Torture and the Ticking Bomb
Rev. Douglas Taylor
The scenario goes like this: A bomb has been planted in a major city and is about to go off. To heighten the anxiety, let us imagine it to be a nuclear device! We have one of the terrorists in custody, someone who was involved in the plot, who perhaps even set the bomb. This person is a known terrorist, has an established history of involvement in terrorist activities, and knows where the device is hidden. All other sources of information have dried up. No time exists to evacuate the city. Finding the bomb is our only hope. It is imperative this man tell us where the bomb is. Police are certain that he will crack if the right pressure is applied. Torture is the last option available. Is it justified to torture this man to save the lives of thousands of people? The city will be decimated, people you know and love will die, thousands of innocent lives will be lost when the bomb explodes. Can you refuse to save them?
You all know that the answer is supposed to be ‘yes, you can refuse to use torture.’ Torture is always wrong; there are no exceptions. There is not a religious organization that has gone on record as saying that torture, under some extreme situations, may be justifiable. No religious group has said that. Catholics, Evangelicals, orthodox Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and so many others have statements of conscience or press releases or issue write-ups that brook no loop-holes or extreme exceptions on the issue of torture. Many have also signed on as participating or endorsing members of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Theirs is a great website with plenty of information and action suggestions: the National Religious Campaign Against Torture – NRCAT.org. And as you would see on that website, the answer to the scenario is that Torture is always wrong.
But think about that scenario again. Thousands of lives hang in the balance. Here you sit in judgment of what happens next. The terrorist is tortured into providing the location, the bomb is discovered and disarmed, the people are saved. Is the torturer a hero or a villain? The precise legal definition of torture is severe mental or physical pain or suffering to elicit information. According to the nonprofit organization Human Rights First, fewer that four scenes of torture appeared on prime-time television each prior to 2001. In 2007 there were over 100. People are thinking about this stuff a lot these days. TV shows like 24 have used versions of this Ticking Bomb scenario in which the main character breaks the law and occasionally tortures people for the greater good (from Christian Century “Prime Time Torture” June 3, 2008.) Is the torturer a hero as these shows will sometimes suggest – or is he a villain? According to scriptures, this is no hero.
And yet, some one third of the American people say torture is sometimes justified according to 2005 Pew surveys. I place myself among the roughly one third of Americans who contend that torture is never justified. Where would you be? Is torture often justified, sometimes justified, rarely or never? According to the statistic, two thirds of us think torture is justified in at least certain cases that arise rarely. Our military service men and women have very similar perspectives and indeed for them this is not academic. And it certainly cannot be left vague.
The new Army Field Manual that was issued last year bans torture and degrading treatment of prisoners. Interestingly it specifically disallows forced nakedness, hooding and other procedures that have become infamous during the five-year-old war on terrorism. It also specifically mentions water-boarding as an unacceptable interrogation technique. Last year, soon after this version of the Army Field Manual was issued, in July 2007 the administration issued an Executive Order restarting a discontinued CIA program of interrogation using techniques such as water-boarding, extreme temperatures, stress positions and sleep deprivation – techniques that have reportedly been authorized and used. This is in keeping with the bill President Bush signed into law at the end of 2005. The McCain torture ban was binding for the United States military but not for the CIA, and it was further limited by the accompanying signing statement the President added which effectively negated its provisions. In other words, the treatment John McCain went through as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War is not something we condone among our military. But that sort of torture is OK when our CIA agents do it.
There was another attempt at a bill this March which would bind the CIA to the Army Field Manual’s list of interrogation techniques which does not include water-boarding. Our president vetoed the bill when it got to his desk. The sort of techniques that remain available to the CIA, therefore, other than simulated drowning, hooding and forced nakedness mentioned earlier include beating prisoners, sexually humiliating them, threatening them with dogs, depriving them of food or water, performing mock executions, shocking them with electricity, burning them, and causing other pain. All these are ‘on the table’ so to speak.
This country was founded on certain principles of justice and liberty, recognizing each person as a citizen of the free country, affirming that every person has certain unalienable rights be virtue – not of their citizenship – but by virtue simply of their humanity. People might argue that we must fighting fire with fire. They are beheading our non-military citizens. The terrorists are the ones who took it to this level. But what we are fighting for is the ideology of our free country. We lose that battle when we resort to torture. In a war, not against another country, but against an ideology that accepts the use of terrorism as a tool, how can we win by countering with torture?
I remember reading a chat response to an article about torture last year. This was around the time when a bill was watered down and passed by congress, signed by President Bush and then rendered essentially meaningless by the signing clause. During the chat I was amazed at the kind of posturing and simplistic argument passed for conversation online. At one point a chatter offered a lengthy post that became something of a manifesto for some of the others. The post went something like this: There are two types of people in the world: people who will use violence and people who will not. The people who use violence are wolves and those who will not use violence are sheep. The vast majority of people are decent, law-abiding sheep. They are preyed upon by the handful of wolves who are set on destruction and cruelty. Luckily there is a third animal on the scene. There are those who are willing to use violence yet are principled and committed to protecting the sheep: we are the sheepdogs.
This post went on to praise the sheepdogs who have rules of conduct to protect the sheep and fight the wolves, who have consequences when the other sheepdogs stray from the rules of conduct, who live to serve and protect. Rest secure, go about your business, stop meddling and complaining about the sheepdog’s business – instead just go shopping. It was quite a post. My first reaction was: we have these wolves over here and these sheep over there and then these sheep dogs in between, but where are there any human beings? There aren’t any humans in this picture.
My second thought was to complain against the theology implied in the post. To be human is not to be either a wolf or a sheep but to be both. We are not all good or all bad inside, every one of us is capable of committing violence and of withholding violence. Everyone of us has the capacity for both good and evil – the line between good and evil does not run between national borders but down the center of every person’s heart. If there really were a bunch of wolves and sheep and sheep dogs then I think the sheep dogs ought to be fired for failing to get rid of the wolves. Surely if we are talking about a group of evil wolves out there then we could have rounded them all up by now and done away with them. Why haven’t we done that yet? Because that idea is not real! In the war on terrorism, this mentality is a non-starter: it reduces the argument justification by name-calling. “You’re terrorists.” “Well, you’re torturers.” “Oh yeah? You’re the Great Satan,” “Oh, well, you’re just a bunch of wolves.” In this we lose the standing to say, you are violating basic human rights and must stop. We can’t say that because now we are violating them too. The CIA recently reported that three individuals are set to be prosecuted and that water-boarding was used on all three during interrogations. They actually admitted this out loud!
Former President, Jimmy Carter said, back in the fall of 2007 after President Bush vetoed the bill that would halt the official sanction of torture, “Our country for the first time in my life time has abandoned the basic principle of human rights. We’ve said that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to those people in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo, and we’ve said we can torture prisoners and deprive them of an accusation of a crime.” (“Jimmy Carter: US Tortures Prisoners,” Associated Press, October 11, 2007.)
