Posts Tagged chemical weapons
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.
This sermon preached on 9/8/13 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington looks at our religious foundations for our call in life and how that informs how we can live into the world. It also calls for peace in a time of war; exploring the horrors that continue in Syria.
This morning’s culinary story is one of my favorite folk tales. It’s been told and retold in many different cultures – hence all the different pictures we used in the telling. It’s the classic story of feeling like we have nothing, when in truth we already have everything we could possibly need. The trick is remembering we have it together – we don’t have it alone.
Sometimes in life, we want to make soup, and we don’t have all the ingredients. Playing well with others can bring out the best in what we can accomplish as a community; you might have the onions, and I just might have a plate of pressed tofu ready to add. But that’s just the surface of the story. Sometimes the thing we bring to the banquet, is the thing we’re not aware we have to offer. The traveling stranger comes into town, asks for nourishment from the community and the community says at first – “Sorry, we don’t have that here.” They say that at a time when they clearly do have it to share. I don’t think folks are being greedy or miserly; I think they just don’t realize what they have. And we have a lot, together.
What’s the hidden thing you have in your kitchen cabinet waiting to share with this congregation? Sometimes it’s a thing that you can do to help. For those looking for small ways to contribute, Sue McGovern will be helping leaders connect with people looking to help with smaller projects. The things that need to be done, but don’t require huge commitments. Sometimes though, the hidden thing in our kitchen cabinet isn’t a thing to do. Sometimes it’s what we bring to the table simply by being ourselves.
I want to focus more on that latter type of gift we all can share. Religiously, it’s our call or calls in life. …Our purpose for being; our gift to the people around us; our talent that fits the world’s needs – here and now. What is your purpose? What is your call?
I was reading an article the other day that was written with the intention of helping 20-somethings figure out what were the key things they should do before they turn 30. It had some bits of wisdom, and some bits of trite as well. One point that stuck out was more about life purpose. Basically – what stirs your heart? And if you’re not doing it, why aren’t you doing it? The second half of that question is probably impossible to answer. If something brings us joy – why wouldn’t we be following it? And yet, we often don’t. But the initial question – what stirs our heart – is all too often all too difficult to answer in our contemporary age.
Folk under 45 were raised by Sesame Street. A true gift to society in many ways and yet it trained us to be engaged with something 30 seconds at a time. Folk over 50 were raised with role models who tended to take one job at an early age, and followed the career for most their lives. Stability is a wonderful thing, but it sets a pattern that encourages us not to roll the dice and follow our bliss. These are generalities for sure – and the people in between – in their late 40’s – may reflect either spectrum depending on a thousand different factors. But in both cases, the emphasis tends away from reflecting on our sustained purpose. The next best thing, or the eternal commitment, distract us from our call; if we let them.
How do you know what your call is? For the bigger picture and how you live in the world outside of here, I’d suggest to find where your heart meets the world’s needs. The classic advice, right? But how does that connect with the everyday, or how you engage in this community? Ask yourself what you were thinking when you first came here; whether that was 30 years ago or just this morning. What were you looking for? What felt like it was missing? What were you hoping to engage with? What were you seeking to learn or experience? Has it changed over time? Are you still working with that today? Did you find it? Did you let yourself find it?
A thousand questions, and no clear answer, right? But there can be some clear answers in between. Our leadership is working on improving how we integrate newcomers or welcome the stranger asking for a bowl of soup that we know we have even if we may sometimes forget how to give it. And on the flip side, we sometimes need to own for ourselves what we commit to or haven’t really committed to in community. If you came here seeking community, have you allowed yourself to prioritize that? If you came here to ensure your children received quality religious education that values diversity and free-thinking, have you committed to prioritizing their attendance? If you come here to help make the world a better place; to deepen your engagement with the on-going work of social justice – are you still engaged?
There are so many reasons, and so many needs; it can be completely overwhelming. The world of production and consumerism clamors for our attention. The world of obligations and responsibilities fill our calendars. And the world of beauty, equity, and compassion wait quietly behind all the noise. It is always there – calling us. We can’t do it all, but we can be intentional about what hunger we do choose to nourish; and in community we can encounter so much more than alone. We can feed more hunger, here, when we know where the empty places are. We must be open to new ways. Mindful of where we feel the holes in our lives; knowing that at the core of life is a beauty that is always present, always ready to be seen.
We commissioned our teachers this morning for the ministry they offer our community. It’s one type of call that many of us hear – either within these walls, or for our professional teachers outside in our schools systems. Each of these teachers will commit to learning along with our children twice a month for the entirety of the religious education year. They will help raise our children and youth with progressive values; with compassion, a love for equity, and a yearning for justice in our world. They will strive to show our children that we are indeed a Fellowship of open minds, loving hearts, and helping hands.
But each of us carries this burden in a way at times as well. Every word we share within earshot; how we engage with one another over coffee; how we prioritize and live out our values. We can raise our children to love mercy, but if we act in contrast to those values outside the classroom or congregation, we teach a confusing message. Sometimes our call in life comes from within. Sometimes our community calls us to live as better people, whose core is not grounded in the false idols of anxiety or fear or the petty frustrations. We too often worship those three small gods, and the beauty of the world is again lost to us for a time. Prioritize your values, and live so boldly that you nurture what stirs your heart, and defines your character.
