Can We Hold America to UU Values

A sermon by Leo Jones
Paint Branch UU Church
December 1, 2002

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to our worship service this morning. Nearly three years ago, when I concluded that Paint Branch would be my church home, I did not foresee the shape and depth my participation in our religious community would take. My experiences during my three years here have only served to confirm the rightness of my decision to join.

Let me begin by expressing my hope that the thoughts I share with you today will provoke thought and trigger dialogue. In addition, I hereby invoke the names of our co-ministers, Barbara Wells and Jaco tenHove, because they have set the bar so high with their thoughtful and insightful sermons, and because it simply makes me feel better to do so. The exercise of writing this sermon, and my experience as a worship associate, has only served to increase my admiration and appreciation of the work they do. In my own recent experience I have found that what seemed brilliant and illuminating last Tuesday barely passed muster yesterday afternoon. But I am comforted by the knowledge that if my words fall far short of the mark, we will all politely refer to "that Sunday when Leo…you know."

A little more than a year ago, I heard an interview with Robert D. Kaplan, the author of Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos on the Marc Steiner Show, on WYPR in Baltimore. As a casual student of history, I was both intrigued and troubled by the author’s premise that leadership, particularly political leadership, must draw more heavily upon the experience of the ancient world than upon Judeo-Christian ethics. After hearing the interview, I began to test this premise against my understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I wondered about the consequences such a worldview might have for those of us who ascribe to the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist faith. In other worlds, Can We Hold America to UU Principles?

Commentators have been fond of saying that "the world changed" on September 11, 2001. I think that it is far more accurate to say that on that tragic day the real world intruded upon the American consciousness. For the fact is that in most of the world today life is still as Hobbes described it: "nasty, mean, brutish, and short." Our relative affluence and stability often tempts us to believe that the majority of the six billion people who occupy this planet enjoy the same blessings of freedom and plenty that we do. Just a cursory glance at life in Africa, Asia, and South America, however, indicates otherwise. In many cases, the people have been unable to establish the rule of law through stable and predictable institutions, and ethnic, religious, and political factions battle incessantly for the right to determine how scarce resources will be distributed and utilized.

As a result, political elites often rule with force and intimidation and without regard for the well being of the people. To complicate matters still further, many of these conflicts take place outside of the confines of classic nation-states; those who wish us harm do not march openly under the banner of an easily identified foe. Instead, they operate clandestinely in cells with technology that allows them to ignore national borders. Now, as in classical antiquity, the "world is governed by passion, irrationality, and periodic evil." How, then, are we to make sense of this hodgepodge of factional self-interest, and how can we reasonably expect our government to conduct itself?

Kaplan describes what he considers a more realistic way of looking at the world; a view that accounts for the immense moral diversity that is to be found in it. Instead of the personal moral dictates of the Old and New Testaments, Kaplan advocates the so-called "public virtue" extolled by such divergent figures as Sun-Tzu, Churchill, Hobbes, and Machiavelli. It was Machiavelli, the often-vilified author of The Prince, who believed that because Christianity glorified the meek, it allowed the world to be dominated by the wicked; he preferred a pagan ethic that elevated self-preservation over the Christian ethic of sacrifice, which he considered hypocritical.

Where Judeo-Christian morality, as well as our Seven Principles, calls for individuals to be fair and charitable to all, Hobbes counsels nations "to be sociable with them that will be sociable, and formidable to them that will not"; where Judeo-Christian ethics may tempt America to intervene whenever human rights are violated, Kaplan cautions that we should intervene only if morality intersects with self-interest and strategic opportunity. As a result, Kaplan argues, intervention in Kosovo was both strategic and just, while the American experience in Somalia proved merely self-righteous and disastrous. An accurate understanding of power relationships, rather than the moral rightness of political action, should drive national decision-making, Kaplan argues.

The "Warrior Politics," in Kaplan’s title refers both to the need for leaders to think in classic terms, but also to the type of opposition America is likely to face: not "soldiers" with the discipline and professionalism which the word implies in the West, but "warriors"—erratic primitives of shifting allegiance, habituated to violence, with no stake in civil order.

