Every once in a while in my life, I have a human conversation that so stuns or startles me that it proves impossible to ever forget. It wasn’t long ago that I had such a troubling and transforming interaction, and I want to tell you about it. But first, I have to set the stage.
Twenty years ago, when I was a senior in high school in Racine, Wisconsin, my family hosted an A.F.S. student my age from Uruguay. His name was Gustavo Fierro, and we were virtually inseparable as we enjoyed our year together as international brothers and friends. Over the years, we have kept loosely in touch through Christmas cards and the occasional letter, but last summer I finally had the chance to see Gustavo again as he visited New York City on business. No longer an awkward teenager, Gustavo is now the President of a large telecommunications company, the husband of a beautiful and intelligent woman named Carolyn, and the father of three absolutely darling little girls whom he and Carolyn had left at home in Montevideo.
We had arranged it that I would meet them at their midtown hotel the day after they arrived in the Big Apple, and I must tell you that it was with a confusing mixture of excitement and nervousness that I looked forward to seeing Gustavo again after all these years. I wondered if, after two decades of rather systematic neglect, our relationship would have the same good, warm feeling about it. Knowing full well how dramatically human beings can change over time, I wondered if Gustavo and I would still like each other, whether or not Carolyn and I would take to each other, and, perhaps most important of all, if we would have anything of significance to say to one another.
The reunion in the hotel lobby was wonderful, and charged with emotion. After some rather silly chatter, in which both Gustavo and I wisely agreed that we had both aged extremely well, and hardly looked a day older—and certainly no less handsome than we had in high school!—we adjourned with Carolyn to a nearby bistro to catch up with one another.
We talked about all the things you would expect: our families, their just-concluded visit with my irrepressible mother, our respective careers, political and cultural differences between North and South America. We chatted about all this before we got to the part of the conversation I shall never forget. Gustavo and Carolyn said that they had invited my mother to visit them in Montevideo in January—which, of course, is the summer season in the Southern Hemisphere—and I asked if the weather was pleasant at that time of year. Gustavo responded with a noticeable sadness etched in his face, "Well, of course it used to be nearly perfect—warm, dry, and pleasant—in Montevideo in summer, but since they have been destroying the rain forest in Brazil, the mean temperature has risen more than ten degrees, and it is now often oppressively hot and unpleasant."
I was stunned by his answer, even though I am keenly aware of the awesome and irreversible ecological and social changes that are now occurring in the vast nation of Brazil. Perhaps some of you have read about them in detail as I have, or saw the absolutely haunting documentary series on PBS awhile back entitled "Destruction of a Decade." This series tragically records the Brazilian government’s pell-mell conversion of millions of acres of irreplaceable rain forest—often as much as 1000 acres a day!—into pioneer settlements and marginal coffee fields. I already knew that the Amazon region was being wracked by some of the most massive and ill-conceived ecological and social upheavals to be found anywhere on our incredibly fragile globe. But what I hadn’t realized is that this ecological rape was of the magnitude so as to noticeably affect the climate of a city nearly a thousand miles away!
And yet I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; the details of the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest are shocking. Some of you may not know that fully 20 percent of our fragile globe’s oxygen production has occurred in the deep green rain forests which enshroud the Amazon River….20 percent! Fully one-fifth of the air our earth creates to sustain life! Once the rain forest is gone, it can never be somehow re-created or re-seeded….it will simply be lost forever as a natural resource….and there will be less oxygen for us and the animals with whom we share this earthly home to breathe. And so we ignore Brazil’s ill-conceived ecological changes—all wrought, incidentally, for shortsighted political and economic reasons—at great peril to ourselves and our planet’s future. What is happening to the environment in South America is drastic, and let there be no doubt about it, my friends….it will affect us sooner rather than later.
What I shall never forget about the conversation Gustavo, Carolyn and I had in that crowded midtown bistro is not the complex particulars of our analysis of the destruction of the rain forest, or ecologists’ concern about the growing hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, or the increasing reality of the Greenhouse Effect, or the irreversible changes now occurring in global climatic patterns. Some of these details shall most certainly slip from my mind. What I shall always remember, dear friends, is what it felt like to be huddled in a noisy Manhattan bar with two other human beings from halfway around the world, bound together in passionate concern for the endangered ecological future of the little globe we share.
