Fences: Mending or Rending

Fences: Mending or Rending

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The following is a sermon I presented at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Pensacola on September 11,2005 and originally posted here on September 13, 2005. I’m reposting it because when I went to look for it, I found that the original post had somehow been truncated, and also because there is a one word at a time blog carnival today on the word fences.

It was 4 years ago that we woke to the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the failed attack on one unknown target. That morning, all of our lives were changed. Those who felt complacent were shaken. Terrorism before that was largely something that happened somewhere else. It happened either to other people, or only to those people courageous, or some of us probably thought stupid enough, to travel to the wrong places. For most Americans, however, it was somebody else’s problem.

Then the twin towers fell. Terrorism was no longer somebody else’s problem, something we could conveniently dismiss from our minds, assuming those responsible would take care of it. Terrorism and our national response to it became a topic of nearly everyone’s conversation and thinking.

As a result of that day, many things have happened. Decisions have been taken. Diplomatic (and not so diplomatic) missions have been launched. We’ve launched two foreign wars. We’ve reorganized and combined government departments. We have had changes in our national laws, intended by their authors to increase our security and make us safer.

To be specific, we did the natural thing. We started to build fences.

My question to you is this: After all of these activities, are we safer now than we were four years ago?

I’d like to suggest that you look at New Orleans right now as you try to answer that question. We have experienced four years of reorganization, which were supposed to have resulted in providing us with a new, extraordinarily efficient form of response to disaster. Besides being able to predict and thus prevent many terrorist attacks, we were supposed to be able to contain the results and prevent mass destruction.

Well, we have had a disaster. It wasn’t a surprise attack by terrorists. It wasn’t an unpredictable natural disaster. In fact, I watched the development of the computer models and the projected paths of Hurricane Katrina as the storm approached, and the forecasts were extraordinarily accurate and clear. We had warning. Insofar as one can have time when a hurricane is approaching, we had time.

But if the results appear to anyone to be exceptionally efficient, if those results are what one would expect after a crash program of reorganization, training, and planning, then I would guess that person has exceptionally low standards.

The results don’t live up to the expectation.

What is the problem? How can so much energy be expended in a cause with so little in the way of positive results?

Let me suggest that what we are watching is simply all the reasons why political and social action often fail to achieve their intended results, but we’re seeing it in exceptionally large scale.

Economist Henry Hazlitt, in his little book “Economics in one Lesson” says that almost all errors in economics result from seeing issues with two narrow a view and over two short a time frame. Now there are some people who would likely claim that Hazlitt himself made a few of those errors, one of which may have been naming a book “Economics in one Lesson.” I think he had a point. But he didn’t go far enough.

I’d like to add to the principle these words: . . . and assuming that things that make us feel better necessarily solve actual problems.

Let’s apply it to politics and social action. Most errors or failures in social action result from looking at the situation from too narrow a viewpoint, over too short a time frame, and assuming that what makes us feel good necessarily solves the actual problem.

See, I’m wordy. It would take me at least two lessons to teach all of economics.

Near the end of the 1988 movie “A Fish Called Wanda” there is a wonderful scene in which a man, played by Michael Palin, who has been put upon and trodden under through the entire movie finds himself driving a steam-roller towards his now helpless tormenter, a former CIA agent played by Kevin Kline. Kline’s character has his feet stuck in setting cement. “Revenge!” cries Palin’s character as he rolls over his tormenter. Having crushed his tormentor, he finds that his stutter is cured, his self-confidence restored, and in the best tradition of comedy, he lives happily ever after. So does the steam-rollered victim, for that matter, so all’s well. Revenge accomplished, life is sweet.

But what about real life?

Does this happen in real life? Well, part of it does. After I accepted the invitation to speak today, and chose the topic, I began to feel that the universe was conspiring to provide me with illustrations. Last time I spoke here, I led with an illustration from the mouth of Pat Robertson. It seems that Pat Robertson only opens his mouth to switch feet. I really didn’t want to use him as an illustration again, but he volunteered, he really did!


Expressing his annoyance with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Pat Robertson suggested the U. S. should assassinate him. Quoting Robertson:

You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war.

As a Christian, my immediate thought was that while perhaps I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, I do recall something about a commandment somewhere or other, and then there’s Jesus’ comment that if one is even angry with someone, one has already committed murder—murder in one’s own heart.

With that in mind, consider the response of the so-called Christian right. Well, perhaps you won’t be able to consider it, because in effect there was none. It took days for anything to happen, and then the primary response was to criticize the media for jumping on Robertson for “making a mistake.” In my personal activity online, I exchanged messages in an online forum with a pastor who required several exchanges before he would even acknowledge that it would be morally wrong, and not merely a mistake, to assassinate the freely elected leader of another country.

And here I thought that was a no-brainer!

