Militant Moderation

When I was in Boston, Massachusetts,  for a meeting I decided to attend the First Unitarian Church on Sunday morning. Although I was over 900 miles from home during the “greet your neighbor” moment of the service, someone turned around and said, “You’re Sally’s dad aren’t you?” Turns out that one of my daughter’s friends from the Mountain Camp lives in Boston now. There was another “It’s a small world moment” when the minister of the church, the Reverend Stephen Kendrick, revealed in his sermon that he grew up in Clinton, Tennessee, just down the road from us, where, as a child, he attended the Episcopal church which he described as a “hotbed of moderation.” This morning I want to talk about what it might mean for us as a congregation if we were to also  attempt to live into that mission of becoming a hotbed of moderation. 

Now let me anticipate some objections. Being moderate seems like kind of a boring thing to be. The word moderate is not the most exciting of adjectives. The word has negative connotations. To be moderate is to be “middle of the road” and as Texas activist Jim Hightower once said, “There is nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” We sometimes associate moderation with cowardly equivocation, vacillating indecision and an unwillingness to make hard choices. 

Dr. King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, warned us about this kind of moderation; the moderates who prefer the absence of tension more than the presence of justice, the moderates who patronizingly want to set the timetable for another person’s freedom, the moderates who always want to postpone change for a more convenient season, who use the word “Wait!” in a way that means, “Never,” moderates who fail to realize that justice too long delayed is justice denied. 

So when I use the word moderate, I do so, with a clear understanding that we must reject this definition of moderation in order to embrace a more radical and militant moderation. What I am suggesting is the kind of moderation that requires real courage. What I am talking about is the kind of moderation that the philosopher Aristotle called The Golden Mean. 

Aristotle argued that all virtues lie in the middle between two extremes. Between cowardice on one hand, and foolhardiness on the other, there is courage. Between laziness and greed there is ambition. Between stinginess and prodigality there is generosity. Between boorishness and buffoonery there is good humor. Between obnoxiousness and obsequiousness there is straightforward honesty. Between paralyzing self doubt and overbearing arrogance there is confidence. Between shyness and shamelessness there is humility. The challenge to meaningful living is to find our center, stay grounded in our center and live from our center. 

In a similar manner, the Buddha taught the Middle Way. A Buddhist proverb tells us, “A string on a musical instrument will break if it is too tight. If it is too loose it will not sound a note. Therefore find the Middle Way.” When we find the Middle Way we are in tune with the universe. The Sufi Muslim mystic and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan put it this way, “I have no religion. All places of worship are one with me. I can enter a Buddhist temple, a mosque, a church, a synagogue in the same spirit. Spirituality is the tuning of the heart.” In other words, the purpose of religion is to ensure that we stay in tune with the universe. 

Anyone who has ever gone to the performance of a junior high orchestra knows the importance of staying in tune. If one performer is out of tune it can be bad. If five are out of tune it is worse. If everyone is out of tune it can be living hell. In this way, spiritually speaking, when we stay in tune, our efforts not only benefit ourselves but everyone else and all of Creation. So finding our center, and practicing the Middle Way or the Golden Mean, is not selfish introspection. It is a public service. 

Many indigenous peoples talk about the need to walk in balance. This stands in contrast to the tendency of the Western mind to define our choices as being between good and evil, right and wrong, either/or. For instance, in Tennessee we often hear about the debate between science and religion, creationism and evolution. However, if you ask a Native American if they believe in the scientific story of the origins of the universe or the Creation stories of their tribe the Native American is very likely to reply, “I believe both truths.” This is walking in balance. 

Walking in Balance is about moving through the world in tune with the universe, in tune with the natural world, in tune with the wind that blows around us and rushing waters of a nearby stream,  in tune with all creatures, the two legged, the four legged, those with feathers and fins. There is a prayer in the Lakota tradition that expresses the sentiment succinctly. 

Wakan Tanka,

Great Mystery (Great Spirit)

Teach me how to trust my heart,

Teach me how to trust my mind,

Teach me how to trust my intuition,

Teach me how to trust my inner knowing,

The senses of my body,

The blessings of my spirit,

Teach me to trust these things

So that I may enter my Sacred Space

And love beyond fear 

And thus Walk in Balance

With the passing of each glorious Sun. 

For the record, this walking in balance requires the kind of moderation that has radical implications. Learning to walk in balance has radical implications for caring for the Earth and the protection of our environment, radical implications for our relationships with other human beings and other species of life. As the early scientist and philosopher Archimedes said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world.” When we find our center, we have found a lever, and with it we can move the world.