This is a sticking point that has bothered me for a while. Why is there any debate about this? How can it be unclear, is it up to popular opinion as to whether Water-boarding is really torture or not? Is water-boarding a violation of the Geneva Convention? Is the answer a matter of fact, or do intelligent people disagree on this point? Well, strangely enough, there are people who say water-boarding is not torture. The majority of military interrogators, police interrogators, politicians, Christian and secular ethicists, and clergy are clear that water-boarding and other atrocities witnessed at Abu Ghraib prison constitute torture. Of those few who argue that it is not torture, many will concede that these interrogation techniques are “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” a phrase that is often linked with torture. The precise legal definition of torture is severe mental or physical pain or suffering to elicit information. This leaves it somewhat open to opinion as to whether or not a particular activity is torture or not.
What about those who say water-boarding is a violation of the Geneva Conventions? Is it any clearer in there? This has been very enlightening for me. I read significant portions of the Geneva Conventions this week. The Geneva Conventions started as a document in 1864 about the treatment of sick and wounded in the field. This is how the Red Cross began! The second article extends the first to include treatment of wounded at sea. The third convention covers treatment of prisoners of war. The fourth convention covers the treatment of civilians during war. America has developed the category of people between civilians and military, the ‘unlawful combatant.’ And thus are not covered by the conventions. One definition of an unlawful combatant is a spy, or a combatant without a uniform. Well, I’m pretty sure uniforms have not been passed out in the war on terror. People are not becoming terrorists in the name of this country or that country – but in the name of an ideology. It seems to me, we’ve created a scenario whereby the Geneva Conventions cannot ever apply! Anyone who is a terrorist is easily defined as an unlawful combatant! That’s quite a loophole. But not according to the Geneva Conventions, only according to the United States administration!
When we leave such decisions to politicians the expedient answer wins. Torture is seen as expedient. Never mind that the information gained is unreliable, never mind that the process of obtaining the information is highly corruptible, never mind that the toll for such methods is often hidden but always exacted. How apt is the maxim that religion must serve as the conscience of the state in this case. Our country is performing torture in our name and we must rise up and demand an end to such activity. I am frankly baffled that we are even talking about this as a country, that I have to stand in the pulpit and say – torture is morally wrong, as if that were not perfectly clear already.
And yet, people are looking at this pragmatically and saying the ends justify the means. That it is done in the service of good. The ticking bomb scenario is likened to the case made for Just War theory. A few of the standard criteria used to justify a war as a Just War include the requirements that the war is declared to defend against aggression, is carried out by legitimate authority, and is deemed likely effective – to have a reasonable chance of success. So, if we are to consider the possibility of what we might call a Just Torture scenario: the “ticking time-bomb,” that best possible argument, is shown to be ridiculously unsuited. There can be no Just Torture!
These arguments fail and always fail for a number of reasons. For one, they are wildly hypothetical to the point of ridiculous. OK, we can play the ‘would you justify torture for a ticking time-bomb’ game as a thought experiment, but it is not ever going to actually happen that way. It will never be that clean: the terrorist in custody, with known information to give us, with known connections. That is just too perfect a scenario. Another reason this argument fails is that it casts the use of torture as a last resort, as a highly abnormal method. Experience demands we acknowledge that the use of torture in one case breeds cruelty and more torture in other places. The Ticking bomb scenario casts it as an abnormal emergency situation, but such exceptions are used to justify a systematic resort to criminal behavior, it’s easy: just call a permanent state of emergency.
All of these arguments, both for and against, focus on reliability and uncertainty; as if we can ask: is torture practical? Perhaps those who do not recognize this as a moral issue or will not acknowledge the moral culpability of a pro-torture stance could possibly be persuaded by a pragmatic argument against it. Maybe we should not use torture because it doesn’t really work that well. Still, it seems to be to be like saying, referring to that horrid psalm, “let us not dash their babies’ heads against the rocks because it doesn’t actually do anything to alleviate my anger and sense of injustice.” Why not just stand up and say we shall do this because it is immoral, it is wrong!
The ends never justify the means. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, there is no path to peace, peace is the path. You cannot murder and torture your way to peace and justice. You cannot uphold the rule of law by breaking it. You cannot defend the people’s unalienable rights to life and liberty by denying the same. You cannot affirm the inherent worth and dignity of a person if you are dehumanizing them and yourself through the act of torture.
That is, I think, the most significant part of the issue: that torture is dehumanizing. It is not only inflicting pain, it is a process of striping the humanity from a person. But imagine, for a moment, the character of a torturer: imagine the ways in which that person must also suppress aspects of their humanity, strip away compassion and empathy, ignore the fact that this is another human being at the other end of this electrical wire. Torture dehumanizes the victim and the perpetrator. In a way, it dehumanizes each of us for it is done in our name.
Torture is dehumanizing and immoral. Our country, any country should not be involved in such activities. There is no path to peace, peace is the path. Ends don’t justify the means – they corrupt the ends! If you use torture to accomplish peace then when you get there it will not be peace. Torture is always wrong; there are no exceptions. So, send a letter to your elected officials, write a letter to the editor, sign a petition, write a poem, discuss the topic with friends, cry, sing, pray, march, speak out, and rise up to be the conscience of our country.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Mything the Mark
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever made a mistake? Not just a, “Sorry I bumped your coffee or knocked your glass of water,” sort of mistake. Bigger than an, “Oops I’m late to our meeting.” I’m talking about the kind of mistake you regret for a while, something that has consequences. I remember my mom sending me to apologize to our neighbor for – I don’t even remember what now – but my friend and I had done something stupid and I was sent over to make amends. I remember spending the afternoon working in her yard. Another time, when I was older and didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder telling me what I had to do to fix things, I remember not going over to my friend’s house to straighten things out and make amends. Instead I tried to ignore it, tried to minimize it, tried to wait it out. In other words, I froze. And things festered and grew worse. I felt paralyzed by the situation and now had two problems: the mistake I had made that had injured my friend and my inability to deal with it.
In theological terms I had both a sin of commission and a sin of omission to deal with. It feels like I’m stretching it to talk in terms of the word ‘sin’ but in the Gospels and the New Testament letters, this is the concept that sin is most commonly referring to: relationships and the need for forgiveness. But we don’t talk about sin much in Unitarian Universalist circles and so the word feels weird in our ears.
As a preacher was delivering a lengthy sermon, she noticed she had a slumbering congregant. Enraged, she interrupted herself and called out to the congregation: “All who are for salvation, stand up!” Everyone rose except for that one sleeping soul. Furious, the preacher motioned for the congregation to be seated and then screamed at the top of her lungs: “All of you who are for sin, stand up!” At this, the sleeping man woke with a start, jumped to his feet, and stood shocked, rubbing his eyes. He looked around at the seated congregation, thought for a moment, and then said to his pastor, “Reverend, I confess that I don’t know what we’re voting on, but it looks like you and I are the only ones for it!”
