Politics and The Pulpit
by Stephen H. Fritchman Berry Street Essay, 1963, and delivered before the Ministerial Conference 1963
“Blessed be the hour that gave me birth between two eras!” from The Odyssey by Nikos Kazantzakis
I HAVE a greater respect now than ever before in my life for the role of the liberal minister. While a few are bland in their message, a few abrasive in their temperaments, and some alert to the main chance, the overwhelming majority of Unitarian and Universalist ministers I have known have been compassionate without being sentimental, courageous without being exhibitionists, and proudly aware that theirs is the freest profession in the land today. Without hesitation I would say that the Unitarian or Universalist minister and his wife are often the two most valuable people in a community in the second half of this twentieth century. They have, in Dr.Paul Tillich’s phrase, “the courage to be.”
With decent humility, which is rarely sycophantic; with a confession of ignorance which grows apace with reading each new issue of The Scientific American (my own monthly hair shirt), the Unitarian or Universalist minister can and does say out loud what he thinks is true and necessary to be said. He is a privileged person in our society, since this same candor, or even a suspicion of it, can cost many another American his livelihood and his professional future. While the liberal minister may at times feel himself to be an amalgam of Sisyphus and Amos, he knows that he often becomes a tower of strength to his congregation, and even to the larger community, simply by standing erect on Sunday morning and saying: “The Emperor is naked.” And beyond the spoken word is the startling impact of his example. He is a man who means what he says, who is what he advocates, and who does not find this mode of life remarkable, except that he meets too few friends who are infected by his example.
I plan for a few minutes to speak with some candor, with some passion, and possibly by grace of your identification with my concern, with a little light. The unique thing about the Berry Street Lecture is that it is given to an audience that knows the ground as well as, or better, than the speaker, which is both a terrifying thought and a vast comfort. If you react as I have some twenty times at this annual lecture, you will welcome the nihil obstat of a fellow worker as he discusses matters of familiar concern and of the gravest importance. Dr. Channing wisely intended, I think, that once a year we should recover from any prevailing sense of isolation or singularity as we tamper with the universe. There is even something to be said for the ancient therapy of comparing our scars gained from the unending battle with the powers of darkness.
One major change in the presuppositions of the Berry Street essayists in the past fifty years is the shift to a broader base for our concept or religion. As I talk with my fellow ministers and study the sermons and news bulletins of scores of our Unitarian and Universalist churches today, I am persuaded that we no longer think of ourselves as primarily within the Protestant orbit; that we are indeed, as the Report of the Committee to Study Theological Education suggests, finding a synthesis of what might be called natural religion, or religious philosophy, and speculative theology. This surely is a definite trend, an accelerating one, however real may be the resistance and dissent on the part of some. We have been deviants from Judeo-Christian orthodoxy for the length of our existence as a Unitarian movement since the sixteenth century. In recent decades the shift to naturalism and humanism has been conspicuous to all careful observers. We have always been and frequently advocates of heresy.
I would accept the formulation of Harold Taylor in the Report just mentioned, that for a great number of our liberal churches today “to be religious means to be tolerant in one’s recognition of human weakness and to encourage the development of human strength, to entertain the views of life inherent in other religions, philosophies, and cultures; yet to work continually toward the achievement of personal belief which can express itself in a coherent philosophy and humanitarian action.” To some this may seem too little, to others too much, but after thirty-three years in our liberal ministry I believe it represents a fair assessment of our prevailing conviction.
Hope in Perilous Times
It is my thesis today that in an age of tragedy it is reasonable for us to think that we can escape the defeatism which paralyzes so many, and that we can, with hope, begin to enter into a new age for mankind. We are far from alone, both in our recognition of the tragedy around us, and in our confidence that all is not lost – in fact, that our prospects were never so great for a fulfillment of man’s vision of an earth transformed.
Is it not true that man faces the gravest peril since he was driven from his settlements in the temperate zone during the Ice Age, when mountains were leveled, valleys filled, river courses altered – all by fantastic force of nature? We are now confronted with very possible destruction, not by ice, but by fire- fire made by man with infinite cunning and devastating power. The sense of impending disaster is not one conjured up by rhetoric; it can be discovered by sober calculation. Dr. Leo Szilard has estimated that we have a ten percent chance of getting through the next few years without a planetary conflagration. Secretary General U Thant told the Economics Club in New York recently that “the life of homo sapiens is in the balance, the plain fact being that Americans, Russians and Burmese are all in peril….Most scientists agree that if many hydrogen bombs are used there will be universal death- sudden death only for the fortunate few, and for the majority, a slow torture of disease and disintegration.”
