Calming the Quarrel


The reading this morning is rather long, but I think you’ll find it engaging. It is a Buddhist story, Jataka tale no. 33, translated by Viggo Fausboll, and published in 1873 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. I have lightly edited and modernized the language.

“Living in harmony.” The Master related this story, while living in the grove of banyan-trees near Kapilavatthu, in reference to a dispute he had just witnessed. The Master, admonishing his royal relations, said: ‘Dispute between relatives is not becoming. Even animals which had conquered their enemies while living in concord, when quarreling suffered great destruction.’ Then his royal relatives called upon him to tell this story.

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, the Bodhisattva was born a quail. He lived in the wood, with a following of many thousands of quails.

One day a quail-hunter went their dwelling-place and counterfeited the cry of quails. When the hunter saw that they had assembled, he threw his net over them, and after drawing it together, he filled his basket. He went to his house, sold the quails, and thus had his livelihood with that money.

The Bodhisattva said to the quails, “This quail-hunter destroys our kin. But I know a means by which he will not be able to catch us. As soon as he throws the net over us, each of you put your head into one mesh of the net. Then fly together and lift the net and carry it to a thorn-bush. This being done, we shall escape each from under his place.”

Saying, “Very good!” they all promised to do so.

The next day when the quail-hunter threw the net over them, they lifted the net together, and having cast it on a thorn-bush, they themselves fled away from underneath. It took so long for the fowler to extricate the net from the thorn-bush that it became dark, and he went away empty-handed.

Day after day, the quails continued in the same way. Each day the quail-hunter went to his house empty-handed. His wife grew angry, saying, “You come empty-handed every day. I think you are keeping another household.”

The fowler said, “Dear, I have no other household. Those quails live in harmony, and as soon as I throw my net on them, they fly away with it and cast it on a thorn-bush, and so escape. But fear not, they will not always live in harmony. Thou must not grieve. When they fall into disunion, I will take them all. Then I shall come and make your face smile.” Then he repeated this short poem:

While they agree, the birds go
and carry off the net;
but when they quarrel
they will fall into my power.

Not long thereafter, one quail, descending on the pasture-ground, unawares trod on the head of another. The other was angry, and said, “Who trod on my head?” The first said, “Be not angry, I trod upon you unawares.” Yet the first quail was angry. They began to quarrel. Before long, one said scornfully, “It is thou, I suppose, that liftest the net all by yourself.”

Hearing them quarreling, the Bodhisatta thought, “For those who quarrel there is no safety. Now they will not lift the net together. Then they will incur great destruction, and the quail-hutner will capture them. I cannot stay in this place any longer.” So he gathered together his close followers and flew away.

Soon the quail-hunter returned. Once again, he counterfeited the cry of the quails, and when they had assembled he threw the net over them. Then one quail said mockingly, “They say that last time while lifting the net, the feathers on thy head fell off. Now this time, lift!” Another said, “While thou wert lifting the net, thy wings on both sides dropped. Now you lift.”

While they quarreled thus, the fowler threw his net over them, gathered them together, and filled his basket. He went home, showed all the quails to his wife, and made her smile.

Having finished telling this story, the Master said, “Thus, O King! dispute among kinfolk is the root of destruction.” Having given this moral instruction, he completed the story by saying: “At that time the unwise quail was Devadatta, while I was the wise quail.”

Sermon: “Calming the Quarrel”

The reading this morning is one of the Jataka tales. The Jataka tales are ostensibly stories about one of the Buddha’s previous lives. At the same time, they are stories that often help us reflect on the problems of day to day life.

The Jataka tales typically start with a brief description of a problem faced by Buddha’s followers. The problem reminds Buddha of one of his previous lives — for, being an enlightened being he can remember all of his five hundred or so previous lives. The Buddha tells the story of this previous life, and concludes by drawing a moral to instruct his followers in how to live a better life. So there’s a framing story that presents an opening problem, a story told by Buddha, and a conclusion of the framing story, with a closing moral.

