The Moral Argument

A few weeks back Utah state senator Stuart Reid defended his vote against the anti-discrimination act protecting employment and housing rights of people of gender and sexual diversities.  He stated he did so because he believes homosexuality to be immoral.  In summary his argument was as follows and I quote: “When society, through its government, identifies something to be immoral, it is by definition discriminating against that thing, act or behavior by setting it apart as harmful to society. Under Utah law, something identified as moral receives preferential treatment and something identified as immoral receives discriminatory treatment. … In short, if homosexual activity is not immoral, then end discrimination in all its forms against it. If it is immoral, then government should protect against its harm to society and does not provide special rights in support of it[i].”

Now, as a gay man, I have to protest his claim that I am immoral based on the inherent state of who I am.  But I have to say there is coherence in his argument that I have not seen in recent history of conservative politics.  Frankly, he is making a solid point in how we as a society have operated.

He is correct in stating as a society we have legislated / discriminated against that which was deemed *immoral*.  And as he stated in his response, we either did nothing about the immoral behavior or we sanctioned it without enforcement, or we punished it.  We promoted what society thought was moral and discriminated against that which we considered immoral. Slavery and polygamy were accepted as moral behaviors until the majority deemed it immoral. The reverse is also true in this country. Integration and interracial marriages were considered unacceptable and immoral until the majority deemed them moral.

And we as a country are still undecided regarding the morality of marriage between first cousins.  It is allowed in sixteen states, banned in 25 states, and carries a criminal offense in the remaining states.  Is it moral?  Sixteen states say yes and for the record the majority of New England states and southern states are in agreement in this regard.

The reason given for its being immoral is the possibility of deformed children being born to these unions. Some states require sterilization before such marriages can be allowed. However, these 16 states recognize that the threat of birth defects is only marginally higher between first cousins than between second or third cousins or in non-related spouses.

However, Texas, which instituted their ban against marriage between first cousins in 2005, makes it a felony charge with possible prison up to 20 years.  Conviction of having sex with your first cousin, regardless of marital status, results in registration of being a sex offender.   Being designated a sex offender carries with it an emotionally charged reaction from the society at large as this designation is often used to warn against pedophiles.   Marrying your first cousin is not the same as violating a child, yet the stigma is applied making marrying your first cousin as severe a crime as pedophilia.  Is it therefore immoral behavior?  For us living in a country where the rule of law is held as a moral compass, we have conflated law-abiding with morality.

Conflating the two, however, is troublesome.  What is legal does not automatically equate with what is moral.   It was perfectly legal to have whites’ only entrances and toilets in the early half of the 20th century. It was perfectly legal to have children under the age of 15 work in dangerous factories in the 19th century. It was perfectly legal to outlaw Jews in Nazi Germany and send them to their deaths. And it is currently perfectly legal to define marriage as one man one woman. Are any of these legalities moral?

Just because something is legal or illegal does not make that thing also moral or immoral.  The stronger reason why slavery, polygamy, pedophilia, racist segregation, child labor is considered immoral not because it is illegal but because of the imbalance of power and potentiality of emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual abuse in the relationships. Not only for the one who has no power in these relationships but also for the one in the dominant role.  Consensual marriage with your first cousin does not automatically mean an unequal power dynamic.

And the moral argument is also raised when it comes to a woman’s right to choose.  Society has said, albeit with exceptions, that killing another human is immoral.  The exceptions seem to be acts of war, self defense, and the death penalty.  Even these exceptions have been questioned.  So we now have the dilemma of the unwanted pregnancy.  When does life begin?  When is the fetus a human baby and therefore immoral to terminate?

It is an issue that will probably never ever be fully settled because even within the same dominant religious tradition within this country there are two definitions of when life begins.  The first is the belief that life begins at first breath.  This is referenced several times in the Hebrew Scriptures in Genesis and elsewhere.  The second is the belief that life began before birth with the Hebrew Psalms declaring that one’s destiny was written even while within the womb.

The first supports a theology that humans have agency, free will, the ability to choose and that agency/ that choice began with the infant drawing its first breath.  The second develops a theology that humans do not have agency, that their lives are pre-determined, pre-destined by a god who has already decided who is to destined for salvation and who is destined for eternal damnation.

The first supports that the woman also has agency, free will, the ability to choose and create her destiny.  The second supports that the woman does not have agency. She is only a vessel for her offspring, the continuation of the species and any greatness she may achieve is through the fruit of her womb.   There are sacred and poetic texts extolling the womb of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Her value is only in the fact that she gave birth to a long awaited heir to the throne of David, a messiah, a king.