The fact, brethren, that these words are quite familiar to you in nowise alters their fearful significance. For all of the tragedy that confronted Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, and others in years past when they came to these Berry Street meetings, they did not meet with an atomic death sentence hanging over them. There was a sense of time at their command which we simply do not feel at this moment. We exist in these days knowing that decision will be made, by act or default, as to whether we face disaster for the human enterprise or whether we enter a new world of intelligence with all that the phrase implies. There is a qualitative difference in our approach to issues, each day that we go about our duties.
I would not for an instant deny the tragic factors which existed in the decades prior to the Civil War, when sensitive minds began to realize that in their lifetime brothers would spill brothers’ blood to an extent never known before within a single country. But there is a new dimension to the peril in our time. We have become calloused to news stories such as the one that appeared over the UPI wires last July, telling us that “ forty Army scientists are working on a project that could add deadly super germs of types that do not exist in nature to the potential of biological warfare.” It takes no great imagination to visualize the spread of these bacteria across the surface of the earth, wiping out in a few days or weeks the long, slow efforts of mankind to destroy the surviving scourges of polio, typhoid, and cancer. This is official insanity, blessed by men of science, paid for with the taxes of a presumably decent and principled nation by men and women who love children and even pets. Such proposals can be advanced only by men who have consented to madness. The existent plan, now in process of further refinement, to destroy man not only with fabricated fire but with manmade diseases, cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, if you and I are to continue seriously to profess the dignity of life and the worth of man. These ancient phrases become utter blasphemy unless we labor with all the strength within us to spell out to our congregations and to our government that they cannot have it both ways. The brain of man has devised both death and dignity, but it has not claimed that they are compatible and co-existent—for they are not.
The Need for Meaning
A few weeks ago a study group, I am told, was announced in our San Francisco Unitarian Church to discuss Nietzsche’s question, “Is God really dead?” Forty persons were expected. Four hundred came. In the context of tragedy unparalleled in history, people seek meaning for life. Whatever else that surprising attendance signifies, it seems clear that many people have come to a new level of attention- they are attempting to cope with life with and enlarged understanding and greater sensitivity. The symbols of the space satellite and the high speed computer do not satisfy those men and women who reject total manipulation in a technology age.
I am persuaded that the encouragement of responsible dialogue is the basic goal of our religion, a dialogue which assists us and our congregations to discover meaning and a program for man while he is yet alive on this fertile, glorious earth. There is a plethora of literature, of drama, of television and film describing the powers which would destroy us. In the daily press we find primarily an emphasis upon dehumanized man, his perversions and failures. Some, like Robert Frost and Albert Camus, resisted by retirement from the fray, while Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin and Ionesco join in a chorus of near despair of man’s ability to redeem his life from destruction.
It is our task as liberal ministers to report, if we believe it to be so, that there is more than alienation and the absurd, more than illusion and despair. Those of us in this profession of ours who meet human frailty and despondency every day of our lives are quite conscious of the forces that undermine the human will, but we refuse to accept the prevailing silence about those forces that create new confidence in life. We may not employ Nietzsche’s arresting formulation that God is dead, but we do know that man is a meaning-questing animal when not drugged, trussed and imprisoned by a culture that holds him in vile contempt – a culture preoccupied with shaking the last coin from our pockets, and with little else. Professor Herbert Shore at Brandeis University echoes my conviction when he declares that “Death can never be the avant-garde of an advancing civilization, the vanguard of mankind, or we would all be marching to the crematories together crying out, ‘it is absurd.’” And while he is speaking primarily of the nihilistic and neurotic writers of this century, I would add that the religions from which we have emerged, especially Christianity, have been equally guilty of proclaiming Death as the way of life, and are losing their grip on mankind as a consequence. I hold Billy Graham and the Vatican as responsible as the grave-bewitched men of letters for compounding the crime of human desperation. It is our task, as liberal ministers, to speak of more than violence, decay, and man’s inherited ineptitude. As Dr. Shore pleads for more voices like those of Berthold Brecht, Sean O’Casey, and Haldor Laxness, men of light and hope, I would plead for voices such as we once knew in our own active ranks – Theodore Parker, Anna Garlin Spencer and John Haynes Holmes.
