Beautiful Music of Universalism: Can I See Another’s Woe? by Rev. Anthony Makar


Nineteenth-century Universalists, I learned in seminary, were preoccupied with history. They were on the outside looking in and wanted to be seen as credible by their contemporaries.

One of the ways they sought to establish credibility was to trace their roots to the beginnings of Christianity and even beyond, into the deeps of Egypt and Greece and elsewhere.

Unquestionably ancient roots would make for legitimacy.

So it is not out of Universalist character to begin this sermon by invoking the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Hierocles, who was famous in his day for describing personal identity as a series of circles, the first being one’s own mind, and then next comes one’s immediate family, and this followed by extended family, then the local community, then the community of neighboring towns, then one’s country, and then the human race. All of these circles or spheres of life, he said, make up who we are; and to the extent we bring them into our living concern—we think about them, we care for them—to that extent, we are rich in spirit, we are fulfilled.

It’s the hymn we sang earlier in today’s service:

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in my sorrow too? 
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

The only quibble we might have about Hierocles’ picture of human identity is that he does not include the largest circle of all: the interdependent web of all existence and the plant and animal beings with which we share this planet.

The woe of our earth is also something we must see, so it can be in our sorrow and we will be led to seek kind relief for it.

The Universalism in our Unitarian Universalism wants that. It wants us to grow, in conscience and caring, beyond egocentricity and towards service to increasingly larger spheres of life.

Today, I want to speak on a practical way of doing this. It’s called “lifestyle activism,” and it is one response to the woe seen in multiple larger circles of human identity. We will look at what it is, what its challenges can be, and what can help us through.

Lifestyle activism is about spending money in conscious alignment with one’s highest values, and it’s been building since the 1950s. Writer Fran Hawthorne says that “the bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement proved that consumer power could be leveraged to tear down unfair laws.” Things got somewhat off track in the 1970s and 1980s, when this power seemed co-opted by materialism and took the form of credit cards and frequent flyer clubs that shoppers could use “to turn even the most mundane purchases into a twofer, first to buy the item at hand, then to rack up points toward another goal.” But, continues Fran Hawthorne, activism reclaimed consumer power with the advent of the Internet: “Information about corporate behavior, product ingredients, product availability, scientific warnings, investment returns, and international conflicts now was widely available, shared across the globe within seconds, making mass actions easier to organize.”

Momentum has been building almost 70 years now, and today, in a time when consumer spending makes up almost two-thirds of America’s economic activity, to the tune of $8 trillion dollars annually, lifestyle activism is poised to be a source of transformative change in any number of areas of life.

One of these areas is the environment, and let’s focus in on that. And as we do, right from the start a question might form in our minds: Because the scale of environmental issues is so large, how are people’s spending choices going to make any difference whatsoever? I mean, the woe we see in nature takes the form of nothing less than climate change, dying species, wildfires, and extreme weather events (like we saw just this past week, with Chicago weather colder than the Antarctic, and Australian weather hotter than it’s ever been, at 116F). That’s what we’re facing, and what difference will personal small-scale actions to reduce one’s carbon footprint make on that? Don’t we really need top-down changes in the law, in business, and in technology first? Won’t market-based solutions, eco-friendly legislation, and developments in green technology make the biggest impact, and when that’s accomplished, that’s when people need to fall into line by choosing a vegetarian diet or switching to compact fluorescent lightbulbs or taking public transportation whenever we can or doing other small things?

Unless we clear this up right from the start, environmental-based lifestyle activism seems a non-starter.

But the confusion goes away when we really see what lifestyle activism is all about. Lifestyle activism is ultimately about integrity. “For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives,” says environmentalist Michael Pollen, “this suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do.” And then he says, “Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place.”

When personal integrity is at stake, you just do what you are going to do and stop worrying about large-scale consequences.

Same thing goes when you’re being clear about your values, and you’re not waiting on someone else to define them for you.

There’s real power to this. We see the woe in the world, and we act out of integrity and out of our values. We don’t have to wait for others to change. Of course we want laws and business and technology to change. But we don’t have to wait until they do.

This is empowering! Lifestyle activism is empowering!

Universalism wants to put everyone on this path!

But—every rose has its thorn.

What if, when you see the woe, you feel completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the healing work involved?

Fran Hawthorne explores this at length in her book entitled, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism.

Does the title of that book resonate with you?

She starts out with some shtick that sounds a whole lot like Jeff Foxworthy:

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you hide the snack you brought to the playground for your five-year-old—even though it’s healthful and nonsugary—because, oh my God, you forgot you were supposed to boycott that food company.

