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Centering for a Revolution
Sunday, July 4 @ 10:30 am - 11:30 am
Reverend Furrer will draw a connection between the religious centering process and political revolution. Fasten your seatbelts!
how to attend
• To virtually attend, please Zoom in using room number 989 3107 9078, passcode: chalice.
• To phone into the service, call 669-900-6833, Meeting ID: 989 3107 9078.
For those joining, please mute as soon as you enter the room, so everyone can hear. Please note, the services will be recorded, but at this time, there are no plans to share the recording.
Centering for a Revolution
George Bancroft was one of, perhaps the first, great American historian. Born in 1800, Bancroft was the son of a prominent Unitarian minister. He considered himself a Transcendentalist and was active in the reform wing of the Massachusetts Democratic Party in the 1840s. As Secretary of the Navy under President James K. Polk, he founded the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. In his six-volume History of the United States, George Bancroft writes:
The idea of freedom had always revealed itself. In America it was the breath of life to the people. For the first time it found a region and a race where it could be professed with the earnestness of an indwelling conviction and be defended with the enthusiasm that had marked no wars but those of religion.
My remarks this morning are inspired by the social activism of my mentor, Paul Sawyer, by the bold dreams many of us shared at the online General Assembly last week, and by recent American national elections, especially in light of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that has allowed unidentified parties unlimited financial contributions into political campaigns. This ruling has proven to be a grave evil, must be identified as such, and reversed.
My title is “Centering for Revolution.” And my intention is to bring about a connection in your hearts and minds between the religious centering process—what others have called becoming grounded or aligned—with the political and social phenomenon of revolution.
We know about this centering process, be it from devotional practice, prayer, yoga, Tai Chi, various breathing exercises, walking in nature, being alone at the beach or with a close friend or mate in a loving and intimate situation: all of these different situations or experiences that seem to bring with them or engender a quality of being at peace and in harmony—deep harmony—with the world. One feels “centered.” That is, one feels centered as a whole person of worth and dignity and in right relationship with the natural world and with the rest of humanity.
Engaging in this centering process is helpful—indispensable, almost—for any person who wants to fully move and be in the world. Consider the image of a potter’s wheel. All of us, probably, have seen such a wheel; perhaps some of you have used one. While I was in Cuba a few years ago we visited the studio of a gifted potter. I watched with fascination as he loaded moist clay on the wheel, slowly adding water and molding the clay into one shape or another: tall and skinny or short and thick: whatever he wanted…as long as the clay was centered in the middle of his wheel. But should the clay get a little off center…and suddenly the vessel disintegrates and falls to pieces, and to ruin.
Or think of the image of a top, which one sets on the floor, or on a table top, and pulls. And as long as the top is gyrating on its point and in balance…it will spin for a long long time. Our planet, the Earth, also spins on an axis. It happens to wobble a little bit on its pivot, accounting for this phenomenon called the precession of the equinox—the longest natural cycle recognized by human beings—where the apparent position of the sun against the zodiac background shifts over 26,000 years in time. This is caused by the slight wobble of the earth on its axis.
Now the word “revolution” originally comes to us from the world of astronomy. It was first used by Copernicus and Galileo when they wrote about “the revolution of the orbs.” The new discoveries of the fifteen and sixteen hundreds of a sun-centered, “heliocentric” universe gave to the imagination of that time a new word: revolution; which referred to the spinning of the earth on its axis, or the elliptical orbits of the planets around the sun.
It was not until 1688 in England that the word was first applied to politics, when, after a period of upheaval and uncertainty the throne was offered to Kind William and Queen Mary. I don’t know how acquainted you are with your English history, but the seventeenth century was a period of great uncertainty over there. There was serious religious controversy going on between Catholics and Protestants and among all the various groups of Protestants as well; the merchant class was getting richer and more powerful; England and Scotland were sometimes at war—or nearly so—and sometimes enduring a tenuous peace. Not to mention Ireland! It was all very volatile—which contributed, significantly, to all the immigration to North America and the founding and settlement of the English colonies along the East Coast.
In 1640 there was a revolution over there and Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power. King Charles I—who was a Divine Right of Kings believer and kind of asked for it—was beheaded. But then, after about twenty years, his son, Charles II was restored, as was the Church of England. And everything seemed to be calming down until his son, (James II, who had made the serious political faux pas of converting to Catholicism) took over. This was too much for Parliament, who sent the young king packing and invited in William and Mary; they accepted and took over.