It is for us to say that meaning will be found, if it be found in time, by a recovery of lost dimensions of human joy and creativity, by a dismissal of irrationality as central, by a recovery of courage in the resources of mind and emotions as worthy of cultivation. Striving and struggling are indeed a part of our capital as men and women, as are song and poetry and human love. If we believe, as many of us do, that over the centuries a set of values has evolved which deserves employment, then we should declare those values. Then we should insist that man is inviolable, that he must not be driven off the stage by those who have lost faith in those values.
The role of the Liberal Minister
I am saying that you and I, as ministers, have a role of vast importance today because we do not believe that life for man is bereft of meaning. Self-knowledge, even terrifying knowledge about the depths of man’s evil designs against himself and others, leads to more than guilty exhaustion. Analysis of ourselves and our fellows is not enough, cleansing as it often turns out to be. We need not be prisoners to our therapists.
The men and women whom we meet in the course of our ministrations are blocked by despairs, griefs, surrenders to conformity around them. They, too, far more than we often realize, cherish the human values which we know have been discovered and implemented during the course of human history, and they seek ways and means of escape from the many inhibitions our society raises against them. Ours is a social system which all too often chokes self-confidence and courage. Hence, the necessity for some supportive voices which can restore a man’s self-respect and initiative. We can, in a culture obsessed with futility, restore in individual lives a balance by speaking boldly of man’s rationality, his moral and emotional powers which are so real that they have taken him through incredible crises many times before. This is no fiction, and it is our privilege to say so.
This is why we need to violate the maxims: why we should upset the applecart, let the bull enter the china shop, cry havoc in church. Our governments I both hemispheres find themselves trapped by their own intransigence, but this is no reason why we should commit the same folly. We know today about the resources of man, and how he can recover from his aberrations. There is no man more free to speak of the restorative powers of our species than a Unitarian or Universalist minister, if he will keep his wits about him. As you may gather, I am weary indeed of the celebration of apathy in our culture today, and I see no reason for denying that I am an agitator for change- wholehearted, drastic and immediate. If man is to find meaning – and I believe he can it will come by releasing imagination to work on real issues.
It was Ignatius Loyola, or Plato, or Karl Marx (you may take your choice, or take them all), who said that no amount of self-analysis can sustain virtuous conduct unless one brings about constitutional changes in the social order and providers the kind of institutions that are conductive to human development. This brings me to the second half of my subject. If we truly wish to help ourselves and our congregations to a greater awareness of their full dimensions as human beings, we will do them great damage unless we indicate to them the ways and means of changing the social order so as to place man at the center of the enterprise. Self-knowledge does generate humility and modesty, but it also, happily, generates powers of cooperation, mutuality and sacrifice for the larger good.
Commitment and Participation
When we come to the transformation of our social order into one in which man may survive and find meaning as homo sapiens, if not homo angelicus, we ministers can have many things to say – things often more welcome to our listeners’ ears than we might expect. I remember the astringent warnings of Lewis Mumford in earlier days, warning that the average American, when he thinks of social change, reaches for a party to join, a cared to sign, a subscription to write. Mr. Mumford referred to these tropisms as “mechanisms of vicarious atonement for actions long unperformed. But, “he added,” what is really called for is the opposite: withdrawal from extraneous activities as the first step toward conscious, directed, passionate commitment and participation.” If I understand Mr. Mumford, I would agree that no man is worth anything to his church, his party, his club, his union, his nation, or mankind generally without self-examination (which calls for periodic detachment). But to me the most tragic figure of this century is the uninvolved, the withdrawn, the defeated, the apathetic man. It is true that never before have so few men made such fateful decisions for so many people who themselves were so helpless. Dictatorships are but one evidence of this fact. Enormous armies and highly drilled technicians living beside loaded bombers on dozens of airstrips at this moment are also evidence. There is nothing heroic about dying in a struggle about which one has no iota of choice as he enters it. We need to restore, not decrease, the sense of significant and rational involvement. In hundreds of liberal churches I sense a mounting effort to restore a sense of participation by people, emotionally as well as rationally, in achieving the destiny of their nation and their world.
