First Universalist Society in Franklin

Fear and Faith

“Fear and Faith” 

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Carol Rosine

On January 31, 2016

At the First Universalist Society in Franklin, MA


In yesterday’s Milford News, the columnist, Dana Milbank, writes about an 85 year old Auschwitz survivor, Irene Weiss, who is worried about her adopted homeland.  “I am exceptionally concerned about demagogues.  The touch me in a place that I remember.  I know their influence and, unfortunately, I know how receptive audiences are to demagogues and what it leads to.”  Mr. Milbank goes on, “She knows better than just about any person alive.  The Czech-born Jew lost her parents and most of her siblings in Hitler’s death camps.  Now, when she hears about plans to register Muslims and to ban Muslims from entering the United States, she says, ‘I’m worried about the tone of this country.’  To her, the ugly political environment in 2016 has an ominous precedent.  ‘It has echoes,” she says, “and maybe more so to me than to native-born Americans.  I’m scared.  I don’t like the trend.  I don’t like how many people are applauding when they hear these demagogues.  It can turn.’”   Another Holocaust survivor says, “When you see these mass rallies…, you wonder:  How are they buying into this message of hate?  Thinking that Germany was somehow unique is wrong.”


I know that a lot of you share my concern about what’s happening out on the campaign trail with the level of hate-filled, anger-filled rhetoric from candidates, but even more so, like the Holocaust survivors, is my concern about the masses of people who are cheering them on.   Perhaps you read an article written by Matthew MacWilliams, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at U Mass Amherst.  He was interested in finding out what most defines those who support Mr. Trump, so he conducted a national poll at the end of December and found out that it is not gender, race, income, religiosity, or education levels, but instead it is authoritarianism.    “Authoritarians obey.  They rally to and follow strong leaders, and they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially if they feel threatened.  From pledging to ‘make America great again’ by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Mr. Trump is playing directly into authoritarian inclinations  in a climate in which there is a lot of anxiety and fear.  And it is this anxiety and fear, especially the fear of terrorism, that is the second predictor of which candidate people will support.”  The authoritarian who uses the language of fear.


The book that has dominated my reading most recently is Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Character.  It is 700 carefully documented pages written by this psychology professor at Harvard in which he concludes that we are living in the most peaceful and non-violent time in history.  In spite of international and national terrorism, in spite of what is happening in Syria and other troubled places in the world, in spite of school shootings and the ubiquitous presence of guns, we are living in the most non-violent time in history.  For most of us, he says, our daily lives are untouched by abductions, rape, and murder.  And yet, the fear of terrorism is rampant within our borders.


Professor Pinker builds his case for the way in violence has decreased in our time by starting with humanity’s pre-history,  when humans were hunters and gatherers and then he goes on to  trace how these tribes of people became agriculturally based which led to the formation of cities with governments, a process that took place over 5000 years.  This was the period of time described in the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Hebrew Bible.  It was a time of human sacrifice to appease the gods, a time of mass exterminations upon the demand of a jealous god, of cruel punishments like hanging on a cross, coliseums where men and women were torn apart to the delight of those gathered to watch.  The Bible is a most violent book my friends, filled with stories of atrocities and the range of cruelty that one group of people can inflict on another, especially when they have divine orders commanding them to do so.


Professor Pinker then goes on to describe 500 years of civilizing that began during the Middle Ages when Feudal Territories consolidated into Kingdoms with Centralized Governments.   The thing to remember, however, is that this was also the period of time in which the Crusades took place,  the Inquisition, when torture was perfected with the rack and breaking the body on the wheel, with gradual roasting at the stake like the death imposed upon our Unitarian martyr, Michael Servetus.  This book is not for the tender-hearted or squeamish for there are detailed descriptions of the torture carried out for minor or perceived offenses, the mass murders that happened during the Mongol invasions, the European witch hunts, the extermination of indigenous people, and the list goes on.  In 1638 the Puritans here in New England exterminated the Pequot nation, after which the minister Increase Mather asked his congregation to thank God ‘that on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to Hell.’  This didn’t hurt his career because later he became President of Harvard University.


