This Week's Prayer

Creation, power of healing, world community of life:

How can we pray when words are so inadequate? Words cannot capture the magnitude of the cosmos, or the feeling of breath, or of love, or the depth of our gratitude. Nor can words express the confusion, anger, fear, and pain among us.

How can we pray when words are so inadequate? Do not our feelings belong rather to whistles of amazement, sighs of wonder, gasps of astonishment, howls of frustration, and whispers of anguish?

Yet, beginning in wordless noises of emotion, let us nevertheless grope toward articulation – knowing the words will be inadequate, but needing to say them.

Thank you for the prophets, the millions of anonymous kind hearts, the dedicated, courageous and visionary – the ones who came before us and did the slow work of building social systems of cooperation, community, trust – the makers of the space and structure for flourishing that we so gratefully inherit.

Our hearts are thankful – and our hearts are anguished.

We remember:
the peoples of West Africa, threatened by the Ebola virus
the people of Canada in the wake of unexplained violence in the capital
the victims of violence of every kind
the disenfranchised and disappointed
those in pain and in the throes of deep grief
those without food and those who have far too much
those who are alone and forgotten
those who are in prison: the tragedy that so many don’t need to be there, and the different tragedy that some do
those for whom war is an ever-present reality

Why are we not delivered from these scourges, healed of this pain? Where is the intelligence and the heart that would have prevented this? That would be guiding us now to end violence, war, hunger, slavery, homelessness?

We are the power, the love, the justice, and the peace. The power is with us and in us and is us.

May we be united respectfully amidst our differences, transcend our tribalism, and make good our capacity to heal ourselves and this dear world.


Expanding the Circle 4

The First Principle Project

We also know that the meat production industry produces 18% of all greenhouse gases – more than the entire transportation sector. If climate change is a concern (and it surely is), the one single most effective step would be to end meat production. A vegetarian driving a hummer is doing less harm to the planet than a meat-eater driving a Prius.

Tommy (ABC News photo)
Expanding the circle of care and concern – taking the next step in moral progress, the next step in growing our capacity for compassion, is expanding the circle to include all sentient beings – all beings that feel.

It’s been a good week for expanding the circle of inclusion: cities recognizing indigenous peoples day, states granting same-sex marriage rights. In the news this week was also this item: A state appellate court in Albany this week heard arguments on whether Tommy, held in captivity in Gloversville, NY, was entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. Tommy is a 26-year-old chimpanzee. The court was considering whether he could be considered a legal person who could – with the same assistance of a lawyer that we would all have to depend on – sue for his freedom.

Tommy’s lawyer argued: “He’s detained against his will.” No chimpanzee would want to live
“in the conditions in which he’s living. He can understand the past, he can anticipate the future, and he suffers as much in solitary confinement as a human being.”
The lawyer expressed hope that Tommy, if deemed a person, might soon be able to retire, as many New Yorkers do, to Florida. There’s an island preserve there with hundreds of other chimps.

We don’t know how the court will rule, but the very idea of chimpanzees with legal rights represents a sea change. Our attitudes about animals are shifting – the circle of inclusion is expanding, and inclusion strengthens rather than weakens the protections for all of us.

I believe in expanding the circle of inclusion. I want to say all beings matter. Humans matter more – but all beings matter.

A number of Unitarian Universalists have begun to suggest that we can do better than affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We can, in fact, affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being. It’s called the “First Principle Project” – a project to revise our first principle to replace “every person” with “every being.”

As it happens, this congregation, Communty Unitarian Church at White Plains, had a ministerial intern some years ago -- some of you might recall him, Nate Walker -- who, way back in 2005, preached from this pulpit about the inherent worth and dignity of every being. I'm happy to tell you that consideration of that idea is, in fact, slowly growing among more and more UUs -- as well it should -- thanks in part to the leadership of my now-colleague, Rev. Nate Walker. My colleague and spouse, Rev. LoraKim Joyner has been at the forefront of the First Principle project.

At our next General Assembly, if 15 congregations ask for it, there will be a motion on the agenda to establish a two-year study commission to investigate pros and cons of changing our first principle from every person to every being. A year or two after that, the study commission makes its recommendation. If it’s a recommendation for change, it will then have to be passed by a two-thirds vote of the delegates at two consecutive annual General Assemblies.

Right now we say that every person has inherent worth and dignity. This is aspirational, and it doesn’t mean we can’t punish criminals, nor that we have to love strangers as much as our family, nor that we should support enforcing absolute equality of income for everyone. But it does function to open our spirits to a kinder regard – at whatever level each of us deems appropriate.

To say that every being has inherent worth and dignity wouldn’t require us to care as much about Tommy as we do about the humans in our prisons and warehouse nursing homes, nor would it say all beings warranted the same level of concern and respect, nor would it require us to become vegans. It would function to open our spirits to a kinder regard – at whatever level each of us deems appropriate.

