Long, long ago, the Emperor of an ancient land was old and dying. He loved children but had none of his own. So the Emperor decided to choose one of the children of his land to be the next Emperor.
The Emperor also loved plants, and of these, he had many. So nobody was surprised by the test he offered the children of the land.
The Emperor called all the children to his palace. He said, “I will give one seed to each of you. Come back in one year. When I see what you have grown from your seeds, I will choose the next Emperor.”
The children ran from the palace smiling. All they had to do was grow a seed and they would be Emperor. But a year is a long time. Most of the children decided to wait a while to do their planting, and as the year went by, many children forgot their seeds.
But one child, a girl named Chen, took care of her seed right away. Just like the Emperor himself, Chen loved plants. Chen carefully carried the Emperor's seed home, sealing it securely in her hands so it wouldn't fall, but not so tightly that it might crush
As soon as she got home, Chen found a clay pot made by her Grandmother. She thought that pot would be just right to grow her seed. She washed the pot and dried it carefully. Next Chen found rich, black soil that had many worms in it to make it nourishing. Chen filled the pot with the soil. Then she planted her seed, carefully covering it with the soil.
Chen set the pot in the sun. Each day, she lightly sprinkled water on the seed. But nothing grew from the seed. Nothing at all.
Some weeks went by. The other children boasted to each other of the wonderful large plants they had grown, but Chen’s seed did not grow. She tried moving the pot to another window. She tried watering her plant more, and even singing to her plant. But no matter what Chen did, her seed did not grow.
Then, a year had passed. It was time to return to the Emperor. Chen was ashamed that her seed had not grown.
Her wise Grandmother said, “You did your best, Chen. You were caring and patient. Be honest with the Emperor and explain that you did your best. It will be enough.”
So Chen returned to the palace with her empty pot held carefully in her arms. The children lined up to present their plants. The first child had a large plant with thick leaves, a ginseng plant that could be used to make paper and medicine. The next child had a eucalyptus plant, a healthy, strong plant that soon would become a tree big enough to produce food for many animals. By the time Chen’s turn came, she was so sad about her empty pot.
Feeling very embarrassed, Chen held her empty pot up for the Emperor to see. Chen explained how she had lovingly cared for her seed. Chen talked about her love for her Grandmother who had made the pot. She told the Emperor everything she had done to care for the seed, and how sad she felt that the seed would not grow.
The Emperor smiled and spoke. “There is only one among you who is honest enough to be the Emperor. It is Chen,” he said. “The seeds that I gave you had been boiled so they would never grow. These wonderful plants some children have shown me did not come from the seeds I gave them."
On Thursday, I attended an Interfaith Clergy Dialogue group called MCCJ. Before the meeting, I was talking with Jeanette Smith, one of the co-chairs of the group. She is a Quaker and a teacher at Florida International University—she teaches World Religions and a course in Social Justice Dialogue. Recently, she was between classes and noticed a gathering of students. She went over and noticed a man holding a sign that essentially said “believe in Jesus or go to hell.” He was aggressively yelling at the students. He seemed to be picking on some of the people around him. He saw someone with a rainbow ribbon and he began yelling at them about love was only right when it was between a man and a woman. He yelled at some of the women that they should be submissive and listen to men for direction. He yelled at some of the men that women were taking away men’s masculinity.
Jeanette walked up. She noticed that many of the students were very tense and as this man verbally attacked basically anything that moved, the tension only increased. Jeanette engaged with the man, trying to ratchet down the tension. She wanted to understand his purpose for being on campus. When she did so, he asked her if she was a Christian. She said she was a Quaker. The man responded to her that she should be preaching the gospel.
She moved two steps toward him and he stepped ten steps back from her. Realizing that she wasn’t going to have any impact on this man, she addressed the young adults that had gathered, telling them that if they wanted to discuss some of the issues this man was bringing up in a safe and open place, they could join her in her Social Justice discussion class. The tension ratcheted down a little and some students asked who she was and where her class was. The crowd slowly dispersed and Jeanette went back to her classroom.
