Our Homecoming Service should include ‘a faith statement.’ As we rededicate ourselves to our Unitarian Universalist faith we do well to remind ourselves of that which we hold in common. So I will comment ever so briefly and carefully on the Muslim Community Center/Mosque controversy, and the deep-seated prejudice it has unearthed.
We’ll begin with a paragraph from the Dalai Lama’s book, Ethics for the New Millennium:
In a chapter he titled ‘No Magic, No Mystery,’ he says, “In calling for a spiritual revolution am I advocating a religious solution to our problems after all? No. As someone nearing seventy years of age at the time of writing (2004) I have accumulated enough experience to be completely confident that teachings of the Buddha are both relevant and useful to humanity. If a person puts them into practice, it is certain that not only they but others, too, will benefit. My meetings with many different sorts of people the world over have, however, helped me realize that there are other faiths, and other cultures, no less capable than mine of enabling individuals to lead constructive and satisfying lives. What is more, I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.
It was nine years ago yesterday that America was attacked; the targets were hit at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Another uncertain target in Washington, D.C. was averted by the sacrifice of courageous passengers by bringing the plane down in a field in Pennsylvania.
We watched in horror as the buildings burned, then we watched in another kind of horror as U.S. citizens were attacked by other U.S. citizens because they somehow looked, sounded or dressed like the perpetrators of the infamous attack.
Once again this summer we were horrified as we listened to the hate-filled rhetoric spewed out like venom in response to the plans to build an Islamic Community Center in New York. Some complain about its proximity to Ground Zero, and others expressing outright hatred of all Muslims – and, we might assume, hatred against anyone who is not bowing down to their appropriate idol.
The response to the planned Islamic Center ripped through the thin membrane that separates the two competing human aspects – good and evil, if you will – creativity and destructiveness. That thin membrane allows us to live together in families, communities and as a civilized society.
We knew, of course, that there’s a tendency for humans to carry some deep prejudices – prejudice is an evolutionary leftover, like the appendix, prejudice is a left over from our early evolution — it has lost its original function. Prejudice is the appendix of the soul!
We know, of course, that there are small pockets of extremism in the nation – extremism that is characterized by hatred, and fueled by hatred and bigotry.
But the Community Center controversy set off a spark that ignited flames that must be of concern to anyone who’s paying the least bit of attention – Islam, with more than a billion practitioners, is being labeled as evil; Mosques have been attacked and damaged, and in one extremely obnoxious case a self-anointed clergy person announced plans to burn copies of the Koran, hoping to fan the flames of a religious war – the kind of religious war we had assumed was a thing of the past , like the Crusades and Inquisitions – like the bones of dinosaur.
The violent history of religion on the planet is an embarrassment; the burning of books is an affront to rationality.
Of course all Americans, and most of the civilized world was outraged at the 9/11 attack on America; we weren’t surprised to hear a generalized fear of Islamist –the extremists. We knew that there would be other attacks, or attempted attacks.
But the response to the proposed Islamic Community Center broke through the thin membrane that separates a normal angry response from a deep-seated hatred.
The analogy that occurred to me is that the wide-spread hatred is like a cancer: it started as a small growth and this summer we got the lab reports indicating that it has metastasized – clearly it has spread to the brain, and the heart, and the lungs of a shockingly large number of our fellow citizens.
The idea of burning the Koran is a symptom of the disease; generalized hatred for religious or ideological beliefs and practices is a sign of the sickness at the heart – the core – of what this nation stands for – it goes against our most basic and most cherished values.
We know about the violent history of religion – it’s an embarrassment – one of our Unitarian forebears, Michael Servetus had his book burned by John Calvin – Servetus was burned at the stake with his books…
Eventually the city of Geneva apologized; I visited the site and read the apology which said, in part, that the citizens of Geneva were ‘repudiating Calvin’s mistake which was the mistake of his age’. That apology marks a turning point toward a more enlightened approach. I believe that we are at such a point, now.
The Taliban and Al Quada want to burn books, and infidels, a return to the most primitive way of dealing with differences, far exceeding mere prejudice.
But prejudice in itself is no big surprise. We know about the stain of racism that was nearly fatal flaw in our earliest national chapter, leading to the Civil War and Lincoln’s reminder at Gettysburg: that we are a ‘nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all persons are created equal,’ and that in a very real sense we are always ‘testing whether this nation, or any nation conceived in liberty’ can endure the challenges that come with it and need to be faced without destroying our essence.
The good news about the Islamic Community Center/Mosque is that it is calling out the angels of our better nature – the religious community is speaking out – Christians of every denomination are speaking out against the hatred and the prejudice that incites it – the Jewish community is speaking out…and certainly we Unitarian Universalists want to speak out.
Indeed, this controversy is a perfect reminder – a reminder not only of what we believe and affirm in our purposes and principles, especially about ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person,’ – but it is a reminder of why we affirm these principles…because the world needs them and we need to be reminded.
So, today we are here to re-dedicate ourselves ‘to the unfinished work’ of the women and men who created this religious home – who built the buildings and wrote the constitution under which we operate – who had a dream of a new kind of spiritual community, free from religious dogma and the need to give assent to complicated creeds, but not free from moral and ethical responsibilities…to walk the walk!
Many of those founder’s names are listed in our necrology, and many others who got on board since those early days. Each one contributed in some way – in his or her own way – to that dream. Many are in their ‘final resting place’ on the hill, the Memorial Garden, and we might imagine that they are looking down on us now and smiling and saying ‘thank you!’
With Lincoln we too can say, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” but what we do here will determine our degree of sincerity in our affirmation, and our determination to live out the dreams we cherish – that as moral agents acting in the world we can influence the course of history, that we can promote ethics that bend the process of evolution toward a new enlightenment.
We know that we are part of that evolutionary process of life on earth, that we’ve been evolving for millions of years and that we are moving from earlier primitive, stone-aged ways to a more enlightened sense of citizenship of planet earth, a citizenship that requires us to be more responsible caretakers of this fragile home of ours, this wonderfully beautiful and deliciously delicate earth we share.
Today we re-dedicate ourselves to this important, challenging work.
We want to promote an evolutionary process that will celebrate our differences rather than dividing us; that we will celebrate the geographical differences that have produced such an amazing and wonderful diversity of cultures with thousands of different languages and customs.
We want to celebrate our religious and philosophical differences, and at the same time affirm our common humanity.
We must not become discouraged – the oil spewing out of BP’s well has been sealed, and the voices of hatred, intolerance, bigotry and prejudice will one day be silenced by a deep-down sense of humility, compassion and understanding.
That’s a faith statement. We have a dream!
Each of us has a responsibility to contribute to the day when there will be peace in the Middle East and an end to the tragic, horrible warfare in so many parts of today’s world, and there will be peace in our nation as a result of the work we do for justice in our nation and in our world. That’s a faith statement!
May this spiritual home we share inspire each one of us to do our part, and by so doing we will find peace in our own hearts.
A blessing on this house and to each of you and your kin, and a blessing on all peace-loving Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus Buddhists, Taoists; and a blessing on the atheists and agnostics, whether they want it or not!