Saturday, November 18, 2017

Define American

Two weeks ago, I met Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who is undocumented.  

He grew up in the Philippines until age 12, when his mother put him on a plane to come to the United States and live with his grandparents about a half hour south of San Francisco. This was 1993. He hasn’t seen his mom or his siblings for the last 24 years because of his “illegal” status, and his mother can’t get a visa to visit because her poor income makes her high-risk in the eyes of those who grant tourist visas.

Jose Antonio arrived and entered the sixth grade. He studied hard and to fit in, he listened closely to television shows, and would repeat phrases for hours to learn how to speak American. In the eighth grade he memorized words he couldn’t even pronounce and ended up winning the spelling bee, on the word indefatigable.  At age 16, he took the green card his grandfather had given him to the DMV to apply for a drivers license. The clerk whispered to him, "This is fake, don’t come back here." He went home to confront his grandfather and learned the truth. All of his documents including his social security card were fake.

His grandfather assumed Jose Antonio would eventually become a citizen by marrying one. But in 1999, at age 17, his class watched a video about Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco city council member who was murdered. In the class discussion that followed, Jose Antonio came out of one closet. While it was tough being the only openly gay student at his high school, it was far easier than to reveal his immigration status. The first person he told was his choir director when she announced that the choir would tour Japan. The next week she announced that the choir would tour Hawaii instead. Many years later she told him, "I wasn’t going to leave any of my kids behind." In time Jose would tell certain teachers, the principal, even the superintendent who he became close to. And they all mentored and guided him as he navigated through San Francisco State College and into a career of journalism that would lead him to interviewing some of the most famous people in the country.

In 2008, while working with the Washington Post, he was on a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Virginia Tech shootings. When he called his grandmother to share with her the news, the first thing she said was, "What will happen if people find out?" He cried in anguish after that call. The following year he worked at the Huffington Post. His HIV/AIDS series was made into a documentary. And he got an exclusive interview with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker. But the more he achieved, the more scared and depressed he became. 

He read about undocumented Americans walking in protest of the current immigration laws and calling on a more humane policy toward the undocumented. He reached out to talk with them. He marveled at their courage claiming an American identity while the law and wider society saw them as illegal, unwelcome. He credits these courageous young people for giving him the courage to join the efforts of changing the conversation in the wider culture about what it means to be an American.

in 2011 even though he managed to get a new drivers license with fake documents that wouldn’t expire until 2016, he decided to come out publicly. The New York Times Magazine ran his story entitled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” He said

I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream. But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me. So I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection. ... I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story. I do know that I am grateful to my grandparents, my Lolo and Lola, for giving me the chance for a better life. I’m also grateful to my other family — the support network I found here in America — for encouraging me to pursue my dreams.

He used this article and the attention he received to launch a powerful nonprofit called Define American. As the website says, "It’s time for a new conversation about immigrants and identity in America. Why do people come to this country? What does it mean to be undocumented? What does it mean to be a good citizen?" This website is designed to support undocumented young people, to help them come out and claim who they are, and to spread greater understanding of their plight. The films on the website are extraordinary, including one he made for MTV entitled White People

This month, my congregation at Unity Temple is exploring the theme of abundance: What does it mean to be a people of abundance? When I think of what it means to be American, I think of abundance. Isn’t our nation one of great abundance, an abundance of resources, an abundance of opportunities, an abundance of hope and courage in the hearts of so many? Last weekend we celebrated Veterans Day, and the ideals on which the country was founded, ideals that many many people have committed their lives to defend. And soon we will be celebrating Thanksgiving, a time when we recognize the abundant blessings we enjoy as Americans. It is a time to remember the American story. 

But there is a shadow side to our nation’s story. Our national identity was forged on the exploitation and decimation of the native people who originally peopled this continent and the enslavement and exploitation of black skinned people who didn’t immigrate to this continent but were brought here in chains. The shadow side of our national story runs deep. And it emerged from the base impulses of greed, of fear, of hatred that dominated, diminished, and destroyed the humanity of so many. But this doesn't have to be the end of the story.

