A child I know, when asked this week whether she would answer the call of her elementary school principal to wear red, white and blue clothes on Thursday, was in a quandary. She put down the crayon with which she was painstakingly trying to squeeze the words Peace is Possible onto the white bars between the red bars on the small American flag she had made and said, with what I like to think is a remarkable command of the idiom of the heartland as well as an uncanny awareness of the subtlety of language (but actually I know it's just the way she talks), "Well, it is a pretty good country... so it's hard to know what to wear." Not exactly mindless nationalism, but provocative, this week, nonetheless.
It is a pretty good country. It is one of hundreds and hundreds of pretty good countries, lightly layered relatively recently onto the skim of topsoil or desert sand or water which cover the thin skin of our globe; hundreds of pretty good countries filled with millions of pretty good and (believe it or not) proud and worthy people, these other lands with sunlight, too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as [yours and] mine. O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, a song of peace for their lands and for mine… A song of peace for my pretty good, but pretty complicated country, where this week I who am a life-long citizen feel even more than usual like an alien, afraid that if I speak my voice might betray not some foreign place of origin, but the geography of my heart. It is hard to know what to wear.
Which country? Asks Edward Said, professor of literature at Columbia, and for so long a voice of hope for the Palestinians and others:
Which country? I've never felt that I belonged exclusively to one country, nor have I been able to identify "patriotically" with any other than losing causes. Patriotism is best thought of as an obscure dead language, learned prehistorically but almost forgotten and almost unused ever since. Nearly everything normally associated with it —wars, rituals of nationalistic loyalty, sentimentalized (or invented) traditions, parades, flags, etc.—is quite dreadful and full of appalling claims of superiority and pre-eminence. But perhaps those are all the results of applied patriotism. Is theoretical patriotism really that much better? Thinking affectionately about home is all I'll go along with.
What does patriotism mean? What does love of country mean this week — and what has it ever meant to you? Love of freedom, freedom of speech and movement, human rights and civil rights, what else? What does it mean to be engaged (and actively engaged, if you pay taxes, if you grew up and have been educated here, if you have not fled to Canada but in fact have stayed, all this time have stayed, and even proudly stayed, some have never thought of leaving) — what does it mean to be engaged in the magnificent experiment of democratic government that this country is, with its brilliant promise of pluralism (as yet a promise unfulfilled, but beckoning and possible)? Underneath it all there is a magnificent experiment going on, despite the fact that somewhere along the way American democracy seems to have become synonymous with capitalism (or maybe it was always thus) and synonymous with a presumptuous arrogance regarding the rest of the world that is simply neither practical nor prudent any longer. What are we so loyal to? What is it that we'd die for or more likely, that we'll send our young to die for, and for what in the coming months or weeks or days or hours will we be so eager to kill? What does "patriotic" mean, when, as the media keeps telling us, 85% or 89% of the American public vigorously supports the President and Congress in their intention to wage war — a global war, a world war, perhaps World War III — against terrorism? What does "love of country" mean, and how will you find the words to express it, your own words to express your own sense of what it means to be a citizen of this country? I have heard so many of you, coming from all corners of this conversation, share this week your loneliness.
So many years ago, Martin Luther King spoke to members of Clergy and Laity Concerned:
A time comes when silence is betrayal… The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men [and women] do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this [recent] dreadful conflict [it was the war in Vietnam], we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on… and we must speak.
At some point, silence is betrayal, of your own integrity, your own heart, and then ultimately of the whole enterprise, if freedom (freedom of speech and thought and belief) is what's on the table. Silence, conformity, acquiescence to the loudest, most nationalistic or militaristic majority view, just because it is simpler, it is clearer (and in fact it does speak to a portion of your own emotional response) — none of these is worthy now. Silence, conformity and acquiescence in times like these and always betray your heart and your country. "Nothing is at last sacred," said Emerson, "but the integrity of your own mind." (To which I would add the step he did not take, and say the true sanctity is in the place where your mind stretches out to meet that of someone else, the sacred meeting ground of hearts and minds.) You have to speak it. Audre Lorde, the poet, said it differently, but with equal force:
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood… We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and brothers and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid… My silence has not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. Here, let us recall the times we have remained silent… And here, let us find our voice[s].
