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Thought Leader: Peter Morales

February 8, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with the Reverend Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He is the first Latino to hold this position.

DEVIN STEWART: Reverend, it's great to have you here. Thank you so much.

PETER MORALES: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

DEVIN STEWART: The first question we ask is kind of a description. When you look out at the world today, what do you see? Please describe the world you see, particularly from a moral perspective, and what's unique.

PETER MORALES: Wow. What I see is a historic mixing of people, caused by the explosion of communications and travel, which requires us now morally to deal with a diversity that we've never had to deal with before.

I was thinking once, if I had lived a thousand years ago, just randomly born, say, in China or in the middle of Europe, I might go through my entire lifetime not meeting someone of a different ethnicity or a different religious background. Today in an urban area it's hard to go a morning without meeting people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds.

That's a real challenge for us. It challenges our tribalism.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you talk a little bit about why that's a challenge?

PETER MORALES: It's a challenge because it's very human to identify, first, with a family and a small group, the town, the clan. To be, as I said, tribal is very natural for us. Sadly, we tend to see those that are different as "other" and threatening somehow, even if they speak our language with a different accent.

So now people are thrown together. What it does is, it makes a lot of people fearful. We see it in racism. We see it in religious conflicts, as we always have, but they can be really intense these days.

The upside is that I think it's becoming increasingly clear, and especially to younger people, young adults, that humanity shares a common destiny, that we're in this together. That's a really good thing, an important thing. The mixing, I think, is helping people, as they experience different cultures, to see their own in a new perspective. I know that has been the case for me, but it's the case for everyone I know who has lived in a different country and spent time in a different culturehow deeply enriching that is to us. Overall, I think it's a wonderful thing.

DEVIN STEWART: You talked about humanity discovering that it has a common destiny. Do you find that humanity also shares values across societies? If so, what are those values?

PETER MORALES: Oh, sure. You look at all the great religious traditions and wisdom traditions and there are values around compassion, perhaps the biggest one, which really means to suffer with, to identify with the other person and get out of oneself. In fact, all of the great traditions teach us that to be individualistic is really a prison, that we are deeply connected, and when we are aware of that connection and feel that connection, we are freed as people.

So, yes, one of the great discoveries that we see, as people get together, as different faiths get togetherin hospitals, for example, that have chaplains who are Muslim and Christian and Jewish chaplainsthat human suffering is human suffering and compassion is compassion. It absolutely transcends our different traditions.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of what we're doing is looking at an idea that we call the global ethic. Would you go so far as saying there is a global ethic? If so, what is it?

PETER MORALES: I think it's emerging in our time. It's based on that sense and awareness of a common destiny. If you take that seriously, the implications go on and on. They go to environmental justice, to a sense of creating life that is sustainable, to a realization, as so many great moral leaders, from Dr. King to Gandhi, have taught us that when people are marginalized and oppressed in one place, it affects us all. It affects the oppressor. It's a very negative way. So I think there is an emerging realization of those fundamental truths, moral truths.

I don't want to be naïve about that, also. There is conflict. There's going to be conflict in our lifetime. These changes take a long time. They're never as easy as I and most people hope they would be.

But again, if you take the long view, despite all of our problems today, life is better for most people. Again, if you sort of take a random chance of being born somewhere, your chance of living to adulthood, your chance of being free, if you're a woman your chance of getting some level of education, it's better today than it has ever been.

DEVIN STEWART: I was thinking about asking you kind of a funny question, Reverend. I remember Reverend MacLean used to have all these wonderful stories

PETER MORALES: Oh, yeah. I know him. We've had dinner together and been at meetings together. He's a great guy.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a favorite story of yours that you like to tell a congregation to get your message across?

PETER MORALES: Oh, boy. That's a good question.

One of the things that's interesting about stories is, as someone who preaches and has done that, we know that narrative is so basic to the way human beings think and feel. We put ourselves into stories. Stories touch us. In some ways, they're so powerful that your point, if you're a minister, often gets lost because people remember the story and completely forget the point you were trying to make based on that story. Sometimes the stories that you tell touch people in surprising ways. I think of one.

This is a true story I tell about myself. I did it in a very early sermon. It was a sermon that I, in an attempt to be humorous, entitled "A Sermon on the Mound." It was talking about when I was 13 years old. I loved to play baseball. I grew up in San Antonio.

I was pitching in this game. Our team had won the league championship, and it was an all-star game. The winning team was playing the all-stars from the other teams. There was a good crowd. I was the starting pitcher. I was on top of my life.

