Reading before the sermon
Our reading today comes from an Appalachian folktale collected by Margaret Read McDonald in her book, Peace Tales:
In a dark, busy forest in Virginia lived two foxes.
One was a little taller than the other, and they were the best of friends. Nothing could break that friendship. Other animals in the woods gossiped about it, but just as barking can’t harm the moon, all the gossip couldn’t break their friendship. They went their way in peace and pleasure as God wanted them to live.
Yet, though the golden sun shines in the day, there is the dark night with cold winds. There was no end of animals and insects in the forest, and the two friends saw and heard fussing and quarreling all around them.
One day the taller fox said to the shorter, “You know, sometimes it doesn’t feel so good being different. Maybe we too should try fussing and fighting. Then, we’ll be like everyone else!”
The shorter fox thought about it, then said, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we SHOULD be like everyone else. I think I’d like that.”
“Great!” said the taller of the two. “Let’s start!”
“Um, how do we start?”
“Let me think,” said the taller fox. His long thick tail went down and so did his long snout. For a time he was looking down at the glitering stones lying around. Then it came to him. “We could bite each other! That’s what I’ve seen other animals do when they’re hungry!”
“But that would hurt,” said the smaller fox.
“Oh! You’re right! And I don’t want to hurt you. Maybe it would be better to try something else. How about getting into a really big fight with each other?”
“That would definitely be better!,” said the smaller fox. “How do we do that?”
“Well, here are two nice stones lying in the water. I’ll show you how we’ll start.” The taller fox picked up the two gleaming stones with his paws and, just like he’d heard the others do, he started screaming, “These are MY stones! You can’t have them, do you hear me?”
“I heard you!” said the smaller fox. “Okay! If they’re your stones, then they’re yours. I don’t want to take anything from you. Keep them!”
For a time the taller fox was quiet. “We’re just not getting anywhere with our quarreling,” he sighed, a little downhearted.
“No we aren’t,” agreed his friend the smaller fox.
Well, let’s try again. Surely we can figure out how to be like all the others!” They were quiet for a little time, then the taller raised his long snout and bushy tail and said in a loud voice, “This forest belongs to me and you had better get out of it quick!”
Said the smaller fox, ”I had no idea you felt that way! Wow! Well, if this is your forest and you want it, I guess I’ll have to leave even if I don’t want to. It’s a nice forest and I like it and I like you. Now I will have to find another.”
The taller fox looked at his friend in surprise. He liked his friend and did not want to hurt him. “I don’t want you to go. You never did anything to hurt me! We are good friends and we like to be together and play with each other.”
“Whew! I am so happy to hear you say that! I did not want to go. I want to be with you.”
The two were silent for a time, lost in their thoughts. Then the taller fox said, “Friend, we are no good at fussing and fighting and quarreling. I think it is best for us to be as we are. Let us be the way we are, not the way others are.”
So the taller fox and the smaller fox remained, all their lives, good friends instead of fighting enemies. Together, they raised families and played together and shared everything. And I am glad they did.
It’s almost unimaginable, the blessed incompetency of the taller and smaller foxes from today’s Appalachian folktale. Hearing quarrelling and fussing all around them in the forest, and noticing that it is all so very different from what they normally do, they find themselves feeling weird. Strange. “Maybe we too should try fussing and fighting. Then we’ll be like everyone else.” “Great!” they say. “Let’s start!” And they do start, again and again, but it never goes anywhere. One starts, but the other doesn’t know how to escalate things. Once one realizes that the other’s being hurt, instantly, it stops. “We’re just not getting anywhere with our quarreling,” taller fox sighs. “No we aren’t,” agrees his friend the smaller fox. It’s blessed incompetency, and ultimately the two foxes embrace it, because it makes their lives together beautiful.
And that’s what our faith wants for us. Now I know we Unitarian Universalists are a bunch of overachievers in all sorts of ways, so it might raise anxiety to hear that our faith wants us to be completely incompetent. But it does. Blessedly incompetent, when it comes to all forms of interpersonal violence. We ain’t gonna study war no more. We’re gonna study peace. That’s what our faith calls us to. Creating and sustaining a kind of freedom here in community that is just so rare out there in the world. That’s what I want to talk about today: freedom. Unitarian Universalist freedom that is so different from what the world may know of freedom.
