Light of Science
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 22, 2015
James Audubon, naturalist, ornithologist, and painter, once said, “When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.” This scientist’s commitment to the evidence sums up much that is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. We are a tradition with a strong commitment to the individual search for truth and meaning. When there is a conflict between what a book claims to be true and what I have experienced, I will opt to trust my experience. Many Unitarian Universalists have found their way here from other faith traditions for exactly this point.
Many times when I am meeting with visitors or people exploring our congregation, I have a chance to ask them what has drawn them to Unitarian Universalism. There are a few recurring themes I’ve noticed. One very common one is the experience of no longer fitting in to the religious community in which they grew up – the doctrines no longer made sense, the theology didn’t connect with their lives, the beliefs just didn’t line up with lived experiences. So the person left the church of their childhood and struck out on their own or started casting around for a community … and one way or another they eventually found their way here. It sometimes sounds like the story of the Ugly Duckling: growing up, you didn’t fit in to the world around you. You felt like you were a terrible Catholic or Mormon or Whatever, until you discovered that indeed you aren’t one of those other religions and that’s why you were terrible at it because in fact you are a Unitarian Universalist. Or at least a Pagan with UU leanings or an Atheist yearning for a religious community without all the religion.
I am convinced that each person has their own unique way of being in the world, their own path. If the path you are walking is not nourishing to your spirit, there are other paths. Unitarian Universalism is surely not the best path for everyone, but it has been a good path for me and many here today. One of the hallmarks of this Unitarian Universalist path is a commitment to honor each person’s experience, each person’s inherent worth and dignity. Indeed, one of our hallmarks is to honor each person’s freedom of conscience – when the bird and the book disagree, when your community’s tradition and your experience of spirit disagree, we side with the individual’s experience.
In our reading this morning, Rebecca Costa makes the point that both beliefs and knowledge are required for a healthy society. Belief, in her use of the term, is rooting is a trust that what we have been told is true or that what we once experienced will occur again under the same circumstances. Being able to trust is an important skill. Knowledge is based in direct experience. If we know something, it is because we have experienced it.
Religion speaks of love and justice, God, faith, and forgiveness – things that live more easily in the realm of belief than of knowledge. But we are human beings who experience hours of living in every day. Religion ought to connect to our regular daily living if it connects to anything! Scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley, one of the British founders of Unitarianism, said,
We scruple not to plant trees for the benefit of posterity. Let us likewise sow the seeds of truth for them. . . . Distrust all those who require you to abandon [reason], wherever religion is concerned.
Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition that draws from many sources for inspiration and authority. One of those sources is listed as “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”
It has been said that Unitarian Universalism is a religion that takes science seriously. One path among us is the scientist’s path. “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) We take science seriously. I have found this to be true in two ways. First, we do heed the truths uncovered by science. We honor the science that tells we live in a very old, ever evolving universe. We listen to the research about climate change, about medical advances, the genome project, or any number of other areas of study. We listen and respond with this knowledge to inform our beliefs and actions in the world. And it is not just a one-way street, science – if it be sound science – heeds ethical and moral guidance of religious values. But it is more than just this give and take of scientific fact and discoveries.
We also acknowledge the scientific process as a sound process for discerning truth. The process is hypothesis and experimentation, the process itself of seeking one’s own direct experience in the pursuit of knowledge, is method we honor. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “When we can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” (American Scholar) Emerson actually proves to be a rather useful character to examine in this conversation.
I didn’t even like Emerson when I first seriously studied his work in seminary. He was too dense, to obscure in his vocabulary and syntax. I preferred the interesting characters of Theodore Parke and Hosea Ballou. Over the years, however, Emerson’s ideas and words settled in to me and took root. It was later when I kept bumping into him and other Transcendentalists that I really began to see what they were offering me. And a piece of it is right here is this conversation about science and the use of reason.
In many ways, Unitarian Universalism is the religion that it is today because of Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists. Emerson was called the Sage of Concord in his own day and been dubbed the ‘patron saint of religious seekers’ by some today. Emerson’s spiritual impact is fairly clear but his rational and scientific impact less so. Yet it may well be in thanks to Emerson that Unitarianism and thus Unitarian Universalism has so easily and consistently recognized the compatibility of science and spirituality.
Emerson and his good friend Henry David Thoreau were, each in their own way, deeply scientific and spiritual men. These two friends from over a century and a half back, Thoreau the naturalist and activist, and Emerson the lecturer and philosopher, approached the relationship of science and spirituality from almost opposite directions – but each understood there to be a strong and undeniable connection.
Thoreau worked from the ground up as a naturalist observing what was available for observation. Emerson worked from the top down, beginning with the premise that the universe is of a whole: ordered and designed.
