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A sermon by Rick Richards for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, June 28, 2009

On Seeking Common Ground

SPOKEN and SILENT MEDITATION: On the idea of a just, sustaining community Many months ago I was busily reading a book called “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill for book group. It’s a story about a youngish Dutch man, married to an English woman. They have made a career enhancing move to New York and are there on 9/11. 9/11 has a devastating impact—they separate, the wife goes back to London and the protagonist stays in New York.

Professionally, the protagonist seems to be doing fine, but personally he is a mess. He isolates himself in his hotel room and is unable to participate in life.

But one day he is out of his room traveling around the city and spies a cricket field. It turns out he is a cricket player—who knew the Dutch played cricket—and he is drawn back to the spot and joins a cricket team.

Now, the people in New York who play cricket tend to be from the West Indies, India, or Pakistan and they tend to be recent immigrants, so they are driving cab, hustling a buck, and in many ways are different from our protagonist who is an oils futures analyst.

It doesn’t matter—they play cricket together and they connect in ways that are simultaneously supportive and rickety.

At one point in the book, the protagonist is looking at a cricket game and thinks:

“I’ve heard that social scientists like to explain such a scene—a patch of America sprinkled with the foreign-born strangely at play—in terms of the immigrant’s quest for sub communities.

But surely everyone can also testify to another, less reckonable kind of homesickness, one having to do with unsettlements that cannot be located in spaces of geography or history; and accordingly it’s my belief that the communal, contractual phenomenon of New York cricket is underwritten, there where the print is finest, by the same agglomeration of unspeakable individual longings that underwrites cricket played anywhere.

I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice.” Really—people play cricket out of an unspeakable longing for an environment of justice?

I pondered this proposition and came to the conclusion that we all have homesickness—an unspeakable longing—for an environment in which we are treated, and know how to treat others, justly.

At a very obvious level, games like cricket make this possible because they define what is fair—and what is not—in ways that everyone in the game knows and practices. There is an unspoken compact to know the rules and to play by the rules that is the common ground necessary to create an environment of justice. This is at least part of the common ground upon which cricket is played.

But let’s try another level. Let’s assume we have a community in which people agree to know the rules and to play by the rules. Then what’s left is to play the game.

The rules make you eligible to be a member of the community, but it’s playing that makes you a member of that community.

When you play a game, whether its cricket, knitting, debating or whatever, you are performing. You are pushing your skills and knowledge in ways others who play the game understand.

And, when you do something better than you have done it before, not only do you experience elation, but the people who are in the game with you do as well. This is because those people understand what you have achieved. The members of your community—those who are in the game with you—understand what you have done and this understanding satisfies the “unspeakable individual longings” to know and be known by one another.

Let us think about our unspeakable individual longings to live in justice, and to live side by side with people who share our sense of value of just order. And, let us think about our unspeakable individual longings to live with others who know us, who understand when we do something well, and who help us do better.

SPOKEN and SILENT MEDITATION: On the idea of a scrupulous, supportive state One of the experiences that I didn’t want--but got anyway--was a lifetime witnessing war in the Mid-east. Or almost a lifetime--I was born in 1946 and the first Arab-Israeli war began in 1948.

For reasons I can’t fully articulate, this conflict frightens and disturbs me deeply and I read lots about what is going on there.

Not long ago I was reading an article in the New York Review of Books about the Isreali-Palestinean conflict and I found myself reading what seemed to me a limpidly clear passage about just war theory. Let me share some of what it said. “The point of just war theory is to regulate warfare, to limit its occasions, and to regulate its conduct and legitimate scope.

Wars between states should never be total wars between nations or peoples. Whatever happens to the two armies involved, whichever one wins or loses, whatever the nature of the battle or the extent of the casualties, the two nations, the two peoples, must be functioning communities at the war’s end. The war cannot be a war of extermination or ethnic cleansing.

From “Israel: Civilians and Combatants” by Avishai Margalit and Michael Walzer Think for a minute about the opening sentence of this passage, “The point of just war theory is to regulate warfare, to limit its occasions, and to regulate its conduct and legitimate scope.”

I find it stupendously interesting to entertain the idea that something as ethereal as a theory could have any influence on tanks, jets, unmanned drones, or nuclear weapons.

I wondered about this—where can just war theory possibly get any power to influence the real world?

One answer is that, like any theory, just war theory gets its power from its appeal to an ideal.

More precisely, it is an appeal to an ideal that goes something like this, “Can we all agree that it would be better if there was something left over after the war ended?”

