A Stitch in Time

We live in a relational universe.  Everything in the universe is in a fragile tension with everything else.  Pull on one thread and the whole world can unravel, perhaps without much notice at first but that thread pulled creates a larger and larger hole in the fabric.

Our Unitarian Universalist faith teaches us that we are interconnected, interdependent not only with each other of the Human species but with the entire universe. This relational aspect of our existence makes it difficult to know how to right the wrongs of injustice.

Unfortunately, what may have worked as an intervention as a child when defending a friend who is being beaten up by the schoolyard bully begins to not work as well when expanded to a neighborhood, or a community, a state, a nation, many nations.  Bernard Loomer, theologian from the mid-to late 20th century, stated that the potential for doing both good and evil expands the larger the size of the entity.  So the fight between two individuals is easily seen in the simple contrast of right and wrong but when right and wrong are extrapolated to the size of governments, the right and wrong actions become harder to discern.

They become harder to discern because the notion of what is good is harder to decipher.  What may be good for the USA might not be good for the other country, in fact, it could be downright evil.

Such was the case when Iran elected to office as Prime Minister in 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh.  Oil was discovered in Iran by the British and they developed the processing of it but paid very little of the revenue to the Iranian government.  The British also were abusive to the Iranian workers paying them sub wages and treated them horribly.  Mossadegh sought to nationalize the oil industry in Iran but Britain and the USA were opposed to this action.  Mossadegh believed that in order for a nation to be politically independent and democratically free it must first be economically independent and free from foreign exploitation of its resources.[i]

The CIA began a smear campaign against Mossadegh.  They not only stirred anti-Mossadegh sentiment in Iran, they stirred anti-Iran sentiment in the USA as well through the media. All of it fabricated and false in order to cause a coup in Iran and topple this government so that oil revenues will continue to flow into US and British coffers.  The CIA were successful in 1953 to oust Mossadegh, a democratic leader and put into power, the Shah of Iran, a ruthless monarch.

The good for the US was evil for the Iranian people. The 26 years of harsh rule by the Shah fueled the religious right’s anger.  Khomeini’s rise to power, the 1979 revolt against the Shah, the US hostage crisis, Khomeini’s calling the USA the Great Satan, the rise of terrorist groups against the USA; all of these events are consequences to the 1953 USA supported coup. The limited good, if securing oil for 26 years is considered a good, is outweighed by the evil it has spawned.

There are additional seemingly unrelated actions and events that are facets to this gleaming diamond of evil in this region brought on by the belief that such would be good for the USA.  For example, during the Iraqi-Iran war, Iraq used chemical warfare against the Iranian people. The USA supported the use of such weapons and gave Iraq satellite targets for their chemical war campaign.  The USA was still smarting from the year of stalemate with the US Hostages in Iran. The USA was terrified of the thought that Iran could win this war and shut down another source of oil and therefore sought to give Saddam Hussein the advantage and allowed this war to be punishment on Iran.  When it was advantageous to us  we used as one of the many excuses for our invasion of Iraq in 2003 Saddam’s use of chemical warfare during the Iraqi-Iranian War.  We neglected to remind the American people of our complicity in their use. We chose to support his use of chemical warfare and then we punish him for doing so years later.

The USA needs to learn the lesson from these events and soon.  We are about to step into a mess that is far more complex than the world was in 1953.  It is more complex precisely because of this history of USA’s foreign policy of only doing things that will benefit the USA and no one else.

There are no clear sides in the Syrian civil war.  The rebels are not a unified entity but made up of several factions.  Some backed by Turkey, others backed by Saudi Arabia.  Bashar Assad is backed by Iran and Russia.  Some of the rebels are backed by terrorist groups like the Moslem Brotherhood while other terrorist groups like Hezbollah are supporting the Syrian government.

While it is atrocious that Assad would use chemical warfare against his own people, a military strike by the USA will not convince him of the errors of his ways. It will only strengthen his resolve.  It will only serve to recruit more terrorists who believe we are indeed the Great Satan who gives with one hand and destroys with the other. It will only result in more deaths of innocent people living in Syria.

Given our history in this region, any good we might do will be seen with suspicion and rightfully so.  We have never done anything in this region that was not motivated by profit for corporations.  Our addiction for oil has caused us to be erratic in our foreign policy.

As others have also voiced, we must end our dependence on oil, remove that motivation from the equation.  Syria does not have oil, one might argue.  True, but Syria is roiled in internal conflict in a region where such conflict has spilled their borders before and in a region where access to foreign oil remains crucial to the USA economy makes any intervention in Syria as a potential benefit to our oil interests.  We need to be clear about our motives here, the public may be outraged in the use of chemicals, but the USA government is outraged this may prohibit access to our drug of choice, Oil.

