Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst
You and I, we are standing in a long, long line of people yearning for
something better in this world.
Dreaming, wondering why, and then crafting a some kind of new world
based upon our beloved principles. We too dream of freedom, compassion and
dignity for all god’s children. We dream of peace. We dream of connection. We
dream of hope. Dr. King articulated his dream 50 years ago and it still
inspires us today. His dream inspires us to continue dreaming.
It is in this context that I want to look at the human urge for Utopia.
Utopias are a dream of something different in human community, some reordering
of the way we live together in community, based upon our ideals. They are a
dream of perfection. Unitarians and Universalists have a history with Utopian
communities. This shouldn’t surprise me,
given our tendency to imagine and work for change. We are indeed idealistic and prone to flights
Today I want to talk about that idealistic vision for our future, but
first I want to tell you about some visionaries of the past. Perhaps we will
learn from their experiences.
Luther Elmore writes about Unitarian and Universalist Utopian
communities in the 19th century. At a
time of great change, when young men and women left the farm to build up cities
and create an industrial society, the idea of creating Utopian communities
based upon religious, secular and economic ideals flowered. Over 100 such communities were
established in the United States in the years prior to the Civil War. A few of
these were established by our Unitarian and Universalist forebears.
One of the more successful experiments was Brook
Farm MA, established by Unitarian minister George Ripley. With the help and
inspiration of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brook Farm stated these lofty goals:
“To establish the
external relations of life on a basis of wisdom and purity; to apply the
principles of justice and love to our social organization in accordance with
the laws of Divine Providence; to substitute a system of brotherly cooperation
for one of selfish competition; to institute an attractive, efficient, and
productive system of industry; to diminish the desire of excessive
accumulation; to guarantee to each other forever the means of physical support
and of spiritual progress; and thus to impart a greater freedom, simplicity,
truthfulness, refinement and moral dignity to our mode of life…”
At Brook Farm work was chosen and assigned based
on personal affinity and skills.
Since all were expected
to work and all work was equally honored, all were paid the same. Farmers,
carpenters, and laborers were paid the same as teachers, poets, and
philosophers. Education, social class, age, and gender made no difference. This
plot of land had previously been a dairy farm and the soil was rather poor.
Nevertheless, they planted a garden. Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the early
residents, seems not to have enjoyed the blend of intellect and labor. He later
wrote, “Mr. Ripley put a four-pronged instrument into my hands, which he gave
me to understand was called a pitchfork; and he and Mr. Farley being armed with
similar weapons we all three commenced a gallant attack upon a heap of manure.”
They opened a school where students were taught history, philosophy, literature,
music, Greek, Latin, and German. To achieve their goal of balancing manual
labor and the intellect, students were required to work two hours a day. … The
school would prove to be Brook Farm’s most successful undertaking.
The residents enjoyed a lively intellectual and
social life there. One resident later recalled that “the weeds were scratched
out of the earth to the music of Tennyson and Browning.” The social experiment
came to its conclusion when finances became difficult and a change in leadership
to the Utopian philosopher Charles Fourier also changed that culture. The Transcendentalists left, trust in the
once successful school waned, and bankruptcy was not far behind.
There were other Utopian experiments:
Hopedale Community was founded by Universalist minister, Adin Ballou on
the principles of pacifism. In 1843 Bronson Alcott,
the father of writer Louisa May Alcott, established a short-lived vegetarian
community called Fruitlands. Both in MA.
And Abner Kneeland founded Salubria in Iowa. Kneeland
was a supporter women’s rights, racial equality, divorce, birth control, and
interracial marriage. He disagreed theologically with the Universalists and
came to define himself as a pantheist. In 1830, he was declared out of
fellowship with the Universalists and no longer recognized as a Universalist
minister. For speaking his mind publicly, he underwent five trials for
blasphemy. Ultimately, he was convicted and in June of 1838, at the age of 64,
served 60 days in jail. Famously, he was the last man in this country jailed
Because of these experiments we can see we are
not alone and not the first in our yearning for a better more perfect
world. The stories of these communities
are stories of human hopes and human failings.
Money, trust and human patience all had their limits. And our story will
no doubt be the same. While in hindsight we can clearly see the imperfections
of the past, we can rest assured, one hundred years from now, our efforts will
be viewed as similarly quaint and faulty.
Dreams are like that. They are
rooted in the specifics of our day. They
are rooted in our limited understanding of the many forces working upon
us. What we create today is just the
fruit of our own pain and our own blindness.
