Memorializing Iraq and Afghanistan

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 a.m. 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) 2012 Daniel Harper.

I’d like to begin this morning by talking with you a little bit about the origins of Memorial Day: where and when it started, and for what purpose. And after we talk about the origins of Memorial Day, then I’d like to talk with you about how the situation we find ourselves in today is quite different from time of the origin of Memorial Day, and given the changed situation I’ll speak about how we might adequately memorialize the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Historian David Blight tells us that the first recorded instance of Memorial Day took placed in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. The city of Charleston had been evacuated, and most of the non-combatants remaining in the city were African Americans who could not get out. Also present were the Union troops who had defeated the Confederate Army, and a few white abolitionists.

During the war, the Confederate Army had established a prison camp on the site of a race course in Charleston. 257 Union soldiers had died in that prison camp, and were dumped unceremoniously into a mass grave. In April, 1865, the African American community of Charleston decided to create a proper gravesite for the Union dead buried in that mass grave. They disinterred the bodies from the mass graves, and reinterred them in individual graves; then African American carpenters built a fence around the new grave yard.

To officially open this new grave yard for Civil War dead, the African American community organized a parade of some ten thousand people, including African American schoolchildren and ordinary African American citizens. White Americans were represented by some nearby Union regiments, and some white abolitionists. All these people gathered in the new graveyard. They listened to preachers. They sang songs like “America the Beautiful” and “John Brown’s Body” and old spirituals. And at last they settled down to picnics, and while they ate they could watch the Union regiments march in formation.

That, according to David Blight, was the first recorded celebration of Memorial Day. But times were different then, and that was a very different war from today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On his Web site, Blight writes: “At the end of the Civil War the dead were everywhere, some in half buried coffins and some visible only as unidentified bones strewn on the killing fields of Virginia or Georgia.” Today, we don’t see the war dead. The most we might see is a photograph or video of a coffin neatly draped with an American flag, accompanied by soldiers in full dress uniform, being taken off an airplane that has just arrived from overseas. Today, we are not confronted with the physical reality of the bodies of war dead.

When it came to memorializing the war dead, the African American community of Charleston had a straightforward task in 1865: after the fighting was over, create an adequate graveyard, and respectfully reinter the Union war dead into that new graveyard. But we have no such well-defined, concrete tasks. Because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so far away and such a small percentage of the population have actually fought in those wars, memorializing them is not going to be straightforward; and to complicate matters further, the fighting isn’t even over in Afghanistan.

The 2005 poem “Ashbah” by Brian Turner, a talented poet who served in the infantry in Iraq in 2003-2004, captures something of the problem we face.

Click here for the poem “Ashbah” (both the text, and an audio recording of the poet reading the poem).

In the poem, the ghosts of American soldiers are alone and cannot find their way home. Even though they are exhausted, they keep trying to find their way home, unsure which way to go. The Iraqi dead are, of course, already home, and they can watch the American soldiers from a safe perch on the rooftops; but as I imagine the scene, the Iraqi dead would just as soon the American dead would figure out how to get home so that they, the Iraqi dead, could have their streets back.

Now obviously this poem is not literally true. The poet did not see the ghosts of dead Americans literally wandering the streets of Balad, and the Iraqi dead were not literally sitting on the rooftops watching them. But there is symbolic truth in this poem.

For me, part of the symbolic truth in the poem lies in the fact that the war dead of Iraq and Afghanistan remain ghostlike and insubstantial to most Americans. The vast majority of us have not seen the body of someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, I would be willing to bet that the majority of Americans don’t even know someone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Although something on the order of six thousand five hundred soldiers have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan [link], this number is tiny compared to the three hundred million people who live in the United States today.

Because so few soldiers have died relative to the total population of the United States, it’s easy for us to spend very little time thinking about the war dead. I don’t want to say that we ignore the war dead; certainly we don’t do that; but we concentrate on other things. Those of us who are politically active might concentrate on advocating for policy changes that will keep us out of another long-term military engagement like Iraq and Afghanistan. Or — and I think this is more likely among us here — those of us who are politically active have turned our attention to problems that seem more pressing, like global climate change or election reform or homelessness in Palo Alto or food security or one of the many ethical and political challenges facing us today. This is not a bad thing: Lord knows, we are faced with a great many pressing problems; and we do the best we can to address those problems, but one person can only do so much. If, for example, you’re going to tackle global climate change, a problem that can be morally and psychologically draining, you may not have much energy left over for other ethical challenges.

We’re doing the best we can to make this world a better place. But most of us have turned out attention away from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as a result, those ghosts of American soldiers that Brian Turner writes about in his poem still wander the streets of Balad by night, still unsure of their way home, still exhausted.

