Jan 6, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District, January 5, 2020
Happy New Year! I was not supposed to be in the pulpit with you this morning. But plans change, people get sick, and I find myself with you today on the first Sunday of a new year and a new decade. It is good to be with you. It is good to be with even though the news at the opening of this, what will perhaps be the most important decade in human history, is bitter and harsh. It is good to be with you precisely because it is when the news of the world is bitter and harsh that we need religious community the most.
The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a United States military drone strike on sovereign Iraqi soil has pushed the Middle East into crisis. Soleimani was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi military leader whose political party controls almost fifty seats in the Iraqi Parliament. These illegal acts of war violate both international law and the United States War Powers Act. They may lead to war between the United States and Iran. They have already led to further destabilization of the Middle East. Hundreds of people will almost certainly be killed because of the decision of the President of the United States to authorize Soleimani’s illegal political assassination. Thousands or tens of thousands or possibly even hundreds of thousands of people will die horrible violent deaths if this country goes to war with Iran.
I cannot help but wonder about the timing of the President’s decision to have Soleimani killed. He will soon be on trial in the Senate. The House has passed two articles of impeachment and he could, theoretically, be removed from office. Of course, there is every sign that his allies in the Senate will prevent witnesses from being called or from a serious trial taking place. The Senate Majority Leader even claims that he is coordinating the trial with the White House in order to facilitate a speedy acquittal. The position of the President’s Senatorial allies is clearly concerning. In his year-end report Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., warned “we have come to take democracy for granted.” Roberts will oversee the trial in the Senate. It appears that the Senate Majority Leader’s position has him worried about his ability “to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”
Drawing the United States military into a conflict abroad will almost certainly make it more difficult to have an honest debate and trial on the House’s articles of impeachment. There will be calls for national unity. For the many, the President will be transformed from a divisive figure to a unifying head of state. It will be harder to criticize him. War dissenters and pacifists will be castigated for being unpatriotic. There might even be calls to delay the President’s trial. This country’s liberal democracy may move closer to a defining crisis.
Over a hundred years ago, as the United States entered World War I, the writer Randolph Bourne warned that war is the health of the state. He wrote, “The moment war is declared... the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy... with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, [and] revives all his military memories and symbols... Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.” When war is the health of the state it is challenging to be a critic of either the President or the actions he directs the military to take. It is no wonder then that the current President is not the only one to authorize dramatic violent action during the impeachment process. President Clinton did the same thing in December of 1998 when he launched air strikes in Iraq as the House stood poised to impeach him.
Over a hundred years ago the Unitarian minister, pacifist, and first friend in the United States of Mahatma Gandhi, John Haynes Holmes stood before his congregation in New York City and told them, in the idiom of early twentieth-century Unitarianism: “War is an open and utter violation of Christianity. If war is right, then Christianity is wrong, false, a lie. If Christianity is right, then war is wrong, false, a lie...”
Today, I believe that the same thing can be said in twenty-first century words. Unitarian Universalism upholds the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Not some people. Not only citizens and residents of the United States. All people. Speaking only for myself, I can rephrase Holmes words: War with Iran is an open and violation of Unitarian Universalist values. If such a war is right, then Unitarian Universalism is wrong, false, a lie. If Unitarian Universalism is right, then such a war is wrong, false, a lie...”
You may have other views. We affirm the right of conscience and the search for truth as central to our tradition. These are mine and they mean that I will never pray nor preach for victory through arms or pretend that the people of Iran are any less human, any less worthy of my love or the love of the divine, than any of you.
And so, this morning, I find myself gravely concerned for the future of this country and this world. I find myself gravely concerned because not only do the President’s military actions represent a political crisis and a crisis in democracy, they are a distraction from what must be the central focus of the next decade: addressing the climate emergency.
The next ten years or so will determine whether or not humanity chooses to address the climate crisis. What we do now will impact the lives of not only our children and our grandchildren but the lives of those thousands of years from now--if there are humans thousands of years from now. At such a moment in humanity history, I find myself often reflecting upon the words of James Baldwin in the closing passage of his magnificent essay “The Fire Next Time.” Baldwin’s essay was written during the civil rights movement, that historic movement to overturn Jim Crow and defeat white supremacy. He saw that movement for racial justice as something that would determine the future of country--whether it would be a liberal democracy or a white supremacist apartheid state. Baldwin wrote: “And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we--and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others--do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. We are on the precipice because we, as a country, have been unable to overcome white supremacy. The current President is a white supremacist populist and many of his supporters have made it clear that their highest loyalty is to the maintenance of a white supremacist racial order and not liberal democracy.
