Monday, October 4, 2010

Sermon: Self Reliance of Social Reform

Two of our leading Unitarians lived at the same moment in history. They were both radicals. Their sermons actually shaped Unitarianism as we know it today. They looked at the world in similar ways, but there was one big difference. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most important thing in the world was an individual’s inner drive and commitment to his or her own motivations. Personal moral development would be the saving grace of American society and eventually humanity according to Emerson.

The other man I’m talking about you may not be as familiar with, Theodore Parker. But I assure you, his influence runs just as deep, in both Unitarianism and in American thought. Parker was a radical abolitionist and social reformer. Her believed that changing laws and institutions was a crucial step for people to lead more meaningful lives.

One man believed it was up to the heart of each person, the other believed in building institutions to support those most in need. Fortunately today, we know both are necessary.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is a pillar of Unitarian Universalist thought primarily for his wonderful insights into the human connection with the natural world and the ability to find inspiration in all sorts of encounters. He was a champion of individualism. He railed against the pressures of society that encouraged conformity and sameness. Not only was he brilliant, but people actually wanted to hear what he had to say, and they paid for it. Emerson delivered over 1500 lectures across the country. Many to sold out audiences.

Like the other progressive Unitarians of his time, Emerson came to speak out against slavery. In a lecture in Washington DC in 1862 Emerson said "The South calls slavery an institution... I call it destitution... Emancipation is the demand of civilization".

As I said, Emerson spoke out against slavery. But he opposed it not so much as an institution, but as a corruption of the freedom of individuals. Always, Emerson was more interested in what occurred in the heart of a person than in the halls of governments. It was the person and his or her will, curiosity, courage, exploration and development that enchanted Emerson. He was America’s champion of the individual.

But there is a shadow side to Emerson’s focus on individualism. As we are captivated by his prose and his ideas, we forget that Emerson was also a harsh critic of those who did not seem to have the personal drive and inner spirit that he proclaimed. In fact Emerson derided the poor and the destitute. He thought they were essentially lazy, and victims of their own actions.

One of Emerson’s most famous essays is called “Self Reliance.” That should be a clue. It’s read far and wide because it is a major summation of his ideas. One of the paragraphs starts with these words. “Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet. Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity-boy, a bastard, or an interloper, in the world which exists for him.”

For all of Emerson’s personal depth and soul searching, he didn’t care about creating a safety net for those most in need. He believed that personal moral development would be the saving grace of American society and eventually humanity. But an individual without that drive, or without the resources to engage his or her potential, was a drain on society and nothing more.

Surprisingly, one of his contemporaries, Theodore Parker, was so connected with the institutions of society, that he often overlooked the value of individuals. We know him mostly as an abolitionist, but Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral degradation of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor. He advocated for institutional change to address all of these causes, even as they were cutting edge concepts in the 1800s.
Parker was a powerful advocate for changing institutions. He believed that our country and our world could be improved, if only we set up the right systems to care for people, especially those most in need. But Parker also had his blind spot.

Yes, Parker believed that all men had the God-given right to be free. But he also believed the white race was superior to all other races. And herein lies the paradox of Theodore Parker’s thinking:
He said that whites had nothing to fear from Black slaves if they were set free. Because, he said, they were childlike, docile, and unintelligent. He said worse things about the Mexican population. Although he was against the Mexican American war, he described the Mexicans as “A wretched people; wretched in their origin, history, character, who must eventually give way as the Indians did.”

Those words alone are disgusting. But to know that they came from one of our country’s leading abolitionists is simply bizarre. The only thing I can figure, is that Theodore Parker was so consumed with transforming institutions, that he never saw or understood the individuals involved. It’s the opposite of Emerson’s challenge. Emerson was so absorbed with the moral development of the individual, that he failed to see that a healthy society needs institutions to help those most in need, those who don’t have the ability or resources to strike out on their own path of self improvement.

So can we legislate morality? Can we set up institutions to make people better, or is it up to each person to set his or her own course for individual advancement? Well, as
is usually the answer to my sermons, the answer is both. We must build healthy institutions, and we must do it as engaged individuals.

