Making World Peace Contagious

Global Peace is the foremost dream of our 6th principle. Rev. Barnaby reflected on how much the achievement of the others to any substantial extent depends on centering peacemaking in core UU practice:

Readings: Sermon on the Mount, adapted by Rev. Edwin Palmer and Rev. Barnaby Feder:

Blessed are they whose health is the joy of living, who, though deprived of goods, are not lacking in goodness.

Theirs shall be a heaven, not of time or place, that bears fruit in human minds.

Blessed are they whose hunger for righteousness exceeds their desire for riches, whose thirst for integrity is greater than their craving for power.

Theirs shall be the way of justice and the highway of love their road to happiness.

Blessed are they whose heart is tender, whose sympathy lifts up the fallen and gives strength to the weak.

Their portion shall be good will and to them shall the meaning of friendship be revealed.

Blessed are they who cherish in memory those who walk with them no more, who know bereavement as assurance that love abides.

Their sorrow shall bring them understanding that they are joined with all who love.

Blessed are the lonely seekers after truth, those who risk their lives and fortunes to push back the night of ignorance, disease and poverty.

Theirs shall be the name of utmost service and their courage a lasting inspiration.

Blessed are they who build good will among people respecting the endless diversity of human identity, preaching the futility of strife and seeking creative peace.

Their words shall live in our hearts and their work enrich generations to come.

Making Peace by Denise Levertov


The poet A. E. Housman once said, “The House of Delusions is cheap to build but drafty to live in.” I would add that when he says “drafty,” I am imagining a shelter potentially so flimsy that it is hazardous to your health. Humans get ugly living with the stress of maintaining houses of delusions. That’s why our Sixth Principle makes me nervous. I cannot remember any time in my adult life when I believed humans could create a worldwide community with peace, liberty and justice for all. So why on Earth are we UU’s identifying our congregations as affirming and promoting that goal. Isn’t it tantamount to confessing we are naive and deluded about human nature?

Perhaps the biggest stretch of all in this affirmation is the thought of peace for all. Jim Scott, the UU hymn writer who will be appearing here Friday night, has a brief song in our gray hymnal called “Nothing but Peace Is Enough.” The first line says, “Nothing but peace is enough for me, the next two say, “nothing but peace is enough” and it concludes by repeating the first line – “Nothing but peace is enough for me.” You might hear admirable commitment in these lyrics. I’ve never asked you to sing them because I feel like a fraud when I say them. I know I am too easily seduced into periods of grateful contentment that I know are neither universal for enduring. And in those moments, gratitude makes what I have enough.

I don’t mean to pick on Scott, but this level of affirmation of peace as a goal denies centuries of wisdom about the human weakness for violence and oppression. There’s the Greek philosopher Plato – “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” The German military strategist von Clausewitz – “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” And cynicism, like Ambrose Bierce’s “Peace is a a period of cheating between wars.”

But I’m not here to advocate that we throw out our sixth principle. I just want us to be very clear that it is one of our clearest examples that these principles are statements of how we aspire to live together, not what we intend to accomplish. We aren’t proclaiming a commitment to attain the unattainable. We aren’t failures if our efforts don’t lead to justice and liberty for all, much less universal peace. We are failures if we don’t turn our communal efforts toward such work. What is good and sacred has never been confined to what is within our grasp. Our values urge us to be honest about what is unattainable but to remember that is not the same as being unapproachable or irrelevant. Stars we have no way of reaching and, indeed, that in some cases no longer exist, still shine in our skies every night. Often, they illuminate our deepest thoughts and feelings.

Our sixth principle, at its best, challenges us to be realists without being defeatists. It’s realistic to believe that world peace is unattainable. But experience teaches us that moments of peace and spaces of peace are constantly popping in and out of human history. The Unitarian poet and Tufts University English professor, John Holmes, mapped out this accessible aspect of peace – he called it “the peace not past our understanding” – in a hymn written in 1948 that we just sang. It is light falling on a table cloth during a winter supper like the Shabbat meal Michele and I had with three Middlebury College UU’s Friday evening. This kind of peace is too simple to be scrutinized for whether it meets the definition of peace. It’s houses lighted late year after year, garden harvests and holidays. And Holmes went on to say this accumulation of little things too simple to be viewed as acts of making peace come true at last “for those of God’s good will: these are the things we mean by saying, Peace.”

The message here is that it is realistic to believe that simply be being peaceful, we strive for world peace. Thus can we expand the domain of our encounters with peace; thus can we bend the arc of the universe toward peace, justice, and liberty. But there is another step beyond this kind of peacemaking – conscious actions calculated to extend what we know of peace to others. The poet Denise Levertov says we have in our daily rhythms “a feeling toward peace.” But we need to actually speak the forms of peace aloud to others, and to shape them by our actions to have an impact – she calls it applying the grammar of justice to our words and deeds.

