I posted on our Unitarian Universalist Facebook page this question: Imagine that the world never heard of Jesus or Christianity. And imagine that this December 25th is the birth of a special child destined to ‘save’ the world. What would you expect from this child’s life? The posting had been seen at least 27 times but only one person chose to respond to the question.

While the reasons for not posting by the other 26 people are most likely many and multi-layered, I found the lack of response telling. These past few months have been rather harsh on the American psyche. What we thought true has been proved untrue. What we thought honest has been proved dishonest. What we thought valiant has been proved cowardly and dastardly.

There is much happening today to make one’s heart sink with despair. Will we ever get it right? Will we ever as a nation truly embody our values of democracy, freedom, and justice for all? 2014 will go down in history as a violent year for our nation. We were confronted to see how little we value black lives in this nation. And the truth sent us scurrying to our safety net of stereotypes of the other. We were exposed to the truth of our nation committing unthinkable acts of torture to satisfy the morbid curiosity of two behavioral psychologists who wanted to discover how to impose helplessness and subservience in others. And this truth increased our use of euphemisms. Others commit torture we do enhanced interrogation techniques, EITs because even our euphemisms need euphemisms. Horrendous pills to swallow. How can we continue with all of this misery that we have inflicted on one another?

And then the unexpected happens. Members of this congregation announce the birth of their grandchild. In the midst of despair, a baby is born to bring joy. The mystery continues.

What will the generations say about this birth? Will they say it was on the darkest day of the year that a mighty wind blew a cleansing breath across the land when this child was born in the state of Georgia? Angels appeared in the lightning and thunder calling this child forth into life. And word of the child’s arrival spread across the people faster than the speed of sound and all shouted Hallelujahs! For they have seen the one in swaddling clothes who will bring healing to this land. Future generations will speak of this child’s birth from the perspective of knowing the whole story of their life. Just as people speak of the Christ child’s birth of long ago.

Well, we don’t know what their life will be as they grow in wisdom and stature. And we don’t know what stories will be told about their birth decades from now. But within this newborn lies not just a hope but the very real expectation that lives will be changed because of their being in this world. Lives already have been.

And that is where our hope is restored. We tell the story of Christmas because it is a child who comes forth to teach us about loving one another. The presence of children raises the oxytocin levels in our bodies. Oxytocin is the hormone that bonds mother and child, families, tribes together. It is what makes us a gentler people to each other. The presence of children playing reduces stress. It makes us a more generous people. The celebration of Christmas is not just for the children, adults need to celebrate a child focused holiday as well.

And the basis of hope is there because we do not know how any child’s life will unfold when they are born. The hope is in the potential within the coming days and weeks and years offered to this new child. What experiences will this child have that will nurture them into being loving and kind, brave and honest, ethical in their decisions? The experiences to be had are where all of us come in.

I do not believe that Jesus became the teacher and the transformer of lives by some supernatural force alone. To me stating Jesus became the teacher he was, solely because god willed it so, negates the human potential to evolve into moral and ethical creatures. Such a statement places despair right back into the picture and declares that outside supernatural forces are required to transform humanity. And my stating we each are born with the human potential to be more than we are currently, does not negate the power of faith in a person’s life. The truth is Jesus had parents, and siblings, and aunts and uncles, and cousins like John the Baptist, teachers and mentors that helped shape his life’s path. These lives helped give him the fortitude to stand firm and embody the belief that there was a better way to be than to debase and torture others.

So it is with us. If we are honest with ourselves we each have had someone in our lives; be it for a life time, a season, or a day, whose life example offered us a choice in being who we are today. We are the ones who must hold fast to the values inherent in the premise of loving our neighbors as ourselves and teach these values, embody these values in our daily lives to our children. Perhaps one of our children will grasp the mystery to creating peace and goodwill to all and heal our divisive land filled with racism, greed, and torture. May this season renew our expectancy for what could be and offer us the courage to work towards that vision.

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by Rev. Fred L Hammond 24 December 2014 (c). 


Pew Survey: Give Them Hell…

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 54% of those who attend church regularly said that torture used against suspected terrorists is “often” or sometimes “justified.”  The survey only included white Evangelical, white non-Hispanic Catholics, and white mainline Protestants.  Those individuals who did not attend church regularly or were unaffiliated religiously were more likely to respond that torture was rarely or never justified. 

I find this curious as it contradicts the very basics of Christian teachings of Jesus.   Jesus, himself, was considered a terrorist of his day and received torture by his captors.   But Jesus never condoned torture in his teachings.  “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” and “forgive each other not just 7 times but 70 x 70 times” and “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword”  and other phrases appear over and over again through out the gospels of the Christian scriptures.  These are not the tenets of someone who sees torture as justified. 

