A Thought to Ponder:
“Always remember that your father never sold his country. You must stop your ears whenever you are asked to sign a treaty selling your home…This country holds your father’s body. Never sell the bones of your father and mother.”
– Tiwi-teqis (Old Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce tribe)
Hope, by Vaclav Havel
Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world
Either we have hope within us or we don’t.
Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit.
You can’t delegate that to anyone else.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy
when things are going well,
or the willingness to invest in enterprises
that are obviously headed for early success,
but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.
Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism.
It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.
It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live
and to continually try new things,
even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.
In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing
to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily,
without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.
— 1986, “Disturbing the Peace”
I remember vividly the exchange of three shouting six-year-olds on Crescent Drive in Akron, Ohio. We were playing together and some sacred object was in the mix. And we all wanted it, all at the same time: “Share it!” “Share it!” were the calls and shortly thereafter: “Give it to me!” “It’s mine!” And then, at the top of someone’s lungs: “I WANT IT!!!!”
Ah yes, that old tussle of being the one to take possession of treasure that kids frequently get into. Not just kids, of course – grown-ups, too. For children, as their sense of being in the world and development of their faith progresses, a sense of fairness is high on the list of values they seek. Children are motivated by the wish for equal treatment, so that none are left out. You may remember, decades ago, the famous experiment about discrimination and racism – but also about fairness – that was carried forward by educator Jane Elliott, to evaluate how children would react to seemingly arbitrary discrimination. Her work, documented in the film, “The Eye of the Storm,” is well worth seeing, even now, nearly fifty years after the film was made. Children reacted strongly to the favoring of children with blue eyes over brown eyes, and behavior that favors one group, or person, over another can be expected to provoke the ire of children immediately. Children do want what they perceive as fairness, and they also want to come out on top of the heap. And perhaps it’s that wish to be the ultimate winner that motivates us, as adults, to make decisions that are not informed by equity but rather our own sense of privilege or superiority.
This summer Ben and I visited Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho, and the trip included a few long driving trips which took us through the Nez Perce reservation and onto the land of the Salish, Flathead, Kootenai, and other first nation communities. We visited the site of one of the 1877 battles between the Nez Perce and the US Army, and were able to follow the history which saw these First Nations people driven off their land and forced onto reservations as the US exercised its perceived right to manifest destiny…otherwise known as stealing, in pursuit of some version of “the American Dream.”
The quote that heads our order of service for today, from Old Joseph, the elder who would not sign the treaty the US government put in front of him, reminds us of his challenge: do not relinquish that which you most value: you sacrifice it at great cost, and it will impact not only you, but your children, and theirs.
We live in not only interesting, but discouraging and frightening times. No matter what political stripe you choose, there is ample evidence that those at the very head of our country’s authority have used questionable, and perhaps corrupt, means to manipulate laws and finances to benefit themselves. What has been sold to the many as advantages may in fact be of greatest benefit to the few – it is the division between “the ninety and nine,” as David Sankey, the writer of an 1874 song, articulates.
There are the privileged, and the working class – most of us – who are those who, in Sankey’s words,
“work and die,
In hunger and want and cold,
That one may revel in luxury,
And be lapped in the silken fold.
And ninety and nine in their hovels bare,
And one in a palace of riches rare.”
The labor movements in this country – which began to be evidenced as early as 1768* and gained steady energy as the Industrial Revolution grew, showed us the division between the business owners and the working person. industrial capitalism ran counter to labor’s vision. The result, as early labor leaders saw it, was to create up “two distinct classes, the rich and the poor.”
Beginning with the workingmen’s parties of the 1830s, the advocates of equal rights mounted a series of reform efforts that spanned the nineteenth century. Most notable were the National Labor Union, launched in 1866, and the movement of the Knights of Labor, which reached its zenith in the mid-1880s.The issues at the heart of this movement were not distinct to the United States, but prevalent in Great Britain and around the world, and they were not only written about by Charles Dickens, but by many others who examined socio-economic changes of the mid and late 1800s in this country.
This shift can be traced as leading us to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York, 1911, which led to the deaths of 146 mostly immigrant garment workers and the following year, to the Bread and Roses strike that occurred just down the road, in Lawrence Massachusetts, led by the Immigrant Workers Union.
Have things changed? Not much. We know that desperate conditions exist in countries like China, Indonesia and Afghanistan today – where badly compensated workers – many of them children – make goods which wealthy countries’ citizens consume. We have learned the behavior we now pass on from those who came before and we – yes, me too – enjoy these comforts that power brings to us.
Me too? Oh yes, there is that: at its root, it seems to me that sexual and behavioral dominance is also about power: power over others, power that heightens standing, power that, once more, puts one group ahead of another. Me too. The stories of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Donald Trump, my college professor, all those not yet named…they keep on coming. People who for one reason or another, thought they could get away with it, thought it was owed to them, thought…who knows what they thought? Power. The ninety and nine, vs. the rest of the heap. Power against vulnerability, a polarity of behaviors.
What the heck does this have to do with children?
Everything, I’d say.
The First Nations people, who have suffered so many indignities and shame as power was used to oppress them and their culture, have, as one talks with them today, evidenced a quiet nobility. We took their land, their people, exercised dominance over them in every way possible. The series of engagements between the Nez Perce, their allies, and the U.S. Army in the summer of 1877 are events that continue to resonate in the hearts and minds of the Nez Perce to this day.
