This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/22/17 as part of our annual service for UN Sunday. This year’s focus is on militarization, peace and the hidden lies ingrained in our conscience.
Last April, about six of us from our Fellowship attended the annual UU-UNO Spring Seminar, in NYC. It’s a two day learning retreat for youth, and adults; for both lay leaders and religious professionals. It was held at a very challenging time – both within our broader world and from within our own denomination. Just a few days earlier, our former denominational president, Peter Morales, chose to resign amid a public discussion around hiring practices at our UUA Headquarters, that appeared to preference white men. The Interim Co-Presidents that followed would indicate we have much work and reflection to do on our denominational hiring practices – and that work is being done with deliberation now. …The Spring Seminar was focusing on demilitarization in the world – guns, chemical weapons, use of drones, and the history of the nuclear disarmament movement – with the spirit that the more we know and understand, the more effective we can be in achieving a more peaceful world. While we were hearing a talk by a former military chaplain on the threat of nuclear proliferation, President Trump was just beginning to escalate nuclear tensions with North Korea.
We learn in context and story. Those lessons on organizing for peace, locally and globally, will grow and be informed from a time where visible leadership was missing from the top; but much leadership was clearly happening on the ground. Although I’m very much an institutionalist at heart, I recognize that the “institutions” we value most are strongest when the whole of the community is engaged. I learned a lot of facts about militarization at the seminar, but the most important lesson was one of perspective. The Peace movement of my parents’ generation isn’t gone; it just changed.
We learn in context and with story. What stories do we tell about peace and war? When I was a kid in school, I was told the story that in World War II, dropping the atomic bomb saved countless lives because the war would have gone on for years otherwise. That’s a pretty close paraphrase of what was written in our expensive history textbooks. I wasn’t told the part of the story that Japan was planning to surrender before the second bomb was dropped. As a kid, I never asked the questions: Why were we ok with dropping the atomic bomb on Japanese civilians, but not ok with doing so to German civilians? Why did we need to take the most drastic action to speed up the conclusion of one front of the war, and not another? What’s the value of a life; and whose life matters more? Our principles of worth and dignity – of respect and peace – go arm in arm. The more we diminish those we choose to feel as different, the more that peace is at risk.
And this story, this context, is an old one for humanity; we prop ourselves up at the expense of another’s humanity. This is the point in the debate around war or peace where public discourse usually gets sidetracked by discussions of just war theory. “What’s the intellectual line demarcating when use of force is ethical?” We’re not going to do that today. We’re going to stay present to the harder truth hiding in plain sight – militarization impacts along racial lines in Western Civilization. The peace movement didn’t disappear, it just changed. Today, the peace movement is focused on dismantling white supremacy.
And to be fair, even that really isn’t any change at all. Martin Luther King, Jr was a prominent peace activist who diligently made the connections for a broader white populace that was trying hard not to find those connections. “And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home they can’t hardly live on the same block together.” But I also wasn’t taught this in school. When I was a kid, our history lessons ended with the Civil Rights era. We were taught that black protesters were protesting for black rights. And the peace movement was solely made up of hippies. That’s certainly what all the photos looked like in our new history textbooks. Well as untrue as that was then, it’s still untrue today, for this generation. The Peace movement of my parents’ generation isn’t gone; and maybe it didn’t even materially change; but I’d like to think that we’re at least learning to talk about it more honestly.
But we are not all learning to do so, honestly. When athletes across our nation protest police killings of civilians, and our wider militarization of the police, folks fabricate an imaginary disrespect for our military – rather than address the fact of so many civilian deaths. The freedom of speech is somehow not relevant to the story tellers. When we endure yet another mass shooting, gun sales skyrocket, and we’re told it’s never time to talk about it. But the right to bear arms somehow matters though to the same storytellers.
We learn with story and context. What’s the story we choose to tell? We learned of the death of 4 of our soldiers in Niger. The tragic loss has mostly focused on whether or not the President was callous in his condolence call to one widow. I’m going to stay away from the politicization of these deaths, and reflect more on the nature of peace in this globalized world. There’s another aspect to this tragedy that’s just starting to get attention. It’s a lesson on how race and peace are intertwined. In a September 25th New York Times article, “The addition of Chad to Mr. Trump’s travel ban took that country’s government by surprise and bewildered analysts of Central Africa. In a statement, the government expressed “ incomprehension in the face of the official reasons for this decision, which contrasts with Chad’s constant efforts and commitments in the fight against terrorism.” It called on President Trump to rethink the decision, “which has seriously affected the image of Chad and the good relations maintained by the two countries.” This travel ban took effect on October 18th. According to Reuters and NBC, Chad began withdrawing troops they were using to support our soldiers against Boko Haram in Niger right before four of our soldiers were killed. Will we take this tragic lesson to heart, and stop weakening our long standing partnerships with allies? Our principles of worth and dignity – of respect and peace – go arm in arm. The more we diminish those we choose to feel as different, the more that peace is at risk.