What is it about 21st century Christianity that rejects the very premise of Jesus’ teachings?  Could it be that those who call themselves Christians have rejected the Jesus of the scriptures for an apocalyptic Christ?  An image of a  Christ that is full of vengeance and hatred against a world that rejects him? 

The popular Left Behind novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins proclaims an apocalyptic vision of the end times that is filled with terror for the unbelieving.  This is a Christ that prepares a Hell for those who refuse to accept Christ’s message.  It is geared towards using torture as a means to bring about salvation, albeit salvation under duress.  Not the ‘love your enemies’ Christ of the Christian scriptures but the wrathful twisted apocalyptic Christ of the 21st century.  The apocalyptic Christ accepts torture as a means for the victims of torture to then possibly receive Christ’s message of love.   It is a twisted and disturbed interpretation of the gospels.

Someone needs to proclaim the message regarding torture that is in alignment with the message of the world’s sages; Buddha, Jesus, Rumi, Gandhi, and King.  

The National Religious Coalition Against Torture is proclaiming June as Torture Awareness Month.  The UUA’s Mid-South District  has received a grant to enable  MSD congregations to participate spreading the word that Torture is morally wrong and is never ever justified.  If your congregation would like to be part of the proclamation that Jesus meant it when he said “Love your enemies,”  contact the National Religious Coalition Against Torture for ideas and resources.  If your congregation is part of the UUA’s Mid South District contact the district for more information on the availability of  grant monies to assist you in proclaiming your prophetic voice. 

Let us  join with Rev. John Murray who said, “Give them not Hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God. ”


Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church, Ellisville, MS

Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church, Ellisville, MS

Inherent or Bestowed Worth and Dignity?

Transient and Permanent’s blog asks the question whether or not the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations define us a liberal religion?  I find the question interesting on a number of fronts. 

I wrote this as an answer to the question at the blog site: “The principles could be a manner in which we define liberal religion. I know that I refer to the principles when I am confronted with an issue that makes me uncomfortable. For example, today I preached on torture. I needed to wrestle with the principle of inherent worth and dignity when the torturers of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo are displaying themselves as monsters of intense evil rather than as humans with inherent worth let alone dignity. I don’t know how successful I am with this question. But if the principle is true regardless of what I see expressed, then how do I reach that essence that reveals it to be true when everything shouts the opposite? I could not gloss over the principle as some rote phrase of rhetoric. If my faith has any chutzpah, any substance to it, then it has to be able to answer this question. Does/Can a person steeped in providing torture have inherent worth and dignity? Does/Can our principles help us in answering these more critical questions of our 21st century reality? I believe they can but on the way, it means that we are going to fumble and sometimes err in our living out the question, but if we are able to maintain our openness to the question, then we can have a fairly exciting journey along the way.”

But I want to explore this a bit further.  In the last decade or so of my being a Unitarian Universalist I have taken the seven principles to define for me, a prescriptive yardstick that I will measure the questions that arise in my journey. 

I will use what is perhaps our most beloved principle, the Inherent worth and dignity of every person.  In the face of evil emanating from a human, does this person have inherent worth and dignity?  It’s a tough question.  It is one that some of my esteemed colleagues have responded with an emphatic no.  

Rev. Bill Schulz, former UUA president and former executive director of Amnesty International, has come to the position that inherent worth and dignity is something that needs to be assigned.  That it really isn’t inherent at all but rather is bestowed upon others.  [For more in-depth on his opinion read Bill Schulz’s 2006 Berry Street Lecture  What Torture Taught Me]  There is documented proof of the power of bestowing worth and dignity.  It is the power behind successful programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters and other similar mentoring programs.  For a child to have at least one adult person in their life who is in a positive relationship with them is a powerful influence on how that child will approach and experience adulthood. 

The successes that Psychotherapists such as Carl Rogers, Bruno Bettelheim, Victor Frankl have had with their clients also stem from the establishment of authentic relationships in which the psychotherapist has bestowed worth and dignity on the client.   Many years ago, I worked with a developmentally disabled adult who was formerly a client of Bruno Bettelheim’s as a child.  This relationship was so very potent in her life, that to mention his name, she would simply gush with adoration.  Understand this was a person who usually spent most of her day in deadpan expression to any and all activities she engaged in.   So this notion of bestowing worth and dignity is a powerful one and necessary one for all sorts of healing of woundedness in our lives. 

