“Religious Freedom and Spiritual Freedom” is an address I gave for the 34th World Congress of the International Association for Religious Freedom, in Birmingham, England, last summer. Considering that they meet only once in every three or four years, it’s not surprising that the IARF should be the oldest inter-religious association in the world. Having observed its flagging fortunes in recent years, I wanted to move us to dig a little deeper into the question, Who are we and what is our mission? As T. S. Eliot said, “A tradition cannot be inherited, it must be earned.”
Here I want to amplify the theme of my address: Commitment to religious freedom in the political and social spheres is born from and sustained by a commitment to spiritual freedom, something we carry within us, something that, far from languishing in the face of difficulty or outright oppression, can flare out the more brightly. A case in point follows.
I shared my IARF address with David B. Parke, an old friend who is a minister, editor, and church historian (see his richly annotated anthology, The Epic of Unitarianism). In it I refer to Joseph Priestley, the scientist and Unitarian theologian whose laboratory and library in Birmingham were destroyed by a mob in 1791. David’s e-mail response to my talk cites a document I had not read before, in which Priestley exemplifies the power of spiritual freedom, seen in his judgments-with-magnanimity in the face of a violent and irreparable violation of his own religious freedom. And to think that it happened in what we thought must have been the most enlightened nation on earth at that time!
David wrote: “Your invocation of Priestley as a ‘great soul’ might have included Priestley’s extraordinary valedictory to the citizens of Birmingham after the riot. He wrote:
‘July 19, 1791 To the Inhabitants of the town of Birmingham ‘My Late Townsmen and Neighbors,
‘You have destroyed the most truly valuable and useful apparatus of philosophical instruments that perhaps any individual, in this or any country, has ever possessed of, in my use of which I annually spent large sums with no pecuniary view whatever, but only for the advancement of Science, for the benefit of my country and mankind. You have destroyed the Library corresponding to that apparatus, which no money can re-purchase except in the course of time. But what I feel far more, you have destroyed manuscripts which have been the result of the laborious study of many years, and which I shall never be able to recompose; and this has been done to one who never did, or imagined, you any harm.
‘In this business we are the sheep and you are the wolves. We will preserve our character and hope you will change yours. At all events we return you blessings for curses, and hope that you shall soon return to that industry and those solemn manners for which the inhabitants of Birmingham were formerly distinguished.
‘Yours faithfully, J. PRIESTLEY.’
David notes his source: “Autobiography of Joseph Priestley Introduction by Jack Lindsay, Memoirs of Himself, An account of Further Discoveries of Air (Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press [First American Edition, 1970, Associated University Press, Cranbury, NJ 08512]).”
Among Priestley’s “discoveries of air” was the discovery of oxygen! I hope you’ll be intrigued to read my address, on the “Sermons and Addresses” page of this blog, on the much-used and much-abused term “freedom,” with notes on Joseph Priestley, Arnold Toynbee, William Ellery Channing, and why we need an international association for religious freedom. –GKB
To be sung to the tune of “The Old Rugged Cross”:
On an old Beacon Hill
Lived a Channing named Bill,
Was the first to unbutton his mind.
All his reasoning was sound
For he finally found
That a straight will beat three on a kind!
How we cherish that old Beacon Hill,
Where our leader unbuttoned his mind,
Oh, the thought of it gives me a thrill,
That a straight will beat three of a kind!
I opened the Sunday New York Times (March 17, Section A) and there it was, a large photo of dear old “25” under the headline, “Denominations Downsizing and Selling Assets in More Secular Era.” The sub-heads told the story as it looks to outsiders: “Raising Funds by Exploiting Real Estate” and “A long period of wealth and stability gives way to retrenchment.”
Reporter Michael Paulson reminded us of our history. “The American Unitarian Association, peopled and powered by this city’s Brahmin elite, announced its presence here in 1886 with a grand and stately headquarters at the very top of Beacon Hill, right next door to the Statehouse.