Twenty years ago, Gustavo was merely my A.F.S. brother for one short school year. But in that bistro that August night, I knew, with a pure and lovely clarity of spiritual insight, that he was now and forever more my global brother, and Carolyn my global sister. We were now irretrievably kin, members of the same holy human family, knitted together by necessity for the long haul of human being. As poet Carl Sandburg once put the worldwide human condition: "Alike and ever alike we are on all continents in the need of love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun...from tropics to arctics humanity lives with these needs, so alike, so inexorably alike—one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being."
It was powerful to feel so humanly close to Gustavo and Carolyn that night. In spite of all the years and continents, language and lifestyle differences that had conspired to separate us, in that moment of deep dialogue we all three suddenly felt our closeness and connectedness as fellow creatures of this creation. In that bistro, we were bound in an awesome intimacy of human being, and knew, without so much as a word about it passing between us, that we could no longer imagine Uruguay and the United States as being worlds apart. For the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests reminded us of the truth that what befalls any human being anywhere touches human beings everywhere, and so it shall be from now on, forever. Our feelings of connectedness and belonging were warm and wonderful, but it was also terribly sobering for me to realize, in that intense moment of human meeting, how very endangered our little family is, and how very much humanity yet has to do if it is to manage to survive with any quality of life worth having on this fragile planet we call home.
The foremost reality of human life in this century, dear friends, is that, like it or not, we are irretrievably in this all together. Surely everyone here this morning realizes how very rapidly our world is shrinking. Look at our planet home! We can now photograph it from outer space, and see it for what it really is, the fragile spaceship Earth, one little green and blue ecological orb of interrelated life. This is so not only in terms of our earthly ecology, where what we do in the rain forests of Brazil affects life thousands of miles away, but also in terms of our human ecology. We now live in the Global Village Marshall McLuhan described, where all humanity is being evermore intricately woven together in an interdependent web of life, responsibility, and being.
Our human world has become an incredibly intricate web of interaction and interdependency. When we get up in the morning, for example, we are likely to drink orange juice from Israel as we watch the "Today Show" coming to us live from China. To keep us warm on the way to work, we buy a sweater made by a woman in Hong Kong, sold to us at Sears by a recent immigrant from Senegal. The credit card transaction is processed in Barbados by a handsome young clerk sitting before a computer terminal made in Germany. The car that takes us to work at a multi-national company is made in Japan, fueled by gas from Iran, and rides on Pirelli tires from Italy. Wall Street sneezes that day, and the Tokyo exchange catches a cold, which means you’ll get transferred to the Philippines for two years to re-stabilize the Far East operation. And so it goes. With each passing year, our human world is woven tighter together into evermore complex patterns of interrelatedness and interdependency. We live on a fragile spaceship Earth, and it is now perfectly clear, to us at least, that all of humanity must undergo a radical paradigm shift in our thinking about our earth and one another if we are to survive.
I think it not arrogant parochialism to say with enthusiasm that Unitarian Universalism is a faith for the 21st century. It is a faith for the human future. Perhaps the most valuable spiritual gift we can share is our unique global vision, and the commitment we have made to lending our hands and hearts to the salvation of our fragile world. When we recently revised our denominational statement of purposes and principles, we wisely ended the Principles section with the statement:
‘We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; (and) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."
Ours, then, is a global religion, with a global vision that sees and understands the necessity for humanity to begin taking full responsibility for the protection and preservation of the planet.
But not everyone sees it that way, dear friends, not even by a long shot. I recently stumbled across a very important small book entitled Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo Texas written by a woman by the name of Grace Mojtabai. Perhaps some of you have read it, or at least seen one of the many in-depth reviews this significant work received. The book is a study of attitudes about nuclear weapons and the future of our globe in Amarillo, Texas, the location of the Pantex plant, a massive weapons facility which is the final assembly point for all American nuclear warheads.
The question that haunted the author was how a deeply religious town like Amarillo—for this city of 158,000 has more than 200 churches, most of them, it won’t surprise you to hear, large conservative Christian ones—could so comfortably, and now I quote her, "coexist with a factory of doom." Mojtabai, a politically liberal Jew from Brooklyn, was amazed by the equanimity with which most Amarilloans seemed to take the destructive presence of so many nuclear weapons in their midst. The author reports that when she asked citizens how they felt about Pantex, the first response she received was most often one of astounding blankness. "It’s out there," one man typically responded, "that’s all it means to me. I really had never thought about it."
