A Patriotic Faith

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 10:30 a.m. service. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.

Happy Independence Day weekend! Aren’t you glad that Independence Day is on a Monday this year, so we get a three day weekend? It’s a three day weekend, and all of us came to church anyway! But then, I like having that peaceful moment in the Sunday morning service at least once a week.

Because tomorrow is Independence Day, I would like to reflect with you on the relationship between patriotism and liberal religion.

When it comes to Independence Day, you probably know that quite a few of the people who were deeply involved in the Revolutionary War belonged to Unitarian or Universalist churches. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, belonged to a Universalist church. John and Abigail Adams belonged to a Unitarian church, and John was first vice-president and second president of the new country. John Murray, minister of the Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, served as a military chaplain, and so did Dr. Samuel West, minister of the church in Dartmouth, Massachusetts that later became Unitarian. We Unitarians and Universalists were deeply involved in the struggle for American independence. And for some of them, liberal religion and political independence were definitely connected. Dr. Samuel West, in one prominent example, preached sermons in which he justified the Revolution from a liberal religious point of view.

And the connection between patriotism and liberal religion continued up through the middle of the twentieth century. Many Unitarian and Universalist churches used to display framed honor rolls of all the people who saw active service in the Second World War. Up until 1993, we had “American, the Beautiful” in our hymnal; I remember singing it in Sunday services when I was a boy. Even today, a good number of our Unitarian Universalist congregations display American flags in their main meeting space, often alongside the United Nations flag; for we have always been concerned with international community, as well as with our own nation.

Yet these days we increasingly shy away from any mention of patriotism in our congregations. Too often these days, patriotism is reduced to an overly simplistic conception based on an unquestioning acceptance of political slogans. But as religious liberals, we can never be unquestioning, and our liberal religious conception of patriotism is a complex affair; it cannot be reduced to a political sound bite. With this in mind, I’d like to tell you three stories of three different notions of liberal religious patriotism.


First let me tell you about Robert Gould Shaw. He was born in Boston in 1837 to a wealthy family. His parents were Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis; they had inherited money from Francis’s father, and Francis was involved in business and philanthropy. The family moved to West Roxbury, near the famous Brook Farm community, when little Robert was five, and then to Staten Island, where the family helped found the Unitarian church, when Robert was in his teens. The Shaws were abolitionists, and they may have been active in the Underground Railroad, helping escaping slaves to flee to the northern states.

Given the wealth and influence of Shaw’s family, he surely could have avoided military service during the Civil War. But he chose to enlist. On April 19, 1861, Shaw joined the private Seventh New York Volunteer Militia. when that short-lived unit disbanded, he then was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the Second Massachusetts Volunteers (Infantry), on May 28, 1861. He became First Lieutenant on July 8, 1861, and Captain, August 10, 1862. While with the Second Massachusetts, he took part in several battles, including the battle of Antietam. In late 1862, he was offered the chance to command a regiment made up entirely of free African Americans from the north. He became Colonel of Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1863.

A small volume titled “Memoirs of the War of ’61,” published in 1920 by George H. Ellis, who was the printer for Unitarian tracts and books, tells the story of Shaw’s military service through excerpts from his letters, and I will read those excerpts relating to the 54th Regiment, for they show his courage, and his growing realization that the men under his command were indeed his equals; for even though he was an abolitionist, like most white people of his day, he thought African Americans his inferiors:

[Upon accepting command of the 54th Regiment, February 5th, 1862. Shaw wrote:] “There is great prejudice against it — at any rate I shan’t be frightened out of it by unpopularity.” March 25: “The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me.” March 30: “The mustering officer who was here to-day is a Virginian, and he always thought it was a great joke to make soldiers of [blacks] but he tells me now that he has never mustered in so fine a set of men, though about 20,000 have passed through his hands since September. The skeptics need only to come out here to be converted.” Morris Island, July 18: “We are in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise for the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”

Shaw was offered the post of greatest danger and greatest honor in the assault on Fort Wagner, and accepted immediately. Here is a contemporary account of what happened, written from South Carolina on July 22 someone attached to General Strong:

“The troops looked worn and weary; had been without tents during the pelting rains of the two previous nights. When they came within six hundred yards of Fort Wagner they formed in line of battle, the Colonel heading the first and the Major the second battalion. With the Sixth Connecticut and Ninth Maine and others they remained half an hour. Then the order for ‘charge’ was given. The regiment marched at quick, then at double-quick time. When about one hundred yards from the Fort the rebel musketry opened with such terrible fire that for an instant the first battalion hesitated; but only for an instant, for Colonel Shaw, springing to the front and waving his sword, shouted, ‘Forward, Fifty-fourth!’ and with another cheer and shout they rushed through the ditch and gained the parapet on the right. Colonel Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and while shouting for them to press on was shot dead and fell into the fort.”

