Invocation: the last lines of William Blake’s “Vala or The Four Zoas, a Dream”
The Sun arises from his dewy bed, & the fresh airs
Play in his smiling beams giving the seeds of life to grow,
And the fresh Earth beams forth ten thousand thousand springs of life.
Urthona is arisen in his strength, no longer now
Divided from Enitharmon, no longer the Spectre Los.
Where is the Spectre of Prophecy? where the delusive Phantom?
Departed: & Urthona risen from the ruinous Walls
In all his ancient strength to form the golden armour of science
For intellectual War. The war of swords departed now,
The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns.
Hymn: Spirit of Life (123)
Welcome: Good Morning. And welcome to this morning's celebration of the Unitarian Universalist Society of the Daytona Beach Area. This Unitarian Universalist Community welcomes and celebrates the presence and participation of persons of all races, nationalities, previous religious beliefs, and sexual orientations. Our policy is one of inclusion of all persons who are attracted to our service. And so, I welcome you all most cordially.
Introductions and Announcements
As is our custom, we would like to welcome visitors or anyone who has returned after a long absence. To do so, we would be pleased if visitors or returnees would be willing to stand, to introduce themselves, and to tell us where they're from. Please wait to speak until you have the microphone. Is there anyone on my left? On my right?
I light this chalice with words from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed this sacred flame.
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
If anyone wishes to share a joy or a concern with the congregation, please feel free to do so now by coming forward to light a candle.
I light one final candle for all those feelings that move us privately.
Let us read Responsive Reading #685: from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.”
I will read #I; and you will read #2, please.
Let us join together for hymn #305: De Colores, all verses, please.
The offering will now be taken for the benefit of this Society and its causes.
Offertory Music: Mozart
Reading: William Blake once more—“A Poison Tree” from Songs of Experience
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it with fears,
Night & morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright;
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veil’d the pole:
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.
Let us each center ourselves in each one's own fashion, be that by way of a mantra, a prayer, or silent reflection. [about a minute or so]
A month or so ago, I sent a letter to the editor of our local gazette. Bob Blume was kind enough to call attention to it. But just in case you haven’t read it or since you probably meanwhile have forgotten it, permit me to indulge myself in quoting myself:
An 8-year-old boy’s writing on a sidewalk “Let’s fry McVeigh” is about as chilling as an adult’s writing in a letter to the editor “As a civilized society, we cannot get rid of him [McVeigh] fast enough,” both of which are about as chilling as closed-circuit TV being made available to people whose relatives died during the Oklahoma City bombing so that they can witness McVeigh’s death. All this is evidence of this society’s subscribing staunchly and fully to principles of retaliatory justice: If someone hurts me, I must repay that hurt in equal coin—an unwritten amendment to the Constitution perhaps, sponsored by the legendary West Virginians: the Hatfields and the McCoys.
I think that Gore Vidal has it precisely right when he suggests that Timothy McVeigh is an intensely moral individual. Fully subscribed to those principles of retaliatory justice that our society also subscribes to, Timothy McVeigh “got” some Feds and their affiliates for what the Feds had done, just as we are now “getting” McVeigh for what he has done. By principles of retaliatory justice, we—the bigger bully—get to kill McVeigh—the martyr. And so the feud goes on, with the little 8-year-old pavement artist perhaps being another Tim McVeigh in the making as he is practicing the obscene rhetoric of retaliatory justice.
It’s an absolute no-brainer to recognize that violence breeds violence. Societies that are primitive and UNcivilized enough to revel in retaliatory justice are inviting more violence, an obvious truth whether we’re talking road rage or Ariel Sharon’s bulldozing houses in Ghaza. There is no doubt in my mind that, as a civilized society, we have every right to keep ourselves safe from harm, even to the point of killing in the face of immediate danger when harm is absolutely not to be kept from us in any other conceivable way. But we can keep ourselves safe from Timothy McVeigh without killing him. Keeping him in a secure environment is the limit of our right as a CIVILIZED and a MORALLY SOUND society.
A Timothy McVeigh who has access to learning, access to contemplation, access to working for his victims, access to insights through self-improvement, such a Timothy McVeigh will in the long run do more for the civilizing of this society than he could ever do by his death. Retaliatory justice is wrong justice, no matter whether it comes from the big bully in the person of society/government or from the little bully in the person of a terrorist in or out of uniform; indeed, I miss the cries of Christians at this point to admonish us to turn the other cheeks and to love our enemies.
Since I wrote that letter, I have revisited the issues now and then again in my mind. And so I want to share with you some of my thoughts about these matters in a kind of unruly stream of consciousness.
