Sermons 2008-09

Feast of the Sacrifice

Feast of the Sacrifice
Rev. Douglas Taylor

It is the hope of every Muslim to make the Hajj at least once in a lifetime. The Hajj, the unique pilgrimage to the city of Mecca for prayers around the ancient Kabah, is one of the five pillars of Islam and as such is required of every Muslim if circumstances allow it. The Hajj celebrates Prophet Muhammad’s return to Mecca in 632 just before his death. Karen Armstrong, in her book A History of God, writes about the Hajj ritual.

These rituals look bizarre to an outsider – as do any alien social or religious rituals – but they are able to unleash an intense religious experience and perfectly express the communal and personal aspects of Islamic spirituality. Today many of the thousands of pilgrims who assemble at the appointed time in Mecca are not Arabs, but they have been able to make the ancient Arabic ceremonies their own. As they converge on the Kabah, clad in the traditional pilgrim dress that obliterates all distinctions of race or class, they feel that they have been liberated from the egotistic preoccupations of their daily lives and been caught up into a community that has one focus and orientation. They cry in unison, “Here I am at your service, O al-Lah,” before they begin circumambulations around the shrine. (p156)

But like any good ritual or religious practice, it ties back to more than a moment in history. It is more than remembering Muhammad’s bloodless victory of Mecca. The Hajj also connects to the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael through the legend that in later life Abraham came to visit his son Ishmael and together they built that massive black stone alter known as the Kabah.

At the end of the Hajj there is the Feast of the Sacrifice, or Eid al-Adha. There are two major festivals in the Islamic Calendar: Eid al-Ftir which marks the conclusion of Ramadan, the month of fasting, and is considered the lesser festival; and Eid al-Adha which marks the conclusion of the Hajj. Eid al-Adha will begin December 8th this year according to the western calendar. It is the 10th day of Dhul Hijja of the year 1429 according to the Islamic Calendar.

The Feast of the Sacrifice lasts three days and commemorates Ibrahim’s willingness to obey God by sacrificing his first-born son, Ismail. According to the Qur’an, a voice from heaven stopped Ibrahim and allowed him to sacrifice a ram instead. The feast re-enacts Ibrahim’s obedience by sacrificing an animal, often a ram. The family then eats a third of the meal, offers another third to relatives, and donates the rest of the meal to the poor.

Whenever I have returned to studying Islam I am always caught by the parallel stories in both the Qur’an and the Bible. The two scriptures share similar stories that often have only a few details that don’t line up. The story of Abraham sacrificing his son is one such story. In the versions told in Genesis, God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, who is his second son though his first child by his wife Sarah. The Qur’an does not specifically name Ishmael as the sacrificial son, though it is clearly implied in the fact that after the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his first-born son, the next story is about the birth of Isaac – ergo it must have been Ishmael almost sacrificed. In either case, Abraham is told to sacrifice his first-born. Abraham agrees to this and begins to follow through. At the last minute God tells him to stop and offers a replacement. Thus Abraham is honored for his faithfulness and obedience to God. (Surah 37:100–108; Genesis 22:2-18)

The Hajj, which is a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca to remind every Muslim of the roots of their faith and of the essential community and oneness of all Muslims, leads up to the Feast of the Sacrifice: the festival that reminds every Muslim of the faithfulness of Abraham.

I stand in good company among those who really do not understand why this story of Abraham is considered such a good and great story. I don’t like this story. The man was willing to kill his child. I find this abhorrent. Even following the storyline and seeing that God was not really wanting Abraham to sacrifice his son, that is was only a test – it only means that this God of Abraham is not a capricious sadist, merely petty and insecure: “If you really loved me you would prove it.” Many people respond to this story with rejection: that can’t be God. Surely that is not a story about the loving and merciful God I know. And yet all the western monotheisms trace themselves back to Abraham; Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike point to this story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as a pivotal story of faithfulness.

Of particular note is Existentialist philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard who spent a great deal of time with the story and eventually published his book Fear and Trembling using the story as a demonstration of the deeply religious life and the “teleological suspension of the ethical” or as it is more commonly known, the ‘leap of faith.’ Kierkegaard’s reasoning was that Abraham’s behavior could only be seen as ethically wrong, yet it was religiously the right thing for him to have done. Therefore the deeply religious life, he used the word ‘aesthetic’ in contrast of the word ‘ethical,’ the deeply aesthetic life was unreasonable: non grounded in logic or ethic. Faith requires a leap. Abraham leapt and by the internal argument of the story, he chose correctly. And so, perhaps this is reducible to a question of discernment: when should you leap?

I bumped into a riddle this week. A warrior stands before three seated men. The first is a king who says, “I command you to kill these other two men for the good of the realm.” The second is a high priest who says, “I command you to kill these other two men in the name of God.” The third is a rich man with bags of gold at his feet, he says, “I command you to kill these other two men and I will give you all this gold if you do it.” So who survives?

The answer, of course, is that it depends entirely on the warrior standing before these three men. Who would you obey? In which direction would you leap? What would need to change in the riddle to make it work for you? I want to answer outside of the riddle: I would not kill any of the three men, they would all survive. We Unitarian Universalists don’t have much use for words like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘obedience.’ We put our stock in words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘free-thinking.’ Our stories are about following your own path, marching to the beat of your own drum. We talk about questioning authority and welcoming doubt. Obedience and Sacrifice are not regular parts of our vocabulary of faith. When we speak of the faithful examples from our Unitarian Universalist history we refer to the rebels rather than the conformists.

Yet obedience is a big part of the three big western religious traditions. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) “Whosoever submits his will to God, while doing good, his wage is with the Lord, and no fear shall be upon them, neither shall they sorrow.” (Qur’an 2:112) and I know this will sound familiar: “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and the keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I [Moses] command you this day for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13) It starts our like Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8) But Deuteronomy is older than Micah. Before Israel was told to do and love and walk with justice, mercy and love they were told to fear and obey. The second phrase sounds so much like a line Jesus offered about which one commandment was the greatest: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) But before Jesus told his followers to love God and neighbor they were told to fear God and obey the commandments.

Abraham is a model of faithfulness for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike: not because he question God as faithful Job had done, not because he called us to justice and righteousness as faithful Micah and Amos had done, but because he was impeccably obedient. Perhaps even obedient to a fault!

