General Assembly 2012 Event 251
Speakers: Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt
We link our Unitarian Universalist (UU) roots in social justice to Thoreau and Parker; those same roots reach into John Haynes Holmes’s introduction of Gandhi to U.S. audiences, through Dr. King’s inspiration of Reeb and Liuzzo. In this workshop, we explore these roots as they feed justice movements in the 21st century.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: This is Session Number 251—the UU Path from Thoreau To Occupy—in case you thought it was a different workshop. My name is Abhi Jannamanchi and I'm delighted to see you all this evening. My co-presenter, the Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt was called away on a family emergency to Chicago. Her mother took ill and was admitted to the hospital. So she's actually on her way back to Chicago as we speak.
And I appreciate your sending your thoughts and prayers for her mother's health and healing, as well as safe travels to Rosemary. So for those of you who were really looking forward to hearing Rosemary, you just have to put up with me. So I will try to do my best, as we had really come up with a shared presentation. So, if it's a little bit imbalanced, you'll know why.
I wish to begin with a familiar poem by William Stafford, "The Way It Is." "There's a thread you follow. It goes among things that change, but it doesn't change. People wonder about what you're pursuing. You have to explain about the thread, but it is hard for others to see. While you hold it, you can't get lost. Tragedies happen. People get hurt or die. And you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding. You don't ever let go of the thread."
So this evening's workshop is actually to pick up a thread. That thread that has existed since the very inception of our liberal religious tradition—the Unitarian, and the Universalist, and the Unitarian Universalist. A thread that has continued to sustain us spiritually, theologically. And give us that social impetus, momentum, and sometimes even a kick in the pants, to be engaged, engaged in the work. The work of our lives in ways that we are called to be and do in this world.
And it's a thread that connects, not just our traditions, but individuals, cultures, and fates who've had, not only close ties with our tradition, but also have had a deep impact on our faith tradition. So this workshop's attempt is to draw out and lift up some of those linkages over history. And to also lift up some of the important work and messages of some of these good folk. And see where it gets us. As some of my parishioners know, I have a rather rambling way of going about my sermons.
So, and I therefore invite you—Rosemary would have provided the anchor and the focus, but unfortunately she's not here. So you just have to go along with my ramblings. And this, actually, I hope will give us more time to have a dialogue. And I hope you will not only bring your questions but also your thoughts about this particular aspect that we celebrate as a religious tradition.
But in the spirit of who we are and how we approach our social justice work, which is as a spiritual practice, and when I say spiritual, I mean living this one wild and precious life, as the poet described it, extraordinarily well. And for us, social justice as a spiritual practice, is to be grounded in our values and convictions. And move from that deep place of being into the doing. And to do it recognizing that we are not engaged in this work to save lives but to serve life.
And to recognize that this is not a solo adventure but a shared pilgrimage. I invite you to join with me in the spirit of prayer and meditation as we come together at the end of what is a very full and fulfilling day. So let us center ourselves now, for a time. Let your body relax, and let your mind clear of any anxiety and tension. Let us pause for a few moments of quiet reflection and prayer, as we settle into that deep place within, where serenity and hope reside.
Would you join me in the spirit of prayer? Oh nameless one of many names, we pause at this time to reflect on the stirrings of our hearts. We come grateful for the love and support we receive, in and through this, our shared faith. We come gladdened for the love we may offer. May we thoughtfully attend to whatever deep yearnings we feel inside—spirit of justice and love.
Around us in the world we see so much injustice, so much need, so much brokenness that claim and compete for the efforts of our hearts and our hands. Help us to recall that, while we cannot heal all the brokenness in the world, it is still ours to begin from deep within. To take one step, to help one neighbor, and to touch one soul. So give us the courage, oh spirit, to do our part even when the odds are stacked against us.
Grant us the grace and strength, and make us worthy of our heritage. Help us to know peace in our hearts. And to act from that place of peace in our lives. Spirit of our lives and of all life, may we seek to add our portion of justice and equity to our world around us. May we know the blessing of living justly, loving mightily, and walking humbly. And may we give our hearts, minds, and hands ever more in service.
That our lives together may be more grace-filled, our thoughts more wide, our actions more loving as we struggle alone and together in our common humanity. Please join with me in chanting the Hindu chant, "Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti." Shanti in Sanskrit means peace. And when we chant it three times, we invoke inner peace, communal peace, universal peace. Please join as you feel able and moved.
So may it be. We're going to start our journey with Henry David Thoreau, who wrote Resistance to Civil Government that was first published in 1849. And the essay, as you may know, was inspired in part by his strong opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War. And the basis for his essay came from the lectures he gave at the Concord Lyceum in 1848, titled "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government."
Now "Civil Disobedience," which is the title with which it appeared in 1862, is an individual analysis that Thoreau provided of a person's relationship to the state that focuses on why people obey governmental law, even when they believe it to be unjust. But civil disobedience is not an of abstract theory. It is Thoreau's extremely personal response to being in prison for breaking the law.
And I'm sure you're familiar with the context in which he broke the law and went to jail. Because he detested slavery and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel. And so he declined to pay the poll tax, which was dreaded and despised at that time, in July, 1846. For doing that, he was arrested and jailed. Now he was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid, which he also refused to pay.