What does this story have to do with lying? I have been thinking a lot about certain leaders in government, business, and religion who stretch the truth, spin the facts, espouse conspiracy theories, in general lie to get others to do what they want or believe the way they believe. I see some people in government, business, and religion trying to manipulate others to follow their lead, to radicalize others to act in destructive ways, or seemingly give others permission to hurt or abuse people different from themselves. And media of all kinds just exacerbates the situation by giving the destructive messages airtime.
When I heard Jeanette tell her story, my immediate response was that this radical Christian was aggressively trying to shove ideas, powerful, emotional, destructive ideas in the minds of these young people. Ideas that were lies. Ideas designed to destabilize, radicalize, and manipulate the people listening. Why do I think that these ideas are lies? I believe the purpose of religion--when it is healthy and life-affirming--is to build community, to affirm ways to care for our fellow beings, as well as affirm values and principles, ethics and morals to live by, and to foster some self-awareness, in other words to create an internal structure that helps people think before reacting. In support of this belief, I offer you this objective verifiable truth: the Golden rule exists in all major religions.
Let me tell you about two first-century-BCE rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, contemporaries paired together by Jewish tradition as archetypal opposites: Hillel the tolerant and liberal “loose constructionist” of the Law, Shammai the exacting and inflexible “strict constructionist.” In one story about them, a gentile comes to both and asks, with the obvious intention of provoking them, to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Shammai is indeed provoked and gives the man an angry whack with a measuring rod. Hillel replies, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.” The same idea is spoken by Jesus in the Christian Gospel of Matthew. He says “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” And Buddha said, “Do not offend others as you would not want to be offended.” And in Islam, “None of you shall be true believers unless you wish for your brother the same you wish for yourself.”
The Golden Rule also affirms another role of the church/religion to remind people to be their best selves, not to threaten them or manipulate them to get them to act morally or ethically. And I do not believe that one has to believe in a divine being to have morals or have an ethical grounding for their lives. But I do think it is useful to be reminded to be our best selves. Religious belief is not based on facts. Religious belief is, at its best, based on affirming ideas that aid you in living a loving, ethical, caring, healthy life, in other words affirming how to live in a world that has many different, often conflicting, views of right and wrong, or what is a truth and what is a lie.
Let’s look at the story of the emperor and the seeds as an example. The emperor set up all these children by giving them boiled seeds that would not grow. Right there, this story starts with a lie. But we could rationalize the lie serves a good purpose. Almost all the children brought to the emperor beautiful and productive plants. Did the children or their parents worry about the consequences if they got caught lying to the emperor? Not enough to stop them. These children and their families considered the benefits of lying. Personal gain--a child who would be chosen as emperor—that factored heavily into the decision-making process. It wasn’t the fear of consequences, but the expectation of gain that drove their decision whether to lie.
Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University Dan Ariely, who I mentioned earlier, has done extensive research on lying. He asked students to complete 20 simple math problems in five minutes. Then the students shredded the completed test papers, and he asked them to tell him how they did on the test. He paid the students a dollar for each problem they reported that they got right. Most students reported getting 6 answers right. And they got six dollars. What Ariely didn’t tell the students was that he rigged the shredder so it only shredded the sides of the paper, leaving the problems and answers intact. How many answers do you think the students who answered that they got 6 right actually go right? 4. Now there were a few honest people, a few who didn’t lie as much, and there were a few big liars and a few lied more than average. Most of the students, and most of us, lie for our benefit.
There are no good people who do exclusively good things or bad people who do exclusively bad things. We are all capable of doing both good and bad, as we are all capable of telling the truth and lying. Visualize an internal see-saw, with absolute truth on one end and absolute lie on the other. Let’s say for argument sake they are of virtually equal weight. Now, let’s put you at the fulcrum of the sea-saw, a foot on either side of the mid-point, trying to keep you balanced. Not only are you balancing truth and lying, but you are also balancing seeing yourself in a positive way (I am a good person because I tell the truth) and the benefits of lying (I will tell my friend that I cannot go out with them because I am sick, so I can go out a friend I really want to spend time with). You might ask, Reverend Tom, isn’t the point not to lie. At all? Not to balance someplace between truth and lie or balance ourselves somewhere between positive self-image and self-gratification.
