We Contain Multitudes: The Spirituality of Transformation

January 18, 2009
Stuart Twite

THE READING           

Don't Sleep Through the Revolution,  Martin Luther King's 1966 Ware Lecture to the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists.

I think it is necessary to see the meaning of love in higher terms. The Greek language has three words for love – one is the eros, another is the word filio, and another is the word agape. I'm thinking not of eros, or of friendship as expressed in filio, but of agape, which is understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. When one rises to love on this level, he loves a person who does the evil deed while hating the deed. I believe that in our best moments in this struggle we have tried to adhere to this. In some strange way we have been able to stand up in the face of our most violent opponents and say, in substance, we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with our soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Threaten our children, bomb our homes, send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead; and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the nation and make it appear we are not fit morally, culturally or otherwise for integration and we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory. This is our message in the non-violent movement when we are true to it.

 

THE SERMON

A couple of days before the election, when it appeared that Barak Obama was probably going to win, I was listening in my car to a Boston based conservative radio talk-show host who announced (over and over again) that he would never acknowledge a president Obama.  He went even further than this, calling on his listeners, who he calls the "best and the brightest" to form a government in exile and to exist in perpetual opposition to the administration.   As outrageous as that kind of talk is, liberal commentators on the presidency of George Bush can hardly be given credit for a higher tone in their criticism.  The political and personal excoriation of President George Bush has been just as intemperate and extreme.

Listening that morning, I had a deep chill of true fear, not so much for the actual effects of radio show hyperbole (though they are not to be dismissed).  The chill I felt was more one of self recognition. 

The problem I realized, was not with particular politicians or policies, or with liberal or conservative commentators and entertainers.  The problem was with me.   I was listening, after all, to this radio host and almost enjoying the anger that he was inciting in me.

It made me remember my younger days working in politics.  In college and later as a campaign field representative and Senate staffer in Washington DC, I reveled in the verbal disparagement of the opposition.  Later, while teaching school in Phoenix Arizona, I worked part-time at a bookstore (most  memorable to me because it is where I met my wife)  I worked on Wednesday afternoons and each week after school, when I walked in the door, the man already working would hit me with the issue of the week.  "Welfare reform" he would say, and we would be off.  The next hour, in between talking and selling books would be political free for all.  Now granted this was done in a spirit of fun, even entertainment, but I remember being wounded to find that other people that worked there actually thought I was obnoxious and strident (imagine that!)  And therein lies the problem.  How cathartic it is to vent our anger and frustration in caustic denunciation of those we disagree with.   How much easier, after all, is it to disparage our opposition than to seek to work together with all people in what must be our common cause? 

Our news industry has become hostage to this kind of rhetorical combat and we have elevated our loudest, most ideological voices to the level of celebrity.   It is public discourse as professional wrestling.  We know it is partly staged and that it is appeals to our basest instincts and yet real bodies are being thrown around and in the process our dignity is diminished just by the association. 

And so the problem, I realized, while listening to the radio in those early days of November, was not the news media, or politicians, or liberals or conservatives.   The problem is me and it is, at heart, a spiritual problem.  

Martin Luther King was deeply aware of the spiritual basis of our condition and in our reading this morning (for which I am grateful to Deanna Riley who told me of King's Ware lecture) he expounds on the only true solution- agape-a love that seeks nothing in return.  He was, of course a Baptist minister and for him, the very heart of the gospel and, therefore, the movement of non-violence, was in returning hate and oppression with love and open arms.  "Do to us what you will", he said, "and we will still love you…Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Threaten our children, bomb our homes, send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead; and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you." 

I firmly believe that all meaningful growth and change, is, in itself, a spiritual process and is grounded in the kind of love that Martin Luther King spoke about in his Ware Lecture.  It is a love that may take political positions but is not partisan.  It may advocate a cause, but does not elevate any cause above the basic worth and dignity of the human person-even if that person is fundamentally opposed to everything we may believe in.  This kind of love is just flat out hard even at the most basic everyday level.  