I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about the war dead. I’m not asking you — many of whom work 70 hours a week at your job, take care of your family, volunteer in the community, and work on social justice projects besides — I’m not asking you to do one more thing to make the world a better place. You do enough as it is. But because this is Memorial Day, I would like to remind you of three things we already do that can help memorialize the war dead, and thus help those ghosts of American soldiers find their way home, find rest.


First, as religious people we are not afraid to talk about death and about those who have died. In this, we are quite different from mainstream American society, which prefers to ignore the fact of death. At the beginning of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration carefully enforced a long-standing Pentagon ban on media coverage of the arrival of coffins containing dead soldiers from overseas. This Pentagon ban had been in effect since the First Gulf War, and while some critics accused the Bush administration of using the ban for propaganda purposes, it always seemed to me that the Pentagon and the government were also motivated by a typical American squeamishness when it comes to death, a typical American denial of the reality of death.

But as religious people, we are less likely to deny the reality of death. A central part of what we do as religious people is we celebrate rites of passage, including memorial services for those who have died. Many of us here this morning have been in this room for a memorial service; and when we come here on Sunday mornings, we will always be aware of the dual use of this room. The very nature of our religious community helps us be free of the unhealthy American denial of death. Because we don’t deny the reality of death, we are better able to understand that our actions as a nation have resulted in very real deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By confronting the reality of the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are taking a step towards allowing the ghosts in the poem to find their way home, metaphorically speaking. And when those ghosts of American soldiers leave the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, then the Iraqi war dead, and the Afghani war dead, can come down from their roof tops.


Second, as religious people we engage in critical patriotism. Let me explain what I mean by “critical patriotism.”

As religious people, we have a strong allegiance to certain moral and ethical principles, and our allegiance to those moral and ethical principles can be stronger than our allegiance to our nation. For example, as Unitarian Universalists we say that one of our ethical principles is that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. We adopted that particular principle in 1985, but it has roots going back much further than that. That particular ethical principle can trace its roots back to the Golden Rule, a far older ethical principle that states that we shall do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Unitarians and Universalists got the Golden Rule from the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who was reported to have told his followers a form of the Golden Rule some two thousand years ago.

But Jesus did not make up the Golden Rule; he was restating an even older ethical precept that he got from his Jewish upbringing. In the Torah, those Jewish books traditionally supposed to have been written by Moses, in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18, it states: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” The book of Leviticus is at least two thousand five hundred years old, in its present form, though it is made up of even older material; and surely the Golden Rule is among the older material in the book. Suffice it to say that we are the inheritors of a religious tradition that has affirmed the ideal of this ethical precept for thousands of years.

Obviously, then, our ethical tradition can trace its roots back to well before the founding of the United States. In fact, some of us would say that our ethical principles transcend any one people or nation or moment in history. The Golden Rule has been worded differently at different times, and we further know that there are examples of ethical principles in other cultures that sound a good deal like our Golden Rule. All these are specific manifestations of a general transcendent principle; as a religious people, we owe our allegiance to this transcendent, eternally true ethical principle; and as a religious people, we owe a greater allegiance to this transcendent ethical principle than we do to the relatively short-lived American nation.

Our adherence to such transcendent ethical principles leads us to what I’m calling “critical patriotism.” We do owe patriotic feelings towards the United States; but our patriotic feelings will never overpower our allegiance to our higher ethical precepts. Indeed, the opposite is the case: we must critically examine our country’s actions and policies in light of our higher ethical precepts.

Such critical patriotism allows us to look with open eyes on the reasons and motivations behind our military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we as Americans are not honest about our motivations for going into Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s going to be difficult for those ghosts of American soldiers in the streets of Balad to be able to come home. Critical patriotism allows us to see that some of the reasons for starting these wars could be ethically justified, and other reasons could not be ethically justified; critical patriotism allows us to decide which reasons for war pass muster with our own transcendent ethical principles, and which reasons for war do not pass muster.

This kind of careful ethical examination of the war, and an attendant acceptance of responsibility as American citizens, is one of the things that we as a religious people do as a matter of course. We take the time to reflect upon, and to sort through the enormously complex ethical arguments surrounding the war. And this kind of ethical reflection, this kind of critical patriotism, is another step we take towards allowing the ghosts in the poem to find rest, to find their way home.


Third — and this is a corollary to the last point — we can affirm that religion is an important moral and ethical counterweight to politics. Political decisions are often made from expediency, and made in a hurry, without time for adequate ethical reflection. At its best, organized religion can serve as a metaphorical place where we can take the time to reflect seriously on the ethical implications of political decisions.

One of the reasons that the ghosts of the American soldiers roam the streets of Balad in the poem is that they have not been memorialized by American society, except in the most superficial way. Of course they have been memorialized by their Army buddies, and of course they have been mourned by their families. But wider American society has done little more than assert “We support our troops.” That last statement does not constitute adequate ethical reflection on the death of American soldiers. But by carefully reflecting on the death of American soldiers — and on the death of Iraqi and Afghani civilians, and on the death of other soldiers, for that matter — by such careful reflection, we can lay the metaphorical ghosts to rest.

