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A Time to Mourn

I cannot fully celebrate anyone’s death. It would make me less than I want to be. It was Osama bin Laden’s celebration of death of others in the service of his ends that led him to inspire so much pain and suffering. I don’t want to be like that, even in a moment.

I mourn the pain that he caused to not just those killed by acts he inspired and planned, but to their families. I mourn the happiness lost to millions billions of people through the fear of terrorism. But I also hold just a small place to mourn the person he might have been but was not — the person he chose not to be.

I remember hearing just after 9/11 from someone who’d met Osama in college in America. That person remembered an evening when Osama was sitting at a piano and picking out notes and singing “The House of the Rising Sun.” I remember, in the pain and shock of what we call 9/11 as shorthand, thinking of what might have been had he not made some choice, somewhere along the way. I can mourn that self he didn’t become and could have become.

That humanity which he long buried in himself and stamped out so that he could do hateful things is one small part of what I mourn today, along with all the other human losses that choice he made led to.

One way we can refuse to be like Osama bin Laden is to stubbornly refuse to be drawn into the denial of any person’s core humanity in service of our own ends.

Yes, it was probably the lesser of evils BY FAR that he was killed rather than left to live and inspire more death and pain and suffering. But I mourn that killing him was the only alternative we could find, based on his own choices.

What Did Felix Really Say?

Recently, someone asked me about the “correct” version of the quote from Felix Adler about “eliciting the best” or “bringing out the best.” Here is an edited version of my response, based on quick research:

He said it several different ways. Here are two I can document as actually being from him:

The title of a chapter in An Ethical Philosophy of Life is his most common way of wording it, and might be considered canonical: Act So As To Elicit the Best In Others and Thereby In Thy Self. In that essay, you’ll also find his attempts to explain what “the best” meant to him.

From a 1926 article on moral education, “Personality: How to Develop It In the Family, The School, and Society,” he worded it this way: “Seek to elicit the best in others, and you will thereby challenge and bring to light the hidden best in yourself.”

We have tended to paraphrase. “Yourself” instead of “Thy Self” is quite common, or “bring out” instead of “elicit” or “work to” instead of “act so as to.” Mostly that’s an impulse to bring it up to date and keep it from sounding so Victorian or stilted. (I think of my grandfather’s phrase about not using “ten dollar words.”) Personally, I like “elicit.” “Thy self,” not so much.

We don’t use the “Seek” version much and it’s longer but I actually like it better — and he wrote that one for a wider audience (moral educators) and much later in his life, when, like
stones in water, the rough edges may have been worn smooth through experience of what communicated best the idea that he wanted to be understood.

Purpose and Aims

I found this on the way to looking for something else: a paragraph from an early constitution of the “Ethical Union” of the first Ethical Societies in the United States, referred to in a book published in 1896 as being from “a few years ago.”

The general aim of the Ethical Movement as represented by this Union is to elevate the moral life of its members and that of the community; and it cordially welcomes to its fellowship all persons who sympathize with this aim, whatever may be their theological or philosophical opinions.

The word “moral” is not one we tend to use today — perhaps the Moral Majority (which some of us believe was neither) ruined the term for a generation or two.  But in the context of the Ethical Movement, “moral” meant then, and means now, living in relationship in ways that respect and draw out the worth of every human being.

Apart from the slightly stilted Victorian language of the paragraph, it’s not a bad summary of what we aim to be today as well, here at the Northern Virginia Ethical Society.

As we move towards our Opening Sunday of the season on September 12th after our summer break from Sunday meetings, I think that this aim bears repeating.  In our 21st century way, we can implement what was there said in 19th century language: help our members and the community to live more ethically, bringing out the best in ourselves and others, and cordially welcome into full participation in our community, anyone who feels themselves also drawn to that aim — recognizing that this common purpose is more important than whether we agree or disagree, believe or disbelieve, on some philosophical or theological matter.

Change Is Comin’

Many of the other Ethical Societies have, somewhere on their building and often near or above the area where the platform speaker stands, some version of the Felix Adler quote, “The place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.”  (Felix’s original words actually were about “men” but he did seem to mean that in the inclusive sense.)  The reference is to the idea in many religions, and especially in the Hebrew scriptures, that there is some space that is especially holy — a place set aside, a place to be especially respected.  Adler’s idea was that it was not the place that was holy; it was the act of taking seriously high ideals together, as a community, that created “holiness.”  It’s an extension of the idea of the worth of the individual human being: when such human beings act in ways that help to bring out that precious worth in each, we create something that serves, in an ethical society, the same function as a priestly dedication of a space might serve for another group with different emphasis and beliefs.

When our Society got started, using rental space, we had no way to put that wording on our space, so we included it explicitly as part of opening words.  Now, thanks to the creative and generous gift of member Amy Anderson, we have a banner with the words on it to put on the speaker’s lectern.   And so, it would be redundant to use the words as part of our opening.