What got me thinking about this was an event in the news this past week: the U.S. Supreme Court verdict in the Snyder vs. Phelps case. As some of you may know, Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, consisting almost entirely of Fred Phelps (the founder of the church) and his extended family, hates gays and lesbians, Catholics, Jews, the U.S. government, and (I am not making this up) Swedes. Hates them, although to listen to him, it’s God doing the hating. And he wants people to know. So, to attract media attention (which inexplicably the media keeps on giving him again and again) he with other church members protest at funerals of soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, and victims of natural disasters and accidents. In advance of the protests, Fred Phelps issues a release to make sure the press are there.
Westboro Baptist Church’s protest at the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder (one of some 600 military funeral protests they’ve done) started with a press release that said they were going to picket the funeral because (I quote) “God almighty killed Lance Cpl. Snyder. He died in shame, not honor—for a fag nation cursed by God…. Now he’s in Hell” (unquote). At the funeral, while the family was trying to deal with all their sorrow and grief, Westboro Baptist church members displayed signs saying “God Hates You,” “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “Not Blessed Just Cursed.” Holding up these signs—but careful to be on a public street, far enough away from the funeral to comply with the law.
Following this, as you can imagine, the dead soldier’s outraged father, Albert Snyder, filed a federal lawsuit charging that he and his family had suffered invasion of privacy and endured emotional distress. The jury awarded the family 10.9 million in damages, subsequently reduced by half. Two years ago, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, ruling that what Westboro Baptist said and did was protected by the 1st Amendment’s free speech guarantee. Albert Snyder appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, and this week, the verdict came down, 8-1 in favor of Westboro Baptist. Even though they are horrible people and what they did was horrible—even though Jesus, if he found out what they were doing in his name, would never stop throwing up—nevertheless, their speech, said the Court, should be protected by the First Amendment because, first, “the overall thrust and dominant theme of their demonstrations spoke to broad public issues,” second, their “personal attack on Matthew Snyder was not motivated by a private grudge,” and third, “the protest occurred on a public street.”
That’s the majority view of the Supreme Court. But not that of the lone holdout, Justice Samuel Alito. “Our profound national commitment to free and open debate,” he says, “is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.” Of his many dissenting points, three bear mentioning here. First, Justice Alito suggests that hateful words can have the same impact as a physical assault, and it doesn’t matter where the physical assault occurs—physical assault is by definition illegal. Wouldn’t even matter if the ultimate intent of the assault was to send a message about an issue of public concern. The First Amendment doesn’t protect physical assaults like this, and neither should it protect truly outrageous psychological assaults that have the same ultimate intent. Second, Justice Alito reminds us that the First Amendment doesn’t protect hateful speech that is interspersed with speech focusing on matters of public concern. “Personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution.” Just because 50% of what you’re saying is relevant to public concern and is thus protected by the 1st Amendment doesn’t mean that the other 50% of what you say—which is pure ugliness adding nothing substantial to the debate—should also be protected. Third, and finally, Justice Alito suggests that in our society, there are certain places and times that require special protection from emotional assaults. Like funerals, where “the emotional well-being of bereaved relatives is particularly vulnerable.” “Allowing family members to have a few hours of peace without harassment,” he says, “does not undermine the public debate.” Justice Alito’s final statement? “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims. I therefore respectfully dissent.”
That’s Snyder vs. Phelps, decided just this week. The majority opinion on what kind of speech is free and protected by the First Amendment, and a dissenting voice. Which way you do you find yourself leaning?
It got me thinking about our Unitarian Universalist faith community because freedom (including freedom of speech) has always been one of our main values. We have ancestors burned at the stake—or ancestors arrested, ancestors threatened, ancestors shot, ancestors shunned—for saying unpopular things in service to reason and conscience. 50 years ago, when the separate traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism came together to become Unitarian Universalism, we realized that we could no longer live in our parent Christianity’s home, so we left, we left home and risked everything to create a new home for ourselves, and we’re still building that home, we’re still fighting for it. Freedom is everything to us. We’re a freedom people.
But—is our freedom such that we would protect the right of a few participants here at UUCA protesting something the rest of us are doing, in the horrific manner of Westboro Baptist Church? Would WE allow for this?
Now, I’m having a hard time imagining what a situation like this might look like. So let’s take things down a couple notches, and look at some other forms of hurtful communication. Three in particular.