Our principles are not like laws. All our principles do is point the direction in which they encourage us to explore how far we individually are ready to go.

Expand the circle of concern and respect. There are human groups who need that circle more securely expanded: prisoners, elderly, African Americans, Hispanics, indigenous peoples, women, LGBT folk, persons with disabilities.

Expand the circle of concern and respect. And there are nonhuman animals to include within the compass of our hearts. Caring about your neighbor never curtails your love for your own family. Caring about the other, the outcast, doesn’t hinder your belongingness in or support of your own community.

Expanding the circle in a new way actually helps strengthen other circles that we have incompletely expanded because all beings really does mean all of us. Inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens. Love is a model for more love.

The sacred hoop of our people is one of many hoops that make one circle. Let us stretch it wide – wide as daylight and starlight.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
Previous: Part 3
Beginning: Part 1


Expanding the Circle 3

The Moral Frontier

So what’s next? Where else shall we consider expanding the circle? What moral progress might we be on the verge of making?

Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832)
Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah has advanced three criteria for identifying a practice that is on the verge of being widely condemned as immoral – practices that we now engage in that our great-grandchildren will look back at us with something like the moral disdain with which we look back at, say, witch prosecutors or slaveholders.

First criteria, the arguments against the practice have been around for a while. People have heard them, and the arguments are simmering in the back of our collective consciousness. For instance, the case against slavery didn't suddenly pop up in an instantaneous transformative insight -- a blinding moment of moral clarity. The moral argument against slavery had been around for centuries. It just took a while for it to really sink in. Arguments for women’s suffrage were around a long time even before the 1848 Seneca Falls convention more-or-less officially kicked off the US suffrage movement – and it took 72 years after that before women’s suffrage was won.

Second criteria for a practice beginning to become ripe for moral condemnation: Even those who defend it don’t offer a moral defense. They don’t say, “this is right.” Rather, they argue from tradition, or human nature, or necessity. Defenders of slavery said, “We have to have slaves to get the cotton crop in.” Or “this is how we’ve always done it.” Or “it’s human nature for some people to give the orders and others to obey them.”

The third criterion is that we see a lot of pushing the issue out of our minds. At some level we do know it’s wrong, but we just put it out of mind. We don’t want to think about it. But we can ignore something only so long before the inevitable return of the repressed. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. It was the abolitionists’ job to make clear and vivid the slave conditions so that it couldn’t be ignored.

Appiah then applies these criteria and discerns four areas most likely to be on the verge of change – change that will leave our descendants judging us immoral for allowing certain practices to continue as long as they did.

Our prison system. There is no good reason for having over 2 million people behind bars, nor for subjecting them to the horrors and abuse typical of our prisons.

Our warehoused elderly. Another 2 million of our citizens, the elderly, are warehoused in nursing homes, out of sight, out of mind, cut off from families, often treated abysmally.

Arguments against these atrocities have been around a long time, no one defends them on moral grounds, and their persistence is enabled only because we push it out of mind. How did we as a people let that happen?

These are two areas where we’ve seen the circle of concern and respect contract. We didn’t used to be so awful about imprisoning so much of our population or warehousing so many elderly, and for those who did go to prison or a nursing home, we didn’t use to treat them so badly. We’ve written them off – out of the circle of concern and respect. The expanding circle will need to take them back in again.

A third issue is environmental destruction. Expand the circle to take in our planet itself.

The fourth issue that Appiah mentions is the cruelty of meat production. It meets the criteria for an issue where our moral perspective is getting ready to shift.

First: have the arguments been around a long time and had a chance to sink in? Yes. It has been 230 years since British philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote:
“The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ Nor, ‘Can they talk?’ But, ‘Can they suffer?’…The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”
Second: do even the defenders not offer a moral defense? In fact, they do not. People who eat factory-farmed bacon, or hamburgers, or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Those who do it, do it from habit. We choose foods for comfort, I believe, and habits are comforting. We put out of our minds the stomach-turning stories about what the animals went through to give their flesh to our comfort habits at the lowest possible price.

And that’s the third criterion: is the issue generally just pushed out of mind? Yes, it is.
“Ten billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption each year. And, unlike the farms of yesteryear where animals roamed freely, today most animals are factory farmed -- crammed into cages where they can barely move and fed a diet tainted with pesticides and antibiotics. These animals spend their entire lives in crates or stalls so small that they can’t even turn around. Farmed animals are not protected from cruelty under the law -- in fact, the majority of state anticruelty laws specifically exempt farm animals from basic humane protection.” (Appiah)
It’s not the killing of them that I think will earn our great-grandchildren’s greatest condemnation. We all have to die. It’s the unconscionable suffering we make them endure while they live.
“At least 10 million [cattle] at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture.”
We will be at an embarrassing loss, for there is no good explanation for why we do that to our fellow creatures. So miserable do we make their lives that killing them is the kindest thing we do.

