© Mark Rahman 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 17, 2008

After the last presidential election, I thought I saw a familiar pattern. There were all the states divided into blue and red in a very sectional way. They looked like a map I had seen before and that map was of the blue and gray. People were continuing a war more than one hundred and forty years later. The north central, northeast, and west are the blue states. The sparsely settled agrarian states are the red states. The same states, fighting fiercely, over the same issues.

Some similarities and differences are not of the important variety. The names of the parties have changed or switched. Democrats in the north and republicans in the south. We went to war then and are at war again now. One hundred and forty years ago, it was a new kind of war, full of new technology. This was the first modern war that nobody had experience fighting. The Civil War had the greatest loss of life in any war that the United States has ever fought. Ten times more than the Vietnam War, with a much smaller population. That a tall standard bearer rose with no national standing out of Illinois to gain his party's nomination, both times, is not the issue that should concern us today. These are coincidences that occur throughout history more for amusement than edification.

The main issue that ties the Civil War to our modern conflict is race. One hundred and forty years ago it was slavery, its spread and its future. Now it is civil rights, worker rights, access to real citizenship, and freedom from fear. The same groups, much complicated by other issues, hold the same positions and fight the same political battles, using the same slogans. States' Rights still resounds around the political battlefields rallying the troops for a cause that has nothing to do with freedom from centralized control. When one party nominates a person of color who then polls many points behind the whole of the party, there is only the conclusion that race plays a part in the decisions of the electorate. Any analysis must show that an entire population of people, chosen out only by skin color, live shorter lives, under greater duress, greater calamity and suffering. The red state cause is to keep this situation in place even though there is no direct economic incentive, such as slavery, to do so.

Further indicating how the Civil War is like our time is the polarized nature of the present confrontation. There is no compromise that any side will accept from the other. Lines have been drawn and are steadfast. The contest has been pushed to a winner take all where the minimum of the other side is too much to bear. There can be no compromise. For the Civil War, the cause of the south was the extension of slavery, not just its protection in the states where it already existed. Lincoln extended an offer to leave slavery untouched in the south, nevertheless the Richmond Enquirer declared Lincoln was "possessed only of his inveterate hatred of slavery and his openly avowed predilections for negro equality." In the south they knew what the fight was about and that it was about control and not chivalrous notions of freedom. The question was whether a society based on free or unfree labor would continue as neither was safe as a system while the other existed. Free is in quotes here, meaning only that a person could not be owned, but might otherwise be controlled. The problem we have today is that the war itself decided the question of slavery, and nothing more.

Since the Civil War, a whole history of struggle for equality between the races has come and gone. Marches, court cases, sit-ins, walkouts, boycotts, organizing. People of all colors have served and died in our wars, certainly earning some right of acceptance.

Tragically, after one hundred and forty years, seven full score, we have not been able to progress beyond the core conflict in spite of the carnage that was endured. The willingness to acknowledge equality is greater with more people, now than then. Still, I am not convinced that a majority of the country holds the value of equal rights. And the willingness has not won the day by any stretch. Are we, as a nation, so dull-witted that after all this time we can't tell what the future must bring, the costs that the country bears, or what a burden we send to our children? Can a hundred and forty years bring so little wisdom?

Perhaps the fact that we learn so little after so long a time can tell us something about ourselves. It just may be that we are born to a condition that divides the world into we and they. The cause is possibly genetic, directly or indirectly, or possibly the way the mind develops early on in a society of people. Human beings naturally divide up the world. We have done so throughout time. Not all divisions have terrible consequence, but many do. One example of division includes race. And there are others: religion, gender, caste, sexual preference, all of GLBQT, language, nationality, ethnicity, culture, age, tribe, politics, class, disability, musical style, economic system; the word "radical" applied to any of the foregoing, your school, weight, family lineage, physical illness, mental illness, hair length, food restrictions, civilized or not, free or slave, education, job, locality... The list can be extended, I am sure. Some of the divisions may imply membership in another. No one has every division in their mental toolkit. No one has none. That we have them may be born to us, but which ones they are is learned behavior. When we have demarcated the world in our minds, we have created the other. This is instinct that we cannot control. How we behave thereafter is possibly within us to manage.

Who is this "other"? How does someone become "the other"? "The other" will have different laws, be held to different standards, and generally not be allowed to succeed. "The other" needs to be something involved in the maintaining of a hierarchy. The Romans were able to discriminate on many bases, but they did not seem to do so based on race. Their slave population was from all around the Mediterranean world. It was non-citizens who were not well thought of. The economic system was based on slavery and tribute. Keeping the system going required a great number of individuals whom the larger population was willing to help keep in line - individuals who would be "the other."

Not all people advocate this way of dealing with "the other." Jesus recounted the following parable of the Good Samaritan:

"But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor? Jesus answered, "A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, 'Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.' Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?" He said, "He who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
2,000 years ago we were encouraged to treat people according to their deeds, not their affiliation. It is not so easy to simply follow a command and change one's internal structure.

Now many of us believe that education is able to overcome baser instincts. Sometimes it might. I do not know that education helped me as much as experience. How many people thought they understood sexual orientation until a family member came out of the closet and would then have to rethink everything they thought they knew. Generally, someone who was loved could not be a monster and therefore the concept of monster must die. I have also changed my concepts of mental illness and race over the years due to family experience. Not withstanding a decent education full of the best intentions, there is a grave difference between knowing and understanding. So how to proceed? We cannot trust our own senses with any certainty. We hope we do well. And yet any of us could easily turn someone else, without meaning to, into "the other." A stray thought left over from years in the past once uttered may cause pain.

Let me first say I have no answers. However, we can start with a guide from the ideals that we as UUs covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

That is a good way to start if we can convert these ideals to plain English that means something to each of us. There is also the 'Golden Rule' found in different versions in many cultures. From the Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."

What we confront is akin to a chronic disease that we cannot tell that we have, is difficult to treat, and has no cure. We know that it will be with us for our life, that we will not understand it completely, that there will be complications, side effects, and daily checking on our condition. What to do more, I do not know. We are not evil. We try our best. But anything that hangs on in a single form for over a century is pretty strongly entrenched. But beware of taking up a simple vendetta against the enemy. There are those who divide the world intentionally to take advantage of others. And people respond in an ill fashion to being under attack. When attacked, we do not experience conversion. We become more intrenched. The temptation to presume one's own perfection or superiority by attacking others can be very strong. In so doing we can become the evil, intolerant enemy. Keep to the idea that all of us, the just and the unjust alike, are part of the interconnected web of existence. Remember Pogo's warning, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

There are some encouraging points. In two years, Lincoln took a country that accepted slavery in the south to endorsing the Emancipation Proclamation. A hundred years, later Lyndon Johnson led a coalition effort to pass civil rights legislation. We just had a major electoral competition between a woman and a black American. Whatever your thoughts about either, it means that a large number of people put aside some prejudice, if not all, in order to be involved.

Are we evil by original sin?

Are we powerless?

Is the pattern of social dichotomy too ingrained for us to deal with?

Are we to give up and do nothing?

Must we demand perfection of ourselves or anyone in order to pass muster?

We must recognize our condition. We must put will to effort. And recognize that our given span of time is much less than what has already passed since the great conflagration that passed over our land. Our duty is simply to carry forward the work and recognize the enormity and the reality of the task, within and without. It is not a happy thing to admit that an end is not in sight, but seeing in the struggle the activity of a lifetime will make us part of a larger being. We will come to know that beyond this hill is yet another and the journey itself is the goal. Defeat is not failure, success is not victory.

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