A pastoral prayer by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 6, 2016
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first reading is an excerpt from the Tao Te Ching, by the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu:
Heaven is ever lasting and earth is perpetual.
Our modern reading is a slightly adapted excerpt from an essay, written this week by Rabbi Michael Lerner that was published in the New York Times. Rabbi Lerner is a widely read American political activist, the editor of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish interfaith magazine.
Why is this? Because they live without holding onto any consciousness of self... they can endure forever.
One who does not separate their being
from the nature of universal wholeness
lives with the universal virtue of wholeness...
Because one does not hold a narrow concept of self,
one's true nature can fully merge
with the one universal life.
We need to retool the discourse on the Left and train hundreds of thousands of people to become part of an "Empathy Tribe" that can reach out to Trump supporters to apologize to them for the ways they've felt "dissed" by the liberal and progressive world and to help people understand that the actual causes of their suffering are--the perverse spiritual distortions and twisted psychodynamics of a global competitive marketplace. We can and must help people understand that the inequalities in this society are not a function of who is or is not talented, smart, or works hard, but instead are a function of the class structure which will only allocate economic security and jobs that feel fulfilling to a small percentage of the population while the rest of the population is scrappling for the leftovers.
We are all here. Those of us who are filled with grief, feeling devastated by the events of this past week. Those of us who are disappointed. Those of us who don't think that much of anything has changed, and those of us who feel that perhaps the thing that needed to happen is exactly what has just happened. Those of us who have family and loved ones who fit into any or all of these groupings. We are all here.
And we are here, I trust, because we need our community to help us make sense of this odd new world in which we find ourselves. As George Odell wrote for our hymnal, “We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted… when we are in trouble and afraid… when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again.” I don't begin to imagine that I have the solution to anyone's quandaries this morning. I only hope that I might be able to offer a way of thinking about things that might provide a beginning toward gaining a meaningful perspective.
It seems that the Pledge of Allegiance might provide a good entrée. I suppose I should begin by addressing the omission of the phrase "under God" in my sermon title. When the Pledge was first written in 1892, that phrase was not a part of it. "Under God" was added over half a century later, in 1954. I was a very small boy then.
I'm not comfortable with including that phrase. It's not that I'm opposed to the use of the word God. I find God to be a very useful placeholder, at times, representing the mystery of the universe, the cause of being, that which is not comprehensible or comprehendible. It's that I prefer that the pledge would assume that people are responsible for its fulfillment, because the pledge is ours, we the people. I don't think it's helpful to ascribe authority over our actions to that which cannot be known. Besides I'm not very comfortable with ideas anyone else might have about their God keeping tabs on me.
So when I find myself in a situation where the Pledge is being recited, I just pause during that phrase. "One nation…, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." When I shared the title of this sermon with a member of the congregation the other day, Rick Richards smiled and said, "I'm not so sure we have liberty and justice for all."
"I'm not so sure we have any of it," I assured him. For me, the Pledge of Allegiance is not a pledge that affirms a reality which actually exists. It is a pledge to an ideal, an aspiration. It is a pledge that promises that we will all try to live and work and play together in ways that promote the American dream for all Americans.
We do well though, to remember that when the Pledge was written, women did not have the right to vote; Jim Crow was alive and well; members of the GLBT communities were invisible; Hispanics were commonly migrant workers; Muslims lived somewhere else. And people with special needs, depending on the severity of those needs, were shut up in institutions to protect full citizens from having to interact with them or even having to see them.
I’d have liked to think that in 2016, we'd come a very long way toward the inclusion of these and other marginalized citizens into the common fold of those who enjoy this one, undivided nation with liberty and justice for all. I have to say though, that not only the results of the election this past Tuesday, but the political rhetoric of the 18 months preceding the election, give me pause. Quite honestly, I do not know at this moment where we stand in promoting the inclusion of all Americans within the American dream. It turns out that what I thought may not be the case at all.
Women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, members of the GLBT communities, those with special needs and so many others in our society have been painfully smeared and are counted among the casualties of this campaign. I'm not altogether sure of how to include our environment within this context, but I think it bears mentioning that the environment has been severely threatened in the political arena as well. I hope we take to heart our Unitarian Universalist Principles, which say that we aspire to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and that we affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence of which we are part.
We would do well, I think, to heed the directive in Hillary Clinton's concession speech on Wednesday morning. We need to be open to President-elect Trump's stated ambition of making America great for all Americans. We need to let go of our cynicism, just as she said. Because cynicism can only serve to cripple the cynic. It has no capacity for transforming its object. As I said here during our special healing service on Wednesday evening, we have a whole new world in which to try to imagine ourselves. We have an entire old world for which we have to learn how to grieve and to let go.
I have to confess to having serious misgivings about our President-elect's ambition to serve all Americans. He doesn't have much of a track record indicating that he would do that. Still, I feel it is incumbent on me, on all of us, to be open to the possibility that the high calling of his office will inspire him to the fullness of that calling. We might hope, and even pray, that he does, that it does. That said, trust is hard to muster after it’s been broken countless times. So many things have already been said and done that make it very hard to be trusting.
I know that, as a person of conscience, and as an American with significant privilege, I am called, as I believe we all are, to be vigilant and resistant to any actions by our government or by any individuals that would promote second- class or third-class citizenship for any of our American brothers and sisters. And I believe we need to be ready to act, if we witness such efforts. We have a Constitution to be thankful for, and we have a Constitution to defend. If need be, I hope we will be ready to take to the streets on behalf of those most vulnerable among us, not to destroy anything, but to build… our one nation, undivided.