This reading this morning was Jataka tale number 33, the Sammodamāna-Jātaka. You have probably heard it before, in some form or another, for it is one of the best-known stories in the South Asian cultural legacy. It’s a simple story, the kind of story you tell to your children to keep siblings from fighting with one another. Although perhaps we hope that children don’t feel the full horror of the ending of the story. When the quails quarrel, the quail-hunter captures them, and crushes them in a basket, where not doubt they panic and trod on one another’s heads and smother one another, until they are pulled out and sold for someone’s dinner. In short, as a result of their quarreling, they die a miserable death.

This story reminds me of the current situation in the United States. We face problems that can kill some of us. Those problems include things like a decrease in the number of decent jobs, an opioid crisis, racial injustice, a looming environmental disaster, and conflict with aggressive nations like Russia and North Korea. We have been told — we know in our hearts — that if we could just work together, we could address these problems. If we could keep our common goals in the forefront of our minds, we could work together. Only if we work together can we extricate ourselves from the danger.

So (to paraphrase a catchphrase made popular in 1896 by Christian Socialist Charles Sheldon), when we are faced with overwhelming social problems, we first ask the question: What would Buddha do? Then we ask the question: Can we follow the Buddha’s lead?

What does Buddha do in the story of the quails? He first tries persuasion and leadership. He gently explains the problem to the other quails: the reason so many of them are disappearing is that a quail-hunter is using a net to catch them. He then explains what they can do to avoid the problem: they can fly up together, lifting the net. And finally he persuades them to try.

Can we follow the Buddha’s lead? At first glance, it looks like we can follow the Buddha’s lead. We face more complex problems than the quails faced. We face — among other things — loss of jobs, an opioid crisis, racial injustice, environmental disaster, and international conflict. But if we worked together, we could address these problems.

On the other hand, we also know that not everyone is in complete agreement with the nature of the problems facing us. The quails in the story seemed to be in agreement about the problem facing them. But we today do not agree about everything. For example, some people in the United States would add same-sex marriage to the list of problems facing us; while we Unitarian Universalists generally support same sex marriage. So at second glance, it looks like we cannot follow the Buddha’s lead.

But if we look again, I think we can indeed follow the Buddha’s lead. We do not have to agree on everything in order to work together. As an example of what I mean, I can point to the last two Unitarian Universalist congregations I served. Both those congregations did a lot to fight homelessness. Both of those Unitarian Universalist congregations had to team up with other congregations in order to carry on an effective fight against homelessness, and some of those other congregations we worked with were bitterly opposed to same sex marriage. But we managed to put aside our differences to work together towards a common goal.

And I suspect the story of the quails glosses over some of the problems the Buddha faced to convince the other quails to work together. The story makes it sound easy, but I’m willing to bet that the Buddhas had to do a lot of persuading and explaining to get the quails to work together.

The real miracle in this story is that the Buddha did all that persuading and explaining without losing his temper, without losing his cool. He managed to not get into any fights with the other quails. He managed to stay calm and centered. And remember too that at this point he wasn’t yet the Buddha; he had not yet achieved Enlightenment. In that incarnation, he was merely a Boddhisatva, that is, someone who has the potential to reach Enlightenment. The progressive Buddhists I know believe we all have the potential to achieve Enlightenment, meaning each of us (in that specific sense) is a Boddhisatva.

In other words, we — you and I — have the capability to do what the Buddha did in his incarnation as a quail. We have the capability to persuade and explain how to work together for the common good. And to do that, we will have to be like the Buddha, and remain calm and centered.

That’s the hard part, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at persuading and explaining. But in order to be good at explaining and persuading, you have to stay calm and centered. I found this out when I was selling building materials. I quickly learned that if you came across as desperate, you were likely to lose the sale. Similarly, if the Buddha had come across as desperate, half the quails would just stop listening to him. He cultivated a state of being where he was both fully aware of the danger — it was, after all, a matter of life and death — and he did not let the danger ruffle the calm of his soul.

