Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-- William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
“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 is too much work to do.”
― Dorothy Day
Election Day is descending rapidly upon us. Uh, whoopee. I’m sure most of you have voted already.
I’m a Unitarian Universalist. We are certainly not shy about our political convictions, which mostly tend to weigh in on the liberal side of the scale.
Like the United Church of Christ, we UU’s are a tiny denomination, but have often been at the forefront of great liberation movements. We are small, but sometimes a small voice -- even the voice of just one person -- can start a revolution.
Over the past four years, it has been most disheartening, to those of us who believe in democracy, to see the wave of authoritarianism sweeping over not only our country, but so much of the rest of the world.
It would be foolish, I think, to imagine that this blood-dimmed tide will be turned back quickly, here in the US or anywhere.
Which is not to say that we should be passive, or hopeless. Not at all. As Rebecca Solnit says in her excellent book Hope in the Dark: "Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather."
One of my great heroes, Henry David Thoreau, inspired a movement, more or less by accident. We Unitarians, by the way, claim Thoreau as one of our own, as he was raised in our young faith, but since he resigned his membership in his local church at age 23 and never darkened its doorway again, I think it’s probably more fair to just say that he was an American.
Thoreau made a gesture of protest that seemed insignificant at the time -- a gesture that was actually an error, but which had a vast effect, one of which Thoreau could never have conceived.
As a small, personal protest against American involvement in the war with Mexico and the expansion of slavery into the southwest, Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax. For a couple of years, the local sheriff didn't actually…notice, but eventually he did, and Henry was imprisoned in the county jail.
In fact, the tax Thoreau refused to pay was just a local tax and had nothing to do with the Mexican-American War. And he intended to stay in jail for a while and draw attention to his cause through his noble sacrifice. To his great annoyance, an anonymous person -- probably his aunt -- paid his tax for him and he was released after spending just one night in jail.
But the essay he wrote about his experience, On Civil Disobedience, was hugely influential -- prompting Gandhi and then ML King to use nonviolent resistance in the face of injustice -- resulting in … the independence of India. And the American civil rights movement. Long after Thoreau's death, and all because of his one small action, his one short night in jail.
Dorothy Day, born in 1897, was an American journalist, social activist, a convert to Catholicism. Day initially lived a bohemian lifestyle, but after her conversion, she became a radical social activist and a key figure in the Catholic Worker Movement.
In the 1950s, the U.S. government organized civil defense drills designed to prepare the citizenry in the event of a nuclear attack. Perhaps some of us remember the "duck and cover" drills that schoolchildren had to do.
These drills were part of a government propaganda program to convince Americans that nuclear weapons were a necessary part of our arsenal, and that it would be possible to survive a nuclear war.
On June 15, 1955, Operation Alert was launched.
It was a nationwide, mandated, legally enforced drill, during which all workplaces and public spaces were to be evacuated for a simulated nuclear attack.
The Catholic Workers and other pacifists opposed it because they knew it was an effort to make nuclear war seem like a rational possibility.
Dorothy Day and 26 other pacifists announced to the media that they would disobey the law, and refused to evacuate public spaces for the 15-minute duration of the drill.
Instead, they sat on park benches in City Hall Park in New York City, quietly praying and meditating. All 27 were arrested -- as well as a shoeshine man who was taken into custody by mistake. They – not the shoeshine man, who was released immediately – but the protesters --were branded murderers by their judge, who accused them of being responsible for the simulated deaths of three million New Yorkers.
Day said she was doing “public penance” for the United States’ first use of atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
She and other protesters plead guilty to the charges, but the judge ultimately refused to send them to jail, saying, “I’m not making any martyrs.”
For the next five years, Dorothy Day and many others engaged in similar acts of civil disobedience, refusing to cooperate with the civilian defense drills.
In 1960, more than 600 New Yorkers joined them at City Hall Park, with simultaneous demonstrations at colleges and high schools throughout the city in noncooperation with the drills.
When young mothers with children joined the protests that year, opposition to the drills increased, and the drills were stopped after the 1961 protest.
Historians point to these campaigns and many others of the time as drivers toward the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty signed by President Kennedy, and ratified by the US Senate.
In 1971, Mike Gravel, Robert West and Gobin Stair were just three people who made a huge impact.
