Getting the Words Right

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 13 March 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


Our worship theme for the month of March is evil. Last week, Reverend Tera began our exploration of this topic by recalling the relative innocence of American society in the 1990’s, and how much of that innocence was lost after the school shooting at Columbine, the painfully drawn-out Presidential election of 2000 and its troublesome resolution by the Supreme Court, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001… And she pointed out how Unitarian Universalists sometimes find it difficult to deal theologically with the concept of evil.

Today, I will focus on what I feel is sometimes a weakness of Unitarian Universalists, a weakness that can keep us from seeing evil, or from confronting it when we do see it: A love of words, and a belief that if we can just get the words right, goodness will follow.


But first, let me try to be clear about what I mean today when I speak of evil. Of course, theologians and philosophers have been discussing evil since forever. For philosophers who believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, good and loving God, the problem is to explain how evil exists in the world. In this context, the evil that exists in the world is often taken to include natural phenomena like plagues, and catastrophic earthquakes and floods.

But I don’t think it makes sense to include natural disasters as examples of evil. Last week, Tera quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote:

Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of humanity, or the total order of the world.

Niebuhr refers to self-interest, and it seems to me that self-interest implies consciousness. I think that evil is something that people create. In interpersonal interactions, evil usually comes from one person putting too much value on their own desires and ignoring the humanity of others — it happens when people set aside or deny the inherent worth and dignity of every person. On the other hand, in interactions between humans and nature, evil can come from not recognizing the unique and precious circumstances that are necessary to create a living system in the world. So those two things are what I will mean today when I speak of evil.


As I mentioned, last week Tera spoke of the optimism of America in the 1990’s. There have been other times of optimism in America. Let me talk about one such time; let me speak for a moment about Universalism as it was a hundred years ago.

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the meaning of ‘Universalism’ was undergoing a change. Originally, Universalists were Christians who denied the idea of eternal punishment; Universalists believed that Heaven was universal — open to everyone — although many of them believed that people would undergo some kind of temporary purgatory before being admitted there.

But gradually, Universalism came to mean something wider. Universalists were interested in finding the commonalities of all religion; they were interested in universal truths, so to speak. That is one reason why in 1900 Swami Vivekananda, a religious leader who tied Hindu thought to various Western ideas, was invited to speak here at First Universalist Parish, Pasadena.

Now, Clarence Skinner was a Universalist who was active in the first half of the twentieth century. He is widely regarded by historians to have been the most influential Universalist of his time. A little over a hundred years ago, he published a book called The Social Implications of Universalism.1

In the first chapter, he wrote:

Universalism meets the demands of the new age, because it is the product of those forces which created the new age. It does not send its roots down into a mediæval civilization, interpreting past history. […] Its theology expresses the modern conception of the nature of God and man. Its motive power arises out of the new humanism. […] It is the philosophy and the power which under one name or another the multitudes are laying hold upon to swing this old earth nearer to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the religion of the people, for the people, by the people. It is the faith of the new world life, sweeping upward toward spiritual expression.

Now, that‘s optimism!

Skinner thought that Universalism would further science, and defeat tyranny. It would support equality under the law. It would create a new social order based on the theological idea that all people are essentially spiritual beings. Skinner wrote:

[This theology] would transform prison systems and shops. It would work its revolution in mine and mill. It would seize upon wars, despotisms, slaveries, and abolish them. It would beget itself in flesh and blood. It would be the most actual, astonishing and manifest fact in the world.

Skinner’s book is a remarkable document, and a quick read. I’ll link to it when I post this sermon on my blog.2 But once you have read it, and heard Skinner’s inspiring vision of a Universalism that will heal the world, you have to think:

He wrote the book in 1915.

1915.

Even as he was writing that Universalism “throbs with hope” and “believes in the world and in its potential goodness,” — even as he wrote those words, World War I had started in Europe. Nineteenth century battle strategies were meeting twentieth century technology, and the result was enormous suffering: trench warfare, the widespread use of machine guns, the introduction of mustard gas… all of this was starting at the very time Skinner was writing that “Never before have we had such basis for our hope that […] there shall be no more misery or sin.” In the 30 years immediately following the publication of Skinner’s book there were two world wars, bracketed by the genocide of the Armenians in the very year the book was published and the genocide of the Jews in the 1940’s.

Of course, hindsight is easy. All I really want to point out, here, is that while we are in the midst of events, it is easy to miss the evil around us; especially if it does not fit into our world view. Like Skinner, I too believe in “the world and its potential goodness” — and I think it is important to believe in this — but in order to address evil, we need to have both optimism, and realism — knowledge of what is really going on.


Let me tell you another story from about the same period of history, a story with a happy ending. It’s March, and March is Women’s History Month. Last year, when I visited Canada for a conference, I learned about an amazing historical event concerning women. Since schools in the United States usually don’t say too much about Canadian history, I’m going to trust that few of you have heard the story of the “Famous Five” — also known as the “Célèbres cinq”.

