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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Glitter or Gold: How Does the UN Matter?

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with John Sebastian and Bettie Young, Worship Associates and the Choir

Glitter or Gold:  How Does the UN Matter?

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

October 28, 2012

How does the United Nations matter today? Is it Glitter or is it Gold? Or is it tarnished and a bit worn, in need of renovation?

I ask because this is the Golden Anniversary year of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations, for which we will take up a Special Collection later in the service. And, today, on its 65th birthday, we celebrate United Nations Day, the creation of which was spearheaded by Unitarian lay leaders. The UN General Assembly established it by unanimous vote as an international day on which people would come together in their communities to fortify their countries’ efforts to achieve a lasting world peace through the United Nations. In this anniversary year, we might ask whether the UN has been or can be effective in promoting peace, and what role ought Unitarian Universalists play in its future, if any?

After all, a desire for peace was the reason for founding the UN itself in June 1945, soon after the end of World War II, a war which had involved many nations and effected all, with the lasting scars of fear, violence and destruction always left in the wake of war, but more so then than ever before. 

It was a noble and idealist venture. Listen to the words of the Preamble to the UN Charter as we read them aloud - printed as #475 in the back of your gray hymnal. Let us read in unison:





This great and glorious, radical statement inspires awe today, even as it did in the heart and mind of Worship Associate Bettie Young when she was a twelve-year old girl. Born in the year she visited the United Nations, I grew up with that same reverential feeling for the UN. Living not far away, on Long Island, I recall from my childhood, the family tours of New York City when visitors came to town and a sense of my parents’ respectful tone of voice as we drove past the United Nations. I remember, too, their esteem for then UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold who served from 1953 up to his death in a place crash in 1961, and whose posthumously published book of meditations, Markings, I found in their bookcase as a teenager. It must have been my first exposure to a spiritual humanist perspective, toward which I grew and which guides me still.

I always read a quote from Hammarskjold’s Markings as the Chalice Lighting for the newcomers’ class we offer twice a year, which happened to have been yesterday. He said, “God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity. But we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

While it was the Unitarian side of our family who saw the potential for an international UN Day focusing on world peace and made it happen, and fifteen years later started an office at the UN through which we could promote our UU values at the UN, it is really the Universalists from whom we get our theology of peace. I was reminded of this on Friday night, when I got to hear the always-wise Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of our UU school of theology in Berkeley, California. She reminded those gathered that “the most violence can do is stop something. It can stop a violent aggressor. But violence can never create. It can never console. It can never repair what has been lost. It can never bring peace into being.”

She went on to say that, “It is important for us as Unitarian Universalists to remember that our religious heritage has consistently protested the image of God as a sanctioner of violence. When the early leading Universalist minister-theologian Hosea Ballou issued his treatise on the doctrine of the atonement in 1805 he objected to the God of violence in Christian doctrine, who required the violent death of his son Jesus to save humanity. In contrast, Universalism proclaims that violence does not save the world. Our hope, rather, is in the creative activity of love. Love is the active, creative force that repairs life's injuries and brings new possibilities into being. Where the world needs saving, it will be by love not violence.”

So this is where we get our theology of peace and this is why we UU’s maintain an office at the UN from which to promote our values on the world stage. I stopped in at that office once.

It was February 2003. That month I spent a week in New York City helping my sister and her husband with their newborn twins.  I took a day off from infant care to visit the UN. It was February 13th, which happened to be the day before Secretary of State Colin Powell’s most important speech to the Security Council—the one in which he showed the video supposedly showing the presence of weapons of mass destruction. That Saturday was the day of peace rallies around the world and a huge one in NYC that I attended. Nevertheless, US troops invaded Iraq one month later.

But, on that visit to the UN, I was moved to tears by the hope and faith the place represented, and then to tears again reading a display listing the contributions of the member countries, with mine being delinquent, feeling deep remorse and sorrow over the sins of my country - pulling funding, pulling support and getting ready to go to war in Iraq, in violation of the UN Charter and international law, even as we barely had begun to find Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, an effort I then supported.

That day, I obtained a pass from the Unitarian Universalist UN Office (you can do that, too, if you visit the UN), which entitled me to attend a briefing that morning by organizations working with youth round the world. It was rather disappointing, but in the hallway afterwards, I picked up a flyer announcing an “urgent briefing” about the Nuclear Crisis on the Korean Peninsula!  With the Ambassador from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (i.e., North Korea) himself speaking, as well as two American experts on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty!  It was sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, about which we have been hearing more than we’d like in recent months, as President Bush’s administration pushed for a reason to invade Iraq.  I was so excited, and hoped the guard in the hallway would not notice that my pass was only good for the other, less consequential, briefing!

