Hope, Hypocrisy and Hot Fudge Sundaes

Hope, Hypocrisy and Hot Fudge Sundaes, by Jim Brown

In these times of social media it’s tough to be a purveyor of hope, inspiration or just causes without someone instantly digging up a reason or two to doubt the credibility of the purveyor.  The question I’ll address in this talk is should we separate the message from the messenger and if so how do we convince ourselves to do it despite the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As so well illustrated by Don Benson last week, hope is a powerful emotion, and absence of hope can be devastating.  But what about its withdrawal?  I remember a short story that, if not written by Edgar Alan Poe, should have been.  A prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition had endured harsh interrogation without breaking down.  Now, a little appreciated fact is that only 10 per cent of the Inquisition’s prisoners were physically tortured, the remainder being subjected to endless questions from lawyers whose object was to determine the extent to which the accused agreed, or disagreed, with church doctrine.   So chances are that our prisoner had faced attorneys rather than the rack.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide which was worse.  At any rate, as the story goes, our prisoner, who was not shackled, made his customary survey of his small cell before retiring to his pallet, the survey including a yank at the cell door.

What’s this?  Could it be?  The door was not locked.  Ever so slowly, his heart racing, the prisoner eased open the door a crack and peered down the passage way.  At the far end he saw the guard at his usual spot, slumped over a table, fast asleep.  Afraid to breath, the prisoner tip toed along the passage and slipped past the sleeping guard.  At the end of the passage and at right angles to it was a dimly lit winding corridor angling upward.  The prisoner crept along the corridor until suddenly, from around a curve in front of him, came the sound of feet and voices, gradually growing louder,  Frantically he searched for an alcove or cross passage, but there were none.  In despair, the prisoner lay down in a bit of shadow at the base of a wall.  Sounds of laughter grew, and four pairs of boots came around the corner, passing with inches.  But nobody stopped.  Somehow in their preoccupation with a ribald joke, they didn’t see him.  Again the corridor stretched empty into the gloom.  The prisoner got up and resumed his walk, going faster and faster, for at the end of the corridor was a half open door.  A shaft of moonlight and a draft of fragrant air drifted through.  Cautiously the prisoner slipped through the door and entered a walled garden at the end of which stood an open gate.  Abandoning caution, the prisoner raced past the garden and through the gate, into the arms of the Grand Inquisitor.  Enfolded in his captor’s robes, the prisoner broke down and cried.  Hope and its withdrawal accomplished what the Inquisitor’s lawyers and  rack couldn’t.

Though not assailed as dramatically as our prisoner, we experience hope and disillusionment every day at the hands of people who seemingly fail us

Let’s start with Hope (pause) Arkansas, the birthplace of Bill Clinton.  Michael Lempres, a Washington attorney, made the following observation:

When President Clinton attends Easter services and is pictured leaving church carrying a bible and holding his wife’s hand, he is telling us all that he believes in God and family.  When later that day he has a tryst with a White House intern next to the Oval Office, his actions say something very different.  Does that make him a hypocrite or simply a man who gives in to his weaknesses more easily than most?  More importantly, which of those choices is better for our society?  None of us knows what Clinton really believes, but America is stronger if he, like other politicians,  tells us what he truly believes even if he falls short of those beliefs.  We need leaders, even those who have fallen short, to proclaim and defend their moral values.  We all pay the price if the insult ‘hypocrite’ succeeds in silencing those who would defend values that are difficult to maintain.”

Let me tell you a little about hot fudge Sundaes.  Ideally there’s two or three scoops of vanilla ice cream, each successively topped with hot fudge.  Just pouring it on the uppermost scoop is cheating.  However, it’s not necessary to layer the whipped cream and peanuts.  These can go on top without remorse.  The cherry, sometimes an afterthought, should never be considered a mere decoration.  It’s a citrus prelude to the delights that follow.  I wax evangelical when talking about hot fudge sundaes, because I want to share the good news.

According to Ambrose Bierce, the author of The Devil’s Dictionary, an evangelist is “a bearer of good tidings, particularly in a religious sense, such as to assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.

