“Hope? Hell, Yes! (No Fooling)
A sermon preached April 1, 2012, at the First Parish in Bedford, MA (Unitarian Universalist) by the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, Affiliated Community Minister and President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
Today I am beginning what will be the most extended sermon series in the history of Unitarian Universalist preaching. Most ministers preach sermon series on such deadly topics as “Six Great World Religions” or “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Channing, Parker and Emerson.” I always wanted to preach a seven-part sermon series on the seven dwarfs because I have always thought that the qualities embodied in the seven dwarfs said just about all there was to say about life: Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful and Grumpy. (Though I guess, if I ever do that, I shouldn’t end the series with Grumpy.) But, you see, Bedford was the only church I ever served and I was here only two and a half years and you only let me preach twice a month so, if I had preached my seven dwarfs series, I would have had very little time left for anything else.
But now I am going to preach a sermon series, a three-part series, on hope and, because I only preach here once a year, it is going to take me two more years. Today I am going to talk about whether there is any reason to have hope in the human race, in the human spirit, in human history, in the face of all the brutality and stupidity that we know goes down in the name of human beings. Next year I am going to preach about hope in our personal lives, even in the face of great challenge and heartache. And two years from now I am going to talk about hope in the face of death. So I would advise you to postpone any personal problems you may have for a year and your deaths for two in order to take advantage of my wisdom first.
I am interested in the topic of hope for several reasons. First, because I have so little of it that I want to articulate as clearly as I can what little I do have. Second, because there is so much bad preaching about hope, so much twaddle, piffle, blather, drivel and drool, that I am curious to see if I can preach a sermon—three sermons—without succumbing to any of those. And finally, I am interested in hope because, when I was at Amnesty International, the question I was asked repeatedly for twelve years was simply this: “Given all the horror and carnage that you encounter in your work every day—torture, rape, murder—how do you retain any sense of optimism, of hope, about human nature and the human future?” I always fumbled that question so I want now to see if I can answer it more readily.
And I want to begin by acknowledging very directly the case against hope. The truth is that the world is full of endless folly and enervating evil. I don’t think I have to convince you of that or even give you examples. The human race may well render the planet uninhabitable; human beings harm each other grievously. Hope does not always win and justice does not always prevail. In any individual case—a person facing execution for a crime she didn’t commit, for instance—there may come a point where there is no hope left that her future can be salvaged.
But when we consider the broader human enterprise, the shape of history, I think there is a 60-40 case to be made for hope, for the possibility that the human spirit is not inevitably tainted by ignorance and ignominy. One reason has to do with the nature of power and social change. And two others have to do with characteristics of being human.
I was ordained in this building thirty-seven years ago this November and what Cardinal John Patrick Foley’s mother said of him might well be said of me. Cardinal Foley grew up in Connecticut but he was for many years the chief spokesperson for the Vatican and a connoisseur of Italian food. When he returned to the United States after several years in Rome, his mother took one look at him and said, “John, there were twenty pounds of you that were not ordained.”
But I am interested not in how my girth has changed in those thirty-seven years but in how the world has. In 1975 about a third of the countries in the world were democratic; today more than three-quarters of the world’s countries are putative democracies. In 1975 there were nineteen women in the United States Congress; today there are ninety-eight. In 1975 there was no way to bring to justice any of the world’s great brutes; two weeks ago the International Criminal Court convicted its first defendant. In 1975 no one had heard of Aung San Suu Kyi who was just elected to the Burmese Parliament after being under house arrest since her party won the last free elections in Burma in 1990. In 1975 it would have been impossible to imagine a world without a Soviet Union or an apartheid South Africa or a battle-scarred Northern Ireland or to imagine a United States with an African American President.
How did these things—and many others I could mention—how did they change and change for the better?[Pants]
When I was in graduate school, I wore these pants every day for four years. I wore them proudly and without embarrassment. In fact, I was the envy of the University of Chicago campus. But why is it that not a single graduate student in the United States would be caught dead wearing pants like these today? It is because fashion norms change and as norms change, so does the configuration of power.
Over the past thirty-seven years—indeed, since the end of World War II—we have seen a radical shift in global norms—a shift in the direction of greater openness to diverse voices, of a more equitable distribution of power and, if Steven Pinker, from whose recent book I read you an excerpt this morning, is to be believed, in a significant diminution of violence. Of course it’s true that global poverty remains stubbornly unmitigated; that Israelis and Palestinians still haunt each other’s dreams; and that corporate profits still favor the 1% for, after all, as one of the protest signs of the Occupy Movement put it, “Nobody with 4 aces asks the dealer to deal again.” But if we follow the advice of one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Baruch Spinoza, who said, in effect, “Always take the view from eternity;’ if we take the long view; if we consider that just 250 years ago virtually no reputable person would have opposed slavery or opposed limited suffrage or opposed the subjugation of women and today no reputable person would support any of them; if we take this perspective; if we look at human history not, in Aldous Huxley’s famous phrase, as “one damn thing after another,” but if we see it in its totality, it is impossible to argue credibly that on balance humankind has not made enormous progress.