“If anyone doubted the denomination’s might, its next move made it clear: In 1927, strapped for space, the Unitarians finished building a new home next to the capitol on the other side, even persuading the legislature to change the street’s numbering so they could take their address with them.
“But the Unitarian Universalist Association, as the denomination is now known, is selling its headquarters building, as well as two grand homes and an office building it owns in the same neighborhood. It is leaving behind the red brick sidewalks, gas street-lamps and superrich neighbors for a section of South Boston the city has designated an ‘innovation district,’ home to up-and-coming technology and arts businesses.”
The “gas lamps” and the super-rich neighbors are mostly found a block or two to the north, along Louisburg Square, where John Kerry lives, and Mount Vernon Street, where a discreet placard marks the home of William Ellery Channing. Go another block or two and you’re on the “backside” of Beacon Hill, where (as a teenager from Cleveland) I found the cramped walk-down apartment of LRY staffers. (The church youth work office was in the old Universalist headquarters, at 16 Beacon Street, across from the Statehouse. Liberal Religious Youth was a UU organization eight years before our parent Unitarian and Universalist bodies were wed.) The two so-called “grand homes” being sold, the Eliot and Pickett guest-houses, are in the cul-de-sac behind “25.” Dubbed the Holy Hotel, it had rooms for visiting board and committee members that had been outfitted by donors, people we remember, their names on small placards on the doors.
You can see I’m into deep nostalgia. And I never even worked at “25.”
Details aside, The Times got it right. It’s a unique and famous locale, a place where our liberal faith is rooted. (Or does “25” simply represent what a prominent minister called our “stuckness” in “the most hidebound part of Boston”?) It isn’t just that those ancient worthies had the chutzpah to get the legislature to move Number 25 down the street a ways, when they decided to move into their handsome new headquarters. “25 Beacon Street” had become the symbol of a cherished location. (Or is that exactly the problem, just as another leader said: the place “reeks of privilege and hierarchy”?)
It’s nice to find The New York Times agreeing with the main point of my letter to the Editor of the UU World (Winter, 2012, p. 67):
“If the photo accompanying the article, ‘Board OKs search for anew Boston HQ’ [Fall, 2012] had looked up rather than down Beacon Street, the Massachusetts State House would have been in view immediately next door. The American Unitarian Association’s decision to build its headquarters on that prominent site in 1927 was no accident; it was a statement. Most striking about the prospective sale of the UUA headquarters buildings is that it also makes a statement: High-profile visibility doesn’t matter any more.”
Just being across the street from the Boston Common, a “peoples’ park” on a grand scale, is a priceless asset. Besides the skaters in winter and to soap-box speakers in season and out, it has a a prominent feature that says: This history tells who we are. My letter to the Editor continued with a paragraph that was not published:
“Such a site is irreplaceable. At the edge of the Boston Common stands the bronze relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorializing the Massachusetts 54th Regiment and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw—black troops and their Unitarian commander whose heroic and tragic story was told in the film, Glory. Those who stop to see what is called ‘one of America’s greatest public monuments’ will no longer look up and see the UUA banner just across Beacon Street.”
(Visitors to Washington, D.C. can see Saint-Gaudens’ plaster replica of his deeply moving work currently on display at the National Gallery of Art.)
The Times’ feature-length article touched on recent re-locations by other denominations—the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the United Methodists, the American Baptists, the Reform Jews, and the Christian Scientists—noting that after a long period of financial stability and growth, many are retrenching. But we UUs were the poster child of this story. Why the fascination? I think it’s the mystique of the Boston “Brahmins” that we keep trying to disown. Such a love-hate relationship we have with our little scrap of history!
My letter to the Editor also made what I thought was a nifty proposal: “We’re told that the plan will allow the UUA to find a place that ‘helps staff and volunteers alike to work together collaboratively in flexible space.’ An excellent objective. So let me propose a path to a truly collaborative and flexible UUA. Keep the first two floors of 25 Beacon for executive functions, plus bookshop and visitor center, and rent out the rest. Then begin the daunting but long overdue process of decentralizing: Move departmental functions (congregational service, social action, ministry, religious education, publications, international, etc.) to other major metropolitan areas across the country. This would allow real collaboration between lay and ministerial talent, nationwide, and the UUA staff to begin. Now that would be transforming!”