…This is not only a historical question. The disparity between institutional change and the hearts and minds of individuals has raised its head in a very ugly way this past month. Even as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people experience unprecedented freedoms and rights in our country, the evil of homophobia remains anchored in the hearts of individuals. As you probably know, this past month a shocking number of your people have killed themselves, as a reaction to anti-gay bullying in their schools. As state by state gays and lesbians gain access to equal marriage, young people, very young people, are killing themselves because the humiliation that they face is unlivable. And this phenomenon is rising.

And of course the same is true for the rights of Blacks. With a Black president and countless regulations in public and private institutions to ensure that race is not a factor in opportunities for advancement, the evil or racism still rests in the hearts of many individuals. I’ll never forget hearing from my own uncle say that while he like Barrack Obama, he would never, could never vote for a black president. And that’s about as banal of an example of racism and I can give. The real fear and race-based hatred that persists in our hearts is beyond what I can begin to describe.

As we so heartily sang in our opening hymn, We’ll build a land, where sisters and brothers, anointed by God, may then create peace: where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.

We will build a land, together, a better land. I have no doubt about that. But to build that land together, we cannot forget that the heart and mind are the center of human experience. If those things fail to change, then little else will. But also, as we develop our own moral compass and our own well of spiritual truth, we must go beyond ourselves to build institutions that support those most in need.

Not only are we called to develop our own moral compass, and to build institutions of justice. And we are called to bring the one to bear upon the other. Our hearts and minds must be engaged in the political process for it to be effective.

It is unavoidable in some ways with election season. It’s in every newspaper and seems like it will soon be in every television commercial break. The flurry of election time can be frankly annoying. But take it seriously. I promise, that taking your vote seriously and informing yourself about the issues, will make you happier. Even if your issue looses you will have engaged it. And we all know it’s better to put up a good struggle than to flop over in forfeit.

Exercise your vote and talk about it with your friends. More importantly, talk about it with your children. They need to see you vote. Let them help you fill out your absentee ballot or take them with you to the polling center if you can. If you can’t do that, be sure to tell them that that was one of your chores for the day. Rarely do I tell parents how to do there job, but this one I’m sure of. Show your children how important this is to you, and tell them why. Because your vote affects the lives of real people and our planet.

If you have not register to vote, or if you have moved and need to re-register, Jean Raun will be outside after the service with voter registration forms for you to fill out. And if you are baffled by the array of options on the ballot with nine different propositions, come learn about them. Saturday October 16th 9:30 Social Action Committee and League of Women Voters will have a forum to tell anyone interested about the pros and cons on each one of them. With this many things on the ballot it is very confusing and very important.

I want to wrap up by explaining that this is not just a history lesson about Unitarian abolitionists, or a lecture about exercising your vote. It is a sermon. I first came to this topic about the balance between individuals and institutions thinking about church. In particular, and this is something that I think about quite a bit, I was thinking of the peculiar strain of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

I recently heard the conversion story of one of my ministerial colleagues. Before life as a minister she was a lawyer who described herself as spiritual, but not religious. She believed that one could worship as well under a tree as they could at church. Until she went to church one day with a friend, and realized that she hadn’t been spending much time under trees worshiping. In fact, her self-definition as spiritual but not religious was in fact not religious, but the only actively spiritual aspect of her life was occasionally reading a novel that contained some vaguely spiritual phenomenon.

Just like in the political world, the answer is both. Cultivating our own moral compass and spiritual life is the responsibility of every individual. But so to, we build an institution, we build this institution to help us along that path, and to help others in need. It’s a both/and sort of thing.

I heard another short story from that same colleague, the formerly spiritual but not religious minister. It’s the story of a child. One Sunday morning her 5 year was tired and cranky and pleaded with Mom, the question that I’m sure many parents dread. “Mom, why do we have to go to church?” “Why do we have to go to church?” And in a moment of inspiration, or perhaps exhausted delusions, she said, “We have to go to church to grow our hearts.”

We have to go to church to grow our hearts. Let us be about the business of growing our hearts here. And let us be about the business of building an institution that reaches out with a loving embrace to all who need it.