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Trust: “the coin of the realm”

Here’s a shout out to George Schultz, former secretary of state (among other portfolios), who turns 100 today. I wouldn’t know what to give a centenarian for a Birthday gift, but I greatly appreciated the gift of wisdom he shared in The Washington Post on Friday. In an opinion piece reflecting on the past 100 years, he wrote: “I’ve learned much over that time, but looking back, I’m struck that there is one lesson I learned early and then relearned over and over: Trust is the coin of the realm.” The 10 examples he provides are priceless.

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Are We Seeing the End of Democracy?

President Trump refuses to accept defeat. He continues to attack the electoral system and political functionaries, even from his own party. Republican leaders are pouring fuel on the fire through open support of Mr. Trump’s narrative or by remaining silent. Few have condemned the contempt he is showing for the democratic process. Democratic Party leaders are biding (Bidening?) their time, presumably shy of open confrontation and further antagonizing the president’s vocal, sometimes-armed supporters.

Zeynep Tufekci warns in The Atlantic that Americans are facing a coup of sorts. The term doesn’t quite fit and Tifekci is reflexive about it. The grayness should not become the point. She says,

Our focus should not be a debate about the proper terminology. Instead, we should react to the frightening substance of what we’re facing, even if we also believe that the crassness and the incompetence of this attempt [to steal the election] may well doom it this time.

Zeynep Tufekci, “This Must Be Your First,” The Atlantic

Her point is well taken. It seems prudent to leave the semantics to historians and political scientists who will, in the future, have a clearer picture of this surreal time.

In the short term our attention would be better spent on understanding the president’s strategy and tactics and how they’re undermining US democratic norms and institutions. We also need to attend to the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump, a large-enough proportion of whom believe his allegations that their collective will has been undermined. It is concerning that the president’s supporters, some armed, are protesting outside the homes and offices of state and local officials. Political intimidation, while not uncommon, is inimical to democratic norms when the possibility of physical violence looms.

How can the president’s supporters be convinced of the election’s legitimacy? There is ample evidence that president-elect Biden won the election fair and square and that the result stands in spite of numerous attempts to challenge and upend it. Consider the facts:

  • The presidential race was called by the Associated Press, as is customary, in favor of Mr. Biden, who won with 51.4% of the vote versus Trump’s 46.9%. This gives Biden a 306-232 advantage in the electoral college. He also won the popular vote by 7 million.
  • Election results have been re-certified after recounts in close contests.
  • The Government Services Agency accepted the election result and initiated a transition.
  • Several US courts have rejected as baseless lawsuits alleging voting irregularities.
  • The Supreme Court with three Trump appointees rejected a Republican challenge to the outcome of the election in Pennsylvania. And there seems little chance that a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (now joined by several states) requesting the court overturn the results in four other states will be successful.

Even so, the polarity of the moment informed by partisan media platforms, social media bubbles, fear and skepticism, the perception that meaning is derived from power, and a raft of differing hopes and dreams for the future of America, makes the result hard to accept for some. The Republican leadership’s refusal to stand up for the democratic practices and institutions that are the pride of the United States and failure to challenge the president’s false narrative, possibly for fear of losing votes in future intraparty election contests, contributes to the growing unrest. Where there is a lack of morally courageous leadership, the people flounder. I’m left to wonder if this is the end of democracy. And I don’t mean the death of democracy – but rather its telos.

Does democracy inevitably nurture intractable divisions?

Judging by the state of the Union, this seems plausible. And it’s not unprecedented. The Civil War is a rather stark reminder. Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address,

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

The key word is “testing.” The Civil War, so viciously contested, was, according to Lincoln, a test to determine if a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that every person is created equal was – is – viable. While the Union won and emancipation resulted across the Confederate states, that test yielded mixed results at best. Emancipation did not lead to the fullness of the freedom implied by liberty. Instead, Jim Crow, valorization of the Confederate cause, red lining, lynching, and the likes were instituted. Many continue to be threatened by the notion of equality. This is especially true when politics is viewed as a zero-sum game and someone else’s right to equal economic, political, and social standing is a threat to me and mine.