The redemptive story of our nation is how over time, our culture has at times claimed the better angels of our nature to lift up the humanity of all people.

At Unity Temple, we believe in the worth and dignity of every individual. And this calls us into hard conversations about racial inequality and the ongoing struggles for many people of color. It calls us to understand what it means to be gay, trans and what it means to be human in all sorts of contexts. As Unitarian Universalists, we have had a very real impact on the opening up of American culture to affirm and accept gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender people. In our lives. Even the younger generation has witnessed how real shifts are possible. 

Over the past few weeks and months, I’m wondering if we are witnessing the beginning of a deeply significant shift, as more and more women are coming forward sharing their stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape. There’s something extraordinary happening in our wider culture that even as we have a president who has celebrated his own sexual predatory behavior and gotten away with saying the most misogynist things, many women are speaking up about their own experience, joining the #metoo movement, demonstrating just how pervasive are the violation and objectification of women’s bodies.

Two weeks ago, the speaker from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee suggested that we are witnessing the last gasps of white male supremacy. I hope so, but these gasps come from not only decades but centuries of entitlement, oppression, and secrecy. 

The reality of sexual abuse and sexual harassment has been a part of the shadow of civilized society for centuries. I pray that this cultural moment is a real turning point where victims of sexual predatory behavior can speak up and be taken seriously. For the problem of sexual predatory behavior is not limited to a few famous powerful people. 

Ultimately I believe Audre Lorde has it right, “Your silence will not protect you.” Wherever you are holding secrets of who you are, whether it’s your sexual identity, your experience of being taken advantage of, wherever you are most vulnerable, that is from where real truth comes. Suppressing the truth due to fear means suppressing who we really are. Moving through our fears makes it possible to respond to where we are being called. Claiming who we are and bringing forth all who we are, then we can live into genuine abundance. 

Audre Lorde was a self-described "black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet." As she said forty years ago, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” 

Jose Antonio Vargas knows this. He travels throughout the country supporting others who share his undocumented status. When Central American children were being detained by the thousands in McAllen, Texas, he headed there to meet and support them and to bring more attention to their plight. But he was unaware that he was entering a militarized zone that would require him to pass through an immigration checkpoint to leave. There he met with undocumented people who were stuck in that area, who if they tried to leave, they would surely be deported. When he went through security to catch his plane, the immigration agents handcuffed him and detained him for hours. They released him with a statement that he has no criminal record.

When Donald Trump was elected a year ago, Jose Antonio received hundreds of text messages saying essentially, I’m so sorry. His grandmother urged him to go into hiding. His lawyers suggested he lie low, well all of his lawyers except Mony Ruiz-Velasco, the executive director of PASO here in the western suburbs. She told him, “we have your back.” So when Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, called Jose Antonio to invite him to be her guest at President Trump’s first inaugural address, he accepted. Sitting literally in the heart of power of this nation, he never felt so American. He immediately wrote about this experience in the Washington Post. He said,

I decided to show up tonight because that’s what immigrants, undocumented and documented, do: We show up. Despite the obvious risks and palpable fear, we show up to work, to school, to church, to our communities, in big cities and rural towns. ... We show up even though many Americans, especially white Americans with their own immigrant backgrounds, can’t seem to see the common threads between why we show up and why they showed up, at a time when showing up did not require visas and the Border Patrol didn’t yet exist.

I take great inspiration from gay, lesbian, and trans people like Audre Lorde and Jose Antonio Vargas who recognize that silence ultimately is submission, and that authentic power comes from using our strength in the service of our vision to lift up the worth and dignity of every individual. It’s time for a new conversation about how vulnerable people are treated. 

What deep joy do you hold that is getting suppressed? What fears hold you back that you need to move through?

