Naomi and Ruth, Jonathan and David: A Look at Loyalty

A sermon delivered on 20 June 2010 © by Rev. Fred L Hammond to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Reading: 1 Samuel 18: 1,3-4

Now when he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. 3 Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. 4 And Jonathan took off the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, even to his sword and his bow and his belt.


“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.

Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
The LORD do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me.” (Ruth 1: 16-17)

These beautiful words from the Book of Ruth have been read at hundreds of wedding services to assist in building the covenant between a man and a woman.  But these words are not about a covenant between a man and a woman but a covenant between a woman and a woman.

The book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures is about loyalty and love.  Here is the story which makes these words so powerful.

Naomi and her husband Elimelech move to the country of Moab because there was a great famine in Judah.  Elimelech dies and their two sons, Mahlon and Chileon married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.  After about ten years these two sons also die, leaving no children.  Naomi, now alone decides to travel back to the home of her husband’s in Bethlehem in the country of Judah because she heard that the famine was over.   So Naomi and her daughters-in law begin the trek back to Judah.

In these days, women were considered property and if Naomi had additional sons they would have been expected to take Orpah and Ruth as their wives in the hopes of giving their brothers sons.  But this is not the case and Naomi is of the age when remarriage and child bearing is not an option for her to produce sons who then could grow up and marry her daughters in law.  And if such a thing were possible would it be fair to make them wait? So for them to return to Naomi’s husband’s family meant that they would be sold into slavery when her husband’s property is sold.  And Moabites while a peaceful people were considered deceivers that lured people away to false gods.  This was not a happy prospect.

Naomi beseeches her daughters-in-law to return to their own families so that they will not be sold into slavery, into a life of unknown poverty, into a life of further degradation.  They weep at this request. Orpah decides to take Naomi’s advice and return to her people.  It is from this culture that Ruth’s words are spoken.  It is from this realization of her future prospects that she declares these words to Naomi.  “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go.”

Now the story has a happy ending.  Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem.  Naomi despairs of her bitter fate but Ruth goes and gleans the fields that belong to a man named Boaz.  It was a practice of the Jews to leave one tenth of the harvest so that the poor may glean the fields in order to have food.  Ruth did so behind the reapers and gained favor of the land owner.  Boaz, was a relative of Naomi’s husband and considered a protector of the family.  He admires the devotion that Ruth shows his kin’s widow and decides to try to make things right for them. He purchases the land that belonged to Naomi’s husband and takes the hand of Ruth in marriage. Naomi’s future is secured and Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David.

Now, the story of Jonathan and David does not have a happy ending but it is an important story.   Our reading this morning begins after David had slew Goliath, the Philistine.  King Saul wanted to know who this warrior was and had called him to his court.  King Saul is so impressed with this young man that he invites David to live with them. During this audience with King Saul, Jonathan and David meet for the first time.  It was as the romantics might say, love at first sight.

David proved to be a great warrior and the country begin to sing his praises which made King Saul envious of David.  So envious that Saul made plans to have David killed.  But Jonathan interceded on David’s behalf on several occasions telling his father that his hatred towards David was unfounded. Jonathan renews his covenant with David and has “David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (1 Sam 20:17)  But Saul’s hatred against David grows and at one point rebukes Jonathan for his love, saying “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam 20: 30)  Jonathan sends David away in order to save David’s life. “David  …prostrated himself with his face to the ground.  He bowed three times, and they kissed each other; David wept the more.” (1 Sam 20:41)  Saul and Jonathan die in battle and David laments:  “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Sam 26)

What is important in both of these relationships is that they were mutual, each person choosing the other as equals.  Marriage as found in the Hebrew Scriptures is rarely on a mutual standing.  The marriage arrangements are coerced or arranged by a third party.  The woman is considered property of the man and therefore has no say in the relationship. If there is love it is generally love that is developed later or it is one sided.

The word love as it applies to Jonathan and David is discussed in the Mishnah, the first major written redaction of the oral traditions of the Jewish faith.  It is contrasted to the word love as it pertains to another story in David’s life, the rape of David’s daughter Tamar by her half brother Amnon.

In the story of Amnon and Tamar, it is written that Amnon loved Tamar and craftily found a way to have her come to his chambers.  He feigns illness and asks that she bake him some food. She does so and enters his chamber to feed him.  He requests that she lie with him. She resists and he rapes her.  Then what she declares an ever worse offense he rejects her, going against Jewish law that states a man who rapes a virgin must take her in marriage.  This leaves her desolate, no longer eligible for marriage.

The Mishnah states, “If love depends on some material cause and the cause goes away, the love goes away, too; but if it does not depend on a thing, it will never go away.  What love depended on something?  The love of Amnon and Tamar.  What love was not dependent on something? The love of David and Jonathan.”[1]

The Hebrew word for love in the text is Ahava.  Ahava is used some 250 times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is used to refer to the sexual as in the very poetic Song of Songs.  It is used to refer to the love of a husband for a wife.  It is used to refer to passion in illicit relationships.  It is used to refer to the love of Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi, and it is used in the great commandment to love one’s neighbor as one self[2]. And while we translate ahava as love, it literally means “I will give.”

