A Thirst For Goodness


Mary Oliver writes in her poem Thirst, “Another morning and I wake with thirst for a goodness I do not have.” Her beloved partner of forty years had just died. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum says the condition of being good comes from trusting a life you cannot control. That being open to goodness also makes you vulnerable to tragedy. Come and explore what the sages have to say about wresting from the world the good life you desire.

The Sermon

Belinda Friedrich and I were preparing for the Starting Points class today and we got to talking about how Unitarian Universalists have heretics in New England since the 1800’s when William Ellery Channing of Boston said God is benevolent and human nature good. His famous sermon in 1819 explained that, “by God’s spirit, we mean a moral, illuminating, and persuasive influence, for God is essentially goodness, justice, virtue, the life motive, the sustainer of the human soul.” This affirmation of goodness, both human and divine, is what drew me to Unitarian Universalism, oh and I like being a heretic, for even today, mainline Christian religions think of us this way. This affirmation also helps keep me focused on living into our principles, sustained by our promise, our covenant that binds us as congregation to be caring, justice seeking, truth loving, and forgiving. But the upheaval in our social norms these days and the erosion of civic and democratic public life, has me feeling a little lost in our larger moral landscape, thirsting for goodness. In the words of our reading I am like a deer, yearning for the riverbank. I thirst for the God of goodness.

For the last several years I have been increasingly impacted by the immorality of how we as a society treat migrants. I go to the Suffix county ICE detention center every couple of weeks, to visit detainees, who long for goodness as well. We read the psalms together, and that seems to help them to find balance and peace. Psalm 42 of our reading is a favorite. Pierre, a man from this part of the state, born of Haiti, has an American wife, and is a taxi driver with 2 kids under five. He has been detained, treated like a prisoner, for a year waiting for a green card ,a process his Ice officer willfully blocks. “They treat us like dogs” he says. His hope hangs on a thread. Lucas from Boston, is born of Brazil, and is an auto body technician. He has an American wife, and a teenage daughter, and has been in detention only 7 months. He is still optimistic, hopeful he will get a green card. “They have to give to me,” he says. I tell myself that I visit, to reflect back to them their beauty, their wholeness, to say to them I see you worthy, sacred. We pray together, and somehow, in that place where human meets the divine, they do seem to connect with their goodness, they do seem more at peace. But I leave thirsting for goodness, mockingly free, powerless and an accomplice to an evil system.

My search for goodness led me to Philosopher Martha Nussbaum of Brown University, who wrote a book called the “Fragility of Goodness.” She takes a deep dive into the literature of Greek tragedies to discover how we as human can foster goodness, something she says is discovered at the interface of our internal and external worlds. In ancient Greece, the tragic plays involves the whole community, and the voice of the chorus, the multitude, guide the characters, usually the people of power, towards goodness. From this vast literature, Martha discovered that goodness is fragile because we tend to rely only on deep human agreements to bring value and moral authority to our social norms. During times of upheaval, like today, in our governance, and what is happening at the border, these relationships can collapse. Martha references Hecuba, the queen of Troy, who loses everything in their defeat to the Greeks. Her power, her status, and ultimately her children. She holds onto her nobility through all until, betrayed by a friend who she trusted to keep her son safe, she literally goes mad, consumed with revenge. The point of the play, says Martha is that Hecuba’s goodness, her love for life, turns to madness when her sustaining relationships are lost, and she has no external standard to refer to. Our trust, Martha says, needs a place to go.

Goodness becomes fragile as well when we simply our moral conflicts. Too often, Martha says, we are taught to be consistent by applying a general rule to each particular decision, which results in a choice of one commitment over another. This can narrow our field of goodness if the choice inadvertently devalues the people and projects we love and to whom we are committed. She offers the extreme example of Agamemnon the Greek King who at the command of one god is told to invade Troy, but on the way, his fleet is becalmed, and he is told by another god to sacrifice his daughter so his mission can continue. He does so, to save his men from starving. But Martha’s complaint is what happens to him internally, to the way in which his intellect overrides his emotions. Once he decides that killing his daughter is “right” he is embolden, and sees her only in beastly terms, claiming to his soldiers afterword’s “all will be well.” The chorus, the wisdom makers made up of the multitude of the community, say to him “sing sorrow, sorrow, may good prevail.” Not feeling the sadness of killing his daughter makes it easier to dehumanizes her and evade the morality of what’s happening. He becomes callously impervious to a love central to his humanity.

This can happen to us too, thankfully in less extreme ways. I remember during my first ministry, I faced the choice between going to a meeting and my eldest daughter’s honor society ceremony. It’s hard to believe now, but I chose the meeting, with a sense a macho- ness, that the sacrifice was worth it. I didn’t even remember doing so, until my daughter reminded me the night we all attended the ceremony for my youngest daughter. My chorus, sang “ feel regret, may goodness prevail.” Remembering helps us to reclaim what we value.

Episcopal priest Derek Groody tells of such a moment last summer while traveling in the southern part of Arizona near the town of Amado. He writes, “I was driving down a road about thirty miles north of the Mexican border when I passed a man on the side of the
road. He was waving empty water jugs in his hands and obviously in need of help. I kept driving but I could not stop thinking about him. All at once I realized I was not only at the border between Mexico and the United States, but at the border between national security and human insecurity, sovereign rights and human rights, civil law and natural law, and citizenship and discipleship.” Helping meant possibly facing 20 years in prison, but Derek remembered how once he had been in a similar situation with his mentor, who said “that’s Jesus over there and we need to welcome him.” Derek turned his truck around and found Manuel weak for he had gone days without food and a full day in the desert without water. But his spirit was strong for goodness had prevailed.

