“How to Change the World”

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast
Rev. Rod Debs
March 20, 2011

Also presented at UUCP-June 17, 2012

Story: “The Evil Wizard” by Joshua Searle-White (What If Nobody Forgave? by Colleen McDonald, 1999)
Have you ever known someone who would pick on you or your brother, your sister? What did you do? What would happen then?

This is the story of an Evil Wizard, and of a girl named Esmeralda. Esmeralda is a pretty normal nine-year-old girl except that, for several years, she has been on adventures all around the world, saving all kinds of people and animals from the clutches of the Evil Wizard. And the Evil Wizard is, well, evil. He is totally and completely mean and rotten. Once he stole a whole forest of animals and put them in cages in a cave underneath the ocean; Esmeralda had to save them. Once the Evil Wizard stole a space-ship and went to the planet of the Hoodoo and tried to start a war there—he tried to get all the yellow-striped Hoodoos to kill the green-striped Hoodoos; Esmeralda had to stop him. And once he went to Shangri-La where everybody is happy all the time and does nothing but ride merry-go-rounds and water-ski and eat chocolate; he tried to wreck the fun and make everyone miserable; Esmeralda had to catch him and put him in jail.

Esmeralda spent a lot of her time chasing the Evil Wizard around the world, into space, under the oceans, up the mountains, and she caught him every time. But the Evil Wizard kept coming back. As many times as Esmeralda stopped him from doing terrible things, he kept doing more. As many times as she put him in jail, he kept breaking out. It was very, very frustrating, but Esmeralda kept doing it because, after all, these creatures and people needed to be saved from him.

Then one day, Esmeralda decided to go on a trip of her own. All her other adventures had started when the Evil Wizard had caused trouble somewhere, and Esmeralda had gone to help the poor victims. But this time was different. This time, she was going on an adventure all by herself. It was a Saturday, and she was going to climb to the top of a mountain—a mountain she had wanted to climb for a long time. She got her backpack, her magic hat, her binoculars, some food, and some extra socks, and she headed off along the trail.

As she walked along, she was enjoying the smells and the sun and the leaves on this summer day. But she hadn’t been walking for ten minutes when whom should she see, sitting on the path ahead of her? You guessed it: the Evil Wizard, dressed in his gloomy robe, grinning at her. “What is he doing here?” she said to herself. “I fight and fight and fight this guy, and every time that I think I finally have him put away, he’s back again. I can’t believe it!” And just as she thought this, the Evil wizard darted off the path and into the forest. She began running after him, thinking, “This is it. This time, he is not getting away. I’m going to catch him, and when I do, I’m going to put him where he will never come out again. I don’t ever want to see his ugly face again.”

Esmeralda ran and ran, dodging trees, climbing up hills, jumping over streams, gaining on him, getting closer and closer. Finally, as the Evil Wizard ran around an enormous boulder, Esmeralda climbed on top of it and jumped off, landing right on top of him. He flailed around and tried to escape, but Esmeralda doesn’t lift weights for nothing, and he was caught. And Esmeralda thought to herself, “This is finally it. I’m going to put him where he will never get out.” She looked around, and right there, next to this boulder, was a hole in the ground. She dragged the Evil Wizard over to the hole, and stuffed him in. Then she looked around and spied a small rock underneath the boulder. She kicked that rock out of the way, and the boulder rolled right over the hole, sealing the Evil Wizard in.

“Phew!” she gasped. “He’s trapped now. He’s never coming out. And I am FREE!” Esmeralda turned and walked back to the trail, picked up her backpack, and started off again when she heard a sound behind her. She stopped. Slowly, she turned around… and there was the Evil Wizard, on top of a log, staring at her. Esmeralda threw herself onto the ground, pounded her fists, and kicked her feet. “That’s impossible! You can’t be here,” she cried. “How did you manage to escape again?” Then she thought, “I shouldn’t have just put him in a hole—I should have dropped him off a cliff and let him tumble onto the rocks. I should have taken him to the ocean and let him get eaten by sharks!” And then she looked at the Evil Wizard. He looked at the trail, and she looked at her watch. And she realized that she’d spent most of the day, in fact, she had spent most of her life trying to conquer the Evil Wizard, and nearly forgotten about her climb up the mountain.

Esmeralda thought about that for a minute, and then she realized something else. “Maybe trying to get rid of him isn’t the answer. If I wait to go on my adventure until I get rid of him, I might never get anywhere. Something has to change.” “Okay, Evil Wizard,” she called out to him. “This is it. I’m going on this journey, and I’m not going to let you take over. I won’t let you do anything evil, but I’m not taking off after you just because you decide to show up. This is my adventure. If you want to come along, okay, I’ll have to deal with you, but you’ll also have to deal with me.”

