Monday, 28 February 2011

Fatal Arrogance

"The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground? Even if thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and even if thou set they nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down saith the Lord." Obadiah 1:3-4

I was blessed to be born and raised in the UK because both my parents and grandparents escaped the limitations and stagnation of a dictator's rule to live a life of freedom and opportunity. Listening to my grandfather talk about his life under the brutal General Franco, and following as I have been the appalling situation in Libya reveals to me, certain parallels. Both these dictators (and indeed all dictators) seem to be defined by the negative character trait of arrogance. Ostensibly they all start out their "careers" with the aim of improving their nation, and for the melodramatic amongst them, "saving" their nation. When in power they promise that they shall shortly hand over power to others or to the people, a promise that soon vanishes into the ether. In all they say, in speech after speech, they communicate that they see themselves as the realisation of the nation. Gaddafi is Libya, Mugabe is Zimbabwe, Castro is Cuba. Or to use Gaddafi's own words "Gaddafi is (Libya's) glory". Soon enough criticism of the dictator is treated as treason, as unpatriotic, a logical view, no doubt, in the twisted mind of these autocrats.

It seems that Gaddafi, like many before him, especially Hitler, would prefer to see the destruction of his country before power is taken from him. No doubt his reasoning goes something like; "I am Libya, without me there is no Libya, so who cares if the country is destroyed, without me it is destroyed anyway".

The sages of Israel had quite a bit to say regarding the evils of haughtiness, best expressed by their saying;

"The Holy One, Blessed be He, says: "I and he (the arrogant person) cannot live together in the same world".

This dictum is perhaps currently realised in the happenings in Tripoli. There certainly is not much godliness surrounding Mr Gaddafi at the moment, and what's more, he clearly doesn't see it in those around him, willing as he is to end their lives to protect his power.

In the spirit of the worlds of scripture such as King Solomon's words:

"The haughty of heart are abominable before the Lord" Proverbs 16:5

Or in the words of King David:

"The arrogant of eye, and the broad or heart-him I cannot bear" Psalm 101:5

It is perhaps unsurprising that the sages of Israel declare arrogance as nothing less than idolatry. In essence the arrogant worship themselves and view themselves as the pinnacle of creation. What room is then left for God?

This being the case it is truly tragic that arrogance has often found its worst expression in the behaviour of those in the religious world. This is not to say that arrogance is absent from the non-religious world, it is of course a human phenomena and no segment of humanity is free from it. Sadly even in our time we see the fruits of religious imperiousness, for example in the oppressive theocracies of Iran, Gaza, and Saudi Arabia, and in the insults and demonisation of homosexuals by Christians in Uganda.

Religious arrogance seems to exist in two main forms.

The first is the "I have the truth, and you're all evil and going to hell because you don't have it" argument. These self-satisfied individuals have an immense sense of God being on their side in every situation. They rarely ponder if their own behaviour lives up to the standards they set for others. I often feel that this has roots in the individual's formation of God in their own image. In life we seldom agree wholeheartedly with another person, there is always the phenomenon of conflicting wills, and this means that concession and compromise are the stuff of life. Why should this be any different in our relation to the Divine? Surely our relationship with God should be challenging, as we try to adapt ourselves to His will. If you find that the God you believe in and worship, likes all the things you like, and hates all the things you hate, and approves wholeheartedly of all the things you do, you may in fact discover that the god you are adoring and prostrating yourself before, is yourself.

The second type of haughtiness comes from those genuinely pious people, who struggle daily to serve God and make His will their own. These otherwise good and well-meaning people, can sometimes find themselves looking down on all those others who seemingly have failed to live faithful, holy lives. Our teacher Jesus had a parable to illustrate the failings of this attitude.

"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, "God I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector. I fast twice weekly; I give tithes of all I possess." And the tax collector, standing far off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" Luke 18:10.

I think the antidote to this second malady is to meditate on two things. The immensity and majesty of God, and the endless challenge to improve our devotion to him. Moses himself, about whose greatness we are told;

"..My servant Moses; in my entire house he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him" Numbers 12:7-8

"Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord has known face to face" Deuteronomy 34:10

Is described, despite his elevation, as the most humble of men. From this surely we learn that the closer one is to God, the more we should realise our own smallness, the closer we are to God, the more we should value His children upon whom His image is stamped.

