Prelude: “America the Beautiful” (Ward and Bates)”
*Opening Hymn: “One Hundred Years Hence”
Reading: SLT #464 “And Then” by Judy Chicago
Reading: “Unclouded Vision” by Jacqueline Jules
Her lenses, implanted
to uncloud aging eyes,
sparkle now like a bit
of glitter on a card,
rhinestones on a T-shirt.
Twinkle in her eye. An old cliché.
Common long before
surgery was routine, suggesting
joy or affection – intangibles
that lift heels off concrete,
make us notice yellow petals
pushing through sidewalk cracks.
now visits museums again,
marvels at details, stops to read
each acrylic label on the wall.
Interlude: “Freedom” (Jim Brickman)”
Sermon: “Complications in the Search for Truth”
Look again with new lenses, and things might look different. Even truth might look different, as we take in the details. Stop to read the world anew, and simple truths we learned as children unveil the complications they are made of.
Two hundred and forty-six years ago, independence for England’s North American colonies was a doubtful prospect. The British Empire was growing: after the Seven Years’ War – known in North America as the French and Indian War – the 1763 Treaty of Paris gave Britain new territories: what is now the eastern United States up to the Mississippi, including Florida; areas of Lower Canada; India; and Senegal, in Africa. Plenty of North American colonists wanted to be part of that growth, but Parliament drew a line that year to exclude them. Then Parliament shifted onto them the tax burden of maintaining British troops in the colonies. They responded by agitating for lower imperial taxes and a greater role for local government. Almost no one thought of separating from Britain. But year by year their relationship with Britain grew more tense.
Then in 1775, to prevent violent conflict, British troops tried to occupy an arms depot in Concord, Massachusetts. They were confronted by defending colonists. Somebody’s gun went off, we don’t know whose. It turned into a battle. The colonists won. A year later, their representatives in the Continental Congress were debating a resolution on independence. During their debate, British troops – expelled from Boston, now regrouped, and still formidable – were preparing a major offensive to capture New York. Few expected the colonies to withstand it. Nevertheless, Congress declared independence.
From the Declaration to the final treaty came another seven years of war. In the end, Britain was forced not only to recognize the colonies’ independence, but to cede back Florida to Spain, and Senegal to France. But the Empire retained control of the West Indies and Canada, and as it continued to grow, it managed to deal the United States its first military catastrophe in 1814. The Battle of New Orleans and “The Star- Spangled Banner” notwithstanding, we lost that war. But not our independence.
Look again with new lenses. Take in the details. Read them anew, and complications challenge all cherished simplicity.
On Independence Day, do we celebrate freedom? If so, we are mistaken. Freedom was no more won in 1776 than the war was. Nor was it secured by the peace. The history of our country from its independence until now is an elaborate epic of our unfolding discovery of freedom, and equality, and their implications. Within a framework of liberal principles – like representative government and the rule of law – the founders of our newly independent country built institutions in the shape of their own narrow interests, unexamined biases, and uninformed beliefs. Mind you, collectively they were as informed as they could have been. The Constitution they eventually adopted, however, encoded racism in a fraction of 3/5, and protected the power of wealthy elites through an unrepresentative Senate and Electoral College.
Besides hierarchies of race and class, those of gender and citizenship were maintained by a cultural institution – the household – and by customs preserved in English common law. English custom conceived citizenship and political representation in terms of households, not individuals. Marriages, which create households, were recognized and recorded by a Justice of the Peace, the official who oversaw political jurisdictions. Ordered liberty was a matter between households. That’s as fine as the grain of English freedom got. Order within a household was shaped differently: by a biblically-inspired master/servant paradigm. A husband was master to his wife; parents were masters to their children; a household’s servants were subject to its master; and the craftsman was master to his apprentice, whose status was that of a child in his household.
The household was both an economic unit and a political unit, represented politically by its citizen-master. In this paradigm are the roots of every inequality and oppression we have labored to remedy over the last two and a half centuries, a labor complicated since the industrial revolution as capitalist business organizations increasingly replaced households as the basic economic units. Legal concepts of corporate citizenship and personhood flow from that dislocation.
Look with new lenses, and read the details anew. Complications roll down over generations.
Our opening hymn was written in 1852. Some say that the level of social division and discord that we are living through today, was last seen in our country around that time. Yet people sang of the end of cheating and fraud, slavery and voter restrictions, selfishness and substance abuse, oppression and war. And they forecast an end to the need for law-enforcement, the conversion of prisons to schools, full gender equality (at least within the binary), and freedom “to think for oneself,” which I take to mean individual self-determination and autonomy.