And Esmeralda took a deep breath, shouldered her backpack, and proceeded up the mountain. And the Evil Wizard—well, he looked around, hopped off his log, and went after her; but she continued in the lead.

Message The Persian poet Kahlil Gibran wrote of those who disagree:
“You are my brothers and sisters…, here as my companions along the path of light, and my aid in understanding the meaning of hidden Truth.
“I love you for your Truth, derived from your knowledge. I respect it as a divine thing, for it is the deed of the spirit.
“Your Truth shall meet my Truth and blend together like the fragrance of flowers and become one whole and eternal Truth, perpetuating and living in the eternity of Love and Beauty.”

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) expressed this same liberal spirit toward disagreement, calling for a kind of civility when he wrote: “We must love them both – those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it.”

Unitarian Universalist congregations gather with an explicit covenant of civility. We promise to affirm and promote the “right of conscience,” the right of each person to their integrity. Our covenant goes so far as to declare: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support” (UUA Bylaws).

This civility among people who disagree was first legislated in Transylvania (now Romania) under Unitarian King John Sigismund by the Diet of Torda in 1568. The Edict of Religious Toleration of 1568, declared, in part: “… in the matter of religion… in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore… no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone,… and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for faith is the gift of God…”

Liberal democracy is founded upon these principles of “the right of conscience” and the working out of public policies through representative government designed to serve “the general welfare” rather than the private interests of ideology, power or wealth. Yet, we have seen a break-down in civility with hate-radio and TV opinion-reporters and evangelical religious and secular extremists. New atheists claim that ridicule is required to address “religulous” ideas, and Tea Party activists shout down those with whom they disagree.

Incivility, fear and hate is nothing new. In the 18th century, John Murray’s preaching of Universalism in the new United States was dangerous heresy to those convinced that God would damn most of humankind to hell. Here is an account of how The Father of Universalism in America responded to incivility:

“While the Rev’d John Murray was delivering a discourse upon Universalism, some person threw a large stone at him. It crashed through the window and fell upon the floor. He picked up the stone, which weighed fourteen pounds, held it up to his audience and remarked to them, `Brethren, this is a solid and weighty argument, but it is neither rational nor convincing.’” Murray continued—speaking with the royal `we’:

“We cannot persuade ourselves that scurrilous epithets are any more rational or convincing than weighty stones. In spite of the severe visitations we have for nearly thirty years received, and which we are still receiving from professional brethren with whom we differ, we are yet of the opinion that logical reasoning is the best argument with which to disseminate truth. Ridicule, misrepresentation, abuse, everything of the kind, may be used, but they are not argument. They may, it is true, as they have done, hold the sway for the time being. It is, however, only a question of time for truth to develop itself and enlighten humanity.” (Horace R. Streeter, Voice Building, 1871)

Universalist Hosea Ballou had this to say about evangelism: “The law of heaven is love.” “Ministers who threaten death and destruction employ weapons of weakness. Argument and kindness are alone effectual, flavored by the principles of Divine love.”

I grew up within the Evangelical Christian world of revival preaching, outdoor camp meetings with rough-cut benches and wood shavings under big tents, long altar calls with all six verses of “Just As I Am” (without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me)–all six verses repeated over and over again. The guilt and fear was, in my opinion, abusive—especially to children. After college, I saved my money to study philosophy in graduate school so that I would be able to stand nose to nose with theologians and be more than an angry young man. I wanted to know the Bible better than they did. I wanted to get the monkey of a religion of fear and guilt off my back.

Today, I am able to distinguish between the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount who taught, “Love your enemies,” and the imperial conquering Christ as presented by the first-century Messianic Jews who wrote the New Testament. To ridicule Christianity whole cloth would be to throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Within this last year, I have come to a new understanding even of the theology of the cross, that an imperial God requires the blood sacrifice of his son in order to forgive sins. The more I reflect upon Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and addictive behavior, the guilt and self-loathing in an dog-eat-dog society that drives workaholics and losers alike, the more I understand the function of a theology of divine redemption. No matter who you are or what you have done, the almighty king and judge of all creation declares that your repeated failings, your shameful addiction, your unnamable actions in the frenzy of war—they are all forgiven. You who can never forgive yourselves, by the sacrifice of God’s only son, the price has been paid by his blood, and you have been redeemed, forgiven, an adopted child of the king of all creation.