But without his knowledge or consent, some of his relatives settled the debt. And a very disgruntled Thoreau was released after only one night in jail. Now in his essay, Thoreau said, "How does it become a man to behave towards this American government today? I answer that he cannot, without disgrace, be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government, which is the slave's government also."
Now Thoreau believed in action from principle. He argued that it is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. So the law is not to be respected just because it is the law, but only because it is right and just. Now civil disobedience can be considered to be one of the most complete, theoretical statements of Thoreau's basic assumptions about democracy, civic society, and individual conscience.
It moved people around the world to practice it against local and national tyrannies. And therefore, it has had universal appeal because it deals with the issue of moral law in conflict with government law. Now Mahatma Gandhi read "Civil Disobedience" in 1907 in South Africa. And, it provided him with an intellectual framework for his program of ahimsa, which roughly translates to nonviolence. It is more than that. And, of course, his program of non-cooperation.
Now in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi told American reporter Web Miller, "I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906, and Thoreau's ideas influenced me greatly." And later, Miller noted, that Gandhi, a Hindu mystic, adopted from Thoreau the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British empire.
It would seem that Gandhi received, back from America, what was fundamentally the philosophy of India after it had been distilled and crystallized in the mind of Thoreau. As you are aware, Thoreau had studied the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. And had been deeply influenced, especially by the whole concept of the brahman and the atman, the divine within and without. Now Gandhi applied Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" into a larger context. And made it into a very malleable and applicable principle.
And he developed it using three principles. The first principle of civil disobedience is that one should maintain respect for the rule of law, even while disobeying a specific law that is perceived as unjust. The second principle follows from the first. That one should plead guilty to any violation of the law. As Mahatma Gandhi once put it, "I'm here to submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what, in law, is a deliberate crime, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen."
Now the third principle of civil disobedience is the attempt to convert your opponent by demonstrating the justice off your cause. And as Dr. King said, "There is, within human nature, something that can respond to goodness." And it is to that ideal Mahatma Gandhi was appealing to in applying the third principle. Now a little bit about Mahatma Gandhi's approach of civil disobedience, which he molded as part of his satyagraha.
Now satyagraha is the combination of two words. Satya, meaning truth. Agraha, meaning the willingness to exert our practice. So satyagraha means the willingness to exert truth or practice truth. Now, of course, it is sometimes defined as soul force, which, I guess, people like me tolerate. Gandhi did not like the term passive resistance, which is actually what Thoreau was engaging in at one level, which seemed to Mahatma Gandhi to connote a cowardly refusal to oppose injustice.
And because he had long been a firm believer in truth being the basis of religion and morality, he combined truth and it's active application through the practice of non-violence or ahimsa. For Mahatma Gandhi, truth and God were interchangeable. God is truth, he said, truth is God, he also said. By this he meant that integrity and truthfulness will lead an individual to the realization of God, the absolute principle. And also that truth may, in the end, prevail.
So, his campaigns of satyagraha were regarded as an active struggle against injustice in the pursuit of what is true and just. And in this case, it was human equality. Now, satyagraha, as Mahatma Gandhi developed it, is not simply a technique or a theory, but a way of life. He defined its principles and applied them on as large a scale as possible to show their efficacy. In fact, he said, "I did not invent satyagraha, I discovered it."
"Satyagraha," he said, "is as old as the hills." Now Mahatma Gandhi saw satyagraha as a lifelong process—a way to engage with conflict and resolve it peacefully on many levels of human interaction. Now it's use began with the individual at home, extending out into the community, then to institutions, and then to society as a whole. Now he developed it with common people in mind, so that it's power would then be, not only accessible, but manifested, by people like you and me.
Since it was founded on the most fundamental law of human nature, unconditional love, or what you might call agape, it required no special training. Mahatma Gandhi believed that all human beings have the capacity for satyagraha within us, that what we do not yet know is to how to release its power. Now, as for the elaborateness of Mahatma Gandhi's use of ahimsa and its application through satyagraha, he wouldn't just stage a political protest and just let it go.
People sometimes make that mistake when they try to use his methods. Now, in his most potent campaigns, he would always integrate a carefully chosen, well-organized, and a very well-disciplined, public gesture of protest, with media coverage. And this was in the early part of the 20th century. But never one of those loosely planned, gathered rallies, you know, those impulsive things where a few people try to grab the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He would always integrate the protest into a well-thought out campaign.
Now, while it was well-thought out, he would always leave room for intuition to blossom. And it would always be focused on striving to correct that something wrong. And the campaign would always include from the outset, a lot of amicable and friendly communication with the antagonists. That is, he never made secret plans and sprung a surprise on people. The surprise was gradual. And, in itself, would always provide the opportunity for reconciliation.
So he would always give advance warning. And he would invite the antagonist to really reconsider their positions. And saying, maybe we can reason together, so we don't have to do this. And after—if that didn't succeed, he would go through with it. And after his cohorts had shown their mettle, he would negotiate. He would, once again, warm up with friendship.
And he would always be willing to settle for less because that would make the antagonists feel good about themselves. And he would always tell his followers that if they continued to behave as well as they did, in the future they would have greater chances of success—that they would be able to get more, that eventually lead them to achieving their goal. Now, of course, the modern term for this aspect of Gandhi's way of doing things is win-win.