Sin, the word appears in the Bible over two thousand times, whereas, for example, the word love makes only some 350 appearances. There are over twenty Greek and Hebrew words in the Bible that are translated into the single English word ‘sin.’ The Greek and Hebrew words cover nuances such as state of being, context, degree, intention, and motivation. Two of these words, Hamartia (?μαρτ?α) in Greek and Cheit (??????) in Hebrew, are rendered as ‘to cause unintentional fault, to err, to stumble.’ They both refer to an archery metaphor: to miss the mark or target. To conceive of sin as an attempt to hit the bull’s-eye but instead to miss the mark, helps to distance this nuance from the other concepts of sin. The Bible still talks about sin as a transgression, as lustful iniquity, as a state of ontological humanness, and as a willful act of evil (such as torture – as I will be speaking of next week.) But the word sin also covers the idea that you made a mistake that carries consequences, that you’ve broken something that needs repair. Contrary to the joke, sin is not the opposite of salvation. Sin, as the word is used most of the time in the Bible, just is not that big. Centuries later when the theological concept of Original Sin is articulated we find something as big as salvation.
The passage we had this morning (Mark 2:1-12) uses this Greek ‘missing the mark’ version of the word sin when Jesus says to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Indeed, the most common Greek word for sin is this one that can be rendered: to miss the mark. Most of the time when Jesus or Paul speak of sin, this is concept they are offering rather than the stronger meaning that is used for willful iniquity and purposeful offense. “Forgive us our trespasses, our debts, our sins … as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” (Luke 11:4) Forgive us for missing the mark, for missing the target. So, this paralyzed man is dropped down in front of Jesus through the roof, interrupting Jesus while he is teaching a big class, and Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” My first thought is, what sort of sins could this paralyzed man have, surely not anything too egregious! He’s paralyzed! Then I think, this poor guy: he goes through all this trouble, he and his friends make all this fuss to ask Jesus for a healing, and Jesus looks at him and forgives his sins. It’s like, “Thanks, but I was more interested in walking again.”
Many of us have experienced literal interpretations of a passage like this: Jesus forgives this person; this makes the authorities miffed, people can’t go around forgiving sins that were not committed against them. It’s just not done that way. If someone sins against you – makes a mistake, errs, causes some unintended grievance – it’s not up to someone else to forgive them, it is up to you. And conversely, you can’t go around forgiving people for the mistakes and sins they have done to others. It doesn’t work that way. The authorities were upset. But what they didn’t understand, the standard literalist interpretation tells us, is that Jesus has special authority to forgive and (here’s the Good News) we, ourselves, are forgiven. Thus, the whole Gospel message of salvation is wrapped up neatly in this little story! And to back it up, to prove himself in front of these authorities, Jesus goes one step further and heals the paralyzed man who then stands up, gathers his mat and heads out the door. Many of us have been given the solution to what a passage like this means. There are no more questions to ask: the passage is about how Jesus is God’s Son who brings the Good News to the people. That what this passage means, end of story – at least in the literal type of interpretation. It is always all about Jesus and how important and special he is.
You’ve perhaps heard the story about the pastor giving the children’s message during church. He gathered all the children around him to give the brief lesson before dismissing them for Sunday school. He was using squirrels for a lesson on being industrious.
He started out by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly. “This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)…” No hands went up. “And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)…” The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)…”
Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I *know* the answer must be Jesus … but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”
The literal interpretations have few options beyond that the stories are always all about Jesus. Yet if we read the accounts of Jesus’ interaction with people only as historical and literal, then we miss a very deep level of message. As UU minister and author John Nichols offers this (in his book, A Wind Swept over the Waters: Reflections on 60 Favorite Bible Passages,)
The writers of the Bible often use metaphors, expanding the ways we can appreciate it. In Psalm 23, the writer refers to God preparing “a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Taken literally, these words describe the writer preparing to enjoy a banquet while surrounded by envious antagonists. But the metaphorical meaning is deeper and wiser: the psalmist feels like an honored guest in God’s house even though, like all of us, he has enemies. (p xii)
And this allow us to step away from the ridiculous image of a banquet meal with God the Maitre d’ taking your order as a horde of bad guys wait patiently in the background. We step away from that literal image and notice instead the times in our own lives when there has been respite in a storm, ease from certain trouble, relief from threats to your well-being.
Looking back at the story of Jesus healing of a paralyzed man, it is possible to look at the metaphorical or even mythic level of this passage to see how it might touch us. But that is not easy to do, is it? For starters, it is easy to see the metaphor, such as God preparing a table before me, when a metaphor is clearly the intent. Arguably the Gospel writers were intending for the work to be seen literally – or at least, literally as well as metaphorically. I think that is the key. Unitarian Universalists have a hard time hearing the miracle stories or the healing and exorcism stories in the Gospels. It is hard to let go of the scientific and historic question: did it really happen like that?
Perhaps another day I might be interested in debating the historicity of a passage from the Gospels. Today I am listening to the metaphor of this story. There are so many great stories that we UUs avoid: as in the 1970’s Jesus musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, scenes of Jesus walking on the water and casting our demons are just not in the picture. I’ve been listening to the music from Godspell this weekend mostly because SRO will be holding auditions for it this summer and my son Keenan is going to try out. The thing about Godspell that stands out is the complete lack of miracles and healings.
And yet there are some powerful metaphors in the miracle and healing stories. In Chapter 5 of Mark, Jesus meets up with the Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20). Jesus says, “What is your name,” and the man says “My name is Legion; for we are many.” What a powerful metaphor! I can’t figure out who I really am because it feels like there are dozens of me inside me and not all of them are attractive. In Chapter 6 of Mark, Jesus is teaching a multitude out by a lake, it grows late and everyone is hungry (6:30-44). All they have is five loaves of bread and two fish – but five thousand people are fed! What a powerful metaphor! Don’t hold back just because you think you have a small amount. Do what you can with what you have, because generosity and hospitality are not scare commodities! In Chapter 8 of Mark, people bring a blind man to Jesus (8:22-26). Jesus touches him and asks, “Can you see anything?” The man looks around and says he can almost make out people but they sort of look like walking trees. Jesus touches his eyes a second time and the man can see clearly. What a powerful metaphor! You tried to explain it to me or to show me once already, but my vision is not large enough to take in what you are offering me. Sometimes life must throw the lesson at you more than once – hopefully then only twice. These stories are not found in Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-paste Bible. They are not among Rev. John Nichols’ 60 favorite Bible passages that I quoted from earlier (Wind Swept over the Water.) These passages do not turn up in most Unitarian Universalist sermons. Perhaps we suddenly become literalists when presented with miracles and healing stories. But we can look at these stories as parables, if you will, as metaphors or even myths. Leaving aside the facts for another day, we look to the story and see what life-giving messages may be revealed.
Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” And later he said “Stand up, take your mat and go home.” Two things happened here. This man was obviously paralyzed physically and also spiritually broken in some way, (as were many others around the room – metaphorically.) Don’t think of this literally to say a physical ailment is a sign of an inner spiritual ailment. (Although it does happen that your inner state – your attitude, sense of self, level of energy – has a scientifically verifiable effect on your physical well-being.) But let’s not even go there with this right now. Instead, consider the way your inner state effects your outward actions. Have you ever felt paralyzed, like you knew you had something to do, something you felt you should do, but you didn’t or couldn’t do it? Have you ever made a mistake and then rather than apologizing or owning up you simply avoid it? It’s like missing a payment for a bill and being charged interest. If you don’t deal with it, the debt continues to grow until it is unmanageable. It is like giving an offence to a friend and then fearing to face it, you avoid it; which adds interest to the offence, which adds a second problem: my original offence to my friend and my apparent refusal to accept my mistake, my sin.
And when I saw my friend later that week in a large social setting I felt paralyzed, I felt stuck, like there was a script I had to follow in which I ignore my friend and pretend nothing’s wrong. It was like I was waiting for someone to look over my shoulder and tell me how to resolve this. It suddenly hit me. My mother is not going to make me go over there to apologize and make amends. Jesus is not going to burst through the roof to say I am forgiven and can go home now. This isn’t going to change unless I stop paralyzing myself.
But like a good Unitarian Universalist I recognize that Jesus is a guide, an example to emulate. Jesus represents the divinity that is within every one of us, that spark of holiness, that religious conscience leading us to know what is right and what is good. I have that within me which can release me from my paralysis, if I will but listen to my better self, the deeper conscience reminding me that I don’t have to be stuck. I don’t have to be stuck in this pattern of avoiding a broken relationship. I don’t have to be stuck in a pattern of copying or rebelling against the example of my parents. I don’t have to be stuck in the sin of pride. I don’t have to be stuck in a pattern of hiding from life, of being afraid to be wrong. And neither do you.
Stand up, take your mat and go home. Stand up and go to your friend and repair your mistake. Go home and be healed. In what ways are you paralyzed? Is there a deeper level at which something is broken? What would it be like if someone said to you, “My child, your sins are forgiven. Now go seek forgiveness. Stand up, take your mat and come home.”
In a world without end, may it be so.
Sex and Spirit
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Reading: Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) 1:2-4, 9-17; 4:9-15; 5:2-8
It was a Saturday night at the end of summer. Vacation was over, and the minister had a sermon to write. No inspiration. “Preach about something you really enjoyed this summer,” said his wife.
“I know! I’ll preach about water-skiing!” he replied. “You know, hanging on, riding the waves, keeping your balance. . .”
“Well, that’s a new record for dumb ideas,” she said. “I don’t want to be there when you give that sermon. I’ll just drop the kids.”
The minister knew his spouse was right, as usual. Then it hit him: inspiration. Something he’d really enjoyed that summer but also an important spiritual, moral topic—he’d preach about sex! Working all night, he wrote one of his most powerful sermons ever. At dawn he went to church to polish the final draft, leaving his wife a note on the breakfast table: “All-nighter. Gone to church.” When she saw it, she sighed and did exactly what she’d said she would do—dropped the kids at Sunday school and left. Later, as the service ended, she pulled up in the car. An elderly woman in the congregation spotted her and came over.
“My dear,” she said, “your husband preached the most inspired sermon! A daring theme, of course, but full of experience that I know you must have helped him acquire!”
“Not me!” the minister’s wife laughed. “Experience? Why, as far as I know, he’s only tried it four times. Once he fell off. Another time, he couldn’t get up again.” The elderly lady fainted. (For the record, I have informed my spouse as to the topic of my sermon this morning.)
Over the course of this week I have been devouring Science Writer, Mary Roach’s latest book, Bonk: the curious coupling of science and sex. The book is a delightful and revealing romp through the surprisingly obscure history of sexology. Roach has a very dry wit and a keen ability to point out the absurd. Much of the scientific research of sex has centered on the mechanics of it and how to fix it when some aspect of the mechanics has gone afoul. Sex is demystified into mere mechanics. Roach does lead up to (pardon the pun) the climax of her book as scientific research acknowledges the bold notion that effective, well-executed sex is not the best sex … it is more than the sum of the moving parts.
The story is told of a doctor was asked to address a gathering immediately following a lunch. After an insufferably long introduction that included mention of her topic, sexuality, she rose and went to the podium and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure,” and sat down.
Science, despite holding a largely mechanistic and reductionistic view of the whole affair, does at least provide an inroad to talking about this topic. Science helps us to demythologizes sex that we may begin conversations about what it is for and how to works. Our western religious culture, on the other hand, has pre-scripted any conversation on the topic of sex, confining the conversation to the concept of procreation: sex as the duty of a man and woman to perform in order to fulfill their marital obligations. Sadly, the religious culture around us to this day tries to maintain the image of sex as a filthy, sinful, unwholesome, dirty behavior that ought to be saved for the one you love after marriage. I don’t think these people have read their Bibles! At least not the Song of Songs!
Not all of western religion holds so negative an attitude toward sex. Our own OWL curriculum is far from the only example, yet it serves as a highly apt one all the same. Unitarian Universalists jointly created with the United Church of Christ, a faith-based comprehensive sexuality curriculum for our children and youth. “Our Whole Lives,” or OWL for short, is available for Kindergarten through High School levels – each level developmentally appropriate. The curriculum does not simply give youth the biology lesson, nor the six-year-olds just the ‘where did I come from’ speech. It also delves into values, relationships, faith, and community. Our congregation just finished its first ever grades 4-6 OWL class. We are planning to offer both the Jr. High and Sr. High age curriculums next year. (Here’s a plug: we need two more teachers – two more people willing to be trained in offering this curriculum. Talk with our Director of Religious Education if you are interested.) (And while I’m at it, I’ll let you know that there is an Adult OWL curriculum that we can offer – is that something you would want? Again, we would need volunteers willing to be trained as teachers. Speak with me after the service.)
