Dr. John Young 10/1/06
UUs on Ethics and Action
My humanist comments today ended with a famous quotation by American ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. I would like to begin this sermon with his most famous comment, the Serenity Prayer, which has been used by millions of people in 12 step programs for addictive behavior throughout the world. “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I want to argue today that this perspective is a healthy platform for trying to determine how to act effectively and a healthy foundation for practical ethical behavior.
None of us can do everything. But most of us waste much of our lives trying to change things that cannot be changed while we fail to accomplish and change much that could be accomplished and can be changed. A significant portion of this waste and failure is A. because we try to make too many of our ethical decisions as isolated individuals, and B. we, then, excuse much of our inertia and timidity because of our lack of courage and ingenuity, our failures of wisdom. I want to suggest that effective ethical activists, people who do get a lot done and conscientiously accomplish a great deal, do so significantly because they:
My three basic suggestions to enable ethical behavior and our effectiveness as activists are:
1. Investing ourselves in dynamic and healthy communities
2. Sticking with human interaction methods that have proved effective
3. Expecting much of ourselves
In America today, you can get by pretty well as an isolated individual. As long as you remain relatively lawful, generally approximate local social norms, and make enough money to live comfortably, you can live mostly alone, as a consumer, spectator, and skeptic of the communities that others invest their lives in. You may live this way and be quite satisfied with your moral behavior, but I want to propose that when you do so you are living with ethical neutrality. I do not consider such people to be ethical. Usually also, such folks are not effective in their activist efforts. They may be insightful, even wise in facets of their intellectual perspectives, but since they lack any genuine involvement with the communities on which they actually depend, other people usually don’t pay much attention to them. They are choosing to be outsiders and so other people do not take them seriously. They are, in fact, just playing with their ideas; they are not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to get serious about their own ideas and principles
Quite a few of the more progressive thinkers among Americans like this may be attracted to Unitarian Universalist congregations. They like the sound of our strong individuality, and our willingness to criticize many of the cultural givens and conservative and orthodox ideologies. However, most of these isolates from community do not remain with us or get integrated into our congregations. They fail to do so because they just cannot bring themselves to belong, to become active members of a community, even a progressive, nonconformist, and open community like ours. They also don’t stick with us because they soon find out that we expect them to try to do something about their ideas. We aren’t trying to make them toe some ideological party line, but we do expect them to make their best efforts to live up to their own principles and figure out ways to change the given world to better fit the world of their dreams. We expect them to become relatively effective and to become, in their chosen realms, activists.
Many if not most Americans take our democracy for granted. Nearly half do not even vote; only a tiny minority do anything more in the whole process of political democracy, whether it is in this congregation, in Jacksonville, or in the nation. Most of us are also only pawns in our economic democracy. We may be stockholders, but we do not affect the corporations we are invested in. In fact, as we are hearing, even many of the elected directors of corporations have little idea of what is being done in their names. A tiny minority are making most of the decisions and largely controlling the destinies of the rest of us. This is not inevitable in our system, but it is the usual reality. Advertisements tell us most of us much of the time what to do with our time and money, and we spend more time paying attention to those advertisements than we do to loving or doing justice with our intimates and friends.
There are a set of democratic and non-violent processes that have been effective in human interaction over and over, regardless of circumstances, culture, or history. They are based on mutual respect among human beings. They depend upon careful listening and frank and patient dialogue. Their basic methods are: negotiation, cooperation, compromise, and collaboration. At their best, they use the best creative energies of the majority of people in the particular group and develop solutions that are often different from anyone’s initial understanding but that better resolve the primary issues and better serve the real needs of all the parties.
Unitarian Universalists’ faith is based on these healthy and effective methods of democratic process. These are primary ways that we believe the future will be sustained and people will be saved. In more conventional religious language, we think these democratic processes of: mutual respect, careful listening, frank and patient dialogue, negotiation, cooperation, compromise, and collaboration are the ways that God’s love is demonstrated in this world, and that people learn how to effectively love their neighbors, and be reminded that every person is their neighbor.
I understand that most Americans take democracy for granted. So, some of them who come into our congregations are shocked because we are so ‘political,’ such activists, and seem to be demanding that people get involved. They are accustomed to the present American cultural norms that separate a liberated spirituality from any applications beyond their personal desires for private transformation, whether those are silent Buddhist or Hindu meditation, New Age products, Pagan rituals, or more traditional religious sacraments and scriptural study. We honor all these spiritual paths. However, you are not really becoming effectively spiritual until you add to your private spiritual practices the public and activist applications of your beliefs and practices to the ethical dilemmas of our world, and the activist needs of the communities in which you live. We expect all our members to become active spiritual democrats, in their congregation and in the other communities on which they depend. Not to adopt some particular party line or ideological platform, but to put into ethical action your own experienced beliefs and concerns, beyond themselves, to help to transform the world in which you live.
This leaves my third primary point. As Niebuhr suggested, we do need the wisdom to accept with serenity what cannot be changed in our lives, but most people most of the time, make it way too easy on them selves. The power of the 12 step programs is helping people to overcome their addictive behaviors, which they have come to realize are self-destructive or their co-dependent behaviors with the self-destructive addictions of their intimates. However, the most prevalent addictive behaviors are not drugs, alcohol, or weight-gain, but our ideologies, the inertia in our behaviors, our chosen imprisonment in our excuses for inaction and our unwillingness to change, when at some level, we know that we must change, we need to act, and act effectively, if we are going to accomplish what we want to accomplish, or have any hope of approximating the lives of our dreams. We need the courage to make the changes that we can make. We cannot do everything, but we accomplish a great deal more than most of us do.
What have I found that seems to work? You need to preserve a strong willingness to fail, because you will have lapses, sometimes even dramatic failures and you need to have, particularly then, the faith and courage, to get up and start over again. You need to savor your occasional progress and your small victories, and remember them through the days of running in place and the periods when you seem to be slipping downhill. It helps a lot to be part of communities that share significant elements of your faith and that expects you to live up to your own best standards. If you are dedicated to democracy and non-violence, you are much less likely to waste much of your lives or so damage the lives of others that you will waste much of your existence afterwards in regret and self-hatred or disdain. Using the proven methods of respect, careful listening, and genuine dialogue, living a life of negotiation, based upon cooperation, compromise, and collaboration will sustain you in the midst of tragedy and chaos and lift you up to excellence in times of triumph and creative achievement.
Why is it that our relatively tiny denomination has nurtured and is nurturing so many of the great reformers, inventors, thinkers, and activists? Our faith is not an effort to save yourself in isolation from the world or your neighbor. Our faith expects you to become and remain an activist with an ethical orientation toward life. We believe that we, and all people, save themselves by becoming and remaining ethical beings, people who actively make a better and more sustainable world. We think that this is the true way to love your neighbor as yourself. We believe that God helps those who not only help themselves but who help other people, and future generations, and the good Earth on which we depend. We believe people should accept with serenity what they truly cannot change, but should at least equally live with real courage by changing what can and needs to be changed, in themselves and in the world. We believe that each human being is a co-creator, in our specific, individual, humble and noble ways, with Creation and Creator itself.