Two Days From the Brink, Delivered by William Houff on January 13, 1991, during the beginning of the Persian Gulf Crisis

“Seldom – perhaps never – have I had more doubt about what I should say on a sermon topic! Not that I don’t have lots of opinions about the Persian Gulf Crisis, but that I found myself wondering about what was worth saying to you. And so, I vacillated.

The sermon title itself did not firm up until this past weekend when the approach of the newsletter deadline made it mandatory for me to decide. It was today’s date, January 13, that finally alerted me to the need to address the fact that something awesome and terrifying is going on in the Middle East. It was my awareness that, within the enormous uncertainty of developments in that part of the world, we might well be coming together this morning with only two days separating us from the beginning of the bloodiest war since World War II. With that recognition, I knew that the only relevant subject I could announce for this morning is the one that I chose.

A religious community, more than anything else, is a place where people should be able to deal with those life issues that are of paramount importance to them. It should be a safe place – a place where we may share our fears and our doubts, our failures and our losses, our successes and our gains, our weaknesses and our strengths. It should be a supportive place – a place where we may dare to wrestle with life’s issues and gain wisdom and courage from our collective caring. It should be an accepting place – a place where, so long as they are introduced honestly and respectfully, all questions and all matters are welcome. A religious community, most of all, should be a place where we may bring ourselves, fragile and imperfect although we may be, with the exception that we will go away recognized, edified, and affirmed.

For me, one of the most difficult aspects of the Persian Gulf crisis is not that it could lead to a great war of intermediate proportions and consequences, but that the issues it encompasses are so ambiguous in almost every respect. If I may, allow me to reflect briefly upon perspective from whence I come.

Objectively, I believe that war is a tragedy – in an existential sense, much as I believe natural catastrophes are tragic. In a universe perfect for human purposes, there would be no war, just as there would be no earthquakes, pestilences, or famines. Yes, I agree that wars, like famine and injustice, have no large measure of human choice in their initiation. They come out of human imperfection which I believe, is an aspect of an imperfect universe. One of the ironies of human imperfection is that we are enabled to make mistakes so complex and so enduring that even perfect humans could not resolve them without suffering and hardship. And that is what makes this Middle Eastern situation so difficult to deal with – over the ages, we humans have accumulated so many mistakes and perpetrated so many injustices in that region that there is no way we will get out without pain – a great deal of it. Everyone will pay a price.”

William Houff, Two Days From the Brink, January 13, 1991, Box 2 Folder 5, Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville Collection, Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina Asheville Special Collections, Asheville, NC.