In a recent series of programs at this church on the Buddhist text, The Guide to the Bodhisattva's way of life, we talked about how to cultivate a mind of compassion and calm abiding and spoke of the times in our lives when this was most difficult.  The example of driving came up…a lot.   And it makes sense that it should be so.  When in our cars, we are contained, usually on a mission of some kind, and, ultimately vulnerable.  When someone cuts us off, or doesn't allow us entrance, or any of the other myriad frustrations that confront us on the road, we feel threatened or just put out.  Most days developing and maintaining love and compassion for the person who just cut you off in traffic seems nearly impossible, much less loving someone who is threatening your children, bombing your homes or beating you on a wayside road. Frankly, that kind of love seems to me a staggering order.  And it is the spiritual work of a lifetime. 

I remember some years ago reading in the letters section of a Buddhist magazine a letter from a woman complaining that, though she had been practicing meditation for over 20 years, She was JUST AS ANGRY AS SHE EVER WAS!  Indeed, the way of Agape, as described by Martin Luther King is not an easy path for nations or for individuals.

You have probably heard that in just two days, an historic inauguration will take place.  Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963-just the year before I was born and in two days, an African American will be sworn in as our President.  No matter your politics, or who you supported for President, that reality is amazing and ample evidence that the hearts of nations and the hearts of individuals can change and grow.

Like all such moments, however, it is crucial to realize that the real work begins the day after.  How can we take advantage of this turning point in history and dedicate ourselves and our country to agape, to the kind of love that embraces everyone? 

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a very good place to start.   One of the historical tenants of our faith is the spirituality of every day life, of doing our nearest duty.  Ours is not a faith of a once and for all revelation, but a daily working out of our highest beliefs and aspirations.  James Walker wrote that the religious character, is "formed gradually, by adding excellence upon excellence, as circumstances or the occasion" draw them forth.  Agape, is, again, not the work of a moment, or a day, but the work of a life. 

The point is illustrated by the Greek Philosopher Plutarch who relates this story about Theseus, the mainly mythical founder of the Greek City-state of Athens.  Upon the return of Theseus from various great adventures, the ship on which he arrived was preserved and displayed in Athens for many years.

Of course, the boards that made up the ship would rot over time and have to be replaced.  Eventually, the ship had no remaining original parts at which point, to quote Plutarch, "it became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel." 

For the Athenians, the ship of Theseus represented ideal beginnings.  A starting point and a symbol.  So too does our nation have its ideal beginning in the great sentiments of equality in the Declaration of Independence.  In the same way, each of us have our own principles and our highest notions of how we should live. 

But it is a fact of life that the winds come and blow us off course.  The rains pour and cause decay.  The sun beats down drying and cracking the boards of the ship.  The snow falls, making our footing unsure.  The only thing to do is to tear up the old boards and replace them with new.  This work is noble and it is continuous.

Second, if agape is to rule in our heats, we must fully embrace the profoundly obvious, yet difficult truth that we live in the most diverse racial, cultural, and religious society on earth.  I wrote in our last Spire of the moment when this truth became reality for me.  I grew up in small Midwestern towns where the only diversity was the occasional rouge non-Norwegian or German.  We learned, of course, in those days of the great melting pot of America, but it was for me a largely theoretical idea.  As I got older and lived in various other places it became more real.  Just a few years ago, while living in New York, I was sitting in the Dr.'s office reading a magazine thinking about my own troubles whatever they were and I happened to look up.  Sitting in the office with me was an African American woman with her young daughter, an Indian woman in traditional sari, a plumber (it said so on his work-shirt), and a member of the very conservative Satmar Hasidic Jewish community of Kiryas Joel (located near the town we lived in) with beard and peyot. 

All of us sat, probably bored, worried, tired or anxious, and I was nearly overwhelmed by how amazing and wonderful this scene was. 

But with the beauty and richness of our great diversity, often comes conflict and fear, suspicion and hatred.  Walt Whitman wrote in his great poem, Song of Myself, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."  Like the good grey poet, our nation is large, contains multitudes, and continually contradicts itself.  We must listen to our contradictions and, like Whitman, embrace them boldly with love and respect if we are to move forward. 

Finally, we must banish fear.  In the First Letter of John in the Christian Scriptures, the writer, seeking to lay out the basics of a spiritual life, says this,  "No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.  There is no fear in love, for love casts out all fear…" 

So this morning, as we celebrate the Birthday of Martin Luther King, and as we look forward to the promise of new beginnings, may we look to our highest ideals, may we dwell with each other in agape, that love that transcends division, suspicion and fear.  May we do the next right thing, the day to day work that will secure for everyone the blessings of the dream this day and forever.