Rabbi Kelemen discusses love from an Orthodox Jewish perspective.  He states if you ask an Orthodox Jew if they are in love, “[they have] to stop and ask … a completely different set of questions. He has to ask himself — How much am I willing to let go of what I want for her sake? How much am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of my beloved? What am I willing to let go of for her? It’s all about “her”, “her”, “her[3]”. It’s all about the other. Ahava, I will give. If I want to know if I’m in love, if I’m in ahava from a Jewish perspective, the question is not how does he or she make me feel good or what he or she does for me but rather how much am I willing to let go for the sake of the other.

It is this kind of love that is evident in the relationships of Naomi and Ruth and Jonathan and David. Ahava. I will give.  “…wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”  Ruth was giving up her culture, her home, her opportunity for safety, her gods, everything for the sake of being with Naomi.

Jonathan gave up his birthright claim to the throne. He gave up his place in commanding the armies of the kingdom.   He gave up his father’s favor for his love for David.

In terms of gay and lesbian relationships today, it is this form of love that I witness in my friends.  What have they let go of in order to be with the one they love?  A lot.

In 30 states it is still legal to fire or refuse to hire someone solely on the basis of their sexual orientation; an additional eight states still allow discrimination based on gender identity or expression[4].  In 20 states hate crime legislation either does not exist or does not include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.  In six states there are laws prohibiting the adoption or recognizing the adoption of children by same sex couples.  Three states restrict the placing of foster children in gay households, single or coupled.  By not having their marriage relationship recognized federally, the couple is restricted from 1,138 benefits including the marital communications privilege which is the right not to testify against ones spouse. They are denied survivor benefits and spousal benefits from social security.  They are denied medical decision-making power and hospital visitation rights.

This means that to have an Ahava, I will give, love relationship with a person of the same sex or gender, the person must be willing to give up the heterosexually acceptable act of holding hands in public because if they are seen by someone they know, their job might be in jeopardy. They must be willing to risk homophobic attacks; verbal, emotional, and physical because these are not considered to be hate crimes.  They must be willing to risk losing the child they raised together if their partner dies because they were not allowed to mutually adopt the child.  The couple must be willing to endure the heartbreak of not being able to be present when the other is dying in the hospital.  He or she, after the death of their spouse, must be willing to step aside when the family swoops in and claims possession of the house and their belongings they shared.

Now there are ways to minimize these risks but they are not guarantees against these risks.  In many states blood relations trump live in relations even if there is a will designating the partner as surviving heir to the estate.  Without the legal protection of marriage, a family can make and will win legal claim as next of kin.  There are couples across the country who thought they had cobbled together the legal protections available to them under the current laws  only to find out these laws are not strong enough or sufficient enough to protect them.

Such was the case of Tim Reardon and his partner Eric in Minnesota.  Tim and Eric had filed all the papers and paid all the legal fees only to find out that they had missed one, the right for Tim or Eric to have final say over the physical remains of their loved one.  Eric died of brain cancer and Tim was not allowed to claim the body. In Minnesota the state can seize the property, the house shared by both partners, if a partner dies and there is a lien on the property[5].  Legislation, entitled The Final Wishes Act, was passed in May of this year that would have repaired this inequity of privileges that are automatic for heterosexual couples but the governor of Minnesota[6] vetoed this legislation.

In California the battle over Proposition 8 continues.  The state of California voted to overturn a court’s ruling to allow same sex marriage.  18,000 same gendered marriages were performed before the ruling was overturned by the referendum of the state’s voters.  This has now been debated in the District court for the last six months.  The judge is expected to rule in a few weeks. There is much that a same sex couple will be losing should the judge rule in favor of the referendum.  The defendants want the 18,000 same sex marriages also annulled and made illegal.  There is much that love, ahava, is willing to give in order to be a same sex couple throughout the country today.

Not all same sex relationships are able to survive in a society where the pressure against them is strong.  Sometimes what one is willing or able to give is simply not enough to sustain the relationship.  In order for any relationship to survive, to thrive in the day to day difficulties, regardless of societal acceptance or not, there is another quality that is essential.  Both Ruth and Naomi and Jonathan and David had this quality between them.

There is another Hebrew word that has been translated as love but that is not an accurate translation.  The word is Chesed.  It has been translated as Love, as loving –kindness, as faithfulness, as loyalty, as mercy, as covenantal-love, as grace, as steadfast love.  Even these words combined do not seem to capture the full essence of the word Chesed.  The words as they are used in the story of Naomi and Ruth and in the story of Jonathan and David are in connection to a covenant that binds them to a higher purpose, to God, to their higher selves.

Rabbi Keleman states that “The … Orthodox Jews, … believe that the model of a perfect spouse is God. They have this wild belief that human beings were created in the image of God, and because they were created in the image of God they have God-like potential. And therefore, at least in terms of character, they could become like God. Now if you add to this that they believe that God is pure ahava, He is pure giving.[7]

The Covenant that God made with Abraham is one based in pure ahava, it is chesed, an undying, ever binding, unconditional,  merciful, steadfast, loyal, faithful love to Abraham and his descendants.  The marriage covenant also reflects this attitude of chesed.