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you drive five miles out of your way and pay 30 percent more to buy a screwdriver at the little independent hardware store, just to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart.

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you try to calculate your carbon emissions in driving that extra five miles, versus the carbon footprint you would cause by turning on your computer to order the same screwdriver online.

“You might be an overloaded liberal if … you stand in line for ten minutes debating whether to buy imported organic blueberries or local nonorganic.

As the hymn says,

Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Yes, but what if closing the gap between grief and relief is far more complicated than initially thought?

One reason has to do with information.

Sometimes there’s not enough. It’s going to a restaurant but the menu says nothing about which foods are local, or organic, or what farming methods were used. Eating at most restaurants poses exactly this kind of problem. Not enough information to make a values-based decision.

Then there’s the opposite problem. Too much information. Too many balls to juggle, even for experts like Michael Pollan. There’s a book out there entitled 100 Everyday Ways You Can Contribute to a Healthier Planet. There’s another book out there entitled 250 Tips for an Eco Lifestyle. There’s yet a third book out there entitled 1001 Ways to Save the Earth. “Wait a second,” says Fran Hawthorne. “Am I supposed to do ONE HUNDRED or TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY or ONE THOUSAND AND ONE things just for the environment? And that’s not counting all the other causes I care about.”

It can make a good Unitarian Universalist scream!

An additional reason that lifestyle activism is challenging—perhaps the more difficult reason—is that what is good for one identity circle isn’t necessarily good for another. I don’t know if Hierocles, thousands of years ago, saw this. Mind and heart, immediate family, extended family, local community, extended community, country, world, earth, interdependent web of all existence—they don’t all necessarily agree on what is best.

Says Fran Hawthorne, “Among the issues we liberals juggle—the ingredients in the things we buy, the energy that was used to produce them, the companies that make them, the stores from which we buy them, the means by which we travel to those stores, the companies we invest in, the impact on the planet, the impact on animals, the impact on our bodies—we almost never think about the workers who manufacture, grow, fix, ship, and sell the stuff in our lives.”

Is Fran Hawthorne right? Do we see the woe of the earth but neglect to see the woe of laborers? Is this what classism looks like?

For too many people, the fact that Whole Foods is viciously anti-union is less irritating than the fact that it is so expensive.

How is this so?

Wal-Mart is setting up incredibly ambitious green goals, making this a selling point with the public—even as it continues to be faced with major lawsuits alleging sex discrimination, together with illegally denying workers their mandatory breaks and forcing them to work without pay. Somehow, going green is seen as a more decisive selling point than going pro-labor.

How can this be?

The path of lifestyle activism is a complicated, challenging path, and at times, to heal one kind of woe is to create another kind of woe elsewhere. The healing work is complex like this and also in other ways.

And this is exactly the point at which we can experience one of the biggest tensions between the two different sides of our one Unitarian Universalist faith.

The Unitarian side—particularly in the 19th century—used to have this slogan: “Salvation by character.” Salvation was something you earned by good works, including going to all the right schools, reading all the right books, making all the right friends, shopping at all the right places. The assumption was that you had sufficient control over your world so that, despite the worst life threw at you, you could make things work.

You were ultimately in charge.

It is a theology of the wealthy, the lucky, the privileged.

When Universalism’s finest preacher, Hosea Ballou, caught wind of this Unitarian slogan and this theology, he immediately wrote an article entitled, “Salvation Irrespective of Character” and proclaimed how salvation was not something anyone could earn by works. In an uncertain, challenging, unlucky, way-too-complex world, only a gracious God could secure our salvation and secure our inherent worth and dignity and it did not matter what books a person read or where they did their shopping. You try to do your best in life anyhow, said Ballou, not because you’re aiming to escape hell and aiming to earn your right to deserve love (either here or in the hereafter) but because God or nature plants that natural impulse in you, and fulfilling that natural impulse brings you joy.

There is no question you want to try, and to care.

So let your joy lead you.

So from all this we can see that it’s the Unitarian in us who panics and freezes up when facing the mind-blowing complexity of the healing work we’re called to. It should trouble us like this only if we are deep in our privilege and feel that we should have everything under control.

At a time like these, if we don’t cling to Universalism, we’ll crash. Only in Universalism’s modesty are we going to find the resilience to continue showing up to the work of seeking kind relief for the woes that we see.

Only Universalism gives us ears to really hear these great words from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

So what if the work is tough? All we can do is

Show up.
Pay attention. 
Do what we can. 
Let go.

So let’s do that.

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