Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Winners and Losers and the Ship of State

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
Election Day – November 6, 2012 (Service of Prayers for the Healing and unity of the Nation)
Deuteronomy 6:1 – 9; Matthew 5:1 – 12
Preacher:  The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

On Winners and Losers and this Ship of State

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3)….Though today we should be celebrating the incredible freedom and privilege of voting, and of our democratic system, how could we not be poor in spirit at this moment, all of us…We have been bombarded over the past year or more with an ever increasing assault of political mudslinging and slurs.  Oh, there have been worse things said than the things said in this campaign, though not much, and especially in some of the local contests….
In the 1828 Presidential Campaign, Andrew’s Jackson’s wife was labeled an adulteress and his mother a prostitute.  There was the infamous “Daisy” commercial aired by President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater and the “Swift Boat” attacks against Presidential Candidate John Kerry.  But we have never, in the history of political campaigns in this country, been assaulted by the volume of political attack ads and constant inundation of “robo-calls.” These have insinuated themselves into our lives, into our homes, in virtually every waking hour.  What does this do to our national psyche?  What does it do to us as a people?   It polarizes us, it alienates us one from another.  It dehumanizes us.  Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…
            Chances are, tomorrow, not everyone will be poor in spirit….It is likely that half the population will be in pretty good spirits. Their candidate, or candidates, will have won the election, assuming we are able to confirm the results tonight. Yes, it is likely that about half the citizens of this country will be in good spirits tomorrow…But what about the other half?   What do we do about them?   Many will be deeply hurt.… Many will be frightened and concerned for the welfare of the nation, no matter which political party they are from, no matter which candidate or candidates wins the election.   What do we do about them and for them?  Gloat?  Say, “oh well, so sad, too bad!” and leave it at that?  What will we do?  What ought we to do?  And how will those whose candidates do not win respond? How should they respond?  Should they take a vow of non-cooperation and civil disobedience and plan on obstructing any plan or policies proposed by their opponents on the other side?  Where will that lead us? 
Well, if one party is able to win both the Presidency and both Houses of Congress, some work might get done.  If not, we will find ourselves pretty much in the place we have been for the past four years -  a place of stalemate and grid-lock, where the opposing parties fight like children in a playground and the great needs of the people of this nation are not served.  In either circumstance, it seems likely that the animosity and furor that have marked our national psyche have a very high chance of continuing, unless we do something about it.   
Refrain from anger, leave rage alone, the psalmist says (Ps. 37:9).  We need to take these words to heart…The current climate of American politics, and current mores of our American culture, have, for some reason, appeared to license unbridled anger and incivility.  All too often, in public discourse and in the discourse we share with one another, there has been this very human tendency to conclude that if a person doesn’t agree with me and my political opinion, they are not only unreasonable and wrong, they are stupid, un-American and, even,  an enemy, not only a personal enemy, but an enemy of the country.   This is true of people on both sides of the political aisle.  This is sinful….sinful and shameful.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself” Jesus said in his summary of the Law, “there is no other commandments greater than these.”  These are not divine suggestions from the lips of Jesus, they are commands….
In the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church, which we renew at every baptism, we commit ourselves to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self,”  we promise further, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.”  In neither case does it say, “seek and serve Christ in all Republicans, or in all Democrats,” or “strive for justice and peace among those of your political persuasion and stripe.”  It doesn’t qualify the promise by saying, seek and serve Christ in all persons who happen to agree with you….” or “strive for justice and peace among all people who happen to be on the same page with you.”  In both instances, the promises are unequivocal:   seek and serve Christ in all persons….strive for justice and peace among all people and love your neighbor as yourself…” all your neighbors!
Too often in the midst of the political season, we allow ourselves to be caught up in the heat of it all.  Yes, there are important questions and issues at stake and we will have disagreements about them. People will feel passionately about these things, there is no avoiding this.  It is part of living in a free and democratic society. 