We can engage in this ethical reflection through our ongoing participation in the democratic process. Most obviously, you and I can engage in ethical reflection through carefully exercising our right to vote. We have a primary election coming up very soon here in California, and the national election is only a few months away. It is our duty as religious people to carefully study the issues in the election, and then to reflect on the moral and ethical implications of those issues, to consider how our vote can be a moral and ethical response to American policy. Of course any vote is going to be something of a compromise — reality never seems to match our transcendent ethical ideals — but with careful reflection, our participation in the democratic process can have a worthwhile moral and ethical outcome.


Back in May of 1865, the African American community of Charleston, South Carolina, had a fairly straightforward task: to memorialize the Civil War dead by disinterring their bodies from a mass grave into a graveyard that was more in keeping with the respect that was due to them. Our task today, memorializing the dead from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not quite so physical and concrete.

But there are some straightforward things we can do to memorialize our war dead. We can be honest about death, and not try to deny the reality of the war dead. We can affirm our transcendent moral and ethical ideals, and in so doing we can engage in a kind of critical patriotism. And finally we can understand our religious ideals as a moral counterweight to politics, so that when we participate in democracy we will have a moral impact on the country.

These are the things we can do to memorialize the war dead. And so, at last, may the ghosts of American soldiers wandering the streets of Balad at night find their way home once again.

Cast Off Tyranny

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, at 10:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained a good deal of improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon and meditation/prayer copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.


“When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

(from the Declaration of Independence)

The second reading this morning is an excerpt from the Election Day Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Samuel West of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, to the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, in May of 1776.

“The most perfect freedom consists in obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law. When a man goes beyond or contrary, to the law of nature and reason, he becomes the slave of base passions and vile lusts; he introduces confusion and disorder into society, and bring misery and destruction upon himself. This, therefore, cannot be called a state of freedom, but a state of the vilest slavery and the most dreadful bondage. The servants of sin and corruption are subjected to the worst kind of tyranny in the universe. Hence we conclude that where licentiousness begins, liberty ends….” (Complete text of West’s Election Day sermon.)


Let us join our hearts together in a time of meditation and prayer.

On this two hundred and thirty fourth anniversary of the declaration of independence, let us first think of all those who have fought for the existence and betterment of this country of ours. We think of the American servicemen and servicewomen who have done their duty by fighting this country’s wars and battles, from the Minutemen and militia of April 19, 1775, up to those who are serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan. We give thanks for all those who have fought within and outside this country’s borders.

We think of the many others who have fought to protect the American ideals of justice and freedom: the abolitionists who faced scorn and violence to fight against the evil of slavery; the women who faced ridicule and disbelief to fight for the right to vote and later for broader women’s rights; the Civil Rights workers who faced violence and death to fight for the rights of African Americans; those who have fought for gay and lesbian rights, for the rights of immigrants, for the rights of many different ethnic groups — we give thanks all those who have struggled for freedom and justice within this country. And we pledge ourselves to continue our fights for social justice.

We give thanks for the rich natural resources with which our country has been blessed, from purple mountains’ majesties to fields of waving grain. In light of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we pledge ourselves to use our natural resources wisely and well.

From these broad concerns, we turn our thoughts to more personal and immediate concerns….

Hymn — “Chester”

A word about this hymn: This is an old Revolutionary era hymn, which we sing as a sort of historical reenactment, to better understand the Revolutionary mindset. Those of you with an interest in theology will note that the deity to which Billings refers in this hymn is a far from orthodox Christian God, and must surely have been considered rankest heresy by the English church and government whom Billings and other New Englanders were then fighting.

PDF of musical score for “Chester”.

Sermon — “Cast Off Tyranny”

Today is Independence Day, the fourth of July, the day on which, more than two centuries ago, the United States of America declared that it was independent of England’s tyranny. Imagine the excitement as word spread through British North America: we had declared ourselves a new country! Everyone knew there were still battles to be fought, and the war for American independence dragged on for years after the Declaration of Independence, until 1783. Nevertheless, imagine what people felt in 1776! People were excited, no doubt about it — excited to cast off the tyrannical colonial rule of King George — excited to begin a grand experiment in democracy.

The second hymn we sang is one product of the excitement of the Revolutionary era. Published just two years after the Declaration of Independence, the words were written by the William Billings, the first really noteworthy American composer.1 He lived in Boston, right in the middle of one of the hotbeds of Revolutionary-era cultural and political ferment. “Let tyrants shake their iron rod, / And Slav’ry clank her galling chains, / We fear them not, we trust in God, / New England’s God forever reigns.” I suppose New England’s God differs radically from Old England’s God; I imagine a sturdy figure wearing a tri-con hat, carrying a Brown Bess musket, and bestowing the blessings of lobster and cod; a deity beneath whose stern eye the God of Old England would tremble and quake. Under the protection of New England’s God, the progress of the war would be swift: “When God inspir’d us for the fight, / Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d, / Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight, / Or swiftly driven from our Coast.”

