Homily - May 29, 2011
Given by Geoff Young at the UU Church of Lexington
In your order of service,
Written at least 600 years ago
Imagine you are a child of 6 or 7 hearing your family sing this carol, fire in fireplace
The Cherry Tree Carol
That was a very different time, people’s minds and hearts were less coarse and jaded.
Look at how courteous they all were to each other. Jesus politely asks the tree; even Joseph, who comes right out there with the human, negative emotions of jealousy, suspicion, and resentment, doesn’t expel Mary from his heart. He doesn’t divorce her.
In this song the universe is a friendly, amazing, miraculous place.
Look at the last verse: The 7-year-old Jesus is saying that reality is totally, totally different from the way it appears on the surface, from the conventional wisdom. Life is a miracle. Every individual human life is a miracle.
When I use the word “peace,” this song is what I mean: there are no limits to the possibilities for love, respect, sharing, joy.
So, a lot of events have happened in 600 years. Science and technology have advanced, so I would suggest we are different people today.
Certain historical events are shocking or traumatic enough to affect our minds.
Before World War I, no one could have imagined the horror of trench warfare. The slaughter went on for 4 years. There were battles where in a few hours tens of thousands of young men were killed or permanently maimed, only to capture a few yards of mud. Many soldiers went insane.
WW1 was supposedly the war to end all wars, but then along came WW2 when even more people died, mostly innocent civilians. Part of WW2 was the Nazi Holocaust. There were firebombings of whole cities full of people. And the event that ended WW2 was the instantaneous incineration of two cities full of people by atomic bombs.
Then humanity was forced to watch in terror as the USSR and the USA built more and more nuclear weapons. Other countries built them too. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which is probably the closest the world has ever come to a full-scale nuclear war. Then the War in Vietnam. Then 9-11. Then the whole “War On Terror.” Until finally, today, war without end and seemingly without purpose has become an acceptable idea in our society. There is a book called, “War Made Easy” that asks the question, Why in America is it so easy to start wars and so hard to end them?
I’ve read a lot about this history of traumatic events and thought about it a lot, and I think these events, one after another, have had a cumulative impact on our hearts and minds; the mind of every person on earth who knows about them. I’ll give you a couple personal examples. I was born in 1956, 9 years after WW2 ended. I learned about the Holocaust growing up in Massachusetts in a Jewish family. They taught us about it in Hebrew School and my parents and grandparents talked about it with my brother and me. It wasn’t until years later, decades later, that I realized that my atheism probably came directly from finding out about the Holocaust. If God did nothing to prevent the killing of six million innocent Jews in gas chambers, who were supposedly His Chosen People, then either God doesn’t exist, or that God isn’t worth anything. The Holocaust affected my view of the universe. It put the idea or assumption in my head that the universe is a cold place, not a friendly, supportive, welcoming place. Maybe that’s why songs like the Cherry Tree Carol bring tears to my eyes. Such songs are like a still, small voice that gently pokes at this unconscious assumption I’ve had since I was a child that the universe is a cold, cruel place. Maybe, just maybe, I can throw that unconscious assumption away. Maybe the universe really does have a desire for all of us to live and thrive and love each other.
I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki in school. In the early 1960s I remember my parents seriously discussing whether we should build a bomb shelter in the basement of our home. I remember feeling terrified, but in a kind of vague and numb way. I wanted to understand it but couldn’t seem to do it.
For years and years I have wrestled with the question, “If nuclear weapons are so horrible that they could wipe out all human life on earth in a short period of time, why haven’t all of the countries in the world made it their highest, most urgent priority to eliminate all nuclear weapons in a verifiable and permanent way?” Why is the United States government in the process of spending billions of dollars to modernize our arsenal of nuclear weapons instead of working every day to dismantle all of them worldwide? Why don’t millions of people wake up every morning and demand of all the world’s governments: “Human beings made these terrible weapons that threaten our survival; human beings could surely dismantle and outlaw them and keep them from ever being rebuilt; and we demand that you do exactly that.”