In Western Civilization, the roots of such discord run deep. If we teach our kids that the history of the world is cleaner than it’s been, that we’re more innocent than we are, and that everything can be simplified into the good guys and the bad guys, history will repeat itself until the very literal end of days. We need to foster a new kind of courage – the courage to self-reflect with honesty.
There’s an easy escape for us when we start to talk about our history. It’s the common philosophy that haters gonna hate (to quote the popular theologian, Taylor Swift.) We ease our guilt by believing that some people are just filled with hate in their hearts, and we’re helpless to change that. And to be sure, there are folks all over this globe that are likewise convinced that we’re all just filled with hate in our hearts. As Ben spoke of earlier in the service, that perception has given terrorist groups a windfall in recruiting. How could drone strikes on civilian targets ever be done by a compassionate people? We could debate that for hours in our comfortable chairs, but I doubt it would convince a family that lost an innocent parent or sibling to our efficiency.
There are some lies that get free rent in our heads. Bad ethics that remain alive in our worldview because we forgot they were ever there, let alone informing our values and perceptions. I’m going to talk about two of them now, and ask us to reflect on how they still impact our lives today. The courage to reflect, honestly, is the next movement we can make to head toward a world that chooses to center peace as a value.
Manifest Destiny first entered our US conscious in 1845, when a newspaper writer by the name of O’Sullivan coined it in response to a border dispute with Britain over what is now known as Oregon. “And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Monroe, wrote, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.”
The 19th century US would be colored by this deadly ethic. In the name of our “special” American virtues, we would clear ourselves of the sin and the horror of genocide. The thinking went that it was our divine fate, so we ought to expand without limit, regardless of the consequences. It’s the classic fallacy that the ends justify the means. We diminish those we choose to feel as different, and peace is at risk. We center greed, and the world expands its weaponry.
The idea of Manifest Destiny came about over a land dispute between two colonizing powers over who had the right to claim stolen lands of people we murdered. But we would tell a different story. One famous piece of art depicts Manifest Destiny as a beautiful woman in a white flowing gown floating in the air inspiring the westward expansion of American farmers; peaceful, virtuous and prosperous. That’s the story we would tell instead of the honest one. When we coach what is ugly in terms of beauty, we empower brutality. All of us now would overtly condemn Manifest Destiny as a failure of a prior generation, but we repeat it still to this day. It wasn’t even a year ago that our militarized police showed up in force to Native Americans peacefully protesting an oil pipeline on their own land. That would end with water hoses being used on Native Americans in the freezing Winter. All of it completely legal. Why as a nation would we not unanimously retract in horror at that abuse? It’s the unreflected lie that remains hidden in our collective psyche.
The second hidden lie that informs our ethic is similar, but goes back further in our history. Unlike Manifest Destiny, this lie is formally sanctioned in our judicial precedents – the Doctrine of Discovery. European monarchies would use it to validate conquest outside of Europe. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas would say that this only applied to non-Christian lands. “In 1823, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. M’Intosh that the discovery rights of European sovereigns had been transferred to the new United States: The United States, then, have unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold and assert in themselves, the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest; and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty, as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.” Associate Justice Joseph Story, a Unitarian, (1779-1845) later wrote: “As infidels, heathens, and savages, they [the Indians] were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations.”
I’m not sure how we ever go back now, and that’s not the focus today, but let’s sit with this reality for a moment. We have ensconced, in the highest court of our land, that justice doesn’t mean justice…. And in 2016 we are aiming water hoses, in freezing temperatures, on Native people when they’re on their own land – their own land.
We’ve been speaking a lot this season about how small actions can lead to big change. Violence, war, militarization – are huge crises. It’s mostly true to say that we individually can’t impact this, and not quickly. But we have a commitment our Fellowship made as a site of peace. If you head out our main doors, you’ll notice a peace pole with peace written in numerous languages. We dedicated that here as part of our denominational process around committing to the work of centering peace in our communal lives. The next small thing for us all to do, is to strive toward putting on a new pair of glasses when we look out into the world. When we read the news, when we talk with extended family over awkward holiday meals. We learn in context, and with story. How do we let some stories get told, and retold?
I’ll close with these words, from the Rev. Jake Morrill, another UU minister. He was saying this specifically to white UU ministers as a challenge to lean into our privilege. But it’s a helpful meditation focus for this work of centering peace. “Do you know how the Copernican revolution was the insight that the earth revolves around the sun, and that we were not at the center of the universe? Well, a few decades later, Giordano Bruno postulated the universe in which the solar system was not at the center of the universe, either – – but instead existed amidst many galaxies, beyond imagination. So the idea is that we white man, who have been raised to imagine ourselves the center of everything, might begin to inhabit a world in which we are only one perspective.” …Peace will not travail if we continue to all imagine we’re each individually the center of the universe.