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The World Where We Live - Part 3 (Tony Hileman - April 19, 2008)

Platform Address Part 3 of 3 by Tony Hileman
Co-presented by Tony Hileman, Kate Lovelady, and Randy Best 
American Ethical Union Assembly, Austin, TX, April 19, 2008

As Humanists, we all value and appreciate courage, we try to do brave things and avoid doing foolish things. This morning I'm realizing a bit late that to follow either of the previous speakers, Kate Lovelady or Randy Best, might be considered brave. But to try to follow both of them is downright foolish. But, as I said, it's too late now so I'm gong to try.

The theme of this year's Assembly is "Where We Live." And there's been no shortage of talk about that, mostly from Texans who want to make sure you know they're from Texas. I want to thank our hosts from Austin. But in doing so I feel a need to rise in defense of the great state of Indiana. 

Now unlike Texans we Hoosiers don't usually brag about our home state. In fact we seldom mention it at all. We figure if the other person is from Indiana we'll recognize it soon enough. And if they aren't, well, there's just no need to embarrass them. 

Now I know it riles a Texan to hear that, and a riled Texan is not something you want to come near. But those of you so riled should just settle down and settle back because I'm going to keep talking until I feel it's safe to quit. I figure as long as I'm up here I'm out of harm's way, though that could be a false sense of security.

And speaking of security and where we live, or where we come from, it is said that the two most divisive things, the two most dangerous things, the two things that pose the greatest threats to security in our world today are religion and nationalism. Whether adopted through geography, the influence of culture, or the exercise of choice, those are identities we have proven ourselves all to willing to war over and die for. 

What we need, and what Ethical Humanism offers, is an identity to live for and a religion to live by. Ethical Culture puts itself forward as a religion -- an expression of Humanism in which ethics is central. As such, we teach a reciprocal ethics that holds that individual and community are not contradictory but rather complementary, each finding full expression in the other. Individual, yes. Autonomous, no.

Societies -- warring and peaceful -- are a reflection of the dynamic balance between the individuals who comprise them and the collective whole that they themselves comprise. Neither should be slave or master to the other.

The individual should not ask the community to conform to her or his individuality. Nor should the community ask that citizens or members sacrifice their sense of self, let alone life itself, for a patriotic sense of the whole. 

Sociological studies have tracked our notion of individualism from a clannish concept where self-interest was secondary to the good of the tribe; to a civic sense that attempts to balance the interest of individual citizens with that of the city- or nation-state, or members to the group; and from there to a more modern and disturbing trend that, in its most extreme, places individual wants (read that greed) above any sense of responsibility to or for others. 

I am a product of and marked by my Germanic, Catholic, Indiana upbringing -- and proudly so. I was, as are we all, shaped by the social context into which I was born and raised. 

But there comes a point in life -- call it maturity if you will -- when you become less a product of your environment, of the accidents of birth and the affects of nurture, and more an expression of your own experiences. We become fully ourselves through living, through relationships with others. First with family, or course, but then with an ever expanding universe of relationships that connects us in a deep and real way to every other person -- present, past, and future. 

Yes, I know, that's not an original thought. Though differently grounded Felix Adler called it the Ethical Manifold -- the sense that we are simultaneously the one and the many. Whether you extend that idea to another realm as he did or keep it firmly rooted in the natural world as we do, the realization that we are social by nature and that we become fully human in the same way that we became human in the first place, in and through community, is an inspiring, animating, and motivating concept.

It tempers the divisiveness of religious and political fundamentalism that produces a sense of separation if not isolation. It also gives direction to the moral outrage Randy expressed. Focused as we have been during our Leader meetings over the past couple of days on our unqualified opposition to torture as an assault on human dignity, we are outraged. 

On September 11, 2001, I lived in Washington, DC. Now I live in New York City. Both cities were targeted and hit by angry, suicidal, homicidal fanatics. I, we, were hit where we live. We were outraged and justifiably so. But our nation has and continues to express its justifiable outrage in unjustifiable ways -- with vengeful retaliation, with preemptive war, and with shameful acts of torture. 

A malleable congress gave President George W. Bush carte blanch and this is the course he chose for us: He unleashed a force that has failed in its military missions both real and imagined, and instead has poured forth a scalding fury on unsuspecting and largely innocent people -- indiscriminately killing in such vast numbers and with such utter disregard for human worth that we don't even bother to count the dead, unless of course they are ours.

That has led to a national policy of torture of "enemy combatants" held without legal let alone civil or human rights in a nebulous "war on terror."

As a result, the accumulated treasures of America have been tarnished. The wonder of our past and the promise of our future, at least our near-term future, have gone down the drain of a corrupt present. The respect amassed over two and a third centuries has been squandered. And the trust earned through honorable acts has been lost through dishonorable ones. 

That's something that hits us all where we live and we are outraged.

The image of America as symbol of the good life -- pleasant, honest, intelligent -- is gone. And in the shadow of our national shame hope and dignity stand waiting and wanting.

I agree with Randy that if you're not outraged you're simply not paying attention. But to what should we pay attention? 

To the way we look at, to the way we think about, and to the way we treat each other.

In that vein, our sense of togetherness says that we begin by paying a little less attention to our selves and by paying a lot more attention to the wellbeing of others.

Our sense of oneness with others says that we pay a little less attention to our own comfort -- most of us are comfortable enough -- and start paying attention to the comfort of others.

The ethics of togetherness, of oneness, says that we can afford to pay a little less attention to our own finances -- most of us live well enough -- and share more generously with those in desperate need of what we have and hoard.

This reciprocal attitude of Ethical Humanism applies uniformly between individuals, between nation states, and between ideologies. It says that by making others more comfortable we become more comfortable with ourselves. It says that by increasing the wellness of others our own wellness burgeons. And it says that by sharing our treasure with others, we ourselves become richer. 

And perhaps, just perhaps, as a result of our sharing with others, our outrage and their anger will lessen. Perhaps, just perhaps, our helping others will bridge the divide between ourselves and others. And perhaps, just perhaps, through our sharing, through our helping, love, justice, and peace can be restored to a world driven by fear, greed, and revenge. 

It is common sense that in this election year we should support those who intend to do just that, be they those we elect to govern our national union or our ethical union, our state or our congregations. 

"Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in thyself" is more than cliche. It is wisdom. Wisdom we need and wisdom the world needs. We don't believe in magic, but we do believe in the good our own efforts can produce in others and in ourselves.

Ethical Humanism is an idea that affects how and where we live our lives. 

It has many times throughout its history impacted the thinking of citizen and leader alike. It is time it did so again! We need to do the things Kate and Randy urge us to do, and we need to do them now.

And so I, too, invite you to join in deeply living our ethical values and, in so doing, offer them to a world in desperate need of them -- the world where we live.

  • The reader is reminded that this is the written text of an oral address and remains in that style. While the speaker’s presentation marks have been redacted, there has been no attempt to edit it into an essay.