Of the two, perhaps Thoreau’s contribution is easier to see. Thoreau was a naturalist with the eye of a poet. He was one of those brilliant early writers exploring the natural world. He had a way of looking and seeing that was clearly scientific. Witness this journal entry from 1856:
Men have been talking now for a week at the post-office about the age of the great elm, as a matter interesting but impossible to be determined. The very choppers and travelers have stood upon its prostrate trunk and speculated upon its age, as if it were a profound mystery. I stooped and read its years to them (127 at nine and a half feet), but they heard me as the wind that once sighed through its branches. They surmised that it might be two hundred years old, but they never stooped to read the inscription. Truly they love darkness rather than light. One said it was probably one hundred and fifty, for he had heard somebody say that for fifty years the elm grew, for fifty it stood still, and for fifty it was dying. (Wonder what portion of his career he stood still!) Truly all men and not men of science. (26 January 1856, Journal VIII:145-6; Thoreau)
Or, as James Audubon put it, “When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.”
Thoreau was a transcendentalist at heart. He wrote “Knowledge is to be acquired only by a corresponding experience.” That is a core concept among the Transcendentalists. And it harkens back to the definitions from the reading by Rebecca Costa about beliefs and knowledge. Your personal experience is the authority by which truth is to be known or judged. Thoreau’s intuitive transcendentalist leanings rested firmly on scientific examination and deductive observation.
With Emerson it is a little harder to see the connection. Emerson, after all was a philosopher not a naturalist. While is first collection of essays was titled Nature, the driving point was that the human mind was the center of living. Emerson dwelt in the realm of the mind. He was an idealist and a bit of a mystic. And yet, his essays and lectures tended to carry strong elements of science and the natural world.
Emerson was very well read and stayed current with all the scientific discoveries of his day. Biographer Robert Richardson, Jr., in his book Emerson, Mind of Fire, wrote “Over the years, Emerson’s openness to science kept his thoughts ballasted with fact and observation and his writing anchored solidly in the real world.” (p142)
And this is the man today known as the Patron Saint of Religious Seekers! Perhaps Emerson could serve also as the Patron Saint for scientists open to spirit. The point is that both science and spirit are of value, direct knowledge and beliefs build from trust are of value, they balance each other as a means to discern truth. And they balance best when they inform each other. Albert Einstein’s statement on the subject helps parse out the relationship. “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind.” For Emerson and Thoreau, science and spirit were complimentary tools for learning about the universe. And for Unitarian Universalism into today, we weave our way through scholarly searching and more wonder-laden spiritual yearnings.
Truth is one; and there are many ways to discern truth and many kinds of truth to learn. There are some things we can know, some things we can experience. There are also mysteries for us to ponder and trust we can extend when it is best to do so. Religion need not fear for the truths disclosed by science, indeed, the wonders of creation keep opening wider with each scientific disclosure. Study your own life like a scientist seeking truth from the fluttering depths of your spirit. “When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.” Or help rework the book so others may know better what they might be seeing.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Oversoul, the Force and Chi (oh, my!)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 1, 2015
Back in 2001 a phenomenon developed during the population censuses in various countries. In Scotland, over 14,000 people stated that Jedi was their current religion. The Jedi are part of a fictitious world. In Australia more than 70,000 people declared themselves members of the Jedi order. 640 Serbians identified as Jedi. Over 53,000 people listed themselves as Jedi in New Zealand. 21,000 Canadians put down their religion as Jedi Knight. England and Wales however have them all beat; in 2001 nearly 400,000 stated their religion as Jedi. Ten years later in England, “the number of Jedi had fallen to 176,632, placing it in seventh place, having been overtaken by Judaism and Buddhism, but still comfortably outnumbering any other alternative or mock religions.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jedi_census_phenomenon
Jedi is the title used in George Lucas’ Star Wars for the warriors who use the Force and wield light sabers. In this fantasy world, the Force is a mystical power that unifies every living thing. The wise old mentor character in the story, Obi-Wan Kenobi, says this about the Force: “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together”
Lucas, the author of the Star Wars universe, claimed that in part, his goal was to “…instill in children a belief in a supreme being – not a religious god, but a universal deity that he named the Force, a cosmic energy source that incorporates and consumes all living things.” (Pollock, Dale Skywalking: the Life and Films of George Lucas, p 139)
Lucas was aiming to instill both a sense of personal responsibility and ethic as well as a mystical interconnectedness without relying on a traditional concept of deity. One analysis boils it down to Eastern mysticism and Judeo-Christian ethic.
The Force is articulated by Obi-Wan Kenobi as “an energy field created by all living things that binds the universe together.” (Ibid, p140) Another Jedi teacher in the movie, Yoda, guides the hero of the tale, Luke Skywalker, to see how the Force interacts not just with living things but with all things.
“For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.” Yoda says, “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.”
I suspect the census phenomenon was more than just a protest and playful mockery of government structures. I suspect people wrote Jedi in for their religion partly out of a hunger for the kind of spirituality and ethic found in the movies. In fact, there is a real community that call themselves the Temple of the Jedi Order. On their website, http://www.templeofthejediorder.org/, the first thing they say is
We are not a community of Star Wars roleplayers, but a church of a genuine religion, Jediism. Star Wars Jedi are fictional characters that exist within a literary and cinematic universe.
The Jedi discussed within this website refer to real people within this world that live or lived their lives according to the principles of Jediism, the real Jedi religion.