And when this took place, in 1688, it was called a revolution, “the Glorious Revolution.” This was the first time that a word formerly restricted to the world of astronomy was used in a political context. After eighty-five years of uncertainty and power struggle the familiar principles of English government—Parliamentary supremacy, limited Monarchy, and the Rule of Law—were reestablished. And this development was termed a “revolution,” by which was meant a restoring back to the original conditions, coming around—full circle—to the same place. Almost the way we would use the word counter-revolution today.
It was used in that manner to such an extent that when Thomas Paine was writing about the need for a revolution in the English colonies, he wrote of the need for a counter-revolution. It was only gradually that the word revolution took on the meaning of sweeping the decks clear, beginning freshly. As it says on the back of a dollar bill: Novus Ordo Seclorum, “a new order of society.” Indeed, it was here in America that there first arose this idea that people could start over from scratch and reorder things on a just and humane basis.
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Now the centering process…. To be centered, first of all, is to be aware of your whole personality—not just your persona (social mask), but your whole self…. It’s like a human being, as a toddler, from their mother’s knee, begins to hear stories about their background, their history, their forebears, and so on…all these stories. They hear about their mother’s story and their father’s, how they met, and many additional stories: where their parents lived before the kids were born, the illnesses they had when they were babies, when they went to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s, their aunts and uncles: the whole matrix-out-of-which they came into being. And pretty soon one has a sense of themselves, which we call identity, personality, or whatever, all of which give you a sense of who you are. And gives you a sense of being centered in the person you are; even gives a person—in a way—a sense of their past lives.
Perhaps some of you have heard one of the legends surrounding the Buddha, of how as he sat under the Bodhi Tree for 49 days he reviewed all his past incarnations going back to before the beginning and all his future incarnations off into forever…and this whole stream of his being—both behind him and going out in front of him—became a sense of who he was: his whole Self. Out of which he burst through into enlightenment, after clearing the deck, so to speak, of all that information about who he was.
Likewise, Jesus went through his own “clearing of the deck” in self-confrontation and inner inventory as he endured his own 40 days: those spent in the desert—until he, too, came to affirm this whole stream of consciousness out of which he was born as his true Self [“Before Abraham was, I am.” —John 8:58] and thence began his ministry.
This centering process in each of our lives depends on many such reminiscences, nostalgias, and memories. And so too, as citizens of a country, knowledge of our history as a people is indispensable to knowing who we are and how we can act as citizens. One of the most interesting facts of our time is how little we actually know about what’s going on in our country. I don’t think there has ever been a period in our history in which the average citizen had such little knowledge of what’s happening. With the rise electronic banking and, simultaneously, the National Security State, privacy has become more a quaint memory than a political ideal.
The modern Republican Party—at least before 2016—has been made in the investment banking, petroleum, and “security” industries: industries that have become driving forces in American—imperial—foreign policy. These favored industries strongly influence foreign policy by supporting highly-paid lobbyists to constantly pay attention to legislation, recommend amendments favorable to their industries, and contribute generously to legislators who follow their lead. This was sordid enough in the old days, but since the 2010 landmark Supreme Court Citizens United case, you can’t even follow the money anymore: corporations and billionaires can anonymously contribute unlimited amounts to super-pacs and remain unknown. One man/one vote has morphed into one dollar/one vote.
In 2010, then-Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent:
At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense.
And yet the Court did. Meanwhile, overblown worries about “security” have taken citizen oversight out of the picture when it comes to empire: Iran-Contra, contra-gate, Desert Storm, and most recently Gulf War II, the fight against ISIS and the twenty-year War in Afghanistan—trillions of dollars spent—but all beyond public review.
Now it is impossible for a citizenry to be engaged in a democratic process, to be centered in that process when critical information has been kept from them about how the government is being operated and on whose behalf. When the forces and powers that have entered into the arena of politics have not been identified as to who they are and whom they represent. The public can have no confidence in the situation. For without a knowledge of the history of our own time we can’t even be centered as citizens or as persons, alive and alert in an open and knowledgeable way in our immediate times. If we are to be a democracy then it’s essential that that the players and parties be identified.