Masters of Destiny
Twenty years ago the late C. Wright Mills wrote a book review in the course of which he said, “If men in the large were as snarled as the ethicist and religionists make them out to be, there would not be any human action and we should all probably starve.” Mr. Mills had then, and much later also, a very skeptical opinion about organized religion as he found it in America. I often share his assessment, but I find happy exceptions.
In his article Professor Mills pleaded for less utopian and messianic preaching or writing, and a far greater concentration on acquiring the knowledge and the power to remake the social orders which trap us, and he warns, “We must learn to manage ourselves, lest we be managed by alien beings.” – and he could have added, by digital computers.
This indeed is our task if we are to alter the climate and the institutions about us. Mr. Mills was one of the many men I honor greatly who asked again and again why there was so little social anger by people facing cruel chance and death. Men are more than political animals, to be sure, but there are times when they must, above all else, be political, or they will lose everything. If this be such a time, then a concentration on other features of the self, at the expense of the political, becomes monstrous irresponsibility. I believe this is such a time.
Again to C. Wright Mills, In A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy he said, “But you may say, ‘Don’t let’s get the church into politics.’ You might well say that with good conscience, were the political role of the church to be confined to what it has been and what it is. But in view of what it might be, you would say, ‘This world is political.’ Politics, understood for what it really is today, has to do with the decisions men make which determine how they shall live and how they shall die. They are not living very well, and they are not going to die very well either. Politics is the locale of both evil and good. If you do not get the church into politics you will simply offer another distraction from reality, you will be unable to confront evil and you cannot work for good. You will be a subordinate amusement and political satrap of whatever is going. You will be the great Christian joke.”
Let me be as concrete as possible. The shaping of a new society, and the manner in which we shall live in it, are political matters. This process includes, of course, the areas of moral and intellect. If we believe that these areas should be related to our activities which make a difference to the people as a whole, then personal morals and politics become closely enmeshed. If our religion or philosophy is not to become escapist and irresponsible, it will require us to take a political stance, to become involved. This is true for us an for the people with whom we work, in and out of our churches.
You and I have an obligation to break vulgar stereotypes about political activity. Many of those in power today, in government, in the press, in business and in industry, and most certainly in the military, do not wish to see more aroused political activity. Certainly the Southern Congressmen will try everything in the book to keep millions of negroes from voting in their own states. Politics affects your own style of life, or it is a hoax and a fraud.
Long before the Unitarians were hammering out of some of these axioms for human progress, Thomas Aquinas, that sensible empiricist of the Sicilian court, though not particularly interested in politics, possessed one political principal that survived in the Catholic heritage, namely, the function of the state is not negative, but positive; its duty is actively to create conditions in which the good life can be lived. He is a spokesman akin to Plato, St. Ignatius, and Karl Marx. Apparently Pope John XXIII had also been rereading his Thomas Aquinas recently, if I understand his Easter Encyclical, “Pacem in Terris,” aright.
The Primacy of Politics
Whether Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah added as richly to the theory of the state I leave others to say, but certainly we Unitarians and Universalist should have no sense whatever of being prematurely radical in our insistence that we must help our members to grasp the primacy of politics in times such as we are passing through today, politics which involve deep personal moral commitment. It is indeed our duty to agree fervidly with James Baldwin when he speaks in the words of the old-time spiritual of “the fire next time.” Or maybe you will prefer the words of that distinguished British journalist, Paul Johnson, “If the apostles of social change eschew violence they must embrace speed.” Our task is not merely to improve but to change society, because only with a changed society can men live as human beings, rather than as appendages to our mechanical progeny, machines.
Allow me to be autobiographical for a moment- the privilege of the elders in the clergy by common courtesy. I came into this ministry with a sense of outrage from which I have never recovered. In my youth I earned college tuition by reading meters for the East Ohio Gas Company in Cleveland, Ohio. For some ten months this underground activity did more to raise my hackles than all the diatribes of the Eighth Century prophets. I discovered the filthy realities of poverty in the industrial slums of a steel city on the shores of Lake Erie; I saw the violence of family life amongst the immigrant laborers who were the new quasi-slave labor force of the post-war corporations which found themselves in the saddle at the close of that profitable holocaust. It was an eighteen year-old’s introduction to whorehouses, saloons, cold water flats, and tarpaper shacks, which had at least one of democracy’s symbols in common- the gas meter. Amidst slime, garbage, rats and castoff clothing, I recorded the month’s consumption of the precious fuel, and discovered how men and women treat each other and their offspring when tortured by low wages, cramped quarters, exhaustion and cheap liquor with no time for anything but eating, sleep and procreation on the simplest of terms.
