FEBRUARY 21, 1999

Over the years of my ministry in Norwell I have offered what has become an annual social concerns portfolio reflection on some of the important social and ethical issues of the day which demand our attention and response. In this the last year of the 20th Century I would like to highlight a few issues that I think are especially important as we approach a new millennium.

It is interesting in looking back at the kinds of issues I have reflected upon in the past how many of them have come up for consideration again and again because they are perennial and never really solvable in any final sense--race relations, ethnic conflicts, abortion, environmental ethics, capital punishment, hunger and homelessness, violence in the media, etc. And so if what I offer for your consideration this morning sounds like something you've heard before--well, you have--because there's not a social-ethical problem you can think of that doesn't require constant effort and concern. If you're going to have a social conscience and seek to act on it then you'd better be in the game for the long haul because human nature hasn't fundamentally changed in 2,000 years and so many of our problems have their source in human nature gone awry.

I would like to focus briefly upon three issues: (1) Homelessness, (2) Culture Wars, and (3) Deep Ecology. When I was a youngster growing up in the City of Springfield homelessness was not the problem that it has become in our day. Yes, there were slums in the cities where the poor and ethnic minorities lived, and there were the down and out alcoholics who lived in the Bowery in New York, but there were few poor folk and mentally ill people who did not at least have a roof over their heads and some food to eat. Hunger and homelessness in America grew into a nationwide problem during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton eras. The irony is that the general prosperity that we have experienced during this period has done little to alleviate the problem of homeless people living on the streets and in over-crowded shelters in every major city in the nation. Why has this happened?

The reasons are many and complex, but they boil down to a few simple facts. Housing costs have skyrocketed while affordable housing units have virtually ceased to be developed or made available. The chronically mentally ill used to be housed in state supported mental hospitals and institutions. Now-a-days we give them minimal treatment and care and then put them out on the street where they have no place to go or live. During this period of prosperity we have made major to drastic cuts in our welfare system, gotten rid of many who used to abuse the system, while others have been fortunate to find work or live with relatives, and now we are at the point of refusing to support those who are truly needy, including innocent children, because the law says that two years is the maximum welfare aid that any person can ever receive in their entire lifetime. Where are these people going to go when their support dries up? Many are already out on the streets.

Many people and politicians in America have reached the point where they are experiencing compassion fatigue when it come to the homeless. We are tired of the homeless, we are embarrassed by them, we've convinced ourselves that they must have brought it on themselves, and we want them to go away. The mayor of Chicago recently instituted a policy to get rid of homeless people living underneath the streets in cement underground enclaves. It's just not good for Chicago's image as an upcoming and prosperous city to have the homeless living under their streets. The solution? Banish them from the streets. Arrest them for vagrancy. Do anything but provide them with the support and shelters and affordable housing they need to live somewhere other than the streets.

The homeless are not going to go away anytime soon no matter how great our prosperity until we are willing to address the social problems that have increased their numbers among us. In the meantime we have to continue to do what we can to respond with compassion and support and to not become weary in our well-doing or yield to the temptations of compassion fatigue. That is why our First Parish Service Committee year after year after year continues to support organizations such as Father Bill's Shelter in Quincy, South Shore Habitat for Humanity, the Plymouth Coalition for the Homeless, the U.U. Service Committee Promise the Children program, and other projects, because we know that our response must be for the long haul, not just the short run. Each of us, singly and in concert with others, needs to continue to do what we can to lessen the suffering of the hungry and homeless in our midst and to urge our body politic to face up to its responsibility to alleviate the social causes that contribute to its affects. And let us remember that there but for the grace of heaven, of sheer luck and fortune, opportunity and a job, go you and I. There is not one of us who could not lose our fortunes and be numbered someday among the homeless.

Next I would like to comment briefly upon what has come to be called culture wars between those of a so-called conservative point of view and those of a more liberal or progressive point of view in our society. The tragedy of this phenomenon is that civil discourse is being threatened and replaced by partisan fanatical zeal and extremism which cuts across political parties and undermines the art of political compromise and the capacity for personal tolerance and mutual respect. It used to be that there were liberals, conservatives and moderates in both political parties though there were more or less distinctive emphases within each party. Now-a-days there's an attempt to force people into one political or social or moral camp or another based on what they believe about particular issues. Name any political, social, moral or religious issue you can think of and it will be associated with one camp or the other and you will be forced to choose sides and come out fighting.

Civil rights, abortion rights, women's rights, gay rights, welfare rights, racial justice, gun control, progressive taxation, raising the minimum wage, opposition to capital punishment, protecting the environment, protecting social security and Medicare, social responsibility--all these tend to be associated with liberal, progressive and democratic views. Right to life, right to bear arms, a strong defense, the flat tax, cutting taxes, promoting business and economic growth, unfettered free markets, getting rid of government regulations, limiting the size of government, eliminating welfare, family values, personal morality, individual responsibility, prayer in the schools--all these tend to be associated with conservative, reactionary, and republican points of view. What is more important, personal and sexual morality (conservative) or social ethics (liberal)?

I think you get the picture. What happens if you're a fiscal conservative and a social liberal? Where are you supposed to go and which political party should you support? Is it possible to be a religious liberal and a social conservative, or a social liberal and a religious conservative? How did it happen that the religious right has practically taken over one political party and the religious left by default the other? How can we have honest dialogue with one another when the culture wars force us into polarized positions? It is not a healthy state of affairs.

The recent impeachment proceedings and trial in the House and Senate are example of the culture wars at work in the two political parties. No matter how often we were told that the impeachment trial was not about sex, but about the right of law and lying under oath, we knew it was really about sex, or to be more precise, lying about sex. To say that there is no difference between lying about sex, or lying about murder or treason, is to make a venial sin into a mortal sin and to say there is no difference. Two thirds of the American people said they believed there was a difference and that impeachment and conviction was disproportionate to the supposed offense. The debate in the House was bitter and partisan, the debate in the Senate a bit more civil and a little less partisan. The debate was in truth a reflection of the culture wars at work in American society.

