25th Annual Pipes Lecture: "Seeing the Garden, Not Just the Wall"

Delivered October 25, 2016 by the Rev. William F. Schulz, President Emeritus, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
Twenty-five years ago I was honored to deliver the first Pipes Lecture coincident with Ernie’s and Maggie’s retirement from your ministry.  I have no idea what I talked about but then neither do any of you, including those of you who were there.  I am certain, however, that I sang the praises of Ernie and Maggie Pipes, Ernie because there has been no minister of my acquaintance for whom I have greater respect than he; and Maggie because Maggie was—well, Maggie:  a fireball; a seeker of justice; lover of life; a peach.  Maggie helped get me elected President of the UUA by running my campaign here in the Pacific Southwest.  I remember having dinner with Ernie and Maggie during the course of that campaign and, toward the end of the evening, Maggie and Ernie got into a bit of a tiff over something—probably some political issue where Maggie was taking a far left position and Ernie only a left-wing position.  In any case, Maggie issued a long and eloquent soliloquy about whatever was bothering her and, when she finally paused for breath, Ernie looked at her and, in that preternaturally calm way of his, said, “Yup.”  That inevitably prompted an even more fervent soliloquy from Maggie to which, once again, Ernie replied, “Yup.”  I loved Maggie’s passion and I loved Ernie’s “Yup.”
Of course Ernie has had much more to say than that, much of it on behalf of those who suffer, but the wisdom of his restraint, his “Yup,” no doubt had something to do with his serving a 35-year tenure in the same church.  That’s almost unheard of in our ministry but Ernie obviously learned that the best ministers are also exceptionally skilled politicians.  Now I know that politicians do not have the best of reputations, especially this year, though, as long as we’re disparaging politicians, I would point out that a it was a Massachusetts senator and not any of our current Presidential candidates who went on statewide radio a number of years ago and declared in loud and fervent tones, “The Republican octopus is spreading its testicles across the entire Commonwealth.”  But I am not talking about that kind of politician.  The political philosopher T. V. Smith caught the spirit of what I have in mind when he said, “It is the job of the politician to keep the saints and their respective followers from slaughtering one another over matters of moral principle.”  Or, as the great New York Yankees’ manager Casey Stengel put it, “The secret of a great baseball manager is to keep the three guys who hate your guts away from the five guys who are undecided.”   That’s true for ministers too so Ernie must have been a great politician. 
And no doubt it was his great skills, political and otherwise, that bequeathed such a fine church to his successors but I’m willing to bet that, even more important than his restraint and his political skills, it was the fact that he managed year after year to provide his congregants a reason to hope.  It sounds pretty simple, I know, but if a minister has no conviction of hope, it is awfully difficult to sustain oneself, much less one’s congregation.
So I’m going to talk this afternoon about hope and specifically hope in the face of the horrors and disappointments and just plain stupidity that plagues our world and that we learn about almost every day—the slaughter in Syria; the xenophobia in Europe and the United States; the inexorable threat of climate change.  
Now I am interested in the subject of hope for two reasons—first, because I am often tempted, as I expect so many of us are, to have so little of it.  I sometimes feel like Charlie Brown did when Lucy once said to him, “Charlie Brown, in the Great Cruise Ship of Life, some people place their deck chairs to the fore and look at what’s coming and others place theirs to the aft and look at what’s past.  In the Great Cruise Ship of Life, Charlie Brown, which way is your deck chair facing?”   And Charlie Brown replied, “In the Great Cruise Ship of Life, I’m one of those who can’t get my deck chair unfolded.”
But I am also interested in hope because I am sometimes, against all odds, so filled with it.  When I was at Amnesty International, the question I was asked repeatedly for twelve years was simply this:  “Given all the horror and carnage that you encounter in your work every day—torture, rape, murder--how do you retain any sense of optimism, of hope, about human nature and the human future?”  But, you know, I did and I do.  Let me tell you why.
And let me begin by acknowledging very directly the case against hope.  The truth is that the world is full of endless folly and enervating evil.  I don’t think I have to convince you of that or even give you examples.  The human race may well render the planet uninhabitable; human beings harm each other grievously.  Hope does not always win and justice does not always prevail.  
But when we consider the broader human enterprise, the shape of history, I think there is a 60-40 case to be made for hope, for the possibility that the human spirit is not inevitably tainted by ignorance and ignominy.  One reason has to do with the nature of power and social change.  And two others have to do with characteristics of being human.
