A More Perfect Union
a sermon by the Rev. Kevin Tarsa
delivered July 1, 2018
to the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
(Preceded by an excerpted reading of Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America Be America Again.”)
“The happiness of governments like ours, wherein the people are truly the mainspring, is that they are never to be despaired of. When an evil becomes so glaring as to strike them generally, they arouse themselves, and it is redressed.”
– Thomas Jefferson (in reply to English Unitarian minister Richard Price’s 1785 retrospective on the American Revolution)
In the late 1980s I sang in a community college choir that performed at the annual college fundraiser, a buffalo barbeque. One year our program included a selection of patriotic songs. This was during Ronald Reagan’s second term. The Iran-Contra Scandal was flaring, as were protests against the School of the Americas, dubbed the “School of Assassins,” the United States institution that trained Latin American leaders in military combat, many of its graduates becoming brutal sources of destabilization, bloodshed and suffering in their home countries.
I was angry with our national leaders and I could not bring myself to sing the patriotic songs in that concert. They felt false, xenophobic, arrogant, hypocritical and blind to America’s faults. I could not sing “God Bless America,” or “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” or “The Star-Spangled Banner,” America über alles! So I stood with my fellow tenors, mouth closed, head still, and above my clenched teeth, while everyone else sang, I breathed in and out my hope for a better America in the future.
I had warned the choir director about this ahead of time…He didn’t quite know what to say.
I did open my mouth to sing “America the Beautiful,” however. Almost 100 years earlier Katharine Lee Bates, after a visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and a train trip across the plains to Colorado, had written into her otherwise appreciative poem several calls for America to be better than it was. Her message wasn’t only amber waves, purple mountains and Rah, rah, America!
Make brotherhood the crowning achievement of this nation, she said. Let success be measured in nobleness rather than in wealth or power.
Confirm the soul of America not in military might, but “in self-control.”
Confirm liberty not just in empty promises, but “in law!” This, written when women and Native Americans did not yet have the right to vote. This, written during the Jim Crow era that strengthened and institutionalized racial segregation and denied the civil rights and liberties of African American persons.
“God mend thine every flaw,” she prayed.
I could sing those words. In those words, coupled with her images of America’s awesome beauty, Katharine Lee Bates expressed both a love of this nation and recognition that America falls short of its ideals. It’s the kind of both/and that people who find a home in our religious tradition tend to be able to tolerate and to wrestle with.
From its beginnings through today, America never has been America to many of its people. We who are white and well-to-do enough have more and more chances now to learn and understand that.
Our real America, unrealized yet in terms of its ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all; our real America, born in bloodshed, cruelty and a sense of superiority and ownership; our real America that began by clearing the land of indigenous people and granting the great bulk of property to those men who already had the most power, this is the America we have inherited – with all its peril AND all its promise.
Like many of you, I have struggled this past year and a half to find ways to creatively and hopefully and constructively understand and address the political dangers of our times, while evidence of the perils is thrust before us in every morning’s news cycle.
I have been reluctant to pick up and wave the banner of “resistance,” aware that focusing our attention, our energy, and our language on what we are resisting keeps us oriented toward that which we are resisting, potentially empowering what we resist. I have wanted to find not merely a “No!” to what’s happening, but also a “Yes!” to what might be possible.
That’s what motivates me most strongly.
I am a person who often needs to get my head around something before I know what action to take. The constant barrage of Trump’s unbelievable actions is continually dizzying and disorienting, and not accidentally so.
Tapping with precision into our very own values, he has us racing to catch the next falling victims before they hit the ground, even before we’ve finished caring for the previous casualties. And I have no doubt in my own mind that the dangerous and wild circus at the surface of our national politics is masking much else that is out of our direct sight. It is a consistently masterful and effective use of chaos and of misdirection. Trump is extraordinary in this regard.
And yet… it has been clear to me from the beginning, that Trump is primarily a result, rather than a cause. I have not sensed Trump himself to be the underlying problem. Though frighteningly effective, and though he adds his own particularly disturbing “gleeful cruelty,” as Jon Stewart put it, Trump and our current politics are symptoms, evidence of a deeper dynamic at work in the United States. But understanding that dynamic well and usefully has been a challenge.
Last week, at General Assembly, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists from across the nation, I found some help in the form of a book, or rather the ideas therein, by one of my seminary professors, a young theologian named Michael Hogue. Mike grew up in Traverse City, Michigan where both Rev. Leisa Huyck and I have served the local UU congregation at different times.
Mike’s theology is anchored in his experience of the beautiful environment of that area. He is open-hearted, wicked smart, and passionately attentive to how our human ways affect the earth.
Out of his own internal wrestling, and with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Hogue has written a new book titled American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World. Reading it this week has been thrilling …and challenging. It is opening up for me encouraging glimpses of a way forward. It is also a very dense theological/political text. Digesting it will be the work of my summer (at least) and drawing upon its insight to serve this congregation and the future will be my work in the new church year, I expect.
