Service: “Broken Pieces and New Visions” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
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Can I just say right now that I am proud to be a ‘globalist’?
When I do a jigsaw puzzle, I start with the border – right? Don’t you? The outside edges contain the rest; once you have those in place, everything else happens within them. The edges of the human puzzle are the globe; that is the frame that holds us all. Everything else — every nation, every government, every struggle, every life — happens within those edges, and is just one piece of the whole. Nothing that is bad for the globe can be good for any part of the globe; nothing that destroys the earth can benefit any corner of the earth as a continuing practice. If someone asks you what Unitarian Universalists believe, this is one place you can start: We are both moral and pragmatic globalists; we understand that as human beings, we are all in this together, because we all depend upon the earth for our survival as a species. We are all different, and we all matter, but none of us is special, or favored, or entitled to more rights than others. We know from history that nations and systems rise and fall, but the planet is our shared stage; this is where it all happens, and whatever harms the earth harms us all.
This is a truth that the wisdom of every generation comes to recognize, and the ignorance of every generation repudiates with loathing. Bruce Knotts, the Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, reminds us of this history:
In 1919, the world was struggling to recover from the First World War and the League of Nations was created. The idea was American, but the United States never joined. In 1929, the U.S. Stock Market crashed, and its effects reverberated around the world. Everywhere, there was unemployment, inflation, poverty, and desperation. The Italians decided to trust their fate to Benito Mussolini. Later the Germans put their trust in Adolf Hitler. In Spain there was a civil war which resulted in the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. In Japan, militarists and expansionists took power, and the world was set for a Second World War, that was far more deadly and affected a greater part of the globe than the First.
As the Second World War ended, the countries of the world came together and formed the United Nations, which grew to sponsor about 108 other agencies, such as UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, the IMF, the World Food Program, and many more. Like the League of Nations, the United Nations is flawed, but it has prevented a Third World War for three quarters of a century. It has expanded human rights, drastically decreased extreme poverty, and dealt with health emergencies such as Ebola and SARS. Eventually, the United Nations also brought the world together to tackle the existential threat of climate change. In the present day, climate change and conflict have produced the most massive global migrations since the Second World War.
When problems become too big for governments to solve quickly, as happened in 1929, electorates turn to authoritarian nationalist leaders who promise to put nation first, to push out or eliminate “the other,” and to bring jobs and prosperity for all “pure” members of the nation. We saw this in the form of the America First Committee in the United States during the Depression, led by Charles Lindberg. That movement was anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, and, according to President Franklin Roosevelt, Nazi. Fortunately for the United States at that time, the America First Committee failed in taking power.
Today the World again is stressed, and again voters are turning to ethno-nationalist parties to push out or eliminate the “other” and provide jobs and prosperity to all “real” members of society. In the 1930s, this led to the worst suffering and devastation the modern world had ever seen, and it is clear that turning in that direction again will produce even more catastrophic results. What’s the alternative? It is still the United Nations.
At a time when we face global problems, it is time to strengthen the UN, to confront the great national and corporate powers and demand accountability and peace. It was over 120 Member States in the General Assembly that moved forward a treaty for the abolition of nuclear weapons last year. UN reports on climate change, poverty, global health, gender equity, education, and more are highly respected. It is easy to become depressed with the current lack of U.S. Government cooperation with the UN. However, other countries and local and state entities are stepping up to take the lead in areas where U.S. leadership no longer exists, and perhaps that is not even a bad thing. An important climate conference was held recently in California, attended by climate activists from all over the world, in support of the UN Paris Agreement, showing that the U.S. is “still in” even if our federal government is not.