Retaliation, retribution, vengeance—these are all feelings, though powerfully felt, that are not always unambiguously acceptable to many of us. Part of the problem with these kinds of feelings is that they are often not clearly focussed, and they are often initiated from murky sources.
Let me begin with an example that clearly shows that we censure retaliation. My son Siegfried, the cop, was called to assist in the mall, some time ago. A young man had stolen several CD’s from the shelves of one of the vendors in the mall. He was first given the opportunity by the sales staff there to return the CDs, no questions asked, and he would have been free to leave. The young man refused to return the CDs. The sales staff called the police, who came instantly in the person of my son. Same deal: “Turn over the CDs, and you’re free to leave.” Refusal. So, Siegfried took him along to do with him whatever cops are supposed to do with thieves. A little way down the busy mall, the young man decided to dart for freedom. Siegfried, a quite agile second-dan blackbelt in TaeKwonDo, wrestled the young man to the ground and then proceeded to do with him what cops are supposed to do with thieves.
A few days later, Siegfried was called on the carpet for using excessive force in the arrest. “Why didn’t you simply pepper-spray him and be done with it?” To make the story short, Siegfried and other colleagues confirmed his procedure, given the crowded conditions of the mall, where other people are just as likely to have been hurt by the use of pepperspray. But here’s the point: We generally do not condone a police officer’s use of force, even in the handling of criminals. If you remember Rodney King, you may also remember that the gentleman did indeed not act in accordance with sound traffic-behavior; but still, we did criticize the severe beating that Rodney King received at the hands of the group of LA police. It seems clear to me that the overwhelming majority of our population would find retaliation for crimes not acceptable. Why should a beating at the hands of several police NOT be an acceptable level of suffering for improper behavior in traffic?
I recall an edict from Colonel Moammar Ghaddafi when the streets of Tripoli were too congested with double and triple parking along its main thoroughfares. Mr. Ghaddafi proclaimed that people’s justice was direct justice, so—he suggested—why don’t we simply pitch a rock or a brick through the window of an improperly parked automobile?! The method worked fine. For about a week, not a single car was parked inappropriately. And then the old patterns took over again, for Libyans—being a gentle people—never took bricks in hand.
I think we would all react to Ghaddafi’s rule as being virtually barbarian. Direct justice of this sort would simply encourage unruliness and unpredictable behavior amongst people. A civilized society supports those forces of random justice only at its peril. I think most of us would wonder about the sanity of a head of state issuing such a rule. And yet, in a developing country such as Libya, that’s about as good as it gets. I recall, for example, that people who had traffic accidents did not wait for the police to clear it up; they drove to the police headquarters to ask for the issuance of a permit to repair their automobiles. The person who had mashed my Volkswagen from behind was at a distinct advantage; he spoke Arabic, I didn’t. But he was decent enough not to blame me for his having run into me from behind.
We rely on measures being taken predictively for things we do wrong. When we speed, for example, we expect a cop to pull us over, to issue a ticket, and even to give us a mini-lecture. We expect the ticket to have a predictable price. And we expect to lower our points by taking driving school. All of this we generally expect to be handled with some measure of courtesy on the part of the officer as well as on the part of the ticket receiver. We don’t expect the officer to, say, wack us with a baton; we don’t expect the officer to scream and holler at us; and we don’t expect the price of the ticket to be higher on the basis of whether the officer liked us or not. If we were to allow our police departments a greater degree of retaliatory discretion, we might get better compliance because of the deterrence thus generated. But I don’t think that we’d like to live in circumstances of this sort. I recall another example of unpredictability that I experienced in Libya. When asking a police officer whether it would be OK to drive with an American license as long as we didn’t have the Libyan license, he said, “Maybe.”—“Well, would you take us to jail if you were to check us and find that we drove with an American license?”—“Maybe,” he said. The source of power is the ambiguity of the situation and a commitment to a whimsical notion of retaliation. Not too comfortable a thought. In other words, we really don’t feel comfortable with principles of retaliation, with or without predictability. I would think that such a feeling of certainty about likely results is largely the consequence of blossoming civilization.
I should point out also that predictability per se does not keep us from reacting negatively to retaliation. Ghaddafi’s announcement that it’s OK to throw a brick through the windshield of an improperly parked automobile was certainly predictable, once it had been announced. Yet, I would tend to believe that most of us would react negatively to this kind of penalty for improper parking. We would not think it wise to inflict damage where the punitive damage is not necessarily commensurate with the originally caused damage. And perhaps this is a better principle to focus on.
