On this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday here at UUCA, we remember the great man and we listen to his resonant voice, how his words at the start of his sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct” slowly and precisely fall and are driven home.
I don’t know if he ever called himself a Universalist, but he surely was one. He believed that, from birth, every human being is set upon a path instinctively aiming towards greatness. There is, first of all, having in mind the greatest good we are capable of imagining, and then there is the reaching out for it in action.
That’s what we are hardwired for, from birth.
Therefore what matters above all is how we imagine our greatest good. Beings that are primed by God or nature to aim for what is best, if the instinct is not developed and educated, can achieve the worst.
History has seen Dr. King.
History has also seen King’s terrible contemporaries, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon.
No one falls into evil and fails to do well because they intentionally wish to. The difference-maker is unwisdom. The difference-maker is ignorance which is not just intellectual but emotional and spiritual too, and it causes a person to imagine a good that is way too small.
When an image of the good is small, the love you have to show the world gets small too.
That’s the basic thrust of the Mark Chapter 10 story that Dr. King recounts. One day, James and John come up to Jesus and announce their ambition to sit beside him “when he is in his glory,” and clearly this is how they imagine their greatest good. They truly and honestly believed that.
But a wish can be too small. Which is why Jesus responds by saying, “Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be chiefest, shall be servant of all.”
Jesus is loving the hell out of their minds, if hell can be understood as a Universalist understands it: as a this-world sort of thing and the ultimate result of misunderstanding what is truly good.
As for Jesus’ vision of greatness, and Dr. King’s: Universalist also. Greatness is:
We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken.
We’ll build a land where the captives go free,
where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning.
Oh, we’ll build a promised land that can be.
Later in his sermon Dr. King says,
….everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
That’s the biggest image of the good there is.
That biggest image of the good translates to the biggest love.
Finding a way to serve.
This day, we honor Dr. King’s service, and the beautiful example of his life.
But it shines as a bright star in the dark depths of the unwisdom that is everywhere and, as a result, the pitifully small images of the good that are also everywhere.
Dr. King spends almost 2/3rds of his sermon counting the ways of ignorance and its consequences. He’s preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church and he’s not naming names, but you have to believe he’s calling out some things he’s seeing there. He’s calling it out because he loves his people and wants them to try harder and live more fully into what they are capable of as children of God.
He speaks to how advertisers appeal to people’s vanity and make us dissatisfied with who we are and what we have. Very soon, we find ourselves living beyond our means.
Or, he speaks to how people can become boastful; how people can name drop to demonstrate their specialness.
Or, he speaks to how people can push others down to push themselves up.
And then he explicitly calls out churches that get caught up in snobbery and in how many doctors and lawyers and professors and other high-class people they have as members, and he says, “When the church is true to its nature, it says, ‘Whosoever will, let him come.’ And it is not supposed to satisfy the perverted uses of the drum major instinct. It’s the one place where everybody should be the same…”
Note especially that phrase: “perverted uses of the drum major instinct.” The instinct is fundamentally good, but it has gotten lost in thickets of unwisdom.
Then the sermon pivots, from things he might have been seeing in his congregation to things in the larger world. Incredibly worrying things. The “need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.” This horror of racism, and then another horror, that of “the struggle between nations”: “nations,” he says, “are caught up with the drum major instinct. ‘I must be first.’ ‘I must be supreme’.”
The sermon could absolutely be preached today.
The drum major instinct is in us. God or nature has put us on a path of seeking out greatness. But greatness in intent can turn into horror in action. If unwisdom is not educated out of us, there truly will be hell to pay.
From Dr. King’s sermon, we Universalists have our marching orders:
To humbly acknowledge the human predicament of pervasive ignorance, including double ignorance, or times when you don’t know that you don’t know.
To commit to a lifelong journey of learning and growth, and you accept the fact that the experience of learning will sometimes feel like being blindsided, but you still keep on showing up.
To be thoroughly convinced that this is not a journey of solitude but one lived in community, because how else can you come to know what you don’t know you don’t know?
To have compassion for ourselves as a flawed human beings, and therefore we can extend that compassion to our fellow-sinners. I just can’t be obnoxious in pointing out another’s flaw, when I have three fingers pointing back at myself.
“Because we spill not only milk,” writes poet Nancy Shaffer
Knocking it over with an elbow
When we reach to wipe a small face
But also spill seed on soil we thought was fertile but isn’t,
And also spill whole lives, and only later see in fading light
How much is gone and we hadn’t intended it
Because we tear not only cloth
Thinking to find a true edge and instead making only a hole
But also tear friendships when we grow
And whole mountainsides because we are so many
And we want to live right where black oaks lived,
Once very quietly and still
Because we forget not only what we are doing in the kitchen
And have to go back to the room we were in before,
Remember why it was we left
But also forget entire lexicons of joy
And how we lost ourselves for hours
Yet all that time were clearly found and held
And also forget the hungry not at our table
Because we weep not only at jade plants caught in freeze
And precious papers left in rain
But also at legs that no longer walk
Or never did, although from the outside they look like most others
And also weep at words said once as though
They might be rearranged but which
Once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless
Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over, beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
One day not so long ago, a man named McArthur Wheeler robbed a bank. Now as Unitarian Universalists (emphasizing the Universalism), we understand this not as a case of McArthur Wheeler being a fundamentally bad person but as being a fundamentally good person who unwisely imagined his greatest good to lie in the direction of grand theft.
