Canaries in a Coalmine: How Do We Detect Evil?

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we teach our kids to think for themselves. Of course, not everyone appreciates our denomination’s approach to religion. My friend Doris Wilson once told me the story of how her very young daughter asked a question in Sunday School. It was one of the big theological questions, “Is there a God?” or “Is there life after death?” and the girl’s teacher responded, “What do you think?” After class the little girl walked up to her mom and proclaimed with disgust, “What kind of church asks a 5 year old what they think?!”

She grew up to be a Catholic. So not everyone approves of our approach to religion. Another little girl might have found the question liberating, a chance to share her own ideas on the subject, however, this little girl wanted adult guidance not an invitation to self examination. For that reason, I say to parents, “Tell your kids what you think and then ask them what they think – because they are UU kids and they are going to think for themselves anyway.”

Of course, the UU church is not the only church to disappoint the young. I grew up in the Episcopal Church where we were taught to confess our sins. The liturgy guided us to say, “we have sinned in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”

This emphasis on confession is shared by many faith traditions. Many denominations practice confession and have issued apologies for their historic stances on slavery or colonialism or their complicity with sexual abuse or misconduct. Every summer, the season of denominational conferences, there are apologies issued by conferences for historical errors. Our denomination is no exception. This summer the UUA will hold its annual gathering in New England in the lead up to 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower and it will be an opportunity for an honest backward look at the treatment of Native American people in American history.

However, I remember that as a young person I was always disappointed by the confessional tone of church. I remember thinking something to the effect of, “What kind of church has 20/20 hindsight but not 20/20 foresight?” How come we only seem to be able to recognize evil after it has already happened? Why don’t we see evil coming? Why are we all about apology after the fact instead of prevention before the fact?

On some level, this is just a young person holding adults to impossibly high standards. We see through a glass darkly, none of us has 20/20 foresight. However, I do think we would be wise to give some thought to prevention, so that our apologies for the past can inform our actions for a better future.

In this congregation we love to sing the hymn, “May Nothing Evil Cross this Door.” For that reason I think we need the theological equivalent of canaries in a coalmine. In the old coalmines they kept canaries that would serve as a warning should dangerous odorless and colorless gasses fill the mine and kill the workers. Now if you think about it, the theological concept of evil is odorless. Evil is colorless. Evil is dangerous. So what warning system do we have in place to prevent disaster?

Now I know right now there is someone out there who wants to ask the questions, “What is evil?” or “What is your personal definition of evil?” And so I will answer those questions by saying, “What do you think?”

This morning I will not attempt to offer a definitive definition of evil instead I will work within the parameters established by Justice Potter Stewart who when asked to define pornography simply said, “I know it when I see it.”

Of course, evil may be more complicated because we don’t always know it when we see it. When I was serving as hospital chaplain 20 years ago I walked by evil everyday and I did not recognize it. Everyday, I walked by posters that offered the benign statement, “You have the right to remain pain free.” On one level this seemed like compassionate medical guidance until you understand who was paying for the posters and understand their motivations.

During that era pharmaceutical companies were marketing new forms of opiates that they claimed were less addictive and dangerous. The claims were misleading and false. For instance, last year more Americans died from opiate addiction than died in the entire Vietnam War. Now think about it. I am a chaplain studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry at a Quaker school with a peace tradition and everyday I am walking by the marketing campaign that will kill more people in a year than one of America’s most bloody wars and I don’t even see it.

When I was in junior high school teachers took classes on tours of the local cigarette factory. Did you know that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. Smoking is responsible for 85% of those deaths. Over 150,000 people die from it each year. And the schools were taking kids on field trips to the cigarette factory. They would never do that now. No doubt many of the people involved in those decisions to offer those field trips have confessed their sins -20/20 hindsight.

When I was in junior high, tobacco executives would testify to Congress under oath that nicotine was not addictive. A parade of them would say the same thing over and over again, the corporate talking points – nicotine is not addictive. They were lying and we know they were lying because someone who worked for Brown and Williamson, the company my junior high school used to tour, leaked the documents so that the whole world would know they were lying.

Someone had the guts and the courage to say enough, enough, enough. Enough with the confession of sins of the past let’s take action for a better future. The pattern established by the tobacco companies has been slavishly followed by other corporations. Lie, lie, lie! We know this because of the people who have been brave enough to leak the documents so that we can see the pattern of deceit.

Many institutions have been funded by the money amassed from this practice of deceit – the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Tate Gallery, Cornell, Columbia, Tufts, George Washington Universities, many medical schools. Have you ever been to any of these places? Did you feel like you were in the presence of evil? I will confess that I have been to many of these places and I did not feel it.