Earlier we heard the words of Frederick Douglass, the famous activist who made the journey from fugitive slave to world famous abolitionist. In that role he made one of the most incisive criticisms of religion that has ever been written. He lived in the 19th century but his  words crackle like thunder when we read them today. He denounced religion aligned with slavery in favor of religion aligned with justice. 

“Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” 

Frederick Douglass, then and now, is inviting us to reject both extreme passivity and overwhelming oppression for the middle way of justice. Then and now, he is calling on people of all faiths to embrace the spirituality that is pure, peaceable and impartial. His words did not stop the Civil War, nor did they stop him from supporting that cause to end slavery. Nevertheless, before the world went to hell in a handbasket he offered everyone who might listen an opportunity to return to their better selves and the wiser teachings found in all peace and justice loving religions of the world. 

When Dag Hammarskjöld was Secretary General of the United Nation he said, “The role of the UN is not to lead people into heaven but to save humanity from hell.” His words ring true today in our age of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, ethnic cleansing and reckless ideas of triumphant nationalism. When Madeleine Albright was ambassador to the United Nations she argued that the people who often stand between war and peace, between survival and annihilation, are those who are willing to be militant moderates, to stand between extremes to safeguard the weak from the strong, the violent from the vulnerable, the many who are peaceful from the few that are hellbent on war and destruction. 

We need militant moderation to combat the bullies on the world stage. However, this week I have been in conversations with parents who are addressing the problem of bullying in our schools, bullying that has led at least one young child to end their own life. Just as we must ensure that our world is not destroyed by extremists, we must ensure that our elementary schools, our middle schools and our high schools are not destroyed by extremists either. We must work together to keep our children safe in all our schools East, West, North and South. Because no one wants to be bullied whether they are tall or short, skinny or large, black or white, red or yellow or brown, gay or straight, transgender or cisgender, a bookworm or an athlete, someone who wears glasses or has braces or acne or someone without. We need to work together with our children to build teams of young and old leaders who can be the militant moderates that can outnumber and disempower those who would turn our schools into hell. This is not only good volunteer work, this is an expression of our faith. 

For this morning’s prelude David Asbury played a song inspired by the Brazilian martial arts tradition Capoeira that was developed by Africans brought to the country against their will to serve as slaves. Like all martial arts the goal is to find the center between the automatic reactions of fight or flight. In defense, this martial art means staying in constant motion to disorient your opponent. Capoeira can even be a form of nonresistance, a nonviolent response to a violent attack. Movements are designed to meet aggression with motion so that your opponent always misses the target and is destabilized by their own actions. This form of defense is meant to empower someone who might be physically weaker or outnumbered or unarmed in the face of armed opponents. It can also be an offensive strategy but in both offense and defense, the key ingredient is unpredictability, in this way the brain becomes more powerful than brawn. In Western religion our choices are often framed as pacifism on one hand, and aggressiveness on the other. Capoeira represents a middle way. 

Along those lines, saving the best for last, this morning I would like to make the announcement that our congregation’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously at our last meeting to name our high school youth group room after the most militant moderator we’ve ever known – Elandria Williams, of blessed memory. Elandria spent the last few years of life in the highest ranked volunteer role in our denomination – Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association in partnership with her co-moderator Barb Greves. Elandria was given The Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism by our denomination for a lifetime of service to our faith.  If you’ve ever been to our national General Assembly then you know that the moderator often stands directly between the pro and con microphones and has to moderate the emotions coming from both sides. Indeed, one of the things that Elandria and I talked a lot about  is how the layout of that room, in combination with Robert’s Rules of Order, makes our national gatherings unnecessarily adversarial. 

For instance,  in recent years delegates have been bringing issues to the floor of our General Assembly that are not amenable to the simplicity of a pro or con position, an either/or choice. Bringing up concerns about anti-racism and anti-oppression in that atmosphere with that structure can be like bringing our most vulnerable emotions to a buzz saw. And Elandria was instrumental helping us rethink our structures and our processes, leading our denomination through a time of incredible polarization in ways that empower us to (in the words of our 8th principle) “journey toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” Elandria grew up in our church and was a leader in our youth group before becoming a denominational leader who championed the youth of our movement and for this reason we are honored as a congregation to rename our high school youth group room the Elandria Willams room.  

So in conclusion, let me say that perhaps, by naming one of our rooms after a moderator we may be courting the reputation of being a “hotbed of moderation.” If so, I hope that together we will live into that mission in a way that will empower us to transform our world through acts of love and justice by being the most militant moderates the world has ever known. So be it. 