I have a strong stomach for outrage, toughened by those months in the gulleys of South Cleveland amidst the stench of steel mills and steaming slums. My own little private world of middle-class comfort evaporated, never to be fully recovered. Later I was to discover how secondary human welfare was for millions of my fellowmen who were pleasantly situated halfway up the hill (to use Wendell Wilkie’s unforgettable simile). Once a man has passed through such experience he never fully insulates himself again. I have read of the Ludlow Massacre, the Haymarket riots, the slaughter from the skies at Guernica, the mass incineration of the Jews at Oswiecim and Dachau, the extinction of the city of Hiroshima, but these for me are secondhand in all their horror. I have, to be sure, seen with my own eyes the poverty of Tokyo and Mexico city, and the rural degradation of the State of Maine, but nothing stays with me as vividly as do those teenage experiences of misery along the Cuyahoga River in Ohio.
It was during those late teenage years that I began to meet, as have most of you in your own way, the merciless dialogue between love and hate, as it is conducted between the interstices of our industrial civilization. You may be more privileged, but for me it is an endless and torturing dialogue which will continue to the Day of Judgment, in spite of all the advances and compromises which may mark the way.
As I reflected night after night on those shattering experiences in the ghetto of poverty-haunted Cleveland. I was confronted with words on paper, printed and bound, by men earlier immersed in the same conflicts of the flesh and the spirit. My rebellion was more English in origin than Russian, though in the present perspective it makes little difference, for the torment of modern man rejects the prejudices of nationalism. I discovered Robert Kett of England, who was hanged in 1549 for saying, “The pride of great men is now intolerable, but our condition is miserable. They abound in delights, are consumed with vain pleasures, thirst after gain, and are inflamed with the burning delights of their desires. But ourselves, we are almost killed with labor and watching, do nothing all our lives but sweat, mourn, hunger and thirst.: later I discovered Maxim Gorky and his Letter to American Intellectuals, with its savage words, “You reproach me with ‘preaching hatred’ and advise me to ‘propagate love.’ It would seem you think me capable of preaching to the workers: ‘Love the capitalists for they are devouring your kith and kin, love the capitalists for their church is holding you down in obscurity and ignorance.’ Nothing save the victory of the proletariat will be able to rid the world of hatred.” The jargon of revolutionaries may seem a cliché to Americans and slogans seem too glib, but when translated into our problems of Mexican migratory laborers or Birmingham’s black ghettos it has a devastating relevance.
Those months in 1920 which led to my decision to consider the ministry were filled with what Lewis Mumford has called “existential nausea at the many miscarriages of civilization.” And the miscarriages were not only in the dim recesses of the past, or in foreign lands; they were painfully before my eyes as I arose each morning at five to make a new sortie into those parts of my city which my schools and my neighbors had never spoken of. That nausea led me, as it has led so many before me, into desperate measures: into a year of training at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to discover the esoteric and escalating adventures of business, and then into the reverse escape through preparation for the ministry in one of our evangelical colleges in Central Ohio. The effort to escape disaster through spiritual seclusion was as abortive as such efforts usually are, because most of us, when once confronted with human tragedy in its naked form and reconfronted with it in its Protean varieties, never wholly recover.
Of course, it can be said that much has transpired in my forty intervening years – that we have, by the grace of engineers and scientists, entered the Age of Affluence. Yet is not Father Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame, correct when he reminds us (without reference to Thomas Aquinas) that to a hungry world we give the image of stored surpluses, better beers, and better cars; that our impact on the earth’s peoples outside of America is of a science and technology which makes us wealthy while they are poor, which makes us healthy while they are diseased, that houses us in palaces while they are in shacks? “We may think to win them,” says Father Hesburgh, “by the dazzling performance of putting men into space, but this meager inspiration to people living in the swamps of poverty and ignorance, below the arching orbits.”