Not all western religion holds a negative attitude toward sex, although the majority of them do. Exemplified so resoundingly by St. Paul in his first letter to the people in Corinth, “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” [7:9] Unitarian Universalist author and theologian Rebecca Parker wrote, in an essay entitled “Making Love as a Means of Grace,”
“Making love is not the be all and end all of life. It rarely approaches perfection and isn’t the most important thing we do. But it is far from the root of all sin. On the contrary, it can be life’s most delightful means of grace. As such, it should be held in honor among all people, and no church should legislate against its potential for undergirding all that is right, good, and joyful in our lives.” [Parker, Making Love as a Means of Grace, p. 140]
Sex when released of its shackles and allowed to be sacred, is natural, joyful, and beautiful – and indeed can be a path to grace, empowerment, and wholeness. Sex is deeply relational and intimate. We often speak of spirituality as our search for connection and for that powerful mix of intimacy and ultimacy. Well, we can use those same words to speak of sex: a longing for connection, a yearning for that moment when the profoundly intimate expands to touch the ultimate. I’m not equating orgasms to God here; I’m not trying to claim that the biological climax of sex is synonymous with spiritual experience. But somewhere beyond the biomechanics of sex, beyond the shame and prudish guilt overlay that Western religious culture has placed upon sex, beyond insecurity and uncomfortable feelings – there is a level at which sex is about giving joy to another person and even losing oneself in the experience of that giving and receiving. Holy stuff! But tricky. As Frederick Buechner once said sex is like nitroglycerin: you can use it either to blow up bridges or to heal human hearts.
The idea of profanity fits here. Theologians like Paul Tillich and Mircea Eliade make an interesting distinction between the Sacred, the Profane, and the Demonic. The opposite of the sacred is the demonic. The profane is that which is a distortion of the sacred, a twisting of what is meant to be beautiful and holy into that which is ugly and vulgar. Profanity is closer to the Sacred that it is to Demonic, in the understanding of these theologians. Profanity, in common usage, is to swear, to say a curse word. But even those synonyms are also deeply theological, aren’t they. Our swear words usually center around one or two central themes, the most prominent being sex and body parts related to sex. I don’t want to take you too far along this line of thinking; I only point this out to show that sex is a deeply sacred act that is easily twisted into something ugly. Sex is sacred and thus readily susceptible to profanity.
So, biologically it is natural – a point even the standard public school health class acknowledges and affirms. And now I am adding that theologically it is sacred. Which brings us back to my complaints against the western religious culture: because according to that religious understanding that which is natural can not be sacred. For them, the sacred is supernatural, it is outside of nature. There is a dualistic split between spirit and matter in church teaching – mostly beginning with Augustine. Heaven is good and the earth is fallen, sinful. The spirit is holy, the body is evil. Agape love is ‘Christian’ love, Eros love is fornication. Add to that the notion that Original Sin comes into the world through sex, that somehow sex – not even sex you get to have, but the sex your parents had to conceive you – sex is the root of all sin and evil in the world.
But what if the world is not evil but good? What if we see that the human body is natural and beautiful – that we each have the capacity to choose good and evil? What if sex is not the root of all sin but an act of connection, a gift of love? What if Eros and Agape work together? Not in the sense of “friends with benefits.’ But in the sense that sexual energy – erotic energy – rather than being repressed can be our inner fuel to serve life. This is what a vow of abstinence is striving for – to build life rather than deny it. Rebecca Parker, in that essay I mentioned earlier, quotes Audre Lorde,
“When we begin to live… in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense… we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.” [Ibid, p. 135]
In short, sex is empowering. When you see your sensual self as being in touch with reality, you uncover an inner power to offer the world. Lorde continues, “In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, [and] self-denial.” [Ibid, p. 139]
Thus, according to Rebecca Parker and Audre Lorde, sexuality teaches us of our power, that joy and struggle are each relational in nature. Our bodies teach us that we have the power to each beyond our isolation and give joy to another person, that we have the power to affect another person. This actually serves as a foundation of ethics, of right-relations.
Now, in all this I don’t want to lose sight of the reality that just because sex can be all these wonderful things, it doesn’t mean it always is. Remember profanity and the ways in which beautiful and holy things are made to be ugly and vulgar. Indeed, there are so many ways to hurt another person; the use of sex to hurt is particularly malicious. In the end, I suppose I am not all that different from the priests and theologians of old who would decry the misuse of God’s great gift. We just have a different lists of what constitutes misuse. Some will argue that the only good use of sex is for procreation, others will argue that sex is meant to be enjoyed. I struggle to articulate an answer to recognize both and more.
Sex for the sake of procreation is beautiful. That we have the capacity to participate in the creation of new life is awesome. We have the power to make babies! And we have the means at our disposal to choose to have babies or not. It is empowering. But if procreation is valued above everything else in sex then there is a great deal of cruelty that can be committed in the name of sex. Procreation is beautiful but it is not the whole story.
Sex for the sake of enjoyment is elegant. Sex is supposed to feel good; we’re designed to enjoy it. When we are released from confining stigmas and controlling rules about how we should be experiencing it, sex can open up to a great pleasure. But if pleasure is valued above everything else in sex then there is a great deal of cruelty that can be committed in the name of sex. Enjoyment is elegant but it is not the whole story.
Sex is also about giving pleasure. Sex is about the relationship between two people. When the value of that relationship is given the higher priority, then the procreation and enjoyment elements raise to a higher level. You tap into your power and into the depths of connection with the other. Eco-feminist and Wiccan author, Starhawk, writes,
“In sex we merge, give way, become one with another, allow ourselves to be caressed, pleasured, enfolded, allow our sense of separation to dissolve. But in sex we also feel our impact on another, we see our own faces reflected in another’s eyes, feel ourselves confirmed, and sense our power, as separate human beings, to make another feel.” (Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark, p.138)
Poets say that to love another person is to know God. Mystics speak of the strange mingling of self and universe when you breathe in air or consume food with certain intention. Surely it is possible to conceive of sex as a strange mingling of this sort. In an effort to bring joy to the one you love, to awaken a power within this other person whom you love, to feel an ancient rhythm of passion between and within you and the one you love – is surely to transcend yourself and this other person whom you love. We speak of spiritual practices that bring you closer to yourself and to the earth and to other people and to God – gardening, walking, breathing, justice-making. We speak of various activities that can, with intention, be spiritual disciplines that can deepen you, center you, and connect you to that which is beyond you. Sex is on that list. As a practice done in right-relation and with intention, sex can take you there.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
“It is the first warm day of Spring in Montgomery, Alabama,” explains the opening line of the cover story from a 1997 issue of U.S. News and World Report.
Michael Walcott takes his guitar down to a [Montgomery] Elementary School to wage a war on incivility. Speaking clearly, he tells the sixth graders, do not use profanity or chew gum in class or answer the phone in an unpleasant voice. Instead show respect to your elders, say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ and, most of all, treat others the way you want to be treated. Then Walcott plugs his guitar into a pair of giant amps and sweetens the struggle to save civilization with a little soul music. In an original composition set to a 1960’s pop tune, he sings,
All the world over, it’s easy to see;/
People everywhere need a little courtesy,/
Shout it from the mountain so everyone can see,/
Courtesy can bring har-mo-ny./
After finishing the song, Walcott asks the sixth graders, “Would you try to behave more courteously in school if I promise to come back and play another concert for you?”
In unison, the entire group of sixth graders exclaim “No!”