It might be assumed that Unitarians, both those who hold to the more classical Christian variety and those of the less theologically defined school would be more free from faith-based haughtiness. The openness to other's beliefs and understandings, and the strong belief in freedom of thought and faith seem almost guaranteed to diminish arrogance in the hearts of Unitarians. Is this however really the case? I think it clear that there is a prominent "group-think" if not on theological grounds, then certainly on social and political grounds, that on occasion emerges as an arrogance, which pours undisguised scorn on those not as "enlightened". How open and tolerant are we really?

I shall myself while praying that the Almighty pull down the dictators from their prideful thrones, look inward at my own heart and see if there is not, deep down, some small Gaddafi, motivating me in my relationship with my Heavenly Father and with all those around me.

"He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly."
Luke 1:51-52

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Lessons From Lark Rise.

"You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surly rebuke your neighbour and not bear a sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord" Leviticus 19:17-18

Quite unbelievably for me, considering my love for period dramas, I have only this week become familiar with the BBC adaptation of Flora Thompson's "Lark Rise to Candleford". I have become captivated by the series.

A significant difference between the 19th and early 20th centuries in which Lark Rise is set and our modern age it seems to me, is our fear of involving ourselves in the lives let alone the moral choices of others, even of our friends. The powerful anti-judgementalist approach which surrounds us, was quite absent from the world our recent ancestors inhabited.

The character of Dorcas Lane, the Postmistress, is synonymous with the classic stereotype of the Victorian do-gooder, one of the famed "army of busybodies." She displays genuine concern for the happenings in the lives of all in her circle and even those of strangers that come to her attention. In a quiet and subtle fashion she hints, advises and works wisely behind the scenes to resolve the personal problems and conflicts of the people of Candleford, and it's poorer relation the hamlet of Lark Rise. She also does not refrain from honest plain speaking when the need arises to give criticism and reproof, always of course, delivered with the tenderest of voices, simply oozing kindliness. Her approach is quite different from the devout Thomas Brown, her head postman, whose sharp and scripture laden reproofs, often raise heckles and rarely achieve their desired results, quite understandable really, as he is often motivated more by his personal dislike of a given behaviour instead of a deep regard and concern for the recipient of his censure, a malady of thought that afflicts us all much more than we care to admit.

This willingness to become involved in the lives and moral choices of others, and to express disapproval for wrongdoing, as portrayed in Lark Rise, and explicit in the many letters and accounts that have been preserved from those times, was not all good of course. The down side was intense nosiness and its unpleasant relation; gossip. (Although let's not judge that era too harshly as we can get our fix of other people's problems and happenings from our soap-operas or reality tv shows, they had none of this). Reputations could be destroyed and lives ruined by the willingness of people to broadcast and then judge each other's actions. But the plus side was powerfully positive. The sense of community and common duty to one's neighbour was constantly reinforced, creating a warm and supportive environment. One knew that people cared and had your best interests at heart, and that when the tarnished ball of misfortune came rolling at your feet, you had those on whom to rely. This sense of communality was strengthened at least in rural society, by the lack of movement from local to local and the need to work together. Only a few places in modern Britain can boast of such bonds of unity between neighbours. Sadly the majority of us live in rather dissociated societal company. Perhaps this itself is the prime appeal of depictions of earlier times, a longing for lost community.

In addition there was another significant benefit of people's involvement and judgement. Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman (Nachmanides) the 13th century Spanish-Jewish scholar wrote in a letter to his son:

"Anger is a most serious character flaw which causes one to sin, whoever flares up in anger is subject to the judgements of Gehenna"

One of the principle reasons that anger leads to sin and divine judgement the commentators explain, is that when one is prone to outbursts of fury, others will cease to offer instruction or reproof out of fear, instead choosing to walk on egg shells and remain silent. And without such reproof and guidance a person is almost certainly doomed to sin.

We are all subject to biases, and very rarely see our faults as easily as we see the faults of others. Without the criticism, guidance and reproof of those who have our best interests at heart, it will be considerably difficult to regulate and improve ourselves. Our modern fear of being judgemental combined with the assumption that to think that one knows what might be good for someone, is akin to unacceptable arrogance, denies each of us a tried and tested tool for personal elevation. However, it is not only an ideological resistance towards judging the deeds of others that prevents us from doing so, it is also fear. Fear has led to some of our communities becoming increasingly distant from fulfilling the well known African proverb;

"It takes a village to raise a child."