Somehow, the idea didn’t take. That didn’t surprise me. What did was how few dissenters there were among us, and how mild were even those few.
When I first questioned the decision to sell our birthright, I was told, “We don’t worship buildings.” And, “You probably feel that way because you went to Harvard.” I confess, I did go to Harvard Divinity School, but in my defense counters that those graduate schools are not the real Harvard, as an old LRY friend and Harvard College grad informed me. And yes, I did serve a New England church, in Marblehead, Massachusetts, for four years. I left those dear people, abruptly I fear, for my home town of Cleveland, to enter an urban ministry that sought to reclaim our churches’ commitment to the metropolis we’d been abandoning, here as elsewhere, at its heart. That’s where I first heard Darrell Eubank’s musical review, “Before You Hang Up,” performed at a fund-raising dinner for the First Unitarian Church in Shaker Heights. One of its numbers was the brilliant satiric song, “On an Old Beacon Hill.”
You cannot kill a beloved mystique by wearing it lightly and showering it with laughter. But what will abandonment bring?
This week they announced that it will bring a huge sum, in fact $23.6 million for three of the four buildings. Why doesn’t this news fill me with joy?
G. K. B.
[with thanks to Stephanie Mendlow]
never did this before
let’s see if it’ll work
after all the unhappiness
I was ready for this
maybe you too[b]
“The UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
–Nelson Mandela (December 4, 1997)
We know who Nelson Mandela was, but who was Ariel Sharon? A larger-than-life Israeli hero who secured the Jewish homeland against its implacable enemies? Or a reckless warrior who twisted the course of Israeli-Palestinian history into its present hopelessness, fear and hatred on one side, bitterness and hatred on the other? I see the latter, and a consequent erosion of confidence in the future and a deepening anxiety on all sides, including the American. If that seems harsh, see the obituary of Sharon in The Economist: “For some he was indelibly ‘the butcher of Beirut,’ the man who in 1982 dragged Israel into a bloody and gratuitous war in Lebanon which shamed it before the world. For many more he was the hero of the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the man who led his troops across the Suez Canal and thus saved Israel from defeat by Egypt” (January 18-24, 2014, p. 90).
In Jerusalem in 2007—Sharon was then two years into the eight-year comma that followed a massive stroke—I asked a retired American business executive who had moved to Israel how he felt about the future. Without a moment’s pause he said he’d feel a lot more confident if Israel still had Ariel Sharon at the helm. Yet we must wonder: Are the Israelis more secure today, or more endangered by the slow-moving tide of international opinion, which knows that this occupation, now in its fifth decade, must somehow come to an end?
Recently the ASA, American Studies Association, voted to boycott Israeli universities; the intent is to cut off academic exchanges and cooperation in research, but many commentators have belittled the effort by saying it has only “symbolic” effect. That the ASA declaration and others like it in Europe have been met with angry howls indicates precisely that such a symbolic action has powerful effect. It delegitimizes.
Predictably, the boycott declaration has been met with charges of a “double standard” when judging Israel as compared to predominantly Muslim countries. The big difference is that the United States is not linked in economic and military alliance to these other countries as it is to Israel. The other main charge is anti-Semitism–“in effect if not in intent,” said Lawrence Summers (interview with Charlie Rose, PBS). The critics do not pause to comment on the substantive rationale for the action, but only the presumptive motives of the actors. Speaking now anecdotally, but from first-hand experience: At the Palestinian university in Nablus I asked, “Why does it appear that most of the students are women?” They answered, “Most of the young men are in military detention.” I learned from talking with Palestinians who are professionals in Haifa (in Israel proper) that segregation between “Jew and Arab” prevails in public schools, funding for the latter being a small fraction of the former. We Americans are familiar with the “separate and un-equal” formula.
Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, it is delegitimizing the long-dominant Likud bloc. To put it generously, their policies are racist “in effect if not in intention”!
As Americans know, racism has consequences. In Palestine I heard a woman tell how her son, a reporter for the Reuters agency, had been shot and killed in Jenin while photographing demolitions by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). I also heard the mild-mannered Vice Mayor of Bethlehem tell how his young daughter was shot and killed by the IDF in while sitting in the back seat of the family car on the way to the grocery store. Such cases (and thousands more could be told) are regularly explained as the unfortunate result of necessary “security” concerns. Quite apart from the way any moral person feels about such events, think about their cumulative effect on the attitudes of Palestinians!
In Tel Aviv we visited Adam Keller, whose Israeli Peace Bloc publishes ongoing commentaries on the quest for a just peace (see http://www.gush-shalom.com). A January 18, 2014 column by Uri Avnery gives a fascinating summary of Sharon’s career and character: “An ex-general, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, told me yesterday: ‘He was an Imperator!’ I find this a very apt description. Like a Roman imperator, Sharon was a supreme being, admired and feared, generous and cruel, genial and treacherous, hedonistic and corrupt, a victorious general and a war criminal, quick to make decisions and unwavering once he made them, overcoming all obstacles by the sheer force of personality. One could not meet him without being struck by the power he emanated. Power was his element. He believed that destiny had chosen him to lead Israel.”
When I was a college student travelling in Europe, I recall a suave Swiss psychiatrist (he said he didn’t smoke because it interfered with his appreciation of kirsch) asking us what we Americans thought of Zionism. It had never occurred to me to think it was anything but a noble movement to build a homeland where Jews would create a safe, democratic, and prosperous nation. I was surprised that he asked, and he seemed bemused by the innocence of our answers. This was long before Israelis came to call Ariel Sharon “the king of Israel.”
I can date my “the king has no clothes on” awakening precisely: 1982, when Sharon led the IDF into Lebanon, concealing his intentions from the world, and even from Prime Minister Begin. The onslaught was deadly and destructive; the puppet he placed at the head of the Lebanese government was assassinated within weeks, and hundreds of Palestinians were murdered in their refugee camps. For allowing the massacre to occur he was subsequently held responsible by an official Israeli inquiry; the military and moral debacle cost him his command. For the time being.
In September, 1982 I gave a sermon at the Unitarian Church of Arlington, Virginia—the Pentagon is about 2 miles down the road!—called “Israel Is Creating Palestine.” The title was perhaps too clever by half, or perhaps a century ahead of its time. My intention was to say that the very attempt to deny that a Palestinian people exists (in Israel they insist on only calling them “Arabs”) raised Palestinian national aspiration. Sharon failed to engineer a Palestinians takeover of Jordan, and failed to install a compliant ruler in Lebanon, but boasted success, nevertheless:
“Normal life has returned to the Galilee. . . . The kingdom of terror that the PLO had established on Lebanese soil is no more. . . . No army in the history of modern warfare ever took such pains to prevent civilian casualties as did the Israel Defense Forces. . . . Determined as we are to defend ourselves, it is the path of peace that is most pleasant to us.” (Op-ed column by Ariel Sharon, “Gains form the War in Lebanon,” The New York Times, August 29, 1982.)
After Sharon died, this month, Ari Shavit (author of the acclaimed book, My Promised Land) commented in an NPR interview on the irony of Secretary of State John Kerry praising Sharon: he opposed everything that the Adminstration’s peace initiative stood for! I think Kerry’s words were “diplomatic” and credit his labors as courageous, if not quixotic. The January 15 Washington Post (p. A8) reported that Mr. Netanyahu’s ministers of Defense and Housing both publicly derided Kerry’s efforts to gain support for a peace agreement by satisfying Israeli “security” demands. His reward was sarcasm: his proposal “is not worth the paper it is written on,” said Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. “The only thing that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”
All of which brings us to our present, depressive state of mind. To gain peace between enemies (and it does happen in history) the parties have to both want it and believe that it is possible. We keep hearing that peace is not possible (Netanyahu said the other day about Abas exactly what Sharon used to say about Arafat: “We don’t have a negotiating partner.”) Apparently what they mean is: Peace is not desirable if it means, among other unhappy things, discontinuing settlement construction on land that the other side thinks is up for negotiation. In short, for Israel there is no downside to the status quo. Given the guarantee of American largesse in perpetuity, who needs change?