Many died then and yet, some have endured. And in a few spots, they have risen back up, building schools, colleges, cultural centers, finding ways to teach their native language. And there are the casinos, where people go in, drop off large amounts of money, and leave it in their hands. That could be seen as a bit of compensation for abuses of the past…so that the First Nations people can rebuild and perhaps, reclaim some of what we stole from them.
Young Joseph, the son of Chief Joseph, elder of the Nez Perce said, “We are not be trampled upon and our rights taken from us…the right to the land was ours before the whites came among us.” The concept of Manifest Destiny, which allowed people of means and influence to claim their God-given right to seize the land and to displace its original inhabitants, created a sense of entitlement that still pervades our culture. Motivated by “I want….I need….I DESERVE…” we found excuses to pass laws and exercise behaviors that lead us on to our shining goals for more power, money, influence, at nearly any cost.
What cost? Well, the vision of Francis Bellamy, Christian minister and social reformer of the late nineteenth century, articulated the goals of “liberty and justice for all” in his Pledge of Allegiance for these United States. But our behavior both before and after that time would suggest that those words have been hollow. The forced removal of native people from their lands, from the Cherokees’ Trail of Tears in the late 1830s through the exodus of the Nez Perce in the 1870s and beyond, tells a different story. The way that those who come from other countries — where their very existence is threatened as they carry only a modest wish to have the opportunity to lead a dignified and safer life — makes us realize that the historical narrative of liberty and justice is not the truth.
How will we be led toward a different ethic?
I was raised in this faith. So was my husband, here today, and so were some of you. What drew my parents to this religion was, in part, its respectful embrace of many religious traditions, without judgement. Forrest Church, who for many years led the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, wrote about how we offer “Many Windows, One Light” – opportunities for us to understand that God, the holy, faith – can come to us in many forms and is yet held together by a shared belief in one loving and enduring spirit that abides with us all. It is that belief, and my hope for the future, that I want to pass on to my children and to yours – that keeps me here. There are no guarantees in this faith or in our world, that I know. Yet there is the chance that, if we hold to the possibility of the world we seek to create out of SHARED values, good may yet come.
This is a vision of generosity and abundance. These values are ones that this congregation has embraced – the big tent that welcomes many, affirms all, and rises, again and again, to articulate a vision of justice and equity. Whether in Transylvania, the Philippines, or at the ICE detention facility in Burlington, you show up, over and over, and are willing to stand, or sit, or lie down, for justice and equity.
And these are challenging times. This church has nearly 100 children and youth and young adults in it. They come for education, for an understanding of our values, our traditions, and of our promise for today and tomorrow. I want to believe – and do – that there is enough to go around, for those outside these doors and inside. Abundance need not be defined by exercising power over, by choosing those who have and have not, like the ninety and nine articulated.
I choose our children first. They are ours, they are our hope for a better world, and if we support them fully – financially and with the gifts of our hands and hearts – they will move out into the world with light and love and be supported in living the values that just might save this world. When you support this congregation’s programs through your financial gifts and donations to establish special needs support staff, nursery and child care staff; when you fund participation in field trips to service learning sites near and far and more, you do so in THEIR names. When you volunteer to teach, you do so to help THEM grow and carry forward their promise for the future – which is ours as well.
Literature has long offered us stories of the common person and the behemoth they confronted and triumphed over. Starting with the book of Genesis, which (2:15) said, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” and proceeding on to the tale of David and Goliath and of Grendel, slain by Beowulf, the legend of the lesser’s triumph over challenge lives in our literature and in our souls.
For most of us, it’s not gold and riches that we seek. Our quest is for a good and honest life that we might pass forward to our children, and theirs. Leonard Bernstein, both genius and parent, brought this story to glorious life in his musical “Candide,” based on the eighteenth century tale by Voltaire. Candide is moved to seek “the best of all possible worlds” and sets out in pursuit of riches and ‘enlightenment.’ His love, Cunegonde, is motivated to ‘glitter and be gay,’ as she decks herself in sparkles. But amidst catastrophes and disasters, it all crumbles and, in the end, Candide, reunited with a humbled Cunegonde, realizes that he must seek a simpler, more noble and honest, life: he must work to “make our garden grow,” and in devoting his hands to the work, perhaps the true value of life will shine through and save not only he and Cunegonde, but their world.
The true value of life: for me, it is this: to (as the Nez Perce said) never sell our children short for passing gain…to hold fast to life’s most central values…to leave this place…this church, this land, our people, and this faith, just a bit better than I found it.
What will we leave for our children, and theirs? What is the promise we reach for? That is the ultimate question, the one that the First Nations people have offered as part of their legacy to us. Let them, and Candide, provide much-needed guidance for those of us who walk on the gnarly and uncertain path toward tomorrow.
Hold on to what is good,
Even if it’s a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe,
Even if it’s a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do,
Even if it’s a long way from here.
Hold on to your life,
Even if it’s easier to let go.
Hold on to my hand,
Even if some day I’ll be gone away from you.
So may it be. Blessings, and Amen.
– Pueblo prayer, traditional