The giant neotropical toad or cane toad is a decently large type of toad about five or so inches around. It’s poisonous, but not in any of the most worrisome sorts of ways. You’re fine as long as you don’t eat or lick one. Like pretty much all toads and frogs it eats insects, and at some point, somebody noticed that this particular type of toad was particularly good at eating the sorts of insects who are themselves particularly good at eating sugar cane. Those insects pose a major concern for people who farm sugar cane, so more than once folks have tried out importing cane toads to places where sugar cane is farmed. The toads are native to the wetlands of southern Central and northern South America. But there was a time when sugar cane production was one of the major industries along the coast of northern Australia – so someone thought it would be a good idea to bring a whole bunch of cane toads to the other side of the globe, to see if they’d eat cane beetles – really imaginative naming pattern here – which were destroying their crops.
Once introduced in significant numbers, the cane toads did very well for themselves in Australia. They found plenty of food, a comfortable environment, and no natural predators. Cane toads are poisonous, remember, and the animals native to Australia were neither accustomed nor adapted to their particular poison. The cane toad population exploded – it still is, today, as parts of Australia are still, in certain seasons, overrun with large, poisonous toads who are so unafraid of predators that they routinely plant themselves, unmoving on sidewalks and roads. They also poison native wildlife, and occasionally their population can explode badly enough to overwhelm streams and waterways. As for the cane beetles they were introduced to eradicate, the toads had much less luck there. You see the cane beetle lives up at the top of the sugar cane, eating its leaves, whereas cane toads live on the ground, and are not very good at climbing. The intention behind bringing the cane toad to Australia was to protect sugar cane crops. The effect was something entirely different.
This sermon is the fourth in a monthly series on the Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism, a distillation of the stream of religious thought to which Unitarian Universalism belongs originally proposed by James Luther Adams, one of our most influential theological thinkers. Adams had a habit of writing long, and writing dense, so that his ideas did not arrive pre-summarized. But, as a reminder, attempted to give you a one-line heading for each of them, as follows:
- Revelation is not sealed.
- The only just relationships are free relationships.
- Our purpose is to work towards a just and loving community.
- Actions, people, and institutions must be judged not only by their intentions, but also by their effects.
- It is possible to change the world for the better, therefore there is cause for hope.
Today’s subject is the fourth smooth stone: actions, people, and institutions must be judged not only by their intentions, but also by their effects. In the Christian tradition, there is a long-standing debate – it actually plays out back and forth in the Christian bible, in several places – over salvation by faith, vs. salvation by acts. Basically, whether the goodness of a life is determined by their belief in God and other elements of Christian doctrine, or whether goodness is a matter of what a person does – both acts of religious worship and acts of human service. In our history as Unitarian Universalists, we have sometimes been known for a third path: salvation by character. And the emphasis – from the beginning of the phrase and only more so over the many years that have followed – was on character more than salvation, since our forebearers were generally unconcerned about getting into heaven and much more preoccupied with how to heal and nurture this world and us in it. One of the chief functions of religion, in the understanding of our theological ancestors – and in my own as well – is to improve our character, to help us become more virtuous in how we think and feel, and in the choices we make in living our lives. James Luther Adams, in one of his rare moments of easy quotability said, “Church is a place where you get to practice what it means to be human.”
But emphasizing character doesn’t necessarily put us on one side or the other of intent vs. effect. One could measure character by the quality of a person’s intentions, or by total effects of their actions, or a combination of the two. Instead, I believe that the deep value of focusing on the actual effects of the lives we lead, the choices we make, and the institutions we serve that Adams pointed out comes from our devotion to reason. Here I don’t mean a cold, unfeeling, analytical callousness, although that is trap that reason, severed from human emotion and moral principle can fall into. I mean our belief that our capacity as humans to gather evidence, test theories, and draw conclusions is a sacred faculty. Both our Unitarian and our Universalist ancestors believed that reason was essential to the practice and evolution of religion, rather than being its adversary or counterweight. And it’s simply inescapable that the effects of an action are more knowable, when judging after the fact, than the intents behind it were. If I smack my friend in the nose, he and I are both aware that that happened. Only I can say for sure that my intention was to swat the bee that had landed there a moment before. Effects can be known publicly – intentions can only be known privately.
In fact, modern neuroscience argues more and more that we are not even safe in assuming we truly know our own intentions privately. The decisions we make seem often to be emotional or instinctual, and it is really only after we’ve already made them that our brains devise for us an explanation based on conscious weighing of the options. Which makes judging a decision by the intention behind it even harder to pin down.
In the Gospel According to Matthew, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, these words are attributed to the teacher Jesus:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
Judging from our effects is judging by our fruits. Of course, the teacher, here, seems to be getting into an odd essentialism about trees and fruit – it is far from the case, in my experience, that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. But the core lesson stands. As the poet and activist Maya Angelou famously said to Oprah Winfrey, “When people show you who they are, why don’t you believe them?”