When I wrote on “The Demise of the Two-state Solution” a little more than a year ago (www.campicello.wordpress.com, December 2012), friends told me I was too pessimistic. Then last September 15 The New York Times published a lead essay in its Sunday Review section, “Two-State Illusion,” by University of Pennsylvania professor Ian S. Lustick. With far greater academic authority than I can claim, he said pretty much what I had said, and went one step further, as the sub-heading suggested: “The idea of a state for Palestinians and one for Israelis is a fantasy that blinds us and impedes progress.” In other words, we must look for radically different solutions. Lustick comments: “The issue is no longer where to draw political boundaries between Jews and Arabs on a map but how equality of political rights is to be achieved. The end of the 1967 Green Line as a demarcation of potential Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty means that Israeli occupation of the West Bank will stigmatize all of Israel.”
As for Secretary John Kerry’s ongoing effort, we can say: If it succeeds, At last, thank God! And if it doesn’t, Maybe this will help tear the scales from our eyes, however painful clear-sightedness may be. Yes, only equal political rights will resolve this conflict.
Some suggest that, if he had lived, Sharon would have found a way to withdraw settlements in the West Bank, as he did in Gaza, and reach some kind of a deal. They even called him a “warrior for peace.” Perhaps, but Ariel Sharon is dead.
And remain silent?
Arthur Schopenhauer, 30 July 1804, on descending Schneekoppe mountain
A little more than a week ago my son, Eric, grandson, Erick, and I set out to climb Old Rag Mountain, in magnificent Madison County. We got a somewhat late start–noon had already passed when we set out on the Ridge Trail, at Nethers, for the five and a half hour trek–meaning that our return by the Saddle Trail, along the gentler, south slope, would be completed in a steadily descending dusk. The autumn cool was perfect for hiking, with pale sunshine coming through the haze as we trudged the ascending trail–until the haze deepened into mist and the mist into cloud.
At 3268 feet, Old Rag is not the highest peak in the Shenandoah National Park; that would be Hawksbill, at 4050 feet, aptly named for its sharply curved face. Hawksbill stands a couple of miles southwest of Old Rag, and hosts the Appalachian Trail. But Old Rag stands apart. Instead of the smooth contours of the long Blue Ridge, it is capped by crags and huge boulders. No wonder Old Raggedy is such a popular climb–not a bother but a blessing, to have fellow-climbers at some of the wildly steep-and-tight spots, ready to give you a hand or a fanny-boost. Son Eric, a serious runner, scaled the rocks handily. Grandson Erick scrambled and leapt, scorning my warnings about the dire consequences of a sprained ankle. I labored along, as steadily as I could–what was Goethe’s motto? Oh yes: “Without rest, without haste.”
The sun disappeared as we ascended. A chilly breeze moved me to don my previously discarded sweater once again. I had been up Old Rag several times before, but had never ascended into a low-lying cloud, as we did this day. So, no grand views of the valleys far beyond and below? Just all this fog? I knew the mountain’s way of fooling you into thinking you were almost at the summit, only to discover that another summit, and yet another, lay somewhere beyond those massive rocks. What playful, superhuman forces put them here? (And how can we help personifying them?)
On the last ascent we came into the sunlight again, as if emerging from Plato’s Cave into another, a brilliant, world. We were set afloat. Arthur Schopenhauer, who crafted a whole philosophy out of pessimism, had his mountaintop experience by reaching the peak at sunrise: “Like a transparent ball and much less radiant than when one views it from below, the sun floated up an cast its first rays on us, mirrored itself first in our delighted glances. . . .”