Perhaps I have being too hard on the story, and on these three great western religious traditions. Perhaps I am being too literalist in my understanding, and thus my critique. Certainly a socio-historical contextual reading of the story would be fairer. Such a reading would argue that this story is about a stage of development in the worship of God, perhaps even a stage in the education of God. It declares a shift away from the abhorrent practice of human sacrifice. It dramatically proclaims an end to sacrificing of your first-born child to honor and empower your God. From now on, a goat will suffice. Now, a few thousand years later, the ritual killing of goats for the Feast of the Sacrifice is seen as cruel and even barbaric. But back when this story was first being told it was pretty good: “Oh we can just use a goat? That’s my kind of God!”

As our understanding of God evolved from a God who wants human sacrifice to a God who craves a burnt offering of goat and first fruit, perhaps we can allow understanding to evolve more fully into a God who yearns for ‘justice to roll down like water and righteous like a mighty stream’ as the Jewish prophets would have it (Amos), or a God who commands us to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves’ as Jesus would have it (Matthew), or a God who proclaims: ‘be mindful of your duty, and do right; Allah loves the doer of good’ as Muhammad tells us (Surah 5:93).

All of which is clearly already available in the scriptures. The story of Abraham is not going away and the Feast of the Sacrifice does have a strong aspect of justice enfolded into the festival. After the ritual sacrifice of a goat, a significant portion of the food is given to the poor. The story will not fade to the background as the western monotheisms evolve and grow. And the literalists and fanatics continue to use the story as justification to wage war – a clear perversion of the original intent as well as the more common contemporary interpretation of the story.

And this swings me back around to our melancholy Danish Existentialist: Soren Kierkegaard who is not easy for me to dismiss as simply a non-logical, anti-philosopher who makes the unreasonable leap of faith. Kierkegaard is anything but simple. Despite my argument against his sensational dismissal of the use of reason, Kierkegaard is on to something very important when he writes about the demands of living a deeply religious life. The key to understanding Kierkegaard, I have been told, is in his insistence that Subjective truth is superior to objective truth. Objective truths are the truths of history and science. These truths are verifiable, external, confirmable. Subjective truths are all the internal values and understanding within each person’s being. And, here is the key statement, according to Kierkegaard, subjective truths have primacy over objective truths.

I could spend considerable time just unpacking that idea, but let me leap back to the story of Abraham and his sacrificial son – be it Ishmael or Isaac! Kierkegaard offers this story as the basis of his explanation of the leap of faith into the religious or aesthetic life. For Abraham to kill his first-born son would be ethically wrong. But, Kierkegaard suggests, true faith calls us to heed ‘divine purpose’ which transcends ethics. At its face, this statement is wildly dangerous: it is the logic of fanatics and tyrants: I can do as I understand God to be calling me to do even though it is unethical. Kierkegaard takes us into the heart of dangerous fanaticism. But only if we forget the key to understanding Kierkegaard: which is that Subjective truth is superior to objective truth. For Kierkegaard the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his first-born is not a public occasion or historical event. It is certainly not a model for action in the world. (see Kierkegaard in 90 minutes by Paul Strathern, pp 45-6; 50-4)

This story plays out a subjective truth: to live a deeply religious life, an aesthetic life – I suppose today’s vocabulary we can say a ‘spiritual life’ – to live thus you will need to make sacrifices. Abraham and Ishmael are different elements of the same person. The leap of faith is not a call to take up arms and slay innocent people; it is a call to see that what is precious to you in your life may be exactly what is keeping you from the deeper life of the spirit that you yearn to live. Buddhism offers us much the same revelation. Western monotheism’s problem (by an Existentialist’s point of view) is that it is too tied in with the history and as such the great and powerful myths are mistaken for literal, objective, historical truths.

I think this brings us back to the same place we were in before: Faith requires a leap. Abraham leapt and by the internal argument of the story, he chose correctly. And so, perhaps this is reducible to a question of discernment: when should you leap? We approach the sacred Muslim festival Eid al-Adha – the feast of the sacrifice. As Unitarian Universalists, we may take this opportunity to learn more of the faith and practice of Islam. We may take this opportunity to explore a deeper level of our own faith. When should you leap? Without disregarding the ethical, as in, it is important to still give one third of the goat to the poor; the sacrifice for Abraham can be read at a spiritual level. The story is not a model for action in the world, but for action within you. In that riddle of the king and the priest and the rich man: the question is not whom would you be willing to kill for; rather it is what aspect of your soul rules the others. What, in yourself, do you obey? And, turning it back to Abraham, what might you need to sacrifice, or at least offer to sacrifice, in order to grow?

Would that then whole world could learn to hear stories at this level!

In a world without end, may it be so.


Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 16, 2008

Van Jones sees a “Green Wave” rising in America today. He calls us to build a boat that will hold all of us as we move into the future. This summer, during our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, Van Jones delivered the prestigious Ware Lecture. As with everything in the main convention hall, the Ware Lecture had the live Closed Captioning for the hearing impaired. Watching the closed captioning in often entertaining even for those not hearing impaired as there are regular errors that are usually cleaned up within a second or two, but for a brief time the error is flashed there along the bottom of the screens. During Jones’ lecture he said the word “ecology” several times. And every time the closed captioning spelled out “Eek-ology” and then quickly backed up and corrected the misprint. Every time. As much as I was engaged and enjoying Van Jones’ presentation, a small portion of my brain kept noticing “Eek-ology, Eek-ology” The study of fear. And I thought, “I can make a sermon out of that.”

Fear. Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew (5:36) “Do not be afraid, only have faith.” At least that is how it comes out in some translations. But with this rendering, faith and fear develop a relationship which leads to the line of thinking that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. Fear is the piece that cripples us when we need to move. Fear is what strips us of our confidence, our curiosity, our courage. Fear kills our willingness to take risks, to reach out, to try again. Fear closes us off from a life-giving breath of insight, closes us off from seeing a new future awaiting our efforts. And when we start talking about the environment and ecology – there can be a very strong layer of fear to the conversation: fear for the future of our race, fear that we won’t respond in time, fear that we’ll have done things over our lifetimes that will have ruined the futures of our children and grandchildren. Fear is part of the environmental conversation.