Our oil companies must begin converting their products to alternative clean energy sources like solar and wind. The time has come not only in stopping our addiction to fossil fuels but also to stop the destruction of our planet.

We must use whatever diplomatic measures available to us to urge Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and Iran and foreign terrorist groups like Hezbollah from supporting the civil war.  If they can be convinced to remove their support in ground troops, in arms deals, in monetary support, then the oxygen in this war will be removed and it will be snuffed out.  But such an action takes resolve and every current player and potential players need to be on board to take this bold action.

We cannot repeat the mistakes of our past.  The fragile interconnection and interdependence that we have with one another depends on our being willing to seek to strengthen relationships and not destroy them. When one strand of a spider’s web is broken and not fixed, it only takes a gust of wind to tear the web further into dysfunction.  A military strike does not fix the web; it destroys it with untold suffering and generational consequences of untold damage.

If we had not intervened with another people’s right to self-determination, then so much of today’s world would be the better for it.

Alabama’s HB 56 becomes law: Where is Justice?

This morning at 8:30 AM, Alabama Governor Bentley signed the controversial and harshest to date anti-immigration bill into law.  One portion of the law goes into effect immediately and that is the hiring of additional personnel to help enforce the law with Homeland Security.  The remainder of the law goes into effect September 1st.

After the Governor’s intent to sign the bill into law was announced late yesterday afternoon, I have been thinking about justice.  Where is Justice?  How does Justice come about?

It occurred to me that justice does not occur by simply speaking truth to power such as the many testimonies given at public hearings  and the letter writing campaigns. Though this could be a part of the development of justice.  Justice does not occur by marching through the streets  waving banners and yelling catchy slogans.  Though this, too, could be a part of the development of justice. And Justice does not occur by signing multiple petitions on this or that issue, though even this could be a part of the development of justice.

None of these by themselves brings about justice.  At best they are fragments of a larger whole but they themselves are not the underpinnings of justice. These were the activities that I and many others were involved in these past many months as we sought the defeat HB56 and these activities have not resulted in Justice.

The underpinnings of justice is in the relationships that are on equal footing.  Justice is ultimately reducing the suffering of others through personal, communal, institutional, and governmental relationships.

I can bring one level of justice to another person by being present in their pain, validating their injury as real. When I spent time with the immigrants in Laurel, MS after the ICE raid on Howard Industries, I listened to their stories. My presence as local clergy brought a sense of  justice to them.   I symbolized something greater than myself in my willingness to stand with them in their pain as they sought to receive their final paychecks.  This was personal.  It was a very real presence in time of help as the psalmist wrote.

When members of my congregation suffered loss in the Tornado of April 27 and then faced the degrading responses from the bureaucracy, I was able to stand with them.  Hearing their pain, hearing their frustration with a system that was meant to help, and encourage to plug away even when despair sought to engulf them whole.  Justice was in our relationship.  I sought to reduce their suffering. I listened.  Our denomination sought to reduce their suffering.  The denomination’s representatives listened to their stories and in listening, the seeds of justice were sprouting. This was justice unfolding in the personal and in the communal contexts. This was happening to our people.

I remember my home town of Danbury, CT following the tragedy of September 11, 2001.  It was the Jewish community that stood vigil and alert outside of the local mosque to ensure their neighbors safety as they worshiped. It was the Jewish community that escorted the Muslim women to the shops to ensure their safety from those whose anger might be misguided against them.  The Jews of this community knew what it was to be targeted and harassed for simply being identified as a Jew.  And they wanted to ensure that their Muslim neighbors would be safe in the land of liberty and justice for all.

From this relational action, justice was served and the larger community as the result of witnessing this act of solidarity did not respond with hatred as other communities did during the days following September 11th or even in the past recent months.  The community was reminded of its humanity in the prophetic witness of solidarity with a targeted minority.

They sought to ensure justice for people by recognizing that this Muslim community’s experience resonated with a similar experience their community experienced in another context of history.  In the process they developed new friendships and new relationships with people whose culture, whose religion,  whose history is very different from their own.  But they were saying even louder; our community reaches out to protect our people from violence.

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Martin Luther King stated,” you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.  (Taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963,)

To change the hearts of people in power, we need to share our stories.  We need to continue to share our stories over and over again.  We need to establish relationships with our allies in the state house and senate so that these stories can be shared with ease because these are personal and intimate stories.  These are stories of great pain.  These are stories of great injustices.