We might laugh at all this as a naive faith in the power of education, but take another look. Haven’t both sides of our polarized society today characterized each other as in need of a proper education? Don’t people on both sides of the divide say to themselves, “how can those people be so stupid?” Facing a seemingly hopeless state of affairs, the reformers who sang that song – Universalists among them – sang of such wild hopes, such an audacious vision, to assert their values and hold true to them in contentious and increasingly violent times. We laugh to sing those verses. I guarantee you, nobody was laughing then who sang that song. “One Hundred Years Hence” was a way of keeping eyes on the prize as conflict escalated. They sang to hold fast to good values, even as it seemed everything was falling apart.
The latest science supports their impulse to sing their values audaciously. In his book, Humankind, Rutger Bregman presents an impressive array of studies in a range of scientific disciplines that show the power of belief and commitment to shape human behavior. He interprets them through a familiar lens: the classical philosophical debate between the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes believed that people are basically wicked, and that civilization is a veneer that hides and helps restrain our wickedness. Rousseau believed that people are basically good, and that civilization is what makes us wicked. Which of these we choose to believe, the studies show, determines how we treat each other.
Bregman describes these alternatives of belief about human nature using the familiar concept of a placebo – if you believe people are good, you feel better about them, are willing to trust, and so on – and a new concept he calls a nocebo – if you believe people are wicked, you will feel uneasy about them, be reluctant to trust, and so on. A placebo is something that, if we believe it, will make us feel better, because we believe in it; a nocebo is something that, if we believe it, will make us feel worse, because we believe in it. Bregman says, “Some things are true whether you believe in them or not. … Other things have the potential to be true, if we believe in them.”
As for the difference of opinion between Hobbes and Rousseau about civilization, Bregman shows that science favors Rousseau’s position. He cites a study in Russia, in which wild silver foxes were selectively bred for friendliness. The result: the friendly foxes evolved to have adult characteristics less far-removed from the juvenile characteristics of the original wild foxes. They behaved more like domesticated dogs, even wagging their tails, which wild foxes do not do..
As it happens, that is exactly the pattern of developmental difference between humans and other primates. Humans evolved so that, as adults, we more closely resemble other primates’ children. This suggests that as we developed some 50,000 years ago into a species forming wandering hunter-gatherer societies whose survival depended on collective action, we domesticated ourselves: in some way we selectively bred for friendliness, to hold our wandering societies together. This is the deep root of human nature. The veneer of civilization – applied only about 5000 years ago – covers this friendly, communal, trust-building human nature. We still struggle to adjust to settled life. Staying in one place, we find more occasions for conflict, and find it harder to escape conflict.
Look again with new lenses. Things look different. Even truth looks different. Read this complicated world anew and wisdom we have learned in life must deepen.
My colleague Margaret Keip wrote: “Whenever an idea reigns unchallenged by another point of view, there is no freedom because there is no choice. Thus, conflict is the cost of freedom. If we treasure choice, we may also learn to honor conflict, and discover it may grant us peace and strength and stature. In devotion to the cause of freedom, disagreement may indeed unite us.” As conflict has steadily risen over the last several decades, the wisdom of those words has been harder and harder to accept.
As conflict rises, so one model has it, it changes character. The lowest level of conflict is simply a problem that we try to solve together. The next level is when we agree to disagree. These two levels of conflict might not even feel like conflict. The third level this model calls a contest: it’s peaceful, competitive, there are rules, it can feel fair. It has winners and losers, but we accept the result, win or lose. Elections are conflict at this level. At the model’s fourth level – war – and its fifth – crusade – violence comes into it. In war, the losers must be defeated and the winners dominate. In a crusade, the object is not to defeat, but to destroy the opponent. What peace and strength and stature can come of that?
My colleague’s words seem to assume conflict no worse than a contest, where there are rules, and outcomes are accepted. Ordered liberty, and thus ordered conflict. How, then, do we de-escalate when violence intrudes and threatens that ordered conflict?
Bregman argues for a “new realism” where we believe in human goodness and friendliness. He offers this advice: “Be courageous. Be true to your nature and offer your trust. Do good in broad daylight, and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. You may be dismissed as gullible and naive at first. But remember, what’s naive today may be common sense tomorrow.”
In our country, we talk about rights enumerated (or not) in the Constitution. Internationally, a discourse on fundamental human rights has progressed far beyond that limited horizon. New lenses exist through which we might view and interpret our Constitution. It’s long past time we looked again.
Look again with new lenses, and things look different. Truth looks different, as we take in the details. Stop to read the world anew, with joy and affection for it as it is, and complicated truths reveal simple values that may guide us through suffering, stress, and setbacks.
May we have the courage to be true to the goodness of our nature, living into our highest values, as we look again.
So may it be. Amen.
We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth,
the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment.
These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.
May I who live, be true unto my being.
One in my thoughts, my words and every deed
I was born free… an ever-changing river
is what I am, and neighbor, so are you.
We have the power, through laughter, love, and tears
to face all fears, and live forever free.
*Closing Hymn: SLT # 170 “We are a Gentle Angry People”
Radical Hospitality Please turn and greet your neighbors!
Postlude: “America” (from West Side Story, Bernstein and Sondheim)