During the Revolutionary era, the people of New England mingled their religion with their revolution. It didn’t matter what sect or denomination to which you belonged, you found a way to put revolution in your religion. The religious revolutions of both Unitarianism and Universalism began at the same time as the American political revolution. Before 1775, King’s Chapel in Boston belonged to the Church of England, but after their Tory minister fled Boston, the patriots who were left in the congregation rewrote their Book of Common Prayer to remove all references to the Trinity, and in 1785 they became the first overtly Unitarian congregation in North America. In 1774, Caleb Rich had organized the first Universalist congregation in Warwick, in the hills of central Massachusetts; and when the message reached their remote village, early in the morning of April 19, 1775, that His Majesty’s troops were marching on Concord, Rich took up his musket and marched as quickly as he could here to this town; he had such a long way to come that he arrived on April 20, the day after the battle, but he proceeded on to Boston and served for eight months with the Continental Army.2 So you see, not only did the Revolutionary era witness the beginnings of organized Unitarianism and Universalism in New England, but those early Unitarians and Universalists were right in the thick of the Revolutionary War.

The ideal of liberty, the ideal of freedom from tyranny, was a broad ideal in those days, and for a time in the 1770s and 1780s, I think some people felt that ideal would be broadly applied. But over time, that early ideal changed shape, and turned into something a little bit different. I’d like to tell you about that change with you by telling you the stories of two liberal ministers: Rev. Dr. Samuel West of Dartmouth, Massachusetts; and Rev. Ezra Ripley, who served this Concord congregation.


I’ll start with the story of Samuel West’s career as a revolutionary minister.3 Samuel West was ordained by and installed as minister in the congregation in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1761. By 1765, he was active in the Revolutionary cause, along with his Harvard classmates John Adams and John Hancock. Because Dartmouth was a provincial town far from Boston, West could never be as active a revolutionary as Adams or Hancock, but he managed to participate in a good deal of the excitement.

When fighting broke out in 1775, West was one of the delegates to the Provincial Congress which met in Concord; so he was here in Concord, in this very spot, in the old meetinghouse, in early April of 1775. Then he became a military chaplain at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His most dramatic moment as a military chaplain came when he assisted General George Washington by deciphering a letter written in code by Frederick Church, an American officer who was suspected of being a spy; West was able to confirm that Church was indeed a spy.

West was so much in the middle of the revolution that Massachusetts invited him to give the Election Day sermon in May, 1776, a sermon which was widely reprinted. West argued that, on the one hand, the colonies of British North America must break away from the British Empire, because the Empire’s rule was no longer just. At the same time, West argued that breaking away from the British Empire did not mean doing away with all government and descending into anarchy. He did not believe in radical individualism, and his real point was that liberty must be a communal affair.

In 1779-1780, West was a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. Then again in 1788, West was a delegate to the Massachusetts convention that ratified the United States Constitution. In fact, at a crucial moment West managed to convince his old friend and classmate John Hancock to shake off an attack of gout and return to the convention to address the delegates. Hancock wrapped himself up in his flannels, addressed the delegates, and tipped the scales in favor of ratification.

So you see that West was right in the thick of the Revolution here in Massachusetts. When the excitement was over, and he went back to the sleepy town of Dartmouth, West did not give up his revolutionary ideals. A few old church records from that era, presumably written by West himself, still remain, and one notation in those old records is of particular interest. It reads: “1785, Apr. 10, Venture, a negro man was baptised and admitted to full communion. This was the slave who purchased his freedom of Deacon John Chaffee in 1770.” West and the deacons of his congregation lived out their ideals of true liberty by accepting this African American man into full church membership. And their ideal of true liberty was one in which the liberty of the individual was effected through communal endeavor. It was not enough that Massachusetts abolished slavery and gave individual African American their liberty — true liberty meant that African Americans and European Americans must be together in an integrated society.

So it was that in 1778 Samuel West anticipated the process of racial integration that would finally take place more than a hundred years later, during the Civil Rights era of the mid-twentieth century. So it was that Samuel West lived out his revolutionary ideals, not just in the political sphere, but also in the religious sphere. I believe this was typical of his generation of revolutionary clergy. I suspect that additional research would show us that other liberal congregations admitted African Americans into church membership in that brief period of Revolutionary fervor during which individual liberty and the liberty of the communal congregation were understood as being bound up together.4 Thus we find the same understanding of liberty pervading both Samuel West’s religious ideals and his political ideals.