I struck out the first couple of hitters. I'm feeling like a hall-of-famer. Then there's a ground ball, and our sure-handed shortstop makes an error. Then there's another ground ball, a throwing error. And it just completely fell apart. I lost all self control. I then walked five or six people in a row. I don't know. We gave up I don't know how many runs. It all gets to be this horrible, nightmarish fog in my mindthe complete humiliation. Only a 13-year-old can suffer that kind of humiliation.

The coach of our teama delightful guy, and very positive, the kind of coach you hope your kids havecomes out, and I think, "Oh, good, he's going to take me out of the game. Maybe my family will move away, and this shame will be forgotten in history."

He leans overbecause I'm not very bigand he says, "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and throw strikes," and he walks back to the dugout and leaves me out there.

It was a wonderful kind of lesson about being held to account by somebody who actually cared for me. That was just the kind of kick in the butt I needed.

The rest of the story is, we went on to lose the game, but the next hitter, I threw probably the three best fastballs I've ever thrown, just blew them by.

It's interesting how a story like that, developmentally, will stick, not only with me individually, but people 10 years later would remember that story. We've all been that melting-down 13-year-oldmost of usalas, at some point in our lives, where we sort of need somebody to bring us back.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a great story. Thank you. And not only that we need other people, but maybe there's also something about not focusing on ourselves so much. Is that part of the point?

PETER MORALES: Yes, part of it was not focusing on yourself, but doing what you can do. I can't play shortstop on the team and pitch. For me to get upset with the mistakes of others simply made me lose focus and concentration. If I hadn't done that, we would have gotten out of the inning fine. But I lost my cool because I got caught up in what other people were doing, instead of just focusing on what my role is, what I can do. My job was to throw strikes. It's a sermon I need to hear from time to time, even in this late state of my life.

It's easy if you're in a position of leadership and things don't go so well and somebody disappoints you, as people do and as we will to each other. To the extent that I get obsessed about that and get upset by that, I stop doing what I can do that's the right thing to do.

DEVIN STEWART: Very interesting.

PETER MORALES: Alas, self-pity is rarely very useful, even though it feels so good at the time.

DEVIN STEWART: Feeling good is being generous.

Going back to the big questions here, another huge one is, what is the greatest challenge facing the planet today? What would you say is the greatest, especially from an ethical perspective?

PETER MORALES: It's a combination of that tribalism and fear mixed in with a sort of greed and knowing how much is enough. It's very clear right now that if we don't change the way we live on the planet, we're going to do enormous harm to life and to the sustainability of life on this planet. Ironically, we live for the first time in human history when, with the development of technology and all that goes with thatwe actually, for the first time, live in an era when everyone can have a decent and good life. We can pull that off. We have the knowhow to do that. But we have not produced the kind of moral understanding that leads to the kinds of political systems and public sphere that allow that to happen.

So the gap right now between humanity's clear and obvious and objective potential and where we are is enormous.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking more sort of aspirational, we think about dying and we're getting to our Centennial. This is why we're doing this ambitious project. We also want to think about the future. We don't necessarily want to ask you to predict the future, because that would be kind of silly. But what would you like to see happen in the next decade or century?

PETER MORALES: I want to see a moral and spiritual awakening, and I think it absolutely has to be interfaith. That's a real frontier, moral and spiritual frontier, for humanity. Islam is not going to triumph over Christianity and over all other traditions, nor is Christianity, nor is Buddhism or Hinduism. But we need, based on that realization that we come from a common source and we share a common destiny, to both appreciate who we are and where we've been, our roots, but to learn to appreciate and acknowledge the value of our different traditions and have something emerge which spans those traditions in a real, appreciative, deep way.

It's easy to do in a superficial wayto borrow this ritual from those people and that ritual from that and this saint from the otherbut something that goes really much deeper.

For example, at the absolute core of the Christian tradition is the sense of deep love, of connection. I think at the real core of the Buddhist Eastern tradition is getting to the same place, but through awareness and meditation and reflection, and to appreciate and realize those deep connections, that we are one, and the illusion of individualism.

At some level, the assertion in Islam that there is one God and Allah is his prophetthis happened at a historic time, when all these tribes had their different gods. It was a way of asserting, "No, we're not different. There aren't all these different gods. There is one."

We need that kind of an awakening now. I think it's going to be one, as traditionally they have been, that spans those narrow barriers and finds new connections.

DEVIN STEWART: It's a great goal. How would you go about it? Is it simply dialogue? Is it education? Is it more than that?

PETER MORALES: I think it's all of it. I think a mistake that is easy to make is to make it too intellectual. I say that coming out of a very intellectual tradition. I think it has to be experienced deeply and it has to be emotional. We human beings change when our emotions are touched, not when our opinions are changed.

DEVIN STEWART: A common experience?

