“Violence and Virtue” by Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown – June 3, 2012

Call to Worship – from Angela Herrera


Don’t leave your broken heart at the door:

              Bring it to the altar of life.

Don’t leave your anger behind

              It has high standards

              and the world needs vision.

Bring them with you,

              And your joy

And your passion

Bring your loving

              And your courage

             And your conviction

Bring your need for healing

              And your power to heal

There is work to do

              And you have all that you need to do it

            Right here in this room.



Reading – from Slaughter House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


Sermon  –  “Violence and Virtue” by Mark W. Harris


Last Sunday’s service on Memorial Day brought me back to childhood commemorations in my small hometown in central Massachusetts.  These were somber affairs as we marched from my two room school house to the graveyard next door.  This echoed for me when Margaret recited “In Flanders Field the poppies grow, between the crosses row on row . . .”  Two things are often lost these days in Memorial Day celebrations that become exercises in Patriotism.  First the tremendous loss of life, and the grief we all bear for these deaths.  I remember being staggered when I heard the number of civilian casualties during the still continuing Iraq war, something that did not receive much publicity, just as pictures of the flag draped coffins were forbidden to be shown in the media.  If it is out of sight, it is out of mind has certainly been the public relations approach.  Second, the deaths are seen as somehow justifiable, or at least less painful if they are not American lives; they are the enemy, the Muslim, the terrorist.

Both of these sometimes unspoken traumas of Memorial Day were laid bare for me when our FPW member Brigitte shared during joys and sorrows last week.  She spoke about how she had lost four uncles in World War II, and the pain of never being able to come to know them, and share in their lives.  Many of us can reflect on losses we have experienced in our own families.  In the past I have told you about my own uncle who was in a Japanese prison camp for years, and came home traumatized by the experience, never worked again, and lived out his days with a bottle as his closest companion.  Others of us know of lives traumatized or forever altered by domestic violence of one kind or another. The second thing Brigitte shared, almost inadvertently, was that these four uncles she lost, were on the wrong side.  They were German soldiers that of course in our view of the war, were somehow deserving of death because we were commissioned to defeat them.  In this sense we have to ask ourselves what does this sense of shame about coming from the wrong side do to us, and further it makes me wonder how we use shame as a violent means of stigmatizing others, and thereby provoke more violence by our words and actions.  So there are the relationships we never experience because of loss, and the relationships that can be damaged because we are so focused on being right, while others feel shamed because they can never be right.

The world is a complicated and painful place.  Some of us come here for a respite from all the violence we see and read about in the world.  We sometimes see ourselves as powerless bystanders or at best concerned witnesses to these global conflicts.  I read the newspaper and despair daily over my understanding of human nature. What is wrong with people that they can do such things to each other? African warlord Charles Taylor was sentenced to prison for 50 years for “using so-called “blood diamonds” to fund rebels in Sierra Leone who killed and mutilated tens of thousands during that country’s civil war.  There are bodies littering highways in Mexico, victims of drug wars.  There are bodies in the streets of Syria, where government violence continues. Earlier this month I was speaking to a colleague who was traveling in Syria ten years ago, and he recalled all the memorable sights that are now destroyed. So much is lost.  Every day there are victims of wars.  Every day there is some horrible domestic crime. You do not need another litany of all that occurs.  Most of us can feel lucky that we live in relative safety and domestic tranquility.  Most of us can try to be informed about the world’s upheavals, and try to contribute what we can, in whatever ways we can to establish a world where there is more hope for justice and peace.

 In this sense the daily news is a vehicle for me to reflect upon human nature.  I wonder, are we as violent as we seem?  Most of you know that I have a passion for the study of Unitarian Universalist history.  Two great names that appear in our tradition are Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.  Long before he ever made his way to Walden Pond, Thoreau tried to be a teacher at Concord’s elementary school, but he resigned his post after refusing to administer corporal punishment to his students. Rebelling against the repressive educational system, he and his brother John founded their own academy in 1838, where he preferred to teach by conversation.  His methods of instructing students were similar to those of Bronson Alcott.  In his biography of the Alcott family, John Matteson tells us that Bronson Alcott learned something important about the soul when he was sixteen. He walked sixteen miles to witness a public hanging. When the event occurred and the trap door swung open and the man fell through, Bronson fainted.  Later seeing prisoners marched around at bayonet point deepened his aversion to cruelty.  His absolute belief that cruelty begets cruelty was implemented in the classroom.  As Thoreau learned, schools were generally places of threat and punishment, where learning was beaten into you from without more than nurtured from within. How could he inculcate a reverence for goodness in the soul of the child?  Needless to say, Alcott used little corporal punishment and threats were replaced with conversation, in which he addressed student’s feelings and sense of justice.