I was in Amado in January and we visited the UU congregation there who just renamed itself “Borderland Unitarian Universalist” because migrants show up at their door every day and for them their property is a border between sovereign rights and human rights, civil law and natural law, and citizenship and discipleship. The administrator, a young woman named Donna who is not a UU, until recently believed along with her neighbors and the c church neighbors, that any support to migrants was wrong. That changed the day a 10 year old girl, walked down the long driveway to her house, feet bleeding from the desert, (the desert melts your shoes) and knocked on her door. Donna fed her, offered her toys, and was sitting on the porch with the girl in her lap, telling a story and laughing when Border Patrol came to take the girl away. I could hear the heart break in her voice, and see the sorrow on her face. She was a minor after all, but calling Border Patrol was a choice she would never make again. Now whenever Donna gets a migrant visitor she doesn’t hesitate to call Barbara, an elder member of the church, to take her visitors to safety. When a migrant knocked a few days ago, Donna apologized for how she looked, that she hadn’t taken a shower yet, and without missing a beat, despite days in the desert, her visitor said “I don’t look my best either.” Barbara, said to us “elders have to step up, they have lived their lives, they can risk going to jail.” The progressive elders of Southern AZ are stepping up, big time. Martha Nussbaum says, “There is a beauty in the willingness to love someone in the face of the world’s instability. That this quality of loving affirmation is what the Greek literature holds before us as an adult way of being good. That our goodness is nourished by a life that includes riskier commitments.

Perhaps this is why, in my thirst for goodness I go to Tucson, and to the ICE center, to be with people who take risk with their lives. The migrants give up everything to cross the border to find a job to support their families, in an economy devastated by the North Atlantic Trade Agreement -an agreement that displaced Mexican campesinos by the thousands. Or they cross to find safety from tyranny in Honduras after the U.S. facilitated a coup in 2009 on behalf of powerful landowners and corporations. I am guessing that you know much of this, that you read the papers. But after spending two hours in the Tucson federal court room in January witnessing 70 migrants, the daily quota, straight from the desert shackled at the waist, wrist and ankles, and sentenced to prison, at great profit to Core Civic the corrections company contracted to implement our immigration system,- whose motto is “Better the Public Good”-I have learned that seeing and weeping are intimately connected. I cried as I watched the migrants line up 12 at a time, repeating a repetitious script, with their lawyers prompting them when to say “si”, and “no” and “soy culpable”, I am guilty. Tears of anger flowed as I listened to an overly polite judge, say “good luck son,” to each shackled man, as if the men had agency to avoid any other fate. Activists say they have stopped bringing in groups sometimes, because they fail to see the dehumanizing behind the politeness.

Martha writes, “to perceive the people of any moral situation fully, it may be necessary to love them, and when you do, don’t impede the flow of tears.” I suddenly find myself in the psalm, “My tears have become my food day and night, while they say to me where is your God?” But instead of answering the question, where is your God, a question impossible to answer, the psalmist acknowledges that sometimes we loose faith. That though we once joined the throngs, our downcast soul is telling us, some new insight, or revelation is needed. Go deep says the psalmist, which is what the playwrights say as well. The soul of a Greek tragedy says Martha Nussbaum “is like a spider who creates a web in which each horizontal line of connection contributes to the depth of goodness. So I am creating connections that help me see and to know the people who come undocumented across our borders. Only by going deep, can we see glimpses of goodness, and though transient, we can let goodness change us. Like this story from Karen Cotta, who came across a large group from Guatemala about 50 miles from Tucson while putting water out in the desert, now a criminal act. The Guatemalans had collected coins left at a shrine before they left their country to give to a Catholic church once they arrived in this one, but they knew the likelihood of being picked up by border patrol and didn’t want the money confiscated. So they gave it to Karen, to give to any church that helped people. Karen was filled with amazement at their compassion and their certainty of God’s bounty.

By going deep, we open ourselves up to the possibility of new revelation, from which we make a new and bolder claim of what is holy. The psalmist writes, “all thy waves and thy billows wash over me” and by the end of Psalm, the speaker is intimate again with her God; “ My rock, she says, “the health of my being.” In the Greek tragedies it is the chorus, that restores the people to goodness. And if as I am suggesting, the way our society treats migrants is a retelling of a Greek tragedy, I wonder will this community sing with chorus? Many citizens in this country have simplified their moral landscape, narrowed their sights, and hardened their hearts, by choosing citizenship over discipleship, sovereign rights over human rights. Standards of goodness that are insufficient and corrupt.

In community we generate what Marilynn Robinson calls “reservoirs of goodness beyond and of other kind.” A goodness moved by tears and swayed by love that sings with reverence for our human plurality. A goodness that moves us to treat migrants as worthy and sacred. An act that nourishes our lives with a moment of grace that in these times of upheaval ground us and yet keeps us thirsting for more. Let us be the Greek chorus, let us begin now, as we sing together Amazing Grace. Praise Be.

De La Torre, “Trails of Hope and Terror”
Aviya Kushner “The Grammar of God” chapter “Song”
Martha Nussbaum, “The Fragility of Goodness” ch 1-3, 13
William Ellery Channing “Unitarian Christianity” from the book Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism