I’ve been preaching for 42 years. It has been my honor and my duty to speak to major world events from economically troubled times, the discovery and spread of AIDS, wars in the Middle East and Central America, the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and innumerable civil rights issues regarding sexual orientation, race, and gender.
But, without exaggeration, I have never stood in a pulpit in a more precarious moment than this one. Even though tens of millions of Americans have already voted, the vote counting starts in two days and I can only hope that by Wednesday morning we will know the results.
American democracy is at stake and as enormous that claim is, it may not be as important as all that could be added to that claim because the environment, civil rights, economic justice, foreign relationships, and, for God’s sake, human decency and civility are literally riding on this year’s presidential election.
If you have not voted yet, please vote now. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could have a plausible reason to sit this one out. In fact, we have a cancer patient in our congregation who has made it her goal, on hospice, to live long enough to vote in this election and I have heard similar stories from all over the country.
I will be out of the country on election week, just as I happened to have been on election night in 2016, both times leaving it to our associate pastor, to face this microphone on the Sunday after the election. I earnestly pray that David will have more to celebrate than to console this time.
But as David and I have discussed the task before us, not just in the coming week, but in the coming months, we have agreed that, as important as voting is, we don’t get to vote our way into creating the great society we long to see.
The past four years has seen a coarsening of our society. Virtues of honesty, integrity, the compassion that makes it possible for leaders to serve the common good rather than their selfish interests, the morality that gives strength to families and civilization’s institutions, are eroded and, all too often, ignored.
Like me, you have probably heard about the compromising scene in Sacha Baron Cohen's new 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,' involving the president’s personal attorney and former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani.
Though he claims that this scene of him lying on a hotel bed with his hand down his pants while an actress that he believed to be a 15-year-old girl from Eastern Europe was innocent, and, of course, Sacha Baron Cohen burst into the room at this point before things went too far, what remains is that Giuliani agreed to give an interview to a fawning, sexy, 15-year-old and agreed to go to her hotel room for a “drink and to relax.”
Call me a crazy, but even though the deed did not happen, it seems unavoidable that this high-ranking federal figure was perfectly willing to have sex with a teenager.
And what I find to be a complicating awareness is that these photos and this information has been available since July but the media didn’t take an interest in it until the new Borat movie was being released because, in our morally corrupt universe, this just didn’t seem to be that big of a deal.
We have been so beaten down by outrageous, unprecedented, crimes, behaviors, statements, that even pedophilia just doesn’t seem to solicit more than a yawn. We have gotten used to moral corruption, lies, treason, embezzling, emoluments, racism, and cruelty.
We have been so beaten down by outrageous, unprecedented, crimes, behaviors, statements, that even pedophilia just doesn’t seem to solicit more than a yawn.
One of our listeners, a young mother and Ph.D. candidate in New Zealand who was trafficked as a teenager, who was having sex with strangers for money when she was 15 years old, said to me in reaction to the news about Rudy, “I can tell you that Rudy is what society calls normal.” I understand that during that nightmarish time in her life when she was trafficked, that the men who paid to have sex with her seemed to come from all walks of life; married men, fathers, senior citizens, the “normal” people you see at the grocery or the movie theaters but I object to concluding that they are “normal.” They might be common, there might be a legion of them, but they don’t get to be normal.
Michelle Obama famously said that she had counseled her daughters, “When they go low, we go high.” And I think that the Obamas succeeded in doing exactly that. They suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous and obscene criticisms, but they never stooped to that level to give it back.
Now, I have to confess, I have. I listen to podcasts from the Young Turks and Bill Maher and I have, many times, heard Bill Maher and Cenk Uygur, literally yelling at Democrats to stop being so passive and to get down into the gutter with conservatives and duke it out. When I think back over the past four years of my preaching career, I know that I have been more loyal to the advice of Maher and Uygur than I have to Michelle Obama.