Like other Unitarians of his day, Alcott believed that human nature was basically good, and that this innate goodness was damaged or destroyed by religious dogmas that taught people they were sinful or worthless, and in need of salvation from their depraved natural state.  This wild, uncontrolled human nature, often depicted as the beast within us needed to be broken in a child and then maintained and controlled by harsh systems of order and punishment, otherwise all would fall to chaos.  As many of you know, this even included severe criticism especially of early Universalists who said that God was a loving, rather than a punishing God, and the result of this love was that all human beings would be restored to eternal bliss after death.  Critics said that people needed the threat of hell in order to be good, and that absent this threat, people would fall into all kinds of wicked behavior and become murderers and thieves.   Often these criminals were described in the daily papers as being Universalists. 

As a result of our testimony that people are not sinful, and should be treated with love and respect, it has been said that we do not take evil seriously enough. If we neglect sin, it is said, we fail to acknowledge what horrible things people do to one another. Are we naïve about human nature, and thus overly optimistic about human capabilities? Almost a year ago, there was a terrible mass killing in Norway. The perpetrator is now on trial, and there is some concern over the results of his psychiatric tests, which show that he is sane. While events such as this tend to lead some to despair that these kinds of mass killings are endemic to our times, some academic researchers, including Steven Pinker believe that culture has become less violent overall, and examples such as this are atypical. Echoing Psalm 8, which speaks of how our nature is only a little lower than that of an angel, Pinker says violence has declined over the centuries, particularly if you place our culture in the context of the mayhem that occurred in prehistoric times.  Are we nicer?  While international tribunals convict dictators like Charles Taylor, and human rights have advanced, and places like Western Europe may be the safest places that people have ever lived, it is also true that governments break down, and hate and cruelty toward others leads to seizures of power, and terrible atrocities.

As Elizabeth Kohlbert argued in the New Yorker, modernity has brought social and political liberation for many people and technological advances, but it has also brought deadly ideas like Fascism, and deadly weapons such as nuclear bombs, which some have argued is the great deterrent for all of us to be nice, but that would be accepting the threat theory of good behavior. What Kohlbert reminds us is that there is a two sidedness to human nature. Our liberal “better angels” can see the wonderful potential of human beings, and our first response to others must be trust and understanding, but we must not lose awareness of the presence of inner demons. We can be vigilant in our ability to seeing things as they truly are, and not give excuses for those who need to be called to task.  I think it is good for liberals to have this sense of balance. There is nothing wrong with taking a hard look at reality. Any pessimism we feel does not have to be a doctrine of despair, because I believe that understanding that demonic force within actually helps give us the power for commitment to really transform the world.  So the questions becomes, How can we be optimistic pessimists?

What this means is that our inner demon and better angel are often connected.  I know this truth in my own life.  Rightfully so, schools these days are trying to crack down on bullying, the behavior most of us experienced during our youth when we were either picked on or joined a group who picked on others for behavior or appearance that was somehow considered abnormal.  Too often this becomes a kind of perpetrator / victim blame game where the cycle of violence goes unnoticed.  As a child I was a bully who beat up other kids, especially those who could be readily victimized.  The one I remember the best, as I have told you about before, was an Armenian boy whose darker skin, and odd name, and aberrant cultural traditions did not fit in with my rural New England town. He came under attack by me on the playground after a certain amount of group pressure. I was that bully, but I became that bully because I was very overweight, and socially awkward.  People picked on me for being fat, and so I picked on others. Victims become perpetrators, or in my view, bullying creates bullies, especially in a bullying culture, where competition and winning and success are everything.

When we remind ourselves that it can be, and often is, a mean world out there, we are better prepared to teach our Unitarian Universalist understanding of faith. In their book Proverbs of Ashes, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker, suggest that at the heart of Christianity there is a faith claim that is dependent upon violence. The father requires the death of his son on a cross to save the world.  They say this sanctions a world built upon violence, and furthermore has made suffering a redemptive good. Therefore, you are a so-called better person, like Christ if you will, if you suffer in a violent or unjust relationship or system. We have believed that this will teach us something good. The authors reject this understanding of Christianity or faith, and say we must resist violence, by realizing that we can live in love with one another, but not deny difficult realities. We have to use power in positive ways.  We have to create places where all are welcome and safe. 