I was once returning home by train, and having stopped at a railway station to transfer to another train, I became aware of a couple of children, I would say about 12 or so years old, openly trying to steal a bike from the opposite platform and when this failed, vandalising it instead. While what they were doing was visible to the several people on my side of the platform, nobody said a word or challenged them, all of us struck by the brazenness of what we were witnessing. I too, am ashamed to say, remained silent, mainly as a result of fear of what could happen if I did intervene. I can't have been the only one to hear and read about innocent people ending up seriously injured or worse for having become involved and to have had that image remain in the mind.

Clearly in this, as in many other areas of life, what is necessary is not always easy. And only wisdom combined with a little bravery will be successful. Is courage in short supply in our pampered times?

However, as followers of Jesus, do we not have some quite strong injunctions against judging the actions of others? Several teachings of our master would seem to confirm this:

"Judge not lest you be judged, for with what judgement you judge, you will be judged and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you" Matthew 7:1-2

"He who is without sin, cast the first stone" John 8:7

Verses expressing the same sentiment can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible also.

Are we to understand from this, that we are never to form or make known an opinion that judges the actions of our fellow man, let alone act on such an opinion? Is it wrong for us to sit in judgement, is this solely the prerogative of the Ultimate Judge, the Sovereign of creation? Surely this cannot be the case, as both reason and scripture testify for the need of human judgement and mutual improvement. Did the Nazarene himself not say:

"Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear take with you one or two more that "by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established". And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church (congregation). But if he refuses even to listen to the church let him be to you like a heathen or tax-collector" Matthew 18:15-17

And Jesus practised what he preached, for he constantly went out amongst the sinners, reaching out to them, and bidding them to "sin no more".

So how do we reconcile this seeming contradiction? In my opinion it is reconciled with one single word; Humanity.

Whenever we look upon our fellow and his/her actions we must ever be cognisant of their basic humanity. People are complex and driven by emotions and responses that are often far from rational. We can never overlook the human context in which wrongdoing takes place, to do so is to commit a terrible injustice. While an action or behaviour may indeed be immoral or even wicked, the person who commits it may perhaps not be either. We have a duty to try and see ourselves in their situation and to honestly consider how we would act given the same circumstances. Ultimately we can never really know the heart of another, only He "who knows the heart of man" can judge a person. We must focus our reproof and disapproval on the actions that are wrong, attempting to guide the individual away from them. We must not be frightened from stating that we view certain things as wrong. But we must always, always be rooted in our love for our neighbour and not in a selfish, base desire to feel better about ourselves or to inflict pain through the criticism of others. There is very little else as ugly and abominable as hatred wrapped in the mantle of religious reproof, as I was reminded this past week while watching a documentary about the treatment of homosexuals in Uganda. The approach and language of some of the pastors of Ugandan churches, that of demeaning the image of God in man, resulting in the denigrating of the very Word of God and creating an environment in which violence and even murder takes place, is one clearly born of ignorance. But the scar it leaves on the face of religion is not an easy one to heal.

With our duty to reprove our fellow comes another duty should our reproof fail to elicit a change of behaviour. Namely tolerance. We must accept the freedom of others to ignore what we have to say, and follow their own path. Of course if we cannot accept what others do, we have the choice to distance ourselves from them and the negative influence that their deeds may pose, but ideally we should be there, always waiting for their return and in the event that their choice of action brings only sadness upon them we must swallow our desire to lord it over them with "I told you so's" and instead comfort them. If you feel that you have some wisdom to offer, why hold back? Share it, sensitively and respectfully.

A questions that has specific resonance to Unitarians is, should we attempt to offer reproof/instruction to others regarding matters of belief? Other denominations would answer yes as to them the correct belief is as important to a good life as correct action. But for Unitarians and others who put great emphasis on the freedom of thought, interpretation and belief, this issue is less clear. Robert Aspland 1782-1845 Minister of the Unitarian chapel in Hackney and head of the Unitarian fund, wrote a letter on receiving news that a minister in a General Baptist (Unitarian) congregation had, on refection of the scriptures, become convinced of the truth of Trinitarian Christianity, and as a result desired to separate himself from the Unitarian Fund. His words offer a valuable guidance and insight as to what approach we might take.

