Saturday, January 17, 2015

God Bless the Dissidents

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 2, 2001

Reading: a recent editorial from a Romanian newspaper
Why are Americans so united? They don't resemble one another even if you paint them! They speak all the languages of the world and form an astonishing mixture of civilizations. Some of them are nearly extinct, others are incompatible with one another, and in matters of religious beliefs, not even God can count how many they are.
Still, the American tragedy turned three hundred million people into a hand put on the heart. Nobody rushed to accuse the White House, the army, the secret services that they are only a bunch of losers. Nobody rushed to empty their bank accounts. Nobody rushed on the streets nearby to gape about. The Americans volunteered to donate blood and to give a helping hand. After the first moments of panic, they raised the flag on the smoking ruins, putting on T-shirts, caps and ties in the colors of the national flag. They placed flags on buildings and cars as if in every place and on every car a minister or the president was passing. On every occasion they started singing their traditional song: "God Bless America!".
Silent as a rock, I watched the charity concert broadcast on Saturday once, twice, three times, on different TV channels. There were Clint Eastwood, Willie Nelson, Robert de Niro, Julia Roberts, Cassius Clay, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Springsteen, Silvester Stalone, James Wood, and many others whom no film or producers could ever bring together. The American's solidarity spirit turned them into a choir. Actually, choir is not the word. What you could hear was the heavy artillery of the American soul. What neither George W. Bush, nor Bill Clinton, nor Colin Powell could say without facing the risk of stumbling over words and sounds, was being heard in a great and unmistakable way in this charity concert.
I don't know how it happened that all this obsessive singing of America didn't sound croaky, nationalist, or ostentatious! It made you green with envy because you weren't able to sing for your country without running the risk of being considered chauvinist, ridiculous, or suspected of mean interests. I watched the live broadcast and the rerun of its rerun for hours listening to the story of the guy who went down one hundred floors with a woman in a wheelchair without knowing who she was, or of the Californian hockey player, who fought with the terrorists and prevented the plane from hitting a target that would have killed other hundreds or thousands of people. How on earth were they able to bow before a fellow human?
Imperceptibly, with every word and musical note, the memory of some turned into a modern myth of tragic heroes. And with every phone call, millions and millions of dollars were put in a collection aimed at rewarding not a man or a family, but a spirit which nothing can buy.
What on earth can unite the Americans in such a way? Their land? Their galloping history? Their economic power? Money? I tried for hours to find an answer, humming songs and murmuring phrases which risk sounding like commonplaces. I thought things over, and I reached only one conclusion:
Only freedom can work such miracles!
The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
There are two seemingly disparate anniversaries beckoning to us over the next week or so—days which might not seem, at first glance, to be related in any way or form whatsoever:
December 7th is, of course, Pearl Harbor Day, the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack that led to our nation’s involvement in the Second World War. It’s an anniversary that takes on a special poignancy this year, I think, in the light of the events of September 11th.
The other special day that’s coming up is December 10th, which is Human Rights Day, so chosen because it marks the anniversary of that day in 1949 when the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified. Human Rights Day is always a good day to come together and reaffirm our commitment to basic human rights for all people the world over.
Now, you might think that to consider both of these anniversaries in the same breath is sort of like comparing apples and oranges. But there is a connection here, and not only one that my warped little mind grasps. I hope that you, too, will grasp the connection sometime before this sermon is over, because I think it’s a connection that is of great importance to our country at this particular point in its history.
Right here at the outset, let me be clear about a couple of things:
First, let me underscore the fact that I, like all of you, I know, reacted with deepest revulsion and horror and sadness to the tragic events of September 11th. These events have scarred all of us, to one degree or another. Those of us who were fortunate enough not to have lost someone on that awful day cannot even imagine the scars of those who did. Our hearts go out to them. And as we grieve at the tragedy, we are so deeply moved by the heroism and self-sacrifice we saw on that day, and in its aftermath, as well.
Second, I shared the anger that many of you felt at this direct attack on us as a people and as a nation. Such an attack, obviously, required a forceful and direct response, and after due and careful consideration, such an attack was forthcoming. In the main, I have been supportive of the manner in which this military campaign has been carried out by our government, and I rejoice that it seems, in many ways at least, close to victory, and that the damnable islamo-fascist Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been toppled (though the effectiveness of our campaign against bin Laden and his Al Kaida network remains to be seen), and that, through fits and starts, there seems to be progress in establishing a stable, democratic government in Afghanistan (though that, too, remains to be seen). So, I approach this morning’s topic (for a change) as a supporter, and not a critic, of current U.S. policy.