What do we let pass as truth?  Political activist and religious writer, Jim Wallis has said, “behind every war there is a big lie . . .The big lie behind all murder, from the random street killing to the efficient ovens of Auschwitz, to the even more efficient hydrogen bomb, is that victims deserve to die.”  We see this locally in the difference between a reported murder in Roxbury versus one in Wellesley, as exemplified by media coverage. Those who are perceived as worth less are more likely to deserve death. We deny the moral pain of their deaths by making them the other. The silence we keep about this points to larger social injustices. People use easily available guns as a way to not feel so powerless.  Violence puts them in control. Then the society responds to the violence by spending millions on prisons, but also does violence by not helping those who need adequate mental health care. We punish violence, but don’t take caring steps to prevent it.

One way we have often made war morally acceptable is by claiming stories of ordinary heroes who survive great ordeals.  Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller Unbroken, tells of a survivor, Louis Zamperiini, who cannot be broken by the trauma of being the prisoner of the enemy, but he also never breaks other’s hearts by violent acts.  He is “good.”  Yet it turns out he was a bombardier. At the same time that he is being tortured by the Japanese, men who have the same job as his, are bombing Hamburg, Germany and killing 40,000 civilians.  Can we still imbue his actions with goodness while this kind of atrocity is occurring?  If he were not a prisoner, where would he be bombing? No one would suggest the moral equivalence of the Allies and the Axis powers, but the compelling thing we need to remember are the moral implications of what is done.  No one’s hands are ever perfectly clean, or dirty.  As Walt Kelley’s cartoon character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” No one wants their lover, brother, sister, uncle or child to die in war. Often we are innocent victims of the violence, with little power to act, but the moral implications are worse when we are not allowed to express the loss or shame we feel.  Should a German feel shame still because they were on the wrong side of the good war?  

In Slaughterhouse Five, we see that Billy Pilgrim’s experience of the fire bombing of Dresden was denied.  If it is not spoken of, or if it is not seen, then it becomes less real.  It is clear that the drones our country uses as bombers takes lack of responsibility to the most morally repugnant level, because no individual person is responsible for perpetrating the violence.  Yet all the personal distance cannot remove the fact that people are killed, and someone should take responsibility. Loss of life for victims of violence should leave a sense of pain in all our collective moral consciousness.  The problem is that morality is a complex thing.  Sometimes we seem to imply that shooting someone with a gun or hanging them makes us pass out with moral disgust, like Bronson Alcott, but is it any more immoral then sending off bombardiers to kill civilians, or programming a drone?    

One problem with affirming moral complexity is that it lays bare all the betrayals that occur in our lives, and all the moral compromises we make. Yet this should not paralyze us. No history of mistakes or failures negates the obligation we have to do good. The Bible stories not only have a bloodthirsty God who sacrifices his son, but they also have King David sending Bathsheba’s husband off to the front lines to be killed, so David can have her for himself. We want to affirm Alcott’s goodness in our nature, but we must do so through the moral haze that reveals we are both good and evil, and not the good trying to uplift the fallen sinners to see things our way.  We have the ability to be David. When have we sent someone else to the front lines, or lied to protect ourselves?  That’s what I learned form Brigitte’s brief words last week.  War amplifies the losses we feel when violence denies us healthy and whole relationships, and war ampflies our inclination to see evil in another, when we deny it in ourselves.  When we share our losses with each other, and when we acknowledge the shame we have all felt from being stigmatized ourselves or in stigmatizing others, then we are able to open our hearts to each other in love. 

There is much health in us, and we tell stories not only to underscore what efforts we have made to be good, compassionate people, but also because we suffer from pain and sins, too. Violence and virtue go hand in hand. Often it is the culture or even family that has introduced us to violence, but if we nurture healthy relationships in families and communities, the suffering will lessen. If we let our hearts and eyes stay open, like Alcott, we will faint at the violence, and want even more for it to lessen.  On Memorial Day, I returned to the town where I grew up, where I recited those poems, and where my parents are buried.  I was there for a family gathering.  Family relationships often give birth to our understanding of both virtue and violence.  I was reminded of the mean or veiled things we say to each other when we can’t talk about real issues. I was reminded of shaming words.  I was reminded of loss, and all that was not shared.  But I also recognized my own search for healthy and loving relationships, for children who know both moral responsibility and warmth of heart, for the value of community, this community, where we nurture our goodness and challenge each other to build a better world for tomorrow. 


Closing Words  –  from Christina Feldman


“I” and “you,” “us” and “them,” “winning” and” losing,” victor” and “vanquished” – these are no more than tricks of the mind exiled from the heart.  The face we see before us is no other than our own, the person we see before us is ourselves in another guise. What else can we do but open our hearts, what else do we need to do?