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 6, 2022)


Antidotes to Hate

“Haters gonna hate.” This is the conventional wisdom as expressed in street slang.The phrase has a certain determinism to it. Haters are gonna hate no matter what we do. And yet what if we want to change? What if we recognize ourselves as “the haters” and want an alternative course of action? Are we caught in a never ending cycle of “haters gonna hate” for all time? Or is there a way to break the cycle? If hatred is a poison then this morning I want to ask – are there antidotes to hate? 

One of the most profound lessons I learned in theology school did not come from a textbook or a professor but from one of my fellow students. One day we were in conversation when my classmate revealed that he had been diagnosed with the disease AIDs. He told me that he wanted an alternative to the warfare model of disease, where one wages a war on cancer, or a war on heart disease or a war on AIDs. 

He wanted an alternative to that framing. He wanted an alternative to thinking of AIDs as an enemy that needed to be defeated, an aggressor that required counter aggression, a hostile force that needed to be vanquished. My classmate was raised a Quaker and was grounded in that tradition’s peace testimony where the goal of faithful living is to live grounded in the spirit and power which takes away the occasion for war. If AIDs was an enemy he wanted an alternative to hating his enemy. He wanted a peaceful approach to his disease. He wanted to love his enemy. 

My classmate’s approach to his own disease made me rethink my own approach to life. For hatred is a toxin. Hatred is hazardous to our health. Hatred is deadly. And the goal of spiritual living is not only to have life, but to have it more abundantly. 

One of my heroes of the civil rights movement is Fannie Lou Hammer who demonstrated so much courage in the face of so much danger in Mississippi. She said she refused to bring herself down into the depths of hell by allowing herself to hate those who hated her. She saw hatred as a cancer that eats away at the vital center of a person until there is nothing left but the shell. 

In her lifetime she declared that hatred was a disease making the whole country sick. We could make the same argument today.  And because hatred was making the whole country sick she argued that she was working for human rights and not equality because she did not want to be equal to those who shot out the windows of her home or threw her into prison for trying to vote and beat her working for justice.  She did not want to be equal to those who terrorized her and her family. She wasn’t fighting for equality with hateful people, an equality grounded in hatred. She was fighting for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. 

She described her approach to local community organizing with these words, “I hope white America learns to love before they teach everyone else to hate,” she said,  “I refuse to hate a man because he hates me. Because if I hate you because you hate me, it’s no different: both of us are miserable. And we’re going to finally have something in common: hating. But as a result of what I can give of myself that I can love you if you hate me, we have poor whites coming into this organization and we’re gonna feed not only the black people of Sunflower county, but all the people who are hungry regardless of color.” Fannie Lou Hammer wasn’t about building up resentments and  hatred. She was about building up the Beloved Community. 

When I reflect on her words I am reminded of that moment in Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple where the character Shug says, “Have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me.” I mention these words because we live in a time when there are many churches where people aren’t bringing God to church they are bringing hate. They are bringing anger, resentments and bitterness.  People are bringing the hate they get from cable news, the hate they get from political polarizing fundraising letters, the hate they get from the internet and the darkweb. They are bringing all this hate to church. Alice Walker is a Buddhist pagan but her words remind us of a message found in the book of John, “Whoever loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God for God is love.” 

The Unitarian Universalist Church actually comes out of the Radical Reformation that was a response to the growing acrimony in churches that too often led to bloodshed, heresy trials, pogroms and inquisitions. The radical reformation was opposed to theological disputation that stirred up so much ill will, anger, hatred and violence that it poisoned the well of living water. The Radical Reformation opposed all forms of religion that promoted rancor and division in favor of a religion grounded in love. The spirit of the approach is captured in the old Universalist affirmation, “Love is the doctrine of our church and service is our prayer.” 

The Radical Reformation was grounded in the love doctrine captured by the words Jesus said to the disciples on the night he washed their feet, “A new commandment give I unto you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all shall know that you are my disciples.”  This sentiment is captured in the words of the apostle Paul. “love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Many theological doctrines are obscure, Trinitarianism vs. Unitarianism, freewill vs. predestination, transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation, premillennialism vs. 

postmillennialism. However, the law of love is clear. The law of love is compelling. You do not have to have an advanced law degree to practice the law of love. You don’t have to have a doctorate in theology to practice the law of love for the law of love is already written into our minds and placed into our hearts. Hatred imprisons us. Love liberates us. Hatred restricts us. Love sets us free. Hatred paralyzes us. Love empowers us. Hatred casts shadows. Love sheds light.

There is an old preacher story about a  minister who married a medical doctor and one day they were at a cocktail party when someone struck up a conversation with them and eventually asked, “Is it true you are both doctors?” And the minister replied, “Yes, we are both doctors but I have a doctorate of theology.” This piqued the person’s curiosity and so that they said, “How interesting, tell me what kind of disease is theology?” 