Now, I'll give you a good, what is probably the most trenchant example of how he put this into practice, which is the Salt March in 1930. Because in this you see a wonderful combination of ahimsa, satyagraha, and civil disobedience on an issue carefully selected, not only to achieve maximum publicity for the Indian cause for independence, but also to embarrass the British. And to support the movement as a whole.
Now the salt tax, which was very, very modest in size and yet had a debilitating effect on the desperately poor in India, symbolized the morality of British colonialism. But before the March was to begin, Mahatma Gandhi sent off a letter to the British Viceroy, Lord Irwin. And he started off this letter by saying, "Dear friend." And this was written in a tone of such congeniality and trust.
And in the letter, he asked the viceroy to help him find a way out before embarking on civil disobedience. He then explained that, while British rule is a curse, he recognized the instinctive goodness of many individual Englishman, unwittingly, he said, serving the evil institutions of oppression. And then he reaffirmed that action taken will be nonviolent. And will achieve, not only freedom for Indians, he said, but also the conversion of the British people, making them see the wrong they have done to India.
Now, Irwin, and this is picturized beautifully in the film, Sir John Gielgud plays Irwin. And he gets the letter, and he reads it. And in the film, the scene, I think, goes like Irwin just snorting with disgust. And he never replied to the letter, much to his detriment, because that's what launched the salt satyagraha. And, the subsequent lengthy campaign that started in Dandi and spread to all over India like wildfire, resulted in many thousands of people being jailed, including Mahatma Gandhi and [INAUDIBLE] Island. But it also infused Indians with a new sense of their own identity. Made them realize and taste what it meant to stand up together for freedom, and turned world opinion sharply against British rule. And ultimately led to India gaining independence in 1947.
That, to me, is a shining example of how satyagraha is put into action. Now, in Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha, dogma was always exchanged for an open exploration of context. Nonviolent action was taken, not to assert propositions or to take stands, but to create possibilities. And the method was designed to open new options, and demand the opponents to make a choice. And this was done while participants continually examined their own motives.
And the whole process was pervaded by a spirit of giving the opponent the courage to change, and releasing the hidden potential of mutual goodwill. So, that is serving us as a backdrop as we now shift our focus back to the United States, to an American Unitarian minister, John Haynes Holmes who was not only a prominent Unitarian minister in the 20th century, but also an ardent pacifist. Holmes was influenced by two people in his life, at least, the way he describes it.
In his early life that led him into the ministry, he was influenced by Theodore Parker. And, Theodore Parker's ministry, especially his sermons, his fearless anti-slavery stance, and his view of religion as being concerned with love and how human beings treated one another, played a critical role in John Haynes Holmes's own understanding of religion.
And his commitment to this public ministry that eventually became a historic landmark in the history of our movement. Now John Haynes Holmes's family had close ties with Parker, even though Holmes never had the opportunity to meet Parker. He was born after Parker died. His grandparents were married by Parker. So there was that connection between Parker and Holmes.
Holmes wrote, "It was Theodore Parker who taught me the real meaning of religion as an inward experience of God, which expressed itself outwardly, not merely in prayer and praise, but a passion for righteousness, and a ceaseless labor for the weak, helpless, and downtrodden among men. I admired Parker's scholarship, his magnificent powers as a preacher, his courage in seeking and proclaiming truth, his demonstration of the effective idealism of religion."
Now during a ministry spanning 60 years, Holmes served the longest as minister to the Church of the Messiah, which later became The Community Church of New York, for 42 years. We're really blessed to have among us today the senior minister of The Community Church of New York, Reverend Southworth, who is seated in the back. Good to see you, Bruce.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Now, you will correct me if I make a mistake. I trust you will. During his ministry at Community Church, Reverend Holmes helped establish the Unitarian Fellowship of Social Justice in 1908, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, in 1909, with his dear friend, W.E.B Du Bois, the American branch of the International Fellowship for Reconciliation in 1915, and the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.
That's just to give you a scope of this man's ministry, his public ministry. Holmes's deep commitment to pacifism, which made him an incredibly courageous and unpopular figure in the United States, was exemplified on Sunday, April 3, 1917, when he opposed his country's entrance into the First World War. He shared how he, as a pacifist, might serve his homeland during wartime.
He said, "If any man or boy in this church answers the call to arms, I shall bless him as he marches to the front. When he lies in the trenches, or watches on the lonely sentinel post, or fights in the charge, I shall follow him with my prayers. If he is brought back dead from the hospital or battlefield, I shall bury him with all the honors, not of war, but of religion.
He will have obeyed his conscience, and thus performed his whole duty as a man. But so long as I am priest, this alter shall concentrated to human brotherhood. And before it shall be offered worship only to that one God and father of us all, who had made of one blood all nations of men to dwell together on the face of the earth."
Reverend Holmes regarded as religion as rooted in human nature, growing through human experience, and emerging through historical development. Religion commences with what humans discover within themselves and develops with their contact with the infinite and the eternal. And is made manifest in the way they go about living their lives.