I was ordained forty-one years ago and what Cardinal John Patrick Foley’s mother said of him might well be said of me.  Cardinal Foley grew up in Connecticut but he was for many years the chief spokesperson for the Vatican and a connoisseur of Italian food.  When he returned to the United States after several years in Rome, his mother took one look at him and said, “John, there were twenty pounds of you that were not ordained.”  
But I am interested not in how my girth has changed in those forty years but in how the world has.  In 1975 about a third of the countries in the world were democratic; today more than three-quarters of the world’s countries are putative democracies.  In the first 75 years of the twentieth century only four women served as heads of state.  Since then there have been 41 more and maybe a 42nd on the way.  In 1975 nobody knew there was even such a thing as global warming; today it is on the lips of a multituide.  In 1975 it would have been impossible to imagine a world without an Iron Curtain or an apartheid South Africa or a battle-scarred Northern Ireland or to imagine a United States with an African American President.
How did these things—and many others I could mention—how did they change and change for the better?
When I was in graduate school, I wore these pants every day for four years.  I wore them proudly and without embarrassment.  In fact, I was the envy of the University of Chicago campus.  But why is it that not a single graduate student in the United States would be caught dead wearing pants like these today?  It is because fashion norms change and as norms change, so does the configuration of power. 
Over the past forty years—indeed, since the end of World War II--we have seen a radical shift in global norms—a shift in the direction of greater openness to diverse voices, of a more equitable distribution of power and, contrary to everything we think we know intuitively, a significant reduction in violence.  Of course it’s true that global poverty remains stubbornly unmitigated; that Israelis and Palestinians still haunt each other’s dreams; and that corporate profits still favor the 1%.  As one of the protest signs of the Occupy Movement put it, “Nobody with 4 aces asks the dealer to deal again.”  But if we follow the advice of one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Baruch Spinoza, who said, in effect, “Always take the view from eternity;’ if we take the long view; if we consider that just 250 years ago virtually no one opposed slavery; no one supported universal suffrage; no one opposed the subjugation of women; and today no reputable person would support any of them; if we take this perspective; if we look at human history not, in Aldous Huxley’s famous phrase, as “one damn thing after another,” but if we see it in its totality, it is impossible to argue credibly that on balance humankind has not made enormous progress.
Could the human race regress?  Absolutely, and inevitably we will.  We all may go back to wearing turquoise paisley pants.  Is progress guaranteed?  Absolutely not.  History is not fated or determined to move in any particular direction, good or bad.  But thus far and on balance the shift in norms and hence in power has been largely in a progressive direction.  The radical journalist I. F. Stone put it this way, “The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose.  Because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until the day when somebody who believes as you do finally wins.”   When we look at history, the odds in favor of hope are at least at 60-40.
But perhaps all this is a bit too esoteric to be of real comfort.    So let me offer you two more practical reasons for hope in the human enterprise, both of which emerge from my observations of human beings.
The first is an observation about human resilience.  When the British began trying in earnest to climb Mount Everest, the Tibetans who served as their porters were dumbfounded.  Tibetans have no word for the summit of the mountain and, when they saw the great sacrifices the British were making, losing limbs to frostbite and their lives to falls, one of their high lamas said, “I felt great compassion for them to suffer so much for such meaningless work.”
But one of the great privileges of my life has been to come to know so many people who suffered so much for such important work.  What has always astonished me about those I have known who were victims of human rights abuses was that, if they survived death threats or years of unjust imprisonment or torture, it was because they never gave up.  They endured greater suffering than you and I could ever imagine; they sustained deep wounds, often scarred for life both emotionally and physically, but time after time they were prepared to be re-engaged in the struggle for justice.   What stubbornness, what devotion does it take to have your two little girls kidnapped by Guatemalan death squads; then murdered; to not be able twenty years later to speak of them without tears, but to become an outspoken advocate for other people’s human rights.  That is the story of one of my most effective staff members at Amnesty International. 
Nick Yarris spent twenty-three years in prison for a murder he did not commit.  When he was released and was asked how he felt, he said, “What are my choices?  I could be really devastated and angry and let them continue to own me or I could have fun.  [Having fun] sounds better…The lowest insult would be if I came out destroyed, a broken man…My survival technique was to become a good man.”
Perez Aguirre was tortured mercilessly in a South American prison.  Many years later, walking along the street, he ran into the man who had tortured him.  The torturer was now among those being prosecuted and he tried to avoid Aguirre’s gaze.  But Aguirre took the initiative.  “How are you?” he asked his torturer.  The man said he was very depressed.  There was a long pause and then Aguirre said, “If you need anything, come to see me.”  And then he said, “Shake hands, friend.  I forgive you.”
The resilience of the human spirit is so profound that I would be guilty of the worst form of narcissism if I gave up hope in human transformation when so many others who have seen humanity at its worst have managed not to.