Note that retaliatory practices permeate our lives. Whenever I have a feeling that I have been cut off in traffic, the urge to retaliate is extremely difficult to suppress. Germany has laws that one may not shoot someone the bird in traffic nor by any other sign attempt insult to someone who has acted improperly in traffic, precisely because the attempt to reestablish moral homeostasis after pain has been inflicted is often an escalating phenomenon—the Hatfield-and-McCoy effect. What do we do to retaliate? We might attempt a similarly dangerous maneuver to show the other party how stupidly he or she has acted. I think that, not too long ago, a minibus overturned on I-4 killing several, when such a retaliatory maneuver had been accomplished against that mini-bus.
At times one executes anticipatory retaliation. If I see the nose of a vehicle attempting to pass in congested traffic, rather than remaining disciplined and in line, I might attempt to cut the other person off so as to remind him or her of this necessary discipline. Whereupon the other one is likely to feel wronged and might retaliate by yet a more aggressive juggling act in the midst of the congestion. And there go the tempers.
As a motorcyclist, I have many occasions to see this kind of anticipatory retaliation. Having a far better power-to-weight ratio than a car, a motorcycle can accelerate quickly. I have yet to find an automobile driver who will not attempt to speed to catch up with the motorcycle somewhere down the road. In fact, I have even had a driver hurl profanities at me for what he saw as “my inconsistent driving,” which—to may way of observing—was not inconsistent at all: I didn’t exceed the speed limit; I simply got to it a heck of a lot faster than his automobile could.
We can also observe retaliation at work in the day-to-day togetherness of people. I wonder how often we were upset by someone and then constructed a similar experience for the other person. If he or she did not do the dishes as agreed upon, I think I’ll just forget to do the cleaning as I agreed upon so that he or she will know what not living up to agreements feels like. Or she’ll burn the toast the next morning because he’s been mean and nasty to her the day before. Such classical patterns of passive aggressivity belong into this camp of retaliatory justice.
Partners who separated with feelings of unfairness often take years to overcome the residual need to retaliate, sometimes not even able to speak to each other for years after the emotional upheaval. All this is the result of a strong wish on our parts that punishment for moral wrongdoing be doled out even-handedly, that some form of moral balance be preserved.
But we make judgment errors. The person who tried to cut us off in traffic may be a so-called “type-A” personality who is making every effort to put us down and so needs putting down him/herself. But the person who cuts us off may also be a bumbling idiot who really doesn’t know any better, meant nothing by the silliness, and deserves compassion for ignorance, not anger for nastiness. I think if we were to know the people face to face and if we were to have some kind of deeper understanding of what makes them tick, we might be far less likely to seek retaliation. If we could experience firsthand the anxieties of the person that fed into his wronging us the day before, we might be less likely to burn the toast the next day.
I recall attempting a left turn at the corner of Granada and Atlantic, just up the road from here. I was in the proper turn lane. Suddenly a huge Cadillac pushes across the lane divider from the straight lane into the turn lane. There was nothing I could do except to merge over into the second turn-lane to my left. Luckily, there was no traffic in that lane. But I was boiling. So I pulled up to the window of the Cadillac, ready to hurl most unpleasantly bucolic invectives at the driver, when the window began to lower. An elderly gentlemen turned to me and said with a sweet and abjectly apologetic voice, “Did I do anything wrong?” “Well,” I began to stumble linguistically, “you really should not pull into a lane that someone is in already.”—“I am so sorry.” I think I terminated the conversation with something like, “It’s OK. No damage done.” In other words, where I came face to face with the other person and where I understood his existential situation, I found it impossible to behave in a retaliatory manner.
I am willing to summarize preliminarily to say that where we have contact with each other and where we have made the attempt to understand each other, retaliatory behavior is virtually impossible. Compassion and understanding take the place of retaliation.
The principle was marvelously shown in the French film “The Widow of St. Pierre.” Briefly, for those who don’t follow Cinematique’s films: A man commits murder as part of a silly and stupid argument about whether a certain captain is large or fat. To check the competing theories, the two drunkards cut up the captain and kill him. Unfortunately, the French colony of St. Pierre does not have a guillotine and so cannot execute the criminal, so the criminal is being jailed to wait for the used guillotine that is on its way from French Martinique. While he is waiting, the murderer—sponsored by the military captain’s wife—is busy in the community, saves a woman from certain death, and helps the captain’s wife build a glasshouse for her plants. No one in the colony desires his death, but the bureaucracy there is stuck on the idea. To make a long story short, the guillotine gets there eventually, the military captain is being denounced for treason when he expresses his objection to the execution, the murderer is guillotined, and the captain is shot back in France for sedition. As audience, you have the gut feeling of how despiccable the death penalty and all this slumming in unjust retribution really is.