Let me pose a few examples to clarify these opposing worldviews. When Iranian students made hostages of American diplomats, then-President Jimmy Carter resolved that he would remain in the White House rather than campaign actively for reelection. This disastrous Rose Garden strategy neither hastened the release of the hostages, nor won victory for the President. (Parenthetically, it was Jimmy Carter who promised to create a government as good as the American people, ignoring the fact that government is necessary because our goodness is not always apparent. Perhaps this explains why Carter became the greatest ex-president in American history.)

Kaplan would argue that Carter failed to see the hostage crisis in realistic—meaning, classical—terms. While remaining at the White House held symbolic significance at home, it was not likely to strengthen the president’s hand. You will recall that the Ayatollah merely waited until President Reagan’s inauguration before releasing the hostages.

Consider also, this illustration. Imagine that two airliners have been hijacked to a hostile Middle Eastern country, one from America, and another from the People’s Republic of China. How would the two governments react? You can be sure that the Western press would have photographs and biographies of each hostage on the air within minutes of receiving the first reports. Soon, interviews with family members would follow, and a host of experts, policy wonks, and foreign policy mavens would rush to express their opinions about what course of action the government should take. Those who are constitutionally qualified to take action would be scrambling to keep up with press reports as the crisis continued to unfold.

Meanwhile, in China, a very select political elite would meet privately to determine its response to the crisis. The individual identities of the Chinese hostages would play little or no role in the government’s deliberations. This does not mean that the Chinese government thinks less of the lives of individual citizens, but that the interests of the State to preserve the safety of its citizens and to prevent such incidents from occurring would be more important. In other words, the Chinese government would be freer to behave in ancient classical terms than its American counterpart. Kaplan describes the media’s stance as "moral perfectionism" which is possible only because it is politically unaccountable.

Intelligence is the most valuable commodity in Kaplan’s realistic worldview. He would sacrifice nearly any moral imperative to gain access to accurate and up to date information concerning the activities of our enemies. Such trade-offs are necessary, Kaplan argues if American interests are to be protected against terrorism.

If the world is as Kaplan describes it, and "a morality of consequence" is the only responsible approach, can we expect our government to affirm and promote "the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence"? Or are our Principles merely a Utopian pipe dream?

Here Kaplan seeks the help of an unlikely ally. Those of you who, as I did, thought that you would never again have to grapple with Immanuel Kant were mistaken. I remember well the dense, leaden prose that sent me running for more readable commentaries. But Kant rescues us from the "cynicism and deceit" that would afflict statesmen who pursue only a morality of consequences. In Kant’s view, statesmen must at least consider how they ought to act; for in a world completely absent of a morality of intent, few would tell the truth or keep their promises.

Here Kaplan offers a clue to those of us who are not prepared to give up on our principles. We would do well to continue to hold our leaders to traditional ethical standards, even as we understand that the realities of power will sometimes make it difficult for them to reach. For the values expressed in our principles constitute an important check and balance on the exercise of governmental power—both internally and internationally. For example, it is the climate of the acceptance of diversity that has led the government to see the error of its ways when it imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II. One hopes that the memory of the internment will serve to prevent similar treatment of Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans in post-911 America.

In some respects, however, democratic methods have taken it on the chin. Unnamed so-called "combatants" are being held in isolation without counsel, and without specific charges. There is work to be done on the home front, as well, as only a few weeks ago, our nation’s chief law enforcement officer announced without shame that a seventeen year old would be prosecuted in Virginia because that state provided the best possibility that he would be put to death.

Imagine, what might have happened had Unitarians and other people of conscience waited for our leaders to find it politically expedient to grant civil rights to African-Americans. The recognition that the world is a harsh place where complex decisions must be made does not excuse us from the exercise of principled leadership when it is required. Otherwise we must abandon the world to cynicism and injustice. May we never be such realists that we lose our dreams for a better world. So let it be.

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