Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

In Defense of Inherent Worth and Interdependence — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on March 11th, 2011


In October of 1996, I was serving

as a NATO Peacekeeper in the area

of the Former Yugoslavia known as Bosnia-y-Herzegovina.

A young, idealistic U.S. Army Sergeant,

I was serving as an intelligence analyst

for the international peacekeeping force

that had been created after the signing of the peace accords

between the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats,

and Bosnian Muslims.


We lived and worked on the grounds of a former ski resort,

a place where the Yugoslavian communist party leaders

used to go on vacation.

It was now without power, without running water,

and the building that I lived in had walls

marked with craters from bullets and artillery shells,

all of the windows blown out.

It was like camping inside the shell of a building.


Each floor of the building had a local woman

who was assigned to collect our laundry,

wash it at home, and bring it back to us two days later.

On my floor, that woman was a nice, sweet,

grandmotherly woman of about 60 years old.

When she came to pick up the laundry,

I would often speak with her for a few minutes.

At first, we talked about America.


She had learned English years before,

when she worked for the Yugoslavian government.


We spoke about life, about our families.

She soon mentioned that she had a wonderful

30 year old daughter who would make a wonderful wife

for some American soldier (hint hint).

Most often, though, we would just share a few words,

and maybe a cookie or two, and then be on about our business.


One day, while we were talking,

another local woman passed by us in the hallway.

This woman was young, perhaps in her mid twenties.

As she passed by, a look of absolute, abject hatred

passed across the face of my sweet, grandmotherly friend,

a kind of hatred that it is hard to imagine

unless you have seen it… or felt it.


I guess I looked surprised and shocked,

because my grandmotherly friend

seemed to feel she needed to explain…

“You see that girl?” she asked me.


“Yes” I replied, a little dubiously.


My grandmotherly friend’s eyes took on a light,

a glint of bright fire and passion as she said “She Chetnick”

(a very derogatory slang term for a Bosnian Serb).


“Me Muslim, she Chetnick…

When you Americans leave, we kill all the Chetnick!” she said,

as she drew her hand across her throat.


Here was this sweet, grandmotherly woman,

who made me cookies, who wanted me to marry her daughter,

discussing with me why all of the Bosnian Serbs had to be killed.

Discussing with me the necessity ……. of Genocide.


It is hard for many Americans,

especially those of my generation and younger,

to imagine that kind of hatred.

Those of you who lived through the civil rights movement,

or through the Nazi regime in Europe

have had more exposure to the kind and level of hatred and evil

that can bring otherwise sane people to the point,

not just of believing in murder,

but of believing that an entire culture,

an entire race of people must be killed.

The kind of hatred that fueled a war of retribution

that took a once modern, once beautiful city such as Sarajevo

and decimated it.


Remember, less than a decade before the outbreak

of the three sided, religious hatred fueled war in Bosnia,

the world’s eyes had been fixed on Sarajevo,

as it hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.


The Bosnian War was a multi-sided, multi-state war

that began in 1992 and continued until late in 1995.

NATO troops began arriving in early 1996,

and by the time I arrived in October of that year,

there was still occasional fighting

between the different para-military units.


Many of these units of irregular, guerilla soldiers

were responsible for some of the worst atrocities since WWII.

Units such as Arkan’s Tigers, the Black Swans,

and the White Eagles, coming from all

of the different ethnic groups involved in the fighting,

were responsible for mass rapes, ethnic cleansing,

genocides of whole towns and villages,

and many other brutalities.


What I have been talking about is graphic,

more graphic than we would usually have

in a Unitarian Universalist sermon…

but I tell you about it for a reason.

When I came back from Bosnia, a scared

and somewhat scarred young man,

I went on a search for some vision,

some way that I could not only find healing

from the hatred and atrocities that I had borne witness too,

but in which I could join in the work of healing this world

of this kind of hate filled religious

and culturally motivated killing and war.

A religious hatred echoed in certain circles

of American society today under the banner of crusade.


The search for that new vision led me eventually

to my first Unitarian Universalist Congregation…

and to two ideas, two healing and saving ideals,

that I had never encountered before.


The inherent worth and dignity of every person…


The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.


I think that we of liberal faith sometimes forget just how radical

the ideas behind those two simple phrases really are.

The seven principles seem so obvious to us,

we sometimes have trouble imagining how others in the world,

or even others in our own community

would have any problems believing in them.

There are often calls in our movement

to make the seven principles more specific,

claiming that they don’t really say or require

anything challenging of us as Unitarian Universalists.


Of course everyone believes in the inherent worth

and dignity of every person, don’t they?


Of course everyone believes in the interdependent web

of all existence of which we are a part, don’t they?


When I first read them on the back of a card

that a caring older woman handed me

as I visited a UU congregation one afternoon,

I certainly did not see them as something

that everyone believed in… Far from it.

I had been back from Bosnia for over two years,

still seeking to find a way to end religious hatred.

But none of the organizations I found

seemed to have any hope of making a difference…

none of it helped… none of it gave me the opportunity

to use my personal faith in a church

dedicated to ending religious hatred,

to promoting equality, and to seeking

an understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit

as interconnected and interdependent.


No where could I find how to turn my own hurt and anguish

from my experiences as a soldier

into a way to positively work for change in the world…


That is, until I read those two, simple, saving lines of grace

at the beginning and end

of the Unitarian Universalist seven principles.


The inherent worth and dignity of every person.


The interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.


Each and every one of us is a unique, valuable,

and irreplaceable jewel, set in a cosmos-spanning web

of intricate connection and beauty,

in which who we are is reflected through the jewels

of every other person around us.

What supports one of us supports us all,

what damages one of us damages us all.