Remarkably, when Van Jones talks about the environment, fear is not part of the conversation. Van Jones’ take on ecology leaves no room for “Eek.” Instead what he offers, and what I would like to offer, is a call for us to see that a better world is possible: not just to say that it is, but to actually see it and talk about it and make it happen. But that is not easy. I hear a lot of reactions around the call to care for our ecology that carry too much “Eek.” Sometimes it is from within when those who say we’re on the right track, doing the right work – to find renewable energy, and to recycle more, and to consume less – because (and here is the fear) if we don’t we’re in for major trouble.

I want to honor that this is a real fear. I’m not going to cast aspersions at our fears this morning, but I do want us to move past them. But this fear for the end of the world as we know it may be what spurs some to take action. This fear focuses us on what is wrong and not where we need to put our attention if we are to find solutions and a way out. That is my only problem with that fear. If you are afraid for the earth, fine. I am too. But we need to move past that, we’re a faith community – we need to move past the fear to build a new way.

Sometimes the fear comes disguised as the voice of the oppressed being shafted once again. Van Jones had spent some time talking about this. In the reading he presented a critique of the media on this count of the oppressed being shafted once again. This sort of fear comes across more poignantly in the thinking of Deneen Borelli, writing for online magazine “The Root” as part of “Project 21” which is a national network of black executives. In his article from last month titled “It Takes Green to Go Green” (Oct. 8, 2008), the subtitle asks: “Are liberal environmental policies hurting poor black communities? Conservatives think so!” Borelli claims that “radical environmentalists and their supporters,” who are “against oil exploration in Alaska and off our coasts” and who “are also blocking the construction of new coal-fired power plants that produce electricity,” have set a level of demand that they as liberal elites deem necessary, but in effect “leads to higher energy prices and pain in the pocketbooks of those who can least afford it—poor, black people living in struggling neighborhoods.”

I want to honor that this is a real fear. I’m not going to cast aspersions at our fears this morning, but I do want us to move past them. This fear for the painfully classist approach the environmental movement has been stuck in might be what keeps some people from connecting to it. The accomplishments of the environmental movement thus far have been done by a small group of committed people (as if anything else has accomplished things) but we need to find that grassroots spark. As Van Jones has said, (I’m starting to sound like this is the gospel according to Van Jones, but listen to what he said,) we need to make sure that those who were locked out of last century’s drill and burn economy get locked in to the new green economy; if we’re going to green the country, let’s green the ghetto first. If you are afraid for the way racism might yet again keep some of us from the dream of a better world, fine. I have that fear too. But we need to move past that, we’re a faith community – we need to move past the fear to build a new way.

There’s one other fear I must mention, as it is so prevalent and can undermine so much. It is a fear that comes disguised as the voice of practical reality. As the market was spiraling out of control earlier this fall, very soon after it started, there was an article that popped up on several news wires: Environmental concerns must take a back seat in economic downturn. The article reasoned that since most climate control initiatives were very costly, and since the climate crisis is not an imminent threat (or at least not as imminent as the economic crisis), it will therefore have to wait as we sort out more pressing economic concerns.

I want to honor that this is a real fear. I’m not going to cast aspersions at our fears this morning, but I do want us to move past them. This fear for the economy can be heartbreaking for some as they see pension funds drop off and plans for funding their grandchildren’s future education evaporate. For some this fear for the economy can be life shattering as you face the prospect of losing your job or even your home. But the economy and the climate crisis are connected and the solution for the environment will bring solutions for the economy as well. The Green New Deal is coming if we can hold on and if we can start building now to meet it. Now, in this time of scarcity and fear, is exactly the right time to think about abundance and hope. If you are afraid for your financial security in the midst of this economic turmoil, fine. I certainly am too. But we need to move past that, we’re a faith community – we need to move past the fear to build a new way.

There are connections between race and economy and the environment that lead us to solutions that can build a better world. I remember a course I took in seminary on Democracy. We took a field trip to the south side of Chicago to see the shadow side of democracy in action. Our professor rented two vans and took us on a tour with a community organizer who lives in the neighborhoods we were looking at. Aside from the awful feeling of being tourists in another community’s suffering, we learned a lot. “This is the housing that was built and is crumbling down after only a few dozen years.” “Smell that, the sewage treatment plant is just around the corner and they work it way beyond capacity.” “Here is the riverbank where the city refused to post a warning about the toxicity levels because they didn’t want to create panic.” Again and again we were shown the connection. The lower class non-white citizens were again and again hit first and worst by the environmental degradations.

We need to build a new way. And not just at the policy level, but in the grassroots as well. We have to get this one right. When we build a new energy structure in this nation with wind and solar and other renewable energy forms: we must look not only to how we can use this technology to save our economy but how we can use it to save the people too. If we are going to say there are no throw away resources, no throw away species, no throw away toxic leftover, then we must also say there are no throw away people. We’re all in the solution, we’re all going there.

In the creation story in the Bible God made things and each evening said it was good. God made the water and the earth and said it was good, made plants and animals and birds and fish and said it was good; made people and said it was good. In the Koran God asks “The heavens and earth and everything in it, think you I made them in jest?” (23/115 and 44/38). In the Tao Te Ching, we read that from the Tao arose the Ten Thousand Things, which translates to “everything” meaning – all of it is precious, all of it is included. The earth does not include any junk. God didn’t make any junk. In the Koran, God doesn’t say, “that part over there, those people over there, I was just kidding.” No. In the Bible, it doesn’t say, on the seventh day God took the rest of the stuff and just left it lying around. No. We don’t have any junk. All of it and everyone is precious. We’re all in the solution, we’re all going there. We have to get this one right if we are going to build a new way beyond this fear.

I have a proposal. I have a challenge. What are we going to do with all this precious land and people here along the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers? Our Green Sanctuary group is meeting and talking and moving. The global environmental movement is rolling. The federal government has heard the call and is preparing to answer and usher in a Green New Deal. Many of us stand poised to remind them of the hope and the possibilities of what can come if we get this right. The local government is focusing on greening the greater Binghamton community. I sat in on the Binghamton Healthy Neighborhoods Collaboration this week. This is a roundtable gathering of people looking at blighted properties in Downtown Binghamton and First Ward, looking to tear them down with grant money and rebuild some of them – they plan to rebuild first one with straw bale green technology in downtown, hoping to spark investor interest to build some more. They plan to link with VINES and turn some of them into community gardens. There are some real, practical, smart things going on.