Rabbi Keleman tells this story he heard about “Christopher Reeve, Superman, so he had this terrible accident and when he woke up from surgery they informed him that he was probably going to be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. No movement from the neck down. And shortly thereafter he had a discussion with his wife. His wife visited him there in the ICU and he said to her — ‘Sweetie, you know, I understand. I don’t mind if you divorce me. It’s okay.’  She looked at him and she said — ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean if I want to divorce you? I’m not going to divorce you.’ He explained — ‘No, no. I’m a quadriplegic now, I can’t take care of myself, I can’t do anything for you. I understand if you divorce me.’ And she very beautifully responded — ‘Why would I consider divorcing you?’ Because the reason she married him was she just wanted to take care of and love him. Now he couldn’t do certain things for her, that was irrelevant. She wanted to take care of him.[8]”  This story reveals the quality of Chesed.  It is more than just what she will give, ahava, but also what she expresses loyalty to in the relationship.

It goes beyond love, beyond ahava, I will give.  It is bound in covenant even when tragedy strikes. It is bound in covenant that is renewed even as one fails to honor it.   It is bound in covenant even when employment is lost.  It is bound in covenant even when disappointments abound and dreams are lost.  It is bound in covenant even when health is failing.  It is bound in a covenanted relationship that calls for the highest purpose, the highest expression of our selves.  The Orthodox Jews might express it as reaching to become like God in character, pure in ahava.

Jonathan and David expressed this depth of love, chesed, in a covenant between each other.  The word covenant as used in the Hebrew text is the same word used to describe a marriage vow.  They remind each other of this covenant as they figure out how they were going to deal with the death threats against David made by Jonathan’s father.

Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to let the other person leave.  Jonathan could have been selfish and insisted that David stay in the vain hope of turning Saul’s heart once again, but to do so would have meant certain death to David.   The notion of ahava, I will give, sometimes includes I will give up the relationship in order to fully love and respect your inherent worth and dignity.

With Naomi and Ruth, Boaz uses the word chesed in recognition of Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and her seeking to abide by Jewish customs.   This is a quality that is noticed and admired.  It is a profound quality that endears Ruth to Boaz to see her not as foreigner, or a servant, but as an equal in status, appropriate as a wife for him.

The Mishnah states, “If love depends on some material cause and the cause goes away, the love goes away, too; but if it does not depend on a thing, it will never go away.”  Naomi and Ruth, Jonathan and David had a love that was not dependent on some material cause, on some circumstance or event that held it in place, or on some societal more of what is acceptable or not acceptable.  Theirs was a love that was based on something elemental to the human condition that transcended material causes or circumstances.  May we all have the opportunity to experience this ahava, this chesed, this depth and breadth of love in the living of our days.    Blessed Be.


[1] Boswell, John;  Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.  P 136.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.warmwisdompress.com/dating/gtr/kelemen1.aspx

[4] http://www.thetaskforce.org/enda07/ENDAtoolkit_c4.pdf

[5] http://minnesotaindependent.com/24178/final-wishes-proposed-bill-aims-to-help-grieving-same-sex-couples

[6] http://www.truthwinsout.org/blog/2010/05/8847/

[7] http://www.warmwisdompress.com/dating/gtr/kelemen2.aspx as accessed on June 19 2010.

[8] http://www.warmwisdompress.com/dating/gtr/kelemen3.aspx

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Published in: on June 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm  Comments Off on Naomi and Ruth, Jonathan and David: A Look at Loyalty  
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Sifting the Wheat from the Chaff

I recently posted a sermon, Immigration Reform, in which I offered a possible vision of what comprehensive immigration reform might look like.  As many may know I have been quite vocal about the racist legislation passed in Arizona; not only its  anti-immigration law  that would empower police to ask anyone they have ‘reasonable suspicion’ of being undocumented to show them their papers, but also their ban on ethnic studies,  and the firing of any teacher of English who speaks with an accent.

I said the following:

“What would a fair immigration policy look like?   John F. Kennedy in 1958 said, “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.”  [John F. Kennedy A Nation of Immigrants (1958)]

Well there is one more thing that an ideal immigration policy must have.   Dan Stein, Executive Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform  [FAIR] believes that it should also have clear objectives.   He states that “What the public wants is 1) a stable population size, 2) a healthy economy, and 3) a sense of national cohesion based on shared values and a common language.”[6] These three components should be the basis of a sound immigration policy.”

I then discussed this from the point of view of our Unitarian Universalist principles that encourages our divergent theological differences yet enables us to speak of our common values that bind us together.

Well, John Blevins, Prairie Star District UUA Board Trustee, linked to my posting on his site.  Then a very observant UU minister noted that John had linked to two different blogs that present FAIR in two very different lights.   He made comments about this contrast on a blog entitled “Immigration: What’s FAIR? ‘Hate Group?’ or Reliable Source?”

It turns out that the Southern Poverty Law Center has declared FAIR a Hate Group.   The article I was quoting by Dan Stein appeared at the Center for Immigration Studies, an apparent sister organization to FAIR.  It raised interesting questions for me.

I found myself in agreement with the overall objectives that Dan Stein presented in his essay.  In looking at the specifics of how Dan Stein and FAIR are seeking to implement these objectives is where I differ.  FAIR is indeed a supporter of SB 1070, the racist legislation passed in Arizona.  FAIR also is a supporter of removing citizenship from people born in this country to one or more undocumented parents; the so-called anchor babies.   So while FAIR set out a plausible vision of comprehensive immigration reform,  as they say the devil  is in the details.  In this case, it may be literally true.

