–Message delivered by John Pepper on July 21, 2013
You never know where life will take you, and frankly I never anticipated going to the seminary. While I truly enjoyed the overall experience, the most rewarding aspect of my six years was meeting a professor who became my mentor and a dear friend. This particular professor taught classes on Preaching and Worship. He was also minister emeritus at one of the larger United Methodist Churches in Houston so he had a wealth of practical experience.
Several years ago I approached him and asked if he would be my mentor. This request began a dear and treasured friendship. Sadly, in the summer of 2007 he passed away after a very short and unexpected illness.
His passing is not what I want to focus on today but what he attempted to teach me is. He and I were both theologically and politically very compatible and we had similar, though not exact beliefs. Above all else, he loved his family and his devotion to them was without question.
On one issue, however, he differed from several of his grown children and that was over politics – they were on one side and he was often on the other. I find myself in that same boat with many of my own family members, so at one point I asked him how he dealt with it.
I of course was hoping for a spiritually enlightening solution that would offer clarity and insight and he obliged by sharing a story. He recalled one particular holiday meal when an in-law began talking politics. The opinions shared by the in-law were totally alien to his way of thinking and personal beliefs. He said his daughter looked terrified, afraid of what he would say.
He indicated that he listened politely and then when the time was right, without any hesitation whatsoever, he asked for someone to please pass the wonderful mashed potatoes. He went on to comment how delightful and delicious the meal was and that he was so glad to be there with all of them.
Commenting on that event, he said it simply wasn’t the time or place to confront or address the issues where they differed.
The fact that he was in his daughter’s home and the respect and love he had for her, far outweighed his need to share his beliefs or his particular version of the truth. I had wanted something deeply spiritual to help me deal with similar situations and instead he brought me back to Earth. Sometimes there are no easy answers, and related to politics, there are no simple solutions or silver bullets. There is only patience and above all else, respect and love.
He knew what was important. At the core of his being the love and respect he had for his family was one of the essential elements that made him who he was. When differences arose, that same love and respect demanded acceptance of a liberal range of beliefs coupled with a form of charity, where the charity I’m talking about is defined as a leniency from judging others.
This was not to say that he avoided all confrontations. There were times and places for those confrontations and although we are free in every sense of the word, he knew it was not an unbridled freedom that allowed disrespect for the beliefs and rights of others.
He was not shy about his views and opinions and they often surfaced in his sermons and even in his lectures as a professor. But they were never weapons used to bludgeon those with differing beliefs.
The lesson I hope we can all take away today is rather broad. It is that we must use our freedoms rightly with both love and respect. We must look for that which unites us and when we differ, we must employ an ethic of both liberality and charity. And finally, when we must share our deeply cherished right to the freedom of speech, we must look for the right time and the right place. This lesson is not simple. Life is not simple. If you want easy answers you may need to go elsewhere. Honestly, I believe the simple answers are often the wrong answers, so please be careful. We are free, free to make bad decisions and free to alienate those we love. The choice is ours.
As I was contemplating this sermon, I began to reflect long and hard on my professor and the phrase that came to mind over and over again, was not actually from him.
The phrase was, “In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in all things Charity.” That phrase actually came out of a time that was even more politically charged than our own.
For many years, Christianity struggled with very contentious issues. I wonder if you can possibly imagine a time when there were in fact several competing factions and each side thought they were absolutely right on all the contested issues.
The other side was undeniably wrong. During this particular period in history, their differences revolved around religious issues of doctrine and creed and no side was willing to listen to the other side, much less negotiate a mutually acceptable middle ground.
All sides had access to brilliant, articulate, and highly educated theologians and they knew the issues backwards and forwards and could defend their positions to the death, often using the Bible to back up their particular views.
In fact, the disagreements got so bad and so vicious, that they actually went to war. People died and killed for their religious beliefs.
The battles raged on for years and years, in fact the battles went on so long historians now call the period the “30 Years War.” It lasted from 1618 to 1648 and engulfed most of Germany but many other countries as well, including the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and France. Some historians claim the truces that ended the war created the first secular society – one where competing and rival religious communities and their state governments somehow managed to craft a ceasefire in order to live together in peace.
I am not sure I’d call what they accomplished as living in harmony, but they were able to live together without continuing the previously long and devastating war.
During the war, one of their earnest and brilliant religious minds tried to come up with a position or a creed they could all accept and that would allow them to move beyond their rigid and deadly convictions. The individual was a theologian by the name of Peter Meiderlin. He attempted to craft a principle that could balance the claims between the various salvation theologies through a moderate position.
His principle was, “We would be in the best shape if we kept in essentials, Unity; in non-essentials, Liberty; and in both Charity.”