What can we do? That is not a rhetorical question. And I’m trying to not make it a leading question as if I have the solution and you just need to guess the right answer. I really want to do something to help the Binghamton community. I want our congregation to reach out into the areas in our town that have been hit first and worst by the economic and environmental struggles. I want a project. Talk to me. I don’t usually do “sermon talk-backs.” But I set one up in the Fireside Room for immediately after each service. I schedule childcare. Get some coffee and come talk to me. Together we can be part of the solution.

We are the ones. We don’t have billions or even millions of dollars here to bail anybody out. But we have something more powerful: a vision for the better world, passion to see it come, and hands and hearts to step forward and build a new way.

In a world without end,
May it be so

Religion and Violence

Religion and Violence
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 9, 2008

Violence is a natural part of life. Religion has evolved over the ages to explain life, thus religion has often been called upon to justify – or at least explain – violence. The book, Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida, by Hent DeVries, has this loaded question posed: “Although it is clear that religion can play an important role in the cause or at least the intensification of violence, could religion and religious language serve a useful purpose in understanding violence and the violent tendencies in both individual humans and human social groups?” Modern religious people will of course argue for the ways in which religion helps us to understand and even overcome violence. Yet there is also a strong critique from outside formal religion that points to crusades and jihads, human sacrifice and genitalia mutilation, and the anguished plea of the oppressed for God to dash the heads of our enemies’ babies against the rocks along the mournful banks of the River Babylon (Psalm 137).

The degree of violence done in the name of religion is staggering and shameful. And even though I would argue that the majority of violence done under the canopy of ‘religion’ is not done by individuals faithfully living by the precepts of their faith, (as in, the 19 Muslim hijackers who crashed planes into the pentagon and the world trade center have been disowned again and again by moderate Muslims who say such actions are not in keeping with the true Islamic faith) … even though I would argue along with others that ‘religion’ is often perverted by those who would do violence, it is still quite telling that religion remains so easily co-opted by forces bent on destruction.

Violence is the aggressive use of force resulting in suffering or pain. Immediate examples that come to mind may be war, murder, and other cruelties which we inflict upon one another. Other examples might come from nature, such as stormy weather or the way a carnivore would attack its prey. Early in human evolution, religion was the tool we used to explain and understand the changing seasons, birth and death, our place in the world, why there is violence, and why it might be allowed for us to commit violence against the earth and its inhabitants that we might live. Early on, religion helped clarify the role of violence in our lives. According to Karen Armstrong’s recent book, A Short History of Myth, it is generally agreed that during the Paleolithic Era human beings viewed the world as deeply imbued with the holy: there was not a split between sacred and secular – everything was sacred, every action was a reflection of the archetypal divine actions. In this same manner, there was not ‘good and evil’ so much as ‘natural and unnatural.’ In this earliest context then, violence which caused suffering and pain either to human beings or to other animals or even to the land would be judged as bad not based on the amount of suffering or what caused the pain but on whether or not it was unnatural or against the stories.

This perspective begins with the understanding that life has suffering, that violence is a part of nature: one animal kills and eats another, storms sweep through the land and destroy crops and homes. And as a mirror to that, a tribe may rise up in power and overwhelm another tribe. These events are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they are simply a part of what is. At this early point in the evolution of humanity, religion helped to explain the violence and to a degree to justify it: to provide a reason or meaning for the violence in life.

As humanity evolved and grew, so too did our understanding of life and our place in the universe. So too did our understanding of and our capacity for violence grow. And eventually, our capacity to object to violence grew with our ability to imagine another way. The sociological study of religion shows a general movement from the capricious God of thunderbolts through an abundant God (or more often Goddess) of harvest to the God of love and judgment found in the Axial Age. German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term the Axial Age to describe the period from 800 BC to 200 BC. During this time, according to Jaspers, similarly revolutionary thinking appeared in China with Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Siddhartha Gautama, in India with the authors of the Upanishads, in Greece with Plato and Socrates, and the Middle East with the Jewish prophets Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Karen Armstrong, again from the perspective of the evolution of mythic understanding, says the Axial Age marked the time when philosophers and religious figures brought us a sense that it is not enough to know the hallowed stories and go through the sacred rituals, we must also be nice to one another. “I hate, I despise your festivals” God says to the Jewish Prophet Amos, “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

At this stage in the evolution of humanity, as in earlier stages, religion served to (among other things) explain and justify violence. It grows more complicated: violence is still a part of life and the universe, but in the stories God is not asking for violent sacrifices from humanity to prove fealty. In China, the Middle East, India, and Greece, violence takes on less of a divine face and more of a human face.

Add to this ethical/theological mix the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and all he offers on the topics of love and violence. The radical introduction of love is certainly remarkable. Love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies, and in the face of violence turn the other cheek. Walter Wink, in his essay “Can Love Save the World?” highlights the religious response to violence as found in the Gospels. Lifting up that passage about turning the other cheek, Wink fills out the context of the passage so that a deeper understanding – not only of the violence, but also of the power of love – can illumine our present day response to life.

Too often the suggestion to ‘turn the other cheek’ is seen as a weak resignation to violence. If someone hits you, let them hit you again. It can be misconstrued as Jesus advising us to say “Thank you sir, may I have another.” “Let me lay down so you may more easily walk all over me.”

“As it stands,” Wink writes, “this saying seems to counsel supine surrender. If you are a woman and you are struck by your spouse on one cheek, turn the other; let him pulverize you. If you are sued for a piece of clothing, give all your clothes voluntarily, as an act of pious renunciation. And if a Roman soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, be a chump: carry it two. And the crowning blow: don’t resist evil at all.” (Religion, Terror and Violence, Rennie and Tite eds., pp 115-116)

This, Wink explains, is a perversion of Jesus’ intent. Jesus who was constantly resisting evil surely would not counsel us to not ‘resist’ evil. A deeper understanding of the context is needed. There are three examples in the Jesus’ exhortation to resist evil. First he says “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Well, we might ask, why the right cheek? What if someone strikes you on the left cheek? It probably does matter! Walter Wink suggests that it does. If someone strikes you on the right cheek they will have done so either with their left hand: which back in that time period was almost unheard of. “The left hand was for unclean tasks, and even to gesture with it brought shame on the one gesturing.” (Ibid, p116) Thus a backhanded blow is being described. To strike someone on the right cheek was to put that person in their place, a master to a servant, parent to child, Roman to Jew. It is the blow delivered to an inferior. To turn the other cheek is to deny another backhanded blow, leaving the attacker to do what? Slap the slave? No, that was not a manly thing to do. The rigidity of gender roles were as firm as those demanded by social status. Strike with a right hook with the fist? No, one did not fight with fists unless one was fighting an equal.