Thinking to humiliate Shaw and his family, the Confederate Army, shocked that a white man would serve with African Americans, buried Shaw in a common grave with his soldiers. But his parents were pleased by this, and wrote: “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!” (1)

The story of Robert Gould Shaw is a classic story of patriotism. He gave his life in service of his country; more to the point, he gave his life while serving the highest ideals of his country, the ideals of freedom and equality for all persons. And in this case, the ideals of his country, and the ideals of his Unitarian faith, were clearly aligned. It is a classic story of patriotism, yet even so, Shaw’s patriotism questioned a dominant notion of his day, that African Americans could not serve with distinction in the military. So you see, this is a story of how a religious liberal pushed the boundaries of patriotism.


Now I’d like to tell you about a different kind of patriotism. This is the story of Rev. William E. Short of Palo Alto.

The first Unitarian church in Palo Alto was formally organized in 1906, and lasted through until 1934. In 1916, the congregation called Rev. William E. Short, recently graduated from divinity school, to serve as their minister. Short was a pacifist, and it is said that he found a good deal of quiet support for his pacifism among kindred souls in the Palo Alto church of that time.

Short resigned as minister of the Palo Alto church in 1917, and became the Chairman of the Northern California branch of the People’s Council. The People’s Council was a nationwide pacifist organization that opposed the military draft. This was in the days when it was almost impossible to conscientiously object to military service on religious grounds, and I am inclined to understand Short’s service with the People’s Council as a kind of patriotic act: he was upholding the fundamental religious principle of religious tolerance on which the United States was founded. As a matter of incidental interest, the chair of the national organization was Scott Nearing, later known as the co-author of the back-to-the-land book Living the Good Life; William Short served on the national executive committee with Nearing.

By late 1917, the United States had entered the war, and Major General Ralph Van Deman of the Army decided something had to be done about the People’s Council in general, and more specifically something had to be done about William Short’s activities. The People’s Council headquarters in San Francisco were raided twice — no search warrant was issued — and when that failed to turn up anything, Van Deman decided to bring William Short under military jurisdiction for draft evasion. Van Deman and the military lawyers successfully argued that once he was no longer serving a local church, Short was no longer a minister, and therefore was no longer exempt from the draft. He was taken into military custody in September 1918, interrogated, imprisoned, and eventually released, after the war was over, in early 1919. (2)

The story of Rev. William E. Short is not what you’d call a classic story of patriotism. He actively the military establishment, and did so at great personal cost. Yet his was a form of liberal religious patriotism. He was holding his country accountable to its highest ideals. He challenged involuntary military service based on his understanding of the ideals of his Unitarian faith.

His was not a blind unquestioning patriotism, he certainly pushed the boundaries of his day and age; nevertheless, Short was indeed a patriot. He did what he thought was best for his country. Many people disagreed with him; the American Unitarian Association itself disagreed with him. Yet that is the uncomfortable thing about patriotism: there is never a perfect consensus about what constitutes a patriotic act. Not everyone thought that Robert Gould Shaw did the right thing be commanding an all-black regiment. There has never been, and never will be, a perfectly clear definition of patriotism with which all Americans agree.


The third story I have to tell you is short and simple. There have always been Unitarian Universalists serving in the military, but over the past decade or so, we’ve seen a number of Unitarian Universalists choose to serve their country by becoming military chaplains. When I was in seminary a decade ago, military recruiters were actively pursuing Unitarian Universalist seminarians; I was told that the military loved Unitarian Universalist chaplains because we knew how to minister to a wide variety of beliefs, and we don’t proselytize. And now there are several Unitarian Universalist military chaplains who are not only performing the usual duties of a chaplain, but also quietly, and by their very presence, challenging the norm of evangelical Christianity that has come to dominate the U.S. military establishment in recent years.

That’s the story. Now I’m going to engage in some theological reflection with you. Recently, I met and have been corresponding with Rev. Seanan Holland. He is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, currently based in southern California, and preparing with his unit to be shipped to combat duty. In one email message, he outlined a Unitarian Universalist theological grounding of military service, and he has given me permission to read it to you:

“In striving to come to a coherent universalist theology that captures both our hopes for a peaceful world and the reality that at the moment it is not, I see war as an organic reorganization within the web of life. It is a reorganization mediated by humans mostly through our shortcomings/dysfunctions. What this means to those of us who participate in war is that we are witnesses to the sorest of humanity’s dysfunctions — war. Warriors possess a knowledge of an aspect of humanity that most do not want to carry and hopefully won’t ever have to. However the nature of war is such that those of us who have pledged to protect our country don’t always get to choose which conflict to be in and we have very limited power as activists while we are in the military. Those who have more power as activists (many UUs) typically (and understandably) do not possess an intimate knowledge of warfare. This is a sketch of my theological grounding that warriors and non-warriors really have to work together on redeeming conflict — hopefully before it happens.”