And third, let me also stress that I have nothing against patriotism. We fly the flag up the hill at 98 Bassick Circle (most days at least, when it’s not raining, and when one of us remembers to put it out). We do so proudly, too. We flew the flag before September 11th— though I admit we do it much more regularly now, and that putting it up outside is an (almost) daily ritual which touches me more deeply than it used to. New fires of patriotism have been stoked within some of us where they may have been lying dormant; or, perhaps, patriotism has moved up a good number of notches on many of our personal lists of values and priorities. And I think, all in all, that that’s a good thing.
But sometimes, I have my doubts about this superpatriotic fervor that has gripped our country. It scares me sometimes. It often seems too easy, too facile—too much sizzle, and not enough steak. A very trivial incident from my own experience might help to illustrate what I mean:
A few days ago, I had to drive into Boston (seldom a pleasant experience), and the fact that I was locked in traffic from the Braintree split onward (even though it was about noon; the Boston “rush hour” now seems to extend 24/7, or close to it, sometimes!) made it even more unpleasant. But that’s life, right? It was a small enough burden to bear, and part of the price you pay if you drive into Boston, rather than taking the “T”. That was the choice I made, so I really can’t complain.
But in that ten miles or so that I was stuck in traffic, I was cut off three times—twice by people who didn’t seem to know what yellow “Merge” signs mean, or who skipped that day of Drivers’ Ed or something—and once by someone in a big white SUV who was damned if he was going to let me take advantage of a four-car-long piece of “daylight” that had opened up (somehow) in the lane I was traveling in—so he cut in on me—from the right to the middle lane…
Now, maybe ministers think too much (especially when we’re caught in traffic), and maybe I brood too much (especially when I’m caught in traffic)—but what do you suppose all three of those “rotten drivers” (or at least their vehicles) had in common?
(No, it wasn’t Rhode Island plates, though that would be a good guess.) They were all flying American flags! (You know—the kind you can attach to your radio antenna, or whatever.) Ah ha! I thought: There is no correlation between super-patriotism, on one hand, and good manners, on the other! Or: it’s easy to mouth the platitudes of patriotism; it’s another thing to live out the civic virtues which truer patriotism represents.
As I said, this is a very trivial example. But it echoed the experience of Donald M. Murray, a columnist for the Globe, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire, and World War II veteran, whose recent column, “An old soldier's caveat on the flag waving”, I would like to share at length this morning—because it says what I want to say better than I could—both because of Dr. Murray’s eloquence, but mostly, because of the deep resonance of his personal life experience.
Donald Murray writes:
“The pickup divided a line of traffic and slammed into position ahead of me. Its rear end had a large sign, ‘United We Stand.’ I swore and then laughed, realizing I had to put up with patriots who drove dangerously. The nation needs a new motto: ‘Divided We Stand.’
‘While the flags fly and we sing ‘God Bless America,’ we had better make sure that America survives this patriotic orgy, which may fade as fast as a teenage fashion in the face of the long, unknown war in which we are engaged. I am an optimist. The behavior of the rescuers, the few rescued, and the families of the many who were lost in the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon documents our ability to survive.
“I also cheer the professional soldiers, sailors, and Marines who are already doing what we do not know. I salute the reservists and National Guard troops whose statements reveal they are prepared to take what action is necessary.
“I am worried, however, by the political statements that we must all agree with everything our government is doing and may do. Our leaders should not have a blank check to spend on ‘security’ or the power to suspend the laws that have protected dissent and allowed those who are different to enter our country, survive, and make us strong by their diversity.
“I volunteered for the paratroops and served in combat not so much to preserve our unity as to protect our glorious disunity.
“Graham Greene once asked, ‘Isn't disloyalty as much the writer's virtue as loyalty is the soldier's?’ I agree. Our country should protect, even encourage, those who question, doubt, disagree, and contradict - and there even may be a time for the soldier to be disloyal. This doesn't, of course, mean that we should encourage those who infiltrate our society and lie hidden while training to turn airliners into missiles. It does mean that our security forces and the courts will have to keep making judgments that will be difficult.
“Since many celebrate my war against Germany and Japan as a time of glorious unity, we should remember that we were not that unified. There were those who opposed all wars and others who opposed that war. And we should not forget how we used the war to steal the land owned by citizens of Japanese descent and to send them to our own concentration camps.
“These times are making many of us who are veterans relive our personal wars with the enemy - and with our own leaders. I remember a day when we were pinned down at the bottom of a hill by two enemy machine gun nests that were protecting a piece of German artillery.