This, is the point Jesus was leading his followers to see. You can strike me on the right cheek because I am socially inferior to you, but by turning the other cheek I am saying if you strike me again you must strike me as your equal. The Master can certainly have the slave then flogged for the insolence, but the statement has been made: I am your equal. We are both children of God. This is not submission, it is resistance. It is fighting the violence force with what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called soul-force. It reminds me of the scene from the movie Gandhi when the Indians continue to step forward row after row in defiance of some British Government rule. Time and again, the row of men are beaten to the ground and dragged back by their friends, but then the next row of Indian men step forward. I remember it as a chilling and frightening scene in the movie. It was not submission, it was resistance. Yes, you can hit me, but on my terms as your equal. This puts the oppressor in a shameful position.

The other examples Jesus offers in the passage are similarly nuanced proposals for subversive resistance. To turn over your cloak as well as your coat, back then, would have left you naked because your coat and cloak are more accurately rendered: your outer-garment and your undergarment! And recall that (as shown in the story of Noah’s three sons) nakedness was shameful to those who saw it more than it was to the one who was naked. And to carry a Roman Soldier’s pack for a mile if asked was a rule that a peasant had to follow by Roman law, but to carry it a second mile was against the rules and the soldier would risk punishment for accepting the peasant’s ‘kind’ offer. Walter Wink, who outlines this in his chapter of Religion, Terror, and Violence, is Professor emeritus of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary and has studied deeply into the social context of 1st century Jewish life.

In a way, what Jesus is suggesting is something like a mix between Guerrilla Theatre and Social Aikido: Use the oppressor’s own power against them by not simply accepting their unjust practices but by over-accepting them and pulling them off balance. Shame them as tyrants and the violence will no longer maintain control, rather it will escalate the resistance. In this understanding – granted not the standard level of religious understanding, but it is there all the same – in this understanding, religion provides tools not only for how to be nice to others but also how to overcome violence with a deeper power. In this understanding, suffering and pain caused by violence is not a fact of life to be managed, rather it is a perversion of how things ought to be – a perversion that can be overcome.

There is a third way. As we continue to evolve, as religion continues to build stories to explain suffering and to tell us how we fit in the universe, we have a part to play in how this unfolds. The argument that we can either fight or run away is shallow: there is a third way. Active non-violent resistance says there is another way. Being right does not mean we must use violence to control others. This applies, of course not just to religion and violence, but to politics and religion and violence mixed together. The “Just War” theory is based on the fight or flee dichotomy, the idea that non-violence means being run over and only violence can save us. But violence can not save us. But love still can. Let us not work to build up tactics and strategies to overcome suffering and pain in our lives, let us not try to anticipate violence and trouble that we may meet it with greater strength and force, let us not put our energy to creating defenses and protections against potential violence and trouble. Instead let us dig deep and breathe with compassion so that when suffering comes your way or your neighbor’s way or to this community as a whole or to this nation, we may have the strength of spirit to receive the suffering and respond with a generous love.

And such a response will not look like what Jesus talked about or what Gandhi acted out. We live in a country that is not oppressed; we in this congregation are not part of an oppressed class. Oh, there are individuals among us who can claim to be there, and Unitarian Universalism is discriminated against in certain circles, I won’t deny that. But Jesus’ examples, Gandhi’s examples, are tools for oppressed people to find equality; these will not be the pattern we need for the coming decades. Our religion and all the world’s religions need to find a way to be among the dominant leaders without being oppressors pretending to be oppressed. We need to evolve beyond David and Goliath style stories. We need new stories of leading and being connected and being non-violent. We are perhaps on the cusp of a few steps into a new era – a new mythic understanding of ourselves and our relationship to violence. It must be an understanding that calls us to see our connections with each other and our world. We must step up to that third way and proclaim that violence will not save us. But love still can.

In a world without end,
May it be so

How to Avoid Getting Burned at the Stake

How to Avoid Getting Burned at the Stake
October 26, 2008
Douglas Taylor

In our reading from The Lutheran Handbook, we learned of three tried and true methods to avoid being burned at the stake: avoid public heresy, avoid practicing witchcraft, and avoid being nabbed in a political uprising. This clearly will not be much help to us as Unitarian Universalist as I preach now to a room full of heretics, witches, and political dissidents. Luckily for us, the practice of burning people at the stake is out of fashion, what with the Enlightenment and Amnesty International. Today, burning someone, usually without the stake, is not done with the official sanction of governments as it used to be. Nowadays it is an act of mob violence or guerrilla warfare. But back in the day, burning people at the stake was a popular, if sensational, tool used by those in power to suppress different voices. Burning someone at the stake was a governmentally sanctioned secular punishment imposed for the crimes of treason, witchcraft, and heresy. Yet that list was really the façade for governments to suppress dissident voices, to keep control over populations.

And so, other ways we might avoid being burned at the stake would include: agree with whomever is in power, avoid speaking truth to power, take no risks in the name of your faith, and when in doubt – be quiet and pretend you have no doubt. Don’t get involved and don’t speak up. Again, this is not advice that sits well with the majority of Unitarian Universalists. Indeed, if it were still in practice, we here gathered would have cause to fear being burned at the stake.

Among the best-known individuals to be executed by burning were: Jan Hus (1415), for suggesting similar things that the major Protestant Reformers suggested only 100 years to soon; St Joan of Arc (1431), for claiming to have divine guidance and for being a better general than the boys; Patrick Hamilton (1528), for being a Lutheran in Scotland; William Tyndale (1536) for translating the Bible into English and claiming the Scripture should be available to the common people; Giordano Bruno (1600), for promoting the scientific idea of a heliocentric universe and other general heresies; and our very own Michael Servetus (1553), for denying the trinity. Interestingly, the bulk of these heretics were sentenced and executed either directly or indirectly by the Catholics except for Servetus who was taken out by his fellow reformers.