Any change in ritual — even in groups like ours that eschew ritual or deny that we have rituals — will bother some, and please others.  For the remaining months before our summer break, we’re going to experiment with some different opening words, seeing how they work.  I’d ask that you not react just the first time you hear them, but “try them on for size” as you hear them several times over the next few months.  Then, in June, take some time to reflect on which words resonated for you, and which ones didn’t.  And also take some time to listen to others about which of the opening words resonate for them, and which haven’t resonated.

Perhaps some of the words will just take hold, like the candleholder of the “ethical person” migrated from the food table at a festival to the front table and transplanted what had been at the front table, with very little comment from members — and now she or he just seems to be part of our Sunday mornings.

It seems no matter what words we use in the script for Sunday morning, some people like some parts, and dislike others.  We’d love to magically find something that speaks to everyone — whether a founding member or a curious newcomer sitting in our midst for the first time, or everyone in between — and that’s not likely to happen.  But who knows?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments the better.”  In our non-ritual rituals, let’s give these experiments some time, and see what happens.

Musing About Marriage Equality

Living in a state where “race” is still a box to fill in on marriage licenses, I’m often reminded how parallel today’s marriage equality issues are, legally speaking. Some of the same arguments are even used (see “Why the Ugly Rhetoric Against Gay Marriage Is Familiar to This Historian of Miscegenation“). How simple to allow marriage, regardless of the race or gender of the partner!

Certainly the issue cannot just be procreation. We do not dissolve marriages automatically if the partners cannot procreate, nor do we require procreation of married couples where the partners are different sexes or genders.

There are three other arguments sometimes floated in support of discriminating in marriage by gender of the partner, on the assumption that these are relevant parallels.

One is to point to marriage laws that discriminate on the basis of age. But we have many laws that discriminate against minors, assuming that they have a diminished capacity to make contracts. And marriage, under the law, is primarily a legally binding contract. Religiously and ethically, a marriage takes on other dimensions, but the civil aspect of it is contractual. And we don’t permit minors to make binding contracts, or we ask at certain ages that their parents sign for them. So it is with marriage. And a partner of the same gender is hardly equivalent to a child.

A second, more offensive argument, is to ask “Will the next step be to marry an animal?” Besides the basic offensiveness of comparing a partner of the same gender to an animal, this argument fails logically as well, because marriage requires consent, and animals cannot communicate consent to marriage or even comprehension of what marriage means.

A third argument is more convincing to some: if “one man, one woman” falls and marriage can include two men or two women, why not two women and one man, or other combinations of more than two people?

I consider this another straw man argument, logically, because our legal system is already set up to handle marriages of two people, but is in no way set up to handle marriages of more than two people. Regardless of whether I think such polygamous marriages should be legal, the issue is not parallel.

In removing discrimination based on the gender (or race) of the partner, marriage laws remain essentially the same. Two people make a contract for life, or until they legally end the marriage, to share their property and their lives. There’s already a body of law about how to handle children who are not the biological offspring of both partners in the marriage. Nothing really changes with removing gender discrimination.

Same sex marriage requires almost no other changes in the law other than removing the gender of the partner as relevant, just as Loving v. Virginia meant nothing more in the law than removing the race of the partner as relevant. But “number” has more implications.

If four people are “married” are each married to each of the others, is there one marriage? Or are there multiple interrelated marriages, each of two people? Is there a primary partner all others are married to? Does a divorce of one dissolve the whole marriage — or can that divorce leave someone still married to others who are now divorced from each other? Do all spouses have to agree to a divorce, or only two people?

If marriages can include more than two people, how many people are the legal parents of a particular child? Are all in the marriage parents of all the children, with full legal guardianship rights, even such simple things as signing permission slips, and such complex things as custody after death or divorce or remarriage? Or, are only the biological parents the legal parents? What adoption rights do the other spouses have? What custody rights do surviving spouses have if one or more parents die or leave the marriage?

Property ownership within marriage: do all share everything? Or is this two-and-two, with, for examples, two wives married to the same man not sharing property with each other but only with their mutual husband? And in such a situation, how does his property get shared?

How do joint tax returns get filed, and how are taxes calculated? If one person has health care coverage, are all spouses and children of the whole interconnected marriage covered, or is this split by pairs of adults and “their” children separate from other children?

Inheritance — do laws that exist now on inheritance — e.g. giving 1/3 of the estate in some states automatically to the spouse and 2/3 to children — apply to all spouses and children, or only pairs within the group? How are surviving spouse benefits calculated and who gets them? Are separate checks sent to each of the surviving spouses? Since such benefits can be given now even after divorce, in certain circumstances, what if the surviving spouses are no longer married to each other yet are equally eligible?

