Living in an Interdependent World
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 2, 2003
The gospel our church preaches is that of our radical interdependence. All life is unitary—one—we proclaim; all life is inseparable, indivisible. And, we say that life’s meaning is universal; it is available to all people, accessible to all; there is a universe full of meaning, and a universal urge to reflect this meaning.
We know of this radical interdependence on a biological and molecular level. All life is interconnected. “You can’t touch a leaf without troubling a star,” one poet has put it.
We know, too, from molecular biology that every square meter of oxygen contains air molecules from every other square meter. We know from geology that every square mile of soil on the face of the earth contains molecules from every other square mile.
The earth (indeed, the universe) is a huge, interdependent energy event. We are connected in deeper and even more amazing ways that we can even imagine possible.
On a social level, we glimpse our interconnectedness, as well, from time to time. People who study such things tells us that most of us are linked to millions of people the world over (maybe millions) through only five or six degrees of separation; that is, through tracing our relationships through five or six intermediaries, we can find our relationship to just about everyone in the world.
So, too, it is that we sing:
(It is interesting to note, I think, that the hymn tune for that song we sang earlier is titled Chernobyl. For certainly, Chernobyl was a clear example, and a frightening one, of just how interconnected this world is, down to the molecular level, down to the air we breath and the soil we inhabit.)
Very simply put, this is our affirmation as Unitarian Universalists living in these troubling times:
We are all connected in so many ways.
This is a time in the life of the world, perhaps, when, as a nation, we have never needed the United Nations more—but have never listened to it less. Certainly, our President’s insistence on waging an illegal, aggressive, and preemptory attack against Iraq without United Nations’ approval is but the most glaring and infamous example of our government’s disregard for the very institution we helped to found in 1945.
In these times of despair, we need to be part of a world community that stands for hope. At this time of confusion and division, we need to foster a world institution that furthers straight thinking, and calls us toward our deeper loyalties. As the great Unitarian minister Josiah Bartlett told his congregation in the midst of World War Two: “Peace is the fruit of righteousness, and righteousness never did come cheap, without repentance and sacrifice.”
The United Nations calls upon all of the nations in our interdependent world to engage one another in deep listening with one another: genuine dialogue; a true sharing of national stories and perspectives and aspirations; upon which basis—who knows?—we can begin to fashion “a world community with peace, justice, and liberty for all”. The United Nations calls upon countries to discern where they can contribute to this worldwide dialogue—and to listen for where they may need to experience a bit of “repentance and sacrifice”, in Rev. Bartlett’s words.
These words—repentance and sacrifice—are not words that come easily to our American worldview—or to our view of ourselves. What possible need would we ever have to repent for anything we’ve ever done in our national history? No, our national myth proclaims, there were good and proper reasons for the genocide of the native people, the expropriation of their lands, the Trail of Tears, the advent of slavery, Jim Crow Laws, discrimination and segregation, sweat shops and child labor, the bombing of Dresden, atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all 81 American military interventions since 1945; interference in the internal affairs of Greece, the Philippines, Iran, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Haiti, Guatemala, the Congo, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Grenada, Suriname, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, and the Seychelles (yet another region of great “strategic importance”)-- to name just a few. We have no need to “repent” for any of these things! We have always been the “good guys”.
Nor do we need to sacrifice. We’ve earned our position of economic dominance in the world. (That’s economic dominance if you’re talking about wealth at the very top; as far as child poverty rates, we’re not quite at the top, somewhere around 30th; or the infant mortality rate, where we’re 27th – just about the lowest in the industrialized world). We have no apologies to make if an American company like Nike leaves Maine for South Korea so it can pay lower wages; then leaves South Korea for China and Indonesia when unions start getting formed in South Korea; then asks the Indonesian government for a waiver from the minimum wage so it won’t be forced to move to an ever cheaper labor market (this in the same economic quarter that Nike CEO Phil Knight received $80 million in stock dividends for three months). We have no reason to feel concerned that, in one year, Nike paid one person (Michael Jordan) as much as it paid all the workers in all the factories the world over that made the shoes that bear his name.
But the world has this way of reminding us sometimes that “Peace is the fruit of righteousness, and righteousness never did come cheap, without repentance and sacrifice.”
Or, as the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu put it:
When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the [Way of Life],
thus never needing to be defensive.
A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.
If a nation is centered in the [Way of Life],
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn't meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.
The United Nations provides our country with the opportunity to live out this vision of true greatness. It reminds us that these colors of red, white, and blue on our national flag don’t run: they remain steadfast and true under fire; they are the symbol of bravery and heroism, on the battlefield and off. But deeply listening to the other countries of the united nations also reminds us that these colors—dear as they are to our hearts—don’t run the world. We are but 6% of the world’s population, and we hold no special privilege which allows our voice to count for more than anyone else’s.
The United Nations can be that precious incubator where a new sense of national humility and service can come to fruition in works of peace and justice.
The United Nations has the potential to bring unity, peace, and justice to this world of ours in quantities we have never even imagined possible. There is enough water and food on this planet to provide for all of the children of Mother Earth. There is no reason that any child should go without a home or medical care—if we all learn to share from our hearts the gifts of our abundance. Albert Einstein once wrote: “Nothing that I can do will change the structure of the universe. But maybe, by raising my voice, I can help the greatest of all causes—goodwill among [all people] and peace on earth.”
The United Nations helps us to raise our voices—not in the clarion call of war, but in songs of peace. Not in cries of despair, but in prayers of peace. It speaks for the voiceless; it can give hope to the hopeless; in can become the power of the powerless; in spite of its failings, it is still the last, best hope of humankind, as Adlai Stevenson said.
Institutions like the U.N. remind us of our vision that “earth shall be fair, and all its people one.” And it does so much to bring that vision to work. So often lost, sadly, in the international news about this or that world crisis, or this or that heated disagreement in the Security Council, is the heroic chronicle of the work being done, day in, day out, by hundreds of United Nations agencies, around the world, in everything from infant nutrition to human rights to protecting the environment to further the cause of indigenous peoples. How many thousands of unsung heroes of the UN live lives and do work based solely on the principles of goodwill and sacrificial spirit? We should hear more about them and their good works!
These good men and women live out the ideals that so many of us merely profess. They point us toward a better way. They lead us toward our deeper selves and our true humanity.
The goals of the United Nations are worthy ones indeed. I’d invite you now to open your hymnbooks, the gray ones. And turn to reading number 475 in the back of the book, which contains the preamble of the United Nations Charter. Let’s read these words together:
Now, turn to that page at the front of the hymnal which contains the words of the purposes and principles of our Unitarian Universalist Association. Listen closely as I read them aloud:
Ponder in your hearts just how similar these two sets of values are, just how much they resonate with one another. This is not an accident. This is who we are—as a religious people; as citizens of the world. We are people who affirm, in our words (and I hope with our lives) the radical interdependence of all creatures on this earth.
The goals we articulate are worthy and lofty ones indeed. Perhaps we reach too high. Perhaps we are just dreamers. But you know what, we’re not the only ones. The good work of the UN reminds us of that.
The well-known Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn once said, “If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.”
May the light of the United Nations help to guide our way through the darkness of our times. And may it shine into the hearts and minds of our leaders, and all of us, and awaken within the deeper possibilities of the just, loving, and peace-filled men and women we can truly