Part of the reason for this topic today is for Reformation Sunday. The last Sunday in October, across the world, is Reformation Sunday. This Sunday, our Lutheran, Presbyterian and other Protestant Christian brothers and sisters in faith are celebrating the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s. The Reformation is generally considered to have begun on October 31 of 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church to debate the doctrine and practice of indulgences. It is not insignificant that this precedes the holiday we call Halloween. Halloween is the Eve of All Saint’s Day and the churches on Luther’s time would have been open for All Saint’s Day for the viewing of holy relics which is an activity that has a similar impact as that of buying indulgences: it reduces the amount to time one would spend in purgatory.

The focus of the Unitarian part of the story involves not Luther, but another prominent reformer: Calvin. John Calvin, founder of the Reform Church – which in the United States is known as the Presbyterians – was the man who orchestrated the trial and execution of Michael Servetus on October 27th, 1553 – over four hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow! Servetus was born in the within a few years of each other. Like Calvin, Servetus trained for the priesthood and like Calvin he turned from the Roman Church. Each man took up the work of re-forming Christianity (which points to a certain bent of personality that they must also have shared, some mix of genius and egomania to take on the Catholic Church as they did.) Yet there the significant similarities end.

Servetus dug into a core doctrine of Christianity: the person of Jesus Christ and the nature of the Trinity. The Trinity is the belief that God is three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons as the same essence. Servetus refuted the Trinity. He knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; and at the age of 15 he read the entire Bible in its original languages. One obvious thing leapt out for him: the concept of the Trinity was not scripturally based. He saw the emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity to be an incomprehensible corruption of the Church. As a “brash youth of twenty”, as one biographer put it (Parke) Servetus set out to convince the other Protestant Reformers to take up the effort to cleanse Christianity of this wicked corruption. “He presented his case in a learned, shrewd, and impertinent book, On the Errors of the Trinity.” (The Epic of Unitarianism, David Parke, p2)

His book did not go over well with the other Reformers, in no small part for political reasons: they recoiled from his overtures so as to keep some peace with the ever-powerful Catholic authorities. The Spanish Inquisition sought to bring him to trial. John Calvin, among the leading Reformers, made a particular statement against it. So Servetus went into hiding from both the Catholics and the Protestants. I might add, the book was very popular, a best-seller in its day, sparking great interest among other anti-Trinitarian sentiment throughout Europe. He became a physician in France for a number of years before publishing a second book in 1553 The Restitution of Christianity, which proposed a complete overhaul of both Catholicism and the newly developing Protestant Christianity. Servetus had sent a copy of the work to John Calvin in Geneva in hopes of convincing Calvin of the truth about the errors of the trinity and the numerous other ways in which Calvin was wrong. Calvin, among others, did not take kindly to the suggestions and issued a statement that if Servetus were to ever come to Geneva he would not be allowed to leave alive. Calvin also alerted the French Inquisition that Servetus was residing in France and was guilty of certain egregious heresies. This accusation is reported to have caused the French Cardinal to laugh that one heretic should accuse another. (A History of Unitarianism Earle Morse Wilbur, p137)

This is when the story seems to suddenly turn into a soap opera or spaghetti western! While fleeing the France Inquisition, unable to return to is homeland for fear of the Spanish Inquisition, our intrepid hero decides to go to Naples via the Swiss Confederation. Specifically, he decides to pass through Geneva. Except that in Geneva there is a law on the books saying if you are in town on Sunday morning, you need to be in church. And Servetus is in town of Sunday morning, so he has to go the church … John Calvin’s church. Servetus is recognized, arrested, imprisoned, tried, sentenced, and summarily burned at the stake with what was believed to be the last surviving copies of his most recent book strapped to his legs. Interestingly it turns out that there were three copies, and only three copies of his book The Restitution of Christianity that survived that time. Exciting stuff.

“‘Scarcely were his ashes cold before there arose a controversy over the punishment of heretics.’ So wrote the reformer Beza. The image of Servetus dying in flames, just because his views of the Trinity differed from Calvin’s, caused a storm of outrage. Calvin cried that ‘the dogs are barking at me on all sides,’ and was almost forced to leave Geneva. To justify himself he hastily wrote a Defense of the Orthodox Faith respecting the Holy Trinity, against the prodigious errors of … Servetus early in 1554. Believing heresy to be worse than murder, Calvin argued that Servetus had to be put to death, else his heresy contaminate all Christendom.” (The Epic of Unitarianism, David Parke, p9)

We Unitarian Universalist have first claim on him as a spiritual ancestor. He is our most sensational martyr. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few other groups also claim him. But we have at least two UU churches, one in Minnesota and one in Washington, named after Servetus, and there is a window dedicated to him at the UU Church in Brooklyn, NY. Much of this affinity we have for Servetus is based almost more on his chutzpah than on the mere fact that he was against the trinity. We like that he stood up to the people in power and said: no, it doesn’t say that in the book. We like that his death was a rallying point in the conversation toward greater religious tolerance. We also, as a side note, like that he was eventually made famous in medical science.

Servetus, while being a theologian and scholar, was also a physician. As a physician he discovered arterial circulation of the blood some hundred years before a fellow named William Harvey discovered the same thing in 1616. Harvey was given credit for the discovery for a few centuries before medical science turned the credit over to Servetus. In fairness, however, recognition needs to go to Ibn Al-Nafis of Damascus who was born in 1213 and discovered the workings of pulmonary circulation about 300 years before either of our two European contenders. This sort of spoils the story, because Servetus had published his medical discovery not at a medical discovery but as an analogy to make a theological point. He wrote that the spirit enters the body like breath enters the blood stream flowing throughout the whole body. So, we’ll just need to be satisfied with extra credit for creative theological use of medical truth.