As we enter the Thanksgiving Season, may we be thankful for the many blessings we enjoy and may we use our blessings to lift up the worth and dignity of all people, thankful that we are a part of a community for whom this work is at the core of who we are. 

This was taken largely from a sermon I gave at Unity Temple on November 12, 2017. The podcast can be listened to here.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Changing the Moral Conversation to Resist Hatred

A middle-aged man shared with me that as a bitter, young man he vandalized a building with swastikas and racial slurs. Now he is a member of a church in our Oak Park community. He shared this with me shortly before the prayer vigil that Community of Congregations hosted on behalf of Pilgrim Congregational Church, which was vandalized in the same way on August 19. He said that he understands how racial hatred can grow in a person’s heart—and that he thinks it important that people recognize that those who engage in hateful acts are hurting and isolated. He wants his story known. He also is a living example that we human beings are capable of growth and change, that we are not defined by a terrible action but by how we acknowledge our hurtful behavior, seek amends, and learn how to be in responsible relationship with others. 

It was only a day earlier that I learned of the vandalism at Pilgrim. I was heartened that without even 24 hours notice, over 200 people attended our prayer vigil. It speaks to the commitment of our community to our collective well being—and our shared outrage at how the white nationalist movement that tacitly condones violence.

Six weeks ago I agreed to attend the 1,000 Minister March in Washington D.C. as part of a delegation of colleagues primarily from Chicago’s westside. The march on Monday August 28 was on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The aim of the march was to mobilize faith leaders to speak out more clearly and directly about the immorality of white supremacy and to change the moral conversation within politics and our public life. 

The National Action Network, led by Rev. Al Sharpton, hoped to mobilize 1,000 religious leaders. Over 3,000 showed up, including 300 rabbis who organized the previous two weeks. I was honored to go and represent both my congregation at Unity Temple and the Community of Congregations. 

After the white nationalist gathering and violence in Charlottesville, the march took on much greater significance. It’s scary. The fear and hatred of people who are “other” has always been with us but kept in check by our social mores. Several public leaders have been normalizing the rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan, and thus normalizing the call to violence. 

The moral conversation in our public life is eroding. Over the last few years, so many in our congregations have come to recognize that there is still a lot of work to do to achieve racial equity, even in Oak Park. And yet there is a growing movement to draw close and stand together to make a moral stand. I believe the majority of religious leaders in this nation share the conviction that hate-based perspectives do not reflect either our faith traditions or the core values of this nation.

We gathered near the Martin Luther King Memorial and marched to the Department of Justice. Several speeches were given before and after Protestant, Jewish, Sikh, Muslim and Catholic leaders. And then we marched to the Department of Justice, where further speeches were given, with Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Martin Luther King III, and Rev. Michael Eric Dyson providing the final statements.

The most cited reference to Dr. King was his declaration, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Several speakers noted that we must know what we value so that we are know we are willing to make sacrifices for what is right. And there was a call to resistance, to resist with love. It’s worthwhile to ponder what it means that “Love resists” especially in the way Dr. King lived out his commitments. 

Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mt Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago said to the crowd in front of the Department of Justice: “We are all in this together. We may have come on different ships—the Mayflower, the slave ship, the immigration ship, or across the Rio Grande, but we are now all in this together. Now is the time to lift the voice of the faith. Someone has to accept the assignment to halt our nation’s descent on the slippery slope of fascism and racism. This is not normal.” 

Rabbi Jonah Pesner ended his powerful remarks saying, “We know we have the power as people of faith to act together and transform our society. We know when we stand together, when we love one another as neighbors, then we can hold our leaders accountable to a higher moral vision that transcends any one political party and any one administration, and that we can redeem the soul of our nation.”