As a slight but still relevant aside… This morning we welcomed new members into the congregation. Last week in our final Pathways to Membership class, I asked each person to name a policy that they might want to enact for the congregation, should they find themselves in a position to do so. Without exception, the imagined policies named were about how people would interact with each other here. In the end we all agreed that we don't necessarily need to have policies to enforce acts of kindness and hospitality. We can simply do these things because they are the right things to do. Especially in the absence of such policies though, our behaviors, our actions, are all the more important. Just as in the larger world, we need to be vigilant, we need to be kind and hospitable, no matter who else around us may or may not be promoting those same values.
The election of 2016 has left us with both challenges and opportunities. One of the major challenges for some of us, perhaps many of us, will be to grieve the losses that were made real on Tuesday. I’m not just talking about the loss of an election; I’m talking about a loss of at least some of our faith in this country. I’ve spoken with many of you this week and I know the grief is there. The thing about grief is that if it goes unexpressed, we are left relegated to reaction and not to response. We need time in order to grieve.
Our challenges are not just about grieving, nor about being called to watchfulness for possibilities of institutionally sponsored sexism, racism, able-ism, homophobia, trans-phobia, and Islamophobia. We may, indeed, have greater need for such vigilance in these days to come. And that will be one of the positive things we can do in response to our grief.
But this election also calls us to do a bit of soul searching. We need to take a look at our own participation in the creation of this society in which we now find ourselves.
We will have missed a major point of this entire election experience, if we fail to see the point that I suspect we imagine so many other Americans to have missed. If we set aside the issues that we may well have with the President-elect, we still need to understand the motivations of so many Americans, the millions and millions of voters who, on Tuesday, elected their candidate. I'm not sure if I understand yet myself, but I think that things have been so broken, at an impasse for so long in our government, that folks were willing to risk everything in order to move this country out of stagnation. I'm not at all sure how Donald Trump was able to align himself with that dissatisfaction in such a cohesive way. But somehow he did.
So who are those millions of citizens who voted for Donald Trump? There may well be other groups with their own motivations who were strong proponents of the Trump campaign. I'm not that interested in them at this moment. It is the once-great American workforce that I want to focus on. I believe it was primarily these folks who carried Mr. Trump across the finish line.
As we think about how things got to where we are now, we might consider that back in the 1950s, when "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, this country had a flourishing economy that depended on a versatile workforce. Back then, manufacturing, the postwar housing boom, the automotive industry and the creation of highways and superhighways made it possible for countless legions of Americans to move off the farm into the city and into very gainful employment. Money flowed. Security was a well-kept promise. And America was great... for those Americans who basked in the benefits of its greatness.
We'll get back to those who did not enjoy much of a share of that bounty in a minute. For now though, let's consider that enormous workforce that would, in not too many decades more, begin to see its opportunities exported, or shrinking, or disappearing altogether. Those workers and their families went from two cars in the driveway and a chicken in every pot to some very difficult times. And those times still abound for so many of them.
This nation surely benefited from their industry. And then they were largely cast aside. Where is the liberty in that? Where has been the application of justice for them? Who can blame them for their embitterment?
Now, it might be time to recognize that the workforce we're talking about was predominantly white. So, in that heyday, when America was great, we have to recognize that that was largely true only for white America. Somewhere along the way, civil rights and our burgeoning, pluralistic American society came to pass. There were demands by many peoples, especially on the lower ends of the pay scale. Uneducated and unskilled white laborers were no longer at the front of the line, seeking the now disappearing number of jobs. Sometimes they were even moved to the back of that growing line.
They got scared. They got angry, and angrier. No one was their champion. Then on this past Tuesday, they elected someone who'd convinced them that he was their champion. Time will tell if that’s true.
The time is now though, that we must recognize that there are a lot of our American brothers and sisters out there who feel that they have been disenfranchised from the American dream. The time is now that we have to recognize that they are not all idiots, not all bigots, and not, certainly not, undeserving of the liberty and justice that is the promise to all our citizens.
I do not know, we cannot know, what Donald Trump might do with his presidency. We can pray though, and we need to be hopeful. We need to be watchful, too. But we cannot know.
What we should know is that we the people of this American dream need to learn how to talk to one another. Not again, but as we never have before. We the people of this one nation, within the mystery of All-That-Is, need to learn compassion, respect and hospitality for one another, toward all of us who are here. Not again, but as we never have before. We the people of this one nation need to work very, very hard to make it one, to make it indivisible, as it has never been before, truly, with liberty and justice for all.
The election has passed. Now it is time for our real work to begin. As W.E.B. Dubois wrote a century and a half ago, "Now is the accepted time, not to¬morrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or fu¬ture year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest..."
What is that work? It is making real the promises of our Pledge of Allegiance, the creation of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, for all of us...
We do “need one another when we mourn and would be comforted… when we are in trouble and afraid… when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again. We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone… in the hour of our successes, when we look for someone to share our triumphs [and] in the hour of our defeat when with encouragement we might endure and stand again." (Odell)
So then, friends, may our faith, our hope, our love and our aspirations for a better world serve us well, as today we labor in the always new fields in which we find the gift that is our lives. Amen.