The fact of the matter is that as mature a democracy as the United States is, we are still taking Lincoln’s test. We’re still determining whether a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that every person is created equal, is viable. And at present, we’re again – probably, still – failing.

To invoke the preamble to the Constitution, we’re far from a more perfect Union, from establishing justice, insuring tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Instead of ensuring their chances for reelection, perhaps our political leaders should set aside hubris and fear and lead again with moral courage toward a vision of a more perfect Union – a vision of a diverse yet unified people, embracing a common identity in spite of ideological differences that ensures the defense and wellbeing of every individual, community, and the people as a whole. This may sound naive, but let’s give it a chance. We surely have more to gain than lose.

It would seem that the end of democracy is embedded in the integrity with which we take the test. Could it be that the end is the means – the common practices, institutions, and thought orientations – that lead to greater unity, even a more perfect Union? The framers did not call for a perfect Union, but a “more perfect Union.” This may well be within our grasp if we can gain needed perspective on the identity markers and politics that separate us, provided we can let go of the fear that keeps us from embracing meaningful, actionable liberty and justice for all.

Perhaps the point is not to convince the president’s most ardent supporters, or even the president himself, of the veracity of the election’s result, but rather to convince them that we’re still taking the test and will receive better results when we take it together.

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On Human Dignity

What if, in the course of our common life, the recognition of human dignity took center stage? While it has been dismissed among some as vacuous or problematically unspecific, dignity acknowledges the inherent value of each human being and, when acted upon, can significantly improve the quality of interpersonal and intergroup relations.

There certainly are a host of cultural resources from which to argue for human dignity. From a biblical perspective, one might look to the first chapter of Genesis and discern there a recognition of the value of each human being:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).

This allegory then affirms that God looked out over all creation, including the human beings newly formed, and declared it all “very good.” This is surely the low-hanging fruit on which at the very least a theological argument could be built in a Jewish- or Christian-leaning cultural milieu.

In the Western intellectual tradition, one might look to Emmanuel Kant’s notion of werde, to describe the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of the human being. (Let’s suspend, for a moment, the justified critique of Kant’s Eurocentrism.) For Donna Hicks, a contemporary scholar who links the recognition of dignity to conflict resolution, dignity is a birthright composed of ten essential elements: the acceptance of identity; inclusion; safety; acknowledgement; recognition; fairness; benefit of doubt; understanding; independence; and accountability. It is thus far from a vacuous or static concept. (See Donna Hicks, 2011, Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, Yale University Press.) When put into practice, these elements will naturally foster a greater sense of civility, justice, and equality in any society.

Seeking further justification for human dignity, one might turn to southern Africa where ubuntu, the mutual recognition of common humanity, is poignantly expressed in terms of the statement, “I am because you are.” It is no surprise, then, that protections for dignity were written into the South African Constitution. As the first Chief Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court wrote, “Under the South African Constitution, dignity is a value asserted to ‘invest in our democracy respect for the intrinsic worth of all human beings.’ It is, as the Court has held, a value that informs the interpretation of many, possibly all, other rights.” (See Arthur Chaskelson, 2011, “Dignity as a Constitutional Value: A South African Perspective,” American University International Law Review, 26(5), 1377-1407.)

Sadly, it is possibly in violations of human dignity and the rights that stem from it that its existence becomes most obvious. And this makes it all the more urgent to foster more broadly in society — especially in US society at this highly fractured political moment — a greater awareness of and regard for human dignity.

Wouldn’t it be a boon for democracy across the globe if democratic practices and institutions could be rooted in a deep and abiding respect for the intrinsic worth of all human beings, of each human being?

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Why I have been reluctant to write (but can stay silent no longer)

The last thing the world needs is another disembodied voice yelling into the ever-deepening abyss of opinion that masquerades as truth. In the intervening years between my last post and this one, I have consciously sought to be silent, to listen deeply for the voices I would not hear if I were instead occupied with scattering the seeds of my own thought and listening intently for the echoes of critique and accolades that might return. But now I must speak. I must respond to the emerging madness of another potential war, this time with Iran. A significant difference between now and then is that I now speak as a citizen of an aggressor nation, a nation I have grown to love and call my own.