Now let me tell you the story of Rev. Ezra Ripley.5 Ripley was born in 1751, so he was twenty-one years younger than West; he belonged to the generation after West’s Revolutionary generation.

To tell you this story, I first have to go back to Rev. William Emerson, who was the minister here in Concord in 1775. Like West, Emerson became a military chaplain; he went off to Fort Ticonderoga, where he became ill, and died on the journey home. He left behind a widow, Phebe Bliss Emerson, who had been the daughter of the previous minister, Daniel Bliss. When Ezra Ripley came to Concord, he courted and then married Phebe Emerson, and she thus was part of the immediate family of three successive Concord ministers. Although the records of those days tend to pass over the accomplishments of women, I cannot help but think that Phebe Bliss Emerson Ripley had far more influence on congregational affairs than she has been given credit for; therefore, although this story is ostensibly about Ezra Ripley, I suspect that Phebe Ripley played a bigger role than may be found in the historical record.

When Ezra Ripley came to Concord, he came to a congregation that was largely organized along the old Calvinist lines. Among other things, that meant that in order to become a member of the church, you had to publicly confess your sins to the rest of the congregation. And you couldn’t participate in the Lord’s Supper unless you were a full member of the church. Furthermore, if parents wanted to have Ripley baptize their children, they had to publicly accept the church covenant.

Over time, Ezra Ripley managed to liberalize these strict old Calvinist requirements. Parents could get their children baptized by simply affirming Christianity and saying they would raise their children in that faith. The requirements for membership were also greatly reduced. Instead requiring a public confession of sins, and public assent to the Westminster Catechism, by 1795 prospective members could simply go to Ezra Ripley, offer “credible evidence of sincerity” and make some profession of faith, and he would make sure they became members.

These reforms were entirely in keeping with Ripley’s liberal Arminian theology — we might call it a sort of proto-Unitarian theology — a theology very similar to Samuel West’s beliefs. Both Ripley and West rejected the old Calvinist notion that only a small group of the elect, a group whose members were ordained before the beginning of time, would ever reach heaven, and reach it through no efforts of their own. Instead, Ripley and West believed that we have moral free will, that we are responsible for our own destinies.

Ezra Ripley went further than West, however. By getting rid of the public confession of sins, Ripley transformed church membership from a communal decision, to a personal decision made in private with just the minister and the prospective member. This was in keeping with a trend in American culture towards increasing individualism, and away from communalism. I would put it this way: Samuel West and liberal ministers like him were quite clear in their minds that religion was a communal endeavor; Ripley moved religion towards being a personal, individual endeavor.

The next and fateful step in this process was taken by Phebe Emerson Ripley’s grandson, and Ezra Ripley’s step-grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Waldo Emerson who turned religion into a personal matter that was between an individual and the Oversoul. Waldo Emerson encouraged each individual to become self-reliant, and break away from the strictures of society that might restrict the utter liberty of the individual. Waldo Emerson’s disciple Henry David Thoreau went still further: Thoreau rejected all institutional connections, and severed his own connection to this congregation. Why should he be restricted by anything but his own intuitions of religious truth?


Of course I agree with this religious evolution. If I had to stand up in front of a congregation and confess my sins in order to become a member of that congregation, I would not do it. And my understanding of liberty is similar to that of Emerson and Thoreau: liberty is personal liberty, the liberty to say and believe and do what I please, without being hampered by social strictures.

Yet we lost something when we evolved away from West’s ideal of communal liberty. Yes, Waldo Emerson and those like him who advocated individual liberty of course opposed slavery; but they did not want to integrate African Americans into their own congregations, as did Samuel West. Yes, Henry David Thoreau was an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad; but his rejection of communal institutions like this church meant that he never had to come to terms with what it might mean to live day after day with people who were quite different from himself. Liberty was a personal affair for Emerson and Thoreau and their followers; it was not a communal affair; and for them, the only purpose and role of government was to stay out of the way of the individual’s personal liberty. In all this, I think Emerson and Thoreau went to far in the direction of individual self-reliance; and since their day, we have gone still farther in that direction, until we have come to a place of extreme individualism.

Not that we can or should go back to Samuel West’s old ideals of communal liberty. Samuel West believed that churches should be supported by taxes; he believed in a God that I cannot possibly believe in; he did not believe that women were the equals of men. There was no mythical past in which everything was perfect. Samuel West did the best he could when faced with the problems of his time. Ezra Ripley did the best he could when faced with the problems of his times. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau did the best they could in their time. Each generation is called to address to the special problems of its time, and to do its best.