Not only by following the loving-kindness of Jesus, blood redemption is also a saving faith for many. Their integrity and their wholeness requires Christian redemption no less than our integrity requires Unitarian Universalism of us for our wholeness.

To ridicule the Christianity of Fundamentalists, to ridicule the Islam of the Taliban or of the Saudis, to ridicule the Judaism of the Israeli military occupation and settlements would be as misguided as to ridicule Christianity as represented by Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, or the Third Reich. Nor should we ridicule atheism based on the atrocities of Stalin or Mao Zedong. There are many versions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and of atheism. It takes suspending judgment, it takes listening and respectfully engaging believers, it sometimes takes open-hearted scholarship to discover the value and worth of others’ faith as well as the offensive qualities.

When it comes to literalist interpretations of ancient sacred texts, atheists who accept literalist readings of Scripture and ridicule Christianity, are just as misguided in their literalism as the evangelical who embraces literalist mis-readings of Scripture and cries, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”

John Murray said, “We are yet of the opinion that logical reasoning is the best argument with which to disseminate truth. Ridicule, misrepresentation, abuse, everything of the kind, may be used, but they are not argument.”

Certainly it is easier to ridicule a person or their beliefs than to reason against the dogma of believers. The great danger of incivility is that, like Esmeralda chasing the Evil Wizard, we become like those we make our opponents. We become ideologues with whom you cannot reason.

In his Autobiography, the elder statesman among our nation’s Founders, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Disputing, contradicting and confuting People. . . get Victory sometimes, but they never get Good Will, which would be of more use to them.”

Today we are witnessing people’s revolutions against autocratic governments in North Africa: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain. A reporter for the BBC cited a study of the relative effectiveness of peaceful demonstrations in contrast to those demonstrations that were attacked and turned into violent confrontations. Peaceful demonstrations succeeded. It seems that the cycle of violence breeds violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”

Perhaps it is too easy for me to preach nonviolent resistance—work-stoppage, boycott, sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations from the ivory tower of relative peace and security in this country. However, the cycle of violence is very real. Violence breeds violence in return. What can we do?

Perhaps we might clarify our goal. Do we wish to control, to coerce others? or to share influence? The power politics of authoritarian control involves violence rather than dialogue, indoctrination rather than education, coercion rather than reason. If the goal is to share power with others for the common good, then dialogue, education, and nonviolent negotiation of differences are the means consistent with the ends.

The more we know about oppression in the world, the more we see of tragedies and atrocities and the grinding destitution and disease around the world, the more we want to change the world, not by degrees, but now—no, yesterday! We find ourselves willing to use any silver bullet, to turn the world toward justice. We want more than influence; we want control to stop the suffering.

Paul Tillich wrote: “The first duty of love is to listen.” Among Unitarian Universalists in discussion, do we practice listening around the circle? Sometimes—OK often we find it hard to listen when we think we have something that would enlighten everyone. In spite of our self-perceived brilliant insights, we would be wise to listen 90% of the time when there are ten present. “The first duty of love is to listen.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk from the Vietnam War era, advises:
“Though we all have the fear / and seeds of anger within us,
we must learn not to water those seeds, / and instead, nourish our positive qualities–
those of compassion, understanding, / and loving kindness.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

How do we change the world? I am sorry to disappoint you by saying that you and I do not have the power to control the world and independently put an end to suffering and injustice. Despite wishful thinking, and a deep longing for justice, we know this.

But our influence is far greater than we can imagine. If we practice compassion, listening for understanding, the loving-kindness that all humankind long for, both the just and the unjust, we influence the world. If we learn to live our covenant of mutual trust and support, not only with those with whom we disagree here, but also with those with whom we disagree throughout the world, we can hold one another to a higher standard of compassion and justice by our modeled behavior. Children are watching.

Piet Hein offers us a way to change the world: “If we want peace, the things we must accomplish to deserve it, are, first, to win each other’s trust, and second, to deserve it.” May we invest our energies in building the wholeness of mutual trust and support.

“Go out into the world in peace. Have courage.
Hold on to what is good.
Return to no person evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted. Support the weak.
Help the suffering. Honor all beings.”
–Thessalonians, adapted
Chalice Lighting (Opening Words):  The elder statesman of our nation’s founders, Benjamin Franklin, who was a member of Joseph Priestley’s Unitarian Chapel in London, wrote these words:  “Disputing, contradicting and confuting People… get Victory sometimes, but they never get Good Will, which would be of more use to them.”

Chalice Extinguishing (Closing Words):  “Go forth in fellowship–that quality of relationship among human beings that respects, listens, and invites hidden possibilities, and gently summons each to our better selves.” (anon)