"Dear Sir, Your letter..I have read with very mixed emotions of mind; though, I assure you, with no angry or unfriendly sentiments towards yourself. So far, my dear Sir, from blaming you for your manly avowal of your dissent from the principles of the Unitarian Fund, I applaud your integrity and courage. While our society is intended for the promotion of what we consider the most glorious, but long-lost, truths of the gospel, we are not so inconsistent as to attempt to remove the fetters of reputed orthodoxy from men's minds, solely to put on our own chains in their stead. Our object is in part accomplished, if we set the human mind upon inquiry, whether inquiry lead to us or from us; and you, I conceive, will ever thank us, even if you retain your new and, as I must think, unscriptural and erroneous notions, for having incited you to think for yourself, and supplied you with the means of forming a rational judgement upon the gospel. We shall assuredly never disesteem you for using the liberty, which we are so forward to claim for ourselves, of free inquiry and independent judgement. With regard to ourselves, therefore, you may set your mind at rest; but there are higher obligations which you are under to Truth, and you are, I am persuaded, solicitous that you may not be negligent of these." (What follows are a long list of arguments in favour of the Unitarian position vs the Trinitarian).

We need not be ashamed of having beliefs which we regard as true, nor feel coy about sharing them with others if we feel that they would benefit them. In fact if you have a belief which you understand is true and which you feel could benefit someone, it is your duty to share it.

Jesus reminded us to remove the beam in our own eye before attempting to remove the splinter from someone else's eye. How very true, this must always be remembered. I like to think that our "own" eye, also applies to those causes and organisations we make our own. So let us embark on a journey of self-improvement while reaching out to those around us, strengthening the bonds the bind us all.

And then perhaps we can slowly recreate our society as one of unity, support, liberty and truth.

From Lark Rise to Candleford and then.....well beyond.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Bury Me In A Free Land

"Moreover I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel whom Egypt enslaves and I have remembered my covenant. Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: "I am the Lord, and I shall take you out from under the burden of Egypt, I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements. I shall take you to Me for a people, and I shall be a God to you; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who takes you out from under the burden of Egypt." Exodus 6:5-6

This past week, our screens and newspapers have been filled with images of mass protests in the name of liberty in the land of the Nile, and the refusal of a modern day Pharaoh to relinquish power. Much has been said about this struggle and the possible results and consequences for Egypt, the Middle East and the wider world it may bring about. It brought to my mind a poem I had found on a link on the Unitarian Ministries International website's section on Black History Month. The poem is entitled "Bury Me In A Free Land" and was penned by Frances Harper 1825-1911 an indefatigable struggler for freedom. The poem is beautiful and the life of the amazing woman who wrote it is even more inspirational.

Frances was born in Baltimore to free African-American parents. Orphaned at an early age she was raised by her aunt and uncle, a minister who was a passionate abolitionist and campaigner for civil rights at a very difficult time in US history. She found work as a seamstress when young, in a Quaker home whose religious principles clearly influenced her later in life, but her mind at that time was focused on writing and indeed she wrote her first poetry at the age of 20. In less than a decade her writing had become very popular and her reputation began to grow throughout the United States. Following a worsening situation for black people in Maryland, she moved to Ohio where she resolved to use her talents to educate others and ended up teaching at the Union Seminary. Her mind always on the suffering of her fellow black Americans, she joined the American Anti-Slavery Association, an organisation that bravely braced hostility and significant violence in its campaign for emancipation. While living in Pennsylvania she and her husband helped many escaped slaves flee to safety in Canada on the Underground Railroad, (the network of informal and secret routes and safe-houses) and it was during this time that she came to know of Unitarianism, a denomination that was known for its pursuit of abolition. Frances travelled around the country giving talks and lectures to strengthen the resolve of abolitionists and to open minds closed with prejudice and fear. Abolition was not the only controversial cause she supported and advocated. She believed strongly in women's suffrage and urged women to think beyond the limitations placed upon them by society as in powerful writings such as:

"Talk as you will of woman's deep capacity for loving, of the strength of her affectional nature. I do not deny it; but will the mere possession of any human love, fully satisfy all the demands of her whole being? . . . But woman—the true woman—if you would render her happy, it needs more than the mere development of her affectional nature. Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties."

