A Sermon by The Rev. Peter Connolly
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY on September 5, 2010
“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another, and to assume among the powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In the course of our history as a nation, the Declaration of Independence, formally referred to as “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen States of America,” delineates for us the lines of loyalties we assume as Americans. In the words of Jefferson, “the political bands which have connected them to another” mark the state of loyalty assumed until this document was agreed upon and ratified—the bands of loyalty to the English crown, whose constitution was the basis for political order among the colonies until this time when reorganization was seen as imperative—at least among the representatives of the people gathered in the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia.
This was a declaration of much risk, of course. Loyalties so clearly delineated and so clearly claimed, in opposition to the standing order, are declared through a lengthy process with dangers implied and explicitly expressed along the way. And then, of course, the consequence of war.
When the colonists decided to declare their independence from England, it was because they believed that the justification for that loyalty— the law of England, the well-worn path of tradition, the human inclination for stability over instability—did not measure up to the call of another loyalty, that to certain principles: one principle was that the men of the American colonies were equal to the men of England, the king of England included.
Another principle was that the men of the American colonies were endowed with rights inseparable from their status as human beings. Those rights were claimed as the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to pursue happiness. The text goes on to state, in something like a litany, the ways in which the king of England had abridged those rights– so severely as to make disloyalty to him less significant than loyalty to a set of principles which include pursuing happiness.
The irony, of course, is that by declaring independence so as to pursue happiness more effectively, the colonists knew that they were throwing away any immediate chance of happiness because their actions would be viewed as inciting a war during which happiness could be nothing more than an evanescent goal. And liberty, no matter how highly valued, can only ever be a relative kind of liberty—there is always a boundary to it and, no one wants to create the causes that will engender war for a kind of liberty that is only vague and undefined.
And yet, the injustices endured by the colonists as they experienced and defined them were enough to make them dissolve the only political bonds they had known for an uncertain future. They traded loyalty to a known quality of life for loyalty to an unknown future based on principle. One principle was that “governments (derive) their just powers from the consent of the governed.” If the consent is not given, the powers are not justly imposed.
The litany of wrongs suffered at the hands of the king of England is long and in its expression it is convincing. After that litany is a short list, but an important one, a list of those things the colonists claim to have done in the way of appeasement, in the way of goodwill, in the way of patient suffering. And between the two lists is the turning phrase: “A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Tyranny is insufferable to a free people. Freedom from tyranny is cause enough to declare independence from the rule of the tyrant. Independence is worth fighting for.
The document closes with this sentence: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Because we have a right to our lives, we mutually pledge our lives; because we have a right to our liberty, we mutually pledge our fortunes; because we have the right to pursue what brings us happiness, we, mutually, pledge our sacred honor.
Of course, the equation is not so simple, but it’s worthwhile, I think, to look at these simple equations and to ask ourselves if we, in the place of the colonists, our political ancestors, would thus pledge. To what do we hold loyalty? What choices do we make? What are the implications of those choices?
I have to admit that I find the topic of “loyalty” a difficult one. One of my favorite television series over the past ten years or so was called “The Sopranos.” The value that was held most highly by the members of this “crime family” was personal loyalty. Personal loyalty trumps loyalty to ideals if those ideals too easily can be subsumed under the overarching value of “self-interest.” In the Soprano family and the “families” of their various rivals and confederates, personal loyalty was paramount. If you are familiar with the show, you know to what horrific lengths the families will go if they feel they have been betrayed.
Less violent, but still unsettling to me is “political” loyalty, especially when it takes on this personal form. Coming from New England, I am more familiar with the saga of the Kennedy family than any other—I’m sure it won’t be long before you will get me up to speed on the stories of local politicians and the complications in their stories.
I was always struck, in my reading about the Kennedys, by the importance they placed on personal loyalties, not just within the family, but throughout the long train of connections made through college life and political life which trumped at times, especially during turbulent election campaigns, the niceties of civility and the virtue, it would seem, of a certain kind of ethics.
In my personal life, I can still remember incidents that happened decades ago concerning my brother and myself. During the time of the visit of Pope Paul John II to Boston, there was a lot of fuss in the city, as you can imagine. We were of an age where standing in a crowd of four hundred thousand for a Catholic mass was not an attractive prospect, but a night of drinking and carousing with friends was, well, appealing.
Commonwealth Avenue from Boston Common to the chancery in Brighton was closed to through traffic so as to cordon off the motorcade route through which the Pope would be traveling the next day. I was the driver of the van, I must admit, when my brother and his friend determined that it would be a satisfying adventure to remove one of the metal barrels from this route and take off with it in the van. I did nothing to thwart this action. I can just see myself, now, shaking my head with a bemused look.
But, when we got to our destination, a home on a hill, I was horrified at the plan my brother had hatched. Once the metal barrel was liberated from its storage place in the van, he laid it on its side and let it go for a rollicking roll down the hill. This horrified me and at least some of our companions. Yes, it ended up hitting a car, how could it not have?— they were parked on both sides of the hill. And, yes, it caused some damage to headlight and grill.
It was a sour ending to a high-spirited night and we went our separate ways in a variety of moods, none too chipper. Days later, after sobriety had long since been regained, John could not understand why I should censure his action if it meant siding with others and against my own brother.
So, loyalty has a place in my scale of values, but personal loyalty has to be measured against the moral and philosophical values that I have developed over the years and which help me chart my course through life and, when backed up by actions, make me who I am. (A note to our youth who are here with us in the service: nothing you have heard here today should be taken as condoning theft or other evidences of drunken irresponsibility—things could certainly have turned out much worse than they did.)