So part of the answer about the source of power of just war theory lies in the identification of common ground—a compelling ideal we embrace without persuasion. Here, the common ground is the possibility of human life after war—pretty compelling, I would say.

Articulating this ideal helped me recognize that part of what disturbs me so deeply about the Mid-east conflicts is the possibility that there will not be any human life after the war, or that human life will be so mangled that it is irretrievably damaged. I am disturbed by a threat I feel to a piece of common ground I consider sacred.

There is a second source of power for this theory. All theories are based on the idea that people do not have to act in accordance with their first and most basic reactions—fight or flight. All theory—because it goes beyond flight or flight and enters the world of thought and contemplation--creates alternatives and from these alternatives, other alternatives.

In other words, the very nature of theory is to open up possibility. When we enter the world of theory, we can create and enlarge the options--we just need to calm down, to be patient, to think.

I recognize this as another piece of common ground, the common ground of possibility as opposed to limitation. I see that part of what I find so disturbing in the Middle East conflict is the sense of being locked into an unbreakable cycle in which there are no alternatives. Again, I am disturbed by a threat I feel to a piece of common ground I consider sacred. Let us think for a minute about the kinds of common ground we need our states to help us create and preserve.

Let us think of the common ground in which life is the primary value and all consideration is in relation to how to enhance the ways we live. Let us think of the common ground in which possibility is always explored and action is only taken when there is clarity about which of the many possibilities open to us have the best chance of enhancing the ways we live.

SPOKEN and SILENT MEDITATION: On the idea that our highest purpose is to adventure

Last year I found myself in a middle social studies classroom listening to a lesson on the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was fascinating. First of all, it happened in the infancy of our county, which, in 1803, was not even 30 years old when Meriwether Lewis was commissioned to lead this expedition. !803—that’s a long time ago. Tomas Jefferson, only our third president, was in the first term of his presidency and the entire population of our country was 5.3 million people.

Thomas Jefferson wanted to know whether there was an inland water way across the United States.

The idea was that, if you went up the Missouri River, you would come to a large body of water that was the origin of the river. You would cross this body of water and find, on the other side, the headwaters of the Columbia River, which people knew came out in the Pacific Ocean.

So, in the spring of 1803, Meriwether Lewis began training to lead the expedition and, almost a year later, in May 14, 1804, the expedition left St. Louis and began traveling up the Missouri River.

By the end of July they had traveled 600 miles without seeing a single human. Think about that—three months and 600 hundred miles up a major river and no one. I find that just a little spooky.

By September, 1804, the expedition entered the Great Plains and began to see animals never seen in the East. Notably, they describe the gigantic herds of buffalo that once roamed the Great Plains—endless seas of creatures that churn up the ground and suicidally hurl themselves into waterfalls by the hundreds.

They reached what is now North Dakota in November and built a fort to shelter the winter over. It’s a good thing that they did because the temperatures reached 45 degrees below zero. Because they were by now among hostile Indians they have to post guards continuously, but it is so cold they have to be relieved every half hour.

In August the expedition found the headwaters of the Missouri and discovered there was no Northwest Passage. But Lewis was not disappointed. He wrote “the road took us to the most distant fountain of the waters of the Mighty Missouri in search of which we have spent so many toilsome days and restless nights thus far. I had accomplished one of those great objects on which my mind has been unalterably fixed for many years

I’m not going to tell you much more about the expedition. If this whets your thirst, it’s easy to find materials and the National Geographic has a nice web site devoted to the topic.

As we all know, they did reach the mouth o the Columbia, spent a miserable winter there and then returned, arriving back in St. Louis in September of 1805. So what’s the point here? What’s the big picture? After all, America is no longer pristine wilderness, so what does this episode in our history have to say to us?

First, I think it says that people generate incredible power when they work towards a shared goal, ambition, purpose--whatever you want to call it. Without a grand organizing scheme, no one would have gone up the Missouri, across the Rockies and down the Columbia. There were all sorts of people traveling in those days, but they took shorter trips dictated by smaller senses of purpose—trading, trapping, homesteading and so on. Second, I think it says that nothing grand is accomplished without solving lots of little and sometimes big problems--all the time. You don’t get to the Pacific coast without figuring out how to get past hostile Indians, how to live through a bitter winter, or how to kill grizzly bears. So, let us think about this—to be successful on a grand scale requires a grand vision and continual ingenuity. This is what it means to live your life as an adventure.

But let us also be aware that we don’t need an uncharted continent in order to have a grand vision or to exercise continual ingenuity. Let us consider all the ways life offers us opportunities to live our life as an adventurer.