Over the years there have been some spectacular flameouts among evangelists, reminding me of my favorite definition of hypocrisy, which is:  hypocrisy equals beliefs minus actions.  A good example was Jim Bakker, a proponent of family values, brought down by the disclosure of a one night stand with a woman not his wife.  Did his actions make him a hypocrite, or are we confusing hypocrisy with human frailty.  Maybe he truly believed in marital fidelity, but simply succumbed to temptation.  In his Essays, published over 400 years ago, Montaigne commented: Saying is one thing, doing another.  We must consider the sermon and preacher distinctly apart.” Bakker’s eventual undoing had nothing to do with his dalliance, rather with the diversion of millions of dollars from the Praise the Lord ministry to the purchase of a 10,000 square foot “parsonage” with gold fixtures, plus Rolls Royce’s for he and his wife, Tammy Faye. Nevertheless, Bakker’s preaching lent hope and consolation to thousands, if not millions of viewers.  To what extent his appropriation of luxurious surroundings and fancy cars negated messages of hope we’ll leave up to the fleeced to decide.

The waitperson sets the hot fudge sundae down in front of me in a vase-like glass, flared upward.  I cup the glass in my hands to check that the fudge is warm.   I lift the cherry by its stem, put in in my mouth, detach the fruit and hold it there for a second or to savor its flavor.  Then, with a long handled spoon I delicately part the whipped cream, eating some with the peanuts, while being sure to leave enough to combine with the vanilla ice cream and fudge below.  By this time the fudge has softened the first layer of ice cream, but is still warm – warm enough not to solidify.  I want fudge, not a candy bar.  By the time I’ve worked my way to the bottom of the glass, the fudge and ice cream have melded to a pudding-like texture, swirls of cream and chocolate nestling in the little cone receptacle,  just enough to challenge spooning it all out.

While evangelist Jimmy Swaggert was attacking Jim Bakker for sexual misconduct, it was revealed in public that Swaggert had a long history of spending time in motels with “professional women.” Swaggert made a tearful apology to his viewers for his years of misconduct and managed to stay on the air.  He was forgiven — at least until it was revealed several years later that he had started all over again.  Perhaps Swaggert justified his behavior along the lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson: That which we call sin in others is experiment for us.” As Bertrand Russell said: We have two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but not practice and another which we practice but seldom preach.

Speaking of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was his land upon which Henry David Thoreau lived while writing about the importance of solitude and self reliance at Walden Pond. From time to time, Thoreau would run into town and have people cook dinner for him, and before heading back into the woods, would dump his laundry at his mother’s house.  I wonder if Emerson admonished him with his oft quoted saying: Go put your creed into your deed.  At any rate, we still admire Thoreau as a champion of simplicity in living as a counter to the profligate consumerism of our time.  The message survives the behavior of the messenger.

Those of us who embrace the perils of global warming perhaps  gain hope from such well known supporters  as Leonardo DiCaprio, who is an advocate for living a ‘green’ life. While preaching that fossil fuel use is triggering a global climate catastrophe, Leo hops around the world on fuel-guzzling private jets and giant, diesel-fired yachts. “If we do not act together, we will surely perish,” he tells the United Nations in a widely hyped keynote speech.  To quote William Shakespeare: It is a good divine that follows his own instructions.

Michael Moore’s 2009 documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, examined the impact of corporate tyranny on the everyday lives of Americans. Michael even classified himself as an everyday American. Turns out, Michael Moore is an anti-capitalist, capitalist.  Moore owns 9 homes, a private plane and is worth more than $50 million. Michael once said, “Capitalism is evil.” I’ve viewed Moore’s documentary; it makes some excellent points.  Logan Pearsall Smith an American-born British essayist and critic, summed up things nicely when he wrote:

All reformers, however strict their social conscience, live in houses just as big as they can pay for.

Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher, wrote:

He who has health, has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.

In an essay entitled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” published in 1849, Carlyle suggested that slavery should never have been abolished. It had kept order, he argued, and forced work from people who would otherwise have been lazy and feckless.  Just 16 years prior to the publication of Carlyle’s essay, the United Kingdom had abolished slavery.  To praise hope while proclaiming merits of slavery reeked of hypocrisy, yet few remember Carlyle as a hypocrite, and many extol his ability to reason and shape opinion in a positive manner.

If you know someone who has never tried hot fudge Sundaes, perhaps you could talk to her after the service and ask her to go to Johnny J’s Diner to try one.  In my opinion, they have the best in town.

