closely observing all the minutiae of life around him, and then recording his careful observations of human and non-human beings in his journal. I’ve tried this a couple of times recently — spend most of the day outdoors, observing the relation of humans to non-humans, the interdependence of living things, how living things depend on non-living things — and I can report more than just about any other spiritual practice, it has gotten me closer to a transcendent reality. The problem with this spiritual practice, however, is that it makes me a less effective employee of this church, because I begin to believe it as important to watch Black Phoebes build their nest under the eaves outside the door to my office, than answer the email you have sent to me.

The second spiritual practice is to read the holy books of the great world religions. Thoreau lived at a time when the scriptures of non-Christian religions were being translated into European languages for the first time. Of course he already knew the Western Bible, and the spiritual writing of the ancient Romans and Greeks. But he was also able to read deeply in books like the Confucian Analects, and make those stories become a part of him, as when he writes: “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu [Confucius] to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” (3) So it was that Thoreau understood the place of humans in the universe: as much as we might like to think we are like gods, we are in fact limited fallible beings. Books like this keep us from thinking we are better than other humans, or thinking that humans are somehow better than non-human beings. Thus we open ourselves to the web of relationships of which we are a part. And the problem with this spiritual practice is that it is a blow to your pride, from which you may never want to recover.

The third spiritual practice is to find your own way to truth. Thoreau did think that everyone should go build a cabin on a woodlot borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did not care whether or not we read the Confucian Analects. He was not trying to recruit us to join the Underground Railroad. He wanted us to come face to face with reality, to see the world as it really is, to ignore illusions of progress represented by commercial success. This has been the task of religion since the dawn of time: to get us to see things as they really are. But this is a dangerous task. Thoreau said: “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” And this is why you should ignore this part of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. It is safer to stick to the popularized versions of religion. Go take yoga classes, but do not delve into the depths of Hindu philosophy. Practice mindfulness, but ignore the difficult path of Buddhist enlightenment. Read leadership books that quote ancient Chinese philosophers, but do not attempt to diminish the number of your faults. Come to church here if you like, but do not take seriously the ravings of prophets like Isaiah and Jesus and Jeremiah who say we can make this world a better place.

So I will close by telling you this: Don’t read Thoreau. He will only cause you trouble. If you are young, he will tempt you to drop out of school and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which is our North American version of the pilgrimages to the holy land), and then you will not get into Harvard and your life will be ruined. If you are trying to raise children in Silicon Valley, he will tempt you to tell your children: “Stop doing homework and spend time outdoors!” and then they won’t get in to Stanford and their lives will be ruined. If you are retired, he will tempt to become like the retired admirers of Thoreau I once knew who devoted their time and money to social justice causes and filed their bills as follows: Bills To Be Paid; To Be Paid When There’s Money; Refuse To Pay for Ethical Reasons. Trust me, this is a recipe for trouble.

No, you should stay away from people like Thoreau. He will make you crave only reality. He is like all those religious prophets, telling us that we need not live the way we do now, that we can follow a better way.

Notes:
(1) The facts of Thoreau’s life are taken from the standard scholarly biography: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, enlarged and corrected edition (Princeton University Press, 1982).
(2) For the origins of the word “mindfulness” in English, see Virginia Heffernan, “Mind the Gap,” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015, p. 14.
(3) Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”
(4) Analects Book 14.26.1-2. In James Legge’s translation: “Chu Po-yu sent a messenger with friendly inquiries to Confucius. Confucius sat with him, and questioned him. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is your master engaged in?’ The messenger replied, ‘My master is anxious to make his faults few, but he has not yet succeeded.’ He then went out, and the Master said, ‘A messenger indeed! A messenger indeed!’”

Liberal religion and unions

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2013 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading comes from a booklet titled “Final Plans for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” prepared for the August 28, 1963, march:

Why We March

We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

The Southern Democrats came to power by disenfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.

[The second reading was a copyright-protected reading by Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Sermon — “Liberal Religion and Unions”

Today is the day before Labor Day, and Labor Day is the holiday on which we celebrate the contributions that working people, trade unions, and labor unions have made to the United States. So this morning, I thought we should talk about the relationship between labor unions and liberal religion.

