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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.