But the thing you need to know about McArthur Wheeler is that he threw himself fearlessly into robbing banks. He was fearless because he covered his face with lemon juice which, he believed, would make his face invisible to the surveillance cameras. Lemon juice makes for invisible ink, right? So lemon juice on the face makes for an invisible face.
Some years after this, in 1999, a social science paper with the following title was published: “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” The authors, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, had been inspired by McArthur Wheeler.
A year later, they received the Ig Noble prize in satirical recognition of discovering what is now well known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s when you don’t know that you don’t know, but you think you do. Or, your capacity to know is low, for some reason or another, but you think it is high. And you like to say so.
One of the blessings of the Universalist faith is that the humility it calls us to helps preserve us from the Dunning-Kruger effect. When our focus is on being strong, being competent, not making mistakes, it’s easy to start believing the lie. Not that we don’t have moments of strength and competency and being right, but that those aren’t the only moments we have. We also have moments of knocking the milk over with an elbow, or accidentally tearing cloth or tearing a friendship, or forgetting what we were doing in the kitchen or forgetting the hungry who are not at our table, or forgetting names.
That happens too.
When we anxiously try to fake others and ourselves out about how strong and competent we are, the Dunning-Kruger effect is just right around the corner, and before you know it, it’s us with the lemon juice on the face, thinking that that’s going to take care of the surveillance cameras.
Universalism says, be self-compassionate instead. Acknowledge it: you are an imperfect being living an imperfect life. Of course you’ll have moments of strength. But when you make a mistake, treat yourself with kindness and care and concern.
And to the degree you can do this, to the degree we can admit flaws honestly and with kindness, we can stay connected with others, we can be united in our common flawed humanity.
We can also accept feedback and criticism easier. Of course we hope that such feedback and criticism comes with kindness, but unless self-compassion is already in our hearts, even the kindest and most just criticism will pierce us, and probably we will want to bite back, maybe we will want to blame the messenger and make them out to be the bad person.
We will never heal our unwisdom if we can’t receive feedback with an open, humble heart.
Self-compassion is good for you. Literally so: Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, says that “resilience may be the most remarkable benefit of self-compassion. In one study, she and her colleagues worked with veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The subjects worked with clinical psychologists who determined that nearly half of the group (42 percent) experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Using a 26-item self-report questionnaire that included statements like, ‘I’m tolerant of my own flaws and inadequacies,’ Dr. Neff and her colleagues rated subjects’ level of self-compassion. The study concluded that the more self-compassionate veterans were, the less severe their PTSD symptoms were. Dr. Neff added that self-compassionate people also tend to ruminate less because they can ‘break the cycle of negativity’ by accepting their own imperfections.”
This does not mean you don’t try harder. In fact, Universalism guarantees that you will absolutely try harder, if you truly feel that something is important.
Universalism also guarantees that if something is important, but you mistakenly think not, well, feedback is coming your way. And how you respond: that is up to you.
But now let’s talk about feedback. Letting someone know that they’ve made a mistake. You doing it directly for yourself. Or allies doing it, in support of people whose voices don’t get heard because too often if they speak up politely they are ignored, and if they speak up angrily they are asked to be polite….
By no means do I believe in public denunciation, where basically a whole person with a complicated personal story makes a mistake and that whole person is seen as nothing more than the mistake and they are made into a symbol of an entire oppressive system and therefore the denunciator feels perfectly fine to go to social media, for example, and demonstrate their moral purity by destroying a person they probably don’t even know, and if they do, what’s clear is that the denunciator doesn’t care at all about them and doesn’t believe in apologies and doesn’t believe in forgiveness or reconciliation.
Public denunciation is a kind of vigilante justice that has no room in Unitarian Universalism.
Much better is how a self-compassionate person would reach out with compassion. There’s a personal connection that undergirds the whole thing. She points a finger, and she knows that she has three fingers pointing right back at her. But she reaches out anyhow, because it is an act of compassion to help a person fall out of love with an image of the good that is too small for them. It is an act of compassion to reach out and say, “Hey, when you said that African American children or Asian children all look alike, that’s most hurtful. You are better than that. Remember this good thing you once did? Remember this good thing you once said? You are better than what your hurtful words suggest.”
Reaching out can fall flat, though. When you are a person of color, or a woman, or differently-abled, or a member of some other historically marginalized group, all your life you’ve lived that form of marginalization, you have all these stories, you have all this hurt and anger at ways you’ve been denied dignity as a human being, so reaching out with kindness can put you through the emotional wringer. But you reach out. You’re trying to build a bridge but maybe the person breaks it, they don’t know what to do with the discomfort you have created. They might even demonstrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect in essentially saying that you don’t know what you’re talking about, that they are the experts of your life, not you, not you with all your stories and all your experience, not you, but them, even though they’ve been schooled all their lives in ignorance of what your life is like.
It’s outrageous. But it might happen. Reaching out might not work. At best, it plants a seed—and maybe that seed will one day grow, maybe not.
But what’s even worse than the riskiness of reaching out is that ignorance prevails if you don’t, and that’s not loving the hell out of the world.
Let your motivation in reaching out be compassion. For another person’s good, and the good of the community.
We need hell loved out of this world, and self-compassionate people extending compassion to others is the way.
It is a way to serve.