In all of this, however, it is critically important that we focus on the issues themselves and not be drawn into attacks on the personhood of those who believe differently than we do.  We would do well to follow Joe Friday’s lead in Dragnet, “just the facts, ma’am” when engaging in political and philosophical discourse.  Too often, we stray, and take it personally, and begin to question the motives and the personhood, not only of the candidates and politicians we don’t like, but also of those persons, sometimes friends and family, with whom we disagree, sometimes even demonizing them.  This is just wrong.  And again, for us, who are Christian, it is more than wrong; it is sinful.
There is no question that there are two very different and competing visions for this country right now, represented by the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.  Rarely in our history have the differences in vision been so marked or so clear.  The representative of one of these competing visions is going to win the White House tonight…Other representatives will win one or both Houses of Congress….
Yes, some in our country will find themselves “poor in spirit” tomorrow morning….Other’s will be glad in spirit….There will be a prevailing side in the White House, and perhaps in the Congress….That’s the way Democracy works….We should be mindful that God did not pick the winners, the American people did in the exercise of their God-given freedom.  It may be that God’s Providence is at work in the election, but we will not know that until history proves it to us sometime down the road.  Still, it is a possibility to which we should be sensitive.  No matter what, we should be aware that, as preacher, author and publisher of Sojourners Magazine Jim Wallis regularly reminds us, “God is neither a Democrat or a Republican.” 
We should also be aware, everyone of us, that the people with whom we disagree politically, sometimes, vehemently disagree with, are our brother and sister Americans.  Almost all of us are patriots and love our country with a deep love and affection…. While we may disagree about the methods and means of getting there, we have the highest hopes and dreams for the United States of America and we all, with few exceptions, long to see it be that city on a hill, spoken of by Ronald Reagan, and before him by Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.   It is imperative that we give each other credit for this; that we assume it about one another, even when our understanding and opinions on issues are vastly different.  If we can do this, it will go a long way toward our healing and wholeness.
In his first Inaugural Address, Thomas Jefferson addressed the gathered assembly and the nation and said words that are as true now as they were when he uttered them in 1801…Here’s what Jefferson said, “During the contest of opinion through which we have passed, the animation of the discussion and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.  All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.  Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.  Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things…”[1]
If this country is to be healed and be whole, the extreme polarization which has marked our national life; the partisanship and rancor must cease.  Those who prevail in the election will have won their victory and the right of the majority to govern and to make policy under our  democratic system.   Nonetheless, whoever wins cannot, and ought not, to be unmindful of the minority who lose the election this day, and especially as the margin of victory is likely to be narrow.  There will not be, I believe, an overwhelming mandate for either side.  It would do well for those who find themselves on the victorious side tomorrow, to remember it could just as easily have gone the other way.  They might well have found themselves in the shoes of the “poor in spirit.”  Those who find themselves on the victorious side might do well to remember, next time the roles could be reversed, and make an effort to empathize with those whose candidate has lost, to speak with them and strive to understand their very real concerns, fears and anxiety for our nation. 
Prudence and wisdom demand therefore, that whoever the victors are, should feel compelled to reach out a hand of friendship to the loser, and commit to engage with them in meaningful and civil discourse, to act in a spirit of compromise, not in a spirit of triumphalism for their party; but in a spirit of patriotic concern  for the whole nation, seeking to serve, not the interests of Republicans or Democrats, but to serve the Constitution of the United States of America, and we the people, all the people, of this great nation, which is their moral obligation and duty. This is the only healthy way forward. 
I’d like to close by reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic American poem. The Ship of State written in 1849.[2]

The Ship of State
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
'Tis of the wave and not the rock;
'Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest's roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
Are all with thee, -are all with thee!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

[1] Jefferson, Thomas “First Inaugural Address” found in Individualism and Commitment in American Life:  Readings on the Themes of Habits of the Heart (New York, Cambridge, etc: Perenial Library:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1987).
[2] Longfellow,  Henry Wadsworth The Ship of State found in The Patriot’s Handbook  ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York:  Hyperion Books, 2003), 48.

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