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An Inauguration Sermon
Reading: Tao Te Ching #53
What a heady thing it is to feel that one is present at a turning point in history, even, perhaps, that the culmination of one’s work or values, or longings has finally arrived. What an interesting thing it is to feel oneself at a turning point, a cusp on which everything might change. And what a challenging time it is for those of use who want to be a part of solutions rather than problems, who want to bring our voices and our values into the public square and see them acted upon. We are a fortunate, challenged, nervous, hopeful people.
I believe that there are two things we should consider about the importance of this new era. Firstly, that this nation with its sad and angry history of race relations, has elected an African American president. Secondly, we are, I believe, participating in a once-in-a-lifetime seismic shift in American politics. Mr. Obama was the man who was the right person at the right time to lead that shift and his victory had very little to do with the color of his skin and a lot to do with his character, his ability, and with the roilings of history. So, on the one hand, this moment in time is all about race and justice rolling down like the waters, and on the other hand, it is about the cycles of history and the cycles of the generations, and has nothing to do with race at all.
Firstly, the election of an African American president.
I am not so old, but my childhood memories of growing up in Maryland include questioning my mother about the meaning of the sign that I, a brand new reader, had sounded out all by myself; the sign above the water fountain in the bus station, the sign that said, “colored”. I remember the terrible hush that fell in her face, probably in the room as my question forced her to give voice to a practice so foreign to her western soul. It’s one of my earliest memories.
I remember my first job in 1971, driving a Good Humor truck through a white, working class, Virginia neighborhood and hearing the children, all day long, angrily discussing their upcoming year of bussing: their first year in a desegregated school. When I returned to that neighborhood each evening, I head the same mutterings from adults. I remember saying one night to my father that I was having doubts about this strategy of bussing. “Those kids are too angry. They are just going to refuse to have anything to do with the Black kids. This isn’t going to work.” “Sure it will,” said my father, “They’re going to discover that, if they want to play football, or be in the science club, or work in the cafeteria, or gang up on the substitute teacher, they are going to have to do it together. They’ll work it out.” My father is a member of the GI generation and a product of the integrated Army. He had seen, first hand, his peers from very different backgrounds, under the right leadership, learn work together, get along, become friends and get the job done.
He was right. Six years later, after my first year of Seminary, needing a summer job, I returned to Good Humor, and, for old times sake, they let me substitute on that same route for a week. Six years later, the very neighborhood was integrated. All day long I watched black and white and oriental kids burst together out of the houses and yards in which they had been playing together, parents of every hue lining up for their ice cream and whiling away the wait with pleasant conversation. It was a different world, and a profound, life-changing day for me. Never since that day have I doubted that eventually we’d have a truly integrated nation or that, when the right person emerged at the right time, we would have an African American president. And now we do.
That does not mean, however, that our work with racism is done, and it does not mean that the playing field is level for African Americans in this nation. In the midst of our celebrations we must not forget that.
I also grew up with breathless Weekly Reader articles about Margaret Chase Smith, the first and only female senator, a Republican, who served our nation from 1940 to 1971. I thought it very hopeful that a woman could be a respected Senator, but I didn’t think for a minute that this made it easy, or even likely, that any qualified woman could so serve. One victory is an important start…that’s all. I felt the same way when I learned, as a young adult, that women could serve in the ministry. My older sisters’ victories were very important, but it was still true that a woman minister had fewer opportunities and more difficulties than equally qualified men.
When it comes to the racism that does indeed linger in our nation, I believe that fear of the “other” is hard wired by evolution deep in every crevice of our being. Fear of the “other” is one great grandparent of racism and we all have it in us.
We are powerfully led in our lives by the need to think that “our kind” is the best kind…that’s another Great Grandparent of racism. So that pretty little song from South Pacific, about how
you have to be taught to be afraid
of people whose eyes are oddly made
and people whose skin is a different shade…
it’s a pretty song, but it’s wrong. You don’t have to be taught to be afraid. Being afraid comes naturally. What you have to be taught is to work together, get along, and become friends because you learn through that experience that other people are not so “other” after all, and that “our kind,” the best kind, is all of us, together. Having an African American president is going to be a daily lesson to all of us in just how together we really are. The election of Barack Hussein Obama brings enormous affirmation to people of color and recent immigrants and Muslims and children who didn’t have an ideal childhood, that in this great nation, “their kind”, Yes They Can. It also brings a fundamental lesson to all of us, in every night’s news, a lesson that will work on our psyches…all of us…and help us to expand our definitions and soothe our deep fears.