It probably comes as no surprise that I first heard that story in theology school. On many levels this is a seriously funny story for seriously, theology can become a disease when it creates complexity where simplicity would suffice. Theology can become a disease when it creates polarization when unity is the medicine we need. Theology can become a disease when it encourages us to nurse grudges, hold onto resentments and foster division and hatred. 

When Muslims and Christians were killing each other in Bosnia, threatening each other with ethnic cleansing, an Orthodox bishop declared, “Violence in the name of God is violence against God. Violence in the name of any religion is violence against all religions.” This is another way of saying when theology becomes a disease, love can be the cure. Compassion can be the cure. Empathy can be the cure. 

A theology that leads to hatred is a disease. Hatred is hard on the body. Hatred releases the stress hormones related to the fight or flight, impulses, which are meant to be for short term challenges. Sustained stress of this kind leads to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, muscle tension and perspiration. This undermines cardiovascular health, weakens the immune system, creating the conditions for heart attack, stroke and increasing susceptibility to other diseases. For this reason the prayer of Saint Francis offers us sound medical advice, “Where there is hatred may we bring love.”

My sister Shannon is a healer, a rolfer, focused on the healing of the body. I think of myself as a relaxed, laid back person, but Shannon can run a hand across my back and quickly pinpoint that place in my body where I am holding all my stress. She will say, “You are storing your stress here,” and then she will press down on it and I will go, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” because she is right. 

Similarly, I think of myself as a peaceful, loving person who bears no grudges against anyone but I have found that when I sit down to meditate, to clear my mind and sit in silence to deepen my spirituality there is usually this moment when someone’s face will pop up in my mind and it is always the face of someone who I am annoyed with. Here’s the thing, before I sat down to meditate I might not even know I was annoyed with this person. However, the moment I sit down with the goal to find calm, quiet, stillness and peace, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” I realize where I am storing my stress. 

And this is one of the reasons meditation can be helpful. It can show us where our growing edges are. And here is what I’ve learned from experience. The only way I know how to get that person’s face out of my head is to pray for them, to hold them in light and love, to love my enemies, to bless the haters for the purposes of my own healing.

I found this spiritual practice on my own and only later discovered it’s medicinal value. Medical researchers have demonstrated that when we engage in an “empathetic reappraisal” of our adversaries we reduce the amount of stress hormones we release. We lower our heart rate, our blood pressure, our perspiration level and we relax our muscle tension. We reduce the harm done to our cardiovascular system. We begin to heal. 

Thich Nhat Hanh, who died earlier this year, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967. As a Buddhist monk living in Vietnam he worked for peace in the height of the Vietnam War, and afterwards he worked for peace all over the world. However, he once made this observation about the peace movement that has cautionary implications. He observed that peace activists often carry around a lot of anger, frustration, and bitterness. Often activists can write very good protest letters, but are not very good at writing love letters. He said that those of us who are dedicated to working for peace need to learn how to write a letter that someone else will actually want to read and not just throw away. We need to learn how to write an email that the other person won’t want to delete immediately. In other words, if we want to work for peace our work needs to proceed from a peaceful place ourselves. If there is to be peace on earth, it will have to begin with us. 

Valentine’s Day is a time when we think about writing love letters. It can also be a time to heal broken hearts, to heal from fractured relationships, to heal from broken promises, to heal from feelings of hatred. So that when we work for human rights, when work for “a world made fair and all her people one” we side with love. 

I began this sermon by talking about what I learned from a classmate about how to make peace with his disease. He did not want to see it as an enemy to be vanquished as this might release the stress hormones that weaken the immune system at a time when he needed his immune system the most. I have been pondering his advice a lot lately, because I think it is applicable to this moment in time and how we might respond to Covid 19. In my more honest moments, I can tell you that I really do hate this disease. I hate what it has done to our church and our community. I hate what it has done to our hospitals. I hate what it has done to our families. I hate what it has done to the politics of our nation and the world. I hate it! I hate it! I hate it! 

However, I suspect that my hatred isn’t hurting anyone but myself. That my hatred is counterproductive to my healing. And for this reason, I am open to breaking the cycle of hatred. My classmate lived in the days before there were many advanced treatments for the disease of AIDS. Even so he lived much longer than many people thought he might and when he died, he died in peace, and the way he lived and died has opened me up to new ways of living. The conventional wisdom captured by street slang is haters gonna hate. On the day before Valentine’s Day, let’s stay open to love. 

(Rev. Chris Buice delivered this sermon to the Tennesse Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, February 13, 2022)