This attempt at finding common ground was just that, an attempt, and sadly, it failed. It satisfied few and did not provide a method for determining exactly what was essential. It did, however, provide guidance when there was no obvious consensus and that was to be both liberal and charitable. Even though it didn’t work for them, I believe it can be a tool for us today.
Even so, the peace established at the conclusion of the 30 Years War was only between the Catholics, Lutheran and Reformed movements. If you had differing beliefs from them, you were out of luck. Secular society was new and not as advanced as it would become much later. Essentials were defined strictly in terms of Christianity and liberality and charity did not extend beyond those three religious affiliations. But at least it was a beginning.
Today we are used to a great deal more freedom and our liberality and charity extend to vigorous debates often resulting in vast differences of opinion.
We take this right and freedom almost for granted. One of the ways this particular freedom came to fruition in our society was through the associational dimension articulated in our earlier reading by James Luther Adams, one of our UU leaders from the 20th Century. We are all free to associate as we see fit and we are similarly free to disassociate as well, but the same is not true everywhere. Adams wrote his essay in 1969, but many years earlier he was influenced by events in Germany. In 1927, six years before the Nazis came to power, the events he witnessed foreshadowed the dark times ahead.
He says, “I was watching a Sunday parade on the occasion of the annual mass rally of the Nazis. Thousands of youth, as a sign of their vigor and patriotism, had walked from various parts of Germany to attend the mass meeting of the party. As I watched the parade, … I asked some people on the sideline to explain to me the meaning of the swastika… . Before very long I found myself engaged in a heated argument. Suddenly someone seized me from behind and pulled me by the elbows out of the group with which I was arguing.
In the firm grip of someone whom I could barely see I was forced through the crowd and propelled down a side street and up into a dead-end alley. … At the end of the alley my uninvited host swung me around quickly, and he shouted at me in German, “You fool. Don’t you know? In Germany today when you are watching a parade, you either keep your mouth shut, or you get your head bashed in.”
I thought he was going to bash it in right there. But then his face changed into a friendly smile and he said, “If you had continued that argument for five minutes longer, those fellows would have beaten you up.”
“Why did you decide to help me?” I asked. He replied, “I am an anti-Nazi. As I saw you there, getting into trouble, I thought of the time when in New York City as a sailor of the German merchant marine I received wonderful hospitality. And I said to myself, ‘Here is your chance to repay that hospitality.’ So I grabbed you, and here we are. I am inviting you home to Sunday dinner.”
This unknown man’s respect for the essential dignity of Americans perhaps saved Adams’ life.
Adams’ penchant for speaking the truth as he saw it and the freedoms he enjoyed in the U.S. were not consistent with the Germany he had come to for religious study. He did not realize the potential consequences of his actions, but another charitable soul did realize the consequences, and rescued him from a potentially tragic situation. Adams was indeed fortunate on that particular day and he learned and he grew from that experience.
Sadly, Germany was already sliding down the slippery slope that resulted in the horrors of World War II. Germany enforced their version of Unity and both liberality and charity were thrown out the window and were tragically burned in the real fires of oppression.
That particular Sunday was not the right day for Adams to speak out, but the right day did come. A few years later during World War II, Adams was tasked with lecturing on the Nazi faith to a large group of U.S. Army officers. The officers were preparing for service later in the occupation army to be stationed in Germany. Adams writes, “As I lectured them I realized that together with a just resentment against the Nazis I was engendering in the students an orgy of self-righteousness.”
Before I go on here, let me pause and say some of what I’m about to share is hard to repeat. In fact I will edit the text, but its overall poignancy is hard to miss.
Adams goes on to say, “This self-righteousness, I decided, ought somehow to be checked. Otherwise, I might succeed only in strengthening the morale of a bumptious hundred-percent “Americanism,” and that was not the faith we were supposed to be fighting for. Toward the end of the lecture I recapitulated the ideas of the Nazi “faith,” stressing the Nazi belief in the superiority of the Teutons and in the inferiority of other “races.” I also reminded the officers of a similar attitude to be observed in America, not only among the lunatic and subversive groups but also among respectable Americans in the army of democracy.
Then I posed one or two questions to be answered by each man based on his own conscience. First: “Is there any essential difference between your attitude toward the (Black) and the Jew, and the Nazi attitude toward other ‘races’ – not a difference in brutality but a difference in basic philosophy?” …
“If there is no essential difference between your race philosophy and that of the Nazis, a second question should be posed: ‘What are you fighting for?’”