We must admit, however, as modern day Unitarian Universalists, the fuller theology of Michael Servetus would be rather out of place. He maintained that Jesus was God in that the Logos, which was the eternal God, came into the womb of the Virgin Mary. In this way, Christ was not the Eternal Son of God; rather he was the Son of the Eternal God. One driving reason to do away with the corrupt doctrine of the Trinity is that he felt it would make it easier to convert the Jews and Muslims. Near the end of his life, Servetus grew convinced that the millennium was nigh, that the reign of the Antichrist (which began when Emperor Constantine merged the church and the state) was about to end, and that Archangel Michael would be coming with the host, and Servetus intended to be on the proper side of that fight when it broke out. (A History of Unitarianism Earle Morse Wilbur, p143) We don’t tend to talk about that part of Servetus’ theology in our churches. He was certainly an anti-Trinitarian; he was not a Unitarian even in the classic sense of the term.

So, as an object lesson for us today: a healthy amount of personal humility may be as important as avoiding public heresy when it comes to strategies we can use to not get burned at the stake. I would, however, urge you to hear in the life of Servetus a challenge to us today. I would point out the part of the story that still offers – not the cautionary tale of what to avoid – rather the part that heralds the strength and courage of those who would stand up and speak out for truth. The threat of being burned at the stake is now rendered moot by modern society for all but the most chaotic scenarios. I invite you to find another way to burn: burn a passion for the truth, burn with the courage of inner conviction tested in the bounds of a loving community such as is found here; burn with the inspired faith that we can speak truth to power, but we can speak the truth in love – for the day may come when you are the one in the position of power. And suppressing disparate voices with force is to abandon truth for fear. The truth crushed down will rise again. No lie can live forever. So speak truth to power, strive to stay humble and speak the truth in love. But by all means, speak the truth.

In a world without end
May it be so.

“Dear Mr. President”

“Dear Mr. President”
An election sermon in letter form
The Reverend Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Binghamton, NY

Dear Senators McCain and Obama,

I hope my letter finds you well. I imagine your campaigns are wearing on each of you at this point with less than a month to Election Day. I have been paying attention to your campaigns and have been at turns thrilled and dismayed, proud of the moments of true leadership and resigned to the banal mediocrity of it all. And so I imagine you each are also tired and that the walls of ‘us vs. them’ and the standards of partisanship have begun to solidify again. Would that it could be different this time. I would like to pretend, however, that my letter can recall to each of you the common goal of our national future. I would like to further pretend that you will each have time to read my letter, that you will hear my concerns and my hopes for the future as words of encouragement and challenge, and that you will personally respond to my letter – even though I know neither of you would really have time to do any of that simply as senators representing your home states let alone as candidates in the last long run to Election Day. But I will pretend anyway, and write my thoughtful letter with the idea that you will really hear it.

In fairness, I ought to locate myself: I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving a congregation in New York State. This may be enough information for you to assume I am politically liberal because the faith tradition in which I serve is religiously liberal and the state in which I reside is “blue.” I will be honest and tell you that the jokes about Unitarian Universalism being the ‘religious arm of the Democratic party’ set my teeth on edge. While I am a man of faith, our faith is not one that invests itself in the levels of certitude that lead to fanaticism. Instead we remind each other in our congregation that all truth is partial and our understanding is ever unfolding and improving. This helps us, when we allow ourselves to be at our best, to forgo stereotypes and simplified sound-bytes even in the midst of divisive political times. I have found that this congregation I serve has people who are as likely to vote Independent, Libertarian or Green as they are to vote either Democrat or Republican.

But that is not why I am writing this letter – I am not promising votes for one side or another, I am not encouraging the members of this congregation to vote for one candidate or another or a third. We don’t tell each other who to vote for and which social issues God cares about, rather we bid one another to be involved and engaged. While there are some who would say that faith and politics do not mix, I disagree. I disagree, as do a significant number of people in the congregation I serve. To abstain entirely from social issues, to say you are not going to muck around in that political stuff is a disservice to the faithful pursuit of a spiritual life.  As it says in the Epistle from James, “Faith without works is dead.” A deep faith requires the faithful to act for justice, and to speak out against injustice.  We Unitarian Universalists affirm that our beliefs and our behavior ought to line up. That faith and action are two sides of the same coin.  One follows the other as night follows day.  The day does not cause the night or vice versa: they just go together, that’s how it works.  I understand that the Internal Revenue Service has rules about the mixture of faith and politics. I am mindful of such rules and will engage with the moral arguments and the ethical side of the political conversations.

And so I wade into the conversation, I engage the debate. I will try to contain myself and not create a laundry list of issues that I care about, a laundry list of my version of a moral agenda. Tempting though it is, I will strive to focus on what I see to be a few very big issues that we as a nation must deal with in the next few years. I will certainly encourage the members of my congregation to sign their names to this letter I have written, or to write their own letters to each of you that they may convey their own hopes to you. I am writing in anticipation of January when one or the other of you is in office and will take the reins of this, the most powerful nation in the world today. I write to you now, before one or the other of you is elected, to cast before you my hopes for the future of our nation. I write to you as a citizen and as a minister; the issues I seek to address are not political issues, but moral ones. Setting aside any dramatic differences there are between your positions, Senators Obama and McCain, I wish to lift up what I greatly trust either of you will pay attention to in the years of your presidency.

Let me begin with the economy. The economy has dominated the attention and the fears of people, and for good reason. I have been struggling to understand what has been going on, asking many questions and learning a lot abut our national economy that I had not previously known. While I have only a basic layman’s understanding of all this I can see clearly that we are long past time for a reality check and a decency check in terms of the practices and policies of our economy. This seven hundred billion dollar bail-out has set us on a trajectory that is deeply troubling. I get it that a bail-out was about the only thing we could do at this point. I get it that small businesses and regular people would be hit negatively and dramatically by the freezing up of the financial system. I get it that simple things like student loans and car loans and inventory credit for small businesses would dry up. But by turning the free market’s debts over to us tax-payers, thereby excusing the financial scoundrels of the consequences of their reckless mistakes and greed, we have effectively tied the hands of any future administrations. Senators McCain and Obama, which ever of you will be elected, you will be grossly limited in your ability to pay for any initiatives you have promised us in your campaigns. Your work during your first and perhaps only term in office will be to repair and rebuild from the failures we now witness. Whatever tactics you propose for doing that repair work and rebuilding work, I pray that you keep the people of this nation in mind. I can imagine the distinctions between a Republican’s response and a Democrat’s response, yet I trust that whichever of you is in the oval office come January, there will be a response. Please, I pray, allow your response to be not only a reality check but a decency check. We are in this financial mess because of greed. Greed on the part of people who wanted to own houses unreasonably beyond their means. Greed on the part of lenders who issued loans they knew people could not sustain. Greed on the part of insurance companies who covered the bad loans on the assumption that there was no end in sight for the steroidal growth of the housing market. Greed on the part of the banks and other companies who bought into these problems for the promise of a cheap, easy profit at the expense of reality itself. Greed has become the new American Dream and that is sick: both morally and financially sick.