They go on to discuss the interconnectedness of all things and the ethics of building a good community founded on peace and personal responsibility. If anything, the real-life Jedi focus more on the ethic and less on the mysticism – at least that is what I saw by what they had on that website.
What caught my interest is the way George Lucas’ movies captured not only deep archetypes of characters but a deep version of a non-theistic spirituality. People are clearly hungering for this sort of spirituality around the world. Of course, Star Wars is not the only place one can look to for a non-traditional theology of spirit and dynamic interconnectedness. Unitarian Universalism has its own sage in the form of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Some of the concepts found in George Lucas’s fantasy mysticism from the 1970’s aligns with ideas and concepts of the Emerson and other Transcendentalists from the 1830’s and 40’s. Emerson spoke of an Oversoul, an all-pervasive divine spirit that encompasses all souls. Just as every human personality has a soul – an essence or essential wholeness in which all the parts are unified – all of existence has an Oversoul that is the wholeness of all that is. Emerson refers to
“that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart” (The Oversoul, 1841)
There is no thread of connection between Emerson and Lucas. No suggestion that George Lucas was attempting to talk about the Oversoul. I am not suggesting a connection beyond a similarity is some of the ideas.
The Force is an all-pervading energy that binds the universe together. The Oversoul likewise is an all-pervading and unifying power in the universe. Emerson insisted that the Oversoul is everywhere and in all things, not merely living things. “What is there of the divine in a load of bricks?” he wrote in his journal at one point. “What is there of the divine in a barber shop? Much. All.” (Journals, 1834)
Emerson intuited that the world is an outgrowth of the Oversoul. This is the direct opposite of Obi-Wan Kanobi’s statement about the Force as “an energy field created by all living things that binds the universe together.” For Emerson, the mind of God exists first and from that comes the world. In this way, we are literally a part of God. “I exist directly from God, and am, as it were, God’s organ.” (Journal)
Emerson more readily named it God, something Lucas only did as a footnote. “I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.” (The Oversoul, 1841) For Emerson, God was not a personality, but was definitely an intelligence and a will. He said we can know God through science, through art and nature, through the lives of the greatest of men and women throughout history. But the truest way was to know God directly from within “When we have broken from our God of tradition, and we have ceased from our God of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.” (The Oversoul, 1841)
In some ways the categorical term Transcendentalist applied to Emerson and others in his circle is misleading. His perspective is that God is imminent, not transcendent; God is found most truly in one’s heart. But the Transcendentalists take their name rather from the notion that there exists a moral law, an absolute, and that the source of this moral law is God. How that law is known is by the inner searching. In his great essay Self-Reliance, Emerson admonishes, “Trust yourself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” By our intuition we run straight to the heart of God and thus to the heart of the moral law.
And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him. (The Oversoul)
The implication of such a connection is not only do we find no wall between us and the Divine, but in this same way we can know what is true and right and just.
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. (Self-Reliance)
Thus, according to Emerson, there is a Divine moral law inscribe in the heart and conscience of every person. You recognize truth when you see it because you ‘lie in the lap’ of the source of truth – if you will but quiet the outer noise and open your eyes. We do not invent the principles and values that are most important, they come from God. But we must go to God directly, according to Emerson, to truly know these laws.
I get a little carried away whenever I talk about Emerson. Let me shift topics a little to point out that the two essential aspects of the Force, its mystical omnipresence and its moral code of personal integrity, are, as I have shown, found within the central tenets of Emerson’s Transcendentalism. He named the Oversoul as “The soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related.”
The Navajo are credited in our hymnal with the poem that reads:
Beauty is before me, and
Beauty behind me,
above me and below me
hovers the beautiful.
I am surrounded by it,
I am immersed in it,
In my youth, I am aware of it,
and, in old age,
I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail.
In beauty it is begun.
In beauty, it is ended.
This poem speaks to the omnipresence of beauty in the same way one could refer to the Force or the Oversoul; or, as I will now add, the way one would speak of Chi.
In traditional Chinese culture, chi (or qi) is an active principle of any living thing. In the T’ai Chi Classics (translated by Wayson Liao, 1990) Chi is defined as “intrinsic energy.” (p18) Chi is frequently translated as “natural energy”, “life force”, or “energy flow”. The literal translation of chi is “breath”, “air”, or “gas”.
Everyone is born with Chi. There is no way to lose your chi except through death at which time your chi is dispersed back to the universe. Chi is ultimately found in all living things. It is “The ultimate [and eternal] power that moves the universe.” (Ibid, p17) Chi arises from the dynamic balancing of Yin and Yang; it is the ceaseless movement in balance between positive and negative, constructive and destructive forces in the universe. Everything derives its existence from the dynamic conflict and balance between Yin and Yang. Thus it is not only living things, but all things – even “unfilled space” is part of the dynamic interplay of Yin and Yang.
Taoism is ‘the way’ or ‘a person traveling the way.’ The dynamic energy of chi is in there. In Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching it says
Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. Two gives birth to Three. Three gives birth to everything. Everything carries on its back Yin and holds Yang. It creates harmony with the middle energy.
