To Die For

I was riding on the upper level of a bus. It was one of my usual routes – nothing special – I was not as alert as I would be on a bus I don’t take often. I was lost in thought or text messages or a book when I heard some aggressive voices ahead of me. I looked up to see a small group of young toughs all focusing their attention on someone sitting near them.

I figured it was the usual posturing among them – unpleasant and seemingly hostile, but usually rather harmless. 

Looking closer, I realized that the object of their interest was not another youth, but an adult woman – not an unusual or in any way extraordinary woman – except that she was wearing a hijab – a Muslim head scarf. 

I couldn’t make out exactly what was being said, but it quickly became clear that I was witnessing some pretty intense harassment. Clearly, harassment because of the one feature that made this woman stand out – her Muslim head-covering. 

The woman – outnumbered, cornered, and visibly unnerved - was trying to stay calm and to ignore them. It wasn’t helping. 

And it went through my head that I should do something. I should intervene. I should get in there and stop this somehow. And I also realized that I was afraid. 

I was afraid that I would become the target of their anger and possibly even their violence. I quickly ruled out confronting them directly. 

I could go downstairs and tell the driver. Yes! Move legs! let’s go. No. They would surely know it was me… I had to get off eventually…what would happen to me then? Fear for my safety won out over my commitment to the victim of harassment. I felt like a coward. I still do. 

I am left with hard questions to face: What am I willing to sacrifice for my values and my commitments? What is a big enough injustice that I would be ready to put myself in harm’s way? 

I want to turn to the story of one of histories most notable Unitarian heroes. Michael Servetus – Miguel Serveto – was born 500 years ago this year. 

His family was Roman Catholic and lived in a small Spanish town called Villanueva. In his youth Michael was properly indoctrinated in orthodoxy – he studied with a well-known Franciscan scholar and went on to study law at the University of Toulouse, France – an institution known as a centre of orthodox religion. But the young Michael somehow strayed from his orthodox teachings and surroundings. He began to study the Bible not with the view of a religious follower, but with a scholar’s eye – evaluating, searching, testing. 

And the young Michael Servetus became convinced that the church actually had it wrong. He had the audacity to think for himself and concluded that the Bible offered no support whatsoever for the all important doctrine of the Trinity – the notion that God is composed of three co-equal persons: the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. 

And so, while still in his early twenties, Michael Servetus wrote and published two theological works attacking the scriptural basis of the Trinity. 

To say that this was politically unwise would be a very substantial understatement! 

The enforcers of orthodoxy quickly came after him To escape the forces of the Inquisition, Servetus fled to France where he lived for twenty years under the assumed name of Michel de Villeneuve. 

Servetus could not contain his expansive mind or his natural creativity. In Paris, he studied medicine and he then practiced as a physician. He even made some important discoveries about the circulatory system. 

Michael made a very big mistake though. He corresponded with the great Protestant reformer, John Calvin, and told him about his newest theological work. One imagines that Servetus thought that such a reformer of the faith would be open to new revelations. Wrong. 

Calvin became suspicions when he noted the anti-Trinitarian theology and soon realized that Michel de Villeneuve was none other than the Michael Servetus who had published anti-Trinitarian heresy years earlier. 

Both Catholic and Protestant authorities acted to suppress this new book and only three copies survived. Servetus was pursued and arrested by the Inquisition. Remarkably, he escaped. He sought shelter in Calvin’s Protestant Geneva, but the reformer’s openness only went so far. 

Servetus was arrested, imprisoned and put on trial for heresy. He was convicted of heresy, and burned alive at the stake, just outside the walls of Geneva, on 27th October 1553. He was killed for suggesting that one particular aspect of orthodox Christian doctrine was incorrect. He was put to death because he insisted on thinking for himself. 

Are you sure you want to be a Unitarian? 

Servetus was not the only Unitarian martyr. Less than 50 years ago, when Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon white Americans to support his civil rights campaign in America’s heavily racist south, Unitarian minister James Reeb was one of those who answered the call. He went to Selma Alabama where he was attacked by a mob of white segregationists and that good man was beaten to death. Killed for insisting that our worth and as people is not determined by the colour of our skin. 

I think of Servetus and I think of James Reeb. I think of all the other Unitarians who have put their own comfort, prosperity, security, and even safety on the line for what they believe in – and I think of me – on the upper level of a London bus – too afraid to try to stop a blatant act of harassment. 

Perhaps you’ll recall these words from Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who – initially a staunch supporter of the Nazis – came to oppose them and was eventually imprisoned in the notorious Dachau concentration camp: 

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

When do we sacrifice for our beliefs? When do we give up our comfort or our safety for the values we hold? How do we find the courage to put ourselves in harm’s way to help create the world as we wish it would be? 

I have not done enough. Not only might I have intervened on that bus ride, but I have not done enough in other ways. I could have given more of my money to help others. I could have given more of my time. I could have risked my reputation and my safety on any number of occasions but chose not to. 

The causes were compelling, the outcomes would have been positive. I could have made more of a difference than I have. 

And the truth is, I will never do everything I could do. I am simply not - at this point in my life - ready to risk everything. I am not prepared to give everything away and live among the poorest of the poor like Mother Theresa. I have to accept that I have zero chance of becoming a saint! 

But I can do more. I suspect that you will realize that you can do more. 

The beginning is to be deliberate about our values and our principles. The beginning is to look at what we have and ask what we need. 

When we become mindful of what is truly important in our lives and in our world, we become aware of what we must do. In this way, commitment grows in our hearts. In this way, we are changed. In this way, the world can – and will – change.