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This Sunday Oct. 5th: Stages of Life: The Spaces Between

Veterans Day

November 11th, 2007


This is one of those sermons where I feel like an imposter. The closest I got to military service was Second Class in the Boy Scouts. That's the actual rank, Second Class, a terrible one to quit at. I should have hung in there for a couple of more merit badges to be First Class but behold: a Second Class Boy Scout.

Ironically I quit because it wasn't disciplined enough, which I think means people didn't do what I told them to do. Nevertheless I feel like an imposter because what do I know on a day like this when we saw 30 people up here who have seen first hand if not the horrors of war, certainly the trials and tribulations of military service. It makes it hard to speak about.

And also because on a day like today there are so many different feelings that come up not just in myself but also thinking about the Unitarian Universalist side and how they feel about certainly this war that we're fighting right now if not most wars, most ways of using violence to solve problems.

In us even on this day when we certainly want to honor and give thanks to people there are all these different sorts of feelings. And not so much perhaps for we who are sitting next to each other who we now know to pay special respect to but I find in conversations about the war it becomes so easy to hear as well as in every other place so many temptations to divide us into "Us and Them".

Our movement has developed certainly since the Vietnam war an identity as more or less a Peace Church, more or less a religious movement that tends to speak out against wars, certainly any of them that are in my memory — of the first Gulf War and the stuff we were doing in Central America under Ronald Reagan and certainly this war as well. We have this strong identity as a Peace Church and yet here mixed in among us are not just World War II veterans but active service people today...We are that too. And that creates a tension.

We've become somewhat of a Peace Church if I can use that expression for a couple of reasons and again more or less since the 1960s. One is when we became Unitarian Universalism instead of Unitarianism and Universalism. There was a real deliberate re-posturing of ourselves as people who imagined a single human family who now were less interested in just those in one nation or another. Our peace, liberty and justice for all and our principles really wanted to mean everybody, all people everywhere and we started to see how those lines of the nation could sometimes be very problematic.

And also speaking historically the Vietnam war was a really precipitous event within Unitarian Universalism forgive again a little history lesson. I don't know what it was like out here on the West Coast but I know that on the East Coast where I went to school, conflicts within congregations over the Vietnam War tore congregations apart. You could point at any number of the old town Massachusetts churches that lost sometimes half or two thirds of their membership during the era of the Vietnam War as people struggled with what it meant to be in opposition to that, what it meant to be loyal to America, many of the same issues we feel conflicting ourselves when we wonder what's the right way to confront war? And in Newton where I did my internship there were all these old pictures of rich white guys on the wall from the old Newton families that had been a part of First Unitarian from it's earliest days. Remembering that particularly on the East Coast the Unitarian churches were often the Boston Brahmin churches, the status quo establishment churches which made them, generally speaking, even though we love to claim a kind of social justice tradition sort of slow in some cases to speak out against the war they were slow to finally get on board with the abolitionist movement as well for example.

So you had kind of those old folks from the old established families and you had a younger generation that was very active against the war and it created a lot of conflict and I think in ways that we might not be able to pinpoint we carry that forward. It was a tumultuous time for us and for what it's worth the peaceful more of less won the struggle. It tended to be those older families and the more conservative folk who in large numbers left Unitarian Universalism and so we got a little more radical overall in the late 60's and we've kind of been hanging onto that ever since. That was such a contrast to the past. The hymnal from which I took the old version of American the Beautiful you can see that the Nation is the subheading of a group of hymns that would be in one of the old hymnals sometimes 20 or 30 hymns expressing deeply patriotic feelings kind of with big old blinders on about what happened to the Native Americans along the way and extolling the virtues of America overall almost occasionally in the old 1930's ones with a little whiff of manifest destiny still in the hymnal as well. And it's understandable. So much of the American Democratic experiment was so closely related to the religious freedoms, the cultural freedoms, and the individual freedoms that Unitarians and Universalists were always fighting for. They saw the work of the country and the work of their religion often as synonymous in some ways for all that we make of the separation of church and state today.

Last week when I was talking about Same Sex Marriage I said that Unitarian Universalists try to go into the world holding two things: one I named as Love, our ideals, our deep faith, our trust in the good heart of humanity. And in the other hand the Real World. And somewhere in a merging of those two things, as we move forward in the world, is how we're trying to get our business done. If we only held this thing up we would bounce against reality and no one would pay attention to us and we would be called idealists but pure kind of cynical real politic is not where we want to go either. We want to bring those two things together. And when we do that, when we open our eyes and look at the real world there's no denying from my perspective that there have been times in human history where force has been necessary to solve problems where making sure that Buchenwold didn't happen anymore or again was something someone what going to have to take a really firm stand about. We wouldn't have these hymns toward the Nation unless there hadn't been a war of independence for America and few of us I think would be willing to still have a King. So there are times where in the real world force has been necessary.

Now how to resolve that ambiguity in myself, how to resolve it for us and feeling like an imposter I just don't feel like I can do much speaking in this regard and so I am going to let someone else speak through me, David Pile, who is the Unitarian Universalist Champlain in the U.S. Army. One of maybe 5 or 6 UU Chaplains who serve in the military and I found a couple of Blogs/Internet things for Unitarian Universalist's who serve in the military or who have served in the military and I would invite you to check them out because they're quite interesting. So I am going to read some of his words in an extended fashion and then pepper some of my reflections in there and that will be the bulk of the sermon.