But recall again the statement of Jesus: Murderous anger is the equivalent of murder. I’ve found that many people who most loudly proclaim their intention to follow the teachings of Jesus are least likely to actually want to take those teachings seriously. Let’s see how it worked in this case.

When finally pushed to an apology, Robertson said:

“Is it right to call for assassination?” Robertson said. “No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him.”

guess it’s OK to call for an assassination as long as you’re frustrated. Please don’t let anyone suggest that a media-savvy man, trained as a minister, can accidentally call for murder. Sorry Jesus! We’ve decided to reverse your command. We’re not avoiding the murderous anger; we’re using mere frustration as an excuse!

Now you may be thinking that I’m talking about things that are far away from home. I suspect none of you are in danger of following Pat Robertson. But I want us to notice two things: This “solution” results from thinking in the short term—it suggests we get rid of one man, as though President Hugo Chavez was personally responsible for all the problems of Venezuela, or at least all the problems the United States has with Venezuela. It results from looking at the situation narrowly—there’s this guy who annoys us, so we get rid of him. We can ignore the real nature and breadth of the problem. We don’t have to answer the question of why Latin American countries tend to distrust Americans. Lastly, it solves the problem by satisfying a personal desire for revenge. It would make ole Pat feel better, but it would not really solve anything.

It would, I believe, be the equivalent of fence building

I’m actually thankful to Pat Robertson for providing this example. Sure, he’s far out. It’s a terrible thing to propose murder. But all he’s really done is taken some very common policy reactions and carried them out to their logical conclusion, stripped away their disguise, and laid them out boldly for all to see.

And it is likely that somebody in government has suggested precisely the same thing. Hopefully their plan was rejected outright.

War almost always operates in precisely the way that Pat Robertson’s statement did. I sometimes teach classes on the biblical book of Revelation. There are people all over who are seeking timelines and detailed predictions about the end of the world. They are pretty much all wrong, and their wrongness has been repeatedly demonstrated, but that doesn’t keep them from trying.

But they generally miss the point of some of the symbols. For example, there are the four horses of the apocalypse. I recently asked a class I was teaching to compare the four horses to the war in Iraq. Let me cite some key phrases to show you what I mean:

2And I looked, and there was a white horse, and the one who was sitting on him had a bow, and he was given a crown, and he came for conquering and setting out to conquer.

3And when he opened the second seal, I head the second living creature saying, “Come!” 4And another horse went out, and this one was red, and authority was given to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, so that people would kill one another, and he was given a very large sword.

5And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and there was a black horse, and the one who sat on him had a balance in his hand. 6And I heard something that was like a voice in the middle of the four living creatures saying, “A measure of wheat for a denarius and three measures of barley for a denarius, yet do not hurt the oil and the wine.”

7And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8And I saw a pale horse, and the one who sat on him was named “Death” and Hades followed along with him, and authority was given to them over the fourth part of the earth to kill with the sword and with famine and with plague, and by means of the beasts of the earth.

As the troops entered Iraq there was almost a euphoria amongst the American people. Peace activists watched the start of the war with some discouragement, as President Bush’s popularity topped 80%. The white horse was “conquering and setting out to conquer.” But who could have doubted that the traditionally “military” part of the war would be easy? Surely nobody imagined that the ragged Iraqi military was going to seriously challenge an invasion from the premier army on earth!

But shortly after we started to see the non-traditional warfare. The second horse takes peace from the earth. People began to die in substantial numbers.

The third horse impacts the economy. We didn’t see that part here in the United States as much, but the people of Iraq saw considerable hardship as means of distribution were destroyed.

The fourth horse is named Death, and Hades follows him. The fourth horse watches the count of the dead increase.

Now I’m not suggesting that the author of Revelation predicted the Iraq war. What I’m suggesting he did was tell us in literary and symbolic language what war is like. One goes into a war on the white horse, glorious, bands playing and flags flying. But before it’s over the horse is pale, we’re surrounded by death, and Hades is following. Perhaps hell is actually a human invention—but unfortunately not merely an invention of the mind, but a result of our actions.

War is building fences. It’s solving the immediate problem without looking toward the ultimate solution.

The key here again is that what we intend is not what we get.

I would suggest that unlike the story in “A Fish Called Wanda” we do not live happily ever after, our problems are not solved, and the momentary emotional high doesn’t last.

But I think as a nation we have been living the life of Michael Palin’s character.

It’s the traditional response.

When threatened by people from the Arab world we put up barriers. Sometimes barriers are necessary. But barriers help stabilize things temporarily. They don’t finally solve the problem.

After Saddam Hussein fell, who did we think was going to create a stable, lasting government in Iraq?

Once the barriers have been created, people have been arrested, terrorists have been placed in long-term storage in Guantanamo, and Americans have been identified, cataloged and tracked, we still must ask what is going to make the world better. What actually solves the problem.

We haven’t made any progress on that!