But the injustice is not one-sided. There is a grave injustice that has occurred to the people who believe this law is just.  The injustice is the false belief that there is not enough to go around.  The injustice is the false belief that they must be ever vigilant in protecting what is theirs. The injustice is the false belief that if they protect the wealthiest that one day they will be welcomed to that elite club of the top 1% in the nation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This is never more true than in the injustice that has been committed against the people who believe HB56 is the right tact to take in protecting America. Because an injustice  has been committed against them that another injustice is created against the immigrants.  And they are blind to see how these injustices have hardened their hearts against one another.

The preamble of our Constitution reads as follows:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Ultimately, the laws that we pass in this country, the behaviors we bestow upon our neighbors, the morals that we use as our guides in living our lives ought to reflect back to this covenant in which we established our Constitution.   And where HB 56 is concerned; how does it establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, and promote the general Welfare within the state of Alabama?

It does not.  Legislation needs to benefit our people, all of our people who claim Alabama as home.  And I ask again, where is Justice?



Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective

Reading:  From Michael Servetus’ Christianismi Restitutio [ The Restoration of Christianity]

“Not only because such gifts, but by reason of that one alone who breathes the divine spirit into us, God is said to give us his spirit, Gen. 2 and 6. Our soul is a kind of lantern of God, Prov. 20. It is like a spark of the spirit of God, a reflection of the wisdom of God, created yet very similar to that spiritual wisdom, incorporated in it, retaining the innate light of divinity, the spark of that prime wisdom and the very spirit of divinity. God himself testifies, in chapter 6 above, that the spirit of divinity was innate in man even after Adam’s sin. The dispensation of our life is given and is sustained through grace from his breathe, as Job says, chap. 10 and 32 and following. God breathed the divine spirit into Adam’s nostrils together with a breath of air, and thence it remains, Isaiah 2 and Psa. 103. God himself maintains the breath of life for us by his spirit, giving breath to the people who are upon the earth and spirit to those treading it, so that we live, move and exist in him, Isaiah 42 and Acts 17. Wind from the four winds and breath from the four breaths gathered by God revive corpses, Ezek. 37. From a breath of air God there introduces the divine spirit into men in whom the life of inspired air was innate. Hence in Hebrew “spirit’ is represented in the same way as “breath.” From the air God introduces the divine spirit, introducing the air with the spirit itself and the spark of the very deity which fills the air.

Michael Servetus

“Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective” by Rev. Fred L Hammond

17 October 2010 © Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

If I were to ask who Michael Servetus was in the history of Unitarian Universalism, I would probably hear something along the following:  He was a theologian in the 16th century who believed that the Trinity, the belief in a Triune God was not based on biblical scripture. His theology would be described as anti-trinitarian rather than Unitarian. He was burned in effigy by the Roman Catholic Church and burned at the stake with most of his writings in Geneva, Switzerland by John Calvin, another protestant theologian and founder of Calvinism. Following his execution, there was uproar over the punishment of the heretic in which Sebastien Castellion wrote, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.[1]”  And this answer, if given in a classroom setting would give the student a passing grade.

But there is more to Michael Servetus, also known by his Spaniard name as Miguel Serveto and by his French name, Michel de Villeneuve in homage to his hometown in Spain, than his treatises On the Errors of the Trinity and Dialogues on the Trinity. And for us as Unitarian Universalists living in the 21st century, it is this other aspect of Servetus that I believe is more relevant to us today than his expounding on the errors of trinitarian belief.

I state this because even though half of our name is Unitarian, we are no longer a faith tradition that requires all to profess the creed in the unity of God—God is one.  Some of us may believe in the triune God, God in three persons and some of us may believe in no god.  That creed is no longer necessary for us to call ourselves Unitarian Universalists because we focus more on our character of person, for it is what we do in our actions that reveal the moral character of the person rather than on what we say with our mouth.  There is a scripture verse in the Christian texts that state that if a person confesses[2] with their mouth then they shall be saved.  Unitarians would say that words by themselves are empty and actions speak louder than words.  So the true test of our faith is found in our compassionate, loving actions; whether the inspiration of that action is based in a Unitarian God or a Triune God, or in many Gods, or in no God is immaterial to us as a whole. It is as has been stated many times in a sound bite; “deeds, not creeds.”

In order to get to the aspects of his story that I believe are relevant for us today, I need to tell something of the basic story that is emphasized by Unitarian Universalist historians. Michael Servetus was born around 1509-1511, the exact date is speculated.  What we do know is that his country of Spain had over the centuries prior to his birth become the home of Muslims, of Jews, and of Christians. The culture of the Moors, as the Muslims were known and of the Jews had greatly influenced Spain. The Catholic Church was currently the dominant religious faith.  So Spain was struggling with religious plurality.  ‘Struggling’ probably isn’t the right word, when push comes to shove; a dogmatic inquisition would occur.  Jews and Muslims were given a choice, baptism into Christianity, banishment from the country, or death.  The great inquisitions of Spain occurred before Servetus’s birth but there was this awareness during his lifetime that many had converted to Christianity in name only and not in belief, in particular to the creed of the trinity.

