Making the World Safer

“Making the World Safer”  a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, October 21, 2018

“Making the world safer”  That’s my sermon title.  What WAS I thinking?  Holy mackeral that’s a huge subject.  I don’t mean Donald Trump huge.  I mean huge for real.

To even contemplate the topic of what’s needed to make the world safe is an invitation to the kind of information overload that is likely to leave one whimpering in a corner wishing they still had their childhood blankie.  There are so many problems that can concern us, so many ways in which the world is screwed up and needs our care.  When you just look at the topics, the world can seem beyond saving.

And that’s just the topics.  The enormity of the problems and their oh so elusive solutions are far worse.

So let’s get the depressing part over quickly. I found this list of problems facing us on one website:

War and Weapons
(especially nuclear) ►

Global Warming ►

Famine ►

Pandemics ►

Massive Radiation Exposure ►

Cyber Attacks ►

Big enough to give you a headache to strike terror into your heart?  That’s just one source with notes in the shortest of shorthands.  I am sure I don’t have to parse them down for you or note that we can add the global trade wars – or just globalization, if that concerns you more.  Or racism, homophobia,health issues, social needs or the fact that women still don’t play the roles they should in many nations, gun violence, poverty, potholes, pot, bad drivers and that hateful person in St. Albert using racist threats to chase a familyout of their neighbourhood. 

On a global scale or a local scale there are plenty of things to concern us, or perhaps cower us in our corners.  I am sure that many of you have been adding your own list of major concerns in your heads…that is if you are not fighting down despair at the thought of how many unthinkable threats we are facing.

So what do we do?

I suppose that giving up or ignoring it all is one strategy.  Judging by the number of people who don’t vote, it’s a popular one! And if you are lucky you might get through your own lifespan untouched by too many of the world’s problems.  After all, we do have the benefit of living in a comparatively safe country with good infrastructure, enough to eat and decent lifestyles.  But pretending that bad things aren’t happening is not terribly responsible.  It’s a little like choosing not to insure your home, hoping there is no accident or fire or break in.  It might work out, but then it might not.  And if you do roll snake eyes on your gamble, the results can be catastrophic.

Of course, caring about making the world safer offers no guarantees either.  I expect we have all lent our support to a campaign that appeared to fail, or a political candidate that never got elected.  We have seen progress on so many fronts only to see some of them struck down by giant set backs.  Human-focused reform has done well in recent decades.  We have seen much of the world become a humane place.  Human rights are improving, or at least an issue in countries where they aren’t improving.  A culture of sharing aid and looking out for our neighbours has grown.  Yet how many times have we seen in the last few years the election of so called ‘populist’ governments that erect barriers of all kinds, take on ‘me first’ policies and pretend that the challenges facing the world are either not real or don’t concern them.

Pretty depressing.  These setbacks have been hard to take.  Reading or watching the news has become bad for your mental health, though it’s been terribly beneficial for late night comics.  After all, we may as well laugh instead of crying.

So what do we do?

Well, first, I think we can allow ourselves some time for grieving.  There have been some terrible
setbacks on the path to a better world. We need to acknowledge them instead of slapping a brave smile on our faces and proceeding as if we were making progress.  

Grieving is the opposite of pretending that nothing bad is actually happening.  Grieving is facing the loss, the failures of our efforts to make the world safer.  Those losses hurt, and if we don’t acknowledge the hurt, it’s unlikely we will be able to get past it.  And if we don’t get past the hurt, then our frustration is likely to turn to the kind of bitterness and anger that will do more harm than good.  It leads to seeing anyone who disagrees with our point of view as the enemy.  Instead of discussing issues reasonably we can easily turn to name calling and ad hominem attacks.  There is far too much of that in the political arena already.

So first we allow ourselves to grieve.  And in the grieving, we seek to remember what is good…what good there still exists in the world, what good people there still exist in the world.  Grieving restores the soul and perhaps even faith in change.  

My friend and colleague Maureen Killoran offers this thought:

We are called today, from the midst of pain and challenge, we are called to praise the world. From a world that appears broken, we are called to praise life’s moments of joy and grace. From time that seems to freeze in ongoing exchanges of platitudes and blame, we are called to reach out to those around us…to connect with those we care about…to try to make amends with those from whom we are estranged. The world is too fragile. There is too much pain. Let us bring our hearts together on this day. Let us praise the mutilated world, in all its blessing and its pain.

The Catholic activist Dorothy Day offered a similar thought about a century ago:

People say, what is the sense of our small effort.  They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.  A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions.  Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that.  No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless.  There’s too much work to do.

Now here is where I might be getting a bit sunshine and unicornish.  I do not deny the enormous problems facing us, especially around climate change and our using up of the planet.  At the same time I do look at history and the advances we have made.  You may not believe this, but we have fewer wars than at any time in the history of our planet.  And the percentage of population that have died in those wars has also plummeted, except in recent years in the Middle East.  

We hear of terrible famines in some parts of the world, but it’s good to remember that even in the last 20 years the percentage of the global population that is undernourished (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization) has decreased from 20% to 11%.  Life expectancy has increased in every country in the world in the last century- although that means the population has also increased. 

Again, I don’t deny for a second that we face significant and mind numbingly large problems, but neither will I forget the progress the human race has made in the last century or two – even if that has brought some troubling unintended consequences. 

Dorothy Day commented that we can’t give in to despair because “There is too much work to do.” In the very next reading in our hymnal (#’s 560 and 561) Margaret Meade offers, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Earlier in this talk I named those six huge areas of problem we are facing. You remember: wars, global warming, famines, pandemics, massive radiation exposure and cyber attacks.

They are the topic heads from Project Save the World.  It is a Toronto based citizen’s group that’s making an effort to address six major threats in manageable ways.  They use online discussions and presentations alongside with in person meetings in the Toronto area. Their first aim is to encourage discussions among ordinary concerned people and to increase education about these threats.  They are not an activist site.  They want people to get good information and then follow their hearts and consciences beyond that.  It is small and manageable work for the organizers and for the people who join.  And if you believe Margaret Meade, that’s the only thing that ever has changed the world.

And Project to Save the World is founded on a premise of hope.  They don’t say that, but the very fact that they believe that people thinking, learning and discussing is a positive suggests a hopeful outlook.  I like that and I agree.  

So does one of my favourite UU writers, Richard Gilbert.  So I will close with his poem, “To Save the World or Savour It”

I rise in the morning torn between the desire 

To save the world or to savor it—to serve life or to enjoy it; 

To savor the sweet taste of my own joy 

Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor; 

To celebrate life with exuberant step 

Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden. 

What am I to do when the guilt at my bounty 

Clouds the sky of my vision; 

When the glow which lights my every day 

Illumines the hurting world around me? 

To savor the world or save it? 

God of justice, if such there be, 

Take from me the burden of my question. 

Let me praise my plenitude without limit; 

Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk! 

No, you will not let me be. You will not stop my ears 

To the cries of the hurt and the hungry; 

You will not close my eyes to the sight of the afflicted. 

What is that you say? 

To save, one must serve? 

To savor, one must save? 

The one will not stand without the other? 

Forgive me—in my preoccupation with myself, 

In my concern for my own life 

I had forgotten. 

Forgive me, God of justice, 

Forgive me, and make me whole.