First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
 “Our Family Values”
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore  October 2, 2005



Two value systems are struggling for supremacy in our society.  Surprisingly, they are both grounded in the family.

The signs of the conflict are everywhere.  Here are a couple of examples.  In the comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, a goat and a zebra are talking over a meal.  (To understand this conversation better, you need to know that crocodiles live next door to the zebra and are constantly setting foolish traps that fail to catch the zebra.)  Here is their conversation:

Antelope: Hey, there, Zebra … Did you hear my antelope herd has started a program to try to redeem the crocodiles?

Zebra: No … How’s it work?

Antelope: We send antelope missionaries to the croc’s home who try to listen to the croc’s concerns and persuade them to turn away from their predatory ways.

Zebra: And do the missionaries say its working?

Antelope: Hard to gauge.

Zebra: Why’s that hard?

Antelope: They don’t come back.

In the same issue of the Times Union as the cartoon, op-ed writer George Will was complaining about the reasons Senator Diane Feinstein chose for voting against the nomination of now Supreme court justice John Roberts.  Will writes:

But the crux of Feinstein's case against Roberts concerns … his general deficiency of empathy. Specifically, she faults his failure to talk to her "as a son, a husband, a father," and to understand "the importance of reaching out."

Evidently Feinstein had asked a question about end of life decisions and felt Roberts gave “a very detached response.”  She also asked how he would endeavor to be in touch with the concerns of real people that may not be of his ethnic or socio-economic background like Mexican agricultural workers in her district from whom a case he decides may come.  Will asks:

At the risk of revealing a serious empathy deficit, one might ask: What is the importance of a Supreme Court justice understanding the problems of lettuce farmers in California's Central Valley?

The importance of empathy gets to the heart of what I’m talking about today.

The value system of George Will, Judge Roberts and other conservatives is not based upon empathy.  Conservative values spring from valuing rewards and punishments.

Berkeley professor George Lakoff decided in the 1990’s to try to understand what unified the basic political positions of conservatives and liberals and discovered their value systems had different moral frameworks centered in the family.

In his powerful and insightful book, “Moral Politics,” Lakoff maps the foundations for each moral framework and shows the reader just how different they are.

The conservative framework (James Dobson of Focus on the Family for example) begins with a stark Hobbesian view of human nature.  Babies are born tainted with a selfish and anti-social nature. Without proper training they will grow up to be dangerous criminals that are a threat to society.  The only way to prevent this from happening is through a strict authoritarian form of parenting.  Most fundamental to this style of parenting is learning respect for the authority of parents, particularly the father.

Because it is assumed that children are naturally selfish, they must learn discipline through self-denial.  The desire for reward will motivate some of the naturally lazy and shiftless children toward social goods.  The fear of punishment will get the rest moving.  Disrespectful behavior is harshly dealt with, preferably with a beating using a belt or stick in order to break the child’s will.  Self-discipline and self-reliance, necessary skills to survive in our society, must be taught through lines of authority, such as parents, teachers, ministers or police officers.  Only once children become adults and have mastered self-discipline and self-reliance, do they become authorities over their own lives.

Contrast the conservative with the liberal framework that begins with a very different view of human nature.  Babies are born with a selfless, loving and social nature.  Children respond best to having these qualities supported and encouraged through love, empathy and nurturance.  Children learn to obey their parents through their love for them rather than their fear of them.  That obedience is grounded in understanding rather than authority.  To gain understanding,     questioning, discussion and persuasion motivate children better than authoritarian reward and punishment methods.  Authority and punishment are last resorts rather than first strike weapons of mass conformity.

The goal of liberal parenting goes beyond surviving and reproducing.  Liberals raise their children to be interdependent nurturers.  Liberals envision each child fulfilling his or her potential for both achievement and enjoyment.  Rather than seeing the world as a World Wrestling Federation brawl of all against all, liberals hold a vision of cooperation.  The glue that best holds us together and moves us forward is empathy.  This is the worldview that permits Senator Feinstein to make empathy an important criterion for a Supreme Court nominee.

Having heard these two different (and oversimplified) value systems described, one might want to ascribe a gender referent to each one, perhaps calling the first patriarchal and the second matriarchal.  In his work, Lakoff calls the first, the strict father model, and the second, the nurturant parent model.  I think there is an even better way to categorize them that avoids defining and dividing men’s values against women’s values.  We all know men who rescue fledgling birds that fall from their nests and women who indifferently walk past a balling baby.

I think a more insightful understanding of these two value systems might be rooted in the triune brain theory developed by Dr. Paul MacLean, Chief of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institutes of Health.

The brain is physically divided into three parts.  The most primitive part, a remnant of our prehistoric past, is the brain stem, often called the reptilian brain.  The reptilian brain operates reactively and impulsively.  Driven by the senses, it focuses on survival.  The second part, called the limbic system, is often referred to as the mammalian brain.  The limbic system drives our emotions and moods.  The third, largest and most advanced part of the brain, is called the neocortex.  It controls speaking, learning, creativity and problem solving.

The conservative, fear based approach to values activates our reptilian brain.  Notice this isn’t the part of the brain that is about thinking or sociability.  It is the part of the brain that just understands violence and obedience.  It doesn’t respond to the empathetic appeal of the antelope in the cartoon strip.