Servetus was a child prodigy by the time he was 13 he could read several languages including Hebrew.  Hebrew was a forbidden language because it meant that one could read the Hebrew Scriptures in the original tongue “without resorting to approved translations[3].” His learning this forbidden language meant that he was most likely   exposed to a secret culture that also existed in Spain that of the Sephardic Jews who became Christian in name only.

It was the belief in the trinity that Michael Servetus saw as the prime stumbling block for true conversions from Jew or Muslim to Christianity.  He thought if this creed, which he discovered had no scriptural basis, could be removed from Christianity then there would be no hindrance for Jew or Muslim to fully embrace Christianity.

You may have heard in the subtext a certain arrogance that pervades Michael Servetus’s personality.  This arrogance would eventually seal his doom.  Authors of Out of the Flames, Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone assert “Servetus was so smart that it never seemed to occur to him that his arguments would be more effective if he didn’t imply that anyone holding an opposing view was an idiot.” He became convinced that the creed of the trinity, codified by a vote of bishops at the Council of Nicea in the year 325 of the Common Era, was the beginning of the corruption of the Holy Church.

He began to hound the protestant reformers of the day regarding this error in theology.  He thought Erasmus would be sympathetic because he had removed the Comma Johanneum from his Latin translations of the First Epistle of John.  This was a phrase not found in the original Greek text which directly referred to the trinity.  Erasmus was not sympathetic; he was merely correcting the facts of the text.  Erasmus attitude was to uphold the church authority and any debate on the validity of the trinity would hold until Judgment Day.

Servetus lived for a time in the city of Basel, Switzerland with a protestant reformer Oecolampadius, who complained to his protestant reformers that Servetus was “of belligerent and persistent temper.[4]”  It was counseled that by any means necessary to squelch Servetus’s blasphemies less they pollute the church.

Servetus took particular haunt of John Calvin.  He sent Calvin his manuscript On the Errors of the Trinity.  They had exchanged heated letters.  This was the experience Servetus had with all of the protestant reformers, even those who were a tad sympathetic to his views, eventually publicly refuted his thesis.

Servetus thought perhaps he had not explained himself well enough. If only he could restate his thesis in another way perhaps others would see.  He then published his Dialogues on the Trinity. But they fell on deaf ears and Servetus then went into hiding in France, taking on the name Michel de Villeneuve and became a doctor of medicine.  His desire to win over John Calvin did not leave him and he would continue to write to him under his nom de plume.  His constancy in pursuing Calvin resulted in Calvin promising that if Servetus ever stepped foot in Geneva, he would not leave Geneva alive; a promise that was kept with Servetus being burned at the stake on October 27 1553.

But it is as a doctor that Servetus made a discovery that was credited to a physician 75 years after Servetus first made it.  Servetus, ever the theologian, described in concept how the circulatory system exchanged blood between the arteries and the veins. He believed correctly that blood traveled from the heart to the lungs where the breath rejuvenated the blood and then sent the blood back into the body.  However, this discovery was lost for many years because of Servetus’ controversial standing and because most of his texts were burned with him, and because he wrote from a theological perspective and not a medical one.

It is this theological perspective that I believe is relevant for us today as Unitarian Universalists living in the 21st century.  In Servetus’s final book “Christianismi Restitutio” [The Restoration of Christianity], “God breathed the divine spirit into Adam’s nostrils together with a breath of air, and thence it remains, … God himself maintains the breath of life for us by his spirit, giving breath to the people who are upon the earth and spirit to those treading it, so that we live, move and exist in him.[5]

This builds on what he had previously written in his Errors of the Trinity, “I say, therefore, that God himself is our spirit dwelling in us and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.”

What is remarkable about this is it stands in direct opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination of the elect.  Calvin argued that God from the beginning of the world humanity had two destinations, some he destined for eternal glory and others he destined for eternal damnation.  Only those who were predestined for glory would have the spirit of truth within them. Only the elect were saved.  Servetus is saying that all are among the elect, that all have the nature of the divine within them, the very breath of God itself.

Now this may seem to us as a ‘so what’ since many no longer adhere to a creed of salvation yielding to eternal life or a heaven.  That is indeed the literal reading of Servetus words and in that context perhaps not important. However, in a society where there are forces that insist on focusing on our differences to set us apart and in the extreme, dehumanizes us to the point that violence against one another or even self inflicted violence is seen as viable options, these words are very relevant.