The journalist Hannah Arrendt wrote about the banality of evil, how we can be around evil and not even notice it. She wrote, “In the Third Reich evil lost its distinctive characteristic by which most people had until then recognized it.” The Nazis redefined evil as a new civil norm. When she covered the trail of Nazi leader Adolph Eichmann she wrote, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that they….were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were…terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

A psychologist who interviewed Adolph Eichmann described him as a, “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” How scary is that! That one of the architects of genocide would come across as more normal than the mental health professional who interviewed him.

There are those who are trying to disrupt the normal so that we can open our eyes and see. Recently a group of activists staged a protest at the Guggenheim museum where they threw down over 400,000 prescriptions on people who came for a normal day at the museum. The protesters shouted, “400,000 dead. 400,000 dead. 400,000 dead.” Similarly activists have blocked traffic in cities across this country including this one to protest police brutality and affirm that Black Lives Matter.

Last year a teenager name Greta Thunberg was protesting inaction on climate change all by herself. This week many young people across the world joined her including students at the University of Tennessee and Maryville College who went on a Global Climate Strike to point out that the way we are living may seem normal, but it is not normal. These young people, these activists, are our canaries in the coal mine; warning us of danger; trying to save lives, trying to avert disaster chanting, “What do we want? Climate action! When do we want it? Now!”

Did you know that the bird population of the US and Canada has gone down by 3 billion in 50 years – a loss of 29% of North American songbirds? I am reminded of a confessional prayer I once heard next door at 2nd Presbyterian when I was visiting with one of our Sunday school classes, “God help us to see that our present lifestyle is unsustainable, help us to repent and change course.”

Hannah Arendt observed that Adolph Eichmann was not trying to be a villain. He was simply trying to advance in his career according the rules of his society and his times. “It was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals… That such …thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together …”—that is a sobering lesson.

In Al Gore’s movie about climate change The Inconvenient Truth he quotes the journalist Upton Sinclair who warns us, ““It is difficult to get ourselves to understand something, when our salary depends on us not understanding it.” Sometimes, when we do evil it is because it is our job. Sometimes when we do evil it is because it’s the normal thing to do.

And so when we look back on our lives in retrospect it is appropriate that we might be moved to say that we have sinned in thought, word and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Confession is good for the soul but we need more than confession. We need to transform this world through acts of love and justice in order to save the world.

All too often when people do evil it is because it is the normal thing to do. And this leads me back to why I want to be a part of a Unitarian Universalist Church, even if not everyone approves of us. I want to be part of a Unitarian Universalist Church because nobody thinks we are normal. There is no one out there in Knoxville who will say to you, “TVUUC that’s where the normal people go.”

We are the church that teaches our kids to think for themselves and we think for ourselves also. I believe it is our willingness to challenge the world’s ideas about what is normal that helps to make us the hope of the world. Confession is good for the soul, transformation is good for the world. The activist Malala Yousafzai once said, “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” Let’s be that voice!

(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This sermon was delivered on Sunday, September 22, 2019)

Greta

 

The Epidemic of Loneliness (and the Cure of Community)

Mother Theresa saw some pretty horrible diseases in her lifetime ministering to the sick around the world, AIDs, cancer, leprosy, however, she would often say the biggest disease in the world today is loneliness.

Mother Theresa felt a calling to work among the poorest of the poor but she understood that material poverty is not the only poverty. There is the poverty of loneliness; the poverty of being disconnected, alienated and alone. And this poverty can be found in people of every race, religion and class.

One of the beatitudes tells us, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be satisfied,” reminding us sometimes what we hunger for (and what we thirst for) is community, connection and love.

I spent a month of my recent sabbatical in France, a land where two-hour lunches are common but obesity is rare. Indeed, France, has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Why is that?

My observation from sitting down at some of these two-hour meals is that food is not the main course. These two-hour meals are about reconnecting with those we love. They are about feeding our hunger for connection, our hunger for community, our hunger for family and friendships. The food itself could be eaten in a much shorter period of time. However, it takes time to build relationships. It takes time to build connections with others. It’s a process that cannot be rushed.

You see, you can eat a healthy, well-balanced meal with lots of nourishing vegetables and still be malnourished. We need the nourishment of community, the nourishment of connection

Now there is a well known joke that is told about Unitarian Universalists, one that is familiar to most of us. The joke goes, “A group of people come to a fork in the road with two signs. One says, “To heaven,” and the other says, “To a discussion group about heaven,” and you can tell who the Unitarian Universalists are because they start heading for the discussion group.”