You and I increasingly understand the tragic fact that many men and women face change and death without feeling any deep social anger. There is a place in our ministry, an essential place, for profound emotion when we see a world which we might attain slipping from our grasp because good people, in their exhaustion, are stripped of their proper wrath. What some of my African friends in Kenya and Ghana call “anemic Christianity” – that bastard version of the original message that washes out all passion and leaves so many of our people impotent, also infects Los Angeles and Boston. Can we Unitarians not equal the fury of the Black Muslims (however much we repudiate their nationalist philosophy), as we count the uncashed promises of four hundred years of Negro oppression? I think we should. I bitterly resent the image of the white man formed by these centuries of oppression and so zealously maintained by Barnett, Eastland and Bull Connor to this hour.
Certainly in an era of “playing it cool,” of avoiding the dialogue of controversy and judgment, it is our unique responsibility as religious liberal to bear testimony to the role of legitimate feeling in advocacy of political change. Nothing significant is accomplished without the energy that is generated from human emotion. There is no contradiction between passion and rationality, as we should have learned long since from Sam Adams and Tom Paine. The church is indeed a place for dialogue, but not for dialogue bereft of profound human passion. We meet people every day who seem not to care whether mankind lives or dies within the next twenty-hours, but we know well that their apathy will not save us from our present jeopardy. William Lloyd Garrison knew a century ago and Martin Luther King today in Alabama certainly knows the necessity for surging emotion in the most rational of programs for social reconstruction.
Are we whistling against the wind as we speak of hope and of the transformation of a world in mid-passage? I do not know the answer any better than you do. I often remember those tough words of C. Wright Mills, “He who cannot withstand the world collapse of all his hopes will never enter the kingdom of his own self.” It may have been better said by Stoics of Asia and the Mediterranean world centuries ago, but I find it significant coming from an American professor, who until his death labored persistently for the humanistic and the political freedom of all men, including the men and women of Cuba.
In all honesty, I see more of hope than do many of my contemporaries. I do not consider Dr. Harrison Brown of Caltech a dreamer or a fool when he says, “Strong arguments can be presented to the effect that collectivization of humanity is inevitable, that the drift toward an ultimate state of automatism cannot be halted, that existing human values such as freedom, love and conscience must eventually disappear. Certainly if we used the present trends in industrial society as our major premises, the conclusion would appear to be inescapable. Yet is it not possible that human beings can devise ways and means of escaping danger and at the same time manage to preserve those features of industrial civilization which can contribute to a rich full life? Solutions, if they exist, can arise only in the hearts and minds of individual men.”
Emergence of the 80%
If some men argue that history reports dismal failure in the political arena about which I am speaking, I would remind you that history is an account usually written by the beneficiaries of the status quo, not by the eighty percent excluded from its privileges. Plato’s andropoda – the human-footed animals, the slaves – did not leave their records. But we live in the century of the emergence of the eighty percent. This truth, added to the fact that, for the first time in human civilization, an economy of plenty and not of scarcity is possible, gives reasonable cause for a fresh assault upon those ancient enemies, hunger, disease, ignorance, and unremitting toil. I don’t need to tell any of you, my colleagues, that victory over these ago-old foes must be won before the good life of the spirit we so properly advocate as ma’s birthright can be achieved.
While it is sadly true that two-thirds of mankind still lives on very meager terms the two thirds do know, without celestial promises, that another way of life is possible, and this is making all the difference. Gerard Piel, the editor of The Scientific American, has convinced me that American agriculture now yields enough to feed billion persons an adequate daily ration. He says,” Our abundance as a great industrial nation is dodged, minimized and concealed as well as squandered, burned and shut down.” But the word is out, and the nations of the world know it. I speak of these matters, brethren, because, if we feel any fire of indignation and compassion in our bones, these statistics are inescapable data for our ministry, fifty-two weeks of the year. The schizophrenia of an affluent economy that maintains the mythologies of scarcity cannot long endure. I have met students and leaders from Asia, African and Latin American countries, many of them young enough to be my children, and they will settle neither for an earth scorched with atomic fire not for one peopled with children with empty bellies. The secrets of tool-making and communications are now in possession of a hundred nations. In our own cities, the unemployment of millions of workers and the fear of annihilation have awakened many long asleep. The dialogue of brotherhood has been resumed. The political task becomes urgent and demanding.