And yet in the midst of all this cruelty and slaughter, there was a civilizing process that was also taking place.  Stephen Pinker describes what was happening in the late Middle Ages as people unmired themselves from technological and economic stagnation.  Money replaced barter, roads were built, horse transport became more efficient with the invention of horseshoes.  There were wheeled carts, compasses, clocks, spinning wheels, windmills, and water mills.  To take advantage of all the opportunities that were opening up,  people had to plan for their futures, control their impulses, understand other people’s perspectives, all skills needed to prosper in a social network.  Their hygiene even improved so that they didn’t look and smell like animals and so did their etiquette.  For example, sexual activity took place in private instead of in public where all could watch or ignore what was happening because copulating was so common.  And as a result of all this, violence decreased.


Which then led to a Humanitarian Revolution, the Age of Reason, which started in the 17th & 18th Centuries in which there were movements to abolish slavery, abolish dueling, abolish torture, superstitious killings, sadistic punishments, and cruelty to animals.  This Humanitarian Revolution was followed by what Pinker calls the Long Peace following World War II when the great powers stopped waging war against each other and finally he describes The New Peace which started with the ending of the Cold War in 1989.


You have to realize that I’ve just condensed about 700 pages of research into 675 words so you might say that I’ve painted this book with a very broad brush.  The take-away is that The Good Old Days, were not really the good old days for those who lived through them, at least not when we apply our post-modern sensibilities onto those centuries that came before.  Torture, human sacrifice, slavery were part of the norm throughout much of human history.  Even mass exterminations were part of the norm and not labeled genocide until well into the 20th Century.   There was not much compassion for the other, for those who were different or not part of your tribe.  Not much compassion or empathy for the outsider many of whom were considered non-human and/ or evil.  However among the changes occurring was the invention of the printing press which led to more people being able to read.  Among the pamphlets and books being printed were novels about ordinary people like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist.  People were given the opportunity to read about those who were different from them,  but just as human.  And so many were suffering.  It was stories like these that helped people become more empathetic, more compassionate.   It was stories like these that led to an acknowledgement that slavery and child labor and domestic violence were wrong.


I’ve intended with this quick reminder of human history to help put what’s happening today into some kind of larger perspective.  Yes, terrible things are happening in our world today.  Yes, there are things that we need to worry about with climate change probably at the top of the list.  But terrorism on our own soil?  Not so much.  And yet it is this fear that some politicians and pundits are tapping into.


Stephen Pinker has a lot to say about the threat of terrorism and the fear that it elicits.  He says that when you compare terrorism to the number of deaths due to homicide, war, or genocide, the world wide toll from terrorism is nothing but noise.  The statistics are that since 1968 international terrorism has accounted for less than 400 deaths per year.  Domestic terrorism stats are  higher (2,500 deaths per year) but listen to the death rate from other preventable causes:  “Every year more than 40,000 Americans are killed in traffic accidents,  20,000 in falls, 18,000 in homicides, 3,000 by drowning (including 300 in bathtubs), 2,500 from complications from surgery, 3,000 in fires, 24,000 from accidental poisonings, 300 from suffocation in bed, 300 from inhalation of gastric contents, and the list goes on.


In fact, in every year but 1995 when the bombing in Oklahoma City took place and 2001 when 9/11 happened, more Americans were killed by lightning, deer, peanut allergies, bee stings, and ignition or melting of nightwear than by terrorist attacks.  The number of deaths by terrorist attacks is so small that even minor measures to avoid them can increase the risk of dying.  One  cognitive psychologist (Gerd Gigenrenzer) has estimated that in the year after the 9/11 attacks, 1,500 Americans died in car accidents because they chose to drive rather than fly to their destinations out of fear of dying in a hijacked or sabotaged plane, unaware that the risk of death in a plane flight from Boston to LA is the same as the risk of death in a car trip of twelve miles.


The discrepancy between the panic generated by terrorism and the deaths generated by terrorism is no accident.  Panic is the whole point.  After 9/11 we became obsessed about terrorism with politicians and pundits using rhetoric that was intended to make us feel fragile, vulnerable, threatened that our whole way of life, or civilization itself was at risk.


For example in a 2005 Atlantic essay, a former White House counterterrorism official confidently prophesied that by the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the American economy would be shut down by chronic bombings of casinos, subways, and shopping malls, the regular downing of commercial airliners by shoulder-launched missiles, and acts of cataclysmic sabotage at chemical plants.” (RA Clark)  It was in the midst of this panic that the massive bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security was created.   And 14 years later we’re still taking off our shoes and jackets when we go through airline security.