I’m still finishing my reading of it, and it is too fresh for me to convey Mike’s rich insights well, but encouraged by his vision of a new “resilient democracy” and a political theology that is “deeply democratic, ecologically attuned, and spiritually vital,” – and especially after yesterday’s very large demonstration at the corners of Brunswick and Sutton Way for Families Belong Together, a demonstration with a great showing of members of this congregation – I am drawn to at least lift up and affirm for you this morning, with more available hope than I’ve had for a while, the possibility that, yes, the current cluster of maddening, sometimes terrifying, crises we are facing may indeed be the necessary nursery for the next theo-political revolution in the United States and beyond.
I once shared here Rev. David Usher’s mountain metaphor for such a notion. I find it helpful. He spoke of climbing to reach a mountain summit. Of climbing and climbing and climbing and at last cresting the peak – only to discover that that current peak is not the summit after all. That the real summit is still over there. And not only that, but to get from this peak to the true summit, one has to go way down into a deep valley and then climb again!
Before the 2016 elections, David said, those of us who identify as progressive felt like we were finally approaching the summit: We had a person of color as our president, we had marriage equality, and it looked like we would have our first woman president. And then we discovered that we had not reached the summit after all, and that the path to the true summit, where we are wanting to go, runs through the deep and wide valley ahead of us. We realized that we will have to find our way through that valley and then climb again.
It is important to note that this realization was less of a surprise to many people of color and other marginalized people. They know the valleys.
Mike Hogue suggests that the crises of our time, including and enfolded within the climate crisis that threatens to alter the planet, may finally be dire and unsettling enough to take us down into the fertile, natal valley, and there provoke and liberate new moral, political, and theological possibilities. A revolution!
And right on cue.
Mike quotes American sociologist Robert Bellah, who observed that:
“Once in each of the last three centuries America has faced a time of trial, a time of testing so severe that not only the form but even the existence of our nation have been called into question.”
Mike picks up the thread:
“[First, the American Revolution in the 1700s,] grounded in a deep moral contradiction: freedom for the colonists . . . while the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans continued unabated.”
“[Which led to] the second trial, the Civil War of the 1800s, which asked,] “How far are we willing to extend freedom?” Though Union victory emancipated [enslaved people], America continued to [exploit, marginalize, and oppress them.]”
Requiring a third trial, the civil rights movement of the 1900s, to realize more of that promised freedom, a struggle for rights for marginalized and oppressed groups that has been unfolding ever since, right up to this day. . . .
“The United States is currently in the throes of a virulent uprising of anti-black racism, white ethno-nationalism, and Islamophobia. . . . the election of Donald J. Trump is . . . a vivid sign that we are living amid a fourth major trial [of this American experiment in democracy]”
Again, testing not only the form but the existence of our nation.
“Trump,” he writes, “is a symptom of the problem of democracy in [a very] uncertain world.”
As disheartening as this might feel to some of us, as much risk and courage as it will entail, as much laboring in the valley, as much climbing as there will be to do again, this is not, ultimately, backward motion, but movement forward, down into the valley and toward the summit we seek.
With Mike’s help, through the insight of Grace Lee Boggs, a Chinese American philosopher and activist, I am starting to better understand now how this journey will be a journey of both rebellion and revolution. Of both powerful “No!” and powerful “Yes!” A journey made up of many discrete moments of necessary resistance and critique of the way things are, (protests and rampart storming) that can, with our committed effort and courage, heart and creativity, become linked together in a movement of resilience, a revolution that seeks to – that must – turn things around, not back to some America that never truly was for anyone, but to an America that yet must be…if we are to survive.
Mike claims, and I agree, that this is now moral-theological-political work – all woven together – exactly what our Unitarian Universalist tradition primes us for and calls us to do, as it has in each of democracy’s previous trials in this nation.
As I quoted Sue Phillips the Sunday after the 2016 Presidential election,
“My friends, we were made for this work. And now we actually have to do it.”
Mike says that the revolution needed now must take America toward an ability to live with the inherent uncertainties of life, which is what true democracy is designed to do. Religiously, politically and economically, America was born in and has clung to a fearful need for certainty. That fearful clinging and certainty are being terribly taxed now, and so it’s becoming more and more desperate, breaking out in white supremacy marches, attempts to seal the borders, calls for Muslim travel bans, spiraling economic disparity, deportations, flipped fingers from some people driving by yesterday, and the election of a gleefully cruel president.
In my hopeful moments, I see these as the death throes of a way of seeing and of being that has brought the world to the brink of its own destruction and that cannot, must not, continue.
By nature, and of necessity, we Unitarian Universalists practice living with uncertainty and ambiguity every single week. People who need certainty are rarely satisfied in our congregations and do not often stay very long.
My friends, we were made for this work! We are now more than ever called to this work.
As our UUA president, Susan Frederick-Gray told us in last Sunday’s in Kansas City, “This is no time for a casual faith.”
Imagine the America – the world – you want to see… and what you are willing to do to get there. (silent hand motion: down into the valley and up to the next summit)
That is our work ahead.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be! “
The video earlier did not include the ending of Langston Hughes’ poem:
“Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!”
(from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America Be America Again”)
Not “again,” as in make America something we tell ourselves it was in some glorious, imagined past, but rather “go at it again,” make America…yet again! For at least the 4th time.
“We were made for this work.
And now we actually have to do it.”
May it be so.
May we be so.
Church, Forrest. The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2004.
Hogue, Michael S. American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
Hughes, Langston. “Let America Be America Again.” From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper [An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers], 2017.