The followers of the theology that people have agency would say that the woman needs to enter pregnancy willingly and knowingly of the consequences of nurturing a child.  Therefore if she becomes pregnant against her will or does not for her own reasons believe she can accept or support the consequences of pregnancy she has several options to choose.  She may opt to support the pregnancy and raise the child or offer the child into adoption, or to terminate the pregnancy.  The fetus inside her is not a human being until it can draw its first breath or other wise be viable outside of the womb.   And should she choose to have an abortion; the theology declares no shame in that decision.

The followers of the second theology would declare the rights of the fetus supersede the rights of the vessel that carries it.  To end the pregnancy they argue would be in violation of one of the Ten Commandments, thou shalt not kill.  Murder we have already stated has an exceptions clause but this apparently is not one of them. Those advocating Personhood rights at conception state that terminating a fertilized ovum would be murder punishable, at the very least, by a long prison sentence and depending on how the laws are written possibly by capital punishment-the death penalty.  Those who protest against abortion tend to add the stigma of shame into the equation for those women who made a choice to do what nature does over 75% of the time[ii] with all conceptions.   I would argue that personhood bills create an unfair power dynamic over the woman, restricting her ability to have agency in her life just as slavery, polygamy, pedophilia, racist segregation, and child labor restrict the ability of agency for those trapped in such situations.

There is one more piece of the puzzle regarding determining what is moral.   Does morality come from within or is it imposed by some outside force, say a deity or a government?

Those who argue for an end for a woman’s right to choose also tend to argue that morality is imposed by an outside force, namely a deity.  The belief again is that humanity has no agency to determine its path.  Therefore, without the presence of an all judging god, humanity will of its own chaos reduce itself to immoral behavior as normative.  The argument therefore states that Humanity / society must therefore be constrained by outside forces be it governmental or be it a deity.

Unitarian Universalists have long argued that within each person is the agency to choose the best path.  Given the options, the pros and the cons, the parameters in which they find themselves a person will be able to make the best decision specific to their circumstances.  Making decisions that are morally sound are not easy tasks.

Is morality universal or is it relational?  Or is it a combination of the two?   I suggest that morality is indeed both universal and relational.  All of our world religions have some form of the Golden Rule, which implies some universality to what may define moral behavior.  I would love for people to treat me with shrimp and caviar so in my desire to be so treated I decide to treat others with shrimp and caviar; yet there are people that if I offer them shrimp and caviar it is as if I am offering them death because they are allergic.  So the universal does not always work in the specific.  It would be better if I who love shrimp and caviar offer an assortment of foods that can be chosen freely by others.   There are no absolutes in the specifics of living day to day.

I would question my friends who had to have their god observe absolutes.  My friends would state that abortion was always the wrong choice, no matter what.  I would ask them a question. Is god a loving, compassionate, god?  Yes, they would answer.  What if in god’s loving compassion towards a young woman who was so wounded from living in a sexually abusive home that to have a child at this time would only ensure that the child would be equally wounded.  Would that god allow an abortion as being more merciful to the young woman than to have her endure a pregnancy and have a child that she in her wounded state does not have the skills to raise?  They were never able to see god being merciful in such a manner.  They were never able to see god being gentle with this young woman and grace her with a chance to heal the scars of spiritual and physical violence before becoming a mother.  In short, they could not accept that even god might show mercy when they could not.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even criminals love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even criminals do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even criminals lend to criminals to receive as much back. (Luke 6 Fred’s paraphrase)

Blessed Be.


The Moral Argument by Rev. Fred L Hammond delivered on  14 April 2013 © to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Justice as a Spiritual Practice

This past week was a difficult one for me. Watching the state house accepting lies as facts in their passing HB 57 shutting down a women’s ability to have dominion over the fate of her body by restricting access to clinics was difficult to bear. It was also difficult to learn the Accountability Act has the negative impact of reinforcing and securing segregation once again of our schools. Alabama Senate also passed the open carry gun law allowing people to carry guns anywhere even at places of employment against the employer’s policies. This on top of the ongoing draconian actions taken against migrant and immigrant families and the Governor’s refusal of accepting an expansion of Medicaid that would potentially save the lives of 550 people annually. An expansion that would be paid in full by the Federal government the first 3 years and then gradually increase Alabama’s share to cover a mere 10% of the cost by 2020. These actions by our state will increase the suffering our citizens experience.

But our state wasn’t the only state considering and passing laws that were void of any sense of justice. Tennessee sought to specifically create their voucher program for private schools to exclude benefiting Moslem parochial schools and to deny welfare benefits to families whose children are doing poorly in school. The voucher program was killed in session but the welfare benefits in exchange for good school grades passed the TN house on Wednesday.

Then there is the town of Nelson, Georgia that passed an ordinance requiring every head of household, unless a felon or mentally ill, to own a gun and ammo . It isn’t the first town in Georgia to have such an ordinance; the town of Kennesaw has had such an ordinance, albeit unenforced, since 1982.

Our country claims to have a moral compass but I am having difficulty finding true north on this compass. It only seems to point at those things that seem expedient, that seem to support pharisaical righteous indignation and not anything resembling the core teachings of our major religions.

At the same time, our denomination seems to be very active in a variety of social justice issues. Last week there was a very strong presence in Washington DC for the Supreme Court hearings on marriage equality. And Unitarian Universalists are preparing to join thousands this coming week for the Immigration march on Washington to push for humane immigration reform. Unitarian Universalists have joined the protests against the building of the Keystone Pipeline—some even pledging to participate in civil disobedience. At the School of Americas Watch protest every fall, Unitarian Universalists join in seeking closure of this international military training camp that has resulted in millions of lives lost and displaced in Latin America.
These are in my mind important issues but how does one keep from being swallowed up in the search for justice for all. How does one keep from becoming bitter and sardonic in the face of so much pain and suffering these injustices cause?

There are three people who I believe can provide some insight into how Justice can be a spiritual practice. These three people are Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But first we need a working definition of what defines a spiritual practice. Venerable Deo Kwun gave a dharma talk to Unitarian Universalists in Grand Rapid Michigan. He was looking for a definition of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice and came to understand spiritual practice for us as being: a repeated action coupled with clear intention to connect with all things in a way that rests in wisdom, love, kindness, compassion, and joy.

Leave it to a non-Unitarian Universalist to come up with a viable working definition of what we do as a spiritual practice. That is another sermon topic.

I am going to use this definition to present some ideas regarding creating Justice as a spiritual practice. I begin with Bishop Desmond Tutu.
For those who may not know Desmond Tutu. He is the first black Anglican archbishop from Capetown, South Africa. He fought for the end of apartheid. He insisted not to become bitter in the face of his adversaries. Bitterness, one might think, would be a justified reaction given the pain and suffering he and his people have endured under apartheid. He chose not to go there.

In order to do the work for freedom and justice he followed this daily routine: He sought to think positive. He would remember all the positive and loving actions he experienced from others and think about those actions. He would seek to recognize present moments of positive and loving actions in his day to day life. These memories and present encounters would motivate and provide direction for his life. He awoke each morning with quiet time, a walk, and prayerful reflection. Now his prayerful reflection because he is Christian included reading and reflecting on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a parallel to what was happening in his life. And because he is Christian, he sought to hear his god’s voice in the midst of all that was happening around him to aid him in guiding his journey.

Reflection is important in doing Justice work. I believe that it is essential regardless of the faith doctrine one hangs their hat. Without it, creating justice becomes another exterior action that has no central conviction behind it. Creating justice should be expanding the realm of freedom and liberation and not forging steel bars of anger, resentment, and bitterness exchanging one prison cell for anther one.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. followed a practice of ‘Satya-graha’ or soul force. Soul force was created by Gandhi from his study of many religions. He took the Hindu concepts of Ahimsa—non-violence and Anaskati- detachment, the Christian concept of loving your neighbors as yourself and redemptive suffering and Jainism’s anekantavada—the many-sidedness of truth to create this notion of Soulforce.  Martin Luther King adapted Soulforce for his non-violent resistance through out the 1950’s and 60’s.

Gandhi and King had their followers in various marches sign pledges of Soulforce action. For both Gandhi and King, Soulforce was not just a tactic in order to win victory but rather a way of life that transforms first the individual engaged in it and secondarily the world around them. For them the goal was not victory but justice and reconciliation. To achieve justice, it was important to live justly. Both men sought this level of commitment in the people who marched with them.

There is a quote in the Movie Gandhi that has him saying something along the lines of “when the British leave India we want to see them off as friends.” And this attitude of reconciliation was at the heart of his message and his commitment.

Many years ago now, I joined Rev. Mel White in a similar venture for justice. He is the founder of Soulforce, an organization that seeks justice and reconciliation within the conservative faiths regarding gender and sexual diversities. We engaged in a 17 week course of reflection on being gay and oppressed in the context of Soulforce with the goal that we would sit down to dinner with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

We too had to sign a pledge similar to the pledge that Gandhi’s and King’s followers were asked to sign. We also were asked to take five vows as life long commitments. Some of them are harder to keep than others.
The vows were the following :

Five Soulforce Vows or Promises
1. Vow to Truth
I promise to seek the truth, to live by the truth, and to confront untruth wherever I find it.
2. Vow to Love
I promise to reject violence (of the fist, tongue, or heart) and to use only the methods of nonviolence in my search for truth or in my confrontation with untruth.
3. Vow to volunteer suffering
I promise to take on myself without complaint any suffering that might result from my confrontation with untruth and to do all in my power to help my adversary avoid all suffering, especially that suffering that may result from our confrontation.
4. Vow to control passions
I promise to control my appetite for food, sex, intoxicants, entertainment, position, power that my best self might be free to join with my Creator in doing justice (making things fair for all).
5. Vow to limit possessions
I promise to limit my possessions to those things I really need to survive and to see myself as a trustee over all my other possessions, using them exclusively to help make things fair for those who suffer.