Our generation has its own problems to face. Our generation must revisit what liberty means to us. We need to move beyond the idea that liberty is the inalienable right to express our extreme individualism by sitting at home and enjoying our leisure time by watching television, playing video games, and reading our friends’ Facebook feeds. That kind of liberty is no liberty at all; as Samuel West might have put it, “This… cannot be called a state of freedom, but a state of the vilest slavery and the most dreadful bondage.”

In fact, this kind of individualism is no longer a form of liberty; it has become a new tyranny. In our generation, liberty must take on a new form. We are coming to understand that our American ideal of liberty, our constantly evolving ideal of American liberty, must become an ideal of communal liberty. In these days, our safety and happiness, our life and liberty, depend on our working together for the common good. If we’re going to solve the problem of global climate change, and the related problem of global overpopulation — problems which have both a religious and political dimension — we shall have to put aisde our extreme individualism, and work together for the common good. If we are to finally achieve racial harmony in this country, we shall have to put aside that extreme individualism we have clung to for so long, and we shall ahve to work together for the common good.

We hold this to be self evident: all persons are created equal; all person are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and to secure these rights, we join together to institute a common government, in which we all work together for the common good.

Notes to the sermon:

1 For a brief account of the importance of Billings to the development of American music, see Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture by Stephen Marini (University of Illinois Press, 2003), pp. 78 ff. (online preview available on Google Books).
2 For Caleb Rich, see: The Larger Hope vol. 1, Russell Miller; Stephen Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, pp. 72 ff.
3 The details of Samuel West’s life come from an essay on West I am currently preparing for possible publication.
4 Mark Morrison-Reed makes this point in the manuscript of his forthcoming book on African American Unitarians and Universalists, now being prepared for publication by Skinner House Books.
5 For the account of Ripley’s life, I draw upon new research: “‘Doctor Ripley’s Church’: Congregational Life in Concord, Massachusetts, 1778-1841,” The Journal of Unitarian Universalist History XXXIII (2009-2010), pp. 1-37 (available online here).

The Covenant of Martin Luther King

A sermon in honor of the 80th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in honor of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States.

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is a responsive reading.

As we get ready to inaugurate the first Black president of the United States, we read together these words by Frederick Douglass: “We deem it a settled point that the destiny of the colored people of this country is bound up with that of the white people of this country.

We are here, and here we are likely to be. To imagine that we shall ever be eradicated is absurd and ridiculous.

We can be remodified, changed, assimilated, but never extinguished.

We repeat, therefore, that we are here; and that this is our country; and the question for the philosophers and statesmen of the land ought to be, What principles should dictate the policy of the action toward us?

We shall neither die out, nor be driven out;

But shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations.”

[Adapted from an essay by Frederick Douglass in North Star (November 1858); as quoted in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992), Derrick Bell, p. 40.]

The second reading this morning is from “Strength To Love,” a sermon by Martin Luther King on Luke 10.29, “And who is my neighbor?” In the sermon, Rev. King takes that question that Jesus was asked, and asks that same question of race relations in the United States in the 1960s.

“…[W]e must admit that the ultimate solution to the race problem lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable. Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step towards the final goal which we seek to realize, genuine inter-group and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the eharts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities which are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love in mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”

[From “Strength to Love,” Martin Luther King (Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 37-38.]

Sermon “The Covenant of Martin Luther King”

This month I have been preaching a series of sermons on the topic of covenant. We in this church have a deep and immediate interest in this topic: first because in our religious traditions, churches are organized around their covenants; and second because in our own church here in New Bedford, we are in the process of writing a new church covenant. To write a new church covenant — that is a task of great moment. We do not rewrite our covenants very often. In our own church, during the whole of the 19th century, we rewrote our covenant perhaps twice; and in the 20th century, we did not have a written covenant, perhaps because it seemed so overwhelming to try to put our implicit covenant into writing. So it has been a century and a half since we last rewrote our covenant; and because of this, I devoted the first two sermons of this year to our own church covenant.

But there are covenants that extend far beyond our church community. Some would argue that the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all founded on the covenant of Abraham; and that being so, then perhaps two billion people are still a part of that Abrahamic covenant. This morning I would like to speak with you about a covenant that is not quite so broad as that; but it is a covenant that extends far beyond our own church. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us understand a covenant that exists in the United States — a covenant that had consisted mostly of broken promises. He spoke to us all about this covenant, he gently encouraged us to acknowledge the broken promises, and he has moved us to repair these broken promises, to repair this covenant. We are still engaged in repairing this national covenant. We most often hear this national covenant summed up in the words from the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.”

I would like to speak with you about how Martin Luther King articulated, and reinvigorated, our national covenant. More particularly, I would like to speak with you about the tremendous progress we have made in reinstating that covenant in the past year.

1. When Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, he said: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” But Rev. King also said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This second statement is another way of putting of our national covenant; but it is, I think, a fuller, more comprehensive statement of a fundamental principle of our country. From a religious and moral perspective, Rev. King was telling us that we are not merely created equal; at a deeper level, we find our destinies tied together, so that if any one of us is treated unjustly, justice for all the rest of us is threatened.