Now this joke can mean many different things, but at least one meaning, is that we are a denomination of people who connect through conversation. Because when we get it right a good conversation helps to build community, connection and it nourishes us. . Those of us who are a little French want a meal with that conversation also.

There is a legend about a man who dies and in the afterlife he is guided by an angel to one place where a group of people are sitting around a pot of soup but they are starving to death because their hand is tied to the end of a very long spoon and thus they can’t get the spoon into their mouths. “This is hell,” says the angel. Next the angel leads the man to a room that looks the same, a group of people sitting around a pot of soup, with long spoons but everyone is well nourished and content. “This is heaven,” says the angel. “I don’t get it,” says the man, “What’s the difference?” and the angel replies, “In hell everyone is struggling to feed themselves. In heaven everyone has learned how to feed each other.” The legend, suggests that even when we are going through hell we have all the necessary ingredients to make a heaven.

Today, in our country and in our city there are many people who are starving at a banquet. Many people are lonely in a crowd. Earlier in the service we sang the song, “Peace Like a River” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” songs of hope, however, sometimes we feel like the words of the old country song. We feel like we are “knee deep in the water dying of thirst.”

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is one of the noted health professionals to identify loneliness as a public health crisis. He tells us that, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates for loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s….The reduction in life span (due to loneliness) is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s greater than the impact of obesity.” And he goes on to say, “So if you think about how much we put into curbing tobacco use and obesity, compared to how much effort and resources we put into addressing loneliness, there’s no comparison. Look even deeper, and you’ll find loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia.” When we consider these facts you can see why Mother Theresa described loneliness as the biggest disease of all.

So what is the remedy? This morning I want to suggest that the church is an important part of healing this disease. Indeed, addressing this epidemic is central to our mission. But you don’t have to take my word for since I work for a church. You can listen to the voices of people who do not belong to any church.

For instance, the philosopher Alain de Botton has written a book called Religion for Atheists: A Nonbelievers Guide to the Uses of Religion where he notes that, “What is significant (about secular society) is the almost universal lack of venues that help transform strangers into friends.” And so he argues that human beings regardless of their beliefs need something like a church, a community that helps transforms strangers into friends.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we welcome people of all faiths and beliefs. We aspire to be a church where people of all faiths can find common ground and feel empowered to work for the common good. We may differ in our theology but we share a common mission to create a community, where we can break down the walls of isolation and build bridges of community. When we say the affirmation, “Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another, this is our great covenant,” we are saying that we can have different beliefs and still share common values. One of those values is our desire to build what Dr. King called the Beloved Community, both in this room and outside in the world.

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The Catholic Monk, Thomas Merton, lived up the road in a monastery in Louisville, KY, but he spent time in Asia where he had a chance to study Buddhism and Taoism and other Eastern Religions and he felt a bond with people practicing a faith other than his own. He wrote about this bond saying, “And the deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. (It is) Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity.”

There is a Hindu legend, a creation story among millions of other creation stories told by cultures around the world. The story tells us that in the beginning human beings were gods but the other gods became jealous of their power and decided to steal the divinity away from humans. Once they had the divinity they had to find a place to hide it. “Shall we hide it on top of the tallest mountain?” asked one god. “No,” said another, “Humans will one day be able to climb the tallest mountain and so they will find it again.” “Shall we bury it deep in the earth?” asked another. “No,” said one of the goddesses, “Human are resourceful and will eventually be able to dig that deep.” “Shall we put it at the bottom of the deepest ocean?” asked another, “No,” someone said again, “Humans are inventive and will one day be able to go down to the bottom of the ocean.” Finally a goddess said, “I have an idea let’s hide the divinity deep down inside of each person for no one will think to look there.” And so it is said, that since that time, people have been climbing, digging and diving for something that is already in themselves. (As creation stories go that’s a good one.)

When I was a young adult I came to this church in part because I was lonely. I had studied at the University of Tennessee but many of my close friends were international students so after school I was sort of left high and dry.

So I decided to come to this church were I signed up for an adult education class called BYOT Build Your Own Theology where we were invited to write out our personal definition of the word God. Because we are a UU church no one was going to make us do it or force us to do it, instead we were invited to do it. This is what I wrote, “Whenever two or more are gathered to love and support and encourage each other there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore and sustain us.” That’s my definition of the word, but I don’t have to use that word. The most important thing is not the words. The most important thing is the experience of that power.