But of course heroes and heroines are very rare.  Few of us display that kind of resilience in the face of agony.  But what large numbers of us are capable of feeling is another’s pain.  If resilience is unusual, generosity is commonplace.
A few months after the horrendous genocide in Rwanda in 1994, a team of so-called reconciliation experts went to that tattered country to help the Tutsis, 800,000 of whom had just been slaughtered by members of the Hutu tribe, to begin the process of healing and forgiveness.  For several hours the experts conducted their training, inviting members of the village from different tribes, to share their feelings with one another.  But finally one of the village elders said, “You know, all this is good but what we really need in this village is a bus.”  The reconciliation experts were taken aback.   “Yes,” they said, “perhaps the village does need a bus but we’re here to talk about far more serious things than that.”  But the elder persisted, “We need a bus,” he said, and soon all the villagers were chanting, “A bus.  A bus.”  Finally one of the women in the group explained.  “We need a bus,” she said, “that will start its route in the Hutu part of the region and then drive to the Pygmy part and then to the Tutsi part and then back again and we want to design the seats of the bus so that all seats face one another and we want to have a rule that no one may sit beside a person from their own tribe and we want to have conductors who one day are Hutu and the next day are Pygmy and the next day are Tutsi.  And by the way, we want all the conductors to be women.”
There are many reasons that I agreed to become President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee but the most important one is because UUSC makes it so easy for every one of us to be generous of heart.  And to stand side by side with the less fortunate.  And to be innovative.  And to be nimble.  And to do all that for a very modest amount of money.  I’m going to give you just one example.
Three years ago I traveled to Burma—what is now known as Myanmar.  When I was at Amnesty, I wouldn’t have been allowed in but this time I received a visa at the airport on my arrival.  I drove four hours northeast of Mandalay into villages so remote one had never even seen a foreigner before.  I went there because UUSC had started twelve credit unions in collaboration with a network of Buddhist monasteries.  Before that happened, the villagers paid 25% to a middle man when they needed to borrow money.  But now each week the women of the village go to the monastery and deposit their $1.00 or $1.50 into the credit union and they earn 4% interest.  Some of you may want to consider shifting your investments.  Today there are 300 villages being served by UUSC credit unions and, you know what?  Now that Burma is becoming more open politically, those credit unions are becoming centers for political organizing.  One village, for example, got sick of the military coming in and stealing their sand so the credit union wrote a letter to the local paper and, astonishingly, seeing the village united, the military stopped stealing the sand.  No one can understand what UUSC is doing and not feel hope in the human future.
Oh, yes, I know.  Many of those who commit the most horrible crimes suffer no       remorse.  Believe me, I know.  I think it was Heinrich Himmler who said, “It was a terrible thing we had to do—killing people every day and then going home to our children.  We are the ones you should feel sorry for,” Yes, I know.
But far, far more people are touched by the sight of the injured, moved by the fate of the fallen, and prepared, when their leaders be wise and their laws be just, to extend their hands to the helpless and their hearts to the hopeless.
We need not be among the hopeless, my friends.   For the sweep of history carries promise of our redemption, powered as it is, sustained as it is, by both resilience and compassion.  Those are the reasons for hope: faithful, relentless, undaunted, courageous. That is why I have chosen not to give up on the human project.  “What we need is a bus.”    60-40 may not be the best odds in the world but when you consider what we’re up against, I’ll take them any day and so should you.  
And then there is one final reason to hope and that is this…  
Walls seem to be in the news a lot lately—the Hungarians have built one along their border to keep Syrian refugees out and a certain orange-haired candidate for President keeps promising to build a beautiful one on our southern border.  When Israel built its wall along the Green Line to separate itself from the West Bank, Hani Amer, a Palestinian farmer found that the wall would cut right through his property so he petitioned the Israelis to preserve his land and, to his surprise, they did--by building a loop in the wall around his garden and erecting a gate that he can pass through for 15 minutes every 24 hours to tend his olive, fig, apple, peach and plum trees.  It’s hardly an ideal solution but, when Hani was asked how he managed to keep up his spirits, he replied very simply:  “Instead of seeing the wall,” he said, “I concentrate on seeing the garden.” And that’s what every purveyor of hope does, what Ernie did for the 41 years of his active ministry, and what keeps hope alive for the rest of us.  We know of course that the wall is there but we never take our eyes off the garden.  And how can we not find hope and solace and treasure and peace in a world that could produce an Ernie and Maggie Pipes who spent and have spent their lives never taking their eyes off the garden?
102216pipeslecture.mp319.43 MB