Secondly, the election of Barack Obama signals, I believe, one of the sea-changes in American politics which happens in our nation about every 70 years. One writer, Michael Lind, thinks of these shifts as so fundamental that he speaks of our nation as having had, over its two centuries, not one government, but three, now beginning a fourth. He calls them our four Republics. The first Republic lasted from the Revolutionary War to 1860, that is, from it’s initial president Washington to the last crisis days of the widely despised administration of James Buchanan, just before the Civil War. The early years of the era, however, saw the development of our nation’s rural and village economy, great expansion and prosperity. The second half of a Republic bring crisis, excess, and the inability to work together and compromise towards a needed end.
Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the second republic, which gained steam during reconstruction and came to a miserable end during the depression with another despised president, Herbert Hoover. That era also saw the end of the rural economy and the industrialization of America based on railroads and steam engines.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president of the third era of our nation’s life, and it came to and in the last administration, widely seen as a failed administration in a time when excess and inability to work together to solve problems paralyzed the nation. That Third Republic saw the building of electric and nuclear economy with automobiles and flight the icons of progress. According to this understanding of the cycles of history, Obama will be another one of those truly visionary nation-builders who begins an era of national greatness in which both parties will participate, and clearly the time has come again for cataclysmic changes in the way we produce energy, travel, and make our economy work.
Each of these Republics has a similar pattern…about 35 years of focus on incorporating new ideas, healing old wounds, solving major problems which require expanding the powers of government, and promoting economic modernization. That’s followed by a similar period in which cautions, reactions, and backlashes are the order of the day; when small business, social retrenchment, and limited government have their time in the sun.
Our dis-ease of the past dozen years or so, as we watched, seemingly helpless, as we problems like health care, global warming, and ever riskier stock market ploys, was shared by the generation the saw the Great Depression deepen and the war clouds gather in Europe, and by the generation that saw the shrill and rigid leaders of the mid 19th century bring their nation to the brokenness of civil war. Now, as Strauss and Howe, authors of influential books on the turnings of the generations, write, we are privileged to experience a turning towards civic responsibility, working together, solving problems and rebuilding the broken, led by a younger generation which was raised by its worried parents and grandparents to leap into a crisis and get the job done. I have preached several times about the ideas of these fascinating historians, the last time in 2000, when I said this about what our nation might face in the coming years. How well it has come true!
(What we face next is a ) crisis era, which arises, usually suddenly, in a response to threats which in another era might be ignored or negotiated away. Suddenly there is a public consensus that to save society, Something Must Be Done, and that will require pulling together, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice. Although the whole society participates actively in building this consensus, the ability to actually pull it off rests on the generation which was protectively and cooperatively raised during the Unraveling, which alone has the skills and drive to work together and solve the crisis. This cherished group of young adults becomes a “hero” generation, who are then rewarded handsomely for the rest of their lives.
Straus and Howe’s Good News is that (our situation in the year 2000, of ) low civic participation and high selfishness, individual complacency and social incompetence, political corruption and general falling apart, is about to end. Their bad news is that history suggests that it will end in some kind of bone-shaking, culture-changing crisis. Ready? The hope in their message is that previous crisis eras have been extremely productive turning points in American history.
Barack Obama, although not a member himself of the Millennial Generation (that is, persons now aged 5 to 27 years old), emerged as someone who could reach, excite, and lead them. He even figured out how to use their toys; cell phones and Facebook, to organize them. And while this generation, thanks mostly to the immigration policies of the Free-Market, Republican dominated past era, takes diversity for granted and has a larger and more colorful definition of who “our folks” are than any previous generation, they didn’t elect Obama because of his race. They elected him because their generation needs to get the work done and he looked like the kind of leader who could get them started in what will be their life’s aim; to re-make their nation, to figure out how to solve its problems, to lead us into the future.
(They’ll) Build a land which will bind up the broken
(They’ll) build a land where the captives go free
Where oil of gladness dissolves all mourning
(They’ll) build a promised land that can be.
Of course, all the generations will be a part of the change, the work, the triumph, the sacrifice, and the things that seemed impossible only 9 years ago will become possible, will become completed. It’s happened before.
The questions we must ask ourselves, we elders, is whether we intend to help or hinder, to be a part of the solution or continue to bicker about the problem, if we can ever learn to compromise and bring others along, whether we will be able to join the Millennials and their president in their expanded definition of who we are and what we can accomplish.
We who live now are struck by Obama’s race and by the change we have lived to see. History, in the end, I predict, will think of Obama’s race as a footnote to what was really significant, just as FDR’s disability and Lincoln’s depression now seem to us to be simply a part of the crucible of experience that made them who they are. What really happened was a brilliant leader arose to rebuild the land we all love.
Let us join our hearts together in the spirit of prayer: Holy One, in whom we are all One, help us to be as One in these challenging times of change, that justice may flow down like waters, and peace, like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.
- Obama and the dawn of the Fourth Republic
- Strauss and Howe, Generations (1991), The Fourth Turning (1999) and Millenials Rising (2000)