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Our own tradition, as Unitarians and, earlier, Congregationalists, is a most revolutionary one. The men and women who made the first revolution, who wrote the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate today, that whole situation was fostered and furthered by clergymen and leadership coming out of our tradition and other religious traditions 245 years ago. The Revolutionary situation, of course, took years to develop. As John Adams, the Unitarian, said: “The Revolution was won in America before the first shot was fired at Lexington and Concord. It was won in the hearts and minds of fellow Americans.”
Now as we all know, the war that Washington was the leader of, the war itself, was a very dark and difficult war. And only with the help of allies like France and the diversion of England through European wars, and the united capacity of the people—especially those who had developed a fairly affluent economic life—only their togetherness could defeat one of the strongest armies ever amassed on the planet to that time. It was a salient victory, won by brilliant guerrilla tactics: Washington crossing the Delaware to catch the mercenary Hessians off their guard, drunk and asleep in their barracks. Or the night they climbed Dorchester Heights outside of Boston, on the sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. The troops were rallied in a one night operation. And the next morning General Howe looked up over Dorchester Heights and he knew that he was done. He said “it must have taken 12 to 14,000 men,” in one night mind you, to dig those battlements and secure the canon that they’d dragged overland all the way from Ft. Ticonderoga up on Lake Champlain, over 300 miles away. It was by brilliant maneuvers of such kind, and a united front of the people, that our forebears were able to defeat the imperialist British government, which, to that time, was the strongest in the world.
Now it was Congregational/Unitarian clergymen who paved the way for the mental consciousness and the philosophy of revolution and political democracy. I refer to a man named Jonathan Mayhew, Minister of the West Church in Boston who, at the time of the Stamp Act in 1765 gave a sermon from Galatians entitled Brethren, Ye Have Benn Called unto Liberty. Here’s the text (Gal 5:13-15): “For you are called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence….”
What Mayhew and all these other New England clergymen were trying to say was essentially this: people cannot lead free, whole lives whenever they allow themselves to be ruled by a system encouraging self-indulgence and not their truest, most radical love. For Mayhew, any government that encouraged selfishness in lieu of community should be resisted and overthrown. And the next week members of his congregation and others attacked the tax collectors and drove them out of Boston. That was the kind of pacifism being preached on the streets of Boston by our forefathers 240-245 years ago.
Or consider the activities of John Lathrop, another proto-Unitarian who at the time of the Boston Massacre in 1770 preached a sermon in which he said “We are obliged to call aloud and not be silent when the blood of the people and their charge is spilled as water and their carcasses strewn on the streets of Boston.
Or William Gogswell of Pomphret: “There is a privilege of self-defense and preservation implanted in our very natures. When our liberty is struck at, ‘tis sufficient reason for making war in defense of it. Liberty is one of the most sacred and invincible privileges mankind enjoys.”
Now you can see how in the decade leading up to 1776 these Congregational ministers were giving sermons all over the place, all over Massachusetts, and how they’re building up an attitude and consciousness of revolution. Now at that time ministers were usually the most educated people in their towns. They were often the only ones who had gone to college and had a formal education of that kind and they were expected to be teachers not only of the gospel, but equally of philosophy: the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of government—all that stuff; everything. And they were setting a climate and a context for the development of revolutionary attitudes.
Jonas Clark, the Minister of Lexington’s First Parish Church, the church right on the green where the first shots were fired that were heard ‘round the world’: Jonas Clark led the militia on to the green.
Now these ministers didn’t just stay in the pulpit either. John Murray, the Universalist, was General Washington’s Chaplain. Others were involved in creating committees of correspondence. Mayhew suggested the idea of committees of correspondence. Lay people like John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson were involved in Continental Conventions and in drafting our Constitution after the war. Our people were right in the thick of it! It’s one of the best-kept secrets of modern-day Congregationalism and Unitarianism that, when it came to making the first Revolution our people were right in the thick of it. Are we, perhaps, a little ashamed of having such a radical image at a time when right-wing hooliganism, financed by corporations, is using revolutionary rhetoric in betrayal of its goals and values? Afraid to look a little bold and claim our heritage. Jonas Clark led the militia onto the green. And there were many others as well. Abigail Adams and Judith Sergeant Murray: both writing about women’s rights. And people were organizing to redress their grievances.