What a devastating lack of imagination is shown by those who seek to exercise the right to take or threaten lives. Where is that imagination that transcends violence, that moral imagination that reaches beyond cheap notions of patriotism and embraces the value of life, every life, all lives everywhere? Why is it that the chest beaters are all-too-quick to claim the title of Christianity when they ignore the powerful testimony and moral imagination of the one from whose name the tradition derives its own? 

There is a vast difference between the moral imagination inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and the one that claims for the state the monopoly of the use of force. There is an insurmountable gulf between Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44) and the assassination of political foes and threats of force against cities and cultural sites. Even by the laws of war, the threats of the president are an awful affront to humanity, not to mention an affront to all that is good and holy about one of the world’s major religions. 

Moral courage is sorely lacking in a nation that values zero-sum outcomes and lives by the code that military and political might alone make right irrespective of the morality of any decision or action. Moral courage is lacking because the moral imagination has not been cultivated among certain so-called elites.

Imagination implies creativity. Moral imagination opens the possibility of alternative renderings of political, social, and economic outcomes. As peacebuilder John Paul Lederach puts it, “the moral imagination [is] the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, Oxford, 2005, p 28). The moral imagination does not shy away from real-world problems, but creatively rises above simple-minded dualistic solutions and promises to establish new realities that before seemed impossible.

Thankfully there is no lack of moral imagination or moral courage. The voices of so many are ringing out in opposition to yet another ominous expedition of killing and wanton destruction. That these voices are animated by different perspectives – religious and secular – gives me hope that there remains common ground enough on which to build and sustain a new peace movement.  

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A Wildly Inclusive Welcome

Ever since I first visited Hope Church Boston in the summer of 2003 I’ve nurtured a dream for the church: a dream of extravagant welcome and non-judgmental inclusivity. The seeds of this dream were planted at the Sunday evening Jazz service at First Church in Cambridge where I first encountered a truly open Communion table. I found it expressed at Hope in the welcome statement read each Sunday at the beginning of the service. It’s a welcome message I’ve adapted and continue to proclaim at the beginning of worship each week, both as a tip of the hat to the community that ordained me and as a statement of my belief that no one should be excluded from meaningful experiences of the Divine. I recently had the chance to sit down and record it with the help of Nick DiLullo, who is a member of First Church in Farmington and a fabulous videographer.

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A Chain of Gratitude

Thou that has given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy Praise.
– George Herbert

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been exploring gratitude with a small group at the church. Through poetry, prose, holy writings, movie clips, and multimedia presentations we have pondered both the abundance of reasons for being grateful and the effects of gratefulness – on the self, on others, on the world, on the Divine.

Gratitude opens the great warehouse doors of the soul, allowing light and love to flood in and out. Gratitude enlarges the capacity to live in the moment – this moment – and to live it well. Gratitude acknowledges the miracle of being and opens the heart to wondrous possibilities. It activates and animates faith.

Gratitude need not be complicated. All it requires is awareness, a growing mindfulness. It is a response that needs to be cultivated over time through simple acknowledgement. The more intentionally one practices grateful awareness, the more the practice of seeing the world with the eyes of blessing becomes possible. And the more we see the world through the eyes of blessing, the more we, ourselves, will be transformed into a blessing.

The practice of gratefulness is so beautifully captured in this moving clip by Louie Schwartzberg:

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Spiritual Refreshment on the Internet

Doing as much work in front of my computer as I do, I find it helpful at times to go to places on the web where I can find refreshment and renewal. Rather than frequent pilgrimages to news sites where the hype of “breaking news” is overdone, I find the sites offered below help me gain perspective and inspiration. They often lead to a reflective walk around the sanctuary or through the neighborhood.

One of the first places I like to go is The Painted Prayerbook, where United Methodist minister and artist Jan Richardson brings together writing, art, and faith in a way that leads to deep reflection and prayer. I am astounded by the volume and depth of the work she does.

The United Church of Christ’s daily devotionals can be received by email or accessed on the denomination’s website (you’ll need to scroll down and select the reading for the day when accessing online). True to the identity of the UCC, these reflections are inclusive and seek to respond to real-world concerns and questions.

