In preparing for the sermon this morning I gathered and studied the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings, his sermons, his lectures, and his journals he faithfully kept from the early to mid-19th Century. My intention was to select five and offer reflections this morning. As I began reflecting on Emerson’s writings I was reminded of current global humanitarian crises.
I decided that we are entitled to more. Our minds, our hearts, and our souls require more than mere reflections this morning. The three we will reflect on this morning are three that that I called me back again and again. And so, let me offer this first passage.
This is an excerpt of a letter Emerson wrote to an unknown admirer in July of 1841 questioning his creed and his ultimate reality: “I am very much moved by the earnestness of your appeal, but very much humbled by it; for attributing to me the attainment and that rest which I well know are not mine, it accuses my shortcomings. I am, like you, a seeker of the perfect and admirable Good. My creed is very simple; that Goodness is the only Reality; that to Goodness alone can we trust: to that we may trust all and always: beautiful and blessed… Beyond this, I have no knowledge, no intelligence of methods; I know no steps, no degrees, no favorite means, no detached rules. Itself [Goodness] is a gate and road and leader and march. Only trust it; be of it; be it -- and it shall be well with us forever.”
Emerson names his creed, his ultimate reality as Goodness. In fact he uses a capital G in goodness which tells us that Emerson is aligning Goodness with the authority of a deity. He is naming his faith, his faith in Goodness. He writes that we can trust Goodness. He advises us to be of Goodness, to be Goodness. Later in this particular writing Emerson asks the question, “shall we not look at every object and empty it of its meanness?” Emerson was a transcendentalist. Transcendentalism centered on the divinity of each individual; but this divinity could be self-discovered only if the person had the independence of mind to do so.
Emerson believed in the inherent good in both people and nature. He refuted evil by insisting it was not an entity in itself but rather simply the absence of good. If good was allowed, evil dissipated. But what is goodness? It is hard to declare what is good in general, since people have different backgrounds and mindsets. Something is good if it has importance or value. People, actions, and ideas can be good. Emerson writes, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” In his view we all have goodness and meanness inside of us. We are self-reliant and make a decision as to which we will share with the world. We have a choice. The choice between Goodness and meanness.
I hold up these particular words from Emerson because they help us understand the choices we as humans, as a global community, as Unitarian Universalists have when we consider the actions we will impose on one another. My task today is to use Emerson’s words from nearly 200 years ago and offer an understanding of true Goodness.
I’d like to do this by considering the Israeli and Palestinian crisis, the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and the humanitarian crisis with immigrant families and children crossing our borders in the context of Emerson’s idea of Goodness. You will not hear my opinions. I will share that I believe all involved on either side of these crisis have the innate ability to choose Goodness. That is, all have ethical responsibility. You may think this is naïve, optimistic, and oversimplifying the issues.
That’s okay. So did the Anti-transcendentalists of the 19th century. Regardless of how others respond to us, our families, our congregations, or our countries we are not granted a free pass from first considering ethical responsibility. Paul Waldman, contributing editor of the American Prospect writes, “As common as the claim is, we can't judge one side's actions by what the other side does. In this as in so many conflicts, both sides — and those who defend each — try to justify their own abdication of human morality with a plea that what the other side has done or is doing is worse.” Waldman is basically saying what Ghandi tells us about our role in conflict, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Waldman paints with a broad brush. Depending on our social, cultural, and economic situation ethical responsibility may look different to each of us. The idea that we might believe we are acting ethically responsible while others would disagree is common. However, if goodness or ethical responsibility is our concern, Ghandi hit the nail on the head. Ethical responsibility must be considered long before a conflict arises or escalates. It is to be the first effort.
We mustn’t relinquish our responsibility to goodness, especially as retaliation.
Let us look at the examples I named. Remember this is not commentary on who is right and who is wrong. We are exploring ethical responsibility and our responses in relationships with people, countries, races, and so on in the context of Emerson’s writings. First, let us think about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
In his July 2014 commentary in the Palm Beach Post Ghassan Rubeiz writes, “Attitude is one root of the problem: expressing sorrow over all the dead, Arab and Jew, without accusing a single perpetrator is considered 'betrayal' by the majority on either side of the conflict.” He later makes three predictions for needed changes in the Middle East and writes: “These predictions may sound like political science fiction. Well, at this miserable time fiction is needed. The severity of the situation requires imagination, hope and drastic change in conflict resolution.” Rubeiz leads us to the complexities of ethical responsibility but also suggests a change in how we confront conflict.