Affirming that God is revealed through the natural universe and human experience, he said, "Religion belongs distinctly to man, not because he can think and speculate, build churches, and rear alters, but rather because he can sense the whole of life, catch a vision of the ideal in things real, and is willing to give his life to fulfilling this vision among men." John Haynes Holmes encountered Mahatma Gandhi in 1921 through a small pamphlet of his writings and a journal article written by Gilbert Murray.
He later told how Gandhi came into his life, and I quote, "At the moment I needed him most, I discovered that there was such a man. He was living in the faith that I had sought. He was making it work and proving it right. He was everything that I believed, but hardly dared to hope. In my extremity in 1917, I turned the Gandhi. And he took me into his arms and never let me go. A way across the globe, he cared for me, and taught me, and reassured me. Had the Mahatma not come into my life, I'm must sooner or later have been lost, as it was, he saved me.
He gave me a peace of mind and serenity of soul which will be with me to the last. Even when he died, I gave way only for a period of time. And then the tears flowed with a passion of grief which there was no controlling. But the Mahatma did not fail me. I called to him and I am persuaded that he answered. My real life as a teacher began with Gandhi and it ended with his end. I should have retired when he died, for all through these latter months, I have been but an echo of my true self. If I have been content to stay on until now, it is because I could no longer bear witness to Gandhi."
So, therein you see how Mahatma Gandhi influenced one of our own in a deep, deep way. That not only influenced his personal life, but also impacted his ministry, not just to his community but to the world. That brings us to Dr. King. Now Dr. King first heard about Gandhi in 1950 from Mordecai Johnson in a sermon at Fellowship House in Philadelphia.
In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, King states that, "Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale." He further writes in his book that, "It was in this Gandhi an emphasis on love and non-violence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."
Now in 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King visited India and came back fully convinced that satyagraha could be effectively applied to the struggle by blacks in the United States for racial integration. He came back, where he continued to struggle for freedom and equality for all Americans. And like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King also talked about suffering as a path to self-purification and spiritual growth. He not only experienced this suffering, by being jailed, beaten, and harassed by the authorities of the day, but he eventually ended up paying for this cause with his life, as did Mahatma Gandhi.
Now many people tend to think of Dr. King in the narrow sense as a civil rights leader, losing sight of the broad alliances and social causes he built and promoted throughout his life as a human rights leader, especially workers' rights and economic justice. Now, of late I've been studying Dr. King's trip to India, and the places he visited, and the people he met. And how those influenced him.
Some of the folks he met during his visit, which was almost two months, were people like Vinoba Bhave, who was a dear friend and disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. And was the instigator of the Bhoodan movement, which led to the zamindari system, which is the landed class in India donating their lands to the poor. And, Dr. King spent a considerable amount of time with Vinoba Bhave, trying to ascertain and understand what the implications were.
He also spent time with Jayaprakash Narayan, another friend and associate of Mahatma Gandhi, who was engaged in labor struggles and was trying to bring people together to coalesce into unions and to fight for their rights. And one can see how these influences impacted Dr. King's ideas and vision after he returned to the United States.
Now, a recent book, All Labor Has Dignity, King's speeches on labor, edited by Washington University Professor Michael Honey and published by Beacon Press, sheds light on Dr. King's deep kinship to the poor, the working people, unions, and his commitment to economic justice. Now in these mostly unpublished speeches that were delivered between 1957 and 1968, Dr. King continually tries to connect the labor movement with the civil rights movement, and to connect them to the broad efforts for social reform.
He moves from a deep conviction that unions and civil right forces together could push history in a better direction. Now, in fact, when Dr. King gave the famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 as part of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, on the podium and throughout the vast audience, one can see union leaders in Gandhi caps and union members, both men and women, carrying picket signs that say "Fair Employment, Full Employment, Jobs and Freedom."
Not much has changed. In his speech, Dr. King advocated for both racial and economic justice, asserting that freedom was inextricably tied to both. Now in the following years, Dr. King focused primarily on the need for economic justice and the grim problem of poverty that remains so significant even today. In 1966, he began working in Chicago and other northern cities to address housing and unemployment discrimination.
And in 1968, he and leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference started planning the Poor People's Campaign, a peaceful gathering of poor people of all races across the nation, to demand that Congress shift the country spending from war to housing, affordable health care, education, and jobs. Dr. King travel to Memphis, as part of this campaign, to stand in solidarity with striking sanitation workers. And Memphis provided the potential starting point for what he called the Economic Equality Movement, a dream that never became reality due to his untimely death.
Now Dr. King's advocacy of mobilizing working people and the poor calls into question the evils of war, racism, poverty, militarism, and mindless consumerism, and pointed to an indictment of the capitalist system itself. And in his "All Labor Has Dignity" speech, delivered to the striking sanitation workers in Memphis on March 18, 1968, King talks about, "The problem of two Americas, one poor and one rich, of the yawning gulf between people with inordinate, superfluous wealth and people suffering in abject poverty."
He talks about the working poor, people with work, what he calls, "full-time jobs at part-time wages." He talks about how labor is not menial, until one is not getting adequate wages. That all labor has dignity. And he takes America to task for having failed to hear that the promise of justice and freedom have not been met. And he says, "It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo, then about justice, humanity, and equality."