More and more in the current newspapers, we see discussions of the details of post partem depression. Here is another attempt to come to terms with what one of us—a middle-class suburbanite—has done to her five children. Just the other day, I read the confessional of a similar woman who pointed out that she, too, had such feelings of anger and depression, and that she had all kinds of temptations to vent this anger and depression against her children. Clearly, as I with the elderly gentlemen at the corner of Granada and Atlantic, as the Captain and his wife at St. Pierre with the reformed murderer, and as all the newspaper columns indirectly about the murderess of her five children—we can be compassionate and understanding—and we can have a clear understanding that compassion and understanding is a notch higher on the ladder of moral worth than the attempt to seek a balance of pain.
Now, let me get back to Timothy McVeigh. Every person who comits a crime will doubtlessly feel some form of entitlement to do the deed. In Timothy McVeigh’s case, the entitlement came from his sense of the government’s having done wrong. In that respect, Timothy McVeigh is not unlike the Kurdish leader Ökalan, who—as far as I know—is still jailed, although the Turks would love to put him to death. What keeps him alive is Turkey’s wish to remain in the European community, which will exlude any nation that uses the death penalty. In the name of the Kurdish freedom movement, Ökalan has doubtlessly committed murderous acts. Does he deserve to die for those? I would think that many of us would defend him for what he has done. Fighting for the freedom of a people easily captures our sympathy, particularly if the fighter is the clear underdog.
That is what Timothy McVeigh was in relation to the overwhelming might of the Federal Government. I am sure that McVeigh thought of what happened in Waco and later in Oklahoma City as battle episodes of a war that he—the underdog—was waging against a corrupt government. I suppose if the Boston Tea Partiers were to have been caught by governmental authorities, they would have been a group of Timothy McVeighs; and if Timothy McVeigh had inspired more people to challenge the Federal Government, Timothy McVeigh might have become the father of some future republic. Clearly there is much relativity here. We cannot say that McVeigh was immoral; he was intensely moral, in accordance with the principles of retaliatory justice.
Here is another tale of a mini-McVeigh, a story which displays the same archetype. Abigail van Buren of “Dear Abby” fame responded properly to a writer who had professed retaliatory justice in a letter. The writer is a checkout clerk at a supermarket. She professed anger at customers who keep their cell phones at their ears while checking out their wares. In fact, they won’t miss a beat of their conversation while being blasé and indifferent to the clerk herself. To get even, the clerk overcharges cellphone talkers routinely by a goodly number of bucks. So for her, the balance of pain has been restored. While I have the greatest sympathy for the clerk and while I would probably favor high fines for anyone talking on those damnable things in traffic or in any social setting, Abby and perhaps we all do feel that the clerk has overstepped the boundaries of her moral rights: Committing theft does not balance boorishness of behavior on the scale of human suffering at all.
If I feel the urge to retaliate, I try again and again to repress that wish, to ignore the spray of dirt from the passing and speeding vehicle, to simply move aside for the driver that exceeds the speedlimit. I try to make excuses for the person who has irritated me and with whom I cannot communicate directly, all in the interest of reducing the wish to retaliate in myself. Of course, I definitely will not make the claim that I always succeed; if anyone were to follow me around town for a week or so, he’d probably see me shoot the bird at least once to someone. But seconds after, I would be aware of how stupid and silly a thing such an action is likely to be.
To effect a trickle-down morality, the wish to suppress retaliation needs to be greater in our system of jurisprudence, particularly so because these decisions are made with a cool head and some measure of deliberation, not in the heat of the moment. Once we have understood McVeigh’s or Aileen Wuorno’s thinking, we need to help them think through the matter again so as to help them question their thinking—and, perhaps, to revise such thinking in ourselves also. As Senator Kerry did eventually, so Timothy McVeigh might have learned that “collateral damage” is an unacceptable form of murder, whether in Vietnam or at No Gun Ri or at Oklahoma City. And in his reforming his own thoughts, Timothy McVeigh might have helped others along the path to straighten their moral processors. Ultimately, McVeigh and others on deathrow could have become Senator Kerry’s, who have come face to face with the questionable nature of retaliatory logic and thus would exert efforts to reduce the entire culture’s clinging to retaliatory justice.
As Europe shows, when the majority is solidly behind efforts to abolish the death penalty and to think of jails truly as correctional institutions, then the critical mass of the public is such that the retaliatory archetype may be addressed by legislation, even in the microcosm of everyday human activity. Germany has not been able to pass legislation against smoking in public places, mainly because there is no critical mass of non-smokers. Germany HAS been able to pass legislation against the retributive archetype in everyday living and in its judicial system, mainly BECAUSE there is a critical mass of people thinking non-retributively. If we want to achieve a similar level of civilization, retaliation thinking must go; and we should begin with abolishing the death penalty and adult penalties for teens.
Closing Hymn: Light of Ages and of Nations—the Haydn version #190
Closing Words and Extinguishing of Chalice: Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living. 
July 29, 2001