Could the human race regress? Absolutely, and inevitably we will. We all may go back to wearing turquoise paisley pants. For a time. Is progress guaranteed? Absolutely not. As the mathematician Freeman Dyson said, “Elections are held not to choose the best rulers but to help us get rid of the worst without bloodshed.” That is why the 19th century Unitarians and 20th century humanists who preached “progress onward and upward forever” are seen today as naïfs. History is not fated or determined to move in any particular direction, good or bad. But thus far and on balance the shift in norms and hence in power has been largely in a progressive direction. The radical journalist I. F. Stone put it this way, “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose. Because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until the day when somebody who believes as you do finally wins.” Given growing literacy in the world, given the explosion in communications technologies and given the social entrepreneurship that both those developments have fostered, I would bet that the odds in favor of hope are at least at 60-40.
But perhaps all this is a bit too esoteric to be of real comfort. So let me offer you two more reasons for hope in the human enterprise, both of which emerge from my observations of human beings.
The first is an observation about human resilience. When the British began trying in earnest to climb Mount Everest, the Tibetans who served as their porters were dumbfounded. Tibetans have no word for the summit of the mountain and, when they saw the great sacrifices the British were making, losing limbs to frostbite and their lives to falls, one of their high lamas said, “I felt great compassion for them to suffer so much for such meaningless work.”
But one of the great privileges of my life has been to come to know so many people who suffered so much for such important work. What has always astonished me about those I have known who were victims of human rights abuses was that, if they survived death threats or years of unjust imprisonment or torture, it was because they never gave up. They endured greater suffering than you and I could ever imagine; they sustained deep wounds, often scarred for life both emotionally and physically, but time after time they were prepared to be re-engaged in the struggle for justice. What stubbornness, what devotion does it take to have your two little girls kidnapped by Guatemalan death squads; then murdered; to not be able twenty years later to speak of them without tears, but to become an outspoken advocate for other people’s human rights. That is the story of one of my most effective staff members at Amnesty International.
Nick Yarris spent twenty-three years in prison for a murder he did not commit. When he was released and was asked how he felt, he said, “What are my choices? I could be really devastated and angry and let them continue to own me or I could have fun. [Having fun] sounds better…The lowest insult would be if I came out destroyed, a broken man…My survival technique was to become a good man.”
Perez Aguirre was tortured mercilessly in a South American prison. Many years later, walking along the street, he ran into the man who had tortured him. The torturer was now among those being prosecuted and he tried to avoid Aguirre’s gaze. But Aguirre took the initiative. “How are you?” he asked his torturer. The man said he was very depressed. There was a long pause and then Aguirre said, “If you need anything, come to see me.” And then he said, “Shake hands, friend. I forgive you.”
The resilience of the human spirit is so profound that I would be guilty of the worst form of narcissism if I gave up hope in human transformation when so many others who have seen humanity at its worst have managed not to.
But of course heroes and heroines are very rare. Few of us display that kind of resilience in the face of agony. But what large numbers of us are capable of feeling is another’s pain. If resilience is unusual, generosity is commonplace.
A few months after the horrendous genocide in Rwanda, a team of so-called reconciliation experts went to that tattered country to help the Tutsis, 800,000 of whom had just been slaughtered by members of the Hutu tribe, to begin the process of healing and forgiveness. For several hours the experts conducted their training, inviting members of the village from different tribes, to share their feelings with one another. But finally one of the village elders said, “You know, all this is good but what we really need in this village is a bus.” The reconciliation experts were taken aback. “Yes,” they said, “perhaps the village does need a bus but we’re here to talk about far more serious things than that.” But the elder persisted, “We need a bus,” he said, and soon all the villagers were chanting, “A bus. A bus.” Finally one of the women in the group explained. “We need a bus,” she said, “that will start its route in the Hutu part of the region and then drive to the Pygmy part and then to the Tutsi part and then back again and we want to design the seats of the bus so that all seats face one another and we want to have a rule that no one may sit beside a person from their own tribe and we want to have conductors who one day are Hutu and the next day are Pygmy and the next day are Tutsi. And by the way, we want all the conductors to be women.”
Oh, yes, I know. Many of those who commit the most horrible crimes suffer no remorse. Psalm 137, verse 9: “Happy are those who seize your children and smash them against a rock.” There are far too many Trayvon Martins in this world. Believe me, I know. I think it was Heinrich Himmler who said, “It was a terrible thing we had to do—killing people every day and then going home to our families. We are the ones you should feel sorry for,” Yes, I know.
But far, far more people are touched by the sight of the injured, moved by the fate of the fallen, and prepared, when their leaders be wise and their laws be just, to extend their hands to the helpless and their hearts to the hopeless.
We need not be hopeless, my friends. For the sweep of history carries promise of our redemption, powered as it is, sustained as it is, by both the uncanny and the commonplace, by both resilience and compassion. Those are the reasons for hope; that is why I have chosen not to give up on the human project. Faithful, relentless hope, coming into life again like April.
“What we need is a bus.” 60-40 may not be the best odds in the world but when you consider what we’re up against, I think they’re odds worth taking.