Bending Toward Justice: One More Step

The first step is to notice the mountain. It is there. And it belongs to a range of mountains. There’s no going around it. The next step is to reach the kind of acceptance that has us praying in our hearts: "Lord, I don’t ask you to move the mountain, just give me the strength to climb." The step after that is where somebody—and then several somebodies—try to climb it. It’s a hard climb. They explore, they find footholds, they blaze a trail or make a way out of no way. They climb, and finally one of them, and then another, reaches the top. And the next step is, they come back down and teach us about the climb, and the view from the top, and the promise of the other side. With the next step, hikers follow the known trails and make them well-worn. It’s still a tough climb, but there are markers on the trail and you’re not up there all alone. And then another step: some new adventurers look for a mountain pass where a broad road can be paved. Many think that pass doesn’t exist. They stick to the hard trails. But some believe in the highway, that the ascent should not require hiking gear, and that we can all go over together. And at last the mountain pass is found, and a leader appears to help us take the next step, to build that road.

I think that’s where we are. America has a long and complicated relationship with a mountain called Inequality. We say—because Thomas Jefferson wrote it in our Declaration of Independence—that "all men are created equal." And we interpret "men" to mean everybody, women too, because once upon a time when people meant everybody they said "men." That was true within the lifetimes of many of us here. Many of us here remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr giving a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC—most of us have seen it on video, at least a piece of it—and he said he had a dream "that one day this nation [would] rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed … that all men are created equal." And he meant everybody, and we all knew it. And we also knew, from our own experience, that in fact we are not equal. We are not the same. We are diverse in many, many ways. Still, there is something true, and something important, that Jefferson meant by saying we are all created equal.

Most of the time, most of us carry a symbol of our struggle with the mountain called Inequality in our pockets. Maybe you have one in your pocket now. If you look at a penny—the smallest-value, most accessible coin in our currency—there it is. On the back, written over the top of an image of the Lincoln Memorial, the place where Martin Luther King Jr called us to rise to the meaning of Jefferson’s words that we are all created equal, are some words in a language we don’t speak, but in Jefferson’s day many people studied. The language is Latin; it was spoken two thousand years ago by people who lived in the Roman Empire. The words are "e pluribus unum." It means, "out of many, one." It means, we are diverse, but we are one people. Those words appear on the Great Seal of the United States, a symbol of our nation proposed by Congress in the same year that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. About a hundred years later, Congress required that "e pluribus unum" appear on all our coins.

The phrase was on the Great Seal and on our coins, but not officially a national motto. There was no official motto of the United States until Congress created one in 1956, just a few years before Martin Luther King, Jr. told us about his dream. That motto also appears on the penny, on the other side, over the top of the image of Abraham Lincoln himself: "In God We Trust." It is a phrase that first appeared on our coins during the Civil War, and first appeared on all our coins during the Great Depression. After it became an official motto, it also appeared on our paper currency.

Those two mottos—"out of many, one" and "in God we trust"—are in every way two sides of a coin. There are things beyond the power of human beings to manage or control. Regarding those things, the best we can do is to accept and to understand and to trust in nature and in the grace that we meet in the world, and adapt to it. And regarding those other things, that are within our power to manage and to shape, the best we can do is to come together as one people and use our diverse gifts to shape a better world. I think it is no coincidence that "e pluribus unum" became more firmly established at times when we were building together—building our foundations after the Revolution, and re-building after the Civil War—while "in God we trust" became more firmly established at times when we faced our greatest challenges—during the Civil War and the Great Depression.

One more symbol on the penny is one you can’t see: the fact that it is the most accessible coin in our currency means it is a symbol of sharing. We don’t all look the same, and we don’t all have equal abilities. We are not equal in wealth, either. Some of us have more money, some of us have less. Money is how we share our diverse talents and help each other most of the time. Money represents work. It represents effort. In order to make the world a better place, using our diverse abilities to shape the things we can, we have to do work, to make an effort. Most of the time, when we do work that benefits someone else, they give us money so that we can buy the things that sustain us and make our own lives better—food and houses and cars and toys and so on. A lot of those things are things we can’t or don’t know how to create for ourselves, but other people know how. That’s part of our diversity, too. And since they know how, they make more than they need for themselves, in order to share. And most of the time, we share by buying and selling. A penny doesn’t buy very much by itself, but put lots and lots of pennies together and pretty soon you’re able to buy what you need. And by doing some work, you can always earn some pennies.

Now, let’s talk about that a little bit: [a dialogue begins]

  • do you need somebody to give you money before you’ll help them?
  • do you always need money to get what you need?
  • can you share without using money?

That’s what I mean when I say a penny—and money in general—is a symbol of sharing. We don’t need it in order to share. But it’s a tool we invented to make sharing simpler to do. The fact that we invented that tool means we think sharing is important. So when you look at a penny, it can remind you that sharing is important. That’s what symbols do, they remind you of things that are important.

Sharing is important to us. Helping each other is important to us. That’s why we invented money. That’s why we use it. The idea is that, whoever you are, if you have some money, you can buy what you need. Everyone is treated equally in that way: everybody’s money spends the same. If you’ve got it.

Justice is also important to us. Being fair and playing by the rules is important to us. That’s why we have laws. And that’s what Thomas Jefferson was talking about when he wrote that "all men are created equal." He meant that everyone deserved respect, and fairness, and justice. That was a new idea when our country was founded, that all people should be treated the same, should be equal before the law. The law wasn’t supposed to be different for you than it was for other people. It wasn’t supposed to be enforced differently for you than for other people. Everybody plays by the same rules and gets the same respect: that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s what "equality before the law" means.

Everybody’s money spends the same, and everybody deserves the same respect and fair treatment under law. There’s another word on the penny that symbolizes those two things together: "liberty." We’re all supposed to be free to do what we want within the law and to buy what we want within our means. That’s what Jefferson meant when he wrote that "all men are created equal." It’s not that we’re all the same, or should all have exactly the same amount of money, or anything like that. We’re diverse. Our diversity is a strength when we share and help each other and treat each other with equal respect and are generous in offering and creating opportunities for each other to fulfill the promise of who we are. The promise of who we are as a people rests on who we are individually—out of many one. It’s not about what we own or who owns more or less—it’s not about having an ownership society. It’s about how we use what we own and what we are. It’s about sharing and caring and being generous and helping one another and respecting one another and making a better world for all of us. I would call that a stewardship society. Because there’s nothing in this world we truly own. Everything there is in the world, we’re just taking care of for a while—that’s what a steward does.

So here we are, looking at the great mountain called Inequality, which stands in a range of mountains called Diversity. There are many other peaks in the range whose names we know: Race, Class, and Gender among them. Nothing we can do about those. They are the contours of Diversity. But long ago a mountain pass was discovered on the shoulder of that mountain called Inequality. It’s broad enough to build a highway on it. Jefferson told us it was there. Martin Luther King Jr challenged us to build the highway.

Will we build that highway? Will we get over Diversity, all of us together as one people, and live out the meaning of Jefferson’s phrase, that we are all created equal?

When we trust the wisdom in each of us, when we tell our stories from deep inside and listen lovingly, when we feel the power of each other’s faith, when our hearts are in a holy place, we are building a highway over that mountain called Inequality. When we share, and help one another, and treat each other fairly and justly, we are building a highway over that mountain called Inequality. When we draw a circle that encompasses all of us, and proclaim liberty throughout the land, we are building a highway over that mountain called Inequality. When we do these things, then in those places in our national life where it is lacking, we may be assured and know that freedom is coming.

We are called to service. Let us join with our neighbors and make a better world for us all. So may it be. Amen.