World Citizen

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at First Church, Unitarian, of Athol, Massachusetts. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2003 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is by Dana MacLean Greeley, a minister, and president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1961 to 1969. It’s an excerpt from a sermon he wrote in November of 1978:

The greatest need in the world today is the need for a belief in peace. I have never believed in violence; and I think that I have not used it in any general sense; yet I have yielded to it in a few instances in the past, I am sorry to say. I have felt the urge for it countless times, and sometimes in serious fashion; but I have never believed in violence….

I believe that there is an instinct for violence within us. And anger and self-defense, if not aggression, are normal for human beings. But we have to control ourselves or discipline ourselves and overcome that anger. The Buddha said that “he who holds back rising anger like a rolling chariot, him I call a real driver; other people are but holding the reins.”

Impulsive anger, impulsive words, impulsive violence, and even impulsive killing, have to be understood, and perhaps forgiven, in the context of the anger that prompted them. War is planned, more than it is impulsive. And therefore it can be avoided. Of course it is as human to overcome anger as it is to commit violence. All the religions have taught that violence is wrong….

I suppose that it was once asked by a few idealistic cannibals, “Can we get rid of cannibalism?” and most of their fellow cannibals thought not. And it was asked by some minority moralists, “Can we get rid of dueling?” but most people did not think so, until Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804. We need to outlaw war, and put it behind us, like cannibalism and dueling.

We can have peace; but it is a very precarious situation today.

The second reading is a poem by E. E. Cummings….

(Copyright law does not allow entire poems to be reproduced. The reading was the poem that begins:

plato told
him:he couldn’t
believe it(jesus

SERMON — “World Citizen”

I’ve been trying to make sense out of the possibility of war in Iraq. That is to say, I’ve been trying to make religious sense out of the possibility of this war in Iraq. And I realized that what worries me most — from a religious point of view — about the war in Iraq is that so many people seem so certain about the rightness, and justice, and even holiness of this war. As for me, I find I lack certainty.

Remember — I am talking to you from a religious point of view. I’m not approaching this problem as a political liberal or a political conservative. Besides, if I were to speak in political terms, I’d be more certain what I am supposed to say. Political centrists and moderate conservatives generally support the war in Iraq; the political liberals and the far right seem to be opposing the war in Iraq. But when I speak as a religious liberal, certainty disappears.

We just sent the children off to Sunday school. I went to Unitarian Universalist Sunday school myself. People often ask what UU children learn in Sunday school, besides juice and cookies. Well, our children are also learning how to argue effectively and be critical of everything, important skills for the day when they wind up serving on a UU committee. But perhaps the best answer is something like this: in a UU Sunday school, children learn to distrust certainty. The children’s story today ends with a moral that could be the motto of any UU Sunday school: it’s better to ask the right questions than it is to know all the answers.

As a Unitarian Universalist to my marrow, I find I am extremely suspicious of certainty. If someone says to me that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, I immediately get suspicious. I ask: How do you know that is so? If someone says to me that meditation is the only way to achieve enlightenment, I get suspicious and ask: Are you sure? Are you sure there’s no other way to reach enlightenment? I extend my suspicion and lack of certainty to Unitarian Universalism. We UUs have a tendency to get a little smug and self-satisfied, a little too certain that we have all the answers — or at least all the questions! — and that makes me immediately suspicious of us. Are we sure that we all agree with the so-called seven principles? Are we sure that the flaming chalice is an appropriate symbol for our faith?

In the first reading this morning, Dana Greeley said, “All religions have taught that violence is wrong.” Anger, aggression, self-defense — these, he says, are normal for human beings. The religious question to ask is: how far can we let anger and aggression go?

When we think we have an answer to that question, then the world changes. One day we are cannibals, questioning ourselves as to whether we can end cannibalism. I can see myself at that committee meeting — a whole tribe of us cannibals sitting around the stew pot, deciding whether or not we should cook up the missionaries we captured and serve them in a stew. Perhaps we are cannibals who believe in democracy and we vote on the matter.

We decide to free the missionaries, and the next thing you know they have converted us from our cannibal religion to Christianity. We are given a new form of certainty, a religion that tells us how to get to heaven and how to avoid hell. And two hundred years later, we begin to rule our own country at last. Instead of a stew pot for missionaries, we have guns and tanks, and finally weapons of mass destruction. Rapid communication — planes, highways, trains — bring our neighbors even closer to us. We enter the world community of nations, our neighborhood is the world, and the rules of the game change again.

The rules of the game changed radically fifty-odd years ago, after the atomic bomb was developed. All of a sudden war was not just a matter between two armies, or two nations. All of a sudden, war turned into something that was going to involve everyone in the world. There have always been innocent bystanders who are killed in wars — but now the whole world became innocent bystanders. It was to this change in reality that Dana Greeley was responding — he was writing in 1978, at the height of the Cold War, when it seemed that nuclear war between two nations could involve the whole world in disaster and annihilation.

We haven’t had to worry about a nuclear war with the Soviet Union for the last decade. Now we have to worry about terrorism. We know how to fight a Cold War — we spent fifty years learning how to fight the Cold War. We knew it was between us, the United States, and them, the Soviet Union. We came to know the rules of the game.

No war might be with a well-defined country, or it might be with that ill-defined entity, the terrorists. With the war on terrorism, the rules of the game have changed once again, and the certainty we held on to throughout the Cold War has eroded away under our grasp.

In the religious liberal world view, one of our fundamental presuppositions is that things do change. Traditional religion, has a kind of certainty we lack. We don’t know that we will get to heaven, or even that heaven exists. During the course of our lives, we know in our bones that our whole viewpoint can, and probably will, change.