My experiences in working with people with developmental disabilities and with people living with AIDS reinforce this notion that worth and dignity can be bestowed upon another and have remarkable impact on the person’s life and well-being.  I have used in sermons a story about a young man living with HIV/AIDS who was homeless, heavily addicted to heroin and cocaine, considered violent by the police and convicted of many serious crimes.  I worked with this young man and his significant other for several years.  When I first met him, in conversation on the phone, I called him Sir.  A title he was taken aback by.  He told me he was never called Sir ever, he had been called lots of worse things and given the description stated above you can imagine what those things might have been; none of which very affirming.  In my working with him and his common law wife,  he began to soften in his attitudes towards life.  He reconciled with his family.  After he died, his family told me that his relationship with me had reached him in ways that his family never was able to and they were grateful for my assistance of their son.   Bestowing worth and dignity on another can be a very powerful and transformative event in a person’s life. 

But is worth and dignity already inherent?  Unlike my esteemed colleague Rev. Bill Schulz, I still claim that it is inherent. When a child is born, before that child has developed, the child has inherent worth and dignity.  That worth and dignity is the potential of a life well lived.  It is the seed longing to sprout and become a mighty oak.   Life circumstances and experiences might crush that potential. Choices may be made in response to those events that lead the developing child down a path of destructive behavior, much like Sir, described above.  But that seed, remains waiting for any opportunity to break forth.   I call that seed, the spirit of life that pulses through all of creation.  There is such potential.   Even when a person has made choices, even if they are coerced choices, that lead to behaviors that we find detestable, it does not mean that worth and dignity is no longer inherent in the person.  It means that the person is in need of someone who is able, willing, capable, of bestowing worth and dignity upon them in an authentic relationship calling forth the inherent seed of worth and dignity to break through.  In other words, redemption is still possible. 

Finding such a person willing to do this for another is hard.  This is why the iconic Jesus is so palpable for many people today because when a person imagines themselves being in the presence of this Jesus, all forgiving and all merciful, they are bestowed worth and dignity in a world where few people will do this act.  These individuals then find within themselves the ability to turn their lives around, find the strength for recovery from drugs and alcohol, find the will power to hold steady employment.  They then credit this iconic Jesus with the miraculous.  What usually really happens is that after their initial event with the iconic Jesus, someone then takes them under their wing and bestows this worth and dignity upon them.  It is this person who in relationship with them, aids them along.  Christians call this discipleship.  Business men call this mentorship.

Our Inherent worth and dignity comes to fruition through authentic relationships with one another.  This is why coming together in community is so vitally important.  We have an opportunity to be redemptive for one another.  It is a wonderful gift that we can offer others.  We cannot offer it, however, by walking up to someone and say, “Hi, I am here to offer you redemption.”  This is where evangelical Christians quest to save the world misunderstand Jesus’s message.  In bestowing worth and dignity, redemption comes from the day to day relationship with that person.  It comes from doing the mundane things of daily living with that person.  It is in the daily routine of seeking to make choices that will harm none.  It comes from the spiritual quest to be mindful in our thoughts and actions.   Redemption is not a commodity that can be offered.  It is a transformation process that develops within the daily life of community.

For me, our principles offer a touch stone where I can wrestle with the issues of the world.  They are more than just words for an association of congregations.  The principles do define my liberal religious life.  I believe that engaging these principles can be a spiritual practice for many people.  Blessings,  


Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 5:45 pm  Comments Off on Inherent or Bestowed Worth and Dignity?  
Tags: , , , , ,

Banners Across America

I am very proud of Mississippi Unitarian Universalist Congregations.  While we were the last state to give representation to this important issue, 5/6 Unitarian Universalist congregations in the state signed on to participate in National Religious Coalition Against Torture’s (NCRAT) observance of this critical issue by displaying banners.  This is the highest percentage of UU congregations in any one state to participate.  In fact, to date MS is the only state to have five Unitarian Universalist congregations participating.  California comes in second with four Unitarian Universalist congregations participating.  To see the banner at the Hattiesburg Unitarian Universalist Fellowship click here. (I wasn’t able to post the picture directly.  I will add more pictures as they become available.)

 Here is what NCRAT released to the press about this month long event:
WASHINGTON, DC – Today, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) launched its Banners Across America initiative in a telephone press conference describing the nationwide anti-torture banner campaign taking place during the month of June. Hundreds of congregations across the United States have joined this campaign in an effort to mobilize the American faith community in opposition to U.S.-sponsored torture. The “Banners Across America” initiative, organized by NRCAT, is timed to allow local congregations to participate in a nationwide, interfaith public witness during Torture Awareness Month.