PETER MORALES: Yes, and experiences of living in other people's societies and of being with people in the Philippines, people in India, people in Guatemalaexperiences I've had that just have opened my eyes. Everybody I've talked to who has had those kinds of experiences is changed forever. You could have done a hundred seminars on Third World countries and on development, on different belief systems of different religions, and it's all very superficial and theoretical.

I've used the phrase that we need to cross borders and cross boundaries, and to do that in a very experiential way.

DEVIN STEWART: That is a common motif that we've been hearing from a lot of interviewees.

PETER MORALES: Really?

DEVIN STEWART: Absolutely. I think that notion is starting to get out into the public. I hope it is.

PETER MORALES: It's interesting. This morning I had a meeting with my counterpart of the Union of Reformed Jews, not far from here. We were exploring some things we might do together, because we share so many common positions on the great moral issues of our time. It was interesting. In preparation for that, I actually watched a talk he gave at their last general assembly. I was teasing him. I said, "I felt like you'd stolen my talk."

Obviously he hadn't. He hadn't seen it. But we're confronting so many of the same challenges and problems in trying to lead transformational change. If we swapped offices for a month, we would find that we were dealing with exactly the same issues in two different cities and in two different traditions.

DEVIN STEWART: That's encouraging.

A couple more questions. Moral leadership: What does it mean to you?

PETER MORALES: Moral leadership, more than anything else, is about taking action and the risks of that. I'd say that we're apes. We are, in fact, descendants of apes, a variety of hominid, if you will. How do apes learn? What is the word used for that? They "ape," when somebody is mimicking somebody else. We are really hardwired to take behavioral cues and learn from people around us and people we respect.

So the real challenge for me and anyone in a position of moral leadership isn't what we say; it's what we do and our willingness to be out there and to speak truth to power and to try to hold people, whether they're in politics or in industry, to account to the moral positions that they actually espouse themselves.

The hardest thing is always to practice what you preach.

DEVIN STEWART: Especially for a preacher?

PETER MORALES: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Andrew Carnegie was a huge advocate of world peace back before it was in the common vernacular. Another small question: Is world peace possible?

PETER MORALES: It's possible. I think we've seen indications of how it could come about. For all its problems, look at Western Europe today compared to Western Europe 50, 100, 200, 400 years ago. Look at other large areas that way. It's possible by continuing to develop interdependence and collaborative structures.

So it's possible, but I'm not, again, naïve. It's not going to be easy and it's not going to happen right away. We so easily go back to a place of fear and suspicion of "the other." Violence is always an easy option. It's much easier for a leader to lead people who are afraid. It's always easy to be a demagogue. It's much harder to lead people away from fear toward their profoundest aspirations.

DEVIN STEWART: We want people to be able to take action. Like you said, action speaks louder than words. How does the average viewer or listener or reader of these transcripts get involved to create a better world?

PETER MORALES: The opportunities are everywhere. They're absolutely everywhere. You can't live in a community where you don't have lots of opportunities. One can begin, if they have one, in one's congregation and church community, mosque, whatever it is. But there are also so many nonprofit organizations that do heroic and wonderful work.

Having been a parish minister and loved that work, I found that I'm going to get involved and stay with something if it touches my heart. I'm going to stay with something if I'm passionate about it. The first question to ask is, what do you care about? What moves you? What touches you deeply? What bothers you to where you just want to scream, "That's not right"? Get involved in that. You're going to stick with that and you're going to make a difference in that, because it's so important to you.

If it's work against violence or work on behalf of children, do that. Don't do something that doesn't feed you. If we all listen to that voice and allow ourselves to be drawn by our hearts that way, that's when we make transformational change in the world.

DEVIN STEWART: I think you've answered this kind of question, but bringing this sort of awareness through experience of our common destinywho is going to do that? Who's accountable to do those things? Is it the powerful? Is it all of us?

PETER MORALES: It's all of us, but those of us who have resources have a special responsibility. I know that my own religious group is taking a new and fresh look at creating those opportunities for young people and for ministers in training, because we know that it's going to have an effect for the rest of their lives.

I've been on a couple of trips with people to kind of study and experience and be with people in places like India or places like Guatemala, where there are Mayans whose relatives were slaughtered during the horrible violence there in the 1980s. These human rights activists, because they learned and had learned much about this, when they see it, they come back to life.

When there's a personal relationship, when we look into the eyes of a child or see a woman who has been horribly mistreated somewhere, at that point we can no longer not respond, because it's real. It's no longer theoretical.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Reverend.

PETER MORALES: Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: Very nice comments. We appreciate it. Intense questions.

PETER MORALES: It's good, though.

DEVIN STEWART: It's like the meaning of life. Maybe I should put that in here.