This is a time when there is great risk for some in speaking what is most important to them, of having it bruised and misunderstood. But it is always such a time, and the risk of not speaking is almost always greater still. I know that among all the things I learned about our country in the flag-draped public schools of New York State, one for sure (taught by McCarthy Democrats and Goldwater Republicans alike) was that to speak is patriotic; to speak out is patriotic; to act out, even, can be patriotic; to resist and to dissent and sometimes to disobey is patriotic; to hold this government accountable is patriotic. I learned early on, watching leaders, prophets, preacher's fall, that the cost of true patriotism can be very, very high. Robert Goldberg, a retired rabbi from New Haven writes, "I'm a patriot, and proud of it, with three files to prove it. The first of these was printed on the stationary of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950's, and distributed in the parking lot of my temple and all across the state by the so-called Connecticut Committee against Communism. I obtained the other two files years later, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act… Sources of inspiration that compelled my patriotic conscience were, among others, the Judaic heritage of social justice based on the Hebrew prophets, the example of other clergymen like Martin Luther King and William Sloane Coffin, and [not least of all] the American Bill of Rights…"
We are coming into such a difficult time, when to speak and to hear all our many and various truths — with our families, our neighbors, the parents of our children's friends, our own parents and our own children, our colleagues, with anyone — will entail enormous risk and require no small courage. To speak and hear our many truths in here will be — already is — a risk, for we are not of one mind or heart here, politically or theologically, nor would we have it so. We ourselves are a magnificent experiment in pluralism, Unitarianism growing up as it did on this continent simultaneous with the republic, and still we're learning as we go how to cherish one another's freedom, one another's truth, as dearly as our own.
Some of you have asked this week, "Is nonviolence part of our tradition? Does Unitarian Universalism have a theology of pacifism? Is there any claim upon us there, anything to go by?" We respond that there is not, that we are not, like the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Brethren, one of the traditional "peace churches." Our history is rich with the wise and brave influence of pacifists among us and those devoted to nonviolence (John Haines Holmes, the brilliant minister so many years ago at Community Unitarian in New York City, of all places, comes to mind). But we are rich as well with the influence of conscientious combatants, chaplains, veterans, civilians, lay and clergy both. There is not, nor can there be, consensus here, nor coercion, for we come from many different houses, many thoughtful lives, and we are unwilling to cede our imaginations — our ethical, political or spiritual imaginations — to any form of absolutism, any form of fundamentalism.
We are divided, among ourselves and most of all this week, within ourselves. Unified in grief and shock, and maybe even unified in outrage, we are divided among ourselves and in our selves about what will or ought to happen next. We believe this house can stand our differences, can shelter and encourage them and help us each to hold to the agonizing discipline of complex, not simplistic reasoning, however distressing it may feel. Here we hope, "the clear stream of reason will not lose its way in the dreary desert of dead habit…"
Where are you coming from, friend, with your black armband, with your flag, with your red, white and blue clothing, with your peace sign, with your tears? What roads have you traveled to reach the place where you are? In our pretty good country, in our pretty good church, it is an honor and a privilege to answer, and in turn to ask.
I know that I received my own religious education not principally at Yale nor even in the church, but in a maximum security prison in Rhode Island, where I served 30 days of a six months' sentence for spray painting THOU SHALT NOT KILL on a missile tube for a Trident nuclear submarine. From the four Roman Catholic nuns and three Quaker women (all elders) who were with me, and from my journey through the justice system, from the African American prostitutes and pushers with whom I shared so small and intimate a space for so short a time, and from prior and subsequent actions and study and reflection, I learned much of I know of patriotism and principle, those little markers by which you try to frame some kind of meaning, by which you try to set a course that might have some integrity, coherence, a path that could be ethical or moral. I am unrepentant still, never rehabilitated, and my beliefs are more than theoretical, they are practical, applied. They are political and economic, and they are, originally and ultimately, religious. They are inconvenient, often, sources of shame when I can't or won't live up to them, and they are in process, always, never fixed.
So there's one place I am coming from, but regardless of this history, regardless of my own debatable conclusions, I am called, as each of you here is called, you the members of this congregation, to minister with open heart and mind to all who seek the truth in love, regardless of their history, no matter where their search has brought them. I am called, as you are called to hear and hold the truths of every searching soul among us here. These are our sacred text, these truths that may differ deeply from our own, and they are gifts — they can sharpen, they can soften, they can, if we will let them, in every way refine, our own values, our own truths. This by the way, — in case anybody ever asks you — is what Unitarian Universalism is all about, this magnificent experiment in pluralism. And it looks like, for the next little while, for the rest of our lives, it may be the hardest work we do.