One suspects that old Schopenhauer, who as a young man felt he could not “climb and remain silent,” came to recognize that language reaches its limits in the face of our most profound experiences. Bone-deep weary, I felt at once exhilarated and quieted. Schopenhauer has been compared to another Teutonic sage, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What one cannot speak about one must remain silent about.”
The descent from the mountain top remained before us. Again the sun faded into the fog, as we negotiated the long, darkening, rocky path, step by step by step. Now Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seemed more sensible than Arthur or Ludwig: “Ohne Hast, aber ohne Rast.”
Here follow words written to honor the memory of a great friend, a colleague in Unitarian ministry, and one of the most extraordinary men I have known. How so? That story is told in the oral history I wrote with his cooperation several years ago, Feribacsi In His Own Words (see publications page of this blog).
My words were occasioned by the funeral of the Reverend Nagy Ferenc (Francis Nagy, pronounced “nadge,” with last name first, as in Hungarian usage), affectionately called Feribacsi (“Feri-bachi”), who died this month, aged 97 years, at his home in Sighisoara, Romania (or as the Hungarians prefer, in Segesvar, Transylvania, attached to Romania on account of the Treaty of Trianon, which dismembered the old Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War.) That’s a lot of explanatory parentheses, but they should not make us think of the people and the land of Transylvania (Erdley, in Hungarian) as utterly foreign, or even weird (the home of Dracula and all that). They are friends, they are members of the oldest continuous Unitarian church community in the world–dating from the 16th century–and after several decades behind the Iron Curtain, they rejoiced in being rejoined to the Europe that was their historic homeland.
This historical background is implicit in my remarks for Feribacsi’s funeral. I did not attend in person, but the Reverend Torok Istvan, another great companion in the Transylvanian Unitarian ministry, graciously translated and conveyed my words for the service, held at Ferenc’s home church in Segesvar. –GKB
In memory of Nagy Ferenc
At whatever age a man should die, it seems too soon. Our hearts were not prepared to lose you, dear Feribacsi, from the land of the living. Nor could they ever be prepared, satisfied to accept your passing without a pang, without the heart’s silent protest. Now it must be spoken for all to hear: in your community, among your grieving kin, among all of us who loved you. For this is our witness:
We love you still, and so we know that you are present still—your great benign presence among us, living still in our hearts, living in our lives so long as we shall live, living always in the communion of saints, and sinners too, gathered round the throne of God, just as we gather here.
You received us gladly when we first came to your enchanted land, so like a fairy-tale princess under an evil spell. In your many years you saw the rise and fall of dreadful regimes, and you embodied endurance, good humor, and steadfast faith among your people. This was your triumph. Where had we Americans been all those years—cowering on our side of the Iron Curtain? Your indomitable spirit helped your people to break the spell. For us your “Let’s go!” spirit—carrying us from church to church up and down the land—helped us to break through the isolating barriers that keep strangers from being friends.
Our congregations, your Segesvar and our Arlington, became partners. We did the most radical thing in the world: introduce people to one another. You and dear Piroska came to meet our people, to preach and sing your songs with us, to see our Capitol city, to enjoy our country home, dubbed Campicello by a U. S. Navy captain, with a pond that you dubbed our “pocket sea.”
Of our many journeys to your land, most memorable was racing from Seged to Segesvar on a Sunday morning. I was to preach, in this very church your father built! Piroska played the organ on and on during our delay, but you were calm and confident of our arrival. Also most memorable, the church in Feheregyhaza that you (not to be outdone) built by dint of your own creative drive. It is a beautiful structure that binds the old and the new in one–just like our liberal faith, as you said in our oral history, published as Feribacsi in His Own Words.
Also most memorable, traveling together to Kukullosard, with its ancient church in an ancient village named for an ancient princess. Coming from afar, you said the village with its surrounding hills called to mind Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem, about the hen who gathers her brood under her wings. It is an image of the peaceable kingdom, the community of God.
Ferenc, may you rest well in the eternal community of God.
George Kimmich Beach and BarbaraKresBeach, MadisonCounty, Virginia, U.S.A.