In one episode of TV’s The Simpsons, the home of polite mild-mannered Simpsons-neighbor Ned Flanders and his family is destroyed in a freak storm. So the Simpsons and many of their friends determine to do something about it: they band together and rebuild the ruined house. It’s a tremendous act of generosity and kindness, and it also comes with some flaws. The quality of the work is…not up to code. Cracks are already forming, nails stick out of walls, there’s a toilet in the kitchen installed next to the refrigerator because it was too heavy to carry up the stairs. The upstairs hallway gets progressively smaller and smaller like something out of a funhouse, and the only room with electricity has “too much” of it – that ominous warning is never explored, but just standing outside the room with the door closed is enough to make every hair on Ned’s body stand on end. When the entire structure collapses at the end of the tour, the normally perfectly calm Ned blows his top and calls his would-be benefactors morons. Hurt by the outburst, Marge Simpson offers the defense that they meant well, but as Ned says, he and his family, “can’t live in good intentions.”
Intent is a poor defense, especially when real harm has been done because, well, it ignores the effect. If I don’t watch where I’m going and step on your foot, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t have any intention to hurt you – you still were hurt. It still warrants an apology. Focusing on intent also makes the person who did the harm – however accidentally – the center of the conversation. The subject is their experience, their thoughts and feelings – not the experiences, thoughts, or feelings of the other person or people who actually had to endure the consequences of the choice that they made. It’s because of this centering issue that the intent defense so frequently shows up in matters of privilege. When a white person says something casually racist, or a man does something casually sexist, if they get called out for it by a woman or a person of color, or anyone who notices the wrong and doesn’t want to just accept it, frequently the person feeling called out will turn it into a debate about intent. Every time someone powerful is caught on tape saying something disdainful about people of color, every time that someone famous gets caught making a foul joke or an inappropriate advance, they inevitably try to steer the media conversation to an essentialism about who they are inside. Variations include the black friend defense, or the news conference where the wife of an embattled man must stand next to him to show that he is somehow too good of a guy to give credit to the allegations at hand.
But this strategy is not only for the powerful and famous – whom, I confess, I’m rarely inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, anyway. The intention defense is seductive for all of us in any situation where we’ve hurt another person because it allows us to quickly and cleanly let ourselves off the hook. I don’t mean that we’re all scheming up ways to get away with hurting others. We might not reach for this moral “out” consciously – but here I am literally sinking into the quagmire of intention while trying to explain what a quagmire arguing over intention is. So let me return to a clear point that needs saying: the reality of racism isn’t created only by the most overt, self-consciously hateful acts of bigotry. The reality of sexism doesn’t exist solely because of the most egregious acts of gender-based violence. The architecture of oppression is also built through countless smaller acts of indifference or ignorance that still diminish the possibilities for and the denigrate the humanity of people with less social standing and cultural power. And any other harm we might do – whether it’s linked to a larger system of oppression or not – we still have some moral responsibility for, intended or not.
Several years ago, I had the privilege to attend a series of lectures by the Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – may the memory of the righteous be a blessing. Reb Zalman, a Rabbi generally understood as the foundational inspiration for the Renewal branch of Judaism, devoted much of his long life to inter-religious dialog. Reb Zalman famously took part in a conversation between Buddhist and Jewish leaders convened by the Dalai Lama, to try to glean wisdom on how to maintain a religion and a community in exile and diaspora. And the lectures I heard Zalman give were hosted in a Muslim house of worship, organized by a Unitarian Universalist theological school. So different religions talking to each other was a major theme in the man’s life. And he pointed, in his lectures, to a pervasive problem in the way that people of one faith criticize members of another faith. He described it as, “Look how good my ought is, and see how lousy is your is.” In explaining the beauty and wisdom of their own tradition, a practitioner naturally focuses on the high ideals and noble aspirations of the faith. But when comparing theirs to the faiths of others, the tendency is to focus on the faults and failures of other traditions in practice. This is basically intent vs. effect on a grand scale.
To get beyond this self-serving, other-diminishing perspective, in the worlds of religion, and of politics and culture, as well as in our own one-to-one relationships, we need to give value and consideration both to intention and to the effects that result from it. When the effects are helpful, and life-giving, credit is deserved – for others, or for ourselves. When the effects are harmful, amends must be made and apology expressed. The intent that drove the choice doesn’t change either of these requirements, but it does still matter. As the Indian revolutionary and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi said, “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” Something that I believe is true for people of all genders, as much as it is for those of us who use male pronouns. We know, or at least we know best, the intention behind our own actions. And they can only improve, and our character with them, if we are first honest with ourselves about what motivates us, and then fearless and determined in our effort to improve our intentions, in pursuit of better future effects.