There are a LOT of legal implications. Whether or not one accepts that marriage of more than two people is a “good thing” or even ought to be accepted on the principle that people have some rights to be wrong — the legal implications are complicated and a simple “yes let’s include this” won’t suffice to implement such a change. When I’ve talked with people in polyamorous relationships, or even marriages that are legal in other parts of the world but not in this country, I realize that those in such relationships do not agree among themselves how these issues get sorted out. At a minimum, every such marriage would require detailed legal agreements.

If society gets to a point where we are considering the legalities of polygamy, we’ll sort it out, but we’re not there yet. It’s a quite different social problem from simply removing race (as happened with Loving v. Virginia) or gender of the partner as an impediment to a legal marriage.

Turning of the Year

adapted from Kenneth L. Patton, 1951, revised by Jone Lewis

The days of the year have stiffened in ice, and darkness has grown upon the land.

The season of cold and early dusk is upon us.

The sun has retreated down the sky, the living green has forsaken the earth, and the leaves have fallen.

The flowers no longer bloom, and the birds have fled to the south.

We approach the shortened days with peace, for the ancient fear is no longer on our faces.

The heavy death upon the earth is no lasting peril, and the roots in the soil are only sleeping a long sleep.

We hold the turning of the year as a promise; and the renewing of life is our solid hope. The time of returning light is known, and we ready our homes for the celebration. The sun will climb the heavens again, and the darkness will be pushed back each day.

The months of snow will give way to the months of leaves, and petals will fall upon the earth.

The young will be brought from the womb, and the shoot will burst from the seed.

We will walk upon the greening grass, and our plowshares will divide the warming soil.

In the midst of winter the promise is given of the summer season, and in the midst of darkness there comes the assurance of light.

In the time of cold comes a messenger of warmth, and in the days of death there is heard the good news of life.

Let Us Carry the Torch of Goodwill

adapted from Charles Dickens by Jone Lewis

We celebrate the winter holidays once again. Let us open our hearts, let the spirit within us walk abroad among our human neighbors and travel far and wide.

Let this season be a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. May we keep our humor to the last.

Let us not be haunted at this season by the shadows of things that might have been.

If our past is marred by ill-will, let not the mirrors of our own yesterdays show us what we shall be in years to come.

We have the power to render others happy or unhappy. We have the power to make their days light or burdensome, and their work a pleasure or a toil.

Our power lies in words and looks, in things so small that it is impossible to add and count them up.

The happiness we give is no small matter. A good word is worth a fortune. Let no idol displace Love, even a golden one.

Let us carry the torch of goodwill, that it may banish hate.

Let us honor the holiday season in our hearts and keep it all the year.

And wish a Happy New Year to all the world!

Holidays at the Turning of the Year

At the time of the turning of the year, a question I often get asked by people outside of Ethical Culture is, “What kind of holidays does an Ethical Society celebrate?” Or, sometimes more specifically, “What do you do about Christmas?” When I testified before a judge in Illinois in December,1995 , justifying the Chicago Society’s standing as a religious organization, the judge asked, “Do you allow your members to celebrate Christmas?” I was tempted to answer, “Just try to stop an Ethical Culturist from doing something they want to do!” More seriously, the question is: what kinds of rituals and ceremonies are possible in a group that doesn’t share a common belief system?
Continue reading “Holidays at the Turning of the Year” »

What Is Humanism?

Years and years ago, when I was ill with a serious kidney infection and sleeping in fits and starts, I left the TV on after tuning into some cable station that had had some relaxing music on it.  As I woke up, I became aware that there was a panel discussion about humanism.  I thought at first it might be humanists speaking when one defined a humanist as “someone who doesn’t believe something just because someone tells them it’s true or they read it in a book.”

Then I became fully aware that it was an evangelical religious channel, and the person gave this definition without a hint of emotion because they assumed everyone would be horrified at it, even without emphasis.

I can’t imagine believing something just because someone tells me it’s true or I read it in a book.

Since then, I’ve taken that as a pretty good description of “humanism” in the broadest sense of it.

But my preference is for the definition by John Dietrich: “Human responsibility for human problems.”

Health Care Reform: Statement

The National Leaders Council of the American Ethical Union
Health Care Reform Statement of 2009

The National Leaders Council of the American Ethical Union supports current efforts to reform the health care system within the United States in order to provide affordable, effective and dependable health care for all. We reaffirm our historic position that “Health care is a right to which every man, woman and child is entitled.”*

Although the present proposed bills in Congress do not address all the issues of concern to us, we support President Obama’s effort at creating a just and fair health care system. We expect that any national reform legislation should contain:

  • Availability of health care to all persons, regardless of age, ability to pay, or pre-existing conditions.
  • Universal insurance coverage that would include preventative, diagnostic, therapeutic and rehabilitative services and mental care, for as long as necessary.
  • Assurance of freedom of choice for patients and doctors, and equality of price for all.

Nothing in such health care legislation should preclude the private practice of medicine or the private funding of medical care or research.

*AEU 1973 statement on health care