And this, it seems to me, is one of the big problems we face in the United States today. We are letting danger ruffle the calm of our souls. We go from passive to frantic very quickly. When we become frantic, we are no longer effective at either explaining or persuading.

So how can we stay calm and centered? This is something that religion is actually quite useful for. In fact, helping people stay calm and centered is one of the default settings in just about any organized religion. And most organized religions offer a number of different techniques we can use to stay calm and centered. We human beings are a diverse lot, and organized religions typically offer more than one path to being calm and centered. Buddhism, for example, encourages people to meditate, to study sacred texts, to chant, to gather together in community, to give offerings and alms, and Zen Buddhists even get to practice archery.

Or, more to the point, take our own organized religion, Unitarian Universalism. In our worship service alone, we offer a diversity of paths: we can sit in community, we can sing, we can listen to music, we can share our joys and sorrows, we can listen to a sermon, we even have a short time of silence for those of us who need silence. Beyond Sunday morning worship, you can join a Circle Ministry group, you can go on a meditation retreat, you can do hands-on volunteering, you can lead worship yourself in the summer. These are all spiritual practices you can find in our congregation, practices that can help you get calm and centered.

And I suspect the most important aspect of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice, or indeed of any organized religion, is the communal aspect. Thich Nhat Hahn, one of the most interesting Buddhist thinkers of the past few decades, used the term “inter-being” to describe how we are linked to all beings. Thich Nhat Hahn said, “You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else.” (1) We Unitarian Universalists often use the phrase, “the interdependent web of existence,” which means much the same thing. (2)

“You cannot be by yourself alone.” This is the most important part of learning how to be calm and centered. “You have to inter-be with everything else.” This is how the Buddha remained calm and centered in the story about the quails: he was always fully aware of how he was “inter-being” with all the other quails, and indeed with all existence.

So in our spiritual practices, this is what we must always remain fully aware of: we are all part of each other; we all “inter-be.” It’s fairly easy to remember that when we gather for Sunday worship services. We mostly like one another, and while there are inevitably feuds and squabbles in every congregation, the bonds between us end to be stronger than the weak forces trying to pull us apart. So we gather for Sunday worship — or for Circle Ministry, or to volunteer, or for a mediation retreat — we gather together with people we more or less get along with, and that is the key to our spiritual practice. We remember what it is to get along with other people. We remember inter-being.

The next step is to take that spiritual practice out into the wider world. When we hear something inflammatory on social media, we can remember that feeling of inter-being. Instead of lashing out, we remain calm and centered. Remaining calm and centered, we can stay focused on what’s really important: that we must work together if we’re going to get out of this mess we’re in. And so we can remember that we don’t need to react to that inflammatory social media post. When we don’t react to that social media post, that helps other to back down, so that they can return to being calm and centered. So it is that calmness can spread, and so it might be that we can learn to work together again.

Not that this is an easy task. It’s hard to remember about inter-being. It’s hard to really and truly believe in the interdependent web of existence. That’s why we keep coming back to communities like this one; we all need constant reminders. Well, maybe not all of us. It does seem that there are a few special persons, like the Buddha, who don’t need constant reminders. The rest of us rely on each other, we rely on our gathered community, to help us stay calm and centered. And then we’re able to take that feeling of calm, that feeling of being centered, out into the world. May it be so: may we spread calm wherever we go in our lives; may we live our lives as if we are all interdependent.


(1) Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1998, “The Island of Self” This dharma talk was reprinted in a slightly different form in the book No Mud No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering (Parallax Press). Available as a print book or ebook from Parallax Press or it can be borrowed online from the Internet Archive.

(2) The phrase “interdependent web of existence” comes from theologian Bernard Loomer, who was affiliated with the Unitarian Unviersalists and the Presbyterians. Loomer used the phrase to describe what Jesus of Nazareth meant by the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.” One can also find parallels between the concepts of interdependence and intersubjectivity, and the Jewish Philopher Martin Buber’s book I and Thou. While all these concepts have distinct differences, arising in part out of the distinctly different religious traditions from whence they come, nevertheless the parallels are striking.

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).