No Private Survival
None of us comes to our task with clean hands. We have not only righteous angers but massive guilts – as did our forefathers. But we know that there are no islands of escape, no radiation-free zones where private survival may be assured. Social disengagement is suicide for the soul, if not for the body. The medieval mystic did not know this truth, but we do know it. Three billion living persons deserve not only bread and rice, milk and wine; they deserve even more the truly productive use of their capacities- not only in labor but in pleasure also. There are, we are told by men of science, no innate limitations to human capacity. If this gospel be true (and I have no reason to doubt it), it is the most wicked of crimes to prevent the new age from being born because we did less than our best, within the time allotted to us.
I have never been able to forget those haunting words of Dr. Herbert Muller in his enormously suggestive book, The Uses of the Past, where he says, “The common men are having their first real chance in history.” He goes on to say – and we ministers cannot stress it too often – that “it is an inhuman spirituality that cannot see idealism in the effort to eliminate the wretchedness and poverty once accepted as the will of God, and to enable all men to enjoy the material well-being once enjoyed only by a privileged few.”
If I take the side of hope rather than despair in these difficult years we are passing through, it is not only that my personal metabolism has always resisted melancholy, but much more that I have found history generously supportive of the militant man. Max Weber once declared, “All historical experience confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.” (And this happy quotation does not belong only to the Wright Brothers or Colonel John Glenn; it belongs to the social reformer as well.)
Politics and Pulpit
We ministers are demonstrating better now than at any time in my memory or in my reading of our liberal religious history that there is, within the pulpit and the church, room for the “politics of the possible.” I am not discussing the agencies and mechanisms which we are debating during these months regarding our new Unitarian Universalist Association. Rather, I am asserting with pride that I find men, young and old, in our ministry who, with intelligence and courage, are resisting the post-war tide of political apathy in America, who reject what Professor Kenneth Keniston of the University of California calls the “rhetoric of pseudoawareness.” In a score of churches which I know in some detail, our ministers are breaking the post-war conspiracy of silence. They are dismissing the cynical remarks of the kept press and the muzzled commentators who say that no one really listens to the pulpit any longer. I suffer no illusions after thirty-five years of preaching. I am fully aware of those Sunday acoustics where people presumably awake seem not hear what we say. I know that we achieve all too often a pluralistic inattention on a grand scale. But the moratorium on serious discussion is ending. In many ways we are entering , I believe, upon an era of hope rather than one of despair. We have for some years been transfixed by the bomb and by the dimension of man’s present misery, but I find a new posture of maturity and concern, coupled with skills in mobilizing the long-paralyzed conscience of our people into significant action.
It is the minister’s privilege to help men and women who come within the circle of our influence not only to express what is wrong, but in subtle, profound and organized ways to discover the solutions which are needed and the energy to pursue them. If we are to escape the collective dehumanization which Harrison Brown referred to, it will be done in part by dissolving the illusion that managers and experts can handle the problem without the knowledge or consent of the masses of people – a pernicious and fatal notion. Theory as well as passion is needed, and this we can shape as we participate in the dialogue and program of brotherhood.
Frederick Douglass, the great Negro Abolitionist, reminded us during the Civil War that “those who favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”
It has been my own experience that the Unitarian pulpit has been most useful when most agitational, and I see no likelihood that this happy truth will be immediately revised. There is room for a great diversity of wisdoms, for a mighty controversy over the ways and means of entering a world of hope. But I see no place for the man so stricken with guilt, or so bemused in his contentment with his present Zion that he cannot speak in both love and anger, with both reason and compassion to people ready for his words.
Dissent if you will, but my testimony remains that beyond the present tragedy lies a humane and decent commonwealth. I yield to no man of science greater confidence in a society where government, where institutions serve rather than deform the native talents of men and women. I see a city where no lips are sealed in fear and no eyes are glossed over with despair. If it be a New Jerusalem, it is within the reach of flying transports before the sun has set – not beyond the skies, not after the grave has swallowed us up. We Unitarian Universalists, as Emerson never seek to escape this happy destiny through the sterile evasions of men who fear the future. May we discover that all which has so far happened has been a prologue to the true story of man’s habitation of the earth.