I have stated this issue of immigration is a complex problem with multiple layers in it, see my post Immigration: A Complicated Onion to Peel. This latest contrast that John Blevins posted  reveals its complexity even further.

FAIR may indeed be working against everything that I believe in but they are the only group that has presented a vision of comprehensive immigration reform.  Should I discount that vision just because I disagree with their implementation of it?   Southern Poverty Law Center has not offered a vision of what they believe comprehensive immigration reform should be.  I have done the research and  I do not hear any liberal voices offering anything to this issue other than the shouting “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now!” Nothing in as concrete and concise manner as FAIR has done.  From my perspective it remains a whirl of dust balls that has yet to settle out and reveal itself.

Shouting is not a vision statement. Protesting against what we do not want is not revealing what we do want.   Don’t misunderstand me here, I am fully behind the need to protest against racist legislation. And I am still pondering what we as Unitarian Universalists should do with our General Assembly in Phoenix, AZ in 2012.    But what does comprehensive immigration reform look like to the people most impacted by it?  I have not heard a response in the positive only in the negative.

I believe in dialog.  I firmly believe in Gandhi’s approach of finding where there is agreement to begin there and then dislodge the untruths.  It is a matter of sifting the wheat from the chaff.  Southern Poverty Law Center may declare  FAIR is a hate group and is anti-immigration, but the article I quoted is one grain of wheat.  A damn good grain at that to begin the dialog.

Blessings,

Five Smooth Stones: An Attitude of Ultimate Optimism

Five Smooth Stones:  An Attitude of Ultimate Optimism
Rev. Fred L Hammond
13 June 2010 ©
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Over the last several months we have examined Unitarian Universalist Theologian James Luther Adams Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.  We looked at the first four stones; Revelation is Continuous—the idea that new understandings of the mystery of life are always unfolding; Mutual Consent –the idea that relations between people ought to be free of coercion and rest instead on the mutual, free consent of each person; A Just and Loving Community—the notion that we have a moral obligation to create a world where all people are honored and respected and No immaculate conception of virtue and the necessity of social incarnation—the idea that nothing is good in and by itself but only in its actions in relation to the other. Today we look at Adams’ final smooth stone of liberal religion, An Attitude of Ultimate Optimism.

This has been a difficult few months on the national level with what appears as legislated racism in Arizona, the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial collapse of our banking institutions, and the unprecedented uncontrolled oil geyser in the Gulf of Mexico.   Then on the local level we have been dealing with the tragic deaths of friends.  And we haven’t even mentioned the personal trials and tribulations that many of us are going through.  With all of these events circling around us like vultures it is difficult to see the truth in James Luther Adams proclamation that we as people of a liberal faith should resolve to have ultimate optimism.

But this is not just ultimate optimism because optimism feels better than the alternative.  No, the reason for ultimate optimism is because “the resources… [both] divine and human, are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify” this attitude.

We cannot rest on the laurels of the work that generations did before us in areas of justice, whether that justice be racial, economic, or ecological. No, James Luther Adams argues that “each generation must anew win insight into the ambiguous nature of human existence and must give new relevance to moral and spiritual values.”

And so the gains that the civil rights movement won in the mid-20th century must be redefined and won again in the 21st century because the arc of history is always bending towards a greater more inclusive justice.  As our eyes were opened at the injustices of segregation, our eyes need to become open to the injustices of white privilege because white privilege would seek to segregate again.  The various legislations passed in Arizona are one way white privilege is rearing its ugly head.  Whose history do we tell when we teach history in our schools[1]?  What criteria do we use to determine that a person is qualified to teach English[2]?  What shade of paint do we use to depict our children in school murals[3]?

Under the guise of immigration enforcement, white privilege is attempting to re-assert its standard for living in America.  The nation requires an immigration policy that is not solely to benefit the whims of white corporate America. Such has been our history with Mexican immigrants through out the 20th century.  We welcomed them, documented and undocumented, when their labor kept our farms and factories producing during two world wars and deported them when those wars ended or when the economy took a downturn.  It is this issue that will define our nation again just as the civil rights movement defined our nation in the mid-20th century.   Will we define ourselves on the side of justice?

The civil rights movement of the 1960’s was an achievement of justice for that generation but we must not assume that the achievements of that era are a fait accompli for all times.  Rev. Peter Morales, President of our denomination, wrote this week, “We are in a struggle for the future direction of American society. How we treat immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, is today’s equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement. This is a struggle for America’s soul. The real issue for us is how we are going to live in an America in which Anglo-Americans (“whites” or “Americans of European descent”) are in the minority. That day will soon be with us. “White” Americans are already the minority in a number of states. The prospects frighten many people. …  The question is whether we can embrace the changes that are coming, whether we can thrive in this new America.[4]

In terms of James Luther Adams’ fifth smooth stone, the question is ‘are we going to tap into the resources both divine and human to create an America that continues to hold its revolutionary ideal of achieving liberty and justice for all when Anglo America is no longer the majority?’ If Arizona is the canary of this new America and other states introduce replica bills against a targeted population, then the answer will sadly be no.