In this conflict both sides believe they are acting ethically responsible. We agree that this belief is about the varying definitions of ethics. Ethical responsibility or goodness could or should have come into play long before the instigation of the present conflict. What if a decision based on goodness were made long ago by both sides on how to coexist. “Attitude is the root problem.” If in the beginning, before any conflict, both Israel and Palestine had the attitude of goodness, as Emerson describes it, I wonder what form the potential for conflict would have taken. All have innate goodness and all have ethical responsibility for their responses.
Let us focus on the humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq. A small Iraqi religious minority, the Yazidis, desperately tried to escape the efforts by militants to carry out a genocide against them. There are tens of thousands who remain on the mountain who are under conditions of extreme heat, lack of food, water, unmet basic needs, and threat of attack. Many have died. The Yazidis are an ancient people. They are neither Christian nor Muslim, and are called heretics. There are many levels of the lack of goodness or ethical responsibility in that crisis. Religious persecution and genocide are among them.
Emerson tells us that goodness is within each of us and it is our choice to claim it. In a world that lives by this truth, people choosing goodness, none are at risk of being killed because they believe God is the creator of the world who has placed the world under the care of seven holy beings. This is what the Yazidis believe and because of this they risk extermination.
All gathered here this morning have varying theologies. None of us are killing to create a dominant or one true theology. We aren’t chasing people from their homes and watching them scurry with a few significant possessions only die, suffer, or watch their children die. We are making a choice of goodness. Our ethical responsibility is to respect the inherent worth and dignity of the other including our beliefs. We exist because our ancestors and martyrs believed in freedom. We’ve inherited goodness.
Thousands of immigrant children are fleeing Central America and are unwelcome in the United States. Reporter Halimad Abdullah writes, “The children, many of them arriving unaccompanied from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, have traveled up to 3,000 miles across deserts and rivers, clinging to the tops of trains. They sometimes face rape and beatings at the hands of "coyotes," smugglers who are paid thousands of dollars to sneak them across the southern border with Mexico.” Earlier this month busloads of babies in their mothers' laps, and toddlers were turned back. They were met by screaming protesters waving and wearing American flags and bearing signs that read such things as "Illegals have no rights. They are criminals.” Just to show a tiny bit of my meanness you should know that “illegals” was spelled incorrectly. Children are piled on top of another and kept in cages while they are detained. Some ask, “Why are these children not already declared refugee status?” or “Where is the goodness or ethical responsibility in the human response to this crisis?” Would you agree that ethical responsibility is being dodged? Kathleen McQuillen the director of a Quaker-based organization, questions how the country could spend trillions on war and not have the pennies on those dollars to spend to take care of children in dire need. She said, "It's a simple thing to begin to say, what's important in this world?" People in this movement are pleased that President Obama is showing his inherent goodness and responding by considering an executive order to protect the children.
Let me remind you that at the end of the Emerson passage I shared he asks the question, “shall we not look at every object and empty it of its meanness?” This is our work. Shall we not tip the barrel of humanity and empty it of desire to control leading to war and death, genocide, persecution, and racism. Empty it of its meanness, choose goodness, return to ethical responsibility as the first choice of response.
Goodness is in each of us. What does it require to uncover our innate goodness? What keeps us from goodness? Emerson tells us how to live with goodness — practice being honorable and compassionate. In Spiritual Laws Emerson writes, “A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher law than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary…. Belief and love — a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.”
The word that is most dear to me in Emerson’s list is compassion. You may know Krista Tippet who hosts the NPR program On Being. While listening to Tippet’s TED talk about linguistic resurrection and reclaiming the word compassion, I remembered how essential compassion is to our goodness and how it informs our ethical responsibility. Tippet says, “When we see compassion it changes for us what we think is possible.”
Many are the stories we hear and read where compassion triumphs, surprises us, or reminds us of the immensity of the human spirit. Compassion eliminates the dark side. Compassion is a choice of goodness and informs our response to the complex ethical decisions we make.
Discovering our goodness or having insight into our meanness is not an overnight process. We are fools if we think that after this sermon we will be perfectly good. We are imperfect. So was Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Again, our work is not to live perfectly. It is to practice, model, and expect goodness to prevail. It is to embrace our ethical responsibilities to one another and the world holding them tight while we decide what our responses will be.
Our pluralistic congregations include diverse beliefs, backgrounds, and personal stories. We do not agree on many issues and we sometimes stand on different sides of conflict given our understanding of the issue. Yet we unite in striving to live out the values and principles that call us to work for compassionate possibilities. With open minds, helping hands, and loving hearts, we work to affirm the worth and dignity of every person and to replace meanness with compassion, fear with acceptance, judgment with love, and insecurity with safety.
May it be so.
Reflections on Emerson, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Aug 17, 2014.