To me the principles and purposes printed on the cover of our Sunday bulletins offer hope of a better world.  But might there be a process lurking in our General Assembly that smacks of hypocrisy?

The Rev. Frank Schulman, Minister Emeritus of the Emerson Unitarian Church, Houston, and a man I’ve been privileged to know personally, argues that we want theological and religious liberalism, which is our long and honorable heritage, but then we go to General Assembly and enact one after another political proposition that defines our movement.  We, of course, are not the only denomination suffering from this tendency.

According to Rev. Schulman, “the problem with political liberalism, as it invades our religion more and more, is that it is entirely opposed to our genuine liberalism of the open mind, conscience, and reason.  It is not liberal at all, but political orthodoxy.”  Schulman does not argue for or against political liberalism.  What he argues against is its identification with Unitarian Universalism.  “The political liberalism is not open-minded.  It is a doctrine.  We would not think of requiring a Unitarian to believe God is love, or Jesus is divine, or in the moral law.  But then we define our religion in terms of all kinds of political and social doctrine.”

The Roman Catholic Church centuries ago required political acquiescence or the Inquisition would get you.  John Calvin required it, too, and he burned Michael Servetus for not obeying.  When the Unitarian King Sigismund of Transylvania assumed power his first act was to decree the Edict of Toleration.  So our movement began exactly as a protest against the sort of thing we’re doing now.  General Assembly enacts resolutions that are ex cathedra pronouncements. We call them “positions.” and wouldn’t for the moment use the word “doctrine.” but they’re just as inflexible as any orthodox creed.

I recall a quote from Colonel Potter of M*A*S*H: Just remember there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything and the wrong way is to keep trying to make everybody else do it the right way.

A good example of how hypocrisy may or may not have eclipsed a message of hope is last winter’s massive Dakota Access Pipeline protest that swept across southern North Dakota where the Cannonball River intersects the Missouri River, or its surrogate, the Oahe Reservoir, which resulted from the damming of the Missouri in the early 1960’s.  Ostensibly the protest was over the perceived threat to the land and water supply of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, although the pipeline crossing was not actually on reservation land.  Nevertheless the pipeline posed valid concerns that eventually attracted 10,000 protesters, including some 50 Unitarian ministers, who braved pretty cold weather.  I suspect the real impetus of the protest stemmed  more from concern over impact of fossil fuels on global warming than from Native American issues, but more about that later.  Hopes were raised when the Obama Administration ordered a two year pause in Dakota Access Pipeline construction to allow additional study of environmental impact, the previous five years of study notwithstanding.  Hopes were dashed when the next administration reinstated the original timeline.  Although the pipeline is now operational, having been tunneled under the river consistent with common practices nowadays, whether or not it will remain operational is still being adjudicated in court. The protesters eventually decamped, leaving behind 2,400 tons of garbage, including abandoned vehicles and human waste – equivalent in volume to 24 railroad hoppers filled with coal – removed by the Army Corps of Engineers at a cost to tax payers of $1.1 million.  The State of North Dakota is still trying to figure out how to recoup $38 million expended on security and emergency services.

Regarding the environmental impact of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, it’s easy to say that what protesters left behind, and the amount of fossil fuel consumed to get them there and keep them warm, negate the crux of their message, that is, the importance of clean water, air and the sacredness of the land.  But I suspect the significance of their message transcends what they left behind.

With respect to the Standing Rock Reservation, where I spent the summer in 1960, I can only hope that its residents in some way benefitted from the pipeline protest.  With a reservation enrollment of 6,500, and potential work force of 3,500, unemployment stood at about 86 per cent in 2015, with 40 per cent of those employed existing below the poverty level.  Alcohol and drug abuse are rampant.  The $102 million allocated over the years by the Federal Government in compensation for land taken for the Oahe Reservoir has nowhere near redressed the socio economic problems resulting from its taking.  Rumor has it that $3 million dollars were raised from private sources to support the protest.  I fervently hope some goes to help the Standing Rock people.  Although affirmations of the sacredness of land and purity of water are indeed important, I think their needs are more immediate.

Any questions?  A“plant” (see separate page) in the audience raises questions about my credibility and integrity, based on actions in the community.  Does this information change how members of the audience view hot fudge Sundaes?)