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.
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)