Unfortunately, culture wars are escalating around the globe. Religious and ethnic conflicts are at the root of the tensions and wars in the Balkan states, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Islamic nations and the west, Tibet and China, even Africa. Culture wars are the most serious issue we face as a nation and a global community. We have to learn to recover the art of civil discourse and tolerance of differences or we can lose it all. One of the things we try to teach our children in our religious education courses is tolerance and respect of other religious traditions in addition to our own. That is why our children learn not only about the Judeo-Christian tradition and Unitarian Universalism, but about the best in other world religions, and being accepting of racial and cultural differences. Tolerance and respect begins at home and in one's own religious tradition and heritage. We can't do anything about what children are taught in other churches and traditions, but we can do something about what we teach our own children.

Finally, I come to the issue of deep ecology. What I mean by deep ecology is not any one environmental issue or cause, but the interconnection of all living things and the environment that nourishes and sustains us all on a global scale. Deep ecology is the realization that the vegetation and rainforests, the oceans and water ways, the envelope of air, the mountains and valleys, the fish and birds and mammals, the insects and plankton and microbes--are all part of one living system--and that what we do to one species of life or another we ultimately do to ourselves. Deep ecology is really the whole ball game and the truth be told we are losing it at an alarming rate.

I find it curious that being concerned about ecology and the environment has been made into a liberal/conservative issue. After all, conservation is about conserving what we have and preserving it for future generations. If that isn't a conservative issue I don't know what is. Yet political conservatives seem to be more concerned about tapping the economic resources of the environment without government interference and regulation than they do about conserving the environment for future generations. It was former President Reagan who coined the term "environmental extremists" and once suggested that trees may be a major cause of air pollution. Former President Bush made the mistake of getting caught up in the conflict between northwestern loggers and those who wanted to preserve the habitat of the spotted owls.

The real problem is not spotted owls versus the economic interests of the logging industry, but the practice of clear cutting and decimating entire forests. It is supposed to be quick and easier and more economical, but it is in truth a form of environmental rape which in the long run will put the logging industry out of business and destroy our fast shrinking forests in a couple of generations. How can we criticize the slash and burn tactics of third world nations in South America for destroying their rain forests when we've been doing the same with ours for generations? I was struck by the story of the conservationist, Aldo Leopold, who had a change of heart and mind after seeing a dying wolf that he had shot. He watched "a fierce green fire dying in her eyes" and realized that it represented something in the mountain and in himself that could never be recaptured if he followed through on his wish to kill all the wolves and make the environment into a hunter's paradise for shooting deer. After "seeing the green fire die," he sensed "that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view." Leopold went on to become the father of wildlife conservation in America.

I am reminded of the 1933 movie, "King Kong", which we went to see during a 50th anniversary showing of the film during Dennis Festival Days on the Cape Cod. We took all the kids to see it. I recalled going to see that movie in 1943 with my sister and cousins. I remember being struck by King Kong's eyes--wild and angry and bewildered. King Kong had a soft spot in his heart for the lovely Fay Wray, a love that was his undoing. "'Twas beauty killed the beast" was the message of the film at its climax and ending. But what really killed the beast, the giant ape, was the violation of the natural order of things by human interference. Torn from his natural habitat on a prehistoric island King Kong is brought to New York and put on display. He escapes his captors and wreaks havoc on the city. He climbs the Empire State Building and is shot down by fighter planes, falling ignobly to his death. I felt sorry for King Kong in 1943. I still felt sorry for him in 1983.

"King Kong Died For Your Sins" was a bumper sticker that I came across a number of years ago. I wonder how many whales or eagles or spotted owls or timber wolves or countless species now extinct have died for our sins because we felt they were a nuisance or we put greed ahead of need, or making money for the moment ahead of forethought and planning for the future? Hollywood recently did a remake of another movie about a giant gorilla--"Mighty Joe Young." Like King Kong, Mighty Joe Young is taken from his natural habitat in the jungle and brought to an American city. His female trainer keeps him calm by playing his favorite song on the piano, "Beautiful Dreamer." Eventually Mighty Joe Young escapes from his urban prison and is pursued by those who would kill him if they could. But (at least in the original film) Mighty Joe Young redeems himself and his human pursuers by rescuing children in a burning orphanage. His reward is the right to return to his natural habitat and home in the jungle. The fire in his eyes does not die but is rekindled and born again in the world of nature. The beautiful dreamer lives on and a piece of the human soul is redeemed in the process.

The question for us living today is will Mighty Joe Young or the timber wolf have a mountain or a forest or a jungle to return to if we should decide that they have a right to live no less than ourselves? Or will it be another instance of King Kong died for our sins? Too many species of animal life have become extinct because of human thoughtlessness, greed or ignorance about the interconnectedness of all living things. Will the cod and haddock disappear from Georges Bank someday because we could not set limits to those who fished her waters? The green fire of life may disappear from yet another species or two in the ocean of life because we were careless or forgetful or thoughtless of the needs of future generations of humans and fish.

Speaking for all living beings, we need one another, whether we know it or not, for the life force to continue in all of its amazing shapes and forms and variations. In response we need to support the efforts of environmental agencies and organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, the North and South River Watershed Association, and do our bit to plant trees, feed the birds, stock fish, and reverence the gift of life wherever we find it. It may yet be that the green fire of life may not die but live again in us and through us. Let our prayer be that it shall continue and that we may become stewards and agents of life abundant and thriving throughout the earth and the universe.

"May it continue. May it continue." Amen.