“Living Your Values” by Mark W. Harris

March 10, 2019 –  First Parish of Watertown

Opening Words from Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

 August: You know, some things don’t matter that much…like the color of a house…But lifting a person’s heart–now that matters. The whole problem with people–“
Lily: They don’t know what matters and what doesn’t…
August:…They know what matters, but they don’t choose it…The hardest thing on earth is to choose what matters.” 

Responsive Reading – from M.K. Gandhi

Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words.

Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior.

Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits.

Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values.

ALL: Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.

Reading – from The Givenness of Thingsby Marilynne Robinson

What is wealth, after all? I will not bother with the sentimentalism we in the humanities are prone to. I will not say that Shakespeare has had a profound effect on the English language, sensitizing us to its beauty and subtlety and its great power, or that he has enriched our awareness that human life is charged with meaning. I will speak in terms of the pragmatists.

For centuries Shakespeare has been a reliable and important contributor to Britain’s gross national product. Much of this contribution comes through his attracting tourism, and also more generally in enhancing the prestige of British intellectual  and cultural products. Then there are national identity and solidarity, which have indubitable value in difficult times. The positive economic effect of a “creative class” has been noted by economists. What is less often noted is that the word value can be paraphrased , or expanded, without any change of meaning, to “that which people value.” The economic importance to the airline industry of Lourdes or Mecca is vast yet purely secondary to the fact that they are sacred places for a great many people. The intrinsic significance of one or the other or both can be rejected by skeptics, and this fact only underscores the economic importance of the possibly arbitrary assigning of significance to them. Americans travel en masse on a particular Thursday in November. I happened to be lecturing in London on that day last year, and was asked from the audience what kind of American would not be home for Thanksgiving. These arbitrary valuations . . . are expected to override practical considerations, though it could certainly be argued that their importance makes them practical considerations in their own right. If there are, . . .  economists who find their intangibles as irksome as the Fabians found metal coffin handles, they are not attending to actual economics but to a privileging of materiality that takes no account of actual human experience and behavior. And it is as true of economics as of poetry that if it has no bearing in human experience it is simply nonsense and cliche. If the pillars of the modern world sometime tremble and fall, the hajj will continue. Does anyone doubt this? If half the Americans who exchange presents on Christmas gave them on Epiphany instead, the national economy would have to reconfigure itself around the change.

 These supposed economic realists have an arbitrarily narrow conception of value. They promote on one hand toil whose primary purpose is to create relative advantage for the plutocracy, and on the other, wealth that exists in excess of any rational use that can be had for it or any satisfaction that can be taken from it. Are three yachts better than two? There are old men now who spend their twilight using imponderable wealth to overwhelm the political system. I am not sure this is more exciting than keeping a stable of racehorses, or buying that fourth yacht. After a certain point there isn’t much of real interest that can be done with yet more money. But imagine how great a boost to the aging ego would come with taking a nation’s fate out of its own unworthy hands and shaping it to one’s particular lights – which may not be, in fact, enlightened, even rational, and whose wisdom that same nation would never see or endorse if it were tested in the in the crude theater of actual politics.

I am proposing that the West is giving up its legal and cultural democracy, leaving it open to, or ceding it to, the oldest and worst temptations of unbridled power. Nowhere in all this is there a trace of respect for people in general – indeed, its energies seem to be fueled by contempt for them. Nowhere is there any hint of a better future foreseen for people in general than an economically coerced subordination to the treadmill of “competitiveness,” mitigated by the knowledge that at least no poor child expects a free lunch. This is repulsive on its face, destructive of every conception of value. And it proceeds by the destruction of safeguards that would protect us from consequences yet more repulsive. At this moment, world civilization is being wrenched into conformity with a new and primitive order that has minimal sympathy at best with thought and art, with humanity itself as an object of reverence. If we are to try to live up to the challenges of our time, as Bonhoeffer did to his, we owe it to him to acknowledge a bitter lesson he learned before us, that these challenges can be understood too late.

Sermon

“I have always tried to live a life of loyalty, friendship, generosity, and compassion – qualities my parents ingrained in my siblings and me since childhood. My father survived the Holocaust thanks to the compassion and selfless acts of others. He was helped by many who put themselves in harm’s way to do what they knew was right.  That is why my first instinct has always been to help those in need.  Mom and Dad…I am sorry that I let you down.”  These are the words of Michael Cohen, former lawyer for President Trump. We all have a hierarchy of values we learned at the feet of our parents, in the classrooms where we learned our ABC’s , and perhaps what was spoken of, prayed for or even modeled in our church community. Michael Cohen learned certain values, and he would probably be the first to admit that he disregarded, ignored, breached, and violated them. He did this in the service of the President, of whom it is sometimes said, he has no moral center. He cares only about personal gain and self-aggrandizement. His values include lying, cheating, consorting with the enemy, obstructing justice and we could go on and on.  What is even more concerning perhaps is how many people don’t care if they have a President who has committed crimes while in the oval office.