See if you can guess the first one, from this clue:
What’s the answer? The answer is GOSSIP. Or more specifically, negative gossip. People whispering mean things behind your back, about you. Might have some basis in fact, but you’re not there to correct misunderstandings or misinformation. Cruel gossip that is the stuff of glossy magazines and achingly delicious; cruel gossip that gives the one gossiping a social power boost; cruel gossip that makes everyone in the gossip circle feel special, like insiders; but as for you, the object of the cruel gossip—you feel increasingly anxious, your sense of trust in your community is diminished, you’ve got enemies and you don’t know who they are. It’s not at the level of Westboro Baptist Church, but it’s still hurtful speech.
So are rumors.
Rumors are ways of defining what’s happening when what’s happening is confusing and not entirely clear. People are itchy to make sense of things, so when information is not directly forthcoming (or when it’s legally constrained, as in the case, for example, of personnel matters) it’s tempting to go ahead and plant a rumor, which then proceeds to travel faster than the speed of light. Underlying anxiety, mistrust, and hostility only fuel the rumor-mongering, and in this case, all the information in the world might be readily available to squash the rumor, but the rumor persists anyhow, in the face of all contrary evidence. I’m thinking of the Birther movement, and how the rumor that President Obama is not a legitimate president continues on, despite all—how at this very moment Georgia State Representative Mark Hatfield is channeling the birther movement in his sponsorship of a bill (House Bill 401) that would require presidential and vice-presidential candidates to prove their citizenship to make the state’s ballot. Where anxiety and mistrust and hostility exist, rumors are invulnerable to every appeal to reason. And they can tear a country and a congregation apart.
Negative gossip, rumor, and also this form of verbal assault: cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying is the use of technology—usually computers and cell phones—to spread gossip and rumors, to harass, threaten, humiliate, taunt, hurt. Cyberbullying is something that our teens increasingly struggle with, but it’s not just about teens. People of any age, in congregations just like this one, can find themselves victimized by harassing email messages. The sender is somewhere else, sending horrible things your way, and it’s relentless, it wears you down, every time you see the name pop up, you flinch. Not again. It’s terrible! Are they blind copying other people—who else is reading what’s being sent? Who else, through their silent complicity, is in agreement?
The question before us as a freedom people, again, is whether we’re going to protect such forms of hurtful speech. Grit our teeth out of a sense of duty and let it happen. How would a Unitarian Universalist version of the Supreme Court vote on this?
Listen to something that comes from our Puritan ancestors from 500 years ago, and is part and parcel of our DNA as a religious people: here it is: “A good man cannot tell how to go to heaven alone. The communion of saints must be a point of practice, as well as an article of belief. One candle lighteth another.” The language here is 500 years old, and may need translation, but the meaning is still fresh. Spiritual freedom isn’t something that just happens on its own. We have to work hard to create it for each other. We have to preserve it, protect it, because we need it. “A good man cannot tell how to go to heaven alone.” Our continued learning and growth, which includes release from personal blind spots and self-defeating behaviors, happens in beloved community. “One candle lighteth another.”
So what happens when people in a congregation start running around snuffing out each other’s candles, through negative gossip or rumors or cyberbullying? Our world is for sure a painful one; lots of versions of Westboro Baptist Church out there that slap our values in the face and scream out injustice. But verbal assault just doesn’t work as a means of engaging brothers and sisters in this congregation in issues we care deeply about. It does not matter how important the issues are. It does not matter how noble the intentions. You cannot get positive results by using negative means. Bitterness and divisiveness won’t help people find a better way. Given all this, our wise Puritan ancestors urged that the preservation of spiritual freedom in the local congregation necessitates people being in covenantal relationship with each other. It necessitates people being thoughtful and intentional about how they will walk together in a spirit of mutual encouragement, knowing how hard things can get sometimes; and then, when things break down, as is inevitable, coming back to the covenant again and again, doing one’s best. Speaking the truth in love.