The problem is not that we don’t know how to do this. It isn’t always as straight-forward as we’d like, thinking globally – there are conflicting interests and historic injustices and communication challenges to work through – but that’s just, work. It’s what the United Nations has spent 70 years helping us learn to do, to get better at. The problem is that human beings are hard-wired for tribalism, especially when we are stressed. We know in our DNA that we don’t survive as lone individuals; we evolved as a social species, and it is only in the rational imagination of the Enlightenment that we exist as separate and independent monads of consciousness. When we are threatened, we retreat, not into the safety of solitude, but into a group that protects and reinforces us. This can be a family, a gang, a religion, a school; any kind of tribe that offers a sense of identity, and especially solidarity in the face of enemies. This kind of inherited tribalism defines itself by the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’; it gets its energy from that opposition, and in fact if one enemy is obliterated, another one must be discovered, or the group identity will dissolve. When that happens, usually factions will emerge within the group, so that a new form of opponents is established, and a renewed sense of identity can be cultivated against them.
We of course see this process at its most crude and blatant in the way the current political administration encourages animosity toward a whole panoply of ‘enemies’ – immigrants, reporters, uppity women, poor people, gay, lesbian and transgender people, African American people, Jews, protesters, scientists, democrats, and anyone else who gets in their way. The events of this past week – the shootings in Pittsburgh and Kentucky – show that these ideas are not academic speculation; tribalism is a process that, unless recognized and managed, costs real human lives, right now.
I want to suggest this morning that two things are true, difficult as it is to hold them both together in our minds at the same time. The first is that false equivalency is a fantasy we can no longer afford to entertain, and sympathy is not an effective antidote to tyranny. The will to power must be met with power; the power of truth, the power of solidarity, the power of democracy, the power of justice, the power of creativity, the power that rises when we protect the vulnerable and those we love. At the same time, we must not allow ourselves to become tribal in response to our own fears and alarm. We must hold faithfully to the vision of a world for all humanity, and indeed, all creatures. We must resist the temptation to poison our opponents, knowing that whatever toxins we put out into the world inevitably return to poison us, and our children. We must not begin to define ourselves according to our enemies, but only ever by our hopes and our values. We do this, I believe, by becoming the grown ups in the room; by living into our spiritual maturity to the point that we can recognize and manage a toddler’s tantrums without being drawn into escalating shouting matches. If we become coarse and cruel and brutal, we cannot hope to overcome cruelty and brutality in others when they are taking root in our own souls.
This is why the work of the United Nations is, and has always been, important. It is why the vision that is the foundation of that sometimes unfashionable organization can never be obsolete. Our friend Manny Pedram is right; what we have to build is a mosaic; we live in a world that is always being assembled from broken pieces; we build it bit by bit out of the shards of human kinship and understanding, out of all the dreams that are constantly being shattered against the stone walls of oppression, both ancient and modern. Ever so patiently, ever so carefully, we fit them together, the fragments of our shared hopes, as we ponder the question: What is the shape of the future humanity wants?
There is no place to have that future but right here, on this globe we share. There is no one to build it but us, and no one to leave it to except our children – all of us carrying that evolutionary curse of tribalism, needing to grow up, called to use our pain and grief to come into adulthood so that we can choose our fate, rather than be lured into it by indolence and false comfort and deceit. The United Nations is a concept and a practice that must be earned anew in each generation, as the human race strives toward maturity and wisdom, to recognize that truth in each of us which transcends enmity as the source of our identity. Only if we can intentionally lay aside the urge to fall back into the trap of exclusivist cadres of selfishness, intolerance, and violence will our generation be one that contributes to the building of that mosaic for the whole of humanity.
We have a choice. We can be globalists, or tribalists. We can put nation first, with arrogance and fear of enemies – this week has shown us the consequences of that option, and they are tragic and terrible. Or we can choose to lean in to a loyalty to all our kindred, here on this sweet, bright blue planet that we all must abide on together. We can choose the legacy and the challenge of the United Nations; the careful, delicate mosaic of understanding in the midst of diversity; the growth into maturity and wisdom that has always been the best hope for our global future. I think you cannot have this fragile, beautiful earth unless you learn, soon, to keep peace; I think you cannot have either wholeness or peace unless you learn to see one indivisible humanity, and one indivisible earth to share.
Shall we lift our voices together in song?
Let us live together in peace.
Let us live with inner serenity.
Let us weave our dreams for the future together.
And when we die, let us die in peace.