As we heard in the one of the creation stories from last week, the one of Pangu and the Cosmic Egg: First there was the unity – the egg. This led to a duality – the two halves of the egg, heavy and light, earth and sky, yin and yang. In this 42nd chapter of the Tao Te Ching, a third thing arises and from that there is the Ten Thousand Things. Noting what I have said earlier – the third thing is chi, the intrinsic energy or life force which arises out of the dynamic conflict and balance of yin and yang. “It creates harmony with the middle energy;” middle energy is another way of saying chi.
Okay, all that is very esoteric. But the implications are not all that farfetched. As with the Force and the Oversoul, chi is omnipresent. It is not a deity with a personality, instead it is energy that pervades everything and moves through us. We can tap into it.
For example, one teaching in a meditative art of the Tao is the “integration of sky and human.” In other words, if you remain yourself, you are cutting out the whole of the universe. But if you can give up your ego, you become truly a part of the universe or at least erase the boundary line between self and universe that are falsely inscribed. When you place a cup of water into a lake, the water in the cup will become lake water only if the cup submerges. But truly, it is all water anyway, so why not just pour it in and forget the cup.
Perhaps you are seeking a spirituality and an understanding of divinity that is not caught up in the classic western formula of a deity or personality. God need not be a being. Perhaps you were intrigued by the idea of the Force when you saw the movies. It may be that you are looking again at the thought and theology of Emerson. Or perhaps your spirit has an Eastern bent. Each of these three offers a slightly different perspective. None of them are connected to the other – they are not talking about the same concepts and one is not derived from the other.
Perhaps they all link back to the Hindu concept of Prana as articulated in the Vedas. Prana is the Sanskrit word for ‘life force.’ Emerson was certainly reading the Vedas as he developed the idea of the Oversoul. The influence of Hinduism from India into China is also well documented. Most of the Chinese religious traditions share in the root concepts of Hinduism. I thought at one point I had seen a bit about George Lucas citing Eastern spirituality or Hindu mysticism as a source for his concept of the Force but I could find no such statement or link while looking recently.
Really, my point is not about the history or lineage of these ideas. My point is that your spirit need not be shackled to only one version of divinity. There are far more options than you perhaps thought there would be of divinity beyond traditional theism. What concepts resonate with your spirit? Which concepts call out to you or ring true from your experiences. We lie in the lap of an immense dynamic energy that flows through all things, calling us to abide in a higher moral law. Tell me more about how the energy of all life flows through all things and even through you.
In a world without end
May it be so
Selma to Ferguson
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 18, 2015
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund recently produced a list of 76 names of unarmed people of color killed by police over the past 15 years. Eric Garner, choked to death in New York City while saying “I can’t breathe.” Michael Brown shot by an officer in Ferguson, MO. Tamir Rice, a 12 year-old boy holding a BB gun, shot and killed in Cleveland, OH. The 76 names are not all the people of color killed by police in the last 15 years, just those who were unarmed. (CLICK Here to read the full list.) Another statistic I stumbled across recently came from incomplete data showing that a black person is killed every 28 hours in our country and that a black person is killed by a white police officer more than twice a week. Those numbers would include the armed as well as the unarmed people of color. Yet another figure I read estimated that the numbers are not all that different from the number of lynching deaths that happened through the 19th and 20th century.
The song by Michael Franti (“Same as It Ever Was” by Michael Franti and Spearhead. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5iWvBh6jNlY), which we had as our offertory today, says things are the same as they ever were. In the summer of 1964, three young civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, were arrested and then released into the hands of Klansmen as part of plot to have them murdered. This was down in Mississippi. The three young men were shot and their bodies were buried in an earthen dam.
As it happened, two of these young men were white and from New York. An outcry arose at their disappearance and the FBI ordered an investigation. Attorney General Robert Kennedy learned of the investigation, dubbed “Mississippi Burning,” and escalated the search to the point that 150 federal agents were sent in. Within a day, hundreds of sailors from a nearby naval base were searching the swamps. They did not find the three young men, as I said the bodies had been buried elsewhere. But agents did find bodies.
They discovered the bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, college students who had been kidnapped, beaten and killed a month earlier. They found the body of 14-year old Herbert Oarsby, and the bodies of five other unidentified black Mississippian. But the disappearance and suspected murder of all these black men and boys had gone uninvestigated, unnoted in the national news. They only found them by accident while looking for the bodies of two white men and their black friend.
Sweet Honey in the Rock has a song called “Ella’s Song” based on the teachings of civil rights organizer Ella Baker. Ella knew about the events surrounding the murder and subsequent search and investigation for the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Ella said “Until killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest, until this happens.” From this Bernice Johnson Reagan had the root of her song, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
In 1955 Lamar Smith was shot dead on a Mississippi courthouse lawn by a white man in broad daylight while dozens of people watched. The killer was never indicted because no one would admit they saw a white man shoot a black man. Smith had been organizing blacks to vote in a recent election. This was about two weeks prior to the murder of Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy on vacation from Chicago, who reportedly flirted with a white woman in a store. Three nights later, men took Emmett Till from his bed, beat him, shot him and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury found the men innocent of murder. The decision of his mother to have an open casket funeral made it hard for people to continue to think there was no real problem of racism and violence against blacks in our country.
The killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Alabama by state troopers led to the march from Selma to Montgomery. The murder of white Unitarian Rev. James Reeb galvanized the north against segregation and the violence experienced by blacks in the south. It is important to remember the civil rights was not just about voting rights and access of public water fountains and public schools. It was about the deadly violence waged against blacks on a regular basis in our country, violence in which the police were often complicit if not outright responsible.
What we have seen in our country over the past few months with the attention in Ferguson and New York City is not all that different from what was happening in Mississippi in the 50’s and 60’s. Same as it ever was. But every day is a time to start anew. This is why people are saying “Black lives matter.”
It has been a point of frustration for me and many I know to get behind the “Black Lives Matter” logo when the heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith, the heart of my personal values and conviction, insist that All Lives Matter. The inherent worth and dignity of all people is a central aspect of our theology. Unfortunately our American culture has a long history of treating some people as more valued and targeting other people unfairly. The history and the lived reality get in the way of the ideal of being color-blind to race and ethnicity in our society.
To say that black lives matter is not to say that other lives do not. Indeed, the reverse is true. The slogan recognizes that all lives matter while acknowledging that African Americans are unfairly targeted, a reality supported by research and experience. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow focuses the issue even more tightly saying that young black men are particularly at risk of unequal, unfair, and unjust treatment. Then I fall into conversations where people read out the list of names of female people of color killed over the past year or the transgender people killed recently. Yes. All lives matter.
But what is happening is an organic grassroots level of attention on a specific recurring problem we have as a society. The spotlight is shining on a particular aspect of injustice. In the face of that when people say ‘All Lives Matter’ it defuses the focus, the energy, and the possibility that something real might change.
I don’t know that you will agree with me and my frustration. Perhaps I am parsing my point too closely. “Between rocking the boat and sitting down; between stirring things up, and peaceably going along, we find ourselves here in community.” –Manish Mishra-Marzetti. I’m trying to stir things up. The statement of Black Lives Matter should lead us to say that of course all lives matter. But if all lives really mattered no one would feel compelled to insist that Black Lives Matter, and the truth of it is that at this moment in the life of our country, the lives of black men and boys do not seem to matter a whole lot.
Something in these most recent police killings of unarmed black man has captured the attention of communities. I’m not certain why Ferguson became the flash point. The situation with Eric Garner’s death seems much clearer to me. The medical examiner ruled it homicide, but the grand jury decided not to indict. He said “I can’t breathe.” Protesters picked up the cry.
The situation with Michael Brown is less clear. The conflicting evidence and testimonies make it hard for me to offer an unequivocal opinion. I hear the argument that the officer’s actions were justified given one version of the facts. But even given that version of the facts, there is a big difference between justified and justice. Were the officers justified in what they did to Eric Garner, I don’t think so and it certainly wasn’t justice. Was the officer justified in his actions against Michael Brown, I don’t know – but I do know it was not justice.
But whatever the particular facts of the cases, there is certainly a larger picture of unfair and unjust treatment at stake. The excessive use of force, the deadly use of force by police officers against people of color in general and black men in particular is a problem in our country. The solution I am looking for is not complete with a few marches and speeches. A solution to this problem is not found in perpetuating a division between people of color and white police officers. The police will need to be part of the solution.
This is part of the genius of the 60’s Civil Rights movement that today’s movement can learn from. King and other leaders insisted that we acknowledge the reality of the situation – black people in the south were being disrespected, brutalized, and lynched on a regular basis by white people. But the Civil Rights movement did not stop with that analysis. They went on to say the solution is for us to come together to stop this behavior and build a new way forward for all of us. They didn’t rush to the solution of all being color-blind and we shouldn’t either. But they didn’t demonize all police or all white people or all southerners when naming the reality of the situation – and we shouldn’t either.
Here is another thing they knew 50 years ago that many people seem to have forgotten. The key is to be organized. Again and again I hear people asking who the new Dr. King is for Ferguson. Which leader at the rallies is the one to give the great speeches to stir the people and lead us to change? What we miss with that question is that we don’t need another Dr. King. What we need is another Ella Baker and another Medgar Evens. We need more James Farmers and Fannie Lou Hammers and A. Philip Randolphs – we need organizers steady in the background more than we need speakers out in front.
And third, what I see in the efforts of the 60’s Civil Rights that needs to emerge in today’s situation is the kind of focus for change in particulars and details. The ultimate goal of the Civil Rights movement from 50 years ago is that same one people want for today: to end the violence against people of color, so young black men and indeed all people can trust the police and can live in peace. But the Civil Rights movement was also about getting the right to vote, desegregating public schools and public buses and public lunch counters and drinking fountains and bathrooms.
