"Havel’s hopeful Christmas Message
The Rev. Stan Sears, Minister
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
This article ran in the December 24, 2011 edition of The Auburn Citizen
The highlight of most Christmas Eve services tonight will come as the lit
candles fill our churches. As most of us know, the candles we light are not
"birthday candles." They are candles of hope, lit at the darkest time of the
year in the northern hemisphere. This is also why we sing "Silent Night" or "Joy
to the World" rather than "Happy Birthday." Scholars will never agree on an
exact date for his birth, and there is no reason they need to. The editors who
made the decisions about what to include and what to exclude from the Bible gave
us two different birth stories, in Matthew and Luke. They also gave us two
different Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. I imagine one of the editors
speaking up and saying "Let’s protect them from the literalists who don’t want
to think for themselves. By giving them two different stories, they’ll have
something to talk about. Maybe they’ll be wise enough to realize that religion
should not spend so much time thinking about how things start. It’s what we do
with it that really matters." And what is it that "really matters?"
This is precisely the reason we have so many different sects and
interpretations of Christianity in the world today. You can go to any church to
hear its version. For me, it is the message of hope, even in the most desperate
and tragic of times. What sustains us when we feel worthless, oppressed, or just
plain unable to make it through another hour, let alone another week or year?
The theme of hope is especially pertinent to me this year, due to the death last
week of Vaclav Havel, the renowned writer and former president of both
Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.
Havel was born into a wealthy family, whose land was seized from them when
Russia overran most of Eastern Europe after World War Two. Prohibited from
attending college, he was drafted into the army, where he started to write
plays. After serving in the army, his writing expanded beyond plays to include
essays focusing on human rights. Eventually, he was jailed as a subversive. His
reputation grew during this time. When the Communists were removed from power by
the "Velvet revolution," there were calls of "Havel to the castle," and he was
elected president of Czechoslovakia. Havel was the last president of
Czechoslovakia, and the first president of the Czech Republic, after the Slovak
Union chose to separate.
Havel, like Jesus, believed in the importance of doing good as an end in
itself, regardless of one’s chances for success. As he once wrote: "Hope
is a state of the mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense,
is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in
enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to
work for something because it is good."
As a Jew, living under Roman rule, I have to believe that Jesus would look at
our society today and ask why racism is still so prevalent; why gays, lesbians,
and transgendered people are treated as less than fully human; and why women are
still treated as "junior citizens" who are not fully trusted to exercise
sovereignty over their own bodies. How else can we describe the blatant sexism
of the plethora of laws restricting reproductive freedom that have swept through
some of our nation’s statehouses over the past year? In addition, we have
endured an expansion of revelations of child abuse within both organized
religion and wider society. Too often, the perpetrators have been those who have
spent years keeping people focused on the so-called wrongs of reproductive
rights, while they have maintained a strict code of silence as children have
been abused. There is nothing "pro-life" about laws that would strip funding
from Planned Parenthood, collective bargaining rights from working people; or,
hold unemployment benefits hostage to oil pipelines.
The past year has not been a good one for those of us who believe in a
progressive society. I believe that the various "Occupy" movements were a
symptom of the growing cynicism that people have; and, it will be exacerbated as
we hear more talk of gerrymandered districts to preserve entrenched politicians
and legislation making it more difficult for people to vote.
This is precisely the type of situation that Havel says we must confront with
hope. So, on Christmas Eve, as I light my candle, I will imagine Jesus welcoming
Havel to what I call "a higher castle" and then looking at our world and saying
"May they continue to hope, and may they continue working for what is good…for
what is truly good."
On Sunday morning a quorum of the congregation met after service and voted to
allocate funds of $25,000 (includes a $5K contingency) to remodel the kitchen
and bathrooms. Bourke Kennedy, chair of the kitchen task force, presented a
representation of the proposed kitchen, a list of estimated costs for cabinetry,
and appliances, as well as contracts from the contractor, plumber and
electrician. The majority of the cabinets to be used were donated by Laura
Laura Hopkins gave us a history of the funds. They were proceeds from the
sale of art work and a sign the Society sold to cover the cost of construction
of the elevator and the sun room. The funds were dedicated for capital projects.
The Board of Trustees and the Finance committee reviewed the proposal of the
kitchen task force and discussed the stewardship concerns we have about using
the dedicated funds which are currently invested and returning mild returns, and
approved the use of the funds with the intent that at least fifty percent of the
cost be raised by the congregation and returned to the fund within three years.
Reverend Stan Sears presented three ways of contributing financially to the
capital project. One is that we could have members "buy" a piece of the project
such as a sink, or a microwave, or a piece or cabinetry. A second option would
include donations of appreciated assets (stocks or bonds that can be donated and
written off on future income without capital gains taxes being added in). A
third option would be increasing your total pledge by adding a "capital
improvement pledge" over the next three years.
The leadership wants to stress that we are committed that no one feel
obligated to contribute to this capital fund replacement of 50% if it would
require them to reduce their normal annual pledge slated for the ongoing
operation of the church. We will have opportunities for "sweat equity," and we
hope the new kitchen and accessible bathroom will encourage other fundraising
activities. The majority voted for the project with one nay vote recorded
because the 50% repayment of the fund was not included as a requirement. The
leadership strongly believes in replacing as much of the investment as possible
without straining the finances of anyone in the church.
In parliamentary countries, the ruling party often faces what
is often referred to as a "loyal opposition." I have sometimes thought that the
epithet "loyal" is probably used to masque the fact that, given the opportunity,
they would lop each others' heads off. In a sense, it provides a bit of
security. "Loyal" also infers that while we may disagree over policies, we agree
on the preservation of our nation.
The value of a loyal opposition is that it provides for a process of checks
on the ruling party's power. While the ruling party may eventually overrule, if
it has a majority, the loyal opposition can raise questions during sessions of
parliament, as well as in the court of public opinion.
Although he viewed religion with some disdain, and probably would not have professed any loyalty to God,
Christopher Hitchens, the writer who died last month, served this purpose for
many religious people. In books, such as God is Not Great, as
well as his numerous articles on religion, Hitchens questioned the absolutism
and tribalism of much of organized religion. One of the best-known examples of
this came when Iran's ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, slapped a fatwa or
murder target on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses.
While many other writers chose not to get involved, Hitchens did not
hesitate to call it what it was—a barbaric and vain attack on someone with an
opposing view. Hitchens, like most of us, knew that it had more to do with
Khomeini’s ego than any offense to religion. Of course, Christianity had a
similar history with its blasphemy, heresy, and witchcraft trials. I often
wonder whether the willingness to kill those who are different is a part of the
human condition that we have not fully acknowledged or confronted.
Hitchens was well-read, and sometimes appeared every bit as vain and
egotistical as those he lampooned. He was far from perfect, but so are we all.
What infuriated some who claim to be religion's official spokespersons was that
Hitchens had the audacity to infer that the idea of a perfect God was also an
absurdity. Furthermore, he did it with a biting sense of humor.
He also taught us the importance of religious questioning. Just because
someone claims to speak for God, does what they say make sense?
In this way, he helped keep us honest and reminded us not to become too full
of ourselves, or of God. Or, more importantly, to confuse our own beliefs with
God's. As numerous writers have said, claiming to read the mind or know the will
of what we call God is a fantasy. And killing people for a fantasy is a tragedy.
Stan Sears, Minister