Rev. West was the President of the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Mr. Stair was the director of the UUA- owned Beacon Press,
and Mike Gravel was a Unitarian Senator from Alaska. At issue were the infamous Pentagon Papers.
Daniel Ellsberg, who worked for the Rand Corporation at the time, copied thousands of pages of classified documents -- which became known as the Pentagon Papers. These papers revealed the Nixon administration's duplicity over the war in Vietnam.
Senator Gravel made the decision to help read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. The New York Times and the Washington Post were planning to publish them. But the Justice Department temporarily forced the two newspapers to cease and desist. Senator Gravel was looking for a safe way to make the full report public.
He contacted three dozen publishing companies, who all refused to publish these politically charged documents. For Rev. Robert West and Gobin Stair, the decision to publish them took more than a little courage.
The UUA was in deep financial difficulties, and the last thing they needed was to have the wrath of the Nixon Administration fall upon them. But the two men saw publishing the Pentagon Papers as integral to their faith’s commitment to a free and democratic society.
Many years later, Stair recalled: "Other publishers had turned down the manuscript both for commercial reasons and out of fear, and as a free press we felt we had a responsibility to publish needed information when others would not."
Days after Beacon Press published The Pentagon Papers, FBI agents showed up at the UUA's bank asking for the UUA's financial records. The UUA and Senator Gravel sued the government to suspend its search in a case that made its way to the Supreme Court, which, disappointingly, decided in June 1972 that the senator's immunity did not protect Beacon Press.
Further investigation of the UUA and Beacon Press stalled, however, as the discovery of the Watergate break-ins, also in June 1972, came to occupy Nixon's attention.
The release of the Pentagon Papers stirred nationwide and international controversy because it occurred after several years of growing dissent over the legal and moral justification of intensifying U.S. actions in Vietnam.
Whether it brought the war to a close any sooner is debatable, but there is no doubt that the later decision by the Supreme Court to allow their publication was a huge landmark in the battle for the freedom of the press.
In more recent times -- a dramatic example of how one person's actions – literally, one person’s physical gestures -- inspired a movement. Her name was Natalia Dmitruk and she was a translator for the deaf.
In 2004 Victor Yushchenko stood for the presidency of the Ukraine. Vehemently opposed by the ruling party, Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned. He almost lost his life, and his face was disfigured. This was not enough to deter him from standing for the presidency.
On the day of the election Yushchenko was comfortably in the lead. The ruling party, not to be denied, tampered with the results. The state-run television station reported “ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”
In the lower right-hand corner of the screen Natalia Dmitruk was providing a translation service for the deaf community. As the news presenter regurgitated the lies of the regime, Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate them. “I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine” she signed. “They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies. Yushchenko is our president.”
The deaf community sprang into gear. They text messaged their friends about the fraudulent result. As news spread of Dmitruk’s act of defiance, increasing numbers of journalists were inspired to likewise tell the truth.
Over the coming weeks the “Orange Revolution” occurred as a million people wearing orange made their way to the capital city of Kiev demanding a new election. The government was forced to meet their demands, a new election was held and Victor Yushchenko became president.
To serve the future of our world -- not just politically but environmentally, holistically, and in every way -- we are called to keep doing our small acts of faith -- faith in the ripple effects of deeds that, even in the smallest of ways, bring God’s Beloved Community into being.
We should not be passive, or hopeless, no matter how pessimistic some of us may be about the chances for a speedy return of the United States to democracy. What I believe we should be is hopeful, and active -- for the long term. Looking at the long sweep of history to come, in a world that we cannot envision but must serve, we should resist being discouraged if things don't go our way for an election cycle, or a year, or a decade.
The vision and ideals of our faith may not be projected on the big screen at any given time, but we can take the lead of translator Natalia Dmitruk, down in the little screen at the corner, and refuse to collaborate with oppression. We can send out our messages of justice and freedom through whatever comes to our hand to do, and ages and ages hence, life-giving miracles may be performed by people who heard our good word, even though we are long gone.
In Rebecca Solnit’s words: "…history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather."
Let us have faith that just as the autumn’s wildfire smoke in our sky dissipated in the face of fresh winds and rain, so will there soon be a life-giving change in the weather of our national life.
May you be richly blessed. Amen.