This Rascal’s hit song, “People Got to Be Free,” from 1968 is forever part of the civil rights effort. The song came out on the heels of the assassinations of King and Kennedy as a plea for peace and freedom in the land. “People everywhere just wanna be free, ask me my opinion, my opinion will be, it’s a natural situation for a man to be free.”
I wonder about this man up on school stage is talking about and singing songs about courtesy and good manners in a Montgomery, Alabama elementary some 40 years after Rosa Parks was arrested by Montgomery police for so rudely and illegally refusing to give up her seat on the bus and some 30 years after Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of others marched from Selma to Montgomery after their first attempt, known as Bloody Sunday, ignited anger and rage along both sides of the racial divide. While I agree that good manners and courtesy are important, it almost seems to be a form of profanity to sing this song of freedom in the land where the struggle was hottest but to turn it into a plea for the use of common niceties, to water it down from a call for freedom to a request for ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I wonder about changing the words from ‘let’s work together for freedom’ to ‘let’s play nice.’
You know, we’re in the midst of a bloody, drawn-out war in Iraq, we are living under the largest deficit this nation has ever seen, the global market is shifting away from us toward Asia, the earth is spiraling into an environmental crisis, poverty and disease and genocide run amok throughout the world, America can’t seem to figure out how to make a hybrid car let alone construct a coherent energy plan or a health care system that can actually work: I think we are way past ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I think we are in the realm of moral outrage and indignation. I think we are past the plea for common niceties and deeply mired in the run to reclaim the vision of our country based in liberty and justice for all.
And yet, as pedestrian as Michael Walcott efforts are to bring courtesy and manners to sixth graders, he is on to something when he imagines there to be the need for a war against incivility in our country. To conflate bad manners with injustice is perhaps akin to rearranging deck chairs on the titanic; nevertheless, they are related. I’m not ready yet to suggest we dispense with good manners just because the situation is bleak. To do so would be to bring the struggle for peace and sustainability and equality and liberty down to the level of a street fight; this would be a big waste of time and passion because of the way it would play in the media.
I have not watched TV for several years and this past week I found myself in the dentist’s waiting room with a large flat screen television on. Oh, we own a TV, but we don’t have it hooked up to anything except the VCR and DVD player. The grocery store where I usually shop has TV sets hung at every check-out line, but thankfully they only play the weather station, where I laugh every now and then when the “Storm Team Forecast” calls for scattered showers. I guess the name “Scattered Showers Team Forecast” would have been accurate more often – but lacked that compelling edge. So I was only mildly surprised by what I saw in my dentist’s waiting room. The closest thing I can think of to call it was a news program – but it was more like an exercise program for the anxiety centers of your brain. I had read about how TV news programs were becoming sensationalized and entertaining rather than informative and relevant – I had probably even experienced some of it before I quit watching TV. But I was still mildly surprised to experience the emotional manipulation. It was very distasteful.
To check in with this way of reporting the news, I had pulled up “YouTube” videos of Barack Obama’s United Church of Christ pastor, Jeremiah Wright. It was fascinating to have heard about Rev. Wright’s prophetic preaching prior to this fuss, to have known about the powerful way he could juxtapose biblical lessons with current affairs. And then to see the sound bytes offered on FOX news reporting of the harsh rhetoric Rev. Wright was known to have used. Taken out of context, a judgmental statement against the practices and policies of the United States can be seen as anti-American. They fond the most anxiety-producing snippets they could get and spliced them all together as ‘news’ and it worked because what the TV news programs seem to be offering these days is not information but anxiety. The result is that in the public mind, Pastor Jeremiah Wright is given a quick label, and Barack Obama catches that same label by association, and instead of moving toward a better understanding of each other and of what is going on in the world we distance ourselves from what is happening by fitting things into labels and boxes.
It is not unlike what happened here in Binghamton on March 19th when we held a peace vigil commemorating the 5th anniversary of the war in Iraq. Now, I’ve already told you I don’t watch the news on TV, but I went home that evening a googled the Binghamton News stations to see what coverage there would be. I didn’t find anything – which I think means I didn’t find the right sites or I should have been watching my TV. I’ve since learned that Channel 34 had extensive and good coverage of our peaceful vigil and our march from the church down to the confluence where about a hundred people gathered with candles and signs. But none of the other stations offered anything. I picked up the local newspaper the next morning and saw a nice large photo of the vigil, but no story. Instead the story was more coverage of the BU students’ Tuesday demonstration that got out of control. It was a long story going over again how the students marched out into the road and the police came and there was pepper spray and big traffic delays and a traffic injury and arrests. You know what they say, “It ain’t news if the plane don’t crash.” I wrote a grumbly letter to the editor about it that I haven’t seen them print yet, which may be for the best.
One friend said the students stole our thunder. We were playing by the rules: we held a vigil in the church, we marched peacefully down the sidewalk (not in the street) of Riverside Drive, we stood at Confluence Park and later on the bridge, calmly, peacefully, prayerfully! And because no one was shoved by an officer or hit by a student’s peace sign, we were summarily dismissed as uninteresting and therefore not newsworthy (or should I say, anxiety-worthy.) We couldn’t be fit into that delicious box known as “angry and aggressive peace activist who hits people.” We couldn’t be fit into a label that matched the palate of the average news consumer, so we were ignored.
It’s enough to make you want to smack someone with your peace sign – just to get some news coverage! I can’t tell you how many times I receive e-mails calling for a moral outcry! “If you’re not outraged then you’re not paying attention” was a popular phrase for a while. “Why aren’t we beating down the doors of our elected officials?” The author of the plea will bemoan how we just shrug when the next egregious breach of ethics spins past our TV screens. “Where are the angry and incensed masses?” they ask. It almost makes you want to throw your good manners out the window and start calling people names. It almost makes you want to set aside the common niceties of society and say rude things about various authority figures. It almost makes you want to march down the street and get in trouble with the law, just to make a point! Of course, the minute you do that, you’ve lost your message and all anyone hears is the ill-mannered actions you offered.
So, if you want to bring about real change in society, you can play by the rules, stay calm and polite – and be ignored. Or you can forget the rules, get in people’s faces, make a scene – and be dismissed. One would think that at some point a third method would have been invented!
On the fourth of July, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into his rough-hewn cabin on Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord, and he wrote is likely the most recognized piece of American non-fiction, and the manifesto of natural simplicity and retreat for the maddening crowd.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
And two years later, when he came out from Walden, he wrote:
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spend any more time for that one.
The account of Thoreau’s time at Walden was not published for several years. When it was published, it was received with great acclaim! But when Henry David Thoreau came out of the Walden what he presented to the world was his short essay on “Civil Disobedience.” When he came out from Walden he wrote, “Under a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison,” and “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” When Thoreau left Walden he did so as a rabble-rouser and disturber-or-the-peace.