But the theology that our Unitarian and Universalist heritage derives from believed that history has a destination it is winging towards where justice and grace prevail.  History has a meaning that reveals something of the evolutionary direction of humanity.  For our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors it culminated in the creation of heaven on earth, a place where all people lived in harmony with the divine.  A place where there was no longer any sorrow or pain from injustice.  We sing of this place in our hymn:

“Come build a land where sisters and brothers, anointed by God may then create peace: where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.[5]

But history has also revealed the darker side of humanity.  Adams states, “A realistic appraisal of our behavior, personal and institutional, and a life of continuing humility and renewal are demanded, for there are ever-present forces in us working for perversion and destruction.”   We do not have to go too far back in our history to see what perverse and destructive forces they are.

Our recent financial crisis was the result of intoxicating greed.  Without the appropriate oversights, the banks allowed their intoxicated greed to demand for more wealth at the expense of the clients who sought them for loans to live the American dream. Knowing and hedging the bet that these clients could not afford the loans they sought; the result was an economy that loomed close to the edge of world wide depression and families fortunes and homes decimated.

Yet even with this propensity to reveal the darker nature of humanity through greed and through war, our prophetic faith writes Adams, calls forth to have a ‘dynamic hope’ that “at the depths of human nature and at the boundaries of what we are, there are potential resources that can prevent a retreat to nihilism.”

The resources both divine and human are available to achieve meaningful change.  Divine here for Adams might refer to some supernatural resource but it also points to something other than supernatural but wholly inspirational.  The divine could be that new idea that breaks through the toil and struggle of rehashing the same ol’ same ol’ and beckons for a new point of view.  It could be that connecting thought that brings about a new way of being or a new way of operating.

But ultimately what choices we make will open up the resources that are available to us, both divine and human. We have a choice in the events that are occurring in the nation today.  We can say it does not impact my daily life and therefore ignore it and then wonder how it came to bite us later.

The crisis in the gulf might illustrate this better.   We live several hours away from the gulf and therefore are not facing the toxic oil fumes that are causing health problems for asthmatics and others with breathing difficulties.  We are not faced with our 134 year old family business ending because there are no oysters to harvest.

So one choice is to ignore it as Scarlet O’Hara says in Gone with the Wind, “I will think about this tomorrow… after all, tomorrow is another day.”  Ignore it and continue our mantra of ‘drill baby drill.’   Or downplay its significance as BP has done by stating that there is plenty of shrimp found elsewhere[6] or the amount of oil dumping into the gulf is minimal[7] or blocking journalists from seeing firsthand the vast wildlife succumbed to oil washing up on the beaches[8] or denying government confirmed underwater oil plumes six miles long[9].   So ignoring or denial is a choice we could make.

Or we could despair the loss of an ecosystem that impacts the world in so many multiple ways.  The prospect of dead zones in the gulf where no life can grow is certainly a despairing prospect.  A recent video found on Youtube of divers in the gulf to look at what is happening under the water noted that the water is eerily void of fish until reaching a depth of 30 feet[10].  However, this sort of despair shuts down the natural creative forces of life that is inherent in all of creation including humanity.

Or we can choose to do something about this spill.  Organize to have legislation mandate stricter regulations on off shore drilling. Organize to encourage alternate forms of clean energy such as solar and wind to become standard over fossil fuels.  Educate others of our participation in this interconnected web of life. We can begin to educate ourselves and others on how our personal consumption and craving of oil based products has contributed to this event in the gulf. The resources for making this choice are already available for us to achieve this.  All we need to do is to organize and tap into the populous will to have this achieved.

Here are three different choices all based on the same data with different conclusions made on that data.  Liberal religion invites us to not deny or despair but rather to look beyond the present to what possibilities can arise and then to act accordingly.

Howard Zinn in his essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty[11], writes about the vast surprises that have occurred through out history.  He writes, “There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.”

Justice when it occurs may appear to have happened over night but it usually is the result of a cumulative effect of many different events over time.  A state law ending housing discrimination against gays.  An executive order granting hospital visitation rights and respecting patient care directives for same sex partners.  A law addressing bullying in schools.  The right for a lesbian mom to have custody of her children in a divorce.  Another law passed barring employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.  The ability for a transgender person to receive gender re-assignment surgery in this country.  The allowing for transgenders to state their self-identified gender on a US passport.

These on their own do not seem like huge victories.  But taken together they begin to add up to represent equal treatment under the law.  They begin to sound like justice.

Howard Zinn ended his essay with this:  “if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.[12]

Rev. Barbara Wells ten Hove wrote, “Despite all that we do wrong, all the wrong that is done to us and the suffering we cause and endure, love is always, always there. Our job as Universalists is to preach that love wherever we go and not to scare people about the end. Just hold each other in love and work to bring more love to the world.[13]”   May it be so.


[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/12/arizona-ethnic-studies-la_n_572864.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/30/arizona-ethnic-studies-cl_n_558731.html

[3] http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-06-04-altered-mural-arizona-race-debate_N.htm

[4] http://www.uua.org/news/newssubmissions/166693.shtml

[5] “We’ll Build a Land” words Barbara Zanotti (Isaiah/ Amos Adapted) Music Carolyn McDade   as found in Singing the Living Tradition

[6] I heard this statement being made in response to a question about the shrimp industry in Louisiana but cannot find the source.