The liberal approach to values is rooted in the mammalian brain that uses feeling and emotion as primary motivators.  Reptiles don’t form social groupings.  Mammals do.  I’d remind you that we are warm blooded mammals not cold blooded reptiles.  The liberal approach appeals to a more advanced part of our brains.  The conservative fear based approach drives us back to acting out of our reactive brain stem.

Because fear brings out the worst in us, some have believed that our survival oriented, self-centered brain stem reveals our primary nature.  Out of the human propensity to downshift into the reptilian brain may have been the source for the belief in Original Sin.

Conservatives will tell you that their family values are strictly Biblical.  They come from Adam’s disobedience against God eating that apple in the Garden of Eden.  (My theory of the story – God doesn’t care as much about the act of eating the apple as Adam’s evading personal responsibility)  That initial sin, begat a long line of sins well documented in Jewish scriptures.  The size of that sin grew and grew until the collective weight alienated God from us.  The scales of justice were so weighed down on the evil side; humanity couldn’t accumulate enough merit through good deeds to tip the scales in our favor.  We were lost!  Only God giving us one last chance by siring Jesus and allowing him to freely make the supreme sacrifice for us, could we have any hope of redemption.  Conservatives believe Jesus’ sacrifice rebalanced the scales in our favor.

There is a bit of a problem though because there is a loophole.  One could sincerely accept Jesus’ sacrifice – and then return to one’s normal sinful ways.  See a lot of that don’t we?  The scales of moral justice would become imbalanced again as people continue accumulate more sin perhaps waiting for that last deathbed repentance to clean the slate.

Enter Revelations.  The apocalyptic prediction of an imminent Judgment Day, means that one could potentially be caught in one’s sinful ways without a chance to repent.  Not knowing when that ax might fall, everyone now has a motivation to be good all the time rather than when it might be convenient.

Conservatives believe God runs the same reward and punishment game that the strict father does, on earth as it is in heaven.  They say we must fear the Lord the same way we might fear a father with a stick ready to beat us.

Liberals read the same Bible and find a radically different message.  They read about a God reconciled to humanity.  This God is persuaded of our worthiness even though we continue to sin.  Rather than a stick, this God offers all of us unconditional love.  All we need do is receive it … again, again, and again.  If we want to understand the nature and process of that love, we have the story of Jesus’ life and teaching to guide us.  In liberal Christian theology, the identity between Jesus and God reveals the nature of God.  Jesus reveals a vision of the perfection of nurturance rather than an angry judge.  This God is not a god of judgment, this god is a God of grace focused on and eager for our redemption.  One of my favorite Islamic sayings parallels this understanding: If you take one step toward Allah, Allah takes ten steps toward you.

Jesus had one primary message he proclaimed right after spending forty days and nights getting clear in his mind, heart and spirit what his ministry would be after being commissioned by John the Baptist.  Stripping away all his worldly attachments, he found the core of his message for humanity.  What was that message?  I quote directly from the fourth chapter of Luke:

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee… He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.  When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of jubilee." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

Is there anything here about condemning women who have abortions or damning homosexuals.  Does this message sound much like “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps?”  Does this sound like your failure is your own fault for not being self-disciplined or working hard enough?  Does this sound like a vengeful God wanting to get even with those undeserving welfare cheats?

I don’t think so. He comes to bring blessing to the unloved.  And at times, that is all of us.

Our Universalist forefathers John Murray and Hosea Ballou read the stories of Jesus’ life and death and found a universal redeeming love at their center that departed from the harsh and capricious Calvinism of their times.  Both Unitarians and Universalists looked at their children not as unrepentant sinners that needed to be whipped into submission but as inheritors of the merit of Jesus’ teaching and sacrifice.  In their children’s eyes they saw the light of hope for future generations.  In their children’s eyes they saw a vision of world peace and community.  In their children’s eyes they saw the realm of God’s love on earth that Jesus came to proclaim.

Whether we are theists, atheists, or agnostics, we all inherit through our religious tradition the inspiration of this singular prophetic Jew.  Our valuing inherent worth and dignity, justice, equity, compassion, acceptance, respect, fairness, spiritual growth, and world community share Jesus as their taproot.  We reinforce those values originating in the Jewish prophets by drawing sustenance from the Judaic tradition as we will next week during the High Holy Days.  Our roots extend into Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, philosophy and science – wherever we find the living water of truth and meaning.  Jesus message lines up better with liberal theology … and liberal family values such as the ones we practice here in this congregation.

Liberal family values also line up better with science.  No credible family research has shown that corporal punishment helps children grow into healthier and happier adults.  Fear based child rearing has no scholarly support.  Empathy based family values trump fear based conservative values every time.

I have a whole lot more to say about liberal family values and George Lakoff’s work than I have time for today.  If you want to go deeper into this topic and explore it further, please come to Robb Smith’s and my class on Monday night.  We’ll be exploring George Lakoff’s analysis using his book Don’t Think of an Elephant.  We’ll be looking at how his family analysis applies to political discourse and how we can harness the technique of framing to promote our family values in the public sphere.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodrin has some wise words for us on the value of empathy:

When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.

Rather than limiting our vision of humanity to our reptilian nature, let us work spiritedly for families and communities that allow us to function out of the most advanced parts of our brains, out of wisdom and compassion rather than fear and isolation.

That is the religious work we do in this congregation and I welcome you to join us.



Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.  All rights reserved.