And he says, "America has had a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds on the question of justice." It's an amazing [INAUDIBLE] speech. And it deals with a lot of the issues we're facing even today. Now, all this rambling. For Thoreau, Gandhi, Holmes, nonviolent resistance was a state of mind, as well as a method of activism. They found their philosophies on thoughtful, spiritual reflection.
Through the method of thoughtful contemplation, they transformed their rightful outrage, their righteous indignation from reflexive anger into a reflective passion for justice and love for humanity. This contemplative, loving basis for their resistance made all the difference in the quality of the resistance, and gave their protest Universalist appeal. Now "from preachin' to meddlin," is an expression that many of you may be familiar with. I wasn't, until I came here.
Now preaching as you know, is the strong proclamation of positions and issues that the hearer readily agrees with, most of the time. Whereas, meddling, raises issues that get too close for comfort to the truth. For example, Dr. King went from preachin' to meddlin' when he shifted his focus beyond racial justice and civil rights to economic justice, not only in the United States but around the world. And paid for it with his life. Now if these good folks were alive today, they would ask us to stop preachin' and do some good, old meddlin'.
And actually challenge us to rebuild a movement that brings everybody in and shuts no one out. Now, I'm not sure if we will all ever come close to having the kind of courage, determination, and presence, and groundedness of a Mahatma Gandhi, or a Henry David Thoreau, or John Haynes Holmes, or a Dr. Martin Luther King. But I do know this, we have to try. We have to begin somewhere here.
And we have to try and live out our faith in everything we do. And we have to try and stand, and keep standing, on the side of love, and justice, and peace. And we have to try and build a world that is guided by the spirit of love, compassion and justice because that was their vision. And it is our vision and our calling. So, my friends, may we embrace that vision and live that calling this day and every day. Thank you.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: I really appreciate how patiently you've been sitting through this very long journey that I took you on. We have some time and I'd love some interaction, questions, comments. And if you would please use the microphone as we are being videotaped, and try to look good on camera.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: And, if you do, please come up, mention your name, and feel free to share. All right.
BRUCE SOUTHWORTH: Thank you. I'm Bruce Southworth and I serve as the Senior Minister of The Community Church of New York. And I want to say, first of all, thank you for what I think was a concise, precise, great detail, in-depth, and really very impressive, the whole story you were telling. I wonder if you might reflect a little bit on the relative positions that each of Parker, Gandhi, Holmes, and King occupied in their growing up as relative positions of significant privilege, which is not unlike most Unitarian Universalists this day. And yet, where they ended up.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Right, right. Thank you, Bruce. That is a very good point. And then, again, therein we have a similarity that, I guess, depending on where we stand, we can either celebrate or feel bad about. Of course, I think, comparatively, I would say Parker had humbler beginnings being from a farming family, even though I don't think they were poor. They were certainly what we would call middle class.
And the fact that he was able to get an education and be able to go into the vocational ministry, certainly gave him the social class and privilege, especially after he started his career. Similarly, I would say with Mahatma Gandhi, he was a fairly—he came from a fairly wealthy family of merchants. He actually belonged to the merchant cast from the state of Gujarat, and his family was quite affluent—that they—his brothers, after his father's death, had enough family holdings to be able to afford to send him to England to study for the law, to become a barrister.
John Haynes Holmes, again, came from a fairly wealthy Unitarian family. Somebody who, again, went to Harvard Divinity School at Harvard College, Harvard Divinity School, and also moved from the place of privilege. And, I think, I'm not too sure about Thoreau. Bruce, do you—
BRUCE SOUTHWORTH: Thoreau, I don't know.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Yeah.
BRUCE SOUTHWORTH: [INAUDIBLE].
ABHI JANAMANCHI: And Dr. King, of course, was comparatively, probably a little lower on the rung. But, in the context of being part of the black community in those days, was certainly a more affluent family, and well-educated family, and deeply committed to education. In fact, there is an instance in which Dr. King critiques his father for his materialism. I'm trying to remember where I read that. It was quite instructive to read, the father and son, the tension.
But the thing that I feel we can learn from, especially if we look at, say, the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, in particular, his ability to move away from that. Not just in a superficial way of trying to relate and understand the lives of millions of poor who lived in India, but a willingness to actually fashion his life in that manner. And Thoreau was also a man of very little means. He didn't even have enough income to pay income tax, and didn't own any property, so he wasn't paying property taxes, which is why he decided not to pay the poll tax.
Again, shows an ability to not only see and experience life as experienced by others or by the other. But also, to be fully present in that reality. And, I think, that is something that, as we struggle with our own class, privilege, and social status, and whatnot, I think it is something that we may need to pay attention.
And, I think, there are certain principles that don't come easily to us, things like sacrifice, devotion, discipline, and, dare I say that word, obedience. You know, there's something to be said about looking at those, reclaiming those words in ways that make sense for us in our own lives, and trying to move from that place to really experience the world. And to experience the holy, as seen by the other.
[? SPEAKER 1: But ?], what are you doing out there?