I’d like to read you that last phrase once again: “warriors and non-warriors really have to work together on redeeming conflict — hopefully before it happens.” If we follow this suggestion, we will be drawing on one of the great strengths of our liberal religious tradition. We know there are no simple answers to anything. We know that we have to continually question our assumptions. We know that no one person ever has complete access to universal truth. We also know that conflict is inevitable in human affairs, and that we must find ways to resolve or manage conflict as quickly as possible, before it leads to open warfare.

For us religious liberals, patriotism is not a simple matter; like the rest of life, it is complicated, and we’ll never all agree on one single interpretation of it. Yet we know we share certain liberal religious ideals that relate directly to patriotism: the dream of a peaceful world where no person is exploited or subjugated; the dream of life in balance; the dream of a more harmonious existence for all humanity. As religious liberals, our patriotism will be colored by these liberal religious ideals. And so on this Independence Day weekend, may we dedicate ourselves once again to an earth made fair, and all her people free.



(1) Quoted in Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-century Reform, by Lorien Foote (2003: Ohio University Press). Other information about Robert Gould Shaw from Memoirs of the war of ’61 (1920; the online biography of Shaw at the UU Historical Society Web site; and other online and printed sources.

(2) Information about Short from: Roy Talbert, Negative Intelligence: The Army and the American Left, 1917-1941, (Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2008), p. 75-77. And: Ex parte Short. District Court, N. D. California, First Division. September 5, 1918. No. 16417. The Federal Reporter, Volume 253, 1919, p. 839.

(3) Personal communication from Rev. Seanan Holland, Major, U.S. Marine Corps, 29 June 2011.

“Option D”

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the sermon and story below are reading texts. The actual sermon as preached, and story as told, contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon and story copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.

Story — “The Golden Calf”

This is an old, old story about the ancient prophet Moses. Moses was the man who led the Israelites out of slavery, and helped them escape into the desert. They wandered in the desert, looking for a land to call their own. At last they camped at the base of Mount Sinai.

Moses climbed up Mount Sinai, up to the very top. At the top of the mountain, the god known as Yahweh spoke to him. Yahweh said, “All of you Israelites are going to be my special, chosen people. I will take care of you, and you must promise to obey me over all the other gods and goddesses.”

Moses went back down Mount Sinai to tell the Israelites. It’s always good to have a god looking out for you, so the Israelites agreed to obey Yahweh. Moses went back up Mount Sinai. “They all promised to obey you,” Moses said to Yahweh.

“Well, just to make sure,” said Yahweh, “I’m going to appear at the top of this mountain as a dense dark cloud, filled with thunder and lightning. You come back up the mountain, and all the Israelites will know that I talk to you directly.”

Moses went back down Mount Sinai. Yahweh appeared at the top of the mountain as a dense cloud. Moses went back up the mountain to talk with Yahweh. The Israelites watched.

Moses entered the dense cloud at the top of the mountain. Yahweh told Moses about all the rules and laws the Israelites would have to obey. Yahweh started with ten basic laws, the Ten Commandments: no stealing, no murdering people, no lying; and a law saying the Israelites weren’t allowed to worship any other god or goddess besides Yahweh.

Moses brought the Ten Commandments down to the Israelites. But there were still more laws. Moses had to climb up and down that mountain quite a few times to bring back all the laws.

Once Moses stayed on top of the mountain for a really long time. The Israelites thought Moses and Yahweh had abandoned them. The Israelites decided to make a new god. They took gold and made it into the shape of a calf — a golden calf. They invented a new religion to worship the golden calf, and had a big party to celebrate. Just as the party was really getting going, Moses came back down the mountain.

“What’s going on here?” Moses said. “Don’t you remember that you promised not to worship any other gods?”

The Israelites looked a little shamefaced, but no one apologized.

“Who’s on my side?” said Moses angrily. “If you still like Yahweh best, come with me!” A few people joined him. Moses made sure they all had swords, and then told them to go and kill anyone who was still worshipping that golden calf.

And they did.

This is a strange story. Moses had already told everyone that killing was against Yahweh’s laws, so when he killed people didn’t he break Yahweh’s law? On the other hand, wasn’t it stupid for the Israelites to make a golden calf, and then worship the thing they had just made?

I think this story is supposed to make us stop and think about religion. I think this story is telling us: don’t do something because someone tells you to, or because everyone else is doing it. Seek out the truth, hang out with other people who think for themselves, and remember how easy it is to make mistakes.

[Exodus 31.18-32.25, with reference to the events of Exodus 19-31. I used the New International Version when writing this story.]


Sermon — “Option D”

Get out your number 2 pencils. Do not let your mark stray outside the oval, and check off at least one, but no more than one choice. Are you ready? Here’s the question:

Do you believe in God? Choose one of the following: (A) Yes. (B) No. (C) Don’t care or don’t know.

