Growing up in the states, when I first started to watch films and television, I found it al more than a little bit confusing. The programmes I saw showed men - often riding horses - almost always wearing bandanas and big western style hats – and they were shooting at each other. Bang – someone would get hit and fall down, unmoving. As a child, that was pretty upsetting. “Mommy, the man got killed!” But the response made everything clear: “Don’t worry honey, that was the bad guy. Look – his hat is black. The good guys always wear white hats.”
Well, that certainly made life simple. You can tell the good guys from the bad guys by their hats. So, cowboy hats are not so prevalent here… but we know that the bad guys wear hoodies… The bad guys have piercings and tattoos… The bad guys have dark skin and beards…
As we heard from James Welch earlier this morning, the Human Rights Act has come under attack. The critics tell us that the HRA harms public safety – It prevents our government and our police from fighting terrorism. The HRA, they say, is absurd – it protects the criminals. The HRA is dangerous, it allows killers to return to the streets to destroy innocent lives again. The HRA should be torn up, the critics say, because it protects the bad guys.
And then we hear from the defenders and supporters of the HRA, like Liberty. They respond that the HRA protects the good guys – that it is an important guarantor of the rights of victims of crime. The lines are drawn. Depending on which side you’re on, the HRA outrageously protects them, those people, the black hats or it is an essential protection for us – the white hats.
We are not here, in this place of spirit, to do politics – and there is plenty of politics involved in this issue. We understand what is going on here. Each side simply aims to score some points against the other by making their position look absurd and irresponsible. Sadly, this is how the world of politics works. And it’s pretty civil here – one look across the pond will remind you that the situation can become far worse.
But we are not here to do politics. We are people of faith and it is our duty to look beyond the simplistic and inflammatory rhetoric of politics. It is our duty to look beyond the momentary panics and outrages. It is not for us to say “lock them all up” or to react reflexively to the frightening stories of life on our streets. It is for us to look beyond the particular, the specific, the situational, toward what is eternal and universal. It is for us to look for a greater truth.
And the truth is: There are no black hats and white hats.
As Unitarians, we are people of many different beliefs. We may think very differently about God, about what happens after we die, and about the concept of the soul. We may have very different notions of the importance of the many great spiritual leaders who have emerged throughout history. We may follow the Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, or others. We may follow none of them. We join together to support one another in a search that has no final end and some see us as woolly-minded and committed to nothing. But ours is a hard faith - a faith that asks of us a demanding level of responsibility.
And we are not without unifying beliefs. One principal belief has been strong throughout our movement – it is one of the few basic concepts that Unitarians on both sides of the Atlantic hold sacred and describe in virtually identical words: We believe in the worth and dignity of every person.
Does that sound like a platitude? It is not. It is one of the most challenging convictions one can imagine. I doubt if any one of us here has truly lived this principal. Every person has worth and dignity? The guy sleeping on the pavement? Yes. The yobs hassling us on the street? The repressive dictator? Yes. The murderer? Yes. The rapist? Yes.
Our belief is a radical one. In the New Testament, Jesus is heard to speak of separating the sheep from the goats – the blessed from the cursed – at judgement day. We shun such simple dichotomies.
Our faith was shaped in part by exposure to Calvinism. Calvinist doctrine teaches that humanity is separated into the elect and the others. The elect are destined for heaven and the rest can only look forward to eternal damnation.
I have to back up and give you just a bit of history – in the US, Unitarians are actually called Unitarian Universalists. This is because Unitarianism merged in 1961 with another radically liberal movement called Universalism.
It is mostly to our Universalist ancestors that we owe our conviction of the worth and dignity of every person. In response to Calvinism’s harsh division of humankind - in the face of the threat of eternal hellfire - the Universalists declared that no all-good, all-powerful God would ever damn his creation to hell. Full stop. With that one revolutionary principal, they removed hell from the theological menu and changed the focus of their religion from an attack on evil to the cultivation of goodness. It was a tremendous leap and it was immensely controversial at the time.
The critics of the HRA would take us back to the separation of the black hats and the white hats. They would tell us that the black hats deserve no protection for they are bad. Any law that protects them must be wrong.
Their invective is appealing and it can be persuasive. An act that protects a terrorist or forces the release of a dangerous criminal must be wrong, mustn’t it?
“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Who among us is perfect? Who among us has not had evil thoughts and even committed evil deeds? What wrongdoer has done no good? In real life, we can not be divided among black hats and white. Each of us has the capacity for good and for evil.
Moreover, we are more connected than we may be ready to acknowledge. Hear these words of Kahlil Gibran:
“Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world. But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you, So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also... the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, [are] all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.”
It would be nice and simple if life were like drama – with a simple distinction between the good and the bad. Real life asks much more of us.
Our challenging task as people of faith is to resist the simplistic division of humanity into sheep and goat, good and bad, black and white… It is for us not to condemn what is bad, but to seek out the seed of the good in every person. We would nurture the good, the healthy, the whole, and the holy in the hearts of humankind so that all may grow toward wholeness and into harmony with the sacred.
May it be so.