We rationalize that their suffering doesn’t count. And why doesn’t it? Yes, it’s real pain, yes, they are beings capable of rich emotional lives. Their brain’s mechanisms of wanting – wanting to be free, and free of pain – work pretty much the way your brain or mine would want those things.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
Next: Part 4
Previous: Part 2
Beginning: Part 1


Expanding the Circle 2

Inclusion Strenthens, Rather than Weakens
“For I was seeing in the sacred manner the shape of all things of the spirit, and the shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as daylight and starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.” (Black Elk. Singing the Living Tradition, #614)
Many hoops that make one circle. Our moral progress as a people can be measured by how far we have expanded the circle of our concern and respect. All the many hoops of our care -- hoops of family, tribe, locality, state, nation, and favorite sports team – make one big circle. Is our circle as wide as daylight and starlight?

We have expanded the circle in many ways since the voyages 522 years ago that we are remembering this Columbus Day weekend. Columbus’ expedition expanded the circle of the European mind to include awareness of a new world. Neither Columbus nor any of the powers of Europe were prepared then to expand their circle of concern and respect to the people they encountered in this new world. That has been the work of later generations: ending slavery, extending suffrage to women.

This past week (2014 Oct 6 – 12) was a good week for expanding the circle of concern and respect. The Seattle City Counsel and the Portland, Oregon school board each voted to recognize Indigenous people’s Day on the same day as Columbus Day. Minneapolis made the same move last April, and the state of South Dakota, since 1990, has recognized the second Monday of October as Native American Day. On the day for remembering Columbus, let us also – or maybe, instead – remember the worth and dignity of those whose worth and dignity Columbus could not see.

Let our circle grow larger than it has been. It was a remarkable week for expanding the circle of our concern and respect to same-sex couples asking for the respect of recognizing their marriages. The 4th, 7th, and 10th circuit courts of appeal had earlier ruled in favor of expanding the circle of constitutional protection to same-sex marriage, but had stayed their decisions, pending appeal. When, last Monday, the Supreme Court declined to review those decisions, that was the end of the appeals process, meaning those circuit court decisions became law.

The next day, Tuesday, the 9th circuit court also expanded the circle. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for a unanimous court, said:
“The lessons of our constitutional history are clear: Inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens, our most important institutions. When same-sex couples are married, just as when opposite-sex couples are married, they serve as models of loving commitment to all.”
Inclusion strengthens, rather than weakens. Love is a model for more love.

Of course, the history of inclusion, of expanding the circle, has not been smooth. We ended slavery – except that we didn’t. World-wide estimates of the number of slaves today range from 12 million to 29 million. Some migrant farmworkers in the U.S., for all practical purposes, work as slaves: they’re watched, it’s hard to escape, they’re forced to work.

Women got the vote, but we balked at an ERA, and gender inequality, sexual assault and harassment, and domestic abuse continue to oppress women.

Résumés with white sounding names have a 50 percent greater chance of being called in for an interview than identical resumes with an African-American sounding name. Black renters are told about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown a fifth fewer homes than their white counterparts. Blacks and whites use illegal drugs at similar rates, but blacks are arrested for it at three times the rate of whites. Black offenders of any crime receive, on average, 10% longer sentences than white offenders of the same crime. So the circle of inclusion – of justice and equality – has not been fully expanded to our siblings of color.

While recent progress on marriage equality has been stunning, LGBT folk continue to face difficulties. Transgender and gender non-conforming people face rampant discrimination in every area of life: education, employment, family life, public accommodations, housing, health, police and jails, and ID documents. Forty-seven states have anti-hate crime laws -- only 24 states include sexual orientation in their legislation. More than half of the states do not ban discrimination by employers or public accommodations based on sexual orientation. Seventy-five percent of US students have no state laws to protect them from harassment and discrimination in school based on their sexual orientation. In public high schools, 97 percent of students report regularly hearing homophobic remarks from their peers. Gay men and lesbians get worse health care. The circle of inclusion has not been fully expanded to our LGBT siblings.

But here’s the thing. We don’t have to fully secure those hoops before pushing on to expand the circle in completely new ways. If we had waited until equality of rights and opportunities for former slaves and their descendants had been fully secured before turning our attention to women’s voting rights, we would still be waiting. Indeed wherever there is injustice or cruelty, it makes injustice and cruelty anywhere else a little easier. Anytime we expand the circle anywhere, it makes more glaring our failure to do have secured inclusion in other areas – and brings increased attention to correct the deficiency. Love models more love.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Expanding the Circle"
Next: Part 3
Previous: Part 1