Friends, welcome to the real world we live in: the world of relativism. The truth is—see what I did there?—the truth is all of us lie in some measure as part of keeping our balance in this real, messy, multi-faceted, complex and confusing world we inhabit, a real-life world where shiny absolutes are more often than not as distant poles far removed from our decision-making process. There’s gonna be—there is—give and take. That’s where rationalization can begin to creep in. Ariely does suggest the more we rationalize the benefits of lying, the more dishonest we can be.
Let’s go back to the students and the math problems. Ariely wanted to see the impact on lying if a student, someone Ariely planted in the classroom, blatantly lied. This student got up shortly after receiving the test, shredded his paper, and told Ariely that he answered all the problems correctly, was paid and left. There was no question in the minds of the other students that the planted student cheated. The other students in the room watched this and many of them got up early, and lied that they got all the answers correct as well, and got paid. Thus when someone models or is given license to lie, others will do so also.
I wonder if any of us can think of someone who has been modeling lying, thereby giving license to others to lie. But I will say over the past few years or so, I know I have heard the word lies and liar more often than I have in decades before that. And the lies I have identified coming from people in government, business, and religion have piled one on top of another on top of another. There has been an increase in conspiracy theories, active manipulation of facts, and an increase in hate speech and hateful actions. When a person in power lies, uses hateful speech and treats marginalized as “the other” all of us are impacted. When we hear something like “There is no such thing as a climate crisis” or “All Immigrants are rapists, killers, and drug runners,” what are we supposed to take away from that? How do we make sense of so many lies. What ideas are put in our minds after hearing lies, observing destructive behavior and paradoxical actions, from people in power time after time after time. How is this affecting our country as a whole. How is this changing you? Your behaviors?
Ariely tried one more thing. He asked some of the students about the ten commandments before going into the room to do the math problems. Not all of them knew the ten commandments and some had some very unusual ideas what the ten commandments were, but the students he asked about the ten commandments, didn’t lie. Regardless of their spiritual beliefs or lack of beliefs. Something about being reminded of morals or even religious beliefs, resulted in people lying less.
After thinking all this through, wondering how I will respond to all the lying, hate speech, general destructive behavior that I am exposed to day in and day out. Reflecting on how it’s affecting me, and how it’s influencing my behaviors. I decided I needed to make some intentional changes. I am going to lean on my internal seesaw toward truth and I am going to be more aware of my rationalization, knowing I am not going to be perfect. More specifically I am not only going preach here about Unitarian Universalist Principles,like justice, equity, compassion, liberty, peace, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, acceptance of one another, I am also going to give voice to these Principles/values outside the walls of this church to people who might need to hear them. And I am going to double down on practicing what I preach. Our country needs models of honesty, compassion, justice, and integrity even more so now than in recent years. And finally, I am going to intervene when I hear others lying or espousing hateful speech, not to try and stop them, but to identify myself as a resource to people who are hearing this speech, and let them know that there is another way.
We live in a country where people are struggling with how to balance the benefits of lying and destructive behavior with how they see themselves, as good, ethical, honest, and spiritual people. I invite you to consider how you will respond to this challenge, and to formulate an action plan before you are in a situation where you are called upon to respond. With open ears and hearts, intentionally listen to those spiritual and ethical messages that remind you of who you want to be and how you want to act. And with courage in your hearts, when you see people being exposed to lying or manipulation or hateful speech or destructive behavior, maybe you could go to them and give them hope that there are other choices besides lying and hate. Be a reminder that there are people in this world who value and respect them, who value and respect our planet, who value compassion, equity, and justice. Who live a life based on love and treating others as they want to be treated. You are needed in this world my friends. Who you are and what you stand for—our values and principles—can be a beacon of hope in a dark and confusing world. Go be the change you wish to see in the world. So may it be.