Yet this is not about one person who happens to be President. I believe there is a crisis of values in our country. So, it is appropriate that we have a pledge drive theme of “Living Our Values.”  Downstairs in the Parish Hall, we have a large bulletin board with butcher block paper and the title “Living Our Values.”  I suppose if you take the living part seriously you can affirm the list marked on the concentric circles of congregation, community, world, etc.. These include things like voting, paying taxes, serving on local boards, working against gun violence, expressing opinions, using public transit, praying for peace, recycling, responsible investing, play music, teaching kids in RE.  Those are all things many of us do.  But what do they have to do with values? While they are all good things, they are the result of values, and so you have to dig a little deeper into your soul to find the values underneath. Take voting for example.  I always vote, and tell my children and others that it is important to vote.

But I am not sure that voting is a value. Wouldn’t the value be belief in democracy? Similarly some UUs say they go to this church so they can be free to express themselves. For some that is helpful because they grew up in religious environments where freedom was restricted: LGBTQ people, women, or veterans who come to our congregations hope they will feel welcome, or even those like me who were once labeled immoral sinners feel acceptance and affirmation in our UU fold. Yet this is not always the case.  I have a student right now, who is a veteran, and he feels he is not accepted in UU circles. He has heard, how could any peace loving UU serve in the violent world of the military? You don’t belong here.  It is hard because our desire to express our opinion may reflect our desire to control things or get our way, or actually subvert freedom of expression. Once partisans of free speech, liberals are now frequent opponents of it when it comes to engaging with conservative opinions.

Living our values is depicted in one of the most moving books I have ever read, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip Hallie.  It is the story of a village in southern France, and its Protestant pastor, Andre Trocme’. The title is taken from Deuteronomy 19:10 which reads,” I command you this day to [protect the refugee] lest innocent blood be shed in your land… and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.” Drawing upon Deuteronomy and the Beatitudes, Trocme’ and the villagers of Le Chambon came to believe that they could live the value to care for the refugee Jewish children that came through their community by train. They cared for the Jews by taking the children and young families into their homes where they provided false identification papers for them, fed and clothed them, and hid them from the authorities. Then a villager came up with the idea of starting a school for the children, which they did. It was a risky but clever cover for their illegal activities. The citizens of Le Chambon saved thousands of Jewish lives.  

The Holocaust and the current political climate remind us that there is a great deal of evil in the world. People, sadly, will do anything for their own personal gain and pursuit of power. No one is innocent, including each of us. In his testimony Michael Cohen called Trump a racist. While progressive liberals are quick to jump on the bandwagon of this accusation, it is just as easy to neglect our own complicity in a racist system. Liberals, as Robin Diangelo points out in her book White Fragilityhave a hard time distinguishing between their own individual values, and how they are complicit with racist structures. As white people, we all benefit from educational, job, and housing opportunities. As the Paul Manafort sentencing makes clear, white collar criminals get less harsh sentencing than black people. He will serve less time for heinous financial crimes of stealing millions and consorting with outlaw regimes than a young black man from New York City who stole $100 worth of quarters from a laundry room.  Where is equal justice under the law?

Yet many liberals persist in saying I am not prejudice, I treat everyone equally, and some of my best friends are black. Diangelo tells us that racism is not about conscious intolerance of black people.  Your parents did not teach you, or give you the value of having no prejudice, because they were not free of prejudice. Racism is a system embedded in the culture and its institutions, and we are each born into the system. We can’t teach people not to have prejudice.  We would be better off, if we taught each other how to recognize and challenge prejudice, not deny that we have it. 

I just finished writing a chapter of a book about the Berry Street Conference, which will celebrate its 200 anniversary in 2020. It was the first official organization of Unitarians in this country. Among the early essayists for this ministerial conference was John Gorham Palfrey, who was also the first dean of Harvard Divinity School. His essay is about how to recruit more ministers, but his personal story is more compelling, and reflects how we are all complicit in larger systems. Palfrey’s father and two brothers prospered in Louisiana as plantation owners in the nineteenth century. Under Louisiana law, he was going to inherit one third of his father’s estate, including slaves. Although he loved his family, he saw, “the claim of property in human beings as utterly null and void before God.” 