I am sort of enamored of the Jewish idea of minyan. A minyan is a group of at least ten people with whom one participates in a ritual. Without the minyan you can’t do the ritual. The idea of a minyan seems to tell us that we cannot be spiritual alone. We cannot be religious alone. But I would go even further and say we can’t be human alone. We need community. We need one another.

So let me say, that one of my goals in ministry has always been to help people find their minyan, a core group, call it what you will. Call it a discussion group about heaven. In my time here I have seen people find their minyan at the potluck dinners, at the church retreats, in a small group ministry or a heart to heart group. I’ve seen people find their minyan in the choir or an adult education class or a youth group or the Personal Beliefs and Commitments group or at Tai Chi or Science Fiction night or an AA or NA meeting, wherever two or more are gathered. Indeed, at the end of our service we have a ritual where I say, “As our last act of worship I invite you to turn and greet your neighbor,” and it is my hope that through that ritual we can advance our work to turn strangers into friends and help each other find our minyan.

“Welcome the stranger for by so doing you may be entertaining angels unawares.” That’s a biblical teaching. There is another biblical teaching that “we are all made in the image of God.” Which reminds me of something a character on Saturday Night Live called Father Guido Sarducci used to say, “If we are all made in God’s image then why aren’t we all invisible?”

Indeed, why are we not invisible? Well the reason is found in the story for all ages we heard earlier this morning about the invisible boy; love has the power to make invisible people visible for as Gandhi once said, “If we do not see God in each other, it is futile to look elsewhere.”

And so let’s work together to help cure the biggest disease of our age. Let’s work together to build community, until all who are invisible are made visible and we can say in the spirit of the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for community for we shall be filled.”

(Rev. Chris Buice  delivered this sermon to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, September 8, 2019)

 

Theology in a Yellow Vest

When Kofi Anan was Secretary General of the United Nations someone once remarked, “He’s so diplomatic he could fall out of a boat without making waves.”

Kofi Anan is one of my heroes but this morning I want to focus less on the diplomats of the world and more on those who make waves.

In recent times we have seen protestors in Hong Kong taking to the streets, demonstrating for human rights, refusing to be silent. In Puerto Rico we have seen people take to the streets to demand a change in government, disrupting business as usual. In Brazil we see people taking to the streets as the burning rainforests pollute their air.

In our own country we’ve seen an uptick in street demonstrations also. And this reminds me of something my friend and colleague the Reverend Chris Battle often says, “The church needs to become less interested in getting butts in the seats and more interested in getting disciples in the streets.”

Some of those disciples in the streets will be dedicated to service, responding to the very real needs of the homeless under the bridge. However, some of the disciples in the streets will be dedicated to speaking truth to power, taking on the mantle of the prophet, “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

This year I went to a conference of the Association of Unitarian Universalists Music Ministries or AUUMM, which I chose to pronounce as AUM. It was a great conference with many different workshops for choral music, worship bands, a cappella groups, song swaps and hymn sings. There was one workshop called, “Why Baritones Get Bored” and there was another workshop on protest songs. Here is one I learned there.

Solid as a rock.
Rooted like a tree.
We are here. We are strong.
In our rightful place.

I like this song. To me it seems to be saying “We are peace-loving people but if you try to push us out of the boat we will make waves.”

In April I served as the minister in residence for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Paris, France. Just before I got on the plane to go there LeRoy Euvrard gave me a parting gift – a yellow vest. As you know the yellow vest has become a symbol of a grassroots movement for economic justice.

Now this movement has friends in high places. For when I was in Paris and I saw Jesus on the Metro wearing a yellow vest. This Jesus had long sandy hair and a beard, a flowing robe and sandals. The feature that made me pretty sure he was Jesus is he was carrying a cross.

Needless to say this was not the real Jesus but someone playing the role in order to make a political and theological point, and this point should be taken seriously. However, I hate to admit it but my first instinct was to see if I could get a “selfie” with Jesus. But then I was worried I might offend him or make him angry or cause a scene so I didn’t. Later I realized my fears were unwarranted because, “Of course, Jesus loves me.” This I know.

Now it will surprise no one to learn that this yellow vest Jesus is something of a celebrity in Paris. He is a distinctly French Jesus in that he is known to shout, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” as he carries his cross down the street (Liberty, equality, brotherhood.) Indeed, these words are engraved on one side of the cross and on the otherside are the words, “Conscience, respect, soldarity, hope.”