Levertov suggested in the 1980’s that our lives were like sentences structured to affirm profit and power. Peacemaking, she said, requires restructuring the sentence to question our true needs, and allow long pauses. I get that. Sometimes peacemaking involves not doing things, not saying things, not getting caught up in the rush to what turns out to be conflict – intentional non-violent resistance made conspicuous by refusal to go along. In my experience, that tactic only works when you are sure of what you love about humanity and the Earth, and that feeling is more powerful than your anger. At any rate, Levertov said that only then can peace become fully realized poetry – that is to say, a beautiful energy field more intense than war. She envisioned it pulsing into the world stanza by stanza, “each act of living one of its words.”

I love this imagery, but it feels a little flowery for our times. So I want to offer contagion as a different metaphor than poetry for peacemaking. Contagion has a bad name right now for obvious reasons. But you don’t have to look far for famous people assuring us that all kinds of emotional goodies are contagious – confidence, courage, generosity, kindness. You name it. And don’t forget laughter. My father had an amazing laugh. Loud, unrestrained. The only word for it was infectious. I will never forget going to see the slapstick French comedy “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” with him. It was his third time seeing it. He would begin roaring with anticipatory laughter a few seconds before every funny scene. It was embarrassing at first. But soon most of the people around him couldn’t resist and they were laughing too – at and with him first, and then at the scenes. Perhaps some folks were offended. I didn’t get that sense though. As Monty Python member John Cleese once said, “A wonderful thing about true laughter is that it just destroys any kind of system of dividing people.” (

Psychologist Daniel Goleman says all emotions are contagious. I suspect that understates the role of contagion in the Universe as we know it. Life itself relies heavily on contagion for evolution. But let’s think about peacemaking in terms of what the new Coronavirus is teaching us. Imagine that instead of saying we are affirming and promoting world peace, justice, and liberty, we said we are committed to infecting the world with the impulse to make peace. Let’s consider first what we can hypothesize about the current nature of this infection.

      1. We must assume the impulse to be involved in peacemaking is contagious, at least in many forms.

      2. We must assume, sadly, that impulse to peacemaking can damaging or even deadly to individuals heavily infected with devotion to it.

      3. Just as the outcome of infection by the Coronavirus varies widely with the location and circumstances in which it was contracted, so does the outcome of peacemaking efforts. It is far more dangerous as a citizen of North Korea to publicly antagonize the government with a peacemaking gesture than it is for a citizen of the United States.

      4. We must assume that there are far more mild cases of the impulse to work on making peace than serious ones.

      5. We must assume that there are millions of carriers of the impulse who do not see themselves as infected in any way, yet whom are nonetheless capable of acting in ways that expose others.

      6. We must assume that a true epidemic of peacemaking would have many unpredictable consequences, not all of them positive, just as a Coronavirus epidemic we would call tragic could have positive side effects like a sharp if temporary decrease in global carbon emissions.

      7. We must assume that there are hot spots for this infection and others where it isn’t as visible or simply isn’t really present.

And now comes the part that really interests me as your minister. If CVUUS aspired to become a hot spot for peacemaking – a hotbed of contagion – who would we look for as effective carriers. One of the reasons I offer CommUUnion here quarterly is that I believe Jesus – if edited from through a UU lens – offered some good suggestions.

Where can we encounter folks “whose health is the joy of living, who, though deprived of goods, are not lacking in goodness”? Yes, give us fellow congregants with what our version of the Sermon on the Mount calls “fruitful minds.” And I pray CVUUS is a sanctuary to gather those “whose hunger for righteousness exceeds their desire for riches, whose thirst for integrity is greater than their craving for power”? As the UU Jesus said, they will show us the way of justice and a love that is a road to happiness. And let us welcome each person “whose heart is tender, whose sympathy lifts up the fallen and gives strength to the weak” for they will lead us in making the kind of peace where the meaning of friendship is lifted up for all to see. And I see many among you who cherish in memory those who walk with you no more, who have found in bereavement first hand knowledge that love outlives death. You bless us with the understanding that in this respect all who experience love are united as one.

Our Jesus also said “the lonely seekers after truth, those who risk their lives and fortunes to push back the night of ignorance, disease and poverty” are a blessing to us. I think specifically of Dr. Morris Earle Jr., who has traveled to Lebanon to serve Syrian refugee children in a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. But he is not the only one among us whose example of service has provided us with lasting inspiration in the realm of peacemaking.

I love that the last invocation of who blesses our impulses to peacemaking is far more general than heroic. Blessed, we say in ComUUnion, are “they who build good will among people respecting the endless diversity of human identity, preaching the futility of strife and seeking creative peace.” We affirm that such words and works from any among us “live in our hearts” and express faith that “their work enriches generations to come.”

For me, the CommUUnion words suggest CVUUS is thoroughly infected with people who are capable of seeing themselves as blessed, and as a result, capable of blessing the world. The words are inspirationally vague perhaps to the ears of an outsider. But in every verse, I see faces I recognize in this room. It remains fair, if cynical, to ask whether we are mostly individualized viruses parked temporarily in this still young organism struggling for vitality in a world hostile to progressive faith communities. But I look out and see a beloved community building an ever more precious vision of the People’s Peace. I pray that history will regard us as the latter. May we live to make it so.