SPEAKER 1: You know, he was trying to be a leader of a movement, and all the people you spoke of were trying to be a leader of a movement. And I was involved with Occupy this year, of course, this leaderless movement, right? I'd love to just hear you reflect a little bit on that idea, how you saw it play out in what's happened since then. And leaderless versus leader and—just love to hear your thoughts on that.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Well, I'm from Florida and while we did have our own version of Occupy, it was not as sustained and engaging as probably we would have liked. Part of the reason why Rosemary and I wanted to do this workshop, was to provide theological underpinning, as well as some historical connection. And not try to weave any particular narrative for you to—in a neatly packaged way for you to take home. But at least for you to, hopefully, pick up some strands.
And the reason I spent so much time on satyagraha was to give some indicators as to what we may be able to apply with the Occupy Movement today. I don't think it is leaderless. I'm sure those of us who have been involved fully recognize that. It's leaderless in the sense of the way the world wants to frame it. It's to me a wonderful manifestation of what, indeed, can happen when people rise together.
But the challenge is how do we try to do this work together. And tried to build on certain tested principles that have proven, time and again, even though may not provide quick returns, but do have a lasting quality and the ability to bring social transformation. Principles of nonviolence, principles of satyagraha—how do we try to apply them? And, I think, that is where faith communities and people of faith, such as ourselves, come into needing to be engaged—not just as allies but as full participants and try to soften the divisions.
And how do we really, truly try to reach out to the antagonists? You know, write the Irwin equivalent of the dear friend letter. And shift the paradigm in a way that people do see why this is important. And why this struggle affects each and every one of us. And, I don't know, I've been pondering that myself. And one of the things we were hoping was that this setting would at least provide for some of those ideas to start germinating. Thank you.
PETER PETERSON: Hi, my name is Peter Peterson. Thank you very much for a wonderful talk. I'm from First Universalist Church in Denver, Colorado. In May, I was in Harvard Square, and I went to the Coop and bought a book. Then I had to go the bathroom, and I got in a line. And the guy behind me starts asking me, what did you buy?
And I said, well, I bought Tolstoy's Confessions. And he said, oh, he's the one that influenced Gandhi and nonviolence, and so on. I said, well, where are you from? He said, I'm from India. And so, I had understood that Tolstoy read some UU writings. And I'd just like to have you comment on the UU influence on Tolstoy. And then, on Gandhi. Thank you.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: I'm so glad you brought it up. Thank you. This is true, and I'm delighted to be able to at least address it in a small way. Mahatma Gandhi—again, that's why, while Thoreau had a significant impact on Gandhi's ideas, Tolstoy had a deeper influence. Oops, excuse me.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: My timer is done, so it's warning me, with a bark.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Which is why the commune that Mahatma Gandhi created in Johannesburg was called Tolstoy Farm. Now, Tolstoy read Adin Ballou. And was a deep admirer of Ballou's essay. And I wrote it down because I had a feeling someone might ask me the question.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: The title of Ballou's essay—I will find it—yes, it was Ballou's book, Christian Non-Resistance. And this came out in the early 1848, so just around the time Thoreau came out with Civil Disobedience. Now, Ballou advocated passive resistance against institutionalized, government-sanctioned slavery.
Now he recognized the injustice of his government and that it sanctioned slavery and war. And was enough—that was enough to establish this fact in his own mind, which was contrary to his avowed Christian ethic. Now this book was what Leo Tolstoy came into contact with. And Thoreau ignored Ballou. Again, the Unitarian Universalist issue.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: And, of course, even if Thoreau had read Ballou's book, he would not have agreed with Ballou's position on some of those things. And so, that's the connection, again. And that circles back to Mahatma Gandhi. And so, we now have both the Unitarian and the Universalist connections here. Yes.
AMY NELSON: Hi, I'm Amy Nelson from First Unitarian Universalist in Rochester, Minnesota. And my question has to deal with the seeming complacency, and what difference do I make, my one—that seems to be kind of in this—my generation and a little bit Generation X and below. And what do you feel that these people, these men, would have done with the complacency that so many—that I'm seeing in so many of my contemporaries?
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Well, they would have struggled with it, like we are struggling with it. While people like Gandhi mobilized millions, there were millions who stayed home, which is why it took as long as it did for India to gain its independence. You know, again, like what they say in the open space technologies, when it's—whoever is here is who you start with.
And it's a good thing. Because the more we look for those who aren't in the room, and again, I think it's probably something, a disease, that we Unitarian Universalists suffer from. We're constantly seeking those who are not yet here, and especially people of color. We really want them here. Why? I don't know, we just want them.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: I'm sorry, when I don't write down my notes, I drift.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: But, but when we have a message, as Gandhi did, or Dr. King did, and we're able to articulate that message, not just in our words, but in our deeds, people will come. it takes time, and patience is something we have to cultivate. And this isn't work that would happen overnight, especially to dismantle a structure that has been put in place systematically over centuries. The British East India Company was a corporation, by the way. One of the first corporations, multinational.
So, we're looking at something that is just deeply rooted, embedded, into the very fabric of our global community. And that's what we're struggling against. What we need to recognize is we're not the first ones. And that we're just picking up something that went dormant for awhile because of our own apathy and indifference. That we're now, once again, waking up and refusing to live as Thoreau would have said, lives of quiet desperation.
SPEAKER 1: You know, we have only so much as people, Unitarians and the public, to have so much attention on people. On Thoreau, and Gandhi, and Dr. King. But without Paul Robeson, we wouldn't have Dr. King. And everybody—
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Amen.