There may not be many people today in Calvinist congregations who believe any longer in predestination, but there are plenty of people in these American states who believe to be indeed among the elect of God.  From the cultish Family on C street who indoctrinates politicians that they are elected by God and therefore can engage in all sorts of indiscretions and make heinous comments against gays and lesbians, against Muslims, and against immigrants without concern of consequence to the privileged corporate bosses at big banks and Wall Street who can break the financial laws of this country and get bailed out for destroying the economy.  This election is also seen in the very fiber of the dominant Anglo culture in this country and is the underlying argument of the Tea Party platform—America for Americans is based in this belief of the elect.

Servetus’s words come back to us and suggest that there is the potential for us to reach the heavenly realms.  In arguing against the trinity Servetus suggested “if Jesus was concluded to be less than divine, he might have been simply a man made divine through faith and acts.  And if that were true, might not that same potential be available to all [people]?[6]

There is within all of us that latent divinity, that creative spirit, that visionary specter, that leading-edge drive to move forward towards creating a world of justice for all.  Imagine if the restrictions on our minds were released and we believed that everyone, regardless of class, education, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression was truly capable of being the next Jesus, the next Sojourner Truth, the next Alice Paul, the next Gandhi, the next Dorothy Day, the next Thurgood Marshall, the next Martin Luther King, Jr., the next Cesar Chevaz, the next reformer for justice. Theologian Cornel West, speaking recently in Arizona said, Justice is what Love looks like in public…When you love folks, you hate that they are being treated unjustly[7]

Servetus’s words of latent divinity are a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear the immigrant.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair the immigrant in our neighborhoods with the drug cartels and the violent crimes south of our borders, all the while knowing this is untrue.

This is a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear the Muslim seeking to fulfill their religious vows as a peaceful people.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair Muslim Americans seeking the American dream with those who use their bodies as bombs to wreck havoc and chaos, while knowing this is untrue.

This is a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear gays and lesbians who seek to live their lives as equal citizens under the law.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair gays and lesbians with sexual predators of children, while knowing that this too is untrue.

Timely message when forces of injustice can use their guaranteed freedom of speech to spread malicious hateful lies against immigrants, against Muslims, against sexual minorities and fear no consequences while knowing that people will hear and act to embody their lies in hateful actions against immigrants, Muslims, and sexual minorities.

Who amongst us will allow the latent divinity to awaken within and be the next Harriet Tubman to serve tirelessly for freedom of those enslaved by the yokes of injustice?   Who will once again recognize that we all “retain… the innate light of divinity, the spark of that prime wisdom and the very spirit of divinity[8] and therefore are freed to act on behalf of all to create justice once again in this land?  Or at the very least begin to fulfill the call of our Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic teachings to love our neighbors as ourselves.  May it be so.

Benediction: Do not be deceived that because there are those who are privileged in this country, that they somehow are the elect and those who are not so privileged are not among the elect. The spirit of justice, the spirit of truth oft times chooses the least of these to level the playing field, may we seek not after the privileges of the elect but rather after the spirit of justice and truth.  Go in Peace.

[2] Romans 10:9 “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Likewise another verse with a similar meaning:   Philippians 2:10-12that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

[3] Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, Out of the Flames

[4] Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus 1511-1553

[6] Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, Out of the Flames

Published in: on October 17, 2010 at 2:25 pm  Comments Off on Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective  
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A Unitarian Universalist reading of 4 Qur’an verses

At the beginning of this month, Unitarian Universalist ministers received an email from a colleague in Gainesville, FL regarding what he and other clergy in the region were going to do on September 11th and 12th in response to the threat of a congregation there burning the Qur’an.  They were requesting that passages from the Qur’an be read in our congregations as an act of solidarity with Muslims across the country. Given the other waves of violence and protests against Muslims,  I chose to do so.

I did not give much, if any, of an exegesis on the passages other than a brief introduction as to why I was going to read from the Qur’an.  Afterwards we took a moment of silence to remember, honor, pray for those families who lost loved ones on 9/11 and the losses committed since that date. My reading from the Qur’an these passages caused a bit of uncomfortableness in the congregation.

If I have any concern about the Unitarian Universalist faith in general, it is that we tend to be of the  LOGOS persuasion and not of MYTHOS in how we read and listen to scriptures of any ilk.  We do the very thing we accuse the Fundamentalists of doing and that is reading the words literally. Where Fundamentalists embrace the literal meanings of the words of scriptures, we reject them and do not go any further to a mythos reading.  By reading these sacred texts in a logos method, we fail to grasp the deeper meaning of the words and lose the richness that could deepen our spirituality.