To date, 298 congregations, located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, are participating in this effort by displaying anti-torture banners during the month of June. Most of the large, vinyl banners are black-and-white and have anti-torture messages: “Torture is Wrong” and “Torture is a Moral Issue.”

Rev. Richard Killmer, NRCAT’s Executive Director, opened the press conference. “We are thrilled that almost 300 congregations have made a significant and courageous witness in their community by displaying an anti-torture banner on the exterior of their building. In a public way these congregations are stating clearly that torture is always wrong – without any exceptions.  These powerful witnesses may hasten the day when we see the end of U.S.-sponsored torture,” he said.

Linda Gustitus, NRCAT’s President highlighted the following organizational goals:

**Stop the use of torture techniques by the CIA
**Close secret prisons
**Stop rendition for torture
**Hold our government accountable for what we have done. NRCAT has called for a Select Committee of Congress to investigate all aspects of U.S. sponsored torture post 9/11.

“Torture is not a political issue,” emphasized Ms. Gustitus. “Whether you’re for or against torture shouldn’t depend upon whether you’re for or against the President, the war or a particular party. Torture is a moral issue. It is immoral to use torture, and it is immoral to condone it — affirmatively or silently. Torture destroys the very soul of our nation and it must be stopped.”  

Rev. Chris Grapentine, Pastor of Northside Community Church in Ann Arbor, MI, described the successful efforts in that city to engage a diverse group of congregations in this public witness. The 13 participating groups include churches of several denominations, a Jewish group, and a Buddhist temple.

“The banner will show our neighbors that we stand against the inhumane treatment of all people, even our enemies, because Jesus calls us to love our enemies,” said Rev, Grapentine, whose congregation is an American Baptist Church.

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights noted that 27 Jewish congregations across the country are participating in the banner project, displaying a special banner that features the message “Honor the Image of God: Stop Torture Now.”

“The strong response of the Jewish community to the banner project demonstrates that we believe that stopping torture is a Jewish religious imperative,” stated Rabbi Kahn-Troster. “As a community who has historically been a victim of torture and oppression, we are compelled by our values to identify with the plight of the stranger and work to ensure k’vod habriot, the dignity of every human being. Torture denies that every person is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. The synagogues hanging the banner are sending a message to our government that Jews regard torture as an affront to their Jewish values.”

Unitarian Universalists seek to uphold their first two principles that all people are endowed with inherent worth and dignity and the desire to seek justice, equity, and compassion within all human relations.   Torture dehumanizes everyone involved, not just the recipient but also the deliverer of the torture. The deliverer of torture is spiritually wounded by the act to  an equally extreme degree.  It is easy to identify the wounds- physically, emotionally, psychically, and spiritually to the tortured. The trauma caused to the deliverer of the torture is equally extreme because it is hidden in a ruse of being sanctioned by authorities; by being wrapped in patriotism. One cannot in clear conscience claim to be a person of faith and honor their spirituality and allow / observe / participate in torture; to do so is to deny one’s spiritual foundation and humanity. 

I close with this quote:
“A time comes when silence is betrayal. People do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness so close around us. We are called upon to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers and sisters. -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond

We don’t torture [unless it’s in our best interests]

The New York Times today published an article entitled “Letters Give CIA a Legal Rationale.”   It seems that once again, our arrogance as supreme power has given us a method to snub our noses at the Geneva Convention and other international laws that define torture. 

What struck me as veery in-ter-restink as Arte Johnson’s character on the late 1960’s comedy “Laugh In” would say is that John McCain has been arguing on both sides of the street for and against torture.  Glenn Greenwald, former constitutional lawyer and civil rights litigator on his blog in response to the NYTimes announcement today wrote:   ” In September, 2006, McCain made a melodramatic display — with great media fanfare — of insisting that the Military Commissions Act [MCA] require compliance with the Geneva Conventions for all detainees. But while the MCA purports to require that, it also vested sole and unchallenged discretion in the President to determine what does and does not constitute a violation of the Conventions. [bold is Greenwald’s]  After parading around as the righteous opponent of torture, McCain nonetheless endorsed and voted for the MCA, almost single-handedly ensuring its passage. That law pretends to compel compliance with the Conventions, while simultaneously vesting the President with the power to violate them — precisely the power that the President is invoking here to proclaim that we have the right to use these methods.” 