Many, maybe most, people in our contemporary Western society believe those are the only three possible answers to that question. Do you believe in God? Yes. No. Don’t know or don’t care.

Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson, and humanist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins, would deny that that third option exists — they believe you have to answer yes or no — they live in theological world that operates solely under Boolean logic.

Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, want option D: All of the above. Since Western society does not give us option D, we take our number 2 pencils and fill in all three ovals, which does tend to mess up the scoring of this particular multiple choice test. This morning, I would like to tell you a little bit about how we came to be this way — why it is that we refuse to restrict ourselves to simplistic answers to the question, Do you believe in God?


Let me go tell you a little bit of the historical story behind our Unitarian Universalist attitudes towards God.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Unitarian ministers like Francis Ellingwood Abbott and Octavius Brooks Frothingham caused a ruckus within Unitarianism by preaching “Free Religion” — what we today would call religious humanism [Dorrien 2001], although they still used words like “Christ” and “God.” By the end of the 19th century, free religionists were everywhere: Eliza Tupper Wilkes, the Unitarian preacher who first spread Unitarianism here in Palo Alto in the 1890s, was one of those who allied themselves with the Free Religion position in the Western Unitarian Conference. [Tucker 1990]

By the 1930s, John Dietrich and other Unitarian and Universalist ministers were preaching what they had come to call humanism — religion with humanity at its center, not God. The humanists found themselves engaged in active debate with the theists, people like William Wallace Fenn, Unitarians and Universalists who felt no need to dismiss the concept of God. In the first half of the 20th century, the debate between the theists and the humanists was vigorous, sometimes stupidly acrimonious, but often quite fruitful.

But not all Unitarians and Universalists could be characterized as either humanist or theist. There was E. Stanton Hodgin, who had been minister at the radical Los Angeles Unitarian church, and then minister at the fairly stodgy New Bedford, Massachusetts, Unitarian church. When Stanton Hodgin was asked to sign the Humanist Manifesto in 1933, he refused — he didn’t want religion reduced to anything that remotely resembled a creed. And when Hodgin wrote his autobiography in 1948, he gave it the title Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman — he refused to let himself be put into a theological box.

I give you some of this history so that you realize that the conversations between the humanists and the theists have been going on in Unitarianism and Universalism for one and a half centuries. Plenty of smart people have participated on both sides of these conversations. If one side could prove the existence or non-existence of God, they would have done so by now.

Let me move ahead in time to 1973, when William R. Jones published his controversial book titled Is God a White Racist? In that book he made a crucial advance in the debate between humanists and theists, which he further clarified in his 1975 article “Humanism and Theism: The Chasm Narrows.” [Note 1] Jones said that the battles for liberation — liberation of African Americans, liberation of women, liberation of third world peoples — would force theists to a position that he called “humanocentric theism.” Getting rid of the theological jargon, what Jones meant was simple: There are two basic types of theism. First, there’s the theism that says that everything is God’s will, and humanity has little or no freedom of decision. Second, there’s the theism that says God exists yet we human beings have freedom to make decisions — and that being the case, this second type of theism, humano-centric theism, functionally looks very much like humanism. Jones is African American, and he was active in the Civil Rights struggle; speaking as a humanist, he almost seems to be saying: Instead of arguing about whether God exists, let’s just acknowledge that humanists and theists are different, move beyond that, and work together to end racism.

Let me jump ahead to 2002. In that year, Carole Fontaine, a Unitarian Universalist who is professor of Biblical studies at Andover Newton Theological School, posed an interesting question: What will it take to form a global conscience for planet Earth? Part of her answer was that theists and humanists need to work together. And she contended that we Unitarian Universalists are uniquely placed to build bridges between traditional theists and secular humanists so that, for example, we can do human rights work together. Thus, Fontaine believes we Unitarian Universalists need to “reconstitute Jesus as a human rights guy…. I like Jesus. He’s my guy. The fact that he’s executed on trumped-up political charges — I mean, he’s the Stephen Biko of the first century. We can work with this!” [Note 2. Fontaine 2003.] So Carole Fontaine goes a step further than William R. Jones — not only should humanists and theists be working together on social justice — but those theists and humanists in Unitarian Universalist congregations, already so experienced in humanist-theist dialogue, have a special role in the wider world, because we are the ones who can get the traditional theists and the secular humanists to work together.

Now you begin to see why we Unitarian Universalists want to choose option D. There are those who believe in God; there are those who don’t believe in God; there are those who don’t know or don’t care; and then there’s us. We do all of the above, and that is our unique strength, that is the unique contribution we have to make to the world.