Totally puzzled by the ease with which Amarilloans accepted a potential holocaust in their backyards—for a nuclear accident would surely take thousands of lives—Mrs. Mojtabai stumbled on her startling hypothesis quite by accident. As she tells it, one day she was out making her rounds in the city when she gradually became aware of a melody, seeping through an open window, and then she caught a few words from the chorus of this song proclaiming the coming of the Lord. What she had heard was a popular Christian Fundamentalist hymn which says that when the end of the world comes, and the judgment day is at hand, all true believers have the "Blessed Assurance" that they will rise up to heaven in a blissful rapture, exempt from the suffering that will befall the rest of humanity.
Suddenly, Mojtabai realized how closely connected fundamentalist theology is to the prospect of a nuclear holocaust, and she began to focus her study on various church leaders and preachers throughout the city. What she found is that many were proclaiming from Amarillo pulpits something which is called "End-Time" thinking. This is simply the theological belief that the end of the world as we know it is coming soon, and that a nuclear holocaust for other total earthly destruction will blessedly put an end to human sin and suffering and thereby usher in God’s new millennium of peace and perfection.
Mojtabai focuses her book heavily on the thought of one Rev. Royce Elms, a fervent Fundamentalist preacher and proponent of "End-Time" thinking from his pulpit at the Jubilee Tabernacle. Pastor Elms, incidentally, said of the author after he read her analysis: "She was totally fair, she did an excellent job, for being a Jew"—liberal fellow he! Pastor Elms believes literally in the Rapture. This is the doctrine embodied in the book of Revelation of the New Testament, which promises that God’s Elect—‘that is, the true and righteous remnant of believers—will, as Armageddon is about to begin, be "raptured" up. That’s right, literally lifted off the face of earth, and swept directly up to heaven, before the rest of humanity is afflicted with "sores, drought, rivers and seas of blood," and finally, "a great holocaust of fire." Pastor Elms tells the thousands who gather in his church to hear him each week (and now I quote him):
"The world as we know it will probably end by 1990, it’s settled and sealed by the word of God." He states that we are already in the "boost phase" of rapturous flight, and it won’t be long now before God puts a cataclysmic end to this soiled creation. Rev. Elms says of people in Amarillo, "Here people are living happily and believing that bomb could drop at any moment. As long as we are right with God, you do not have to tear your hair out and worry about dying—if you have the Blessed Assurance.
Are you getting all of this? Pastor Elms, and God knows how many other born-again fundamentalist ministers around America, are telling their people not to fear nuclear weapons or nuclear war, for if the final holocaust does happen they and their families, protected by their correct theological beliefs, will be selectively saved in the Rapture!
What terrifies Mojtabai and me, and I hope all of you, about such "End Time" thinking is that it promotes a kind of, and now I use her words, "apocalyptic fatalism." These ideas can lead people to think of nuclear weapons as good and inevitable things, for what better or more efficient way could there be for God to sweep away all the so-called "evil" realities and people than to allow nuclear exchange between the Superpowers? The author suggests, and I sadly agree, that if this kind of thinking comes to dominate the American consciousness, and now I quote her again, "accommodation or negotiation with the enemy becomes unthinkable...peace is humanly impossible and war inevitable." Mojtabai is haunted by the realization that such "End-Time" thinking could become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for humanity, and I share her terror. Listen to what President Reagan told a pro-Israeli lobbyist in 1983, ‘You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if—if we’re the generation that’s going to see that come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of these prophecies lately, but believe me, they certainly describe the times we’re going through." For the President of the United States to even entertain such ideas, to even speculate on the relevance of ancient mythic prophecy, is horrific and unbelievable!
I am convinced with all my heart and mind and soul that the first and foremost duty of all Unitarian Universalist congregations and individuals in our time is to speak up against the false and pernicious doctrine that the end of our world through nuclear holocaust is in any way inevitable or desirable. We must proclaim our faith that together humanity can use its intelligence and nobility to find a way to survive together with peace and justice on this fragile planet.
I’ll tell you what I find most theologically appalling about all rapture, end-time thinking. Firstly, I agree with the Roman Catholic Bishop of Amarillo, The Very Rev. Leroy Theodore Matthiesen, who calls all such doctrine "a total denial and perversion of the whole Christian message." In John 3:16, we are told why God sends his son to the earth: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son." God so loved the world, not hated it, not wanted to wipe it away, but loved it. You might be interested to know that in the original Greek text, from which our current Biblical translations come, the word used was "Cosmos"...God so loved the cosmos, loved the whole of creation, that he sent his only son. And this must be the spirit, I think, in which an authentic Christian relationship to the world is understood. To imagine that God, or any noble cosmic force, is eager to destroy the earth and most of her inhabitants is a terrible perversion of the Christian heritage which teaches reverence for life, persons, and earth. True Christianity and authentic Unitarian Universalism cherish this life we have been given and do everything possible to defend and protect life wherever and however it is found on this gentle earth.