Our call is not always about ourselves, or about our community. A nation can also be called to live its values. As a people, we can ground our actions in our values with consistency, not expediency – for expediency is the pathway to discarding morals. As a democratic nation ostensibly committed to world fellowship, I believe implicitly that we should strive relentlessly for peace. This congregation also dedicated itself as a peace site – building a permanent marker on our front viewed by all who enter. I fear that our nation is discarding its morals again this week in our likely response to Syria and Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Our likely actions value a Geneva Protocol around chemical weapons over the imminent risk inherent to a military strike for civilians.
A timeline might be helpful here to understand my thinking. In April 2011, we first heard that the Syrian army was firing upon civilian protestors. In September of 2012, cluster bombs were reported to be dropped on rebel-held towns causing incredible civilian causalities. In March of 2013 (six months ago), the UN concluded that fuel-air bombs were dropped on a town. By July of 2013 the death toll reached 100,000 people. This week in September we hear that chemical weapons were used. Now the White House is calling us to act, so that dictators know there will be repercussions for the use of chemical weapons.
I get it. I see that a world that ignores the use of chemical weapons is a world that will see massive civilian casualties in war time. That if we ignore this, the chance of chemical weapons getting in the hands of terrorists is a real threat. However, because of the advancement of military weapons, we already see that horror in our daily experience. 100,000 dead in Syria already. In our current and recent wars in the middle-east, we saw over another 100,000 civilians dead through our actions. That is the nature of modern warfare. Death is not reserved for the soldier, but the children and families. The old, the young, the unlucky.
The White House has indicated that these potential military strikes won’t change the direction of the civil war. That toppling Assad’s secular dictatorship would only cause more problems down the road knowing that with all the ethnic and religious subgroups vying for power in the rebellion, it’s impossible to know what will come next or how many decades it would take. This is just to send a message that chemical warfare is a horror.
I maintain that warfare is already that horrible. If 100,000 civilians have already died, we’re already in an age where we can’t walk into war without knowing it will bleed our humanity that much. I don’t see how violence – that expressly has no intent to stop violence, topple a regime, or bring people to safety – does anything more than beget further violence. We would not be committing to any of those goals. We would only be sending a short-term message that will have limited lasting effect – except of course for the permanent loss of life our military strikes would cause – both military deaths and if history is any indication – civilian deaths as well.
Some of the answers here are not fixes in the short-term – (not that a military strike, by the President’s own indication, would fix the situation anyway.) The longer term fixes involve applying pressure and diplomacy in many places. We can only build peace if our values are grounded in peace. Our national leadership does not appear to be grounded in the value of peace.
Our steps are many. The UN veto process for life-time members of the security council is as broken as our nation’s system of filibustering. Since that perpetuates inaction that allows murders to continue, we start by changing that. Economic pressure can be more lasting than violence. Syria is heavily sanctioned already, but Assad’s assets have yet to be frozen. As a nation we can stop engaging in arms sales. We could track chemical sales of our allies and put pressure for those sales to stop. We need to change our perception of what acceptable violence is. We can’t even manage a reasonable national gun control policy when the overwhelming majority of citizens think we should restrict gun use more. Or as the noted public ethicist, Stephen Colbert, pithily says, “”The United States has no choice but to attack Syria because Dictator Bashar al-Assad is killing his own people with chemical weapons. Before he was just killing them with bullets. But, if America cared about shooting people, we’d be invading Chicago.” I fear we have allowed ourselves to be so desensitized that we’ve lost perspective; we’ve lost our grounding.
Problems of global crisis require broader solutions other than at the end of a missile. They also require us to root our changes in our convictions and to be honest with ourselves what our convictions are. We could begin funding less military and more development. Or as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said, “ A nation that year after year continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” We could change our tax code that encourage the accumulation of wealth for the very few. In 2007, 1% of our US population controlled 35% of our wealth. These are individuals that earn over $950,000 per year. In 2013, CNBC reported that the top 1% of the global population controls 40% of the global wealth. Extreme poverty encourages strife. If you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to lose. It is possible to draw these lines. Everything does connect. It is never only one thing. And lastly, we could prioritize peace-based education practices globally now so generational shift begins. I invite you to write your senators and representative like I have and ask them to vote against a military strike in Syria. We do not need to be a nation in a perpetual state of war. We do not need to be a nation that perpetually sees the military solution as our primary tool in the toolbox. We do not need to be a nation that fails to engage in long-term solutions, but perpetually chooses long-term military engagements.
All of these changes will take time and conviction. If we’re not grounded in our values, if we’re not called at our core to strive toward peace, we will not know peace. There is no quick fix. There is no magic missile that will nurture peace.
This is what religious community is about. There is no quick fix for the problems of our world and all too often there is no quick fix for the serious challenges in our own personal lives. When we err on the side of expediency, some movement may happen in the direction we hope, but often the underlying problems will remain. Religious community asks us to – Discern our values – Find our purpose – And then learn to live our lives from that call. In some ways it’s easy, and in some ways it’s the lesson of a lifetime. I invite you all to join together in that search, and that most spiritual practice.
I invite you now to rise in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn, #318, We Would Be One
 Stone Soup