We Unitarian Universalists refuse to be boxed in by either-or theological choices. James Luther Adams, perhaps the most prominent Unitarian Universalist theologian of the twentieth century, started out as a traditional Christian. He became a Unitarian and a religious humanist at about the same time. Later on in life, he thought of himself as a theist, a liberal Christian; although he was a very liberal Christian, active in feminist critiques of God-images. When I look back at my own religious journey, I have been successively a non-traditional theist, a non-traditional humanist, and now I call myself a religious naturalist; as a religious naturalist, I can use God-talk or not as I wish, and still be theologically consistent. Someone once asked a Universalist minister what it was, exactly, that Universalists stand for. “We don’t stand,” he said, “we move.” [Fisher 1921]

And this brings us back to that story I told at the beginning of the worship service, that old, old story about Moses and the golden calf. You remember the story: Moses and the Israelites make promises to the god Yahweh; in return for Yahweh’s protection, Moses and the Israelites promise (among many other things) to refrain from killing each other, and to refrain from worshipping other gods or goddesses. Yet when Moses is gone for a while, the Israelites start worshipping a golden calf, and then Moses kills a whole bunch of the Israelites for doing so.

Before I go any further, I have to make something clear to those of you here this morning who might be new to Unitarian Universalism. We Unitarian Universalists do not take the Bible literally, any more than we take Shakespeare literally. Did Moses really go up onto Mount Sinai and speak to a god whom he called Yahweh? Yes and no. Did Macbeth really see Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”? Yes and no. In each case, there is a literal answer, an answer which is fairly trivial and ultimately rather boring; and there is also a non-literal answer, an answer which relates to moral and spiritual truths, and it is in answering this latter question that we can be transformed at our deepest levels of being.

We Unitarian Universalists have traditionally understood the story of Moses and the golden calf to be a story calling upon us to reject idolatry. Let me explain one way we Unitarian Universalists might define idolatry:

When the Israelites made the golden calf, they were guilty of idolatry: instead of coming to terms with the complexities of moral and ethical thinking encapsulated in the laws of Yahweh, the Israelites tried to take a set of religious concepts that were really quite complicated and subtle, and they tried to reduce those concepts to something that was showy but empty and useless. When Moses ignored the law of Yahweh that prohibited killing, so that he could angrily kill anyone who worshipped the golden calf, he was guilty of idolatry. He took a set of religious concepts that were complicated and subtle, and he cut out all the parts he didn’t like. So Moses ignored the law against killing so that he could enforce the law against worshipping another god; and in one of the Bible’s moments of supreme irony he exchanges one form of idolatry for another form of idolatry. Both types of idolatry are the same in that they place undue significance on something of little or no significance.

(I cannot resist digressing here for just a moment to point out that the usual American method of reading the Bible is the first form of idolatry. Most Americans, when they read the Bible, take this complicated, layered, fascinating collection of literature written over a period of thousands of years, and reduce it to simplistic moralism. Most Americans read the Bible the way they’d read the latest thriller by Dan Brown, when we should be reading the Bible the way we read Shakespeare, reading it as literature that offers something to everyone from the groundlings to the most sophisticated intellectuals.)

Historically, we Unitarian Universalists have resisted idolatry with all the power of our beings. The Unitarians of my grandparents’ generation realized that the crosses that had appeared in some Unitarian churches were idols — symbols that had taken on undue significance. My aunt and uncle belonged to the Unitarian church in Lexington, Massachusetts, and in the late 1940s that church developed a really beautiful Christmas eve service, where the whole church started out in darkness, and gradually a few candles were lit, then a few more, and at the end of the service everyone was holding a lit candle and the combined light of all those individual candles lit up the whole church. As this candlelight service evolved, someone threw in a dramatic moment when an internally-lit cross rose up in front of the pulpit — a nice piece of theater, a sort of dramatic reminder that Christmas is central to the Christian tradition. And so for some years, that internally-lit cross would rise up on Christmas Eve — until the year when they decided that the symbolism was heavy-handed, that it was a form of idolatry. So that big old cross got stuffed in a garbage can, and placed in front of the church, where (it is said) it provoked a great deal of comment about those Godless Unitarians among certain more literally-minded residents of the town.

I remember the first time the minister introduced the flaming chalice into a worship service in the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in. I was sitting next to my mother, a lifelong Unitarian, and as he lit the match she muttered under her breath, “Graven images” — which is an old-fashioned way of accusing that minister of idolatry. I don’t think the flaming chalice is inherently idolatrous, but if we place undue significance on what is essentially an insignificant object, then it becomes idolatrous. The flaming chalice began as a symbol used by the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War, and really it is a symbol of our commitment to social justice work. This congregation’s habit of extinguishing the chalice strikes me as tending towards the idolatrous, as placing undue significance on a very simple symbol.