I am struck by a few key differences between
these Utopian communities and Dr. King’s dream of racial equality for all. His dream sought to transform our whole
country and remove the intransigent effects of slavery. The Utopians sought to
set aside a small group in a social experiment distinct from the dominant
culture. There is a tension there
between inclusion and exclusion, between connection and disaffection. The set-aside community will only change the
dominant culture if it is reaching out in some way to effect wider social
change. For me, the stories of these Utopian societies no longer inspire the
way that Dr. King’s vision still does. This might have something to do with
The Civil Rights movement that Dr. King lived
and died for was directly engaged with the larger culture and boldly aimed to
transform the whole. Dr. King said again and again – that we are connected. The
scourge of racial hatred and intolerance has indeed been changed and even
lessened in the years since he lived. We
have made visible and practical progress.
We, the American people, have reelected an African-American President…
and will celebrate his Inauguration tomorrow.
Dr. King could only dream of this day.
That is actual progress.
Yet, at the same time, we have developed new
ways to institutionalize racism, in unfair housing practices, in
prisons overflowing with people of color and a new and virulent intolerance for
immigrants. The laws we now agree to live under guarantee many more civil
rights than they did 47 years ago for people of every race, gender and sexual
orientation, but they continue to be challenged, and they need to be expanded
again. Racial integration of schools and public institutions has blended us,
allowed us to live and learn together with great benefits for us all. Living in a multicultural society is
challenging but worth the effort. But we
continue to find new ways to segregate ourselves. Fear of difference has not
disappeared. That dream of weaving a community needs to be nurtured and created
afresh every single day.
Utopian dreams are never totally practical.
Someone will laugh. Someone will feel threatened. Someone will say we can’t
afford it. The status quo will have its own gravity. We will fail, but we will
also learn something. And perhaps some
real good will come of it all.
We begin with the loftiest goals and the purest
means we can imagine. Dr. King said:
But there is something that I must say to my people who
stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the
process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of
bitterness and hatred.
forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We
must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again
and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with
This peace-filled conduct, this
soul force, reaps its own rewards. With
that non-violent resistance we make friends rather than enemies. We show up, we
see that we are connected and we are transformed. Dr. King says of whites and blacks in the
struggle, “They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound
to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face
the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream
deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and
live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be
self-evident: that all men are created equal."
So my friends, what is our dream today?
What will we stand for and work for that will be worthy of our
lives? We are asked to pledge for 30
Days to take a stand for love and justice every one of these days. The dreams that are stirred by this UU and
interfaith campaign involve dignity and fair treatment of immigrants. In getting to know our neighbors at Casa
Freehold and Lunch Break, the Kitchen at St. Marks it is clear that our dreams
are not all that different. We all want
a chance for a good education and opportunity for our children. And for those whose sexual identity brings with
it discrimination and denial of the right to marry, we dream of that simple
right, that dignity and protection of the law that marriage provides for all
loving and committed couples. We dream that their children will never know the
hurt that exclusion creates.
And I dream of recovery and hope for all those struggling mightily with
the economic and personal crises that Hurricane Sandy have brought to our
community. We learned this morning that
affordable housing is an issue that shows NJ to be the most segregated state in
the Union. This is racism in hidden that Sandy now reveals. I dream of a consistent Unitarian
Universalist outreach and partnership with all those left homeless now. We are far from recovered from the emotional,
spiritual and physical toll of that storm.
I dream that we will be advocates for environmental protection of our
precious shore line, as climate change wreaks itself upon us and our most vulnerable
citizens. Standing on the side of love in these daily struggles, we find
ourselves roughed up and opened up to dreaming.
To congregation: What is your dream? Utopian or not….
That is just the start! You can discern what this love and justice
means to you and how it applies to your daily life. I hope you will talk with us all about that
and share your stories of your own courageous love. And share the courageous
love you see all around you. We cannot
let these stories remain hidden. We all
need to hear them. They give us hope and renewed strength for the struggle. I will be a witness and tell you what I see
on my facebook site. Please ‘friend’ me
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 address to the anti‐war
group Clergy and Laity Concerned:
I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am
speaking of that force which all of the great religious have seen as the
supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the
door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu‐Moslem‐Christian‐Jewish‐Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed
up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is
God and everyone that love[s] is born of God and know[s] God.”
When you and I speak of love
and justice, whether or not we use the term God, let it be this robust and
boundary-crossing love, a love that pushes us out of our comfort zones, a love
that reaches the hidden places where lives lay broken open.
I have this dream today:
I dream of love made real in every corner of our world, every day.
Friends, come dream with me. Create love and justice with me, right
here, right now. Let us begin today to
stand on the side of this courageous Love.
It is this common endeavor, always
in the process of becoming. Not perfect
nor insular communities but wide open dreams of becoming. This is what we set out to achieve. In our own
limited and faulty way we do create loving community within these walls and far
beyond. Here we may learn how to
love. Here we may practice trust and
human engagement. Here we will urge each other to step out over that warm
threshold and bring what we have found here to this whole community, country
and world. May this be our dream and our new reality. May it be so someday.