Philip Pullman, author of the trilogy His Dark Materials, refers to Karen Armstrong’s description of mythos and logos reading in her book The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001).   Pullman writes: “Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.”

Once after reading what I thought was a very moving and touching story with profound meaning, a member of the congregation came up afterwards to tell me how the story was illogical because the such and such actions should have been taken instead to fix the problem. Fixes which would have resulted in the story itself from not occurring.  The person completely missed the point of the story because he focused on the logos of the words instead of the mythos of the words. If people state that Unitarian Universalist congregations are not spiritual enough, I bet one of the things they are referring to is our inability or lack of struggle to embrace the mythos of life.

The four verses of the Qur’an I read were the following and I offer an exegesis as to how I read these texts:

1. Love of God: “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).” (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)

Another translation reads:  Say “O people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians): Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but Allah (Alone), and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides Allah. Then, if they turn away, say: “bear witness that we are Muslims.”

This verse to me is about honoring our highest ideals (God) and remaining true to them.  We have common ideals, common values. Let us find what these values are between us.   At the time of this writing, this was an appeal for inclusion and harmony between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

But I want to also look at the phrase “surrendered unto Him.”  We all surrender to something that is greater than ourselves. And so I hear these words and I ask what have I surrendered to—willingly? Begrudgingly?  It might not be some lofty ideal but something rather basic like systemic oppression or my daily grind.  Does that surrender free me or enslave me?  The Muslims suggest that by surrendering to their highest ideal (god) they are freed.  That’s what they proclaim when stating, “Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto him).” It may sound paradoxical that in surrendering ones self one is freed.  By freely surrendering themselves to their highest ideal (god) they are the ones in control rather than a begrudging surrender of defeat.

I am reminded of the scene in the movie Gandhi where the Indians are trying to shut down the salt mines.  They are lined up and walk to the gate only to be struck down, brutally wounded and dragged out of the way.  This happens again and again. These brave men fighting an injustice surrendered to their fate of being struck down.  They did so willingly because the future end result would outweigh any pain and sorrow that might happen at the hands of the British. They were in control not the British.  I ask the question again, what have we surrendered to—willingly or bitterly?

2. Love of Neighbor: “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and who set slaves free.” (Al-Baqarah 2:177)

Another translation reads:  It is not Al-Birr (piety, righteousness, and every act of obedience to Allah) that you turn your faces towards the east and west (in prayers); but AL Birr is (the quality of) the one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the Angels, the Book , the Prophets and gives his wealth, in spite of love for it, to the kinsfolk, to the orphans, and to the poor, and to the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and to set slaves free.

It is not our rituals that make us righteous or people with piety but rather what is in our hearts and the actions that issue from our hearts.  This is about creating justice, equity, and compassion (our second principle) in all human relations. This is about those highest ideals that we want to remain true to and the people who inspire us to emulate them in living in our day to day lives the charge to practice hospitality and generosity to others.

3. A Common Word: “Say: We believe in God that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the  tribes and that which Moses and Jesus received, and that which the prophets  received from their Lord. We make no distinction from any of them, and unto Him  we have surrendered.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:136-137)

Another translation reads:  Say (O Muslims), “We believe in Allah and that which has been sent down to us and that which has been ssent down to Ibrahim (Abraham), Ismail (Ishmael) Ishaq (Isaac), Ya’qub (Jacob) and to Al-Asbut (the offspring of the twelve sons of Ya’qub), and that which has been given to Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus), and that which has been given to the Prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we have submitted (in Islam).”

I read this as sharing a common history by revering the same teachers.  We have as one of our sources the “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  This verse states that Muslims also share this as one of their sources for their faith.  Even though our faiths are very different, theirs is a creedal faith and ours a covenantal faith, we have this source in common.

4. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a
female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). (Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Another translation reads: O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female; and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.

This refers to the creation story but it is slightly different than the Genesis story.  The creation story in Islam states that the universe was created from a single entity which God split apart to create the heavens, moon and sun, and earth.  It fits the big bang theory.  While the story as in the Genesis story states the world was made in six days, the term used for days in this story appears elsewhere in the Qur’an with different meanings in terms of length. So six days in the Qur’an is best understood as six different periods of possible varying length.  The importance of this verse also being read by other faith traditions on September 11 is not the creation aspect but rather the intention that humanity was made to know one another points towards peaceful co-existence.  And since evolution teaches us that we evolved somewhere in the bowels of Africa, we are of one common ancestry.