Today’s movement needs that kind of focus. Maybe it would be something along the lines of better integrating the police force – you know part of the story with Ferguson is that the town is predominantly people of color but the police force is overwhelmingly white. Maybe the focus is about the concept of community policing – getting officers out of their cars and meeting the people in the neighborhoods. Maybe it should be about demilitarizing our police or closing the easy imprisonment of people of color. Maybe the focus is about laws for independent review boards or independent investigators whenever there is an incident of an officer using deadly force. I don’t know what it needs to be but I know it needs to be something particular and my gut tells me it needs to involve the police. The police need to be part of the solution.
From Selma to Ferguson has been in some ways a long road of progress yet in other ways we seem to have barely left town. There have been significant changes these past fifty years: voting rights, the end to Jim Crow laws and legalized segregation and discrimination, and cultural acceptance of African Americans in business, politics, and personal relationships has grown. Fifty years ago people were still arguing about interracial marriages. We have made progress since we marched out of Selma. Progress toward our humanity as a country. But the road is longer than we thought. Arriving in Ferguson we see that there is still a long road ahead. Yet there is still cause for hope.
As King said at the eulogy of Rev. Jim Reeb, (which was our reading this morning)
I am not yet discouraged about the future… Granted, that those who pioneered in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms and painful threats of death… Granted, that we face a world crisis, which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life’s restless seas. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities, its valleys of salvation or doom in a dark, confused world. The kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men.
So we find ourselves standing in the “surging murmur of life’s restless seas” watching trouble brew and wondering at our part in the events of today and tomorrow. Let us declare ourselves for love, let us be among the people who did stand witness and did lend a hand. Let us be on the list of those who spoke up for justice and freedom amid the clamor and confusion and chaos. Let us declare ourselves for love.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
The Hollow Within
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 14, 2014
Days of light and days of darkness. We approach the solstice and the turning of the year. Soon the nights will grow shorter and the days longer, more light returning to our lives. Our attention is brought to the happiness and frivolity and joy of the season of lights. The rush from Thanksgiving to Christmas is a time many fill with shopping and preparations, visits to family, completion of projects, celebrations and festivities. The reality is that the dark days continue to grow until the solstice, still a week away. The reality is that the days of light and the days of dark are all mixed up together.
Tsunamis and tragedies, community concerns about racism and brutality, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, days that will go down in history, which will be remembered for the losses personal or national or global. Days of darkness come whenever they do without regard for calendars and seasons. Solstice and advent holidays focus on the lesson of how to see the light amid the darkness, how to find your way when the darkness seems unending. Days of light are ours to make whenever we need them, whenever we can. But the way that really works is to learn to walk through the dark carrying our own light. Or, to use the metaphor at the heart of the sermon today, we must step into the emptiness, become familiar with it, before moving out into the fullness of life again.
The phrase I use here as a title “The Hollow Within” comes from a particular translation of Lao Tzu’s eleventh chapter of the Tao Te Ching. “We shape clay to birth a vessel, yet it’s the hollow within that makes it useful.” But really, the conversation took root for me last spring when I was preaching about bamboo. Bamboo is hollow inside. It grows as a tube reaching up. This hollowness is a significant factor in its remarkable growth as well as its tenacious strength. It is reported to be able to grow more than 3 feet in length in a 24 hour period; and the tensile strength of bamboo rivals that of steel. The hollowness allows the reed to bend with flexibility. The hollow inside is the secret to the growth and strength of bamboo
A cursory look through spiritual websites with the word ‘Hollow’ uncovers a common rhetorical pattern lifting up hallow and hollow as opposites. If something is hallowed, it is made sacred or holy. If, on the other hand, something is hollow, it is void and empty. I must admit that my own experience of emptiness is not always a bad thing.
Oh, it certainly can be a bad thing. I might offer a hollow argument. An empty panty is a problem for hungry people. The loss of a loved one can leave a painful gap in our lives. Loneliness and loss can leave us longing for something, anything, to fill the empty place in our hearts, but we know that nothing will.
And yet, Rumi tells us in his poem “Craftsmanship and Emptiness.” “Workers rush toward some hint of emptiness, which they then start to fill. Their hope, though, is for emptiness, so don’t think you must avoid it. It contains what you need!” The emptiness contains what you need. Could it be that, like the bamboo reed, your hollowness within is somehow helpful or even the secret to our growth and tenacity?
Our lives are so filled with noise and traffic and schedules as to leave no empty room for silence. This makes for much stress and anxiety. Instead of welcoming emptiness, we seem in a rush to always fill it. This leaves us ill prepared when circumstance imposes an emptiness on our lives. Instead of growing used to the empty times, we are struck cold by them, left wanting to fill them back up with something so as to not have to spend too much time alone and lost.
Another poem by Rumi begins “Since I was cut from the reedbed, I have made this crying sound.” This is the poem entitled, The Reed Flute’s Song. “Days full of wanting, let them go by without worrying that they do. Stay where you are inside such a pure, hollow note.” But instead, too often we spend the days after being cut from the reedbed, if you will, worrying and wanting.