He asks, "What does it mean to be a UU who serves in the military? Particularly right now with this war, what's going on there?" And he says, "Just as there are many different ways in which all Unitarian Universalists find connection to our faith, our liberal religious faith, there are also many different reasons why some Unitarian Universalists find their vocation in the military. For some UU's the experiences they have had while serving in the military have brought them to Unitarian Universalism. Serving overseas with the military will often bring someone face to face with war, with human rights abuses with hatred with poverty and with the responsibility that we have to the rest of the world. For these military UU's service in the military is not only the basis of their liberal faith but can also be how they live their faith by working through the military to address some of these global social concerns."

"Some UU's who serve in the military find in that service an expression of the separation of church and state. For these UU's their religious life is separate from their military career and in doing so they are able to be ethical presences within the military in a way that maintains the authenticity they need in their religious faith and their military service". And he goes on to develop that. "Some military UU's find the motivation for their service in the belief that the military needs the diversity of liberal religious voices, ours among them. Without such voices the military will find it difficult to live up to the standards of religious pluralism that is written into military policy and regulations. The only answer to the perception of the increase of conservative religious views within the military is for liberal religionists to be willing to serve". In the real world we've got a huge military. And it's not going to go away because we wish it to do so, so how might it transform from within?

I have a story. As a young man I was getting picked up by someone I had never met, a ride I had organized with a friend to go to a Zen retreat up in the mountains. I was deeply into Zen at the time and had not met this person before and had my understanding of Buddhism and we began to speak and I asked him "oh, what do you do for a living?" and he replied "Well actually I work in the Pentagon". I was stunned, you know, having still a rather large chip on my shoulder at the time and thinking of the core Buddhist ethical value of Ahimsa Non-harming. I boldly challenged him as being a hypocrite. I was young and impetuous, forgive me, and I said "what about Ahimsa? What about not harming? How can you possibly work for the military if you have that as your core ethical value?" And he said to me, "So who would you rather have running the defense department? Some crazy gun nut or a peace loving Buddhist?". And something shifted for me that day as you can imagine. I imagine I quickly changed the subject to something else, having been schooled. But it actually lifted up another Buddhist principle, that of Skillful Means: this love and real world thing together — that you do what you can where you are with the reality that's presented to you. And if you work in the defense department there's a place for peace and not harming there too. I learned a lot that day.

To finish David Pile's letter he notes that there are a number of other reasons why Unitarian Universalists might join the service: they might have a family tradition, they might have chosen to serve for the economic or education benefits and that's no small matter. They might have chosen to serve because being a liberal and being a patriot can still be the same thing no matter how much some would argue otherwise. But more importantly he goes on beyond those who serve on active duty or in the reserves. There are also many UU families who have military members serving, spouses, parents, children and those families need our support and our wisdom and insight too. There are many more veterans in our congregations than might first be apparent and I think this is true because it may not always be apparent to our military veterans that their military service is accepted in our congregations.

In truth we should be seeking to learn from the experience of these military veteran UU's while at the same time realizing that many veterans still carry spiritual and physical wounds from their time in the service. Our congregations must learn to better minister to these veterans. The next 20 years will see a spiritual crises in the lives of the men and women serving in the current operations around the world and Unitarian Universalism can present a healing message of love community and transformation in their lives and the lives of their families. He finishes, there is one other reason that some UUs serve in the military including myself and that is Love. Not love of war but of those women and men who choose to stand between their beloved homes and the desolation and hell that is war.

So we can see from his words our ways are not necessarily incompatible. The military, the government, war that is not something outside of these walls — it's in here with us too and we're as capable as anyone else of lifting up and holding onto those qualities that we admire in those who have served. Bravery, sacrifice, selflessness, the putting of others first, these qualities that we might think of as being in a warrior can certainly be turned to the good as well. Though it may take occasionally redefining what it means to fight and redefining who our enemy really is.

And here I offer you another example, Aaron Watada. Anyone know who Lt. Watada is? He's a Japanese American and I would urge you to Google him. I feel like I do this every week — send you off to google — but you must learn more about Aaron Watada. He's a first Lieutenant of the United States Army who back in June of '06 publicly refused to go and serve in Iraq as the first commissioned officer to do so and the reason he did so is because when he received those orders he did his own investigation and study into the war and decided, in my opinion quite clearly and obviously, that our war in Iraq is an illegal war, an unjust and illegal war. He felt based on the principal of command responsibility which comes from the Nuremburg trials this idea that the person in charge is responsible for all of those underneath and if they commit war crimes or atrocities it's the person in charge who's responsible. He felt that if he took his troop to Iraq he would be enabling them to commit war crimes because the war was illegal and he refused to do it and he's now in the midst of his 2nd court martial, in the midst of it like today, it's going on right now while we speak and there's been lots of public support for him and he may spend 7 years in prison for taking this stand.

He's been called a coward and a traitor but he volunteered to go to Afghanistan where he said the real war on terror actually is since the 9/11-Iraq connection was a lie but they wouldn't give that to him so he took his stand and even though he may end up spending 7 years in prison he said he doesn't regret his decision, here's the warrior, stating that he believes it to have been his moral responsibility. He said,

"When you are looking your children in the eye in the future or when you are at the end of your life you want to look back on your life and know that at a very important moment when I had the opportunity to make the right decisions I did so even knowing that there would be negative consequences."

And in a wonderful speech he gave at the Veteran's for Peace Convention in '06 he quoted Mark Twain saying (forgive the old time language):

"Each man must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk from this and be a man. To decide against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor both to yourself and to your country".

Lt. Watada said by this each and every American Soldier, Marine, Airman and Sailor is responsible for their choices and their actions. The freedom to choose that is only one we can deny ourselves.