We are on the precipice of the fire next time. Literally and figuratively, while the world is distracted by the threat of war Australia is literally burning. Figuratively, because the racial conflagration that has raged since Europeans arrived on the shores of this continent is threatening, once again, to consume the country.
The fire next time, in worship we have been focusing on the spiritual and religious tools that are necessary to live through such times of crisis. Today, and for the month of January, we will be focusing on what I believe is one of the most important of these tools: the cultivation of friendships. The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the cultivation of friendships was a crucial tool for those who survived the brutalities of totalitarianism. The creation and sustaining of friendship in such times is a sign that “a bit of humanness in a world become inhuman had been achieved.” And in such hours of crises as the ones we now face maintaining our own humanness and recognizing it in others is one of our crucial tasks. It is difficult to kill others whom we recognize as humans. Killing, especially on a mass scale, often requires the abstraction of human being into a categorical other: the human being who is a friend, a lover, a parent, a child, a sibling, or a neighbor becomes the Jew, the migrant, the black person, the indigenous person, the queer person, or the Iranian.
And so, now let us turn to friendship and consider the alchemical power it provides to make us human to each other.
The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, “What was the name of my best friend?” is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.
Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he claimed, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members.” He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community 'the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.'”
Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. And whose friendships sustained them through the struggle for the abolition of slavery and their work for the liberation of women. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.
Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” Margaret Fuller drowned at sea at the age of forty. Her tragic death prompted Emerson to write, “I have lost my audience.” Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, “more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles...” Of him she wrote, “that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind.” Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.
The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, “...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.”
Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or hustling through mazing, cold, Boston streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.
Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called “the great family of all souls.” If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.
Again, Emerson, “We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables.” Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, “the solidest thing we know.” Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.
When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were often similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, “I come to this congregation because I love the community.”
“That's it?,” my internal dialogue would run. “You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure a minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!”
Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, “Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,” but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. A few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.
Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. When there are crises in the world, or crises in our lives, a religious community like this one can be a place to discover that are not alone in our struggles. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making, and breaking isolation, is are pretty powerful common centers.
Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.
It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.
Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. “From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey,” said one. “Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart,” said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.
The virtues might be understood as those qualities that we cultivate which are praiseworthy. They are qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them. That is one reason why as we have been considering the spiritual and religious tools we need in this era of crisis we have speaking of the virtues in worship.
Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.
Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, “The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.
But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.
Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, “I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else.”
We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. A friend visits. I take the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I have never done before but will certainly do again. We delight in its silky sweet eggy texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. A friend calls and inspires me in my commitment to work toward justice. He reminds me that we can only build the good society together. We can only do it by imaging the possibility of friendship between all the world’s peoples.
How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, “What was the name of my best friend?” was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.
I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.
Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, “Hello, I would like to get to know you.” Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, “I have my greatest gift to give you, my self.” Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights. Doing so will help us to recognize the possibility of friendship, the community humanity among, inherent in all peoples. Doing so will equip us to thrive in an era of crisis and remember the promise of our faith tradition: someday, somehow, we will remember that we are all members of the great family of all souls and, so united, we shall overcome war and hatred to build the beloved community.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Nov 5, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, November 4, 2018
This is the Sunday before a truly contentious election. Many of us are deeply concerned about the future direction of this country. Some of us fear that it is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian state. The path forward for most, if not all of us, seems unclear. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday the United States will remain a divided country. No matter which party wins control of the House and Senate this coming Tuesday, democracy in the United States and throughout the world will continue to be in crisis.
One aspect of this crisis is that it is difficult for people with different political opinions to talk to each other. Many of us self-stratify. We choose to live in communities where most people hold similar values to us. I am guilty of this myself. When I moved to Houston from Boston I selected the Montrose neighborhood. It is near the church. There are lots of art museums, restaurants, bars, and cute shops. It has good public transit. It is walkable. It is also a liberal enclave.