May I propose a radical idea? I think if we were to invest our nation’s resources into the people rather than ideas and schemes then we would see a return to financial stability. The odd spin that went around your statement, Senator McCain, about the fundamentals of our economy being sound, that spin was very deft and I applaud it. The fundamentals of our economy are the people of our country who have a strong work ethic and ingenuity. If we truly invest in such fundamentals we will rebound. Our number one resource is people and we should put our people back to work. I cannot recommend strongly enough the wisdom of Van Jones, an author, community organizer, and founder of “Green for All” when he writes about the New Green Deal and the Green Collar Economy. “It’s time to stop borrowing and start building,” Jones writes. “America’s No. 1 resource is not oil or mortgages. Our No. 1 resource is our people. Let’s put people back to work retrofitting and repowering America. … You can’t base a national economy on credit cards. But you can base it on solar panels, wind turbines, smart bio-fuels and a massive program to weatherize every building and home in America.”

In seeing that the vehicle through which our economy fell was the ridiculously poor management of buying and selling land, perhaps paying attention to and caring for the land can be our avenue back to a sound economy. The land that we so greedily parceled out and upon which we built up a house of cards is the same land that can teach us and heal us and save us. Rather than believing that a sound environmental policy with reasonable regulations would harm the American economy (as the current administration has gone on record as believing); the next administration, either yours Senator Obama or yours Senator McCain, must recognize that aiming for an environmentally sustainable future will be exactly the policy that will produce an economically sustainable future. The earth can show the way out the economic failure through which we now stumble. As it says in the Ute Prayer (Adapted):
Earth teach me stillness as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me suffering as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me caring as the mother who secures her young.
Earth teach me courage as the tree which stands all alone.
Earth teach me limitation as the ant which crawls on the ground.
Earth teach me freedom as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness As dry fields weep with rain.
Earth teach me how to live.

Instead of chasing after non-renewable energy such as oil and coal, energy sources that have a limit; let us focus on renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, wave, and bio-fuels. Oil is a product of death, oil is dead plants and animals from millions of years back. It is not created quickly and there will come a time when it is gone. Why sink any more money in pulling this death-based energy from our mother earth? Wind and sun are life. We can set wind turbines throughout the Midwest. We can build solar panels on the roofs of the skyscrapers and the tenement buildings. We can plant rooftop gardens and community gardens throughout our towns and cities. We can invest and innovate our way out of this crisis: out of this financial crisis, this environmental crisis, this moral crisis! Forget about digging death out of the ground – we can’t drill and burn out way to a health economy, we must invest in the innovation of real people and together create a new Green economy. Because who will design all those wind turbines and who will build them and who will maintain them? Who will design and build and maintain the solar panels? Who will design and build and maintain all those community gardens? People! And how will we pay for it? Come on! If we can authorize $700 billion dollars for a bail out to the big wigs, surely we can find enough money to fund the creation of hundreds of thousands of green jobs! If we can pull out seven hundred billion dollars to patch up past failures of a handful of greedy rich people, then by God we better be able to pull out a fraction of that to invest in the future of the regular people of our nation!

By simply taking care of the earth we will find that the earth can take care of us. That is how it has worked for ages, yet we in our modern civilizations have forgotten our basic relationship with our mother and are reaping the consequences. But we can turn out attention and our policies back to the land that holds us and we can live.

All of which, interestingly enough, leads me to foreign policy. Would that I could ask each of you to promise to get us out of Iraq as one of your ‘first hundred days in office’ promises. Would that I could implore you to reinstate our reputation in the world by the capacity of our compassion rather than the magnitude of our military within the ‘first hundred days in office’. But I know such things involve long hard work. Although I can offer one quick action that will create amazingly positive results in terms of our global reputation and your ability as the next president to begin the hard work of being the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. That simple action would send a signal to the world that they are dealing with a new administration that will take its role in the world as something other than the insecure and immature bully among the nations. Close the prison in Guantanamo Bay and you will see foreign policy opportunities open up before you.

But really what I want to suggest, rather than any hopes for a particular foreign policy agenda items that either you Senator McCain or you Senator Obama might promote, I wish to offer an overarching theme that may prove productive. And the reason this suggestion will tie back into what I was saying earlier about the earth is that I would hope for a foreign policy grounded in the promotion of agriculture. Hungry people are angry people. Hungry nations are hard to work with unless you are offering to help them with food. If we approached the world from the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we would easily see that feeding people is a greater insurance toward peace than bombing them. I was astonished to learn, for example, that in Afghanistan after we had uprooted the Taliban back in ’02 and ’03 we failed to think about agriculture. If you are going to wage war you must be prepared to lead after the war is done, you must prepare to wage peace. If this notion did not already have enough examples to support it here is another one. In Afghanistan after we broke the hold of the Taliban we could have invested a relatively small amount of money in crops; we invaded Iraq instead. When the people who had fled the war returned they had no money to plant crops and no government in place to help them. So they planted the easiest crop they could get hold of: Poppies, which require practically no water or tending. So Afghanistan became the lead exporter of opium in the world. And who gets the bulk of that money made on Afghanistan’s opium? Al Qaida through the Taliban. I hear that providing electricity is a fundamental benchmark in nation-building. Surely providing food and the means to food is closer to the true needs of the people. A hungry people are an angry people. Look at the world with an eye toward feeding people and the possibilities of a successful foreign policy agenda will become clearer. You may not pad the pockets of the movers and shakers in Washington or enrich your buddies with such an agenda – but you will be on the path to redeeming the soul of our nation.

I hope that your administration is up to the task. Remember the earth and the blessings it can offer if you learn its lessons and learn your place. I will pray for you, whichever of you is elected. And may God bless your work and may God challenge your conscience to do the right work.

Yours in faith,
The Reverend Douglas Taylor
Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Binghamton, NY