Dr. Martin Luther King kept a dog-eared copy of that short essay on hand for moral sustenance and encouragement. In his 1963 book, Strength to Love, Dr. King wrote, “The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists. In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!” I think that is the heart of what we are aiming at this morning. We are beset by many causes that concern the progress of humanity – not just the Americans, but all of humanity. Look, however at the way Thoreau was a non-conformist. First he withdrew to Walden and then he engaged society with Civil Disobedience. First he turned inward to gather his resources, to take stock, to get right with himself. Then he stepped forward and took his stand. Time and again, the Civil Rights movement of the did the same thing, taking time to gather and take stock, to plan and get right with who they were in relation to each other and to God and to the high principles they were struggling toward. Then they would step forward and take a stand.
It doesn’t count as Civil Disobedience to just step out and get in people’s faces. Part of the work is to plan, to get right with yourself, your God, and the high principles toward which you are struggling. When you step out trying to march down the street with a little impromptu civil disobedience – beware the anger that marches along within you. Beware the temptation to think your goal is to make a scene, to disrupt the daily rounds, to get in the way and be noticed. Beware, for that is not the point. That’s just ego and anger – and that does not have a place in our struggle for peace and liberty and sustainability and equality.
As much as it seems like giving in or selling out, you still have to play nice. Good manners matter as much – for they will know us by our love. Otherwise, we’re just being disobedient. We lose the civil side of our civic engagement. And we play right into the expectations of the stereotype: we demonstrate almost obedient incivility when we march our anger with us into the streets rather than our purposeful, principled, premeditated passion for peace and liberty. Compassionate Communication, as our own Jane Connor will tell you, does not deny anger and frustration. Injustice certainly leads to anger, but the struggle for justice does not let anger take the reins. Of course, neither does it give itself over to politeness and decorum!
As we in this community prepare for the continued war in Iraq, for a push toward universal health care, for a debate about the economic feasibility of environmental sustainability, or for a confrontation on the issue of civil marriage – let us be clear with each other right now. If we choose to engage with faith in real justice-making work then we will be inviting passion and anger and pain and outrage and anxiety to sit with us in our struggle. We approach these issues remembering that not everyone in this congregation agrees. As one colleague has said, we will cuss and discuss. Let us remember that our covenant to treat all people with respect and support is a covenant that extends not just to those with whom we agree, or who sit within these walls. Therefore, let us go forth with care; but by all means, let us go forth!
In a world without end, May it be so.
Why I Am a Christian and Why I Am Not
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I could have titled this Why I Am a Buddhist and Why I Am Not, or Why I Am a Pagan and Why I Am Not. Each label would have allowed me an opportunity to make my point about the ambiguous and nuanced reality of life that labels flatten. But I will admit that I chose the focus on Christianity rather than another religious tradition today in part because I knew it would rile up many of us; but more importantly becasue today is Palm Sunday in the Christian tradition, celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem – the first event in what is known as Holy Week. I also chose this focus because of Unitarian Universalisms strong and rebellious historical roots to Protestant Christianity along with the personal roots that many here share as well. Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition that draws from many sources including the Eastern and Western religions, Humanism, Paganism, and many others – but none so ambivalently as Christianity, our mother religion.
Thomas Jefferson, in the midst of his first term as president of the United States of America, wrote a letter to his friend and fellow patriot, Benjamin Rush. In that letter Jefferson spoke candidly about his religious beliefs saying:
To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other. (April 21, 1803)
Jefferson was a free-thinking Deist who occasionally referred to himself as a Unitarian; although he regularly attended an Anglican church in Virginia, he did so because there were no Unitarian churches that far south at the time. And he later went on record to deny the divinity of Christ which is a standard Unitarian claim. Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian? Was he a Unitarian? Both questions elude a clean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. He certainly considered himself to be both and Christian and a Unitarian. Others have regularly denied his claims to both groups. Is Unitarian Universalism a Christian denomination? Well, yes; but not really, no. Am I a Christian? You know, it all depends on whose definition of ‘Christian’ we’re using.
I remember a church course I’d taken as a young adult; the topic was our Unitarian Universalist history and heritage. We learned about how the Unitarians broke away from Protestant Christianity 400 years ago over the doctrine of the trinity – claiming that God is instead a Unity: God is one. The implication, of course, is that Jesus is fully human and in no way divine. We also learned about how the Universalists likewise broke away from American Protestantism over 200 years ago proclaiming that God is a loving father who would no condemn any of his children to eternal punishment: Universal Salvation means there is not eternal Hell and that all of us will be united with God in heaven.
Our instructor then asked us to break into discussion groups and one of the questions we were to reflect on was “Do you consider yourself to be a Christian?” Well I serious thought to this question! I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist. I’d been taught to honor and look for the beauty in all of the world’s religions. I had learned of Buddhism and Hinduism, Islam and various Pagan traditions. I thought about what I’d heard about Jesus and his teachings. I considered the ways he challenged the corrupt authorities of his day, his admonitions to not worry and to not judge, his call to love others – even strangers and enemies – as if they were neighbors. I figured, Yes, I strive to live by that call to love. Yes I am a Christian.
When we went around the circle, the few people ahead of me said ‘No,’ they did not consider themselves Christian. I said ‘Yes’ and then another person in my small discussion group practically pounced on me. “You can’t be a Christian. Do you see Jesus as your personal Lord and savior? Of course not!” Interestingly, when my challenger had her turn in the circle to answer the question, she stated as bold a brass that she was certainly not a Christian but she did consider herself to be a Protestant on the grounds that she protested against creeds and beliefs. I thought, ‘that’s not fair! If she gets to redefine what a Protestant is than I can redefine what a Christian is!’ But I didn’t say anything. I was younger then and had not yet found my voice.
Truth be told, I had accepted this person’s rebuke and stopped considering myself a Christian. I changed my label to, ‘one who tries to follow the teachings of Jesus.’ I hadn’t really had a serious commitment to the label, calling myself a Christian back then was more of an intellectual exercise than a conviction. Over the years I’ve learned the dramatic difference between having opinions and ideas verses having convictions and beliefs. This difference between religious ideas and religious beliefs is experience. William James wrote about religious experiences, he wrote about how the ground of religion is not in beliefs or creeds, liturgy or rituals – it is in direct experience. James wrote about people’s direct experiences of meaning and depth. Beliefs arise from these intense religious experiences. It is later that these experiences are codified into systems of belief. The error comes in assuming you can have convictions about your beliefs without the experiences that lead you to the beliefs. Traditional religion tends to be the codified statements of belief devoid of the original experience, it tends to be faith packaged and presented for spiritual consumption without the recognition that it can’t be yours until discover it on your own.