One of the Jewish woman rabbis spoke of the upcoming High Holy Days and their Jewish prayer that at this time God will open the gates of righteousness. Then she said, “We are here to open the gates of righteousness, to open the gates of justice. We are here because it doesn’t look like our justice department is trying to do that. Lately it seems that our justice department is working overtime to close those gates and barricade them shut. To lock the gates to the voting booth, to lock the gates of private prisons after they have filling them to capacity, they want to lock the gates to this country, to lock the gates of our hospitals and our clinics. Today I stand with my bothers and sisters of faith to say that when our justice department closes the gates, together we will push them back open.”

However the words that stay with me the most came after the prayer vigil here in Oak Park. One of the attendees asked me, “What is the next step? I’m ready. What’s next?” I hope to have a clear answer in the near future. That’s the question we religious leaders need to be asking of ourselves and discussing with each other.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Honoring the 200th Birthday of Henry David Thoreau the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, I'd like to share a little about his life and legacy.

He came from a family of pencil-makers and was raised in a modest home in Concord, Massachusetts. When he was 20 years old when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson and was influenced by the budding Transcendentalist movement. At age 24 he moved into the Emerson home to tutor the children and at age 28 built a hut on Walden Pond where he lived quietly for two years, his reflections on which would became Walden the first great environmentalist text. 

There’s a short excerpt that rivets me. From Walden

How do we measure the cost of things? The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. 

Two weeks after his 29th birthday, he ran into the local tax collector who asked him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused, declaring his opposition to the government’s involvement with the Mexican American War and endorsement of slavery. He spent a night in jail. As he turned 30, he published his monumental essay entitled Resistance to Civil Government which is also known as Civil Disobedience. When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed two years later, Thoreau actively helped former slaves flee to Canada. While his friends among the Transcendentalists recognized his literary genius, it would take decades, even a century for his work to be broadly embraced. The wider world would not come to appreciate his work during his lifetime, other than an extraordinarily controversial essay he wrote entitled, "A Plea for Captain John Brown."

John Brown was an abolitionist, a fierce abolitionist, who devised a plan to take over a United States armory and use the weapons there to initiate a slave rebellion to wreak terror in the hearts of slaveholders. People like Frederick Douglas refused to join him, saying it was a suicide mission. Many of the 22 men who attacked the armory died. Captain John Brown was captured. Henry David Thoreau actively defended the intention to abolish slavery and to resist the reality that the United States government protected and propagated slavery. 

Captain John Brown would have been gone down in public perception as simply as a madman, but thanks to Thoreau’s essay, Brown became a martyr in many people’s eyes to the cause of abolishing slavery, thus awaking an appetite and willingness to enter Civil War.

Two years later, at the age of 44, Henry David Thoreau died of complications of the tuberculosis he long suffered. 

How do we measure the cost of things? The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. 

Thoreau would have been 90 years old when Gandhi read his essay on Civil Disobedience. It was 1907 and one year into Gandhi's satyagraha campaign in South Africa. He expressed his belief that Thoreau’s essay was “the chief cause of the abolition of slavery in America. ... Both his example and writings are at present exactly applicable.” As Gandhi notes, Thoreau went to jail for the sake of his principles and the suffering of humanity. His essay has, therefore, sanctified suffering. 

In 1944, when Thoreau would have been 129 years old, Martin Luther King was inspired by his writing while attending Morehouse College. As he said in his autobiography, “Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before."

Today, July 12, marks Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday. We have reason to remember him. Not simply because he’s considered the beginning of the modern environmental movement with Walden or a founder of non-violent resistance with Civil Disobedience. I believe we need to reflect on his musings in the context of our age.

How do we measure the cost of things? The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. 

For Thoreau our lives are worth so much and our values are worth the dedication of our very lives. 

Thoreau came of age among the Transcendentalist movement that was essentially split into two factions. There were the Emerson individualists who called for a retreat into nature to find wisdom and revelation and essentially left the church and organized society and then there were the social activists like Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, George Ripley and others. I agree with Philip Gura, the author of American Transcendentalism that Thoreau bridged the gap between these two different strands of transcendentalism by “integrating practical ethics into self-reliance.” That’s what makes Thoreau so convincing today “He doesn’t just tell you what’s wrong, he shows you how to live a life of integrity in response.”