She was also a supporter of prohibition, believing as many people of faith did that alcohol was the source of far too much harm to the poor and vulnerable. And of course she was also a committed, proud and faithful Unitarian, cleaving to her faith in the Divine Unity, and striving to emulate and follow the teachings of the man Jesus. During this time she continued with her writing and in 1892 she published the highly successful "Iola Leroy/Shadows Uplifted" one of the first African American novels. Throughout her career much of the money she made from her writing was used to assist the freeing of slaves. Such was the regard she was held in for her political advocacy that she was made vice president of the "National Association of Colored Women", whose objective was to "furnish evidence of the moral, mental and material progress made by people of color through the efforts of our women". In her role she worked with the association in its battle for women's suffrage and in its campaigns against the Apartheid-like Jim Crow laws. This woman, engaged as she was in the struggles of so many in her nation, was no Dickensian Mrs Jellyby caricature. Despite her heavy responsibilities she still found time to help feed the local poor and work to bring the young people in her vicinity out of delinquency. She died a heroine of Civil Rights and Unitarianism on February 22 1911 having invested for herself a great treasure of the type that Jesus taught us:

"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do no break through or steal:
For where you treasure is, there will your heart be also."
Matthew 6:19-21

Throughout her life Frances was deeply moved by the biblical figure of Moses, and wrote poignantly about him in several of her poems, speaking about him in many of her lectures. The story of the exodus from Egypt resonated with her struggle to bring African-Americans out of slavery into a land that honoured its creed of liberty. I find the following words of hers deeply moving, speaking directly as they do to my own deeply held beliefs:

"Had Moses preferred the luxury of an Egyptian palace to the endurance of hardships with his people," she asked, "would the Jews have been the race to whom we owe the most, not perhaps for science and art, but for the grandest of all sciences, the science of a true life of joy and trust in God, of God-like forgiveness and divine self-surrender?"

She saw Moses as an example of leadership that could be beneficial for the release from servitude of her own people languishing under the fetters of slavery and prejudice. I think it more than fair to say that she herself lived the words that she placed into Moses' mouth in her poem "Moses: A Story on the Nile":

"Let me tell thee, gracious princess, 'tis no sudden freak nor impulse wild that moves my mind,
I feel an earnest purpose binding all.
My soul unto a strong resolve, which bids me put aside all other ends and aims,
Until the hour shall come when God - the God our fathers loved and worshipped - shall break our chains,
And lead our willing feet to freedom."

One cannot downplay the success and strength of this woman, to have achieved so much when state and much of society where actively working against people of colour. Following on from my post of last week, how narrow we imagine our potential to be! And how Frances Harper and the many like her inspire us to be more than we are, to broaden our perspectives and not feel that our environment prevents us from actualising our potential.

Our press and other media have been filled with opinion as to whether or not the events in Egypt are good or not. Ironically those who were silent when the pro-western people of Iran rose up against the obscurantist and totalitarian religiously criminal regime ruling their country recently, and who where even less supportive of the calls for freedom in the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon are some of the most eager celebrants of the ever developing revolution in Egypt. And equally ironically, those who were vociferous defenders of the ousting of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and who offered justification for the war in Iraq on the grounds of freedom and democracy, are now some of the harshest critics of America for "abandoning" such a useful ally in the form of Mubarak! Truly confusing times of political and ethical cross-dressing.

Personally I only hope that dictators everywhere tremble in their extravagantly wealthy homes, and lose sleep over the prospect of their abused and suffering people rising up against them. I also hope that both the protesters in Egypt and those of other countries heed the words of Martin Luther King uttered in that most moving and history-defining speech in Washington 1963 when he said:

"In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

There are people of bravery and integrity in country after country ruled by despotic dictators and it is our duty to help them as much as is possible for us to do, even if only to write them a letter or email of support, to show them that what they do is valued by people around the word. To this end we should take seriously the words of Isaiah:

"Is this not the fast I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness
to undo the heavy burdens
to let the oppressed go free.
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out:
When you see the naked, that you cover him and not hide yourself from your own flesh?"
Isaiah 58:6-7

One such courageous individual is Catherine Buckle from Marondera in Zimbabwe. After having her farmland and property stolen in 2000 by Robert Mugabe's so called War Veterans, she has been writing and blogging about the troubles of her beloved country. She dedicates herself to making known the wrong that was done and continues to be done to millions of Zimbabweans, both black and white, by a government that cares nothing for those to whom it is responsible. I highly recommend her blog, if nothing else to remind us of what is going on and to inspire in us courage to deal with the thankfully much smaller problems in our own land and communities.

In these times of great change may the Almighty, in whose Hands are the hearts of Kings guide the nations to a more peaceful, united, respectful and holy future.

Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother's shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
I'd shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
If I saw young girls from their mother's arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.