We are all connected in that web,

whether we are Bosnian Muslim, Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Croat,

American Liberal, American Conservative, Egyptian Protestor,

Islamic fundamentalist, Libyan Military or Protestor.

The amazing vision that began my healing

from the atrocities of Bosnia was

this simple, beautiful, interconnected understanding

of the world and of our place in it…

and it is one of the most radical ideas ever espoused.


This is our Good News, the Gospel of Unitarian Universalism…

and in some ways, this sermon is my testimony.

Those of you who might be from or familiar with traditions

like the Southern Baptist Church that I grew up in

will understand what I mean by a Testimony.

It is a time when a believer stands up

and tells of the experiences in their life

that have convinced them of the importance of the “Gospel”.

Of how that good news saved them.

How it saved me.


I believe the separation inherent in naming someone else

as other, as inherently different and less than yourself

stands at the root of all war, of all atrocities

such as mass-rape and genocide.

Each side in war begins to identify the other sides

as inherently different than themselves,

as a separate race, a separate tribe, a separate culture,

a separate religion, a separate people,

a separate and lesser kind of human being.


They begin to identify others

as not being of the same inherent worth and dignity.


They begin to view others

as cut off from their interdependent web.


About three years ago, my wife Sandy and I

were heading out after a play to grab a bite to eat.

We had just pulled up to an intersection

when a man crossing the street was struck by an oncoming car.

I did not even see the accident,

just the man fallen on the pavement

and a car speeding away in the night’s rain.


I have to admit that, for a moment

my mind told me to just make my turn and go on…

someone else would stop to help.

It was raining and cold, and I had not brought my coat.


Besides, my fast-food would get cold…

but then my training kicked in, and perhaps my faith.

With just a little bit of self-condemnation

at the thoughts that had gone through my mind,

I parked the car in the lot of a nearby bank

and ran towards the intersection to help.


As I ran, I was convinced that by the time I got there

some minutes later, there would be plenty of help,

and I could go back to my car.

I was sure that at least a dozen people

would have stopped by then.

But as I turned the corner around the bank

towards the intersection,

the only person who had stopped was a homeless man,

standing over his injured friend yelling at the passing cars,

begging someone to stop.


I somehow got two cars to stop and block traffic for us,

creating a safe space in the intersection.

My mind registered the cars that drove by,

some of their drivers yelling at us to quit blocking traffic,

to pick him up and carry him out of the road.

At that moment they were unimportant.

Only the injured man mattered.


The ambulance came, and the drivers quickly

picked the injured man up and headed for the hospital

in the way they do when someone is seriously injured.


The following morning, I woke up angry…

angrier than I have been in years.

The attitude of those who had passed by the injured man

had seemed secondary to me the night before,

but now it fueled a strong anger in me.

I sat fuming over what was wrong with those people…


Those people.


Within a few hours, I went from being justifiably angry

at the actions of certain people,

to being angry with the people themselves,

to erecting a wall of otherness between myself

and those same people.


Those people! It is so, so painfully easy

to begin to identify others as “Those People”…

different than me. Less than me and my kind.

It is not as far a step from that to hate, and from hate to atrocity.


What inspires compassion in us

is the ability to connect with other human beings,

to move beyond our own individual concept of self

to seeing the inherent interconnected nature of all life.


Anger about behavior can fuel a passion to better the world,

but when our anger moves, as mine did,

from the actions that people take to the people themselves,

what it does is create new separateness,

closing off the ability to feel compassion.

And we so desperately need compassion, for all of us.

Compassion inspired by our interconnections with others

who have the same inherent worth and dignity that we do… whether they are Libyan protestor or Mohamar Quadafi,

whether they are American soldier or Iraqi militiamen,

whether they are Conservative Christian or Liberal Humanist.

Compassion arises from the radical and transforming belief

in the interdependence and inherent worth of all.


As members of a Liberal Faith movement,

we need to learn to make a practice, lived in our daily lives,

of the ideals of the inherent worth and dignity of every person

that is connected together

in the interdependent web of all existence.

Our churches need to make a practice

of being shining examples of how we as humans

can learn to live in right relationship with one another,

dependent upon and supportive of one another.

We must learn to share our Good News,

our Gospel of right relationship in the only way we can…

not with words, but with deeds, with how we live our lives.


But as profound as this practice is in relationship

to the world beyond our own skin,

how much more profound is the impact

of realizing your own inherent worth and dignity,

of realizing your own interconnection with all that is around you.


Popular American society and culture

are fueling two epidemics of the soul…

many people feel cut off from everything around them,

and many are suffering from severe lack

of self confidence and self-worth.


We see the symptoms of these two “soul sicknesses”

in everything around us,

from the rise in elective plastic surgery,

to the hardening of political and social positions.

We see the symptoms in the ever increasing number of people

who find most of their human connection through the internet,

and in the rise in prominence of evangelical faiths

that offer self-worth through conversion of others.

We see the symptoms in the kind of consumerism

that equates our worth to what we own,

and our connection to who we control.


In our reading this morning, the Buddha knew

that angry, broken, hate-filled Angulimala could be healed…

by learning his connectedness to all,

shown through the Buddha’s offer of compassion and friendship,

he could leave behind the killing.


This angry, broken, hate-filled world can be healed,

both within and without. It must be healed.

As the Buddha did in our story,

we must learn to embody in a living example

how to live in right relationship in this world,

supporting the inherent worth and dignity

of every single jewel in this interdependent web of all existence

of which we, of which the Libyan protestors,

and of which the Bosnian, Libyan,

and Sudanese war criminals are all a part.

We must learn also how to live in right relationship with ourselves,

valuing our own inherent worth

and seeing our own interconnectedness.

This is our Gospel, our saving message,

our prophetic purpose as a liberal faith,

a message to be expressed through the living of our lives,

and through the life of our Fellowship.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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