Thoreau paved the way for the Unitarian Universalist principles, especially our seventh principle, to protect the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part. 

What would Thoreau be teaching today?

My heart is heavy what is happening in Mexico. If you are upset with our president, the president of Mexico has an administration that collects information about journalists and human rights activists who then wind up dead. In Mexico today, there are hundreds of people who follow Thoreau’s maxims and speak the truth about the corruption they have witnessed, and many of these people have lost their lives.

If Thoreau lived here in the western suburbs of Chicago, he would call upon his city's governance structure and all those around him to adopt a sanctuary city ordinance. He would urge us to connect with refugees and immigrants as human beings. He would point out how unjust our economic system is for people of color and call for a more equal playing field. He would call us to stand with one another on behalf of those who are exploited whether on the basis of race, class, or any other category. 

He would support the efforts of Unitarian Universalist Tim DeChristopher who disrupted the sale of federal land near Canyonlands and Arches National Parks by making false bids of up to 1.8 million to block development and bring attention to climate crisis. And he would support the Valve Turners, that group of five senior citizens who turned the valves off of a major oil drilling plant at the cost of likely spending the rest of their lives in prison.

He would ask us simply to reflect on his words.

How do we measure the cost of things? The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. 

Happy 200th birthday Henry David Thoreau. In your lifetime, your impact and influence was limited but has grown as more and more people of integrity and compassion have recognized our need as faithful citizens to integrate practical ethics into self-reliance. May your influence grow as we reflect on your words. 


Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Cost of What Really Matters

A reflection the day after Memorial Day

I serve Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation that has a beloved worship home that has received extraordinary media coverage in print, on television, on radio. It is humbling to think our building is better well known than our faith tradition! But often what’s ultimately important is not what makes us famous but how we conduct our lives. 

The question is whether we embody our cherished values and ideals. It’s a challenge often to do so. I’m often reminded how I fall short. Yet this is what we do for one another in worship and in genuine community. We gather to remind ourselves what is ultimately important. We gather to remember the ideals we are called to embody. 

The values of kindness, honesty, and integrity often seem to be in short supply these days. Yet, if we look closely at people in our midst, we can see all sorts of teachers. I notice many people who reach out with compassion to people who are struggling or responding to a social challenge. I notice how many go the extra mile. I notice how people in our wider community respond to the needs of others, sometimes on a moment’s notice or in unexpected circumstances.  

I can’t stop thinking of the three men on the Portland train who intervened when an man angrily cursed and threatened a woman in a hijab and her African American friend. Their intervention was the civil, thoughtful response. It is what I’d hope I would have done in their situation. And yet two of these men lost their lives and the third was seriously injured. 

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “How do we measure the cost of things?” The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” 

Over Memorial Day weekend, I reflected on how some people willingly put their lives on the line for the sake of our cherished ideals. This is truly an embodiment of our values. So I’m also thinking about all those who willingly sacrifice for the sake of others. I think Thoreau is on to something. 

What is worthy of you? What is worthy of the greatest cost? 

What values are you called to embody in this challenging time in our nation’s history?

May my own reflection to be sufficient for your reflection this week. 

Grateful to be journeying with you all,

Saturday, April 22, 2017

In honor of Earth Day and the Science March

In honor of Earth Day, I participated in Chicago's Science March.  An important time to stand up for the environment and declare, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts."

In addition, I share a past sermon entitled "Faith and Darwin."


"Faith and Darwin" delivered at Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation

In 1925, John Scopes, a biology teacher, was taken to court for teaching evolution in the classroom. The state of Tennessee had recently passed a law forbidding evolution education, and a group of Dayton progressives wanted some publicity for their town. They got it. Journalists swarmed to the trial. 