Why was there no Peacemaking Subcommittee at this church until I started it about a year ago, and why do only about 3 to 6 people come to our monthly meetings on the last Sunday of every month? Why hasn’t anyone else made a shirt like this that asks the president, any president and all presidents, to end all our wars? Why hasn’t anyone come up to me and asked, “I have 2 or 3 hours a month, Geoff, that I’d like to invest in building peace; could we brainstorm together on how I might use my 2 or 3 hours a month in the most effective and efficient way?” I’m not trying to portray myself as being something great and I’m not trying to guilt-trip anyone; I really want to understand this question. The question of why people do not act, why people seem to be paralyzed over the issue of war and peace, goes far, far beyond the UU Church of Lexington.
Two days ago an idea occurred to me and I looked up on the web the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ll read you some of them:
Frequently having upsetting thoughts or memories about the traumatic event.
Acting or feeling as though the traumatic event were happening again, sometimes called a "flashback."
Having strong feelings of distress and anxiety when reminded of the traumatic event.
Having physical responses such as experiencing a surge in your heart rate or sweating.
Making an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event.
Making an effort to avoid places or people that remind you of the traumatic event.
A loss of interest in important, formerly positive, activities.
Feeling distant from others.
Experiencing difficulties having positive feelings, such as joy or love.
Feeling constantly on guard as if danger is lurking around every corner.
Feeling as though your life may be cut short.
Having difficulty concentrating.
Being jumpy or easily startled.
And, feeling more irritable or having outbursts of anger.
I don’t want to minimize the situation of people who are suffering with diagnosed, clinical cases of PTSD, but I would like to suggest that events such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 9-11 have given all human beings alive today a subtle, undiagnosable form of PTSD, or at least have given all of us some of those symptoms, to a greater or lesser degree. I include myself too; I spend a lot of time, too much time, avoiding doing things that would move the world closer toward peace and the dismantling of all nuclear weapons. But I’m not asking for your every waking moment, ok? If you have children, I’m not asking you to put them up for adoption in order to devote more time. I’m asking for 2 to 3 hours a month, or less if that proves to be a problem. I don’t want to ask anyone to go beyond where you feel you can safely go. It seems we should be gentle, not harsh, with each other as we work toward peace together.
So what to do?
Albert Einstein wrote: “The splitting of the atom has changed everything except the way we think. Thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive.”
If Einstein was right that the problem is mostly in our minds and the minds of our fellow citizens, we need to start by changing our minds. We need to see what beliefs and emotions are in there, especially the Conventional Wisdom-type assumptions. Beliefs about certain historical events, about the nature of our country, about what our country has been doing in the world, beliefs about human nature, beliefs about where hope might come from and where hope will definitely not be found, beliefs about what we need to do first, and beliefs about what we need to stop doing. I’d like us to question as much of the conventional wisdom as we can, discuss it respectfully, calmly, thoughtfully, and rationally among ourselves, like the good UUs we are, to give each other some slack, not to accuse each other of anything, not to expect the perfect answer because there is no perfection in politics, and just enjoy the good feeling that comes from working on the most meaningful and important campaign in the world with other people of good will.
Imagine you are out hiking with your family or friends and you’re 5 miles from home. But between you and home lies Pine Mountain. A little Kentucky geography: long ridge in southeastern Kentucky without any tunnels. Here are some very different attitudes you could take:
1) It’s impossible. No one has ever crossed this mountain before, and we can’t do it either. We need to give up on the idea of ever seeing our home again. We should look for somewhere else to live.
2) There’s no problem at all. If we picture our home in our minds we can be there in no time. Let’s develop a mission statement that expresses our deep desire to get home. Then somebody notices that no one is walking. Well, we just need to wish harder.
3) We really have to start trudging up this huge mountain before it gets dark. This is really tough, there are fallen trees and boulders across the path, we’re all gonna be really sore and exhausted by the time we get home, I just hate hate hate this.
Or 4) Yes, this is a tall mountain and there will be a lot of challenges along the way, but there are also some beautiful views, there are trees and flowers to look at and birds to listen to. You all are the best company a person could hope to have, and our journey together will be just about as much fun as arriving where we need to go.
Let’s start this long, challenging, worthwhile, and exciting journey by looking into our own minds, seeing what Conventional Wisdom-type, untrue assumptions are in there, seeing what fallen trees and boulders are in there blocking our path, and maybe removing some of those obstacles. Maybe I can help you remove some of your obstacles and you can help me remove mine. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll reach the destination and there will be peace on earth.