I don't know how to make this plain enough. Do you know that during the Vietnam War our congregations — Unitarian Universalism congregations — were split right down the middle, as many main line churches and synagogues were split, by ideology and politics, and some of them did not recover, they were never healed? By "split," I mean that people left, ministers fired, buildings closed. Here is a moment to practice our religion more perfectly, to live up to our great covenant. In the coming days and weeks, I charge you to be very brave and very careful with each other, and with the purposes we cherish here. We are going to rise to it.
Patriotism , wrote one artist, is a radical dedication to the ideals upon which one's country was founded: an ability to see through ephemeral issues to enduring ones; to hold course in the midst of political storms; to retain one's commitment to free speech in the midst of wear hysteria. Patriotism (as opposed to the kind that is the last refuge of a scoundrel) essentially is an ability to see the sweep rather than the blips of history. It is rare in any age. [Erica Jong, 1991]
It is hard to see the sweep of history, of human history, this week, stretching backward, arching forward, across centuries and continents and cultures that rise and cultures that fall — hard to see that longer arc through the forest of flags hysterically waving. Symbols are deceptive and so dangerous: crosses, crescents, flags of any colors, a veil or scarf around the head, a turban, yellow ribbons. I hear the factories in China are working day and night to keep up with our demand for American flags of all sizes; the ironies here are beyond comment. From the factories of China they are flowing: flags of defiance, flags of arrogant retaliatory vengeance, opportunistic political flags, flags of mindless nationalism, flags of support for one another, flags of love for the beautiful and troubled land we live in, flags of respect for the thousands dead, flags of grief and sorrow, nothing more. Our symbols are so loaded, and they speak so loudly, and half the time we don't know what they're even saying. A patriot should ask. This is the time for patriotic questions:
What does it mean to wage a global war against terrorism?
If this could be done, why was it not done before?
As one writer said this week, "How do you take "massive military action" against the infrastructure of a stateless, compartmentalized "army' of fifty or ten times fifty, whose weapons are rental cars, credit cards and airline tickets?"
The mobilization is massive; it is like nothing we have seen; yet no effort (not on any scale) could be large enough to cut through every heart that harbors hatred or aggression. Whom will we be fighting — exactly and precisely, whom will we call enemy?
Who in the world might welcome and delight in and even coldly is predicting a cataclysmic conflagration between "Islam" (what he construes as "Islam") and the West?
Does it matter that many in the world, and many in this country, and some right in this room, might use words like "terror" to describe the policies and actions of our own government (this government we cherish) — from the bombings of Cambodia, Nagasaki, Baghdad, Grenada, to the schooling and arming of so many heinous regimes in Latin America and Africa, to the strange ties we've held at different times, for different purposes, even with people like Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noreiga and Osama Bin Laden?
What really are we loyal to? What usefulness can nationalism serve now, as the old world yields to a new century? What is America's right relation and right role?
What course is most likely to lead in the end to more security, for everyone, more peace, more liberty, more justice, for everyone in this one pretty good country and in all the others?
And what are you going to wear?
The child in the quandary found her own remarkable response this week. When asked on Wednesday night what she thought she'd like to do, she did say, "It's a pretty good country," and she looked up then for confirmation of that claim, for some assurance that this guess might in fact be true, and this I gave her. (She knows I have my doubts, but needs to be reminded, just as I do, that they go hand in hand with hopes and dreams so passionate so powerful…) And then she said, deeply serious, without seeking my collaboration or permission, "I think I'm gonna wear turquoise, pink and beige for now." And so she did, and I don't know if she knows what risk may be entailed there, what wrath she may incur among her playground comrades or her teachers or her principal, or how her own chosen symbols of ambivalence might be misunderstood. I don't know what confidence she may inspire, in this country to which she has not even learned, at her
young age, to pledge allegiance yet. For now she is a turquoise patriot; she's proud and scared and questioning; her allegiance is to her own conscience; and her trust is still for now with the adults, in whose clumsy hands her entire future is contained.
These words come from Maya Angelou:
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet,
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That, in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living,
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness,
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body,
Created on this earth, of this earth,
We have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and very woman
Can live freely, without sanctimonious piety,
Without crippling fear…
We, this people,
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence,
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe...
When we come to it
to the day of peacemaking —
We must confess that we are the possible,
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.