SPEAKER 1: And even the blacks, nobody, few people, know about Paul Robeson. And sometimes it would be nice to hear about UU's were—Unitarians were often offered [? decides ?] for Paul Robeson to speak. But that's the thing that's always bothered me. And one other thing about meanderings—another meandering of Dr. King was the Vietnam War. Or what—meddling, meddling. So, anyway.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Thank you. Yes.
SPEAKER 2: I know very, very little about Thoreau's childhood, but I do know that his family made pencils. And he assisted that labor. The transcendentalists were prevalent in Concord, and so forth. And they were people who used a lot of pencils. So, my theory is that now I understand how Thoreau could go to Harvard College. You know that family was [INAUDIBLE] that pencil profit. I wanted to say too, in the absence of your colleague, who I assume was going to talk about the Occupy [INAUDIBLE].
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Well, she was going to cover Thoreau, Parker, and a little bit of Holmes, and also go more into Occupy because Rosemary has been very involved in the Occupy Movement in New York.
AMY NELSON: I see. I'm from Chicago, Third Unitarian Church there, and also am involved with Chicago Occupy. And I wanted to say that in preparation for the NATO protest in Chicago, Occupy was very, very concerned to offer nonviolent trainings. And there were over 350 trainings to get ready for the NATO protest. And the non-violence was central to all of those.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Wonderful. Thank you.
HAL BERTLESON: I'm Hal Bertleson. I'm just recently a member of the Unitarian Congregation in Duluth, Minnesota. And I moved now to Quimper UU Fellowship in Port Townsend, Washington. My question is, it's been said that Gandhi understood the British as believing in fair play and reasonableness, in that sense, and that his methods then worked just because of that. So what do we understand then when working with others who don't have that kind of view and understanding of the world?
ABHI JANAMANCHI: It's certainly something that's promulgated, especially in drawing a comparison between the British and say, Hitler and Nazi Germany. And while certainly one can make a clear case of the difference in how it may have been if Mahatma Gandhi was dealing with Hitler, instead of the British. I think, what we're we start getting into this comparison. The fact of the matter is, the British did engage in genocide in India.
And, while Jallianwala Bagh massacre was one of the more visible instances of a genocide that was perpetrated on the Indian people, it was something that happened over a century, leading to millions of people dying. So, I have a little bit of an issue trying to- and to me it somehow feels like diluting the nature of his work. But applying it to our system and what we're faced with, what I would say is I think we're dealing with people who are like us. And the more we like to think of the other as someone different, is when we start getting into these things.
If we believe, and I'm trying to apply it to the Occupy situation, I believe that some of the ideas and the methodologies that people like Mahatma Gandhi used have still a lot of relevance and applicability. And it is worth a try. And if, indeed, we are shown that we're dealing with very unreasonable people, well, we'll be the wiser.
GINA WHITTAKER: Hi, I'm Gina Whittaker from San Luis Obispo, California. I don't know if there is a relationship, but I'm wondering if you know anything about the relationship, perhaps, between the Khasi Unitarians and Gandhi or any of that period. I'm not clear on the relative time frames, but I know quite a bit about the Khasi history. And I just wondered if you had a comment.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Well, I'm not really familiar about the extent to which the Khasi people, especially the Khasi Unitarians were involved in India's freedom struggle. Now, having said that, Hajom Kassor Singh lived during the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th. And I'm sure would have—was a well-read person who was very much in tune with what was happening around.
And, especially the Brahmo Samaj, which was the Unitarian Hindu equivalent, which was what actually brought Hajom Kasoor Singh in contact with British and American Unitarians. The Brahmos were very involved in India's freedom struggle. That actually Mahatma Gandhi drew heavily from Raja Ram Mohan Roy who was the founder of the Brahmo Samaj.
And people like Rabindranath Tagore, who you know as the Nobel Laureate, and somebody who was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and involved in the freedom struggle, was a third generation member of the Brahmo Samaj. So there are all these connections, so I'm sure there were layers of influence and interaction. I know Mahatma Gandhi visited the Northeast many times.
And was especially drawing the attention of the nation to the plights of what he called—as they're called, the tribals of India. And, pointing out that just as the untouchable class was being oppressed and subjugated by the upper castes, so were the tribals in India. So, it'll be a wonderful thing to research—maybe a demon project for someone. [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 3: I want to thank you, Abhi, for what I consider a remarkably fine presentation. I also want to make a remark about your presentation around John Haynes Holmes. When I was in school, Holmes was almost a cipher, very difficult to find much material about him. And, as I looked it over, Holmes became one of my heroes from the 20th century.
Yesterday or the day before, we heard in one of the lectures, we don't have many 20th century heroes. Holmes has seemed to me, in some ways, to be ignored, maybe even suppressed. I very much appreciate the fact that you've lifted him up. Do you have any comments on why it might be that Holmes, in fact, has not achieved the status that he probably deserves in leading us toward our more pacifist stance?
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Maybe Bruce may have a better perspective on that. Bruce?