The empty space within, the hollow inside, is a doorway into deeper connection. And so we circle back to the Tao Te Ching reading and hear about how a room is defined by its walls, but it is the empty space within which makes it useful. The sides and bottom of a bowl provide definition, but it is the space within that makes it useful. Thus it is with bowls and flutes and doorways. Many of the common things in our lives are only possible through their essential empty spaces. As another author put it, “Just as a loaf of bread needs air in order to rise, everything we do needs an empty place in its interior.” (T. Moore, see below.) We need empty spaces in our lives.
Thomas Moore wrote a book called Meditations on the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life. He talks about how he goes about the business of silence. “I especially enjoy such ordinary retreats from the active life as shaving, showering, reading, doing nothing, walking, listening to the radio, driving the car. All of these activities can turn one’s attention inward toward contemplation. … Anything is material for retreat — cleaning out a closet, giving away some books, taking a walk around the block, clearing your desk, turning off the television set, saying no to an invitation to ANYTHING. At the sight of nothing, the soul rejoices.” (p 4)
It is not enough to just have empty spaces in your life, it is not enough to have silence. Silence is a doorway, and it is not enough to simply stand in the doorway. Step into the emptiness. Welcome it. Learn what it offers. “The space between yin and yang,” Loa Tzu tells us in Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching, “is like a bellows – empty, yet infinitely full. The more it yields, the more it fills.” The hollow inside holds the secret to your growth and surprising tenacity.
Yes, there are still the grief and frustrations of yesterday and today, the difficulties of today and tomorrow, but we can still carry a calm assurance that we can get through. Faith is that core you can touch at your center and always find refreshing. It is experiences that pour into you like living water. That is what lives in the emptiness within, constantly awaiting discovery. The more you spend time in the empty, longing space in your heart, the more you foster this calm assurance to carry on.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
December 7, 2014
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up.” (Nelson Mandela) If there is any lesson from Nelson Mandela’s life that I would offer up – that I believe he would offer up – to anyone struggling for justice, fighting against oppression, striving for freedom, it would be this: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” (Nelson Mandela)
Mandela’s life is a testimony to the complex alchemy of persistence, forgiveness, anger, resilience, and humility that forms the heart of humanity. As a young man he was a political activist and an angry agitator against the South African government. He spent 27 years in prison and emerged a leader for the nation becoming the country’s first black president. He sought reconciliation rather than revenge. When he rose to power and prominence, instead of exacting justice in the form of retribution, Mandela chose to seek justice in the form of reconciliation; notably through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established under his presidency. Apartheid had taken its toll on the nation; it was no simple thing to begin the work of dismantling. But that is exactly what he did.
Mandela was a truly remarkable individual. He became a symbol for the nation, but he was not just a figurehead or showpiece for the movement. He was the real deal: full of flaws and contradiction as well as conviction, compassion, perseverance, and vision.
There have been half-a-dozen movies about his life or his impact on South Africa. Mandela has been portrayed by Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Idris Elba, and Sidney Poitier. Through the 80’s there were numerous concerts and musical events lionizing Mandela and calling for his release. For a time, he was a world-famous prisoner. As a teenager I learned about Apartheid through activist musicians like Peter Gabriel and Bono. The album produced by Little Steven about artists refusing to play at Sun City, South Africa was my introduction to apartheid. That amazing song by The Specials (Free) Nelson Mandela and Johnny Clegg’s Asimbonanga were part of my regular listening in high school. Mandela became a symbol. When they sang “Free Nelson Mandela,” they were also saying “free South Africa and the black South African people.” But he was more than just a symbol, he became the movement.
He became powerfully useful to the anti-apartheid movement while in prison. When he came out of prison he was able to demonstrate that he was not just a symbol of the oppression and injustice, he could be the leader his country needed. And then when he refused to run for a second term in office he helped demonstrate that the people could be the people the country needed without him. He was an activist, prisoner, a president, and a retired statesman depending on what his people needed and circumstances demanded.
He often talked about the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley as being critically inspiring during the difficult years of his imprisonment.
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
The title, Invictus, is Latin for unconquerable. It was an acknowledgement of strength and of humility. Mandela shared in the gratitude expressed in the poem. Having spent as long as he did in prison, having struggled to achieve freedom for himself and his people before prison, Mandela knew something of the fell clutch of circumstance. The poem continues:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
This poem helped him to stay strong and to persevere through his trials and difficulties. And it helped him to remain grounded when, later in his life, fame and celebrity and power threatened to distract him. There was an earlier time, however, before the fame and recognition. The South African government worked to have the African National Congress and all its leaders including Mandela erased from national memory. After they arrested and convicted Mandela and other ANC leaders in the early 60s, they banned the ANC organization and made it illegal. The history taught to the upcoming generation was devoid of this information.
Angry black South African activists in the 70’s were struggling against the oppressive system of apartheid strangling their communities. They fought back as best they could. They had heard some stories, whispered stories, of organizations that had tried in the past to win freedom yet had failed. When these young activists were arrested, tried, and sent to prison, something unexpected occurred. Many of the political prisoners were sent to Robbins Island – an Alcatraz-like island of rock of the cape. There they encountered Nelson Mandela.