After his father died, he began to divest himself of his legal relationship to the slaves. I suppose he could have just sold his interest in them, wiping his hands clean, but he decided that he wanted to grant them their unconditional emancipation. He petitioned the Louisiana legislature for their freedom, and even began to pay them wages before the official act was carried out. Then he took the step of arranging the “comfortable passage” of sixteen of the former slaves to Massachusetts, where he conducted a ceremony at King’s Chapel to formalize their emancipation, and then arranged jobs for them at fair wages as servants in households.  He was not going to profit from this evil in any way, but moreover he was also going to act to bring about justice. His actions reflected values of fairness, equality and justice. In 1846 he wrote, “The slaveholder’s life is a life of utter and perpetual injustice.  The worst wrongs to which men are subject from their fellow man, he is day by day inflicting.”

Palfrey had a number of options here for living out his values. Legally these slaves were his property in Louisiana, and so he could have said I need to take care of my own economic interests.  In his hierarchy of values, family loyalty might have been more important than the suffering of the slaves. Clearly some people make this choice with regards to their investments.  When socially responsible investing first began to be advocated decades ago, there were those who argued that insuring income for the institutions we support or ourselves was more important than how that income was created, even if the income came from South Africa and its apartheid system or was the product of the atrocities that were carried out by the diamond industry, which currently funds civil wars in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in Africa, all in the name of helping Americans express their romantic love. I am told divestment in South Africa created a major conflict here at First Parish. Investments in the stock market are increasingly problematic for more of us, like clergy, who have their pension funds invested in the market. Here is the source of our income when we are old and gray, but how is that wealth created? As most of you know our trustees at First Parish made the institutional choice of opting for socially responsible investing.  We can usually do the same with our own personal funds.  Some of us may not especially care how the income is produced. Others may have particular values that they want to see upheld in the companies their money is invested in. We may want green companies because of our concern for the environment, or companies that advocate for worker justice, or increased women’s roles. What do you value the most?

In looking back at the Holocaust, Marilynne Robinson would have us raise red flags of awareness about the dangers of the loss of values in the world. The debasement of values by our leaders is a terrible shame because it destroys our belief in people, and creates an environment where beauty is debased and creativity is subordinated. Culture becomes a wasteland. But we also lose an opportunity to use resources (human and natural) responsibly and equitably because we are only concerned with accumulating enormous amounts of wealth without regard for justice or equality. It takes courage for companies to express moral values like fair prices and wages and environmentally friendly practices, and few of them take that step because of greed – outrageous accumulations of wealth and power.Robinson says the West is ceding its legal and cultural democracy to the oldest and worst temptation – unbridled power. Where is respect for people she wonders?  In her chapter on “Value,” Robinson says Bonhoeffer gave us a beautiful model of Christian behavior over, against, and within a terrible moment in history. Events in Germany showed us the deviancy of which society is capable, and we are not immune. We should not minimize the gravity of our current situation with respect to our democracy. Robinson says the lessons of history can be learned too late.

In 1954 in a sermon in Detroit, Martin Luther King, Jr declared, “If we are to go forward, if we are to make this a better world in which to live, we’ve got to go back. We’ve got to rediscover these precious values that we’ve left behind.” King urged the people to rediscover the moral laws of the universe, to be “honest and loving and just with all humanity.” He warned them not to substitute possessions for God, proclaiming: “I’m not going to put my ultimate faith in the little gods that can be destroyed in an atomic age, but the God who has been our help in the ages past . .”  King urged the people to live out their deepest values. Making our values pervasive in our lives means our actions are grounded in a deeper belief.   Perhaps we believe that humans are intended to take care of each other and the earth. Walking is something I love to do. What are the values behind it? Walking is pleasurable, but it is also good for my health. Walking is good for the earth, because I am not driving or polluting. Walking is also good because I am learning about my neighborhood and my community, or the communities and people I visit.  I also walk with my wife or friends, and so I deepen my relationships. What other ways do we all live our values? The list is endless from the foods we eat, to our involvement in our community.

Yet today I have painted a bleak picture of the loss of values in our time, which makes it all the more relevant to urge you to support a religious institution whose mission is to create, build and restore humane and decent values to the world. These days we hear a lot of talk about teaching kids values. More than six in ten American adults identified “as a very serious problem” young people’s failure to learn fundamental moral values, including honesty, respect, and responsibility for others. Where are children going to learn those values but in a Unitarian Universalist church? Where can adults model those values, but in caring for others and acting for justice in the world right here?    

