A Sermon

James Ishmael Ford

11 November 2012


Shiloh: A requiem

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve–
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

Herman Melville

Last month I began a sermon recounting how I happened to watch the live broadcasting of the arrival home of the bodies of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the other Americans killed in that attack on our embassy in Benghazi. It was a solemn affair, with the president, vice-president, secretary of state and other officials all there. I found the whole thing strangely moving. The flag draped coffins, the honor guards, and the witnesses all in dark clothing, looking at their faces it was obvious they were haunted by what had and was happening. But it was my reaction that most confused me. As I said of it in that sermon, I found myself, a liberal, an intellectual, an internationalist, as someone suspicious of and even hostile to nationalism, and with all that a person who feels deeply uncomfortable with patriotic flourishes: me, me: I felt tears well up and run down my face.

Today, at this time, exactly ninety-four years since the end of that war which was supposed to end all wars, just minutes past the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, it feels a worthy time for us to reflect on a number of things. Those tears. Nationalism. Patriotism. War. Killing. Dying. Living. Connections. Distinctions. The great mess that is our lives brought into high focus. And, above all, it seems the right time, the exact right time to reflect on love. Love. I’ll return to that before we’re done.

I’d like to start by calling your attention to our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, our national denominational convention, back in 2009. There was considerable debate at that assembly over a proposal to declare us a peace church, that is to align ourselves formally with those religious communities, particularly within the Christian family that embrace pacifism as a way of life.

It was a deeply flawed statement. And I was among those who turned out to be the strong majority who opposed it. First, it made false claims about our history. Despite some cherry picking of historical precedent, particularly from the Universalist side of our tradition, this draft document tried baldly to rewrite who we have been. Rather than the unvarnished advocates of pacifism the document tried to portray, we, perhaps from the dawn of our tradition have existed within a powerful tension on issues of war and peace.

On the one hand our American liberal religious tradition has indeed produced pacifists such as John Haynes Holmes, who are justly honored in our history. And at the same time like Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who led the Massachusetts 54th, the black regiment honored in the film Glory, and in the same breath I would point to the many names of our members who’ve served in uniform during war, recalled on those plaques on the walls near the front doors here in our Meeting House. Our tradition has produced war heroes who are also honored in our history.

Now, I thought that 2009 debate in Salt Lake City, painful as it was, was valuable. It forced us to consider the two great poles on this subject: pacifism and Just War theory, and where we stand in relation to them. As a by the bye, for me the best reflection came from Paul Rasor, UU minister and a professor at Virginia Wesleyan College who called us to walk beyond Just War and Pacifism into an uncertain and unknowing openness to generosity of heart, while living in this world of consequences and conflict, resisting violence considerably more than the general population might, but acknowledging there are push come to shove moments that are unavoidable.

As someone who wishes to live in the real world I found his analysis compelling. Just War theories, grounded in an assertion of a fundamental right to self-defense, are all too easily subverted by nationalist sensibilities, and even at best, the unsheathing of the sword leaves a tsunami of blood, a tidal wave of unintended consequences, pooling on the ground, and never quite going away. And pacifism too easily becomes an opting out of the responsibility individuals have toward one another, abandoning one’s family and neighbors for an abstract and distant higher good. A good that, to put it brutally, has never existed in reality. This, too, is a fact we should never forget.

Today we’re called to examine a terribly important situation, this world of conflict, the conflicts that rage across the world and those that rage within our hearts, through the twin lenses that have come to inform Unitarian Universalism here at the dawn of the twenty-first century; acknowledging on the one hand the preciousness of the individual, each and every one of us, and on the other how we exist only within relationship, bound up together in that astonishing web of mutuality, of an intimacy with each other that is closer than the blood coursing through our jugular veins.

Out of a heartful consideration of these things, I know I’ve found it inescapable: I, we have obligations. We are bound to each other. We owe each other things. But, there is an ordering to it. That sense of obligation feels a lot like those Russian dolls stacked within each other. I am deeply aware of my deepest obligations to my family, my spouse and my auntie, as well as to other relatives. But, right up there, next, but beating heart close, there is a sense of obligation to my neighbors, both in the literal sense of those with whom I live, and in the somewhat more abstract sense of those who form those communities to which I belong.

And neighbor. Here we get that compelling parable attributed to the good rabbi, who when asked directly, “who is my neighbor,” responded with the story we call the Good Samaritan. I’ve noticed those who repeat that story, often get a bit confused, identifying with the Samaritan. Actually the hearer is supposed to identify with the man who has been set upon, robbed and left badly hurt. The Samaritan in this story is the ultimate other, the person who you are not – reaching out, reaching out to you, to me. Neighbor.

So, within the Russian doll that is our lives, we have many neighbors. Our faith community. Our neighborhood. Our town or city. Our state. Our nation. The whole blessed world. But each of these, I suggest, a new doll, and with each of them, comes a somewhat different sets of obligations, and emotions connected with those obligations.

