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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.