Unitarian Reverend Steven Epperson on the United Nations & Canada

unacto1The following remarks were given by Vancouver Unitarian Reverend Steven Epperson on the occasion of the 2013 John Gibbard Award presentation.

There’s a poem by Vancouver based spoken word artist Shane Koyczan that I want to quote from to introduce my remarks.  Goes like this:

Remember how we forgot?  (Shane Koyczan)

Remember how we forgot?
Remember how no one ever really died in the wars we fought?
Because each gunshot came from our finger tips
And we never really kept them loaded just in case
Because each enemy was a friend and none of it was about oil, religion, or land
It was all just pretend.
Remember how we used to bend reality
Like we were circus strong men
Like our imaginations were in shape then
Like we were all ninjas trained in the deadly art of “did not”.
Like “I totally got you”
“Did not”
Remember how we forgot?

“When I was a child,” wrote Saul of Tarsus, the early Christian disciple, “when I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became an adult I put away childish things.” (I Cor. xiii. 11).  Shane’s poem and this line from the Letter to the Corinthians came to my mind when I read the following sentence in an article in The Economist; it was about the Canadian government’s dubious plans to reform First Nation’s textbooks and curriculum:  Here’s the quote from The Economist: “Mr Harper’s people are not famous for listening to outside advice and [they] have a special disdain for the UN.” (“These schools…,” Economist, October 19, 2013)   Well, on this Sunday, we are commemorating the United Nations and celebrating the John Gibbard Memorial Award to Ms Vaisey for her achievements in promoting diplomacy, climate change awareness, education about the crucial role of water for a flourishing biosphere—on this Sunday, I think it’s important to consider the distinction between childish things and behaviour on the one hand, and the kinds of actions and attitudes we expect from adult, mature persons, institutions and governments on the other.

Playing games of pretend—like “I totally got you!”/”Did not!”—we expect and go along with these antics when kids do it, because we know they are, in fact, formative steps toward the art of the real; steps that disclose what is pretend, what is not; what is fair, what is foul in human beliefs and behavior.

If it’s the case that our nation’s current government believes that the United Nations is in need of fundamental reform; if it objects to perceived bias against Israel; if it finds ludicrous the presence of repressive regimes in the UN’s Human Rights Council—if that’s the case, and those may be legitimate grievances—is disdain and disengagement, is not living up to financial commitments, is walking out on meetings while others are speaking, is not contributing to peacekeeping, is dragging heels for years in not signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples…and the list goes on and on—is that the kind of behavior we would expect from a mature, grown-up government that represents us at the United Nations?

Let’s say that our neighbours are throwing a party that gets unruly and unduly loud late into the night.  What do we do?  Whine and fret about it in the safety of our apartmeScreen Shot 2013-11-09 at 11.33.12 AMnts and condemn them to depths of hell?  Call the police so that someone else can take care of it?  Or do we go next door in our pajamas and ask them to tone it down because our kids can’t sleep or we’ve got to get up early in morning to go to work, or whatever.  I know that the latter option may take some guts; it may mean something of a confrontation.  But chances are our neighbours, too, are adults and didn’t realize the decibel level had gotten out of hand, and that they’d turn down the volume for the sake of peaceful co-existence and neighbourly goodwill once it was brought to their attention.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became an adult I put away childish things.”  And so F. W. de Klerk brought Nelson Mandela out of Robben Island prison and negotiated the advent of majority rule and the end of apartheid in South Africa.  And so the government of Great Britain entered into talks with the Provisional IRA in order, eventually, to secure the Good Friday Peace Accords for Northern Ireland fifteen years ago.  And so Obama and Hassan Rouhani, the newly elected president of Iran spoke before the UN General Assembly—to friend and foe alike—something that it seems Canada has nearly given up on; and these two presidents even talked on the phone together breaking a 33 year long taboo of disdain, demonizing and disengagement.  It’s no wonder, someone quipped recently, that Canada couldn’t get elected dogcatcher at the United Nations today.

I want to commend the Vancouver Branch of the United Nations Association in Canada for their good work and endurance through this time of petulant disdain by our government for the UN.   I do not believe that childishness is Canada’s long-term prospect with regard to the United Nations.  Eventually, we will put away childish things; an adult will walk into the room.  It will be someone like Saskia Vaisey whose good work we honour today.  I want the Association and Ms. Vaisey to know that Unitarian support for the aspirations and work of the UN runs deep and does not waver.  Our faith affirms and supports the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.  And though it may be a flawed vessel (what human institution isn’t?), we affirm the vision and good work of the UN past present and future.

Just this past week, I was deeply moved by the story of medical teams working for the UN’s World Health Organization, their efforts to eradicate polio, and of their work to staunch an outbreak of that dread disease in Syrian refugee camps. This is a concrete example of what the UN does best and how it has, for decades now, contributed to building a sense of world community and advocating of the well-being of all.

So in closing, again, I want to thank the members of the Vancouver Branch of the UN Association of Canada, and extend our heartfelt congratulations to Ms. Vaisey on receiving this year’s John Gibbard Memorial Award.