For years tension had mounted between traditionalists and modernists, and now a showdown erupted. The great Unitarian lawyer, Clarence Darrow, provided the defense, proclaiming, “Scopes isn’t on trial. Civilization is on trial.” William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate, served as prosecutor, declaring “If evolution wins, Christianity goes.” Jennings was a populist who led a fundamentalist assault to banish Darwin’s theory of evolution from the classroom. The beloved prosecutor, used a fascinating line of inquiry that basically went: “These are simple people. They work hard. They want to believe something beautiful in life. Why do you want to take that away from them?” 

What became known as the famous monkey trial did, only after appeal, succeed in throwing out the Tennessee law banning evolution, but it persuaded textbook publishers and state boards of education to stop teaching evolution altogether. Not until the 1960s would evolution become standard curriculum. It took the Russian launched Sputnik to scare Americans into beefing up science education. Interestingly, That era had their own “equal-time” laws which required the genesis narrative to be taught alongside evolution, but they were struck down by the courts in 1968 for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. 

Upon entering the 21st century, along with many other educated folks, I assumed that Darwin’s theory of evolution was a battle won decades ago by science and the enlightenment mindset of western civilization. I thought controversies over evolution theory were passé and only the focus of religious zealots. But a recent pew forum poll found that 42 percent agreed that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Nearly two-thirds of Americans currently believe “intelligent design” ought to be taught alongside evolution in public schools in science classes. 

The way some people talk about Charles Darwin, you’d think he must have been a monster. House Majority Leader Tom Delay, once the most powerful lawmaker in the land, said awhile back that the Columbine High School shootings happened “because our school systems teach our people that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud. Guns don’t kill people,” he argued, and I quote, “Charles Darwin kills people.” 

Charles Darwin happens to be one of my favorite historical figures, and I am compelled to address the truth about Darwin the man, his famous theory, and the implications it has on authentic religious faith. Charles Darwin, in his day, was known to be one of the most respectful, sensitive men in his society. A number of people claimed he was overly sensitive, always refraining from offending anyone, and often anguished about the suffering of others, even when he didn’t know them. He grew up in a Unitarian home and was encouraged to study with an open mind. Yes, Charles Darwin was raised a Unitarian, until his mother died and he was put in an Anglican boarding school. He pursued studies to be an Episcopal priest, not so he could be a clergyman, but so that he could study nature, for some priests back then dedicated themselves to natural theology. Darwin never donned the cloth, for he got a remarkable opportunity—to be the naturalist aboard a ship that would take a five year voyage. By the end of the second of those five years, Darwin saw how evolution works. It was very simple, the theory of natural selection. When organisms reproduce, they never reproduce exact replicas of themselves, instead there are always variations in hereditary characteristics. Those organisms that have characteristics most suitable to survival and reproduction live and their characteristics become more widespread in a population while the others fade out. That’s it. Darwin summed up this most influential idea in western thought in ten words: “[M]ultiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” He knew that ‘strongest’ didn’t mean ‘brawniest.’ but rather an organism’s ability to have offspring that could survive, whether that meant having stripes, or an elongated neck, a bigger brain, more perceptive ears, a heartier digestive system. 

A classic example of evolution in action occurred in an England forest among butterflies. The population of pale white butterflies increased because, sitting on pale tree branches, birds could not spot them easily. When a factory was built nearby and the smoke pollution darkened the tree branches, the near white butterflies stood out against the branches and were easy targets by the birds. But mutations occurred among the population, as Darwin’s theory hypothesizes, and as those light colored butterflies reproduced, most of them were born the same color, while a few, by chance, were even whiter—easy food. Other butterflies, also by chance, were born greyer than their parents, and these young butterflies blended into the polluted tree branches and they lived long enough to have plenty of offspring. Within a few years, almost every butterfly in that forest was grey. 

