The First Principle – Affirming the Inherent Dignity and Worth of All People

This is a homily that I wrote for my Wiesbaden Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I decided to post it as a blog post because it begins to express a deep existential crisis I’ve been in for a year. Writing is healing.

UU Fall Retreat Cologne 2015 (14 of 65)

The UU first principle is dear to my heart, it is one of the reasons I joined UU. I was so tired of the idea that we are inherently sinners and that our worth can only be redeemed by the love of a god-man, and only if we believe in the correct doctrine. It was freeing to believe that everyone is inherently worthy. Yes, we all make mistakes and have the potential to make very bad, or even violent actions. But if we do so it is not because our very souls were damaged from the beginning. I think the affirmation of inherent worth and dignity of all people is the most encouraging and uplifting idea. There is a reason it is number 1, for all things after it work toward this concept.

But lately I have seen the practice of this idea separate itself from the theory. We are not perfect beings so there is always going to be a disconnect between belief and practice. But for me the gulf has been growing. I have become depressed because I have felt like this principle is failing all over the place. That it may not even matter if we hold this Truth or not. For me it really started with the campaign last year. As we approached the U.S. election I got more and more caught up in Facebook “discussions.” The hatred and name calling from friends and family members caught me off guard. Part of this pertains to the distance that social media gives. They’re not saying “to my face” their hateful thoughts. But they have no problem spewing it on my Facebook if I posted a comment or article they didn’t like. Strangers too would say what they feel. And then there are the “trolls” who get on and just try to provoke, whether they know you or not. And it certainly didn’t die down after the election. If anything, it intensified as people dug further into their entrenched views. It has gotten so ugly. It has been commented on a lot that all civility has gone out of political and social life. But it’s more than that to me. People, whether it’s social media influence or something else, are losing sight of each other’s humanity. They may not word it that way to themselves, but when you can write truly hateful and scary things, showing no compassion for another’s point of view, that is dehumanizing. And sometimes people are literally dehumanizing too, outright denying their personhood.

I have lost my head on Facebook too and gotten in fights with people or said nasty or sarcastic things in anger. But I realized I was falling prey to this and pulled back. I don’t want to hate someone because I know it eats me up but does nothing to them. So I started trying to think more compassionately again. But it is hard when people are behaving truly badly, online and in real life.

A few weeks ago I was deeply troubled by the rhetoric on Facebook. Even though I agreed with their sentiments and what they were saying about the actual issues, I felt offended and upset about the way they were saying that people are worthless, or don’t matter. It is what made me start thinking about that first principle. I started thinking about how humanity’s role models kept this idea in the forefront whether they were UU or not. That made me think that this is not unattainable, that we can learn to value people as we try to teach them a better way. Obviously, we don’t know what lurked in the hearts of people behind the scenes, but we do know that in the face of great evil and turmoil, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to say “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  This has been quoted so often that it has almost become mundane, but its meaning is profound, and all religions promote this. Love first. And there was Jesus, who being arrested in the garden recognized the humanity of his attackers and healed the soldier’s ear when Peter cut it off, in an attempt to protect him. Like the famous aphorism says, “And eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” These examples are extreme, most of us will never be in these types of situations. So what can we do ourselves to uphold our 1st principle? I tried a while ago and now feel like I was misguided.

I’m sorry to go back to Facebook, it’s just a good example of how people are forgetting each other’s inherent worth and dignity. One day, after the tragic Charlottesville situation and Trump’s immoral denial of it, I made a post that some of you saw, calling for an end to the dehumanizing comments. I tried to say that we need to take action and address these serious issues in a productive way, and that sitting around calling people inhuman doesn’t change things. Well, a lot of people supported me, which made me feel good. All of them were UU. But there were two people, one whom I am very close to, who had a very different reaction. They are both women of color and they called me out for my privilege, my ability to sit around and call for compassion when “real things” are going on.

