Taking a Chance


Two excerpts from
A Discourse on the Love of our Country
Richard Price (1789)

Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom and writers in its defence! The times are auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Behold kingdoms, admonished by you, starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors! Behold, the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected to France and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes and warms and illuminates Europe!
Tremble all ye oppressors of the world! Take warning all ye supporters of slavish governments and slavish hierarchies!... You cannot now hold the world in darkness. Struggle no longer against increasing light and liberality. Restore to mankind their rights and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed together.

“…a representation in the legislature of a kingdom is the basis of constitutional liberty […], and of all legitimate government, and […] without it, a government is nothing but an usurpation… When the representation is […] extremely partial, it only gives a semblance of liberty; but if not only extremely partial but corruptly chosen, and under corrupt influence after being chosen, it becomes a nuisance and produces the worst of all forms of government: a government by corruption…”

After this service, there will be a reception. It will be lovely.  There will be delicious food to eat and nice wine to drink. You are all invited and I hope you are looking forward to that chance to dine and socialize. 

And here, on the other hand, is a ten pound note. Now, I wonder, how many of you would be willing to wager, on the result of a coin toss, your invitation to the tea for a chance at this tenner?  It’s a 50/50 chance: if you win, you go to the tea with 10 pounds more in your pocket.  If you lose, you get neither. How many would take that chance?

What if we bias it in your favour a bit… if you would win if the coin came up heads at least once in two tosses? three tosses? Four? What if the first toss came up against you? Would that change your view of your chances of winning?

The most famous minister of this congregation, Richard Price, would have plenty to say about my question.  

Price arrived here as minister in 1758 - 250 years ago.  He was an amazing man – a renowned preacher who regularly addressed large crowds in this very building. He was a philosopher, who wrote significant works on the nature of freedom and ethics. He was interested in science and his knowledge in that area was considerable - both Joseph Priestly and Benjamin Franklin conferred with him about their own scientific explorations. That would be enough for any regular intellectual superman, but Price’s abilities were not limited to excellence in three fields…  

Price was also an economist, who not only wrote on that subject but was sought after at the end of the American Revolution by the new US government who wanted him to help run their economy. (Clearly, they could use the help today!)  I’m not done listing Price’s remarkable talents… I come to the one that relates to the coin toss.  Richard Price was also a mathematician and his particular interest was probability. In fact, Price is credited with work on that underlies the modern life insurance industry. Richard Price knew how to figure the odds!  

Price was obviously brilliant – a true renaissance man – but, there was another essential component to his character: Courage.  Richard Price showed extraordinary boldness when freedom and justice were at stake.  

Now some of us may appear courageous. Take me for example, what may look to the uninformed like courage is usually simple ignorance – it comes down to the fact that I don’t know the chance I’m taking when first I begin to act.  Usually, with a bit more thought, I’d be quaking in my boots.

But Price, I think, was different.  When in 1789 he spoke of “kingdoms… starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors” – he did not do so ignorant of the impact his words might have. This was a sermon where he used the word “probability” no less than nine times! When he suggested that the British government of his time was a “…government by corruption — a government carried on and supported by spreading venality and profligacy through a kingdom,” he did not use these strong words without a very good idea of what they might bring about.  

Richard Price knew about probability.  He knew about chance.  He knew about risk.

Richard Price’s well-calculated risks contributed to changes that eventually affected the entire world. Price always took the side of individual freedom. He is credited with helping to bring about the American declaration of independence and personally knew several of the founders of that oh-so-foreign land across the Atlantic.

And in 1789, when Price preached words of support for the French Revolution and individual human rights – when he rejected the power of the hereditary monarchy, his sermon drew angry condemnations.  These, in turn, led Mary Wollstonecraft – who customarily sat in that second pew right over there – to jump to the defense of her friend and minister. In response, she wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Man” and later, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” And thus feminism was born – gestated right there in pew number 19.

Price might have appreciated these words from poet Diane Ackerman:

The great affair, the love affair with life, 
is to live as variously as possible, 
to groom one's curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, 
climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day.
Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, 
and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, 
life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. 
It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, 
but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.     

“Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding.”  

This congregation has – deep at its core – encoded in its DNA – built into the marrow of its bones – a willingness to take risks.  Perhaps this stems from its beginnings in the 17th century, when its non-conformist founders risked and met persecution at the hands of the established church just to practice their faith and to be true to their convictions. Whatever the origin, that spirit certainly continued through Richard Price’s bold support of freedom.  

It continues to this day.  When my predecessor arrived here some six years ago, this congregation was in danger of folding. It was in the kind of situation that drives many to a state of conservative paralysis – afraid to do anything for fear of making a bad situation worse. With only a handful of people holding it together, the leaders of this tiny group were stretched just to keep their beloved building standing.  

But, against the odds and true to their history, they took a risk. Although they were holding on for dear life, they released their grip to reach out a hand toward the future. They said “we’re ready to change. We’ll try anything.”  And they did, and this congregation began to return to life. And it grew. And when I arrived 20 months ago, they said to me, “we’re ready for change.  We’re ready to take a chance.” And they did and we have grown more and become more and more vital.

Most recently, the leadership of this congregation took a look at the injustice inherent in the civil partnership laws in this country. They didn’t like what they saw.  They calculated the odds – they looked at the probabilities and they decided that they could not sit comfortably; they had do something about it. And so today, we are the only congregation in this nation that has said firmly, boldly, and resolutely: we will not marry any couple until we are allowed to marry every couple.  

We took a chance. We knew we would risk being seen as radicals. We knew we might be the target of anti-gay bias. We knew that we might even see our building vandalized for our stance. Our stance has made us some enemies and it has made us some very good friends. It has brought an outpouring of gratitude from gay and lesbian people everywhere thanking us for flying the banner of justice. 

There is nothing easy about taking chances, even when, as for the Newington Green Unitarians, a willingness to accept risk flows in your very lifeblood.  It is much more comfortable to move in tiny incremental steps, where we don’t risk nearly so much. But, as an old proverb says, “It doesn't work to leap a twenty-foot chasm in two ten-foot jumps.”  

Being truly religious is not about being comfortable. It is about a deep commitment to a better vision of the future. It is about a level of caring for the world that makes you vulnerable and exposed. It is about taking chances, and become uncomfortable for love.

With risk, there is something to be gained and the possibility – sometimes even the near certainty – that something will be lost. Usually, it will not be as obvious or inconsequential as tea vs. a tenner. You might be asked to risk your reputation or your social status for the sake of justice. You might be asked to wager your safety for the possibility of liberty.

What will you risk for justice?  What will you bet for freedom? What will you gamble for love?  The great Richard Price taught us by his example. Figure the odds, and when the payoff is right - make your wager. It is the only way to change the world.

May it be so.