Darwin’s simple theory reverberated through western society, calling upon people to re-assess their religion and morality. The implications of his theory were devastating for traditional religious belief. And because of this need for reassessment, evolutionary theory threatens a lot of people who see themselves as the center of the universe and insist on affirming fallacies that science demonstrates as implausible as the sun revolving around the earth.

There’s no way getting around it, Darwin’s idea undermines traditional notions of God. The best argument of his time for the existence of God suddenly was called into question. It is called Paley’s argument. If you come across a stone, you need think nothing of it. If you come across a finely crafted watch with all of its intricacies, you know it must have had a creator. It just didn’t materialize out of nothing, but it took time and attention to put it together. Similarly with plants, animals, and humans. All of these are so well put together, with an amazing amount of diversity, that clearly there must be a creator, and so God must exist. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, later supported by the discovery and research of genes and DNA replication, offers a far less mysterious explanation for the development of life than biblical stories.

For our faith tradition, critical inquiry is a core religious value. Science makes use of critical inquiry as a lens to better understand our world through testing hypotheses. Good theories are simply stories, stories that work. As our understanding about the world deepens with scientific discovery, the story sometimes changes and sometimes gets longer. But it will never reach finality, just as faith cannot reach finality. 

You may say ‘what about the story of intelligent design—isn’t that a story that works?’ Actually, no, not as a scientific theory. Intelligent design theory isn’t really a theory at all because it can’t be tested. There’s nothing to show that it works. Instead intelligent design theory is speculation, not science. Anybody who says so fails to understand the basic fundamentals of science. Faith stances won’t ever be science and should never be a part of science classes. Blurring faith and science leads to poor science which then ultimately weakens authentic faith. I don’t understand why many Americans have difficulty with this. One way or another, most Christian denominations throughout the world have managed to reconcile belief in God with belief in the mechanisms of natural selection. Stephen Jay Gould notes that if a French, German or Scandinavian politician who called for students to entertain as a reasonable deduction from existing evidence the proposition that Earth is at most 10,000 years old, the politician would be bundled off to a mental hospital. As he says, “No one looking at the physical record would determine that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, that fossils represent the creatures drowned in Noah's flood and so on. The only way those notions would even occur to you is if you considered the Bible an unerring historical document.” There’s the problem.

Some people claim that the theory of evolution negates religion. Actually, for religious liberals it clarifies and makes urgent for a liberal religious perspective. Gould puts it beautifully in A Glorious Accident: “Through no fault of our own, and by dint of no cosmic plan or conscious purpose, we have become, by the grace of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We have not asked for that role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.”

Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Science can be used to complement and hone faith rather than contradict it. Biology professor, Kenneth Miller of Brown defends his own faith in God. When students ask what kind of God, he struggled answering until he responded with what has become the name of his book, “Darwin’s God.”

So lets reflect some on what evolutionary theory teaches about faith, the faith of a Darwinist. As for the morality or values exemplified by nature, the process of natural selection is ruthless. Evolution occurs with the extinction of creatures with less adaptive traits. Darwin, himself, suffered interminably with the implications of his theory. Life is harsh. 

Some people claim that Darwin’s theory abolishes the meaning of life. Actually, Darwin’s theory puts an extraordinary amount of meaning into life. For it saddles human beings with the responsibility of what we do or do not do with this life. My colleague Mark Belletini puts it poetically: “Gingko trees don’t express a sense of fairness.  Human beings do.  Perch do not write love sonnets, storks do not express compassion, eels do not wriggle in tenderness when their children laugh.  The natural world outside humankind has instinct, and the higher mammals even express elementary forms of love, but the grand ideas of justice and compassion evolved for the first time with clarity within the human heart.” In other words, humanity has developed a moral compass and honed that compass over millennia, even if it isn’t consistently followed, it is there. 