At first I was really mad. Especially at my dear friend. She knows that I am not racist but suddenly she was calling me an “ally” in quotes. She was saying that I was trying to tell people of color how they should behave and feel. That was not my intention at all, but I can see how it appeared that way, and felt chagrined. I also feel like people hear what they want to and that my timing was bad. Maybe if I had made my statement at a different moment she would have read my intentions better. So I questioned my motives. Was I wrong to write what I did? I’m not a civil rights leader or a religious figure, or even a scholar. Is it my place to try to get people to think differently? I still feel that my intentions were good, but maybe instead of being helpful or thought provoking, I was just naïve and provoking.

So again, I feel stuck. If we’re supposed to do more than just feel our first principle, how do we go about that? Obviously, my unintentional soapboxing was not the way to go. Instead of calling for compassion, I was unintentionally not showing compassion to people of color. People say “just live your daily life following UU principles.” But how do we do this when we’re facing bigots, politicians who are destroying social gains, people who don’t want to do anything to help refugees, or prevent further climate damage? How do we do it in a world that is once again facing a growing nationalism? How do we not hate people who do hateful or evil things? Are they just evil? I guess the heart of it is, how do we act on affirming inherent dignity and worth in people who seem to be doing their hardest to tear humanity apart? Or who hate us and what we stand for?

Recently, I had an experience with a person who embodied this struggle in a very real way. I was reminded that this principle has been around for millennia and from many sources. UUs did not invent it. We uphold it.

Some of you know that I spent 8 days in Bosnia & Hercegovina. I went to pay witness to some incredibly painful realities. I have been reading about the area for a while so intellectually I knew what I was in for. But my heart took a battering anyway. I felt shaken. How can this have happened again? I visited Srebrenica and went to the genocide memorial and museum. I walked through the cemetery for the Bosniaks who were murdered there. I looked at the horrific photos in the museum and watched an unbelievable documentary that was put together from tapes made by Serb soldiers as they were carrying out their genocide. It is the worst thing I have ever seen. I have struggled for a long time trying to understand what happened, and seeing this video made me feel even more depressed. It felt like the world was run by monsters. That there was no point in saying that humans beings have inherent worth and dignity, when so clearly the people in this video had given theirs up to some evil political idea. And they were trying to take away the humanity of the Bosniaks. I was truly doubting if I could even call myself UU.

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His book is available on Amazon.com

Then Hasan Hasanović, a Srebrenica survivor who now runs the genocide museum there, stepped into the room, and for an hour or more told us his story. It was as painful and unbelievable as the documentary. As his story was drawing to a close, most of us were in tears and visibly disturbed by what we had just seen and heard. It was a reminder and softened my heart a bit to see that others are horrified by this, we have worth and dignity because we recognize the suffering of others, that they were stripped of theirs, and we knew that was wrong, inherently.

Hasan continued on to talk about the aftermath. He lost many members of his family and friends and neighbors. Life will never be the same for him. Srebrenica will never be the same politically or socially. Yet he carries on. He educates in the hopes that this will never be repeated. And then, in the midst of my aching doubt, he said the most extraordinary thing. He said that for years he was stuck in his life, just floundering and filled with hate. One day someone at the museum asked him if he had General Mladic or any Serb soldier in front of him what would he do to him? His response floored me. He said, as if he knew what I had been struggling with,

“I looked at the questioner and had an epiphany. I suddenly knew I would do nothing to the soldier. He is a human being. I am a human being; I am not an animal. I would do nothing to him because he is a human being. I realized then that all that I thought was hate and was holding me back, was really fear and anguish.”

In this moment I felt the significance and urgency of the First Principle again. The First Principle is not only about those who are perpetrating evil. It is about ourselves. We strip ourselves of dignity when we put ourselves on the same level as those we are against. We wound our own selves in the deepest way when we succumb to hate. And it doesn’t change anything. Hasan has more chances of changing people’s minds and helping through his attempts at education, then if he spent the rest of his life hating. They took so much from Hasan and all survivors, but they didn’t succeed in taking his inherent worth and dignity, this he understood. The First Principle is not about saying that all things and all people are good and acceptable. Clearly this is not true, our world has always suffered from people who try to take our humanity and our lives. Clinging to and valuing the First Principle is what allows us to potentially make changes, and it protects our souls. If this man can recognize the inherent worth and dignity of an enemy, because he is human, well, he is way ahead of me. But he encourages me to keep trying and not to lose faith in humanity. He helped me understand that our rage and struggle to uphold the Principle also comes from fear and anguish about what is going on in the world, and in our own lives. The moment we do that, then there is nothing possible but chaos. The First Principle is everything, or there is nothing.