Our freedom as Unitarian Universalists is just not any sort of freedom. Together, we work to be free from mutual hatefulness and spite so that our hearts can open—so that we can experience the free search for truth and meaning. Regarding negative gossip, rumors, and cyberbullying, our Unitarian Universalist version of the Supreme Court would vote nine to nothing against. Absolutely. In doing so, they would cite our history, like that statement from the Puritans we heard a moment ago. They would cite our Seven Principles. They would cite our congregational covenant (which is in your order of service today as an insert). Perhaps they would even cite some of Justice Samuel Alito’s dissenting opinion, in the case of Snyder vs. Phelps. Hateful words can at times be just as hurtful as a physical assault. Hateful words, even when they are mixed in with comments that legitimately contribute to the debate, are not OK. There are some times and places in this world that deserve special protection from hateful words—and congregations are such places. They’re places where souls grow. Got to protect that!
Quarrelling and fussing are all around us, like it was for the two foxes in the folktale. All around us. But our faith, Unitarian Universalism, calls us to be magnificently, blessedly incompetent in such matters. We ain’t gonna study war no more! Ain’t gonna. Say that with me: [ain’t gonna!]. Right! What we’re gonna study instead is peace. And I believe we are UUCA are doing that. We are doing fine! But there’s no better time to improve peace skills than in times of peace. That’s why we’re talking about all this today.
So here we go. Regarding gossip—the solution is to distinguish between the positive kind and the negative kind. Do you know what the origin of the word “gossip” is? It’s from the Middle English word “godsibb”: “god” (as in God) and “sib” (as in kinsman). In other words, we are children of God and thus siblings, brothers and sisters! Now how we get glossy People magazines and Charlie Sheen from this, I don’t know! But the point is: gossip can have a very positive function. It can strengthen our sense of connection as a community; it can be a way of learning good things about others that are helpful to us; it can be a way of demonstrating our status as members of this place. Theologian William Willimon goes so far as to say that “a congregation that doesn’t know intimate information about one another isn’t much of a church.” So I’m not saying that we have to do away with all forms of gossip. Not at all! The items in our weekly embracing meditation are, after all, items of good gossip! But the hurtful kind has just got to go. So some rules of thumb. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. As for neutral things, or nice things: if we are true siblings in God, and we wanted to share information about someone with others, then we’d ask them if it was OK before passing it along. We’d check with them first, to make sure that your information was all correct, as well as to honor them, because that’s what siblings in God do.
Now on to rumors. The strategy here is not to be a passive bystander. Be a “dead-ender” instead. If you hear a rumor, don’t absorb it passively, or pass it on. Ask, “how do you know that?” Definitely don’t come on too strong, though, or belittle someone for trying to plant a rumor, or for conveying one. Sometimes people simply lack information, hear an explanation that on the surface sounds credible, and pass it on to ease the anxiety. Dead-end it by providing accurate information, if you have it; and if you don’t, invite that person to go directly to someone who does. Contact the staff; contact the board.
As for cyberbullying. If you receive emails or other forms of electronic communication that are repeatedly harassing, humiliating, taunting, do not respond or retaliate. Let me or another staff person know. If you are copied or blind copied on emails like this, don’t stay silent! Say to that person, “We don’t treat each other like this—that’s not what we do here at UUCA.” If you are a moderator on one of our congregation’s list servs, and you see cyberbullying going on, don’t stay silent and just let it happen. Let me know. My process will be to follow guidelines established by cyberbullying experts. To contact that person directly, if possible, and find out what’s going on—try to heal the breach in relationship. If that doesn’t work, I’ll send a certified cease and desist letter, including copies of the bullying emails. If THAT doesn’t work, then we’ve got a person who won’t stop even though they see they are hurting other people, and that’s a problem. They are NOT speaking their truth in love. I’ll need to invite that person to take a break from the congregation, until such time they are able to demonstate care for other people. It is just an unfortunate truth that there are people who will do anything to grasp power in a congregation. It is sad but true that there are people who enjoy the excitement of creating chaos in a congregation, and though they will appeal to freedom in order to protect the hateful things they say, in reality the only kind of freedom they are protecting is their own. Everyone else is silenced by their hurtfulness. In the end, the only person speaking is them.
That’s not our Unitarian Universalist freedom way. Our way is freedom through mutual respect. “A good man cannot tell how to go to heaven alone.” “One candle lighteth another.” If we live our covenant together, we’ll be like taller fox and smaller fox in the Apalachian folktale, when it comes to fussing and fighting. Fights will start, to be sure, but they won’t go anywhere, they won’t escalate. The second we see that another person is being hurt, we stop. We will be magnificently, blessedly incompetent. A wonderful thing!