What we need to do is fundamentally change the way we think as a nation. Let me challenge you with a story of my goat Carraway.

When I was about 12 I kept goats. I had four of them, and we surrounded them with an electric fence. I will suggest that if anyone wants to keep goats, they should just invest in a solid, non-electric fence. The goats are either more determined, or in some cases more intelligent than the fence.

Carraway was more intelligent than the fence.

Three of my goats would attack the fence head on. They looked at the wires. They tested them. Eventually they would work up their courage and go straight at it. They would protest the shock, but they wouldn’t let it stop them. They looked at the fence in the traditional way, the way I wanted them to look at it.

The fourth, Carraway, took a completely different approach. She would go all around the fence, looking for places where the ground was lower, and provided more space. She would observe the fence carefully for a long time. Inevitably she would find the weakness, and then she would move her body just so, dipping ears and tail at precisely the correct moment, and she’d be out without so much as a spark from the fence.

Carraway looked at the spaces. The other goats looked at the wires. She looked at the fence in a different way than I did.

I’m challenging myself, and you, to be like that goat. Don’t be forced into looking at things from the “expected” direction. The fence maker wants you to look at the boards or the wires. Don’t get caught! Look for the spaces!

One time there was a picket fence
with space to gaze from hence to thence.

An architect who saw this sight
approached it suddenly one night,

removed the spaces from the fence,
and built of them a residence. (Source:  The Picket Fence by Christian Morgenstern)

I believe we need architects of the spaces, people who take the spaces and build with them.

This isn’t something new. There have been quite a number of architects of the spaces that I can hold up as examples. I’m going to stick with the traditions with which I’m most familiar, but there are many in other traditions as well. There’s no shortage. We just often have difficulty following them.

In the 6th century BCE the anonymous prophet scholars generally call “2nd Isaiah” proclaimed in Judaism the notion that God didn’t care just about Israel, but cared about the whole world. He took a space from the fence. The exiles who returned to Judea after the preaching of 2nd Isaiah entered into the most isolationist and exclusive period in Jewish history.

In the first century CE Jesus took another space when he said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you.” Afterward he was crucified, and his followers often have chosen to kill one another over interpretations of his words. Nonetheless many have found inspiration in his words to help them see and use the spaces.

In the 19th century, Siyyid Ali Muhammad, known as il Bab (the gate), had the idea that God wasn’t finished with the world with the revelation of the Qur’an. He believed that people of many religions could work together, that they had much in common. He was the forerunner who opened the way for Baha’ullah, founder of the Baha’i faith. He was executed, but he opened the way for a faith that still lives on.

In the 20th century, Gandhi got the idea that one could resist evil without using violence. He spent his life standing against all violence, even when engaged in by his own followers. He was assassinated, and his beloved India was divided, but he has provided an inspiration to many.

But the architects of the spaces don’t have to be important people, or do earth-shattering things.

In our living room one day there was a group of young people discussing the film “The Passion of the Christ.” They talked about how they couldn’t understand the opposition to the film. It was just telling the story of a fundamental element of their faith. I’m somewhat disengaged from time to time, and wasn’t involved, but my wife poked me in the side, “You need to say something,” she said.

So I asked the young folks to think about the picture from the Jewish point of view. I told them about the passion plays in the middle ages that would whip people into a frenzy after which they would go out and kill Jews, take their possessions and destroy their homes.

Afterward they said, “Wow! That gives us another view. I guess we need to be careful and considerate in how we speak of this!”

I took a space from the fence, and did some building with it.

When Americans were in trouble, tiny Sri Lanka gave a donation of $25,000, which they said was just symbolic. But it symbolized something very important. It said, “We’re not a country of victims, waiting for help from you more important Americans. We’re part of a world community in which nations help one another.

They grabbed one of those spaces and built with it. And there are many more examples.

In the disaster in New Orleans, I see something positive that might emerge. It’s a space from the fence that I hope we can pull out and build with. People are beginning to realize that we still have a tremendous prejudice against people who are poor. I hope this recognition will help us to change that.

Let’s take this space from the fence and build with it!

How can we make it work?

Well, I continue to challenge you to be like Carraway the goat. No matter what the forces of hate throw at you, no matter how they try to box you in, no matter what they come up with to stop you, refuse to think the way they think. Never be limited by the narrow thinking of your opponents.

Let’s frustrate the forces of hate by coming at them with love. Instead of shouting “Revenge!” as we roll over them, we can shout “Peace” as we approach, looking for a way to help.

Instead of building fences, we can find spaces.


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One thought on “Fences: Mending or Rending

  1. You had at least one smart goat. May we like her, look for the spaces in the fence and come and go at will. Fencing usually does not prevent terror because they also look for the spaces. May we run to the shepherd of our soul who provides a safe shelter for us. There is no fear as we abide IN Him.

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