 

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Mostar – The Jewel of Hercegovina

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I was sitting in a café overlooking the Neretva river and the famous Ottoman Mostar bridge, waiting for the jumper to stop strutting around and actually jump! He is not fearful, he stands on the rim of the 78 foot bridge waiting for the precise amount of money to fall into his fez before he takes his impressive leap. It is most likely not his first jump of the day. From the café, I could see his sun-kissed body pacing back and forth as his audience continued to grow. Below, fellow dive club members lazily waited in the little boat to rescue him if it should go wrong. But this guy is a “pro.” He knows how to tuck his legs swan like when he leaps, heading knee first into the water before suddenly swinging his legs around as he enters the freezing water below. The sound of him hitting the water is louder than you would think for the tiny splash he makes. This daredevil stunt looks (and is) dangerous. The water is only 15 feet deep at this spot, if you hit it wrong you would really be in trouble. While the stunt has become a way to hustle tourists for money and to impress them with their athletic dives, bridge jumping from Stari Most, is a 450 year old tradition. Tourists are allowed to do it too, if they partake of the diver’s training school. I wished I were brave enough to try, yet somehow I found myself still firmly in my seat drinking my Bosnian coffee, a thick muddy rich brew to be drunk at any time of the day, for any reason. Coffee is a way of life here. It is a process to make, and a ritual to drink.

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Stari Most was originally built by the Ottomans in 1566, and was the widest arch in the world at the time. It is 13 feet wide and nearly 100 feet long. It slopes gently upward until it meets the other side in a pinnacle at the top. I imagine the smooth white stone is treacherous when wet; thankfully, I only had to contend with it dry, and still my feet slipped. The bridge is connected on each side to stone square shaped guard towers which hover over the glacial teal river. The bridge leads you neatly over the fast flowing river and directly to the old town bazaar and mosques. The view is stunning from any of the myriad cafes on either side of the river. Hercegovina is a Mediterranean climate, and as such, the sun, at all times of the day, blurs angles into one in its intense glare. The only thing that keeps the purity of its color in Mostar’s midday is the brilliantly green river, sparkling like a jewel as it passes through the scorched white stone buildings and the hills behind them. And maybe the jumper’s ruby red speedo too! He’s still up there performing.

IMG_20170825_140845I have seen no architecture that is more pleasing to me than the Mediterranean-Ottoman style. Made up of implacable stone, or whitewashed wood, the houses are box-like with a straight arrangement of windows, often gently arched, or with decorative shutters. It is comforting to look at, maybe it’s the symmetry, or the softness of the angles, or the way they match the countryside around them. Mostar’s 36 mosques are perfection. Unadorned stonework with delicate minarets pointing skyward, the call to prayer resonating from them five times a day is enough to make the cats sunning themselves on the blazing cobblestones and the ducks in the river look toward Mecca. I find it centering and beautiful. I may not have the proper religious devotion, but I admire its consistency and regularity. I know it’s coming. I know they studied hard to get the plaintive call just so. I know it comes from a fervency of spirt that I don’t have. I got caught up in how much it fits this setting, this city. It is a primal call to prayer for Muslims, and for me a reminder of how blessed we all are to be here.

It is a reminder of the uneasy peace that has settled over BiH since the end of the war. How necessary religious freedom is for a society to function. I mean real religious freedom, not the freedom to force your religion onto someone else. Across from the Muslim side, Roman Catholic church bells ring out, and a giant cross monument tops a hill above the city. People live separately, but there are projects under way by UNESCO to educate and bring people together. And anyone can dive.