Many UUs grew up in a Christian home and eventually turned away from the Christianity. Was it because there was an expectation to accept certain beliefs without the underlying experiences? Was it that the experiences you did have did not fit the accepted patterns? Or perhaps it was because you had no experiences of Jesus or of God’s love and felt hypocritical? Can you say you believe something intellectually but not feel it inside – is it enough to say it but not really have experienced it?
When I was in seminary I had a bible professor who offered a very succinct answer to the question, “what is the difference between a regular Christian and a Unitarian Universalist?” Some of the other students in class asked me that one day, and Professor Kempton Hewitt answered for me. He said, While Christians believe the most significant of the story is Jesus’ death and resurrection, Unitarian Universalists believe the most important part of the story is Jesus’ life and teachings. Being able to separate the ethical teachings of Jesus from the beliefs about Jesus and then focusing only on one of those two parts is something many people do.
Listen, for example to this passage from the book Nickel and Dimed,
The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful “amens.” It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never mentioned, not anything he ever had to say, Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again, so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.
-Barbara Ehrenreich from Nickel and Dimed
But are we allowed to make that division? To say I commit my life to following the ethical teachings of Jesus is not the same as saying to believe Jesus is my Lord and Savior, certainly. Many UUs speak of their appreciation of Ethical Christianity. We easily separate out the teachings and strive to follow them without accepting all the beliefs. And yet, I still wonder about the wisdom of this separation being so easy. Many Christians claim that being Christian is more that ethics – it is an experience of accepting Jesus. So by this line of thinking, I am NOT a Christian.
But in that scintillating title I claimed both sides for myself. I won’t subscribe to certain central Christian beliefs, I don’t see Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and I even question now whether an Ethical commitment to the teachings of Jesus would suffice to take up the label. Well, then in what way DO I consider myself a Christian?
Well, let me tell you a story. A little over ten years ago I had two very powerful religious experiences in the space of a few weeks and it is not too far of a stretch to claim that these experiences changed my life and perhaps even saved it. This happened while I was serving as a chaplain in Strong Memorial hospital in Rochester, NY. 400 hours of chaplaincy was a mandatory component of my theological education, and this is how I spent a summer between my second and third year of seminary. I was part of an ecumenical group of ten chaplains serving that summer; we were mostly Catholics, American Baptists, a Methodist, a Disciples of Christ, and me. During the first week I established myself as the radical free-thinking Unitarian Universalist in the group – putting them all on notice that I was most certainly not a Trinitarian-believing Christian, though I assured them I did belief in God, or at least something close enough to what they might consider God that we could pray together without too much difficulty.
One afternoon we were in prayer together. Our supervisor was leading us through a process called Lectio Divina, which a sacred and meditative way of reading scripture. One part of the process is a long stretch of silence in which we listen. I emptied my mind and I waited. I listened and a word broke to the surface of my mind. I pushed it down and tried to be empty again and wait, but the word re-appeared. So annoying – this was what it was always like when I try to meditate. My mind was always shooting on ahead – unwilling to quiet down. I’m better able to manage it now, but back then it was a constant trial. I emptied myself again and waited and listened. Again a word broke to the surface of my mind. It finally occurred to me that this was the point. I was supposed to be listening, right? So I listened. “Patience.” I felt a chill down my back as I comprehended the possibilities of what was happening. “Patience.” I took that to mean, “Relax, Douglas, you’re going to be alright.”
At the time I was wading through a lot of rough stuff in my life. I was not feeling ‘alright.’ Seminary and this hospital experience are designed to pull up issues that may hinder you as you go into ministry – personal stuff that might trip you up if you don’t learn to deal with it. I have mentioned before that I did not grow up as a happy kid. I was raised in an alcoholic home and had learned to hide myself, my feelings, my hopes and everything. I went through a major transformation to open up to the way I am today. And this experience in the chapel of Strong Memorial Hospital, along with a second experience a few days later, comprise a pivotal point in that transformation. But at that moment, I was anything but ‘patient’ about what I was going through
Months later I was reading this Henri Nouwen stuff and I came across this interesting connection. He writes: “Patience comes from the word patior which means to suffer.” (p. 55 Out Of Solitude) More chills went down my back as I comprehended the possibilities. This week I went to my Pocket Webster Dictionary for confirmation. It says: “Patient: adj., undergoing pain, hardship, affliction, insult, etc. with calmness and equanimity.” Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death! There is salvation in waiting, in patience.
A few days after the group meditation in which I uncovered that soothing word, I was alone in the chapel in prayer. I was reacting to the suggestion of patience with impatience and feeling overloaded, overwhelmed, stressed and depressed, I was spiraling down. So I went to pray. Dragging up all my issues of growing up in alcoholic home, horrible sense of self-worth, abandonment, fears that I was grossly abnormal. And I put it all out there in my silent prayer, a plea to get through it.
What happened next is something I have felt before, but usually when I’ve been out in the woods alone – never in a building, let alone in a chapel. I felt wrapped in the love of God. I felt, actually a presence, what seemed like a human presence sitting next to me as I worked to accept my anguish and this call to be patient. I felt that I was not alone. In that moment I saw that the trick to getting through this fearful turmoil was not to sneak around it, to duck it, to get over it. The trick to getting through it was to go through it! But I knew, then, that I was not alone. And I never have been since.
This was a direct experience, of Jesus, of God? Perhaps – I didn’t rush to attach a label to it. It was an experience of sitting in the chapel and feeling a holy presence. From a Christian perspective, there is one clear answer as to what happened, one clear explanation of the experience. But I reserve the right to label my experiences in my own ways. I have had other experiences of divinity in other ways that would be labeled differently by an equally exclusive pattern of labeling. I could have quit everything and become a Christian back then. But by that standard I would have then needed to become a Taoist a few years later, and then back to being the Pagan I’d been as a youth. Of course every three days I would have renounced everything claiming to be an atheist and a realist, and forget the whole thing. Instead I belong to a faith that embraces all of it, allowing me to continue to grow in faith and understanding.
I consider myself a Christian when I weigh the impact of that experience of acceptance and grace on my current life. While I value the ethical call within Christianity to love my neighbor as myself and to not judge others – I suspect I would still set myself to those standards regardless of where they originated. While I enjoy considering the theological implications of the multiplicity of God and the incarnation of God, I have no wish to contain those beliefs into one version of the story. Some have suggested Unitarian Universalism is ‘more than’ Christian, but that doesn’t quite get to it and just comes off as arrogant. Ultimately we are each responsible to sort out our own answers to this, for me I am happy to consider myself a Christian in some senses recognizing that I do so in ways that few other Christians would acknowledge or honor. So I am happy to leave it a little fuzzy. Thankfully, I am above all a Unitarian Universalist and around here leaving our labels a little fuzzy is considered a wise step.
Unitarian Universalism is a wide faith. We hold no creed or dogma at our center; we do not unite around a single theological claim. Instead we share a covenant – a promise to support one another as we search for truth and understanding.
In a world without end, may it be so