An example: Most of you are probably familiar with our principles and purposes, a series of religious statements that most Unitarian Universalists can affirm. You may also know about the most important part of the principles and purposes, the clause that says that we have to re-examine these principles and purposes at least every fifteen years. Every fifteen years, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly has to revisit the principles and purposes and make sure we can still affirm them. I call this “the incompleteness clause.” With the incompleteness clause, we affirm that certainty changes as time goes by. The incompleteness clause recognizes that there can never be a final statement of what we affirm.

Although I’m not talking about Unitarian Universalism as a whole, I am not talking about individual religious liberals. If you want to go on for the rest of your life believing exactly what you believe now, you are welcome to do so, and I for one am not going to try to stop you. But as a whole, as an organization, we religious liberals know we have to be open to change, however uncomfortable and painful that change may be.

Our religious attitudes towards war have been changing throughout the twentieth century. In the past, war had been an acceptable means for resolving disputes. Early Unitarians and Universalists were active in the War for American Independence — Caleb Rich, an early Universalist minister, fought in the Battle of bunker Hill.

But our attitudes towards war have begun to change, perhaps beginning with the horrors of the trench warfare of World War I. Thirty years later, the development of atomic weapons had entirely changed what it means to go to war. The ongoing development of chemical and biological weapons, the rise of terrorism, have changed the religious value of war even more. it can be hard to tell who is an innocent bystander; and it is too easy to kill truly innocent bystanders. We are fast coming to the point where it is no longer morally, ethically, or religiously possible to have a just war. Or perhaps we have already come to that point.

In my teens and early twenties, I was ready for nuclear annihilation. I remember wondering whether I should worry about finding a good job, when nuclear annihilation seemed so close. We are no longer fighting a Cold War with the Soviet Union. One thing is certain, a nuclear war can never be a just war.

But surely the impending war in Iraq is a different matter. It is quite clear that Iraq doesn’t have nuclear weapons (yet, anyway). And while Iraq could launch a frightening chemical or biological attack on the United States, it seems very unlikely that they could annihilate our entire country, or even that many innocent bystanders from other countries. Yet I think from a moral and ethical standpoint, from a religious standpoint, this cannot be a just war. We lack certainty. We are all so close to each other now. Any war is likely to have massive repercussions far beyond the original intent. Not that the impending war with Iraq is unjust — but it is not just. It is in a kind of limbo, it is neither an unalloyed goodness nor a complete evil. It is a moral vacuum.

It used to be so easy: we knew who we were, we knew what the threats were, and we knew how to fight back. A hundred years ago, we could still think of ourselves solely in terms of being citizens of the United States. A thousand years ago, we could have thought of ourselves as being under the protection of a feudal lord. In the time of Moses, we would have thought of ourselves as a part of a tribe.

And in the time of Moses, when we thought of ourselves as a part of the tribe of Israel, we would have known — known it in our bones — that God was on our side. Our God was going to help us defeat those other tribes, the Canaanites and the Egyptians. Our God would also help us defeat the Canaanite and Egyptian gods and goddesses. A thousand years ago, God still would have been on our side. Before our feudal lord went off to war, he would have been blessed by the local priest. But as World War One began, America lacked that simple certainty.

We can no longer think that God is on our side. Of course that’s easy enough for those of us who don’t believe in God — but then, this really isn’t about God at all. More precisely, we no longer believe that our people, our little group, has all the answers. Thus we no longer believe in the white man’s burden. We no longer believe that it is up to men to make all the big decisions for women. We no longer believe that cannibalism is a necessary part of human society! Things have changed again, and in the midst of the uncertainty of change, we have to find new ways of looking at the world.

More easily said than done. It is hard to leave certainty behind. I know for certain that I am a citizen of the United Sates, and when I was a child I know that every morning in school I said the pledge of allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America; and to the country for which it stands, one nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.”

We have begun to learn what it means to be citizens of the world. When I was a child growing up in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school, I recall seeing two flags in our church — the United States flag, and the flag of the United Nations — and I recall hearing excerpts from the United Nations charter. These words could serve as yet another pledge of allegiance, as we begin to think of ourselves as world citizens:

“We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom … have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.” In fact, you’ll find this excerpt from the United Nations charter in our hymnal.

As religious people, we find that we have at least two levels of allegiance — at least two levels of patriotism. We support our country, recognize our allegiance to the land that has given us so much. We also recognize our allegiance to all of humanity, we find that we must support the world.

Of course, this is precisely what Jesus and Socrates and Buddha and many others have been telling us down through the ages. They have been telling us right along that we have to be able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. That’s what we heard in the second reading this morning, in the poem by e. e. cummings. Jesus told us, we wouldn’t believe it; Lao-tsze certainly told us, but we still didn’t believe it. Sometimes you just have to get hit on the head in order to believe something.

The presence in this world of weapons of mass destruction is as good as getting hit on the head is in the poem. In centuries past, you could easily ignore the teachings of Lao-tsze, Jesus, Buddha. But now all our fates have intertwined. Like it or not, we have to be able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. The Golden Rule, present in one form or another in all the great world religions, tells us to treat our neighbors as we would like to be treated. Not only can we no longer ignore the Golden Rule, but now the whole world is our neighbor. In religious terms, it has become very hard to justify war any more. Like it or not, we are not just American citizens any more — we have all become world citizens. Now we must ask the questions that follow on this change: What does it mean to be a world citizen? How have our moral and ethical and religious responsibilities changed now that we are world citizens?

So I don’t have any answers for you this morning, all I have is questions. It looks like a war in Iraq is inevitable, and all I have for you is questions. But as the Scotty dog in the story learned, sometimes it’s better to ask the right questions than it is to have all the answers. Here is where we religious liberals can make a distinctive contribution: we are good at asking tough questions. In the weeks ahead — in the years ahead — let us continue to ask ourselves, to ask our country, what it means to be world citizens.