BRUCE SOUTHWORTH: Well, there's a familiar story to those who know about Holmes, was that he was a pacifist in 1917. And the moderator of the American Unitarian Association, was the, I think, Supreme Court Chief Justice Taft who had declared, I guess, as moderator, that all the ministers were going to be supportive of the war effort. And about 18 to 25 of them said the AUA can't tell ministers what to do. And so, in many ways, he was—that helped cement, I think, Holmes's leaving the association.
The church never left. It sometimes said it did, but the Church of the Messiah, when it became The Community Church of New York, he had asked that they leave the Association. The church itself said, we've come this far with the AUA, we're not going to leave. But he removed himself from Fellowship, and was invited back in about 1952 by President Elliott. And retook his Fellowship. He did give the Ware Lecture in 1938, so he did not totally isolate himself from the American Unitarian Association, but for a certain period, he was certainly not welcome.
And pacifism's not very popular, especially after World War II. He has a close friend, Rabbi Stephen Wise, for his entire years in New York, pioneering in interfaith relations. And they survived their friendship, just barely, through World War II with his pacifism. So, there's a wonderful—somewhere in the Library of Congress, there's a wonderful video of a Yale historian who won a prize for—a young Ph.D. won a prize for the best history thesis talking about it.
You can look it up, Holmes, Library of Congress, pacifism. It's about a 30-minute, 40-minute talk. that I stumbled across that talks about why Holmes's pacifism was, not only understandable in that time, but useful to understand today. So, I think, perhaps, the pacifism, and he was a socialist. An, I mean, he was an unabashed socialist. And he said when he arrived at the church, he had a chapel for the rich.
And he started preaching socialism, and the gentlemen who were the chairpersons of—CEOs of banks, and railroads, and the like—all the members of the board were gentlemen. Gentlemen did not get into fights. So they kind of drifted away, while he continued preaching his socialism and attracted a wider audience. But it was, in many ways, a populist movement, pacifist and socialist—none of which really reflected the mainstream of 20th century Unitarianism. I think, that's just a guess.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: No, I think you've raised some really good points, Bruce. Thank you. Fred?
FRED SMALL: And that ties very much in what I was going to say. I'm Fred Small. I'm the Senior Minister at First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And all of the Unitarian—I guess they're all Unitarian—Ballou, of course, but Thoreau Emerson, Parker, Holmes, none of them were in very good standing in our movement. And you touched on that, and Bruce really filled in the history of Holmes's conflict with our association.
Parker had a terrible time finding a pulpit exchanges with other Unitarian Churches. Emerson was persona non grata at Harvard for 20 years after the Divinity School address. Thoreau, I believe, was not a practicing Unitarian after he left Harvard in his teens. So, I really liked what Suzanne Fast said this morning, that even those of us who hear the beat of a different drummer, not to Thoreau, can scorn the prophets in our own land.
So I suspect that today's Thoreaus, Emersons, Parkers, Holmes are not the senior ministers of prestigious Unitarian and Universalist churches, but are rather, the radicals, the insurgents, the people who are challenging us. And so, we should look to them for our inspiration.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Indeed. Amen. Thank you.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: And one last comment and we'll wrap up.
MATTHEW S. FOX: Sure. I'm Reverend Matthew S. Fox, All Souls Bethlehem Church of Brooklyn. I really loved your talk. And I've always been a great admirer of Gandhi, among other things, for his ability to unite such an incredibly divided population. And, while obviously, he couldn't prevent partition, he really brought together Hindu, and Muslim, and across caste lines, and things like that.
And when I looked at Occupy, one thing I really saw was a population incredibly divided around gender, race, sexual orientation, and that those divisions always seemed to be a big part of what stopped the movement becoming what it could be. And I'm wondering what kind of wisdom you think we can find from what Gandhi was able to do to unify. And how we could look to that today.
ABHI JANAMANCHI: Well, again, I think Mahatma Gandhi's success rested in his ability to reach across those lines. And speak to a common aspiration, which was freedom, which, in many ways then—and his approaching it as a spiritual principle. An agent—he just didn't talk about freedom as a political idea, he was constantly drawing people into reflecting on it from their own faith.
And to move from that place. And then to say that you don't have to be a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Christian to believe in freedom because this is something that God has given you that nobody can take away. And it's when somebody comes up with such a simple, yet compelling, narrative it is only natural that people come closer, setting aside their differences. And, of course, we also saw how temporary it was. And once the political machinery took over, and the partition became a reality, all of that went by the wayside.
But, at least, for the time being, and again—it's heartening to me to see groups now start to coalesce and try and bridge those differences. And, be it of people of color who are involved in Occupy, or GLBT folks who are involved in Occupy, are trying to find common ground. Recognizing that there is a larger issue that one needs to be attendant to, and not just be focused on the particularities. And, I think that's where we have a role to play.
We may be small, we may be minuscule, and we may be constantly fretting about how fragmented we seem to be, but we seem to have figured out a way to coexist together. And then, I think this is a good model for us to take out into the community to show that, as Bill Sinkford says, our differences need not divide us. So I hope, with that aspiration, I'd like to close with Dr. King's words that—one of those meddling sermons he gave at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967.
"Beyond Vietnam, time to break the silence. I'm convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we, as a nation, must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. A true revolution of values will soon cause to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. The choice is ours. And though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history. So may we choose to continue the struggle for a true revolution of values." So may it be.
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Last updated on Friday, August 10, 2012.
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