(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
I know members of the Gathering at Northern Hills appreciate that all of you from St. John’s are with us this morning. I welcome each of you including Rev. Mitra! We’re especially pleased with your visit because it’s a bit of a drive out here. A few weeks ago a visitor told me about his drive to us from downtown. Apparently he did not have GPS and somehow he passed us by and drove into some nearby farmland. He spotted a farmer, stopped and asked him, “Sir, am I too far out for the local Unitarian Universalist church?” The farmer dryly replied, “Nobody is too far out for them!”
So I’m glad the Gathering at Northern Hills is not too far out for those of you from St. John’s – just as I trust St. John’s is not too far IN for us next Sunday!
I normally offer a monthly message series focused on a single theme. My theme this month is “the Summer of Love Revisited.” Last week and today I speak about the Summer of Love event that took place in San Francisco during the summer of 1967 – and lessons we can learn from it. Over 100,000 so-called hippies descended on that city to live out author Timothy Leary’s encouragement for them to “turn on, tune in and drop out.”
While many of those youth simply wanted to spend a summer enjoying sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, most were also inspired by the meaning behind Leary’s motto. Youth were to turn on by looking inside themselves to discover the god or goddess of love within – what Leary and other hippies believed is the ultimate power in the universe. Hippies should then tune in by expressing their inner god of love in how they act and speak. They were encouraged to drop out from the prevailing culture in order to protest against it.
I related last week how that ethos of turn on, tune in, drop out is equally relevant during the present troubled times. Love must be how we resist against the President and those who discriminate, imprison children, demean the poor, and stifle a free press. Radical love must also be how we interact with one another in our homes, workplaces and churches.
Today, I want to focus on another ethic from the 1967 Summer of Love that is also still relevant. As 100,000 youth travelled to San Francisco that summer with little money and no plans, they had to somehow survive for several months. Most youth joined together in small groups to find community and collectively share living space and food. They formed hippie communes. By doing so, they rejected what they believed was a corrupt and often violent culture.
These hippie communes shared resources and responsibilities. Nobody was richer or poorer than another. All ate and were sheltered equally. Daily tasks like cleaning and cooking were shared. And for youth drawn to the emerging sexual revolution, they also shared their beds with youth of all races, genders and sexual orientations.
Interestingly, most hippies modeled their communes after what is described in the Bible about the first Christian communities. Only a few years after Jesus died, his followers decided to band together in order to better practice his teachings – ones that promoted kindness, humility, charity and a focus on people over money.
The Book of Acts in the Bible describes those early Christian communes this way, “The whole congregation of Jesus followers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. They shared everything. Not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and gave the money to the church to be used by all members.”
The commune movement was therefore rooted in spiritual values. By 1970, it was estimated that there were over five-thousand thriving communes in the United States. Most were self-sustaining, like the early Christian communities. They produced their own food and ran income producing enterprises benefitting all members.
These communities also followed an early American tradition – that to oppose an oppressive government, one should remove oneself from it, with other like minded people, and build a new society. The Pilgrims established perhaps the first commune in the US as they rejected Europe’s culture and tried to build a better one. Quaker, Amish and Mennonite communities developed in similar ways. Communes are thus not only spiritually based, they helped inspire American values of compassion and togetherness.
Author Bill Metcalf, in a book entitled “Shared Vision, Shared Lives” writes that most communes function like large families. Children are raised, taught and disciplined collectively, resources are equally shared, and members feel and show emotions for one another similar to that in biological families – love, commitment, loyalty and generosity.
For us, I believe the hippie commune movement that fully matured as a result of 1967’s Summer of Love has much to teach – especially in this age of Trump. We may not band together in groups of twenty and pool all our money, but we can nevertheless practice important communal ideals – many of which are already exemplified in our congregations.
Simply by us choosing to be a part of beloved spiritual communities, we express the belief that cooperation, learning and sharing are important. Indeed, I believe that in many ways, we as UU’s have separated ourselves from a culture of arrogance and selfishness – one that seems to be especially promoted right now.
Our advocacy for the dignity and worth of all people directly contradicts current policies of exclusion and fear of the stranger. Even more, what we believe in our respective congregations is that while individualism has some merit, group collaboration is better and more spiritual. Many of us agree with the proposition that when each person focuses on taking care of others, instead of themselves, the quality of life for everyone improves.
While self-initiative and a strong work ethic are important, they can also promote greed, egotism and indifference to weaknesses in others. Not everybody has opportunities to obtain excellent educations, live in safe neighborhoods, or grow up in stable and caring families. Some are born with abilities that are not as economically rewarded as others. There exists in our human diversity an inequality of opportunity and of ability that has nothing to do with a strong work ethic. The poor are often not to blame for their poverty just as the rich are often not deserving of their wealth.