Loyalties are not things that spring up on us unannounced, are they? They are things, connections, that place their claim on us in a way that we cannot easily let go. As many of you know, I spent the better part of the month of July this year visiting family and friends in New England. In a way, I felt the place of my personal roots calling me back, reclaiming me, reminding me that much of what has formed me and informed me needed a visit. The connection needed to be renewed, my origins needed to reclaim me.
In a similar way, the previous summer, knowing I was going to be pulling up my roots and becoming a transplant 1300 miles away, the land of my forebears called to me and I spent ten days in Western Ireland, staying with my aunt on the farm she’s lived on since she married many years ago, a farm just up the road from where she and my mother grew up, a short walk from the one-room schoolhouse that both she and my dad attended. My loyalty to Ireland, however deep it goes, is not based on fancy, nor is it an intellectual thing: it’s a place that calls to me for deeper reasons, reasons living in the blood.
While in New England this past summer, I spent a couple of days with my cousin Danny and his wife Gail at their cottage on Plum Island, just south of Newburyport and the New Hampshire border, as north as the Atlantic gets in Massachusetts. Immediately upon my arrival, I was asked if I wanted to take a ride on the boat come high tide and sure enough, around four p.m. with a picnic lunch packed and plenty of water, with our hats and sunglasses and swimsuits, we were off in Danny’s motorboat, a ride mostly smooth, but with bumps enough once the seas got choppy.
Danny showed me the mouth of every river, the Ipswich, the Parker, the Plum Island River; he recognized every inlet, remarked on the state of various cottages and buildings, what was still standing, what once stood there. Plum Island, the cottage, the life of being outdoors in the summer and being on the water are things that claim Danny. They are where his passions lie.
Danny’s older brother is John. John has no interest in Plum Island and never has. Handy thing, too, because it means that things went a lot easier than they might have when sorting through the inheritance. John’s passion is for Ireland and all things Irish. I cannot tell you how many times he has been to Ireland, but his wife, Maureen, is a Kerry woman by birth and together they have run a successful business in Hingham for many years—the Aisling Gallery.
There you can buy framed prints of photographs, posters and paintings, all things Irish. The gallery hosts music sessions and is a clearinghouse for everything Irish on the South Shore of Boston. And John is a passionate supporter of Boston College, his alma mater. He goes to the football games and the rallies and supports the school financially.
I am a graduate of Brandeis University, a short drive down the Mass. Pike from Boston and though I spent three days this summer with my college roommate Dave, neither one of us thought to make the trip. What is it that calls us, that claims our loyalty, that seems to want us, that we feel called upon to support? Why do some things feed our spirits and others leave us, if not cold, well, then, not much more than lukewarm?
That’s the question I’d like you to consider today. I won’t challenge you to declare your independence, to declare that you’ve had enough of this or that kind of injustice and to choose, instead, some principled action. I will ask you to make a different kind of choice: to look at those things which have formed you in their way and continue to form you, still.
Most of us grew up in families of one kind or another; some were traditional in form, others less so, but all left their mark. The nurture there will call to some of us to hold close these connections: the bonds that formed, sometimes complicated, indeed, and poly-valenced, are bonds we treasure and which compel our loyalty. For others, our neighborhoods were refuges from the demands of a family life that did not cohere, did not make sense, did not claim us in the process of forming us.
I think it is important to name the things that contribute to defining us, because in so doing, we learn a bit more about ourselves, and we learn a little better how to chart the course of our lives. I ask you—not just yet—to fill out the insert in your order of service as a survey, as a way that will tell me—and tell us, as a congregation—who we are by what we value. Where are our loyalties? W hat claims us?
At the sound of the ringing of the bell of mindfulness, I will ask you to take a few minutes to look at the choices listed in this survey form and think of the strength of the various connections each of us has made and to indicate their importance to each of us by assigning a number, 1 through 20 if you choose to work your way through the whole document. We are allowing five minutes to complete this exercise.
Of course, you have the choice not to participate in this exercise. You are a Unitarian Universalist. No one is telling you what to do. You also have the choice to fill out the form and keep it for your own use and self-education. But we do hope that you turn in this form so that I can compile the responses and report back to you who we are as a community, at least in the very limited way shown by the results of this survey. And there are extra forms that will be made available to you if you want one for your own uses.
The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, as every schoolchild knows. We celebrated the holiday here in church this year, as it fell on a Sunday. Scott Stroot and Forrest Halford and Tracy led us in singing songs from a kind of alternative American Songbook. It was a lot of fun and provided for me a deeper experience of being American than the more bombastic and explicitly nationalistic songs we usually associate with “Being an American.”
July 4, 1776 is a day we celebrate every year—there is no danger of it sneaking by unnoticed: It is the day that this country came together to declare itself as a free and independent nation.
But, there is a day, just as important—more important, I would argue— that did slip by this past week as it slips by every year, with virtually no notice. Its only mention in the newspaper was on Friday in the little feature on the same page as the comics and the “Jumble,” the feature called “This Day in History.” I know that some here will be able to tell me the significance of September 3, 1783, but I feel confident in stating that it will be a slim minority indeed.
September 3, 1783 was the date on which the Treaty of Paris was signed by representatives of the independent nations of Great Britain and the United States of America. I wonder why it is that we honor so highly that day on which we declared independence and let pass by with so little notice that day on which that independence was formally achieved and recognized?
Our loyalties spring often from our passions, do they not? I guess we don’t get too passionate about the signing of a document in a room somewhere, do we? Oh, wait—that’s what happened on July 4, is it not? A riddle for another day, I guess, the subject of another discussion.
- earlyamerica.com: The Declaration of Independence.
- Mooney, Brian C., 2005. “In America, Boston first greeted John Paul,” The Boston Globe, April 3, 2005.
- “This Day in History,” The Bowling Green Daily News, September 3, 2010.