Darwin’s theory illuminates the truth that everything alive is changing. Everything is evolving. With Darwin, we cannot live under the illusion that there is anything living that is unchanging. The same goes for knowledge and understanding, including religious knowledge and understanding. In science, ever new insights emerge. And in religion, revelation is never sealed, ever new insights emerge. More than that, we can’t know in what way things are changing or exactly where we are going. Some religious worldviews believe that something specific will happen in the end times, but Darwinian theory calls upon a faith that discounts any claim of finality.

Evolutionary theory even posits something like original sin. Each and everyone of us has the propensity for greed, lust, envy, hatred, jealousy, and prejudice. According to evolutionary theory, these selfish proclivities run deep in us, so deep that we often are unaware how self-serving our behaviors are, nor how useless or destructive they are. We are designed to think that we are the most special person in the world. To come to believe that you are not the center of the universe takes some maturity. To behave as if you are not the most special person in the universe, takes a great deal more maturity. 

Charles Darwin believed that life evolved for the greater good—the “good of the group” and that also goes for human beings, that human morality has evolved. In 1882, he said, “As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”

I want to believe with Darwin that it takes mere reason to be good and that there is only an artificial barrier that prevents us from being compassionate towards all people the world over, but research done in the field of evolutionary psychology strongly suggests this barrier is far from artificial. (Not to mention how many peoples of the world treat other peoples). Instead this barrier is very real, caused, according to evolutionary psychology, by our instinctual desire to pass on our genes. We are hardwired to be selfish, self-serving, and self-absorbed. But this stamp from nature isn’t the end of the story. The genetic mandate, that inner macho bugle call to move in the interest of the survival of the fittest into war and brutality gets challenged time and again by the prophetic call of peacemakers who serve the larger interest of the common good. To transcend the effects of the selfish gene, we have an inner call and capacity to develop and adhere to a moral code, to have it awakened, even fully operational. This takes self-examination, personal scrutiny, and self-honesty. It is our basic, or should I say base, human nature that prevents us from being sympathetic to people who are different, and it is a part of our human nature that we have the capacity to transcend our self-centeredness. 
In this time of providing relief to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, we are witnessing a cultural battle between those who believe in responding to the call to love and those who believe the public should not be expected to sacrifice for others.

Another way liberal religion has been shaped and transformed by Darwin and his theory of evolution is by affirming the priority of justice over doctrine. As moral animals, doing what is right is more important than thinking what is right. In theological language, orthopraxy, ethical action, is far more vital than orthodoxy, having the right beliefs. Love trumps opinions for Darwinians. As hurricane survivors fan out across the country, and as people’s lives have been destroyed by this catastrophe, what matters so much more about what you think about it all is what you are doing about it. And that goes for us as a congregation. What shall we do? If you are compelled by conscience to help respond, let me or a board member know. We’re meeting tonight, so its good timing. We’ve already collected over $8300. Do we want to do more? It’s our call.

Here at Unity Temple, we are gathered as children of the Enlightenment, as inheritors of Darwin’s faith; while we recognize that we are hardwired for selfishness, we come together to nourish those values that make us uniquely moral animals.

I have faith in our capacity to find sustaining joy through the transcendence of our animal instincts. As we become aware that happiness does not come from constant striving for pleasure, constant striving for wealth, or constant striving for status, we can forge our own moral knowing—and that knowing comes from the peace that comes with taking steps to right livelihood. Those steps are best taken in the company of others who share the same dedication to free ourselves for the sake of love.

To answer William Jennings Bryan’s plea to John Scopes, why do you want to take something beautiful away from those who believe in an antiquated myth, I respond, as human beings we are called to a profound love, we are called to our nobility as a truly moral animal, there is great beauty and joy that comes with transcending our animal nature, and doing so opens up a door to the brilliant possibilities we have as human beings. 

Why would anyone want to take this possibility that comes with cultivating a faith as deep as Darwin’s?

Blessed be. Amen