May we learn to read with both logos and mythos skills and thereby able to see beyond the surface where our differences lie and embrace our mutual humanity.  Blessings,

Harry Potter, You-know-who, and Unitarian Universalists

Here is the story for all ages and the homily I delivered on 29 August 2010 to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL.

“Harry Potter: The Boy That Lived” A story for all ages based on the stories of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling adapted by Rev. Fred L Hammond.  Given to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL on 29 August 2010

This is the story about Harry Potter’s early years when he was just an infant.  He was born in a time of great political distress.  The source of this distress was a powerful wizard, whose name shall not be mentioned. This wizard used his magic for harm rather than for good.  He was out to destroy all who stood in his way.

Now Harry’s parents were among those who fought against the bad things this wizard was doing. They did everything they could think of to stand up against this wizard.  The wizard had learned a very powerful spell that would kill any who stood in his way.  He killed many, many people.

But the time came when the wizard came to their house to kill Harry’s entire family.  The fierce wizard drew his wand and uttered the curse of death, and Harry’s parents were struck dead.  He did the same against Harry as well, but something happened.  Harry Potter did not die.  In fact, Harry Potter lived.

Harry Potter was taken to live with his relatives where it was thought he would be hidden away and safe from the forces of evil.   And in his absence, the story spread … Harry Potter, the boy that lived.   He unknowingly became famous because no one ever lived after being struck by the death spell. Harry Potter did all the things that young boys do; the only mark that something horrible had happened was a jagged scar on his forehead.

But why did he live?  What was the source of his protection?  No one really knew until many years later.  There is a magic that is greater than evil.  And this magic is available to everyone, even to us Muggles, who are not wise in the ways of magic. Do you know what this magic is?

This magic is said to be the source of all of creation. This magic makes the flowers bloom, the birds to sing, and rainbows to appear in the sky after a rainstorm. This magic enables people to speak up for what is fair and just.  This magic empowers people to express joy when justice is served.  What protected Harry Potter all those years ago from the evil wizard is the magic of love.  His parents loved him very much and so while pain and injustices might happen, the love his parents had for him would prevail.  Love would be the ground on which he would walk.  And that foundation is what kept Harry Potter safe and alive after the evil wizard’s spells.   May we also walk on the ground of love all of our days.

“Harry Potter, You-Know-Who, and Unitarian Universalists”  Homily delivered by Rev. Fred L Hammond 29 August 2010 (c)  Unitarian Universalist Congregation Tuscaloosa

At the end of the movie version of The Goblet of Fire, we witness Harry Potter in a battle with You-know-who, the dark lord who is so evil that to even speak his name is feared to bring harm to those present.  In the process of this battle, a classmate, Cedric is killed by You-know-who.

So when we pick up the story in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the ministry of magic has determined that Harry Potter and the Headmaster of Hogwarts, Dumbledore is lying.  The ministry of magic has used its influence to have the newspaper of the wizards, the Daily Prophet, inflame the public by discrediting Harry Potter and Dumbledore.  The paper also is declaring that all is well and that You-know-who has not returned.  The head of the ministry has come to believe that Dumbledore is stating You-know-who is back in order to take the head magistrate’s job. But as Remus Lupin tells Harry, people become “twisted and warped by fear and that makes people do terrible things.”

Fear is rampant and the ministry of magic has determined that the common enemy is Harry Potter and Dumbledore.  In order to regain control over a presumed renegade school, the ministry of magic places as the professor of the dark arts, a Delores Umbredge.  When she is introduced at the school, she states, “Progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged, let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfected and prune practices which ought to be prohibited.”

She then begins to systematically take over the school.  She begins by scrutinizing everyone’s move, punishing Harry Potter for speaking the truth, and announcing that anyone who questions her is therefore suspect of disloyalty. An inquisitor’s team is developed to hunt out those who are disloyal and / or plotting against the ministry of magic.  Teachers are dismissed.  The dark arts become a class on theory and not on practical defense.  She resorts to posting more and more restrictive rules on the school.  She uses fear to maintain order and resorts to torture to keep control.  And the ministry of magic focuses on security as being the number one priority for the wizard nation.

Any of this sounds vaguely familiar?  We have a lot of things being discussed around our nation.  In Arizona and across the country we have hatred and fear being spewed about immigrants.  In California, hateful lies have been spread about same sex couples causing a law for same sex marriage to be placed on hold.  In New York City, in Murfreesboro, TN and in Gainesville, FL we have angry, hateful lies being spread about American Muslims and their alleged intentions.  In Gainesville, a church plans to burn copies of the Qu’ran on September 11th to send a message to Muslims living in America.  Yesterday, Glenn Beck and his tea party met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to allegedly ‘restore honor’ to the civil rights movement on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech.