Some background:

The Canadian political system was set forth in the British North America Act of 1867, now known as the Constitution Act of 1867. Canada has a bicameral Parliament, consisting of the House of Commons and the Senate. People are elected to the House of Commons, but people are appointed to the Senate. Initially Senate appointments were for life, but now Senators must retire at age 75.

Senate appointments are made by the Governor General of Canada, but traditionally the Prime Minister suggests names to the Governor General. The British North America Act of 1867 says:

The Governor General shall from Time to Time, in the Queen’s Name, by Instrument under the Great Seal of Canada, summon qualified Persons to the Senate […].

Take note of that phrase “qualified persons”.

In 1916, Emily Murphy, a women’s rights activist in the Province of Alberta, was made the first female magistrate in the entire British Empire. On her first day on the job, a defense lawyer challenged her qualifications to be a magistrate. He said that women could not legally be magistrates. He based his objection on a forty-year-old common law ruling that had never been officially overturned: it said that “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.” In other words, women are subject to all of the restrictions of the law, but get none of the benefits. Being a magistrate is a privilege, argued this lawyer, so Murphy, being a woman, could not legally be a magistrate.

The Supreme Court of the Province of Alberta disagreed with this argument and upheld Murphy’s appointment as a magistrate, but for Canada as a whole the question of whether women were persons was still undecided. Over the next few years, more and more citizens and organizations demanded that women’s names be put forward as appointees to the Senate, but it was not clear whether women could be legally appointed. Finally, in 1927, Murphy and four other women3 — all of them provincial legislators and activists — petitioned the government to have the Supreme Court of Canada settle the question. The government asked the court: “Does the word Persons in […] the British North America Act […] include female persons?”


Perhaps now would be a good time to recall the words of Frederick Douglass from today’s responsive reading: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”


In April 1928, the Supreme Court answered: Are women persons? No. No, the court said, women do not count as persons for the purposes of the British North America Act. The Court based this decision partly on the use of male pronouns elsewhere in the Act, and partly on the idea that the men who wrote the Act almost certainly did not intend the word ‘person’ to imply that women could be Senators.

But at that time, the Supreme Court was not the absolute final authority on such matters in Canada; there was still the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England. The five women appealed the supreme court’s decision, and in October 1929, the Privy Council reversed it.

The Council’s decision stated that:

[t]he exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours, but it must be remembered that the necessity of the times often forced on man customs which in later years were not necessary. […] Customs are apt to develop into traditions which are stronger than law and remain unchallenged long after the reason for them has disappeared.

This case — known as the “Persons Case” — had a tremendous influence on Canadian Constitutional law. It had the immediate effect of allowing women into the Senate. But it also established the so-called “living tree” doctrine, which says the constitution is a living document that must be interpreted in light of current circumstances.4


I love this story — both because it has a good ending, and because it demonstrates something important about words and about evil.

Unitarian Universalists have the reputation of caring a lot about words. We argue about how things should be phrased, and we seem to think that if we could just get the words right, then justice will follow.

The Persons Case show just how wrong this idea can be. The British North America Act of 1876 had perfectly fine words: Any “qualified person” could be appointed to the Senate. But even though the words were as clear as could be, justice was still not served, until a new principle of constitutional law was established.


Sometimes, like Clarence Skinner, we are blind to the evil around us.

Sometimes, we can be fooled into thinking that words alone are enough to prevent evil.

How can we maintain our awareness of evil? How can we be sure to take action against it, and not just speak against it?


A few minutes ago I described two types of evil: interpersonal evil, which comes from a person or a group denying the inherent worth and dignity of others; and evil against nature, which comes from a failure to acknowledge the complexity, uniqueness, and precariousness of natural systems.

At Throop Church, we have a significant focus on ecological issues; we have our Learning Garden, and we have the Thirty Days for the Earth celebration and commitment that starts next Sunday. Among other things, we will be working to get Pasadena to ban styrofoam.

What about social evils? We do have some people and groups working for economic justice — for getting a decent minimum wage in Pasadena, for example. But what other social issues? What about systemic racism? What about the social problems that might be hard for some of us to see, given our position in society? How do we awaken ourselves to these issues? And how do we “stay woke”?

I invite you to think about what social evils we might try harder to address. Talk with me, and with Reverend Tera; let us know what is on your mind.


Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.
5

With our faith and our community behind us, we can learn to see the evil around us; we can speak out against it; and we can take action to prevent it.

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.


Image credit: Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson of the Famous Five statue by Canadian artist Barbara Paterson, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Cropped. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Original here


  1. Here is a scanned reproduction of the book, and here is the text converted to HTML. 
  2. See the preceding footnote. Perhaps I should note that there are also some troubling aspects to Skinner’s book — for example, his casual embrace of eugenics. 
  3. Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie L. McClung, Louise C. McKinney, and Irene Parlby. 
  4. The Famous Five are certainly feminist heroes, but their legacy in other areas is mixed. See their group Wikipedia entry as well as their individual pages to learn more. 
  5. This is from Bobby McFerrin’s adaptation of the 23rd Psalm, whose lyrics were our reading before the sermon. 

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