There is value in everything we proclaim on the bulletin board of life. Yes, to is good to vote, to have the freedom to have your voice heard for the candidate of your choice. And we at First Parish are one of the oldest institutions in the country to advocate for the free and democratic method of one person, one voice.  So, it is acting out a value to go and vote, but it is a deeper value to fight to make sure that all people are given the vote, and so there is no cheating in North Carolina or Georgia or Florida. That black people or others are not forced to produce identification or other inhibitors to free access to the ballot box. That those convicted of crimes once they have served their time should vote, too. Did you know that the first secret ballots in America were cast in Salem at First Church when they elected their pastor and teacher to office? Voting is assuring that everyone has access to having a voice. But it is not voting that is the value, it is equality of access, and justice of opportunity, and our obligation to each other to assure that we all have that right to be heard. While we extol the Puritans for inaugurating this right to vote, we should also recall that this right was confined to men who owned land. How quickly would you speak up to change that or any other injustice?

In recent decades Thomas Jefferson’s star has fallen due to his slaveholding past. Yet he is often given credit for the first use of the phrase, “knowledge is power.”  This was written in correspondence pertaining to the establishment of the University of Virginia. One of the guiding values of my life is the pursuit of knowledge. When we learn the truth about something we have acquired the ability to change the world, or at least our perception of it. Not long ago we changed our bathroom signage and access here at First Parish. We had the traditional men’s and women’s rooms.  Separate bathrooms for men and women originated with the “separate spheres” ideology of the early nineteenth century, conforming to  the idea that, in order to protect the virtue of women, they needed to have separate bathrooms. So the concept arose from sexist assumptions, but now the change has occurred to give access to all including transgender and gender nonconforming persons. Yet most of us, including me, were ignorant of how unwelcoming we were being, and we hope this is a first step to more openness and inclusiveness at First Parish.  I sometimes feel ignorant about gender issues as my students continue to remind me to ask what pronoun we use to identify ourselves in every personal introduction. I may feel a little dated, but I also know that I can learn and transform my mind and heart here to be more open to an ever-changing world.

I am not suggesting that the liberal church is the fountainhead of all knowledge, but merely that it teaches us we must be open to new truths, and that we live our values by embodying that openness every day of our lives in community. Everyone’s right to be heard and to have their rights affirmed is essential. How do we stand up when powerful voices, or political authorities dominate? It takes courage to fight for our values. With bathrooms, it may mean openness to change, but moreover it may mean acting for justice and giving people an equal place in the very structures of our institutions. We may help them stand up to authority or question the way things are. Last Saturday I conducted a funeral service here for a UU from Charleston, SC. In the eulogy her daughter told a story of how her mother once reacted to a report card the daughter received in fourth grade which suggested that the daughter needed to respect authority more. The mother wrote back that an unquestioning acceptance of authority was NOT a good value to be teaching in school.  Only a UU would respond in that manner.

In 1942 President Roosevelt issued a wartime order to intern Japanese Americans in concentration camps. No one stopped this outrageous violation of these citizens’ rights. The American Unitarian Association held its annual meeting in May in Boston, two and a half months after the federal order to relocate people of Japanese descent. They declared that “all race prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism and anti-Negro feeling and anti-Orientalism, threatens not only our national morale but also our unity as a people in this grave hour of crisis.” The Unitarians realized that this kind of divisive action hurt the nation more than helped it be united in its fight against evil.  The meeting called on Unitarian organizations to work against “all forms of racial discrimination and religious prejudice.”

Shortly thereafter the Unitarian Service Committee established a West Coast branch and collected much needed material for people in the internment camps.  Near the end of the war, the Service Committee sponsored hostels in Boston and New York to help Japanese-Americans reenter American life. Our role as a church continues to be to call people to their compassionate natures and help those in need who are the recipients of hate. Living our values means openness to learn new truths. Living our values means feeling compassion for others. Living our values means giving all people a voice, and it also means a commitment to fight for this as individuals, as a church, as a community. We are not perfect, but together we can stand up for deep and enduring values.  We can support the church because it continues to give voice to these values in harsh times. Your financial support means we can continue to be that voice for values.

Closing Words – from Martin Luther King, Jr. “Rediscovering Lost Values” 

“The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.