If this isn’t enough in the veery in-ter-restink category, Glenn Greenwald claims in his book Great American Hypocrites which he quotes on his blog, John McCain also is the proponent of another act that allows for torture to occur while pretending that it is opposing torture.  Greenwald writes:

In 2005, McCain led the effort in the Senate to pass the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), which made the use of torture illegal. While claiming that he had succeeded in passing a categorical ban on torture, however, McCain meekly accepted two White House maneuvers that diluted his legislation to the point of meaningless: (1) the torture ban expressly applied only to the U.S. military, but not to the intelligence community, which was exempt, thus ensuring that the C.I.A.—the principal torture agent for the United States—could continue to torture legally; and (2) after signing the DTA into law, which passed the Senate by a vote of 90–9, President Bush issued one of his first controversial “signing statements” in which he, in essence, declared that, as President, he had the power to disregard even the limited prohibitions on torture imposed by McCain’s law.”

So what does this all mean?  It means that our nation does not torture unless it is in our national interests to do so.  Which means we use torture because as Supreme Power- we can;   [thumb in ears, waving fingers with tongue stuck out at the rest of the global community].  And it means that John McCain does not deserve to be President because he is a mastermind of melodrama as a ruse to keep our eyes off of what is up his sleeve.  No one can be that naive to present legislation as one thing and then allow concessions of this magnitude and not know it makes the legislation not worth the paper it is printed on.  He knew and he approved.

McCain aside, the topic of what is and isn’t torture has been in the American conversation before.  And we need to look at this a bit deeper than McCain’s protestations and complicity.  Paul Kramer wrote for the New Yorker an article entitled “The Water Cure: Debating Torture and Counterinsurgency–A Century Ago.”  

A different form of water torture was used then with Filipinos who had thought that we were liberating the Philippines from Spain so they could be an independent and sovereign state.  Americans thought that as well, because the rationale used to take American into war with Spain was for “liberation, rescue, and freedom.” [hmmm… I have heard this rationale used recently to go to war withanother country…]  When the Filipinos realized that US intention was to assimilate Filipinos into American citizens, they fought back.  When they fought back, US soldiers used “the water cure” to gain information from their prisoners.   The notion that America used torture brought outrage to the world stage and to Americans.  [We then ruled the Philippines for an additional 40 years.]  Yet, after a few months of debate  Paul Kramer states:

“The public became inured to what had, only months earlier, been alarming revelations.  [T]he New York World [ in 1902] described the “American Public” sitting down to eat its breakfast with a newspaper full of Philippine atrocities: It sips its coffee and reads of its soldiers administering the “water cure” to rebels; of how water with handfuls of salt thrown in to make it more efficacious, is forced down the throats of the patients until their bodies become distended to the point of bursting; of how our soldiers then jump on the distended bodies to force the water out quickly so that the “treatment” can begin all over again. The American Public takes another sip of its coffee and remarks, ‘How very unpleasant!’ ”

This seems to be the direction that the American public is going with the current ‘is it torture?’ debate.  I opened with the statement that America’s arrogance is snubbing our noses at International Law.   We have grown arrogant in our location as a Supreme power… I do not use the phrase super power because we are now the only super power in the world and in my mind that makes us Supreme.   There is a real danger in playing the Supreme Power role, aka god.  Arrogance is only the beginning of the selling of our American soul as supreme power.  Such arrogance usually follows with a case of supreme humiliation…  Has our world history of the 20th century taught us nothing? 

We have an opportunity for repentance.  A word that simply means to change directions and head a better way.   There is an organization that is seeking to stop torture in the US not just by the US military but also by the CIA called  The National Religious Campaign Against Torture or NRCAT.   In June they are hoping congregations in every state will display a banner stating “Torture is a Moral Issue” or “Torture is Wrong.”   They are seeking to bring this discussion to the national arena to end once and for all this administration’s use of torture and to ensure that torture by any other name is never used again in the name of democracy, freedom, and liberation.  

As a people of faith, we must speak to our legislators that euphemistic terms for torture is still torture.  That allowing the CIA to torture still means we use torture.  We must insist the Executive branch of our government to adhere to International laws regarding international interpretation of defining torture.  The Executive branch of our government needs to be held accountable to the constitution and to the laws of the land.  The Executive branch must be curtailed in its abuse of power of “signing statements” which have been used to state the law is to be enforced unless the President says otherwise.  

We don’t torture unless it’s in our best interests is not an acceptable answer. The ideals of this nation are founded on higher principles than the ole “because I said so” of the Presidents.   It is time we begin living up to our calling as a nation dedicated to liberty, and justice for all.  We must live up to our calling that Lincoln calls us to as written on his memorial … “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”   So may it be…  Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond


Published in: on April 27, 2008 at 11:57 pm  Comments Off on We don’t torture [unless it’s in our best interests]  
Tags: , ,