From our own religious perspective, when we hear the words “inescapable network of mutuality,” we are likely to think of what we call the Web of Life; we know that all human beings, all living beings, indeed all nonliving things, in this universe are tied together in a web of interrelationships; and when we act, we must be conscious of how our action affects the entire Web of Life. Jesus of Nazareth used a different term: Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the underlying reality of the here and now in which we are all connected, one with the other, so that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, for in truth we are so interconnected that the way we treat our neighbors is in fact the way we treat our own selves.

Rev. King drew on many religious sources to help him articulate various aspects of our national covenant. When he accepted the Nobel Prize, he drew on the story of Moses, saying: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, “Let my people go.” This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.” As Moses had a covenant with his god to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, so we know that Martin Luther King led Americans of African descent out of the bondage of segregation and racism; and like Moses, Martin Luther King died before he saw the Promised Land of freedom. The story of Moses is a powerful story because it reminds us that it is hard work to get out of bondage; just because you start the journey to freedom doesn’t mean you’ll see its end; it took the Israelites forty years to get to the Promised Land, and even then their troubles continued for centuries.

But I believe the real center of what Rev. King taught us about covenant was not what he taught us through the story of Moses, powerful as the Moses story may be. For at the center of Rev. King’s message were the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said that all of religion could be summed up in two commandments, the second of which was that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. And that is why, again and again, Rev. King asked us to consider this question: Who is our neighbor?

Who is our neighbor? One day, so we are told, a lawyer approached Jesus. Now remember, Jesus was Jewish, and this lawyer was Jewish, and Jews take their religious laws seriously. Jesus asked the lawyer to summarize the religious laws of Judaism. The lawyer gave the correct answer, which was “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agreed that was the correct response. Then the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

That’s the key question, isn’t it? Like the lawyer, we all know we are supposed to treat our neighbors well. But who is our neighbor? To answer this question, Jesus told a story.

One day, a man from Jerusalem was going from Jerusalem down to the city of Jericho, along a steep, winding, dangerous road. The man was ambushed by robbers. The robbers beat him till he was bloody, took his money, and left him by the side of the road, bruised and unable to move.

Soon a priest from the great Temple at Jerusalem came down the road. The priest saw the man lying there, but instead of stopping to help him, the priest looked the other way and hurried on by.

Then a Levite came down the same road. Levites were important officials at the great Temple at Jerusalem. Like the priest, the Levite took one look at the poor man lying by the side of the road, looked the other way, and hurried on by.

Then a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, came walking along the road. The Samaritans were a despised ethnic and religious group; where the priests and the Levites were respected and honored, the Samaritans were disliked and shunned. When Jesus told this story, he knew that his listeners would immediately assume that the Samaritan, too, would walk past the man lying in the gutter; or even kick him while he was down.

But that’s not what happens in Jesus’s story. The Samaritan was moved to pity at the sight of the beaten, robbed man lying in the gutter, and bandaged his wounds. The Samaritan hoisted the beaten, robbed man onto his donkey, brought him to an inn, paid all the bills, and looked after him. The next day, the Samaritan went to the innkeeper and said, “Look after that man until he gets better. On my way back, I’ll make sure to pay you back if there’s any extra expense.”

This is how Jesus answered the question: Who is our neighbor?

Rev. King tells this story with great richness and depth. When Rev. King tells us this old story, we know he’s telling us that White folks should see Black folks as their neighbor; and we know that he’s telling us that Black folks should see White folks as their neighbors, even though the White folks have been treating them as badly as the Samaritans two thousand years ago.

But there is far more to this story when Rev. King tells it, for in his own way Rev. King was a poet, and poetry always goes beyond the mere surface meaning. The way Rev. King tells the story, we feel that the Black folks, like the Samaritan, were the best of neighbors to the White folks; but not the other way around. Frederick Douglass wrote: “We [those of us who are Black] shall neither die out, nor be driven out; but shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations.” Rev. King managed to tell those of us who are White folks, in a gentle kind of way, the same thing that Frederick Douglass said: that the status of Black folks stood as testimony against us White folks. This may have been painful to us White folks; we may have wished we could cross to the other side of the street and avert our eyes, as did the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s story. But like all good preachers, Rev. King made a moral point: Our country was like the man lying in the ditch, morally speaking: our country had been unspeakably damaged by the evils of slavery and racism; and we needed to address this immorality.

Who is our neighbor? Well, we know the answer to that: everyone, people of all skin colors. And who is our neighbor? And we know another answer to that question: the neighbor is the person who attempts to heal the broken condition of the man lying in the ditch. And who is our neighbor? And we come to realize that we are all neighbors, we are all interconnected; and with that realization, we begin to take responsibility to care for all our neighbors; we are all part of the inescapable network of mutuality; we are all part of the Web of Life.

