Author's note: The following is excerpted from a sermon I preached at the Fountain Street Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on January 8, 1995. While it addresses issues that I believe are currently of particular importance to U.S. citizens, I hope that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) living in other part of the world will see connections to their own situation.
I have a friend who traces her family roots back to the seventeenth-century French Huguenots, a Protestant Reformation sect whose members, like those of so many other religious minorities of that time, were mercilessly persecuted by the established church. They were finally forced—those who had not already been killed—to flee France altogether. The story about their escape, which has been orally passed down in my friend's family through all the generations since, is that her ancestors were jammed into a tiny boat and forced to row across the choppy and treacherous Channel to safety in England.
As they began to row for their lives, it became painfully clear that there were just too many people in the small craft. Unless something was done, the boat would quickly swamp and all would perish beneath the cold waves. What did the group do? Draw lots and throw the losers overboard? Set upon the defenseless sick, young, and elderly and toss them to a watery death? Decide who were the least productive members of the community and force them out of the boat? I suppose they could have decided on any of these "rational" courses of action. But these beleaguered Huguenots did something else, something far nobler. Without any wailing or whining, the people in the boat decided they would take turns—several at a time—swimming alongside the craft. For the many hours of the crossing, as swimmers tired, others would quietly, willingly take their place in the numbing waters. And thus it was that the small boat and everyone who had sought refuge in it survived the treacherous crossing.
I am deeply moved by this story. By means of compassionate community-mindedness—a simple moral commitment to the welfare of all, based on their recognition that they belonged to one another—these Huguenots arrived safely on the shores of England, and since have prospered down the centuries. I believe that this story, about all the members of a community willing to "take their turn" in the channel, is a desperately needed metaphor for just how we Americans must learn to compassionately organize our common life if we—as a culture—are to successfully make the treacherous crossing into our twenty-first century.
As the 104th Congress of the United States races through its "First 100 Days," it is clear that America suffers from a bad case of Humanity Fatigue. The message of the congressional election is that in these increasingly insecure economic and cultural times we have, as a people, grown tired of caring for the least fortunate of our citizens. We have grown tired of feeding the hungry and providing for the poor. We have grown tired of looking at the homeless and caring for the millions of Americans with AIDS and other disabilities. We have grown tired of protecting the elderly, and the children who are neglected or born to destitute teenage mothers. We have grown tired of trying to fix the inner cities, with all their unemployment, poverty and crime. We have grown tired of trying to rectify racial and ethnic discrimination, and the cruel inequalities of our economy. We have grown tired of desperate immigrants pouring into America in search of a better life. We have grown tired of the hard work that a multi-cultural society demands. All the social symptoms are there. Our hearts are tired. We have a bad case of Humanity Fatigue.
As a people, we have grown tired of the moral demand that we, like those Huguenots, "take our turn" in the channel. Instead of feeling our fundamental human connection with those who struggle to make it in our culture and economy, we are quick to dismiss, dehumanize, even demonize those who are hurting, needing and in trouble. Just listen to the mean-spirited, callous ring of much of the political discourse in the land. Because of the prevalence of Humanity Fatigue, it is now acceptable for politicians to describe the victims of our social system as perpetrators responsible for all our problems.
The poor and down-trodden of this land have become the scapegoats for our growing anger, selfishness and fear. In Hebrew scripture, scapegoats were actual goats that were selected, during the annual Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, to represent the sins of the community. They were driven out into the hostile desert to face the elements and predators alone. This is not unlike what America is now doing with its own shameful "sins:" scapegoating those least able to defend themselves. We are pushing the poor and desperate beyond the boundaries of our responsibility and concern, into a wilderness of aggressive neglect.
In a piece entitled "The Politics of Meanness," New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen decried what she saw as the prevailing "politics of exclusion, what might be thought of as the cult of otherness. Otherness posits that there are large groups of people with whom you have nothing in common, not even a discernible shared humanity. Not only are these groups profoundly different from you, they are also, covertly, somehow less: less worthy, less moral, less good. This sense of otherness is the single most pernicious force in American discourse. Its not-like-us ethos makes so much bigotry possible: racism, sexism, homophobia. It divides the country as surely as the Mason-Dixon Line once did. And it makes for mean-spirited and punitive politics and social policy."
This past November, the U.S. voters said many things to their elected representatives. Some of what they tried to communicate was no doubt wise, compassionate and appropriate. But some was not, like the loud, mean and impatient cries of Humanity Fatigue. "That's it," voters said with disgust, "I'm tired of sacrificing and paying taxes for those who are weaker and more vulnerable than me. I'm tired of coddling those who chronically need society's help. Those people are not a part of my sphere of concern. They are wholly different from me. They're not like me and my family and friends. They have brought their problems on themselves, and I owe them nothing."
If our hearts continue to follow this punitive path, it will lead us to moral and social disaster. As a diverse and multi-cultural society, we cannot survive this aggressive indifference to millions who find themselves struggling in life. From our various political and economic perspectives, we can—indeed, must—disagree honorably about precisely how to build a just society and care for all our fellow citizens. But we must once again agree as a national people to care—consistently and compassionately—for all. We must morally refuse the convenient illusion of separateness that would have us imagine ourselves somehow removed or different from those fighting to survive.
None of this is to say that we don't have the right, indeed the imperative obligation, to reform—even radically change—many American social policies and programs at this juncture in our history. There is a pressing need to systematically reform our American welfare, entitlement, housing, criminal justice and educational systems. The conservative critics of the policies of the past are frequently persuasive. Much of what we have tried in our liberal attempts to cure society's persistent problems of poverty and injustice has not worked. The voters are rightly demanding that their elected leaders get off their gridlocked butts and begin to seriously re-examine these expensive social welfare systems that often operate to keep the disadvantaged just that. The spiritual key here is that as we begin reforming, restructuring and re-directing programs and policies, we do so not with angry, indifferent Humanity Fatigue, but with a steady, patient, rejuvenated moral sense of our irreducible belonging to one another. Like my friend's brave Huguenot ancestors, we must begin the work of re-building our troubled nation with the honorable promise to "swim alongside" one another until compassionate, working solutions are found.
Let there be no doubt about it: it will be hard work for all of us, for you and me, to resist Humanity Fatigue. It is not easy, day in and day out, to feel genuine compassion for and close connection with all those who are struggling most in life. It is not easy to make room in our public and private hearts for the homeless, the hungry, the prisoner, the sick and elderly, the chronically poor and unemployed. I preach first to myself. It is not easy for me to feel compassionately connected to the homeless beggars I walk past in the cold and dirty train station each day, and all the many others here in Boston who so desperately need a hand. It is not easy for me to gladly pay my ever-increasing taxes. But that is what the best part of our national soul—what the full practice of religious living—calls us to do. I believe that God—the holy life-force that struggles in this world against death and negation—calls us to ever expand our circle of inclusion and concern to persons around us, especially those who are most difficult to include and care for. That which is holy calls us back from Humanity Fatigue.
In this winter of our national discontent, I pray with all my heart that we Americans never lose sight of our irreducible belonging, one to another. Like those endangered Huguenots, we must each find the wisdom willingly to take our turn in the channel—to sacrifice, share, and make room in the boat for all. Together, we must get about the holy busiess of building a nation based on mutuality, connectedness, and justice, where no citizen is willfully forsaken in the name of some abstract economic theory or calculated political expediency. Let us cure our hearts of Humanity Fatigue, healing ourselves to care once again for the whole of who we are.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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