“I blush when I think of some of the responses I received. I was immediately besieged with questions like these: “Do you think we should marry the (and Adams uses the N word)?” “Haven’t you been in business, and don’t you know that every Jew is a (and Adams uses an equally offensive word for Jews)?” Questions like these came back to me for over an hour. I simply repeated my question again and again: “How do you distinguish between yourself and a Nazi?” Seldom have I witnessed such agony of spirit in a public place.”
So, what can we learn from Adams today? Sadly, I seldom have the composure, the patience, or even the intelligence to similarly tease out the often painful truths in an equally respectful and deliberate way. All too often I use my own freedom of speech, rather clumsily, and end up alienating rather than enlightening.
Adams, however, was able to appeal to those officers’ intelligence, an essential element common to each of those present, and through that inherent intelligence he was able to illustrate the flaws in their rigid faiths that had caustic similarities to those of the Nazis. Hopefully, through Adams’ patient and respectful demeanor, some liberality and charity developed with regard to the officers’ future approaches to a conquered Germany.
In our other reading this morning, Kahlil Gibran takes a very different approach and reminds us of the inherent difficulty of separating the good from the evil. If you were listening to his profound words and his amazing metaphors, and if those words resonated with you to some degree, then you may agree separating the good from the evil is often difficult if not impossible. There are simply no easy or mystical answers, only hard work.
One of the last century’s greatest leaders knew how difficult the problems were and his overall approach applied here as well. He said, “Whenever you have truth it must be given with love, or the message and the messenger will be rejected.”
Mahatma Gandhi made that profound statement and we should all listen. Sharing the truth, whatever you believe that truth to be, must be done with love or the message will be lost.
In our own time, this truth seems to be more important than ever. One particular place where there seems to be more conflict than almost ever before, is in the Middle East, where there is apparently only one right and one wrong and all sides claim they have exclusive knowledge as to exactly what is right and what is wrong.
Sadly, that same single-mindedness has infected many of us here in the U.S. resulting in simple and often incomplete or inadequate answers to far too complicated problems. There seems to be little unity of purpose and thought and a fear of both liberality and charity.
Our freedom of speech is not currently in jeopardy but our need for civil conversation and respect for other views that differ from our own, certainly seems to be in danger of disappearing altogether. For me, the consequences of that loss are staggering.
The events in the Middle-East seem to be compounding all of our problems. Primarily in response to that conflict comes a man who has experienced the extremes of hatred and violence and instead of embracing one particular ideology, to the exclusion of all others, his own personal beliefs have evolved into wisdom we can all share. This very well known and influential Jewish rabbi has stated the problem far better that I can. In his recent book, You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right, Brad Hirschfield says, “Even if honestly held views are based on ignorance or delusion, they have to be addressed for at least three different reasons.
“First, is that these views define the beliefs, worldview, and frame of reference of the person or people whom I hope to engage. My telling you that something you believe in is wrong isn’t going to help the conversation; you have to meet people where they are.
“Second, failing to meet them where they are demeans them in precisely the same way we think they are demeaning us. If a person or group holds a view we find repugnant, they probably feel our views are repugnant as well. If we don’t take them seriously, why should they take us seriously? You can’t be someone else’s teacher until you’re willing to be their student.
“And third, they may be right, at least partially. After all, if we are not prepared to consider that it is we who may be ignorant or deluded; our thinking is as closed as theirs. Our fear of moral equivalence first keeps us from appreciating the importance of emotional equivalence; it keeps us from understanding that, ultimately, we each want the same thing. We need to begin talking to each other. Without that conversation, people will keep on dying.”
Hirschfield provides us with three reasons why we need to truly listen and relate to other people and groups alien to our own. As he says, if we don’t, people will keep on dying.
It seems that in each age, someone comes along and attempts to be heard above the noise, the anger, and the fear and reminds us of our common humanity. They remind us of what is essential.
Peter Meiderlin tried during the 30 Years War and James Luther Adams attempted the same in the aftermath of World War II.
The Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran, the spiritual father of India, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield did as well.
All of these individuals, and many others, including my own beloved professor and mentor, Dr. John Fellers, attempt to inspire each of us to use our freedoms to look for that which unites us instead of that which divides us.
I wish life were easy. … I wish there were simple solutions to complicated problems. … I wish we could all get along.
And I wish there were spiritual solutions to all of the many complicated issues that bombard us all on a daily basis.
But sadly, there are no easy answers and no magic solutions, only the hard work of trying to understand and accept one another.
Our freedoms are precious and maybe through our own demonstration of respect and love for those with similar freedoms who speak in tones and with feelings different from our own, maybe we can foster an atmosphere of both liberality and charity, an atmosphere that is desperately needed in our own free and secular society.
However, as I continue to repeat myself here today, there are no mystical solutions to our many problems so this hope and dream of mine is not assured, so please keep in mind something Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer once said.
“You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.”