2. Nearly two years ago, we began to hear about this man named Barack Obama who was running for president. The pundits quietly told us that we could safely ignore this Obama fellow, because he was too inexperienced, which sometimes was a way of saying that a Black man couldn’t be president. Not yet, anyway. Obama and his supporters did not listen to the pundits, and they were organized, articulate, and they didn’t talk down to us. On March 18, 2008, not quite a year ago, Barack Obama gave a speech titled “A More Perfect Union.” In that speech, he responded to some racially-charged criticism, and he said in part: “I have asserted a firm conviction — a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people — that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.” Obama said, in effect: we need to see each other as neighbors; it’s time to stop fighting with our neighbors, or ignoring them, and instead bend down and pick up the man in the ditch.

I heard that speech as recalling us to our national covenant. Fighting with our neighbors get us nowhere. Pretending that racism doesn’t exist gets us nowhere. To have this public figure, this politician, acknowledge to us that race and racism are real; and say at the same time that we need to move beyond race and racism; this was a remarkable moment when a politician reminded us, not of our self-interest, but of our covenant together.

We needed this reminder. In spite of Martin Luther King’s legacy, we have not always acted like good neighbors over the past forty years. Race relations got a little better for a while, but beginning in the 1980s, in many ways racism got steadily worse. Schools are more desegregated now than at any time since Rev. King was alive. We got distracted by naked self-interest. Some politicians proclaimed that racism is done with, it’s over, we can move on — while our own eyes told us that racism still exists, it is not gone.

What Barack Obama’s speech on March 18 of last year said to us was simple: In order to move forward, yes, we do need to acknowledge that the American covenant has repeatedly been broken in the past, and over and over again our country has not treated all people equally; but we also must acknowledge that our national covenant still exists. That speech last March acknowledged that no, we’re not going to end racism tomorrow; but Obama also reminded us that we can treat each other more like neighbors.

The remarkable thing, however, was not Obama’s speech — good as that speech was. The remarkable thing was that most Americans understood his speech. Not everyone liked what he had to say, and some Americans remain frozen in naked self-interest, but I think almost all Americans understood what he said, and we recognized the truth and justice of what he said. Since the 1980s, politicians have been dumbing down their messages to us Americans; they have been treating us like children, and all too often we have acted like greedy ill-behaved children. But when someone finally talked to us like adults, when someone finally talked to us about race and racism in all its complexity — we responded thoughtfully.

Not only did we respond thoughtfully, but the American electorate responded favorably to Barack Obama. We heard what he said, and the majority of us agreed that it’s time to move forward, it’s time to get our national covenant up and running again. And so our country elected Obama as president with a healthy margin. The pundits were proved wrong: a Black man could be elected president of our country, and was elected president.

And so it is I feel that we are witnessing a huge change in our nation.

We are renewing our national covenant: a covenant that all persons shall be considered equal. We are asking ourselves: Who is our neighbor? And we are responding: we are all each other’s neighbors.

We are renewing our national covenant. Our country has been morally degraded, first by slavery, and then by racism. Racism eats away at our national conscience. We may not admit it in public, but we know that other countries are disgusted by the racism that is still endemic in our country; we try to ignore their disgust, but we know it’s there. We try to make up for our moral failing by taking the moral high ground in other areas: for example, we have taken the moral high ground against terrorism, even while we cannot admit our moral failings when it comes to race. And so, while we don’t admit it publicly, we have been ashamed at the moral failing of racism.

To elect a Black president has gone a long way to healing the national sense of shame. When we feel shame, it can paralyze us; so it is important to heal from that sense of shame. We know we still have plenty of work to do end racism, but now we have renewed energy to do that work. Whether we agree with Obama’s politics or not — I’m sure we all have reservations about some specific directions he is taking — we know that what’s happening now is bigger than one man; it’s bigger than partisan politics. We have elected have a Black president of the United States; and through that simple action, we should feel that our national covenant has been renewed. We are again committing ourselves to the dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.”


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1928. He would have been 80 years old this past Thursday. As we celebrate his birthday this week, I feel we now can remember Rev. King best by living in the present, and looking to the future.

We shall live in the present: In two days, we will inaugurate have a Black president. Let us decide that this is a renewal of our national covenant; let this renewal re-energize us to live out our dream that we will live out our belief that all persons are created equal. We know there is hard work in front of us, but may we work together as neighbors to finally end racism and heal race relations.

We shall look to the future: Of course we don’t know how the Obama presidency will work out. But we are less interested in politics this morning than in morality. Let our national morality came back into wholeness. May ours become a nation where we live out our ideals, that all persons are created equal. May the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos come true at last: “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” [Amos 5.24]