[7] May 14, 2010 In one of his most famous gaffes, Hayward told The Guardian “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” With thousands of gallons pumping into the ocean every day, this small ratio of oil to water is taking a large toll. May 18, 2010 “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest,” Hayward told reporters. That same day, when asked about whether he was able to sleep at night in light of the oil spill’s disastrous effects, he replied, “Of course I can.”   As found at http://money.cnn.com/2010/06/10/news/companies/tony_hayward_quotes.fortune/index.htm

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/us/10access.html

[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/30/underwater-oil-plumes-dis_n_595015.html

[10] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGX7krQYI_4

[11] http://www.thenation.com/article/optimism-uncertainty

[12] Ibid.

[13] From an email by Rev. Barbara Wells ten Hove, used with permission.

Published in: on June 16, 2010 at 11:03 am  Comments Off on Five Smooth Stones: An Attitude of Ultimate Optimism  
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Immigration Reform

Immigration Reform
Rev. Fred L Hammond
6 June 2010 ©
Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words attributed to the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus are forever attached to the Statue of Liberty as the welcome to immigrants from around the world to New York Harbor.  Words that now reflect a more schizophrenic approach to immigration than a unified beckoning welcome.

Our history with immigration policies as a nation is abysmal.  We have a love/hate relation with immigrants.  We love them when their presence benefits us.  We hate them when we fear their presence will harm us.

There were essentially no restrictive immigration laws when our nation was founded.  Most of the immigrants to this nation were either of European descent who came here willingly or of African descent forced here as part of the slave trade.   Either way, we welcomed them because we needed their labor to aid in the growing of the country.  There were few laws restricting immigration with the exception of convicts in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The first law that seriously curtailed immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  This reversed the 1868 treaty with China that encouraged immigration to the US.  Immigrant Chinese were essential to the building of the railroads that connected the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.  Once this task was completed the Chinese were hired to work in the orchards of California’s growing fruit industry.

But when the Chinese exclusion act was passed, it was the Mexicans that began to be recruited to assist with the harvests in the southwest.  It was Mexican immigrants that made up to 60 % of the workforce that built the California to Mexico railway.

After the Mexican revolution in 1910 with failed results in delivering the promises of that revolution, Mexicans again began to enter the US.   We wanted them.  They helped build our economy.  When the US fought in World War One; it was the Mexicans that came to our rescue to work in our fields harvesting our crops, to work in our factories as machinists and plumbers.  We welcomed these immigrants and many came by simply crossing the border.

But there were labor disputes.  The Mexican workers were not treated fairly by their new employers and the Mexican government then intervened.  It was an early version of the Bracero program that came later.  Mexicans had to have a contract with the US ranchers for them to come into the states to work.  But with this new agreement there also came the establishment of the US Border Patrol in 1924. The free flow of immigrants from Mexico that had existed since the southwest was a part of Mexico was being challenged.

The global depression that came in the 1930’s slowed down migration from Mexico because there was no work to be had anywhere.  But with World War Two, the US once again opened its borders to Mexican workers to come and work in its factories and agricultural industries through the Bracero Program.  Mexicans were given temporary work visas to work in the US, a portion of their wages were withheld by the Mexican government to ensure that they would return to Mexico.  These were funds the participants in the Bracero Program never received and no explanation was granted.   More than 4 million Mexicans came to the US to find work and to ensure that American farms would continue to produce foods.

Unfortunately, the contracts they signed were in English with exploitive conditions.  For example, they were only allowed to return to Mexico in case of emergency and with written permission of their employer.  They were not allowed to leave the employ of one employer and work for another and with a portion of their wages withheld the benefit to the Mexican’s families never quite materialized. This program was a little better than indentured servitude.

The Bracero program continued after World War Two because the farmers were concerned of labor shortages.  The immigrant worker program could not keep up with the increased demand for farm help and farmers began recruiting undocumented workers as well.  Public opinion was turning against immigration and in 1954, President Eisenhower initiated Operation Wetback.  The derogatory term Wetback is based on one method of crossing into the US via the Rio Grande.  The intention was to round up undocumented persons and deport them back to Mexico; however, many of the deportees were re-processed as Braceros and returned to the farmers.  The practice of the round up included stopping “Mexican-looking” people and asking for their citizenship papers this angered many Mexican American citizens.  The operation was discontinued after one year because of the protests of profiling. The program deported 80,000 people and claims credit for an additional 1.2 million people who voluntarily returned to Mexico.

The Bracero program became politically unfavorable and was discontinued in 1964.  The immigration act of 1965 removed the racial quotas set in 1920.  This coincided with rapid population growth and economic decline in Mexico resulting in an increase of Mexicans crossing the border looking for work.  The passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 while giving amnesty to 2.3 million undocumented Mexicans also brought to an end the circulatory nature of immigration from Mexico.  There was an increase of militarization of the borders so many undocumented Mexicans once here decided to stay here instead of seasonally returning home.  “As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey pointed out to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005: “From 1965 to 1985, 85 percent of undocumented entries from Mexico were offset by departures and the net increase in the undocumented population was small. The build-up of enforcement resources at the border has not decreased the entry of migrants so much as discouraged their return home.[1]

In the aftermath of Katrina, Louisiana and Mississippi saw an increase in the trend of Mexican immigrants with the lure of construction jobs and an “emergency federal decree temporarily suspending immigrant-enforcement sanctions.[2]

And there you have it, as long as we see visible benefit from the labors of undocumented workers we will suspend immigrant enforcement sanctions.  But once that visible benefit is gone or the economy goes sour, then all bets are off.  The undocumented become the scapegoat for all that is wrong in Arizona, in Kansas, in Mississippi, in America.