Contemplative Outreach, according to its vision statement, “is a community of individuals and Centering Prayer groups committed to living the contemplative dimension of the Gospel in everyday life.” Father Thomas Keating, a guru of centering prayer, is one of the founding members. The articles, videos, and newsletters under the resources tab provide helpful reminders and practical advice about the practice of contemplative prayer.

Finally, for now, as a preacher I enjoy visiting WorkingPreacher, where scholars comment on the texts prescribed for the week’s lectionary. I believe anyone who wants to engage the Bible can gain much out of the insights offered by a range of commentators. In find the work of David Lose particularly insightful and very much enjoy his “voice.”

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The Power of a Letter

How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall as Col. P.H. Anderson read the letter below from a former slave. The colonel had asked the emancipated Jourdon Anderson to return from Ohio to Tennessee to again work for him. The response is filled with grace, justice, humor, and truth-telling. (I came across the letter at Letters of Note while on my regular perusal of Arts and Letters Daily.)

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

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The Responsibility to Act

This week’s article for the church newsletter is a call to action in solidarity with the people of Syria who are under assault by their government. Here’s the extended version:

As I write this the city of Homs in Syria is under fierce bombardment by forces loyal to that country’s president. Syria is a nation divided, on edge, at war. Diplomatic efforts by Arab nations and the international community have come to naught. Efforts at the United Nations to hold Syria’s leader to account and force a peaceful end to an increasingly violent conflict have been stifled by China and Russia, where powerful governments fear international support of popular uprisings of the kind they too face.

Rising on the tide of last year’s “Arab Spring,” which saw oppressive regimes overthrown in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, many in Syria took to the streets to oppose their government’s repressive policies and iron grip on power. The response from the government was violent, so violent that some of the people took up arms to fight back. Unlike the people of Libya, they’ve done so with little or no material support from the world’s powerful North American and European democracies.

This conflict seems a world apart from us in West Medford, Massachusetts, USA, where we have the privilege of tuning out what’s happening in the rest of the world. We’re far from Syria, which is a Middle Eastern country. And what distances us ever further from the Middle East is the way we’ve been taught to “other” our brothers and sisters in that part of the world. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve been taught to exoticize and vilainize Middle Easterners, especially Muslim Arabs. Our unquestioned racism runs deep, as does our desire to live comfortable lives at the expense of paying attention.

Yet there’s a lot at stake for us in the Syria situation and in other nations where people are rising to free themselves from oppression. If we truly value our God-given right to live freely into our full potential we need to stand in solidarity with those whose freedoms are crushed. It doesn’t matter on which continent their countries are. It doesn’t matter what religion they follow or what their racial or cultural heritage is.

We need to ask ourselves what is the cost of us doing nothing? What is the cost of us turning our gaze away because the truth is simply too inconvenient or the call on our hearts too burdensome? Many civilians are being killed in Syria as in other nations. Many children are being deprived of an existence that is peaceful and promising. Too many lives are being shattered by shells and bullets. We simply cannot be complacent.

Whether we offer our prayers, our influence, or material support, we have to do something. But first we have to be aware. Remember Jesus’ words: “watch and pray.” We have to follow the news, finding it on foreign websites if the coverage in our own country falls short. Then we need to pray and act consistently with our prayers by writing the Syrian representatives in Washington and at the UN, calling our Congressional representatives and urging them to take this situation seriously, participating in letter-writing campaigns organized by human rights organizations, or supporting the Red Cross/Crescent with donations so that the wounded can be cared for.

The time has come for us to act. The cost to democracy is too great for us to ignore the perils of our sisters and brothers in other nations. The cost to our souls is too great for us to live so comfortably that we ignore the plight of others.

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To be Married to an Artist…

Nanette is in Israel on a 10-day trip with Andover Newton Theological School and Boston University. Take a moment to read her blog, where you’ll find rich insights and incredible photographs.

This picture captured my attention like none other. It’s of a cart being wheeled through a souk in Hebron.

By Nanette Savides

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