Another obvious example of something here in our church which can be interpreted as idolatrous is the branch which hangs in this room. I don’t mind having a branch hanging on our wall; it’s a nice piece of decor. But when I am uncomfortable when I hear people attributing symbolic significance to that branch; that, it seems to me, is placing undue significance on what is, after all, just a branch. And I’m sure some of you disagree with me, and you will politely let me know about your disagreement after the worship service. We need polite disagreement if we are to keep ourselves from falling into idolatry. Because people like me — mystics who want to get rid of all symbols — we can create another kind of idolatry, an idolatry of simplicity where we try to place undue significance on plainness and complete lack of ornamentation.

Anything can become an idol, a graven image, a golden calf. Even if we got rid of all the symbols, our whole building could become a graven image, if we place undue significance on it. We don’t even need a building in order to be a congregation; all we need is each other, and the search for truth, and a commitment to make the world a better place.

The golden calf was an crude attempt to fix the truth in a calf made of gold. Let us be sure that we do not try to fix the truth in some material object — the truth will not be held in a golden calf, nor in a flaming chalice, nor in the branch, nor in this building. The truth may be held for a time in a community of people, as long as that community of people remains flexible and willing to evolve. We may be comforted, for a time, by our building, or by the flaming chalice, but do not confuse such comfort with truth. Truth and comfort are united only in a community of people. If this building crumbles into dust, we will still be able to take comfort in each other, we will still be able to take comfort in this religious community, we will still know the truth that we can change the world for the better. We gain strength from each other, from our shared religious community; and we take that strength out beyond our community to heal a world that desperately needs healing.


Do you believe in God? Choose one of the following: (A) Yes. (B) No. (C) Don’t care or don’t know. (D) All of the above. As Unitarian Universalists, our choice is clear: we choose option D. We choose to remember that we have debated this question for a century and a half, with very intelligent people arguing for very different answers, and we no longer expect a definitive answer. We choose an answer that puts us in a unique position to help heal the world. We choose to resist an idolatry that would limit us to simplistic answers to religious questions.


Selected References

Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
Fisher, Lewis Beals. Which Way? A Study of Universalists and Universalism. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1921. [p. 9]
Fontaine, Carole. “Strange Bedfellows? human Rights, Scripture(s), and the Seven Principles.” Journal of Liberal Religion, Winter, 2003; www.meadville.edu/journal/2003_fontaine_4_1.pdf accessed October 2009.
Hodgin, E. Stanton. Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman Boston: Beacon Press, 1948.
Jones, William R. Is God a White Racist?. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973, 1997.
———. “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows.” The Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525.
Tucker, Cynthia Grant. Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1991.

A New Revolution

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.

Sermon — “A New Revolution”

You know what today is, don’t you? It’s the nineteenth of April, and on this exact day back in 1775, the colonists of Massachusetts offered the first armed and organized resistance to the British Empire. The American Revolution began on this day. And so it seems like a good day to talk about a new, emerging revolution: the ecojustice revolution.

The ecojustice revolution concerns one of the most important moral issues of our time: the environmental disasters being caused by global climate change. There is no longer any doubt that global climate change is real, that some of its effects are already irreversible, and that it is caused by human beings. I know, I know, the radio personality and entertainer Rush Limbaugh says that global climate change isn’t real and isn’t caused by humans; but we can balance him against Stephen Colbert, and since it is a well-known mathematical fact that two entertainers cancel each other out, leaving a null set, we can dismiss both of them without a pang. Global climate change is real, and it is happening now.

To my mind, the most important thing about the ecojustice revolution is that is provides a way out of helplessness. I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty helpless in the face of global climate change. It seems like something that is pretty much beyond my control. I do what I can to reduce my personal environmental impact — so for example rather than flying, I’ll be taking the train to the annual denominational meeting at the end of June, because train travel puts out about half the carbon of jet travel. We turn our thermostat down to sixty degrees at home, and we replace conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescents. We do all those good things, yet I know that’s not nearly enough.

Obviously, we can do more than change light bulbs. Some of us will get involved in political action. Those in the sciences can work on the science of global climate change. Artists and musicians and writers can create art and music and writing that helps people understand global climate change. And there is a very important task we can take on here in our church. Here in our church, we are concerned (among other things) with morality and ethics, and so one of our contributions can be to examine the moral and ethical questions that are entwined with global climate change. A serious examination of moral and ethical questions can lead us into a powerful sense of knowing what right action must be. And I’d like to do some of that this morning with you: I’d like to examine three moral and ethical questions pertaining to global climate change, so that we might begin to know what right action might be.

The first moral question that I’d like to ask is the most difficult question about exploitation. And to ask this question, I have to fill in some background information.