There continues to be a benefit for America to have undocumented workers here.  As long as that benefit remains, we will not be able to come to grips with undocumented immigration.   Consider the benefit to Adams County, Pennsylvania where its orchards produced over 330 million pounds of apples and over 18 million pounds of peaches all harvested by Mexican migrant workers.  They are paid by the bin filled, about $16 per bin. The more bins they fill in a day the more they are paid. This is hard work and therefore only the strongest and fittest survive this line of work.   The result is cheap apples and peaches.  The farmers there state that “there is absolutely no way whatsoever that they could harvest these crops without the Mexican migrant workers.[3]”  Who would harvest them?  Who would purchase apples and peaches if they suddenly cost $5-$10 a pound?

The cost of food is cheap in part because of migrant workers, many of them immigrants, many of them undocumented willing to work for low wages.  We benefit.   In 2004 a crack down in the Western part of the US on immigrants caused a shortage of workers harvesting lettuce. It was considered a less of a loss to leave the crops to rot in the fields resulting in a loss of 1 billion dollars than to hire American workers to harvest them.[4]

A 2007 White House report stated that while immigrants depress the wages of high school drop outs, immigrants actually have increased wages of native born workers by $37 Billion a year.[5] The New York Times reported that immigrants pay into social security $7 Billion a year, money that they will never see. Further, the Social Security Administration figures this amount into their yearly budget.  We benefit.

So what about immigration reform?  What would a fair immigration policy look like?   John F. Kennedy in 1958 said, “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.”  [John F. Kennedy A Nation of Immigrants (1958)]

Well there is one more thing that an ideal immigration policy must have.   Dan Stein, Executive Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform believes that it should also have clear objectives.   He states that “What the public wants is 1) a stable population size, 2) a healthy economy, and 3) a sense of national cohesion based on shared values and a common language.”[6] These three components should be the basis of a sound immigration policy.

It is estimated that the US could easily be at half a billion people by mid century.  We need to examine how immigration might impact that population growth.  Dan Stein suggests one possible way is limiting the immigrant’s family members that can also migrate.

The skill set the person has to contribute to a healthy economy is another avenue that should be considered.  Other countries consider what their employment needs are before granting visas to immigrants. There is flexibility there.  Consider the contributions these immigrants have given to the United States in the past decade: Steve Chen, founder of Youtube,   Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.  The digital skills that these three alone brought to the US have created companies that are household names.  Having immigration policy that focuses on skills that promote economic health should be important.

We, as a nation, are pluralistic in nature.  We have come together under a set of principles that govern this nation. They are written into our most sacred national documents.  We need to educate these ideals to the immigrants that come allowing them in some way to assimilate into the culture.  Currently, it is reported that 75 % of immigrants learn to speak English with in ten years of their arrival.  The demand for English as a second language courses far outweigh the supply.  Yet, it is crucial that at least one common language is spoken. Yes, I know that there are academic advantages for everyone to speak two or more languages fluently.  But there must be a way for a nation to communicate to each other with ease about its ideals, its hopes, and its dreams.

This is where we come in as people of faith.  Our faith is a covenantal one where we seek to adhere to a set of principles that we believe have practical daily applications to our lives.  We are diverse in our theologies.  We believe that many paths lead to the truth.  Yet, we are able to come together because those principles, those ideals teach us to hold the other with dignity and respect.  They teach us to seek to be in right relationship with each other. They teach us about justice and fairness.  They teach us about democratic process.  They teach us about how we are all interconnected and how our actions here impact on others somewhere else.  The majority of what we teach are values that Americans accept and treasure as part and parcel of the American Dream.

Rev. Paul Langston-Daley of the Glendale Arizona church wrote about his experiences at the Rally on immigration in Phoenix on May 29th.   He said, “In the end we arrived at that copper dome, a small group of bright yellow shirts, standing shoulder to shoulder with Catholics, labor unions, Black Baptists and most of all with families. We were tired and hot but pleased to have finished the whole distance and to see the crowd gathered, covering the statehouse lawn, spilling across the street to a small park in the sun. Our presence was felt and known there. We, Unitarian Universalists, came from as far as Boston and New York, Minneapolis and New Orleans, from all over California and from right here in Arizona. We stood together with tens of thousands to call for an end to racist legislation and to ask our federal government to create and pass comprehensive immigration reform NOW. Our blazing yellow [Standing on the Side of Love] shirts made a statement- a statement about who we are, and what is important to us as religious people. At lunch …, a colleague told us she overheard some people saying “Hey,
look over there, it’s the Love people”.