The thing is that terrorism is asymmetrical warfare:  it is the weak against the strong and uses fear to create emotional damage.  After 9/11 Osama bin Laden gloated that “America is full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east,” and that the $500,000 he spent on the 9/11 attacks cost the country more than half a trillion dollars in economic losses in the immediate aftermath.


Terrorism is not new.  Some of you may recall the 1960s and 70s with the Black Liberation army, the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army.  They all failed and died off and that’s what happens to most terrorist groups.  The leaders are killed or captured and the young firebrands over time get disillusioned and defect to the pleasures of civilian and family life.  Or they escalate the violence and lose their backers.  Terrorist campaigns bend toward failure.


Terrorism is a tactic used by the weak against the strong, so chances are pretty good that we are never going to win the War on Terror, or “rid the world of evil”.


During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry spoke to this when he said, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.  As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution.  We’re never going to end illegal gambling.  But we’re going to reduce (these things) to a level where they aren’t on the rise.  (Terrorism) isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”  Dick Cheney pounced on this supposed gaffe and said that Kerry was unfit to lead as President, so poor Kerry backpedaled his way out of his statement.


One of my favorite columnists is R ick Holmes in the Milford News.  This is what he says:

“I sure wish America would take a deep breath.  Things are not nearly as bad as some of the loudest voices in the room would have us believe.  It would help if the people delivering the news were less hysterical than the people that deliver the weather….  The cable news guys want to turn every shooting into a war, every event into a crisis.  And it would be easier to keep our perspective if we didn’t have a dozen or more presidential pretenders competing for the attention of the most disaffected slice of the electorate…


Stop running down the economy.  America is doing pretty well these days, better than Europe, China, or pretty much any country you could name…  Take a deep breath xenophobes:  Immigration and trade are a big part of America’s economic strength.  I’d like the commander-in-chief wannabes to stop promising to make America’s military “the strongest in the world’—because it already is….  That doesn’t mean we can fight every battle, win every war and boss around everyone on the planet.  But we have plenty of military might.  What we need is a commander-in-chief who knows how to use it wisely.


We also need a president who understands the nature of the threat.  Terrorism is the weapon of the weak.  Islamist radicalism is not an existential threat to the United states, and those who think otherwise should take a deep breath and think about it:  Can you imagine elections cancelled, Congress disbanded, mullahs outlawing booze and bikinis and Americans putting up with it?  Of course not.   Let’s get real about ISIS and similar cults.  They can kill but they can’t convince.  They are overwhelmingly unpopular even in countries with majority Muslim populations.  In the market place of ideas, freedom, opportunity and modernity—America’s ideas—will beat out medieval jihadism every time.  Take a deep breath America………


So here we are, on the brink of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary with months of politicking yet to come.  We can count on the fear-mongering and hate-filled rhetoric directed toward Muslims and Immigrants and other “stupid people” to continue and the masses will probably continue to cheer.  So what can we do?


Saldin Ahmed, the author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, .says this:


“This campaign has proven remarkably effective in pushing the unthinkable into the mainstream.  We can emerge from this darkness, but only by vigorously, defiantly affirming one another’s humanity.  According to Islam, God is “al-Rahim”—the most merciful.  I believe in God’s mercy.  But whether or not one shares that belief, we can choose, together, to believe in redemption.  In human decency.  We can save our soul—whether we take that term to mean our character as a nation, or something more mystical—but we must do it together.


How?  By not staying uncomfortably silent when one’s relative or coworkers start carrying on about the “Muslims.”   By asking a proprietor to change the channel when an in-store TV blares pundits preaching hate.  By finding out what your kids are being taught about Muslims at school.  By contributing to a rebuilding for a mosque struck by vandals.  These things take time and energy.  They can make us uncomfortable.  But far more costly is the collective choice—through assent or silence—to become comfortable with this religious and racial hatred.  We’ve seen where that dark road leads.  It is not too late for us, together, to choose a different path.”


So may it be…


Sing  “My Life Flows On in Endless Song”  # 108


© Carol Rosine, 2016

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