People like to ask me how I am coping with the culture shock of moving from the Northeast to the South. When they do, I have to tell them that so far it does not seem that different. I do so with the knowledge that the reason why it does not seem that different is that most of the places I find myself in are places filled with people like myself: liberal or left educated professionals. In such places I find that most people more-or-so less hold similar political, religious, and social values.
Last week I found myself at a Halloween party where not everyone held similar political views. And I was reminded of how difficult it is for people in this country to talk to each other. There I was, hanging out on a new friends’ porch as torrents of rain came and the kids ran from house-to-house trick-or-treating in increasingly soggy costumes. Someone came up to introduce himself to me. He seemed friendly enough. He asked me if I had tried the frito pie. I confessed that I did not know what frito pie was. He explained to me that it was a combination of frito chips, chili, and cheese--and pointed over to the table where all three items sat waiting to be mixed together.
Another person entered the conversation. Somehow, the topic shifted, and we found ourselves talking about the horrific events of the last week. It came up that I am in favor of some kind of gun control. And that completely ended the conversation. Full stop. No attempt to find common ground. No discussion. The man I had been talking to said something like, “The Second Amendment is what it is” and walked off. He was not rude or anything. He just made it clear that we had nothing more to talk about.
Have you had a similar experience? Or does this experience seem familiar: You post something political online. Pretty soon your Facebook wall or your Twitter stream becomes a mess of vitriol and bile. You unfriend your aunt. You block your cousin. No one convinces anyone of anything. Instead, everyone retrenches in their own enclaves. Or you decide to embrace the old maxim and refrain from discussing politics at the dinner table.
Some philosophers argue that this dilemma is inherent to our contemporary culture. Different moral and political positions are conceptually incommensurable. That is a fancy way of saying is that there is no rational way to sort out a disagreement between them. They begin from different premises or are rooted in different core values.
This is something you may have experienced on those occasions when you have been able to engage someone from a different political perspective in a debate. I remember one experience I had like this when I was on an airplane. I was on my way to present a paper at some academic conference. My seatmate struck up a conversation. He asked me what I did and where I was going. I told him. It turned out that he was a classics major from a conservative Christian college.
We spent the next two or three hours discussing philosophy, theology, and the classical canon. On the surface it appeared that we influenced by many of the same thinkers. Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ovid, Augustine... We had read and appreciated each of them. But, it is like the Greek poet Sappho wrote:
If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
We failed to follow Sappho’s warning not to go deeper. As the conversation continued, we discovered we did not agree on anything. Despite our common canon, we actually shared no ground. Any position that one of us took the other found objectionable. We did not agree upon racial justice, economics, women’s rights, GLBT rights, federal funding for higher education, the reality of climate change, prison reform, the origin of human life, gun control, the nature of good and evil, the separation of church and state...
There is a lot of ground that can be covered in a few hours. Yet each time we approached a subject we found we had completely incompatible arguments. Take abortion, an issue in American political life that has long proved divisive. I made an argument that ran something like this: In a free society, each person has the right to control their own body. An embryo is part of the mother’s body. Since a mother has a right to do what she wants with her body she has the right to freely make a decision about whether or not she will have an abortion. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.
My seatmate started from a different place. He claimed that an embryo is actually an identifiable human being. As such, it was accorded rights of its own. The chief of these rights is the right not to be murdered. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.*
Our positions were, as I suggested earlier, conceptually incommensurable. They were based in different assumptions about what it means to be human. There was no way to rationally reconcile them. It was almost as if we were talking different languages. Actually, it was worse than that. Es posible por me decir el mismo cosa en Español que digo en Inglés. It is possible for me to say the same thing in Spanish that I say in English. But it was not possible for my seatmate and I to agree on what we meant when we used words that were central to our vocabularies. The words like life, murder, and body meant different things to each of us.
Friends, this is where we are right now in our political history. We have reached a point where people cannot agree upon what words mean or what it means to be human. Indeed, this country’s resurgence of white supremacy and nationalism indicates that people cannot even agree upon who is a human being. The poor suffering migrants who are wending their way from Honduras to the United States border are human beings. They breath, they cry, they hunger, they love, they fear, they struggle, the same as anyone in this sanctuary this morning. The same is true of the eleven Jewish elders who were murdered last week as they gathered for worship at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The same is true of the two black people recently killed in a Kroeger in Kentucky. The same is true of the two women killed at a yoga studio in Florida on Friday. They were all humans with hopes, loves, fears, families, friends, favorite foods, like any of us. And yet, their murderers failed to recognize them as such. Instead, their murderers saw them as something other than human.