These people not only talked and wrote about revolution, they acted on it: which is the most important thing, politically. And they not only acted, they were successful as well. It was a successful revolution, perhaps the most successful revolution for liberty and freedom ever accomplished. And in a very real sense the revolutionary dynamic continues in this country to this time. As the historians Charles and Mary Beard wrote, “The Revolution began in America before the landing at Plymouth and it still continues.” The Revolution, in other words, is not something once accomplished done forever, but constantly in process. In this sense the Revolution we celebrate and honor this morning is still going on, still in jeopardy, still wide open, still to be achieved.
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Now revolution is a word that sounds frightening. It shouldn’t, really, just coming from that turning of the planet on its axis, or in orbit around the sun. Yet the musician John Cage said, “Every time you say the word ‘revolution’ you set the Revolution back five minutes.” The word kind of sets us on edge. People think of bloodshed and violence, all the sort of thing that revolution involves. And there’s no way that it doesn’t. Think about the blood shed in defense of BLM protestors over the pasty couple of years Think of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. At General Assembly, delegates heard about the suffering of many families seeking asylum at our southern border. But what’s happening in Arizona is nothing compared to what goes on at the fringes of the American empire—the Philippines, Columbia, Liberia, the Persian Gulf and so on. State violence directed against those seeking to change this situation is wanton and unceasing—and now typically includes drone surveillance and possible attack.
There are people in this country who, in light of the Cold War’s demise, question the wisdom of appropriating sixty per cent of our budget for the military when our own people are malnourished; when the pandemic has interrupted schooling for millions of children; when unemployment remains too high. There are people who are enraged that poor vagabonds get hard time for stealing bread when the bankers who led us into the 2008 global economic collapses get no time, no trial, and no new laws to speak of. Yes, there are many people who abhor the whole situation, and who are actually considering different ways of ordering our social life that would be more humane and honestly democratic—beginning with constitutional amendments reversing Citizens United and another that does away with corporate personhood; amendments that can—and must—be supported online.
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Violence is a part of revolution, just as violence is a natural part of life. As the Chinese scriptural classic and the oldest book in the world, the I Ching says, Revolution is like the molting of a bird or of an animal—a very natural process in the social and economic order for it to readjust and to find new, vital ways of coping with new circumstances. Revolution is actually evolution. Revolution has always occurred in human history and it will continue to occur throughout human history—and in a country which is based on the principle of revolution at its very center it will be a natural part of the American scene for as long as we’re around. The violence that goes along with revolution is much like the birth pangs that are a natural part of laboring to give birth to a child. Just as new life is brought forth, so when a new form of social order comes to birth, it, too, is accompanied by violence and pain. It’s not that anyone would want that. It’s not that any one person is responsible for that. It’s just part of the movement of the times, and of the birth of new conditions. In the same way that you can’t really have joy without pain, you can’t have life without pain; it’s just part of the condition of living. And revolution is as natural to the social order as giving birth is to the continuation of the species.
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Now in our own time…. There’s much that can be done; much to keep this revolutionary spirit—which is the true meaning of the Fourth of July—to keep this spirit that we’re honoring today alive and at the center of our national life. To begin with: of all that can be done there is one thing that must be done or the revolutionary spirit will wither and die. And that is: remember—the way and method of revolution is consciousness change. It’s not picking up the gun. So many of the behaviors that have been publicized as revolutionary activity—half of them have been planned and provoked by the police as a way of scaring the public and identifying in the public mind revolution = terrorism. I speak with particular abhorrence concerning the anarcho-terrorist Black Bloc group within the Occupy and last summer’s BLM movements; men and women whose tactics include wearing masks (so—like the unnamed billionaires behind the Citizens United ruling—they can’t be identified) and encouraging destructive vandalism. There’s no true revolutionary who really believes in terrorism. Nor is terrorism a means of education. Education and consciousness changing are the ways of revolution; and it’s the old, time-honored method of religious liberals from Jonathan Mayhew in the mid-1700s down to today….
Which brings me to my final point; my final admonition. If you want to have an idea what’s going on in this country, read. And read broadly. And not just the establishment press. Read some off-beat material. Read, for instance, the Bible, defined by Daniel Berrigan as “a classic textbook of resistance.” Confront it directly as our tradition encourages; and read the excellent articles found in our denominational magazine, the UU World. Keeping the spirit of our original Revolution alive—as Jonathan Mayhew pointed out—is exactly like keeping the spirit of religious Love alive. We must “make ourselves bounded one to another, and devoted to the light of Love, and words of Truth.”
So may it be. Amen.