And there is something else spiritually wrong with Rapture theology—has it occurred to you? It’s so patently selfish and individualistic! Listen to how Jerry Falwall recently described the moment of the Rapture in one of his sermons,
‘You’ll be riding along in an automobile. You’ll be the driver perhaps. You’re a Christian. There’ll be several people in the automobile with you, maybe someone who is not a Christian. When the trumpet sounds you and the other born-again believers in that automobile will be instantly caught away—you will disappear, leaving behind only your clothes and physical things that cannot inherit eternal life. That unsaved person or persons in the automobile will suddenly be startled to find the car is moving along without a driver, and the car suddenly somewhere crashes."
Can you believe that? Beyond the absurdity of his silly image, what an incredibly selfish and privatistic view of redemption and eternal life! I’d have to call it cosmic narcissism. For what this theology says is, "I’m so good and pure and right-thinking I’ll be saved come the end of the world. Too bad about you, fella! And never mind about the rest of humanity and creation, ‘cause I got my salvation." I suppose that in a narcissistic age, when every individual is encouraged to "look out for good old number 1," we shouldn’t be surprised such selfishness is finding its way into theology. Rapture theology is sort of the penultimate expression of the "Me Decade." Author Mojtabai is right on when she observes that what is tragically missing from this theology is "The vision of community, a (sense of) shared humanity in which all God’s children must find their way haltingly but together toward peace and justice."
What is missing from rapture theology is the unifying vision which animates and informs our own Unitarian Universalist faith. And that is the vision of our human family as one. Our belief that, by God, humanity is all together in this precious thing called life, and we simply must find the wisdom and love to work together for the dignity and survival of all, with no selfish thought for our own little skins. In 1923, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote this about the difference between our life-based religion, and those death-based religions, like the rapture religions I have just described: "To the death-based religion, the main question is, ‘What is going to happen to ME after I am dead?’—a posthumous egoism. To the (life)-based religion, the main question is, ‘What is to be done for the child who is born?’—an immediate altruism. The death-based religions have led to a limitless individualism, a demand for the eternal extension of personality. The (life)-based religion is necessarily and essentially altruistic, a forgetting of oneself for the good of (all) and tends to develop naturally into love and labor for the widening range of family, state, and world."
This is what I, from our life-affirming Unitarian Universalist heritage, would theologically say to Jerry Falwell, Pastor Elms, and anyone else who believes that they personally and individually can find eternal salvation and bliss for themselves while condemning "the swarm" of humanity to a fiery holocaust: NO WAY! For I am a Universalist who believes that if salvation is to be available to any, and I believe it is—for we have everything we need to save and ennoble ourselves—then it must be available to all. The God I believe in, the spirit of holiness I feel in my universe, animates and loves all of life, and cares about the whole of our human family, even those whom we regard as cantankerous cousins.
And so, dear friends, I would have you believe in only one blessed assurance. It’s the blessed assurance that our Unitarian Universalist heritage speaks with such global clarity and purpose. It’s the blessed assurance that humanity is one indissoluble family whose fates are blessedly blended together. It’s the blessed assurance that together, by God, we can make it. Whether we are struggling to protect the life-sustaining rain forests of Brazil, or working to liberate the whole of creation from the bondage of the nuclear threat, the struggle belongs to all of us. Our faith sings the blessed assurance that humanity has within its potential all the nobility and wisdom and courage needed to move our world, howsoever haltingly, toward brighter justice, deeper peace, and surer survival. None of this cosmic individualism or apocalyptic fatalism or raptured narcissism for us. No, for we are Unitarian Universalists, who embrace the whole human world with an inclusive global vision. With gladness, yet with a haunting sense of how very much there is for us to humanly do, we pray with R. Buckminster Fuller the prayer his heart uttered the first time he saw a picture of our whole earth from outer space,
Dear God of Galaxies,
We give thanks for being,
We give thanks for being here,
We give thanks for being here together:
Riders on earth together,
Brothers and sisters on a bright loveliness in the eternal cold, Brothers and sisters who now know
that they are truly brothers and sisters.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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