Indeed, this Jesus may even be a Unitarian Universalist because I’ve seen a pictures of him carrying a cross with symbols from all the great world’s religions on it – the Star of David, the Islamic Crescent, the AUM letter of Hinduism, the Wheel of Buddhism, the Taoist Yin/Yang symbol, the Torii Gate of Shintoism and the biggest symbol of all, a heart, implying that the most important thing about religion is not what’s in our heads but what’s in our hearts.

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Watching an online video of a protest I saw a woman wearing a hijab walk up and give Jesus bisous, the kiss on each cheek. So this is a very ecumenical, interfaith and yes, very French, Jesus.

Now the historic Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount wheras this yellow vest Jesus has a sermon on YouTube. I got my daughter Sally to translate it for me. So this is not the King James version but the Sally Buice translation. I told her to be careful or someone might accuse her of heresy.

The yellow vest Jesus declares, “There is no more spirituality in politics, only the market! Our government no longer represents a France that respects all of humanity, with or without a yellow vest a human is a human. The government has to hear that we’ll no longer let them impose this destructive economy on us. No matter what our religion we all want to help each other how we can. We are all one.”

The words and presence of this protester reminds us that Jesus was a rebel, someone who might turn over tables in a temple, upsetting our notions of order.

So what is a rebel? Here is where existentialism comes in, the philosopher Albert Camus wrote an entire book on the topic. According to Camus a rebel is someone who says no. When we rebel what we are saying is, “This has been going on for too long now,” “The line must be drawn here – this far and no farther,” “there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.” In other words we affirm the existence of a boundary and the need to say no when those in authority cross it and infringe on our rights or the rights of others.

A rebel is someone who says “no,” but also someone who says “yes.” To rebel is to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. To rebel is to acknowledge the sacredness of every human personality. To rebel is to say yes to life.

Every act of rebellion points to something bigger than our selves. This is why the suffragists carried banners that declared, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

This week I went to visit Bee DeSelm, one of our elders living in a nursing home, who helped sponsor the statue of suffragists in Market Square. During our visit Bee was in a wheelchair and we were out in the common room near the nursing station when she said, “Everybody in here knows me….because I make trouble,” to which I said, “Bee, everybody in Knox County knows you for the same reason.”

Reflecting on Bee DeSelm’s life I realize-to be a woman running for county commission in the 70’s was to make waves. To stand up for GLBT rights in the 80’s and 90’s was to make waves. To switch political parties on a matter of conscience was to make waves. To sue the County because elected officials weren’t obeying the term limit laws was to make waves. Whether as an elected official or private citizen everybody knows who you are if you make waves.

At the Association of Unitarian Universalist Music Ministries conference in Denver we decided to makes some waves. We met with local immigration rights activists who were organizing for justice. We decided to support their efforts by going out to one of the ICE shelters where for-profit corporations are holding refugees and immigrants for up to $700 per person, per night. I can tell you that ‘s a lot more than our conference hotel rooms cost and it was a nice hotel. A busload and some cars went out to the ICE detention center where we sang some of the protest songs we learned in our workshop. Just being there was an education. You could see the American flag and the for-profit corporation flag and the state flag flying above the detention center with the corporate flag above the state flag.

In the presence of those flags we sang. At the time, I have to admit I wondered whether our singing would make a difference. However, a couple of weeks after I got back I saw an article online that announced that the Denver city council voted not to renew contracts with the corporation running the centers causing them to lose millions of dollars. It all happened because one city council woman decided to make waves and made the motion that the contracts not be renewed and to her surprise her motion carried. The name of that councilwoman is Candi CdeBaca, now you know her name.

If every protest vigil was that successful then the baritones would never get bored. However, I attribute most of the success to the tenors….and more importantly and realistically, what made change happen was the willingness of people to work in partnership with each other, each playing a small part in hopes of creating a large change.

Speaking of which, I forgot to mention that when I met Jesus on the Metro in Paris he was not alone. Jesus was carrying the cross but he wasn’t doing it all by himself. He had a friend with him to help him carry the cross. And let me tell you if you have a friend helping you to carry your cross you’ve got a good friend. Looking at them both reminded me of the old gospel song.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
and there’s a cross for me.

Every one of us can help bear the responsibility of the work that needs to be done. Everyone of us can help carry the cross of liberty, equality, solidarity, respect and hope. Every one of our efforts makes a difference. Even a small pebble thrown into the water will make ripples. However, when we are solid as a rock, we can make waves.

Solid as a rock.
Rooted like a tree.
We are here. We are strong.
In our rightful place.

(Chris Buice is minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He gave this sermon on Sunday, August, 25, 2019)