“Our lieutenant, who had not earned our respect in training or in combat, ordered us to charge up the hill in the face of superior fire. He would lead the way, and, like some officer in a bad movie, he pulled out his .45 and rose, waving it at the enemy, exhorting us to follow him.
“In the movies we would have been close together, but in the reality of infantry war we dug in many yards from one another. We did not discuss mutiny; each of us spontaneously disobeyed his idiotic order.
“He led the charge of one a few yards until he fell in front of us, killed by a single sniper's bullet in the head. Without the slightest feeling of guilt at our disloyalty, we divided into two groups, circled through the woods, attacked the machine gun nests from the rear and silenced the artillery.
“Combat was a time to follow orders, but it was not a time for blind loyalty. It isn't that easy, and the strange unknown, unpredictable foreign and domestic war in which we are engaged will call on the strength that can be mustered by a nation that encourages dissent, disagreement, doubt, difference, and, even on occasion, mutiny.
“Divided we stand.”
So ends Professor Murray’s column, and he raises some very pertinent questions that we need to face as a people. “Why is this a religious question?” you might ask. Why are we talking about this in church?
I’ll show you why.
Unlike some other churches, we don’t have prayer books or Bibles in our pews. But we do have hymnals—pretty good reflections, I think, of who we are (and who we would be) as a religious people.
I’d invite you now to pick up your copy of the gray hymnal that’s before you, your copy of Singing the Living Tradition. Now, open it to the fourth page (I think) after the cover, the page that has “WE THE MEMBER CONGREGATIONS OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION COVENANT TO AFFIRM AND PROMOTE” printed at the top. This is our statement of “Principles and Purposes”—not a creed (because we don’t have one of those), but a statement of our commonly avowed values, the things which hold us together as a movement, as a religion, as a faith, as it were.
Read down the list of principles, and look especially this morning, at the fifth one: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
This is one of our fundamental values. And it’s an interesting juxtaposition: conscience, on the one hand, and the democratic process, on the other; the lone voice of the dissident, on the one side, balance with the rule of the majority, on the other.
In a free society, you can’t have one without the other.
In a free society, you can’t mark Pearl Harbor Day, without also keeping Human Rights Day in mind, too.
And any society that would be free, and would stay strong, will have wisdom enough to listen to its dissidents, and consider their opinions carefully, before it makes its choice as to which way it will proceed.
For so often, as we turn the pages of a national history (or of the history of any group of people for that matter), we discover that, so very often, one generation’s “dissidents” become the next generation’s presidents. Fashions in thought may come and go; the leading opinions of the day may wax and wane, but as the banner which now flies above the presidential office at Hradcany Castle in Prague proclaims: “Pravda vitez.” “Truth conquers.”
It is also striking that the present occupant of the presidential office in the Czech Republic [Vaclav Havel] never cared much for the label “dissident” with which he was often tagged by the Western press when he was imprisoned and harassed under the Communists. It was the totalitarian leaders of his country, Havel says, who were the real “dissidents”. It was those who tried to limit freedom who were most out tune with the music of life. He and his friends and associates who refused to go along with those in power were just trying to life their lives in some semblance of truth.
In his book The Arrogance of Power, Senator J. William Fulbright, one of the leading dissenters against American policy during the Vietnam War wrote these words that have stayed with me since my adolescence:
To criticize one's country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment," Senator Fulbright wrote. "It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that a country can do better than it is doing. In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not in its taste but its effect, not how it makes people feel in the moment but how it makes them feel in the long run. Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation."
We should bear Senator Fulbright’s words in mind, as we consider difficult questions of security and terrorism and complicated issues like military tribunals and “homeland security”. At times of crisis like these the most patriotic act of all may well be the unyielding defense of civil liberties and the right to dissent.
In his inaugural address, President George W. Bush said
“America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected.
“Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats, it is a call to conscience. And though it requires sacrifice, it brings a deeper fulfillment…
“Our public interest depends on private character; on civic duty and family bonds and basic fairness; on uncounted, un-honored acts of decency which give direction to our freedom. 
“Sometimes in life, we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our time has said, every day we are called to do small things with great love. The most important tasks of democracy are done by everyone…
“Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew [our] purpose today: to make our country more just and generous; to affirm the dignity of our lives and of every life.” 
The real patriots of our time may not be those who simply go along with the red, white, and blue tide (lovely as it is), but who refuse to let our freedom be bartered away for a false sense of security, and who resist all efforts to demonize those who exercise their God-given right to dissent as loudly and clearly as they choose.
“What on earth can unite [us] Americans in such a way? [Our] land? [Our] galloping history? [Our economic] power? Money?…”
No. None of these:
“Only freedom can work such miracles!”

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