To begin with, exploitation is not necessarily a bad thing. All organisms exploit their environment. In one of my favorite books, Some Adaptations of Marsh-Nesting Blackbirds (OK, it’s not really one of my favorite books), by the ornithologist Gordon H. Orians, I find this statement: “…a predator may exploit its prey or change the behavior of the prey so as to alter the encounter rates or capture probabilities.” Red-winged Blackbirds, those pretty little black birds with the bright red wing patches, are actually ruthless predators who exploit their immediate environment in order to ensure their own personal survival, and the survival of their babies. They seek out patches in the marsh with the densest concentrations of insects, so they can increase their odds of capturing enough insects to feed themselves, and feed their babies. Gordon Orian creates a mathematical formula for this, where the bird’s energy intake from the insects it eats is dependent on the time spent foraging and the time spent in traveling, as well as the energy expended in foraging. Red-winged Blackbirds have to exploit the insect resources of the marsh where they live so they take in more energy than they put out.

That’s what all animals do. The woodchucks who eat everything in your garden are just trying to maximize their energy intake while minimizing the energy they spend in foraging — and your garden is so attractive because you lay out all those nice young succulent plants so the woodchuck doesn’t have to expend much energy to exploit the plant resources of your garden. Because the woodchuck can exploit your garden so efficiently, he or she gets big and fat and has lots of babies and generally thrives. This gets at another basic principle: the organisms that are most effective at exploiting the resources around them are the organisms that are going to survive and thrive and reproduce like mad.

So when we say that human beings are exploiting the resources of earth, in a way it’s hard to criticize us human beings for doing so. Of course we exploit the resources around us as effectively as possible, and of course we do so to the maximum possible extent. Such exploitation is literally a part of our biological make-up. We are the product of thousands of generations of earlier human beings, each generation of which got a little better at exploiting the resources around us. Exploitation is bred into our bones.

However, at a certain point exploitation moves out of the realm of biology and into the realm of morality and ethics. It’s one thing when a woodchuck exploits the world around it by eating your garden in order to enhance its reproductive success; it’s another thing altogether when a corporation exploits the world around it by dumping PCBs into New Bedford harbor in order to enhance its profits. The woodchuck eats your garden so that it can live; but the corporation destroys New Bedford harbor and endangers the health of all organisms in the vicinity, not so that it can live, but rather so that it can make far more money than it needs for survival, all at the expense of other living beings. We don’t call the woodchuck immoral for eating your garden; but we do call the corporation immoral when it dumps PCBs into the harbor.

It is this second type of exploitation that we call immoral. And we call it immoral for at least two reasons.

First of all, there’s the biological reason. Human beings are social, tribal animals: despite the American myth of individualism, human beings have always required other human beings in order to survive. Babies and children require the help of lots of adults — not just their parents — in order to survive to adulthood. And adult human beings are essentially cooperative animals who need a tribe in order to survive — we are not designed to fight off saber-toothed tigers on our own, no more than we can survive today without relying on farmers, software engineers, sewage treatment plant operators, and so on. So it is that when an individual, or a small group of individuals, exploits other human beings for personal gain, we can call that individual or that small group immoral. They are immoral because they are going against human biology, they are going against natural law.

There’s a second reason why this kind of behavior is immoral. As a religious community, we uphold idealistic notions of what human society could be. Jesus of Nazareth taught us that if we would love our neighbors as ourselves, we could create a heaven here on earth. Gotama Buddha taught us that if we could get rid of greed and self-delusion, we could end human suffering. Confucius taught us that if we could maintain a well-ordered social structure where we live for the sake of others as much as we live for ourselves, we could create an ideal world. Whichever religious tradition we choose to learn from teaches us that moral behavior requires us to think of other human beings; requires us to transcend selfishness and self-interest. So it is that when an individual, or a small group of individuals, exploits other human beings for personal gain, we call that individual or that small group immoral. They are immoral because they are being selfish, they are going against religious law.

It should be obvious by now that global climate change is caused by immoral violations of natural law and religious law. When a small group of human beings decides to dump PCBs into New Bedford harbor because they’ll make more money if they don’t have to clean up the toxic waste, that’s both a violation of natural law — by denying the reality that all human beings are interdependent — and it’s a violation of religious law — by allowing their selfishness to overwhelm the requirement to love their neighbors as themselves. Thus we call this kind of behavior “immoral exploitation.”

Here we encounter an interesting point. From a moral viewpoint, this economic exploitation of the natural world looks exactly like the economic exploitation of persons based on race and racism. Racism in America started out as slavery, where people of African descent were enslaved by some people of European descent, so that the people of European descent could make lots of money without having to pay wages; morally, this is exactly parallel to corporations dumping PCBs into New Bedford harbor so they can make lots of money.

Racial exploitation and the exploitation of the environment that has led to global climate change stem from the same kind of immoral exploitation: a violation of natural law through a denial of human cooperation; and a violation of religious law through a denial of loving our neighbors as ourselves. And you will not be surprised to learn that in fact persons of color are more likely to be adversely affected by environmental disasters — for example, persons of color are more likely than whites to live near toxic waste sites; in New Orleans, persons of color were more likely to live in the low-lying areas most likely to be flooded.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. If we want to understand the moral roots of global climate change — that is to say, if we want to understand the moral problem of exploitation — one of the best places to start is by engaging in conversations with people who have been fighting racism. I have gained some of my deepest understanding of how immoral exploitation works through reading African American writers like Frederick Douglass and Cornel West; and what I have learned from them, I have been able to apply directly to environmental work.