It is not just that we cannot agree upon our fundamental values. It is that we cannot agree upon who is a who human being. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have argued, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts,” but apparently, he was wrong. People seem very much to have their own facts. And sure, you might, and I might, argue that certain facts are, well, facts based in an objectively measurable reality but that would be beside the point. We cannot get everyone to agree to what the objectively measurable reality is. For many people, it is an objectively measurable fact that the scriptures--be they the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon--are divinely inspired. For me, they are great works of literature containing much wisdom and not a little foolishness, testaments to the infinite power of human creativity, the luster of poetry that lies within.
The great challenge before us is collectively finding our way out of this mess. And here I could make the observation that there is no historical example of people defeating totalitarianism through debate. And that it has only ever been defeated through mass mobilization. And that it has not always been defeated. And I could list the examples of the great life affirming, antifascist, movements that have stood against totalitarianism in Europe, in Latin America, and in the United States. And I could talk with you about the tragic defeats of those who stood against the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Or the loss of Spain to the fascist regime of Francisco Franco in the 1930s. But I do not think that would bring us any closer to figuring out a way forward that does not reenact the great struggles of the past.
And so, I want to turn to my sermon title, “The Virtues of Conservatism.” It hints at one path that might be available to us, the path of virtue ethics. Ethics is organized around the question, How should I live a good life? This is the question that faces us today, on the Sunday before the election, just as it is a question that we will face next week after all of the ballots have been counted. It is a question that we must answer within the context in which we live, under the threat of rising totalitarianism. It is a question we will answer somewhat differently ten or twenty years from now when the political, cultural, and ecological world we find ourselves in has changed.
Philosophers and theologians divide ethics into three broad schools. One school claims that ethical action is found by following rules. In such a system, the person who judiciously obeys the law might be thought of as the ethical person. Another school believes that the ethical person is measured by the outcome of their actions. The dictum “the ends justify the means” probably best summarizes this stance. It has been favored by some of the great fighters for freedom and justice. Malcolm X was one of the true heroes of the twentieth-century. He taught us to struggle for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.”
Virtue ethics is the third broad school of ethics. Virtue ethicists believe that the ethical life is to be found by cultivating certain traits of character. These traditionally are categories like honesty, bravery, generosity, gratitude... These traits are called the virtues.
Virtue ethics are favored by many conservatives. Such thinkers tend to treat the virtues as static. There is one meaning to being brave or honest. There is one meaning to compassion. Such thinkers also tend to think that social roles are fixed and that we are best selves when we perform the roles we are given when we pursue the virtues inherent in them. There is one way to be a good, and virtuous, parent, or worker, or child, or spouse or whatever.
Virtue ethicists tend to talk about how the presence of virtue is expressed in character. The conservative intellectual David Brooks writes a lot about the relationship between virtue and character. One of my friends accuses of him being a crypto-moderate, but Brooks speaks for a certain element of patrician conservatives. His interest in virtue ethics is mirrored in other patrician conservatives like William Bennett; Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, he wrote an entire book called “The Book of Virtues.”
But here’s the thing, virtue ethics has a long connection to Unitarian Universalism. It was particularly favored by our Unitarian ancestors. Let me give you an example.
Lately, I have been poking around in the church library. It is something I do instinctually. I have spent enough my life doing historical research that if you put me within smelling distance of an archive I will start digging through it like a pig rooting for truffles.
A couple of weeks I happened across a beat-up pale green volume. Coffee stains on the front, it is marked “Scrap Book.” It contains a selection of newspaper and magazine cuttings about First Church and Unitarianism from the late 1920s through the early 1940s.
One of those articles contains a sermon that was preached when this congregation dedicated its first building here on Fannin and Southmore. The minister was then Thomas Sanders. We have already read the closing paragraph of his sermon. I want to draw our attention to its last sentence, “The church must generate moral power as well as instruct, for salvation is found in the development of character.”