Mandela would take these young activists and agitators under his wing. He would share with them Henley’s poem about the unconquerable soul. He would urge them toward models of protest that were grounded in non-violence and in the inclusion of white allies.
Mandela had not started as a proponent of non-violent protest. His incarceration was for being part of the “Spear of the Nation,” the armed wing of the ANC that attempted to sabotage the government. Mandela’s commitment to non-violence was a tactical decision – he saw how powerful it could be. In fact, several times throughout his imprisonment, he was offered release if he would only renounce violence – and every time he refused, he would not compromise. Margaret Thatcher called the ANC a typical terrorist organization. Our U.S. government kept its distance as well, due to the ANC’s communist connections. Indeed there is reference to the CIA having a role in Mandela’s arrest back in the 60’s.
But one of the marks of Mandela’s greatness was his ability to grow and change as the needs of the situation changed. He shifted to a strong advocacy of non-violence not because he found violence abhorrent or because it went against his conscience. No, he shifted his perspective because he saw that non-violence was a more effective tool for accomplishing his goal of freedom and healing for his country.
After being released in 1990, Mandela went on a campaign to strengthen the international pressure to end apartheid and establish elections. He encouraged every party to participate, even those who had been his enemies before and during his imprisonment. He wanted the freedom to apply to everyone. After winning the election, he launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Again, he insisted that there be no exemptions, so even his own party, the ANC, was investigated and called to account.
There has been a significant amount of study concerning the effectiveness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work. Often compared against the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the two cases serve as the real-life examples in the debate between restorative justice and retributive justice in terms of human-rights violations. One of the signature pieces of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa was the capacity for people to apply for amnesty. I find it interesting to note that there were just under 850 amnesties granted out of the more than seven thousand cases considered by the commission. That is a little under 12% according the historical records of the official Truth and Reconciliation website.
Which is the next distinctive mark I want to lift up about Nelson Mandela and his impact: it is complex. Peace and prosperity did not just flow in on Mandela’s election day. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn’t just thank war criminals for their testimony and let them walk free. Forgiveness is hard work. Freedom is a complicated path to walk. Mandela called South Africa a rainbow nation. He called the people to see themselves as one nation across the different ethnicities and parties. He called them to be something that did not yet exist.
The urge in us toward retribution and retaliation is a powerful drive, a very real part of our nature. Often the oppressed rise up in a fight for freedom, only to trade places to become the new oppressor. Mandela’s capacity to walk out of prison after 27 years without bitterness and a desire for revenge is remarkable. What would you do given similar circumstance? What have you done in your own circumstances? Mandela would not advocate a quick fix, a platitude for the gapping injustice; but neither would he suggest resignation or playing nice.
When I think about the injustice on my heart this week of the series of cases of police officers using deadly force against black individuals with impunity, I wonder what Nelson Mandela would suggest to me. How might he respond?
I recognize that there are a wide range of perspectives and opinions on the anti-racism movement sweeping through our country now. Some here are focused the racism, others seeking to analyses more deeply the particulars, a handful trying to acknowledge the justifiable fears and dangers of police work, a few trying to ferment revolution, and a smattering trying to quietly wait it all out – and of course a good number tangled in their own turmoil such that national issues don’t even break the surface.
If you have not been following – briefly the issue on my heart today stems from the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the police strangulation of Eric Garner in New York City. In both cases, the grand jury refused to indict the officer.
Here in Binghamton, as is the case in several cities around the country, there have been protests, rallies, and marches. Here in Binghamton, the Binghamton University students gathered last week to protest with a ‘die-in’ event that blocked traffic on the Vestal Parkway. Here in Binghamton, a small group of BU students and community members met to talk about what we could do together about the problems around us. Here in Binghamton, last night, over 50 people gathered in our congregation’s social hall for a community conversation about race and police brutality and next steps. About ten people from our congregation were present. We talked about our experiences and looked at next steps that might include legislative actions, teach-ins, and actions directed to address police brutality. It was a pretty good conversation. There will be another here next Sunday night at 6pm to determine which of these will be our actual next steps.
In thinking about the life of Nelson Mandela against the backdrop of the current news troubling my heart, I admit it is not overly fair to ask what lessons Mandela’s life offers. But I ask it anyway, just as countless people seek to apply the lessons of saints and sages, prophets and divinities through the ages. Mandela was a man of persistence and vision. He was strategic and adaptable. I think he would caution us to stay true for the long haul. In considering our country’s history of racism and violence he might caution us against demonizing the oppressor or the oppressed.
Are there ways we can bring everyone back to the table for the work of healing and reconciliation? He might ask, are there ways to help the police be better at their job of serving and protecting? It is harder work to insist that all of us need to be part of the solution. It takes persistence, forgiveness, and humility to walk that long road to freedom.
In his autobiography, Mandela writes, “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” (from Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s autobiography)
May we have the strength of spirit to walk the long road. May we each find within ourselves and in the support of those around us, the wherewithal to persevere in the face of difficulties and trials and injustices. And may we, most of all, have the vision to see a way forward that includes all of us with no one, not even our adversaries, left behind.
In a world without end, may it be so.