The first vow was based in the notion that we all fall victim to untruth. Jerry Falwell was not my enemy, even though he said hateful things about my character as a gay man, he was instead a victim to untruth just as I had been a victim of the same untruth. The interactions we had with him were not so much as to reach a victory as it was to find reconciliation and end the sharing of untruth about us.

The second vow to love was to refrain from all forms of violence; of the fist, tongue, or heart. I served as a peacekeeper for the celebration of Lynchburg Virginia’s first gay pride event. We were told that the protesters  including some of Westboro Baptist folks, were to be on the opposite side of the road from where the event was taking place. I and other peace keepers created a human shield between them and the festivities. The police did not keep their word to keep the group on that side of the road and soon they were up against our backs, saying all sorts of vile things in our ears hoping to get a rise out of us. They were leaning into our bodies hoping for us to make a move in which all hell would break loose. We remained steadfast in our restraint. We said no words, we used no fist, and I hope I was keeping a calm heart as well.

The Vow to voluntary suffering means acceptance of any consequences that may arise from my keeping the first two vows. There is a powerful scene in the Movie Gandhi where there is an attempt to shut down the salt mines. Row after row of men lined up to move in and the police and guards hit them hard to keep them from advancing forward. The sheer volume of men coming forward to insist on closing down the mines is overwhelming. Vince Walker, in reporting this scene says: Whatever moral ascendancy the West once held was lost here today. India is free, for she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.
They accepted the consequences of their actions. To work for justice means to be willing accept the consequences in the process, not to complain about the consequences but to accept them and to take the next step forward. The forces of untruth are often virulent in their desire to maintain prominence in a culture.

One only needs to see the virulence of untruth as it swirls around the reality that we have a black president. It has struck with a vengeance and so many people in the US today are being forced to reckon with the idea that their prejudices and racist beliefs about others are false. A reelection to office has not tempered the vile untruths being spouted. But Soulforce would ask us to have compassion on those who are so trapped in the prison cells of untruth because they are victims just as much as those who suffer from their racially charged laws and judgments.

It could be argued that the first three vows are specific to causes of justice and the last two are more life style choices; to control passions and to limit possessions. But consider that if passions are allowed to run free how might that impact on the justice we seek to create? How many people in religious or political settings have been destroyed because they have allowed their passions to control them instead of them their passions? Trying to live up to these two vows as Mel White suggests is a personal decision. They cannot be standardized or quantified. Therefore, how I might live these would be vastly different from how you might choose to live them.

Here in the south we see all too frequently what happens when a group of people attempts to quantify or set up a behavioral standard as to what these might look like in our lives. It results in imposing one’s will or one’s doctrine onto another person or group. That attitude results in suffering and oppression instead of reducing suffering.

So to take on these last two vows is to commit to the hard work of discerning the parameters of passion and the parameters of living simply. It is hard work. And Gandhi and King were no saints in this regard, far from it. They each have stories circulating around them where these two vows were clearly broken. But that fact does not undo the justice they attempted to create in the world. It does keep them human and hopefully away from the iconic images of saints being above reproach.

To live with Justice as a spiritual practice is to allow oneself to be transformed in order to change the world. Rep. John Lewis in an interview stated: “… hate is too heavy a burden to bear. And if you accept nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, then you must be true, you must be consistent. Because if you only accept nonviolence as a technique or as a tactic, it becomes like a faucet. You can turn it on and turn it off. You have to go around deciding who you’re going to hate and who you’re going to love today, who you’re going to like or dislike, and I can truly say that I don’t have any ill feeling or malice or hatred toward anyone that attacked me or had me arrested or jailed during that period. I saw the men and women that engaged in the violence and the mob, whether it was a Bull Connor in Birmingham or a Sheriff Clark in Selma, as victims. We all were victims.”

Justice as a spiritual practice is not like faucets that can be turned on or off, you have to decide that this work is important to who you are in the world. It means extending love to all we meet. Even those who are adamantly oppositional to us, we are called to love with justice. May we begin again in love. Blessed be.

“Justice as a Spiritual Practice” by
Rev. Fred L Hammond  was offered on 7 April 2013 ©  to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa








Published in: on April 23, 2013 at 11:32 am  Comments Off on Justice as a Spiritual Practice  
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