I slipped in and took a seat at the edge of the room.  I felt like I was watching history unfold. There was a head table for the speakers at the open end of a long U of tables, where there was a set of headphones at every seat, for simultaneous translation into the six official UN languages, the most spoken languages in the world:  Arabic, English, French, Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish.  The room was warm and it was full; some people were using the headphones; there were cameras.  During the Question and Answer time, I learned there were reporters present as well as representatives of concerned non-governmental organizations; most were probably staff from the various UN member states.  The North Korean Ambassador spoke in English and read from a prepared text, as did the two American speakers.  I followed the conversation as best I could.

You may recall that a few months after September 11, 2001, President Bush repudiated the U.S. pledge of no “hostile intent” toward North Korea by naming it as one of the “axis of evil.” North Korea in turn began acquiring an operational capability to enrich uranium.  In September 2002, the American president announced his new National Security Strategy, which included a new foreign policy doctrine of preemptive war, with a scary change in our nuclear strategy as well.  That December, President Kim Jong Il announced North Korea’s intent to unfreeze the plutonium reactor at Yongbyon and to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Then there was talk that the US would attack North Korea. This was the context of the hearing I was so excited to attend.

A few weeks after my trip to NYC, a long-time friend, who knew nothing about my UN visit, invited me to attend a meeting of local clergy planning an interfaith peace mission to North Korea! As I struggled with feeling totally ill-equipped and ill-prepared for such a mission, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been tapped, that my being present for that hearing at the UN with the North Korean ambassador had paved the way or was some kind of serendipitous sign to do it despite my fears.

So, my free pass from the UU UN Office led me to help start Clergy Advocates for Peace in the Korean Peninsula, which led me to raise the money and get a visa to travel to North Korea with an interfaith clergy delegation! In the end, by July of that same year, it all eventually led to nowhere because the Korean minister who got it started, and through whom we had a connection with the North Korean Ambassador to the UN, left town due to issues with his immigration status. So, when you visit the UN, beware the adventures that may befall you because of the free pass you can get at the UU UN Office!

Since my visit in 2003, the UU UN Office has acquired a new excellent Executive Director, Bruce Knotts, who preached here two years ago; renewed its historic ties with the Unitarian Universalist Association; continued its advocacy that the US join the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and most European countries in becoming members of the International Criminal Court, the formation of which the UU UN Office worked on tenaciously through the 1990’s; and most notably starting in 2008 bringing the issue of the safety and civil rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people to the foreground of attention at the UN. The UU UN Office has both kinds of consultative status available to non-profits, which gives it (and us) the opportunity to take leadership roles in UN commissions and conferences on topics as wide-ranging as human rights, sustainable development, children’s issues and disarmament.

But does any of this really matter? Is it all talk, or can the UN change the policies and actions of its member states? Is the United Nations just Glitter or is it as valuable as Gold? Or is it more like tarnished silver and a bit worn, in need of renovation? If the UN doesn’t really matter in matters of war and peace, then does it matter that we Unitarian Universalists are represented in its halls and meetings?

I am grateful to one of our members, Renee Katz, who, when I announced this sermon topic, shared with me an academic paper she wrote as a graduate student, about how to assess the effectiveness of UN peace-keeping operations, using as examples Namibia in 1989/90 and Rwanda from 1993-6. While the details of those situations and the UN interventions in each are beyond the scope of this sermon, reading the paper, I was struck by the difficulty in obtaining objective assessments of UN activity. Especially in regard to a peacekeeping mission’s success or failure in containing violent conflict, what is the basis of the comparison:  a no-violence baseline, the level of violence before the start of the mission, or some unknown hypothetical policy alternative??? Also, as shown by what happened in Rwanda, if the UN isn’t clear about its mandate in a region, and if the United States isn’t fully supportive of a particular intervention, then its chances of success are slim.

But something is better than nothing, I conclude. The world with the UN is better than the world without it. Necessarily, there will be only relative success for an organization whose aims are as lofty as saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war; reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; and promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

And, if we Unitarian Universalists can unite our separate voices and direct our collective energy into one effort to promote the ability of the United Nations to achieve its lofty aims, and to urge our country’s full support of the UN, then we should. How else will we turn the world around toward peace?

(Then the choir sang a choral arrangement of Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around.”)

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