By the time we get to the nation state, I admit how I find my sense of obligation stretched pretty thin. I am not naturally team oriented. I’ve never fully understood in a visceral sense how people get so caught up with, oh, let’s say, the Red Sox or the Yankees. But, that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the siren call of group. I am a human, and we humans need to belong, its part of what we are. That’s why there are cities and nations.

And, so, of course, mysteriously, perhaps for me, somewhat from left field, questioning, and hesitantly, and often surprising to me as I experience it, I do feel that love for country. Those unexpected tears. Now, I’m most deeply stirred by the story of the men of the 54th fighting for their freedom, and not some abstract freedom, but literal release from bondage, from slavery, and feel deeply proud and very much connected knowing that Colonel Shaw was a co-religionist. From where I usually am in our Meeting House, I cannot avoid seeing those plaques honoring those who served in the Civil War and the First and the Second World Wars. And, I think of those names written on the walls, our walls, the walls of our aspiration and dream.

But, I am by nature hesitant and aware of the grey areas of life, and so as well viscerally aware of the wrongs perpetuated by my country. There have been many, a litany that could go on and on. In our most recent history I think of our invasion of Iraq, at best an “optional war,” and the long and bloody years that have followed.

This litany can all too easily go on and on. But, with every caveat, with every bit of analysis of the wrongs involved, nonetheless, I know what side I am on, who are my people among those stacking dolls. I am a citizen of the world. And, I am an American. And, that American part is closer to the bone than the internationalist part. For reasons beyond morality, beyond good and ill, I am connected. Deeply, deeply bound up within the fate of this nation.

And morality counts.

Fortunately, with all our shortcomings and sins, and they are many, America is also predicated upon a vision of hope and justice, of genuine respect for the individual and for the commonwealth that defines this nation in a way different from many, at one time from all other nations. To recall this good, all I need do is return to a handful of documents, which in their aggregate define us at our best. Starting with as a foundation for all that follows, the Declaration of Independence. Then, the Bill of Rights as well as the 13th and 19th amendments first abolishing slavery and then fully enfranchising women. Also, deepening and expanding the promise of our nation, the Gettysburg Address, the Social Security Act and the Civil Rights Act. And to that, now, the Affordable Health Care Act, a critical and for much of my lifetime I thought unattainable step toward universal health care. For me the mysteries of love made manifest, concrete expressions, enshrined both as aspiration and law.

And here we are, revealed within those documents and the realities of our actions, bruised and battered about, but still a beacon of hope in a world of hurt. And, so here, today, on the ninety-fourth anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars, we are called to consider many things. How do we make our way? What do we do? Today on this day, at this hour, haunted by all that is, what is our way through? Well, here’s a word or two of good news, the way our spirituality and our lives can prove to be one thing.

Journalist Chris Hedges is also theologically trained, with an MDiv from Harvard. I find him a challenging thinker. And at the conclusion of his “War is the Force That Gives us Meaning,” challenges us, I suspect, more than many, as he points in a direction that I think can guide us through. “To survive as a human being,” Chris tells us, “is possible only through love.” Love. I said I’d return to love.

He continues, “(W)hen the drums of war are ascendant, the instinct must be to reach out to those we love, to see in them all the divinity, pity, and pathos of the human. And to recognize love in the lives of others – even those with whom we are in conflict – love that is like our own. It does not mean we will avoid war or death. It does not mean that we as distinct individuals will survive. But love, in its mystery, has its own power. It alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has power both to resist in our nature what we know we must resist, and to affirm what we know we must affirm. And love, as the poets remind us, is eternal.”

So, where do we fit into this picture, you and me? We look into our hearts and see how precious the individual is, we look into our hearts and see how we are all one, and in that dynamic something births. It is love. This is the heart of our good news. Love is the dynamic that jumps between the “I” and the “We.” This is what is preached over and over from this pulpit. Love is what binds us and love is what frees us.

Living in the practical moment, in this moment, in the real world, we find we are citizens of a nation. It has such noble aspirations, and has failed in such abject ways. And, it is where our lives will play out. And, the saving possibility, for nation and self, arises as we see the deeper truths of freedom and responsibility.

And love.

At that point we can recall that famous line about my country right or wrong. And we can look at what really was said by Civil War general and later United States senator Carl Schurz. It says a lot. “I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: “Our country, right or wrong!” They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

This is love in action.

On that plaque which recalls those of our community, of this First Unitarian Church in Providence, who served and some who died in the Civil War, in that war to end slavery once and for all time, there is a concluding benediction. It reads “Thus the teachings of this church bore fruit in the service of this nation.”

I think our contributions to our nation and this world continues.

Ours is a way of love manifest. It isn’t a love that turns a blind eye; rather it is a love that sees clearly.

And so, perhaps, a truer love. A love that runs through all those Russian dolls of our lives, a love that breathes new life and gives hope in a world with too little hope.

A love that acknowledges the peacemakers. And a love that, very much, very much, honors those who served the ideals of this nation, the deep aspiration of our human hearts.

A good and worthy thing.


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