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The war is evident in ways beyond the segregated living (by choice, not law). I have seen people with missing legs. I have seen ruined buildings, and buildings still standing and even used, but riddled with pockmarks. I have read how UNESCO, and Luxembourg and the World Bank (and probably many others) painstakingly rebuilt Stari Most, her guard towers, and the old town. It had been cruelly destroyed in an effort to force the Bosniaks into an enclave and to demoralize everyone. It was painful for Bosniaks and Croats to see their beloved bridge decimated. However, today the bazaar is active, and the bridge has resumed its duty as symbol of Mostar. After all, “Mostar” means “bridge keeper.” I have seen toys and souvenirs made from bullet casings, and all kinds of war medals and pins for sale. The capitalization of war makes me immensely uncomfortable (I once saw a Pol Pot Khmer Rouge t-shirt in a pile of clothes I was sorting for charity). Even as my soul shudders, my intellect understands it. People here are very poor. 20 years after the war, BiH is still one of the poorest nations in Europe, with a very high unemployment rate. Tourists buy it, so they sell it. I can’t imagine what it feels like to sell cheap tchotchkes made from something that brought so much devastation upon their nation, their families, and personhood. But they are resilient people who are taking advantage of what they can to improve their prospects.

I learned a personal lesson from this. I still can’t figure out how I let it happen, but I completely dropped my guard. I was trying to get to the bridge early, hoping the sun wouldn’t be glaring down on the bridge (it was) so I could get a good picture. It was 8:30 in the morning and people were already crowding around the bridge and old town. I passed a man wearing a city guide nametag and he told me I could get a cheap tour with him. For some inexplicable reason, I went with him. I did. We walked to a couple of spots where he pointed to a mosque, and a small stone bridge that resembles Stari Most in miniature. He told me some interesting things about the city and the war, and he told me that he has children. When we came to our “last stop,” he held out his hand and said, “I want 100 marks.” A darkening descended around me that was almost cartoonish. It felt like an atmospheric change and I desperately wanted to put my face in my hands and either cry or laugh hysterically. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me! That I for absolutely no reason walked into this situation! I wasn’t even as mad at him as I should have been. I decided to placate him and gave him the damn marks. Then he said, “I want 50 more for tip.” When I started to shake my head no, his voice took on a desperate edge as he almost whined, “It’s for my children! There’s nothing after tourist season ends, nothing!” I tried to give him a 20 but then his voice hardened and turned flat. He wanted that 50. So I gave it to him. He then tried to get another 50 and despite the fear that was starting to grip me, I finally stood up for myself and said that I really couldn’t. I also needed money while here. I have never felt more stupid or more like a fraud in my life. He then kissed me three times on the cheek, pointed me to a restaurant that is open for breakfast and stalked off. I went to a different restaurant and ate my breakfast like a zombie. What if I had stood up for myself in the first place? What if he had been violent instead? How did I do this to myself? And the most unsettling part is that he was probably using truth to manipulate me. He probably really does have children. When the bulk of the tourists leave (which is soon), they probably really do have a hard time until the next season. I told myself he’d better use the money for good and that if I see him in town with a coffee or cigarette I would go kick him in the shins.

Was it stupidity or compassion that made me fall for the oldest tourist scam in the world? I had been thinking and feeling empathy for so long and so intensely about what everyone had been through. Now I felt shaken, like I had lost my credentials for solo travel. It’s embarrassing to write this, but I think it’s important for travelers to confess their vulnerabilities and mistakes too, so others can learn from them, and because it is part of traveling. I can’t be the only somewhat seasoned traveler to do something stupid like this.

Later that day I was watching and waiting for the man to jump. I was waiting for my food to arrive when a lovely family came in. One of the ladies turned to me and asked if I had a phone charger, I told her I didn’t. That my phone was dying too. She laughed a deep laugh and her eyes sparkled kindly. She told me that she is visiting home and that she comes as often as she can, though she lives in the U.S. After a few minutes of talking our food arrived and we focused on ourselves. We looked up at the bridge at the same time to finally see the man make his leap, and we laughed as the woman’s grandson clapped in delight and shouted “whee!” Then, as I was getting ready to leave, she came over to me with a tiny package, and said, “I want to make a gift to you from my country. So you’ll always have my country with you.” Inside was a small copper bracelet and ring, with a delicate floral design.

I marveled at how in one day I met two people who represented their country so fully, in completely different ways. The desperation of daily reality on the one hand, and the generosity of spirit on the other. These qualities go hand in hand all over the world, but are manifest in Bosnia & Hercegovina.