To resolve these inherent human family inequalities, people must learn spiritual values of altruism, sharing, kindness, empathy, humility and collaboration. If I have extra because of my privileged education or family background, then it is incumbent on me – not by force, but by love for others – to share with those less privileged. Taken further, when I share my abundance, others will share with me their abundance. I give, you give, we all give in ways so that the community thrives. This is, I believe, the outworking of human spirituality to support, love and assist one another in our strengths and in our weaknesses.
For us this morning, as we consider the Summer of Love and the hippie commune movement, I suggest we can learn three things. These are attitudes to try and adopt in order to evolve and thereby strengthen the figurative communes to which we belong – our families, churches, cities, nation and world.
The first communal attitude to adopt is that of humility. When we consider the seventh UU principle, respect for the interconnected web of all existence, we understand that as individuals we are insignificant. We are each but a tiny grain of sand within an immense universe. Our interconnection with the web of all things means we are vitally dependent not on ourselves, but on the synchronized working of a vast cosmos. Our significance comes not from us as individuals, but from being a part of a fantastic whole. With that understanding comes a profound humility. My needs, desires, and opinions mean very little compared to the collective needs and opinions of the Gathering at Northern Hills, the one million people of greater Cincinnati, the 325 million people of the US, or the 8 Billion residents of this planet. I must humble myself before the needs and opinions of so many more.
Second, to have a communal mindset, I believe we must become servants. We must be givers more than we are takers. Specifically, this means to understand what we do in life is not to seek personal benefit, but to serve others. The irony of this attitude, as I just said, is that if everyone thinks and acts this way, everyone will have their needs and wants fulfilled.
Experts say this servant mindset is particularly difficult for westerners. Going way back to when the early western European culture was agrarian, virtually everyone was a wheat or barley farmer. Such farming can easily be done by one farmer and his family. That encouraged self-reliance and individualism which is still a foundation of western thought.
Going back to early Asian or eastern agrarian cultures, most people grew rice. That farming is labor intensive requiring extensive irrigation canals and arduous work. One farmer and his or her family cannot perform the needed tasks alone. Instead, entire villages had to work cooperatively to do the difficult work. This encouraged a communal way of thinking which continues today.
Just this past Thursday, an article appeared in the New York Times about a woman rice farmer in Thailand, Mae Bua Chaichun. She lives near where the 12 boys are trapped in a cave and she was elated when she heard that they had been found alive. The next day, when she went to inspect her rice fields, ones that had just been tilled, fertilized and planted, she found them flooded and ruined by water pumped out of the cave – done so the boys can be rescued. But she did not care. The government offered her and other farmers $430 per flooded acre but she refused the offer saying the Thai government did not need any more burdens. She told a reporter, “I am more than willing to have my rice fields flooded as long as the children are safe. The boys are like my children.”
That’s a beautiful example of a communal mindset. The boys and her nation are more important to her than her personal well-being. Indeed, she is happy to serve for the sake of all. She is practicing the maxim that it takes a village to raise a child.
The third and final communal attitude to adopt is the idea that less is more. If everybody truly became more of a giver, many individuals will have less. Some in our nation see this is as social leveling similar to socialism – a system scorned by many Americans because they believe it’s ineffective and leads to widespread unhappiness.
Instead, the opposite is true. Multiple psychological studies show that when people move from an individualistic mindset of personal achievement, assertiveness, and competition – to instead adopt communal attitudes of getting along, cooperation, trust, and altruism, they are happier. People, it seems, derive deep satisfaction from working and living in groups, sharing, and helping others. Individualism, studies show, is more likely to foster depression, isolation, and even suicide. Indeed, polls of people in nations around the world show that citizens of highly pro-social nations like Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland are the happiest. In that poll, Americans – perhaps the most individualistic of people – rank 18th on the list of happiest people.
What these studies and polls reveal is the truth that less is more. Happiness comes not from having more money, but from possessing less tangible assets like community support, sharing, and giving. These are benefits we can easily forget in our congregations. It’s not the building, budget, congregation size, or even the minister that bring satisfaction, it’s the unity, support and strength we get from being in community. If we don’t recognize those bonds, if we do not do all we can to protect and nourish them, what will remain are things we can find more easily from a book or lecture. When we have a thriving sense of community, and vigorous programs to serve the oppressed outside our walls, I believe our churches are at their happiest and most successful.
Three commune attitudes we can learn: Be humble. Be a giver. Less is more. When those attitudes are motivated by love, as they were for Summer of Love hippies, we will be heirs of their legacy – people who practice cooperation and love for all …….. to be happy – and to resist the current mean spirited and greedy culture.
I wish you each much peace and joy.