These are all outrageous events happening.  It makes our blood boil.  This isn’t just about the politics of the extreme right versus the politics of the left.  This is about how are we to live as a people in a nation made up of minorities.  And we are all members of a minority group.  Some are minorities by skin color, others are minorities by sexual orientation or gender identification, and others are minorities by ethnicity or by religious or political affiliation, or by class, or even by life experiences.   This nation of minorities is again debating somewhat angrily, and with violence as in Murfreesboro yesterday, who gets to join the coalition of the new majority and the benefits and privileges thereof.  Do gays?  Do immigrants from Mexico?  Do Muslim Americans?  Do African Americans?  Who else should be excluded as other?  Where is the line to be drawn that says these are the real Americans?

In 1947, the US government created a short film called “Don’t be a Sucker” that dissected how a fascist government could come to power here in America. 

The process was to divide people against the other.  Tell the nation that these individual groups are not really Americans.  These others are here to destroy the American Way of life, to take from real Americans what real Americans fought and died for.  Speak of the threat to national security these groups pose. And offer the hope of a better life to the ‘real Americans’, those who have labored long and hard for freedom by passing laws that restrict these other group’s freedom.  Oh, and one more thing, have the news agencies; print, radio, TV, and internet become part of the same conglomeration so only one side of the news could be told, the side that those in power want told.

The narrator in the film stated, “We have no ‘other’ people in America.  We are all American people.”  He instructed us to stand together, to be who we are, say what we think, and “to guard everyone’s liberty or lose our own.”  There is no we and they, there is only us.

The story line in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is also about fear of the other. The ministry of magic thought if they could keep You-know-who to remain underground then there would be no cause for alarm.  If hatred is kept out of public sight then all must be right with the world.  But hiding hatred or using politically correct words to mitigate hatred to something sounding less threatening does not get rid of hatred; it only causes hatred to seethe underground and then it erupts violently.

I understand the outrage at demagogue Glenn Beck and Fox News who are skillfully weaving hatred across the nation against other people, against our president, against our government.   But outrage is not going to change the outcome; it will only burn undirected energy into ash.

Just as in the story where Harry Potter and Dumbledore are on the vanguard, we need to be intentional and public with our presence of acceptance of the other. There is a need to be visible in standing on the side of love with those most impacted by the hatred. There is a need to say the word that no one else wants to say, just as Harry Potter states matter of factly Lord Voldemort’s name instead of the hushed You-know-who, we need to say the word racism and bigotry because that is what is at play here.  And there should be no apology for doing so.

Harry Potter’s story also reveals some very creative ways to combat those who manipulate fear to control and intimidate others.   The responses that Harry Potter and his friends make are responses that Unitarian Universalists can also use to address the issues of our day.

The Weasely twins in the story plan a very intricate and wonderful act of civil disobedience in response to the new tyranny that Professor Umbredge has imposed on the school.  With their magic, they disrupt the school’s final examinations with fireworks and breathing dragons made of fire.  In their doing this they show the rest of the school that they are not going to be intimidated by the forces of oppression; that they will continue to live free.  The Unitarian Universalist’s ‘Standing on the Side of Love’ campaign with immigrants, with sexual minorities, and with Muslims is a visible way to show that we are not afraid of the forces of racism and bigotry.  And there are other creative ways to show that what is happening is not acceptable in a country that values liberty and justice for all.

Harry Potter and friends search out the words of prophecy because they believe that therein may indeed be information that might guide them in their actions against the dark lord.   Search out and use the prophetic words of women and men for clues on how we might respond to the concerns of our day.  Make their words known again in editorials, letters to the editors, and paid advertisements letting others know that there are higher ideals that all can be striving towards.

Yesterday friends encouraged friends on facebook to hear the words of Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous speech “I Have a Dream.” Because within these words lie a dream of hope that all people of America might one day realize the power of the American creed for themselves.  The words of this prophetic leader are just one who speaks through the ages of how to be a nation, judged not by the color of our skin but by our character as a people.

I know that I have spoken much lately about what is happening in this country from a variety of angles.  As a people of faith who historically heard the call for justice in the civil rights movement, the call is being sent out to stand on the side of love once again.  The cry for justice is not just in Arizona, or in New York City, or even in Murfreesboro, TN. Yes, their cries are being heard from afar.  But the cry for justice is coming here in Alabama as well.  Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon the cry for justice will be sounded here as well.   Will we be among those who respond?  Will we be prepared like Dumbledore’s Army skilled according to our unique abilities the ways for justice?

In the words of Martin Luther King, “I refuse to accept the view that [hu]mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” May it be so.