The Love People.  That sums up our calling in a nut shell.  We might not get this immigration reform exactly right.  We might find ourselves with just as many questions about immigration and about the laws passed that target groups of people as we did before.  But we can stand in love as we grapple the questions that arise from our history of ambiguous relations with the immigrant.  We can stand on the side of love because this is who we are; the Love People.  Blessed Be,

[1] http://harvardmagazine.com/2007/05/uneasy-neighbors-a-brief.html

[2]http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-01/ru-pwo011206.php

[3] http://hubpages.com/hub/Mexican-Migrant-Workers-Nuisance-or-Necessity

[4] http://money.cnn.com/2006/05/01/news/economy/immigration_economy/index.htm

[5] http://www.americanapparel.net/contact/legalizela/Legalize_LA.pdf citing http://ezraklein.typepad.com/blog/2007/11/doimmigrants-d.html

[6] http://cis.org/articles/2001/blueprints/stein.html

We Are Small

This image has crossed my path several times this past week.  I have seen it used by a Christian televangelist and by scientists  for different reasons.   I liked what the televangelist had to say about it.  He said something along the lines of here we are as seen 3.7 million miles away.  Earth is this small dot in this  huge vacuum of space.  Insignificant in comparison.  Yet, as far as we currently know, life has formed only here.  Insignificant in comparison to the whole of the universe as seen 3.7 million miles away, yet significant because in all of the known universe God chose to create life here.

From this vantage point all of our problems also seem small and insignificant to the greater picture of the universe.  It is not of the universe’s concern that we are entrenched in a war in Afghanistan.  Or that one oil company has destroyed life in the Gulf of Mexico.  Or that racism is alive and well in America.   From the Universe’s perspective all is well and moving around its mysterious center as it has for billions of years and presumably will for billions of years to come.

I have learned that when my problems seem huge to me, they seem insurmountable.  Problems never can be solved when I am so entangled in them that I confuse the forest for the trees.  It is only when I am able to step back away from them and gain a different perspective that I am able to tackle the problem.  It is only when I can see the problem in comparison to the larger picture of my life that I can begin to see solutions to that problem.

We are one pale blue dot in the great universe.  Whether or not life continues to thrive on this planet, we are one pale blue dot.  It is time for us to start acting like we are part of this dot and not separate from it because from the universe’s perspective we are only a tiny speck in the scheme of things.  An insignificant speck at that.  From the universes perspective all is well because the problems we face are insignificant to its function.

If we destroy each other through war, the universe will continue as it has.  If we destroy the environment through our own greed and malfeasance, this pale blue dot will continue to follow its orbit within the Milky Way.  If we allow racism to flourish, while it demeans our quality of life, the universe will not notice.  Just as we have not noticed what is happening on a planet in another galaxy.

So how shall we live on this speck of dust?  How about as one accountable to it?  Let’s find better energy resources that will not destroy life.  Let’s find ways to live together in harmony since we are so very small in the universe.  Let’s put away our racism and our acts of war because these do not serve to promote life.   While we may be a speck of dust in the Universe, we are a planet of great diversity that should be celebrated not despised, not abused, not taken for granted.

And as the televangelist said, as far as we know, the creating force of the universe  has only created life here.  Therefore as insignificant as we may be, life on this planet is unique.  We should tender that uniqueness with honor, respect, and above all with love.   Blessings,

When Death Arrives Out of Season

The congregation I serve in Tuscaloosa, AL has been profoundly impacted by the loss of two people in the community.  One a beloved college professor was killed in an accident when a motorcycle driver driving excessive speeds on a winding road collided with her car.  The other was a young man,  age 39,  who died of a brain embolism.  Both individuals had connections to the congregation in multiple ways, either formally at one point or through members.

We know that death will come to all of us yet it is difficult when death arrives out of season.  How do we make peace with all the jumbled emotions that surface at times like these?

There are the platitudes that good meaning people share.   We all know them.  “God needed them.”   “You will see them again in Heaven.”  “God only gives us what we have the strength to bear.”  These words, however well intended,  are not helpful for the loved ones who survive. They raise more painful questions, “Didn’t I need them too?”  “Why did God make me so strong?” “Why would a loving God give me this to bear?”

The platitudes gloss over the depth of the emotions being felt.  Grief is an emotion that needs to be felt and experienced on its own terms and in its own way.  To deny or minimalize  grief through platitudes is in some ways to deny the love that was felt between the two people.

There is a story that I have used from Edward Searl’s In Memoriam.  The story is based from an essay by naturalist Loren Eisley.  He has taken a walk through the woods and decides to nap against a stump.  He is awoken by a cry.  A raven had captured a nestling and had it in its beak.  The parent birds were outraged and flying around the raven.   The raven unperturbed ate the nestling. Other birds joined in the protest, squawking in protest over the fate of the young bird.

Then Eisley writes, “The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented.  I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged.  For in the midst of a protest, they forgot the violence.  There, in the clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush, and finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together s birds are known to sing.  They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.  They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven.  In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were singers of life, and not of death. ”

Protest, cry out against the deaths of our loved ones, and acknowledge the loss.  Acknowledge that life will not be the same.  But death is a part of life.  It is what we will all face, even our own, at some point in the future.  Therefore it is also important to acknowledge that “life is sweet and sunlight beautiful.”

Celebrate the life shared with each other. Honor those memories that have touched and shaped us by telling others these memories so that they too may be enriched if only by the telling of the  story.

To have to grieve the loss of any loved one is difficult.  When that loved one is young and full of life, it seems even harder and certainly out of season.  To share the stories of their life, the funny stories, the poignant stories, the uplifting stories of their life is vital to the grief process.  So listen with full heart to the stories being shared and avoid the temptation to respond with a platitude.  Respond with hugs, with tears, and even with silence and when the time comes respond with songs of life for we too, are singers of life, and not of death.  Blessings,