As we try to solve the problem of global climate change, environmentalists will benefit from building alliances with people who are solving the problem of racism and racial exploitation, because both these problems stem from the same moral issue of exploitation. The fundamental moral point here is that resources should not be controlled by the greedy few. This is one of the key insights of the ecojustice revolution: that racism and environmentalism are inextricably intertwined; and therefore, those of us who are working to end racism are natural allies to those of us who are working to end global climate change.

I spent a great deal of time on the moral question of exploitation, because I believe it lies at the center of the ecojustice revolution. Now I’d like to turn for just a moment to the second moral question pertaining to global climate change: and that is the moral question of constant acceleration.

Let me explain what I mean by constant acceleration. Our economic system requires constant economic growth. If America’s gross domestic product doesn’t rise every year, then we are in the soup. That’s what’s happening right now, in the current economic crisis: our economy is contracting, and that means that the unemployment rate is rising, and that means that people are out of work, and that means a rise in human misery and suffering.

Of course I’m over-simplifying here. I’m no economist, and I’m aware that the roots of the economic crisis are more complicated than what I’ve just outlined. Nevertheless, we keep hearing over and over again that an increase in consumer confidence and spending is one of the things that will put an end to the economic crisis: the more we spend, the better off we are. And we all accept this as normal — it’s so much a part of the political and social landscape of America that we don’t even question it.

From a moral point of view, this is simply crazy. From a moral point of view, increasing your consumer spending is not the main purpose in life. From a moral point of view, we are supposed to be living a good life; from a religious point of view, we are supposed to be doing our small parts in bringing about heaven here on earth. At best, consumer spending has little to do with morality, so that buying a new video game is an action with no moral component at all. At worst, however, excessive consumer spending is a moral nightmare because it puts energy and resources into useless things like pink lawn flamingos; energy and resources that could have been put towards solving the problem of global climate change, or improving the lives of the billions of people who are in poverty.

Today, our society is driven by a sense that we need to keep on accelerating the pace of the economy. This ever-increasing acceleration of the economy and of everything uses more and more energy and releases more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Sadly, we are seeing right now that when the acceleration stops, millions of human beings are plunged into misery. But this ever-increasing acceleration has no real moral purpose. It just reminds us that today’s American society seems to lack any moral purpose, because our only purpose is to accelerate the pace of the economy regardless of human misery.

This brings us finally to the third moral question pertaining to global climate change. And that is the moral question about how we can lessen human misery.

That’s the true moral purpose of technology: to lessen human misery. If we develop efficient transportation networks, we can guard against famine; when there’s not enough rain in North Dakota to grow food, we can ship food in from California. If we improve public health through improved technologies like vaccinations and sewage treatment plants, we can reduce death from horrible diseases like smallpox and cholera. And if we improve access to information through the printed word and through the Internet, we can help create democratic societies in which all persons are treated as equal.

That’s what technology was supposed to do for us. And in many ways, technology has succeeded; at least, it has succeeded in a few parts of the world, such as North America outside of the inner cities. The problem is that the goal of lessening human misery through technology got transmogrified into a goal of constant acceleration. Instead of working to lessen human misery, we somehow got sidetracked into believing that what we really needed was more pink lawn flamingos, more disposable plastic bags, and more smiley-faces. I have to tell you that as much as I enjoy pink lawn flamingoes, they really do nothing to lessen human misery.

Once we realize this — once we realize that a critical goal of human society should be to lessen human misery — it can change everything for us. The ecojustice revolution takes this one step further: by putting a check on immoral exploitation, we can both lessen human misery, and (if you will) lessen the misery of other living beings and of the natural world in general.

Once we have determined the moral goal towards which we strive, once we have a moral direction, a moral compass, we no longer have to feel quite so helpless in the face of environmental disaster. Global climate change will increase human misery, so our moral compass tells us that global climate change is morally wrong and must be curtailed. When we then realize that people who are already poor and oppressed and marginalized are going to bear the brunt of global climate change — for example, soon a huge amount of Bangladesh will be at risk of ocean flooding — our moral compass tells us that we must address this problem as one of our priorities. And by linking human misery to the misery of other living beings, by understanding that all immoral exploitation comes from the same root, we begin to understand that what we do to lessen human misery will have the effect of lessening the misery of other living beings — if we can keep the Arctic ice cap from melting, not only will we help Bangladeshis survive, we will also help polar bears survive.

What lies at the root of all our efforts are simple religious truths: to lessen misery, to end exploitation, and to create heaven here on earth. To some this might sound hopelessly idealistic; but to us these are ideals that fill us with hope for the future.