2012-09-13

The Cruelty of Ideals and the Labor of Homecoming

Industrialist George Pullman was born, lived, and died a Universalist. Something of the Universalist outlook may be detected in his life and actions. He believed his workers deserved decent accommodations. He saw that education was a win-win: it made workers lives better, and made them more useful workers for businessmen like him. "I have faith," Pullman told the press, "in the educational and refining influences of beauty, and beautiful and harmonious surroundings."

Pullman had a kind of Universalist hope that different denominations could come together and worship together in one church. There is a certain idealist, utopian strain of thought in the planning of his town.

Shortly after Pullman's death in 1897, courts ordered
the homes sold to individual homeowners.
Liberal religion is characterized by an optimism about human possibility. From our beginnings 450 years ago, Unitarians and Universalists have been peoples who rejected Calvinistic conceptions of humankind’s total depravity. That optimism about human capacity is displayed in Pullman’s vision of a company town where every one was happy and productive.

So what went wrong?

It's not hard to see that what went wrong was that Pride and Control took over. Yes, people can get better – can learn, can grow: but they have to do so in their own way. Growth, learning, and development cannot be all planned out with precise outcomes determined in advance. Pullman believed in human improvability, but didn't believe in people enough to let them work out their own growth, awakening, salvation, in their own way -- even if they used their freedom to go backwards for a few years -- or a few generations -- and even if, left to their own devices, they drank, or listened to speeches from agitators, read independent newspapers, gathered and discussed unsavory ideas. Pullman wouldn't listen to his workers' needs. We can’t ever be so arrogant that we won’t meet and talk and consider where other people are coming from.

For Labor Day, remember George Pullman, the industrialist whose meanness sparked the events that led to the creation of the holiday.

Remember George Pullman, the Universalist who got the optimism but didn’t get the humility – because we Unitarian Universalists today follow in his footsteps in more ways than it's comfortable to admit. When has your voice of “let’s make it better,” come out as "fix it my way or I will treat you as evil obstructionist"? When have your own ideals made you cruel?

I think we do that every time we think someone else is wrong.

Then let this be our Labor Day prayer: to find the courage to talk to the people we think are wrong, and stay at it until we get over ourselves.

I've had a few long conversations in the last month – three-hour lunches or four-hour evenings that started with two hours in my office and continued at a bar. Earnest and exhausting conversations. It takes a long time to get over myself, to feel a way back to reconnection. I’m ready to keep having those conversations – as many as you’ll have with me. If you’re ready, I’m ready – because I think we’ve seen enough of iconic heroic loner figures talking to empty chairs. (If you missed it, I'm referring to Clint Eastwood’s convention speech addressing an empty chair, pretending it was occupied by the opposition candidate.)

It’s not the loner heroics, but boring community building that’s called for. It’s not the empty chairs, or the people we already agree with and understand, that we need to meet with and talk to.

“God rejoiced at our disobedience,” said Rabbi Kushner, “and then wept with joy that we could feel our estrangement and want to return home.” We feel the estrangement. For Labor Day, commit to the labor it takes to return home. That labor, we cannot send to China. To go into the labor of giving birth to ourselves -- to go into the labor of giving birth to community -- we can’t get surrogates in India. It’s up to us.

May we make it so.

Amen.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Going Into Labor"

Previous: Part 3: "The Origin of Labor Day"
Beginning: Part 1: "Labor"