Organized religion in general has had a strained relationship with organized labor. Some people in organized labor have felt that organized religion keeps people from addressing the unfairness they face in day-to-day working life by offering hopes of heaven in a life after death. But our liberal religion, Unitarian Universalism, teaches that we must address the problems facing us in our lives here and now, not waiting for some heaven in a life to come. Yet even so, we have tended to spend less time on the problems of working life than on other problems like racism, sexism, looming environmental disaster, and so on. What I propose to do is to talk about why we should be spending just as much of our time and effort on labor issues as we spend on our preferred issues.

And I’m going to start by reading you a story that comes from the Western religious heritage, more specifically from the Christian tradition, the 65th chapter of the Gospel According to Thomas. This is supposed to be a story that Jesus told:

“A […] [person] owned a vineyard. He gave it to some farmers so that they would work it (and) he might receive its fruit from them. He sent his servant so that the farmers might give him the fruit of the vineyard. They seized his servant, beat him, (and) almost killed him. The servant went (back and) told his master. His master said: ‘Perhaps (they) did not recognize (him).’ He sent another servant, (and) the farmers beat that other one as well. Then the master sent his son (and) said: ‘Perhaps they will show respect for my son.’ (But) those farmers, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, seized him (and) killed him. Whoever has ears should hear.” (1)

What a strange and controversial story, like many of the stories told by that Jewish teacher we know as Jesus of Nazareth!

It is a controversial story because later Christians interpreted this story as an allegory. After Jesus had been executed by the Roman Empire, these later Christians remembered this story he had told, and they interpreted it to mean Jesus was foretelling his own death. They turned the story into an allegory, where the person who owns the vineyard is God, and the vineyard itself is Israel. God sends prophets to Israel, prophets who are treated badly; then God sends Jesus (whom Christians think of as God’s son); and the people of Israel kill God’s son. Some later Christians even interpreted this story to mean that Jesus’s fellow Jews executed him; which is a silly and faulty interpretation of what actually happened, since it was the Roman Empire which was responsible for executing Jesus. Because of this silly and faulty interpretation, this story has become controversial.

But let’s ignore that silly old interpretation of the story. Let’s take this story at face value. What happens in the story? Some person owns a vineyard; he is obviously an absentee landowner, since he must send someone else to see what’s going on in the vineyard. This absentee landowner finds some farm workers to farm his land for him. Then he sends servants and his son to get his rent from the workers. But the farm workers are so angry at the absentee landowner that they beat his servants, and kill his son.

Biblical scholar Dominic Crossan suggests that this is a “deliberately shocking story of successful murder.” (2) The story causes us to ask: Why would farm workers resort to murder? What would make them so angry? And here we stumble across an interesting problem. The text of the Gospel of Thomas comes from a manuscript that is some sixteen hundred years old, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945,. In places, this old manuscript is damaged. I said that a person owned the vineyard, but there is an actual literal hole in the manuscript just before the word “person”; the missing word might “kind,” making this a “kind person,” or it might be a word for “usurious,” which would make this person one of those absentee landowners that were hated by the farmworkers of that time and place. (3) It is not too much of a stretch to say these landowners resembled the white landowners who had black sharecroppers working the land in the Southern states following the Civil War.

If we assume that the landowner is keeping the farm workers in a sort of semi-slavery, then we can understand why the farmworkers might want to murder the landowner’s son. The usurious landowner was charging the farm workers injurious rents, so they were unable to make a decent living from their work. In Jewish law and custom, such practices were discouraged and even forbidden. Indeed, in Jewish custom, the true owner of the land was God; no human being could own the land. This helps us to understand why the farm workers would beat the slaves, and murder the son; while the murder is deliberately shocking, it helps us see that the farm workers believed the landowner was trying to take some of God’s power and authority to himself.

This is an important point, and I’d like to take a moment to talk a little bit about this Jewish understanding of the land. In the Torah, in the book of Exodus, that book that tells us about freedom and escaping from tyranny, God says to Moses:

“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (4)

Because humans do not own the land, God tells them, humans cannot exploit the land to draw from it every last bit of profit. The land must be allowed to rest. Not only that, but humans cannot exploit other humans to draw from them every last bit of profit. Workers, too, must be allowed to rest, and the poor must be allowed to have whatever the land offers up — or really, whatever God offers up — on this seventh year, this sabbatical year.

Elsewhere in the Torah, we learn that God requires other things of humans during the sabbatical year. In another book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, God tells humans that during the sabbatical year, all slaves must be set free; no one shall be tight-fisted towards persons in need; and, God admonishes humans, in the other six years, humans had better be nice to one another in anticipation of the sabbatical year, lest they risk God’s wrath. (5)

Not only are we humans to celebrate a sabbath day every seven years, and a sabbatical year every seven years, but God says humans should observe a Jubilee Year every seven-times-seven years. In the book of Leviticus, God tells humans: “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” This is a sort of super-sabbatical year, during which humans shall return to the land which their families traditionally lived on, no matter who ostensibly owns it now. (6)

Given this background, we are less surprised that the farm workers were angry at the absentee landowner. They felt they were being cheated; they felt the landowner was denying them their God-given rights; they felt the landowner was infringing on God’s pre-eminent ownership of the land.

This, by logical association, brings us to the historic March on Washington, which was held fifty years ago, on August 28, 1963. African Americans, particularly in the Southern states, were being kept in a state of semi-slavery by unjust laws set up by white European Americans. The African Americans who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were religious people, often religious liberals — so, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a liberal Baptist minister, and Bayard Rustin was a Quaker — and they knew what the Bible said about freedom, and fairness. They knew that the Bible explicitly states that slaves and semi-slaves must be set free, that the land belongs to God and not to any humans, that humans are commanded by God to be fair and just to one another.

More than that, their religion helped them to understand how all humans are interconnected. We heard in the first reading this morning the way the organizers of the March on Washington analyzed the economic situation of their time. They believed that the plight of white workers and minority workers is tied together; that semi-slavery for minority workers meant semi-slavery for white workers, too. Their economic analysis comes straight out of the standards of justice and freedom that Christians inherited from the Jewish tradition, by way of the Jewish teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

This opinion was held by many European American religious liberals fifty years ago, including by many Unitarian Universalists. If you know your Unitarian Universalist history, you know that although we are a tiny and predominantly white denomination, we provided disproportionate support for the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. In fact, our Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist congregation sent its senior minister, Dan Lion, to the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964, and to the march on Selma in 1965.

Yet while we Unitarian Universalists were great supporters of the Civil Rights movement, somewhere along the way we lost sight of the fact that the Civil Rights movements was about jobs as much as it was about ending segregation. We Unitarian Universalists have never been particularly strong supporters of any kind of labor movement. Historically, many Unitarians were mill owners and factory owners and business owners, and they saw themselves as being in direct opposition to labor movements. Historically, many Universalists worked in the skilled trades or middle class jobs, and so were not particularly sympathetic to more broadly-based labor movements.

And from a theological point of view, we Unitarian Universalists have been strong individualists. We like to think that we live life as individuals, on our own terms. This goes back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson — who started his career as a Unitarian minister — and his essay “Self Reliance.” We glory in the theological ideal of self reliance; and this, I suspect, is why so many of us are atheists today, because we have little interest in a theological idea that affirms we humans are dependent on another being greater and more powerful than ourselves. Certainly, many of us have felt that we should rely on our own efforts, not on labor unions.

For these and many other reasons, we Unitarian Universalists have not been very sympathetic to labor movements. And so, when we talk about the 1963 March on Washington, we readily talk about how it was a march for racial freedom and equality, but we pass over the fact that it was just as much a march for jobs and labor rights.

I would like to suggest to you that we need to rethink our attitude towards labor movements. And I would like to suggest that the story I told at the beginning of this sermon gives us a theological reason to rethink our attitudes.

What we learn from that story is that ancient Jews did not believe in exploiting the land to the utmost; they believed in letting the land rest every seventh year. And for the same reason, those ancient Jews believed that one human should not exploit other humans.

In our own theological language, we would say that all human beings, and all other beings, are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We got the term “interdependent web of existence” from the theology of Bernard Loomer, who was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. Loomer said that when Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, what he really meant (in our language) was the interconnected web of life; he was making the point that we are all interconnected. (7) This helps us towards a better understanding of the story of the absentee landowner and the farm workers: the absentee landowner ignored the interdependent web of all existence. He attempted to extract the maximum profit both from the vineyard, and from the human beings who worked in the vineyard. The point Jesus made by telling us this story is that ignoring our connectedness to other human beings and to all other living beings must lead inevitably to violence, hatred, and waste.

Now — we Unitarian Universalists today tend to interpret the interconnectedness of all existence as applying only to environmental issues; thus we say that we must halt global climate change because we are harming the web of existence. But to speak of a web of existence in which all creatures, and all inorganic things as well, are interconnected, means that we are connected not just with polar bears and whales, but also with all other human beings. The implications of this are profound: we do not own polar bears or whales; nor can we own other human beings; nor can we own the products of another person’s work, any more than we can own a polar bear’s pelt.

This is the theological point of ancient Jewish law: to say that God owns the land, and the fruits thereof, is simply another way of saying that all things belong to the interconnected web of all existence, and that nothing can really belong to any individual organism which is a part of the web of existence. By the way, you don’t have to believe in a literal God to affirm this statement; indeed, it would not be too much of a stretch for us to say that God is nothing more, or less, than the interdependent web of existence.

This is a very challenging teaching for us religious liberals. We are accustomed to thinking that we are in control. We are accustomed to thinking that we are most important as individuals. But what our religion is actually teaching us is that what is most important is our connections with other human beings, and with other non-human beings.

And this at last brings me to labor unions and religious liberals. Considered in light of our theological understanding of the interdependent web of all existence, a labor union is very similar to an environmental organization like the Sierra Club, or Bill McKibben’s 350.org; a labor union is also theologically similar to organizations that fight for racial justice like the NAACP. Of course all these organizations have their failings. But these are all organizations that affirm the ideal of the sanctity of the interdependent web of all existence. These organizations affirm, as do religious liberals, that we should not exploit other beings, whether human beings or any living beings. These organizations affirm that we cannot live our lives as if we are radical individualists, for to do so tends to separate us from the interdependent web of all existence. And these are all organizations that challenge us to criticize our current economic system of unbridled competition and individualism, in which the highest values are money and, let’s be honest, greed.

We religious liberals know that our highest value must be the interconnectedness of all beings. And so it is that we should place a higher value on the ideal of labor unions (8) — the ideal of people working together for a higher cause, the ideal of fair wages and economic justice, ideals which were a part of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the ideals that come with the realization that we are all bound together in our interconnected network of mutuality.

With these ideals, as Martin Luther King said fifty years ago, “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.” And so, in the words of the ancient Jewish prophet Amos, may “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (9)

 

NOTES:

(1) As translated in Stephen Patterson, J. M. Robinson, the Berlin Working Group, The Fifth Gospel (1998).
(2) John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (1992), 96.
(3) “But what does this ancient Christian parable mean? Its interpretation is complicated by a troublesome lacuna, or hole in the papyrus, in its very first line. The missing word is an adjective which would have modified the word ‘person’ in some way. The extant letters around the edges of the hole permit a reconstruction of the word ‘good,’ so that one could speak here of a ‘good person’ who rented the farm to ‘evil’ tenants, just as one finds in the synoptic versions of the story. But the extant letters also permit the reconstruction of the word for ‘creditor’ or ‘usurer,’ which would make this person one of the absentee landlords so much hated among the land-poor peasants of Galilee. One wonders, in the rural areas of Palestine and Syria among the dispossessed and poor — the tenant class — how this parable would have been heard. Were these evil tenants, or were they brave tenants?” — John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, Stephen J. Patterson, and Michael G. Steinhauser, Q-Thomas Reader (1988), 102.
(4) New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Exodus 23.10-12. To read more on one contemporary Jewish interpretation of this general topic, see “Labor Rights in the Jewish Tradition” by Michael S. Perry (1993), available online here.
(5) NRSV, Deuteronomy 15.1-15.
(6) Ibid., Leviticus 25.8-17.
(7) Bernard Loomer, Unfoldings (1984), 1.
(8) Of particular interest to religious liberals in the Freelancer’s Union, “A Federation for the Unaffiliated,” online here. Something like 30% of all U.S. workers are now contract workers or freelancers of some type, and the percentage is probably higher among us religious liberals, since freelancing fits in with our preference for individualism. What the Freelancer’s Union is demonstrating to us is that even independent workers need a union. This highly innovative union breaks out of the old of trade unions and factory workers unions, funding itself through selling discounted insurance and other services to its members. The Freelancer’s Union engages in political advocacy, provides training and support, helps freelancers deal with deadbeat clients, and is beginning to offer face-to-face meetings for networking.
(9) NRSV, Amos 5.24.