Salvation is found in the development of character. It is about a clear a statement of the classical Unitarian theology of New England as I can imagine. In this view, the purpose of the church is to provide people a moral education so that they can strive towards self-improvement and live good lives. These Unitarians understood themselves to be Christian because they believed, as one wrote, “the character of Christ... sets before us moral perfection.” Christ was someone who had developed perfect character and who tried to teach others how to develop it. By following Christ’s teachings, they thought, people could discover the inner light within and begin to approach what they called “the likeness to God.” The great nineteenth-century Bostonian Unitarian preacher and theologian William Ellery Channing once claimed, “The great hope of society is in individual character.” He was suggesting that we become our best selves, and realize our own likeness to God, by nurturing such virtues.
The virtues for someone like Channing were not unlike the virtues for many contemporary conservative philosophers. They came out of respecting a certain set of fixed social roles. Nineteenth-century New England Unitarians contained many of the country’s mercantile elite. They had much clearer ideas of what it meant to be a Unitarian minister or a banker or a ship’s captain or a wife or a husband or a judge or a student than we do today. I suspect that many of us would disagree with how they understood those social roles. I certainly have no interest in receiving the kind of deference from congregants that a man like Channing could expect. Nor do I am interested in serving the elite in the same way that he did.
But that misses the point, the possibility, that I see in virtue ethics. It allows us to possibly find an entry point into a conversation with those who occupy different political, philosophical, and theological positions. We can probe the writings of Channing and discover what he meant by words like courage. His definition was different than ours. It centered on Jesus. I doubt many contemporary Unitarian Universalists would resonate with his claim that we express our moral freedom by leaving “all for Christ.” And yet, we can recognize that he valued, as we do, the importance of speaking our own truth and of being brave in the face of injustice.
I suspect that the same is true of my seatmate on the airplane. We were able to keep talking because we could at least agree upon which words might be important in our lives, even if we had completely different understandings of them. I was able to ask him, What does it mean to live a good life in your community? And he was able to ask me the same. It is true that our conversation went nowhere. But, unlike the man I met at the party, we were able to keep talking.
I have this inkling, this thought, that it might that the best we can hope for over the long haul is the possibility of staying together in a collective conversation. It is true that the ends, the goals, I seek have a lot more in common with Malcolm X than with the man I was sitting next to on the plane. I am against white supremacy. I am against totalitarianism. I am against economic inequality. I am for the great project of collective liberation, the unleashing of the human spark that can leap each to each.
But it is also true that I suspect that on some level each of us can articulate a vision of the good life. It might not be found in the words we speak. It may only be present in the actions we take. But, nonetheless, I imagine it can found in the lives we try to live and the lives we valorize. I have a suspicion that each of you has some sense of who is a good person and the kind of people you admire. And sometimes, we can even find something to admire, some sense of virtue, in those people we find ourselves in violent disagreement with. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the greatest philosophers in this country’s history. He was able to say that there was “something noble in the figure of Jefferson Davis” even as he denounced Davis’s white supremacy and observed that there was “something fundamentally incomplete about” the standards by which the old Confederate had tried to live.
Such an appeal to virtue ethics might be a foolish hope. But then again, Unitarian Universalism has been labelled a faith without certainty. I would be lying to you if I told you I knew exactly what must be done, today or tomorrow. I know that totalitarianism has only ever been defeated by mass mobilization. But I also know that even as we confront the present horrors of the day we must try to stumble our way forward for the long haul. And that something must change if we are not to endlessly repeat, as it seems we are now, the cycles of totalitarian rise and defeat. And maybe, just maybe, those stumbles include a focus on the common vocabulary that exists across political difference. As David Brooks has observed, virtue ethics “is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness.” And so, I leave you, on this Sunday before the election, not with a clear charge or solid instructions on what you must do but rather with the glimmer of hope that we can seek and find a common vocabulary with those we disagree. I do not hope that we will agree. I only that we might find a way to remain in a conversation.
Maybe then we might each discover the shining light within. Then maybe, just maybe, against all the odds, and the heart break, and the human error, our lives will echo with the words offered by the African American poet Thylias Moss:
You will be the miracle.
You will feed yourself five thousand times.
May those words be true for each of us.
Amen and Blessed.
* My reconstruction of our argument owes something to Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” third edition (Norte Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 7.