Maybe I needed to be tougher than most pastors could be or were allowed to be, but I want to say this, that kind of rough rhetoric is not a plan for the future. On the very day that he was assassinated, November 22, 1963, President John Kennedy had a speech prepared to deliver that evening. A passage from the speech that becomes, in some ways, the late president’s final instructions to our nation, says:
“Neither the fanatics nor the faint-hearted are needed. And our duty as a Party is not to our Party alone, but to the nation, and, indeed, to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of political power but the preservation of peace and freedom.
So, let us not be petty when our cause is so great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake.
Let us stand together with renewed confidence in our cause — united in our heritage of the past and our hopes for the future — and determined that this land we love shall lead all mankind into new frontiers of peace and abundance.”
Neither fanatics nor the faint-hearted…. Not heavily armed militia groups nor those who unplug from the news and even voting, are needed to save our fragile democracy and turn us back from the cliff of fascism. What we need, and I mean this, is fewer fanatics and faint-hearted people, and we need more good people.
And by “good” I do not mean simply “nice” or “polite.” As Elie Wiesel said, “Neutrality always serves the oppressor, never the oppressed.” No matter who wins the election this week, there are going to be angry and disappointed people and some of them will say and do things that will reach out and grab us by the heart and we will want to go there, to dive into the mud and start fighting. But folks, good people will find a way to both choose sides and still go high.
Our ultimate goal is to create a society that is simultaneously free and peaceful, in which we are continually reducing the percentage of our society that lives in poverty while increasing the percentage of our society that has healthcare, and meaningful work, and a real education. That is our ultimate goal, and as Kennedy said, considering what is at stake, considering how important it is for us to save democracy and civility, it is just too important for us to be petty. I want to find a way to be disarmingly honest without being mean and that is easier said than done.
Much of what has divided our partisan nation is, in fact, the fault of the government. From biblical times when Jewish leaders used a collective fear of Canaanites and Philistines to unite the tribes of Israel into a single nation to the present moment when Reagan used Russia as an “Evil Empire,” and George Bush used Saddam in Iraq, and Trump uses the fear of a nuclear Iran or Hillary’s e-mails, to scare people into feeling that they have a common enemy. In almost every case, the real threat is exaggerated if not imaginary.
In 1957, General Douglas MacArthur was invited to give a speech to at the annual stockholders meeting of the military supplier, the Sperry Rand Corporation. I’m sure they were expecting a rousing speech from their major customer but what they got was a sober appraisal of the dirty business that the military was in with their suppliers:
"Our swollen budgets constantly have been misrepresented to the public. Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear — kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor — with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real"
The government tries to unite a nation, and win their unquestioning loyalty by keeping them afraid, often afraid of boogiemen under the bed. What if, instead, we were united by lofty goals; sending astronauts to the moon, ending polio, and smallpox, creating a non-polluting renewable energy grid, ridding our oceans of trash and pollution, what if we made ending poverty in our generation our common goal?
Look, in the mid 1990’s, I sat in the home of a young member of my church who was HIV+ and he told me that he had reached the fifth anniversary of being HIV+ and I couldn’t believe my ears. I had buried so many of his peers who went from diagnosis to death in a year or two, some longer but they were not typically good years, there were anguished months of wasting away . . . but this guy had made it 5 years and that was the tipping point of retro-virials that led to the day a few years ago when we dared to speak of being HIV+ as a livable condition, possible to become even undetectable.
There are so many things that seem to be impossible, until someone does it. The goal of ending poverty is not as difficult as going to the moon or driving HIV into undetectably low levels in an infected person’s blood. If we can do it , and we don’t do it, can we continue to think of ourselves as being good people?
Though I have been wrong so many times that I should never make a political prediction but this time it seems to be fairly certain that Trump will lose the presidential election. He will then have two more months in office during which time he seems the sort to try very many things to challenge the election or even to stage a military action that might allow him to claim a mandate to stay in office.
In any event, I fully expect that very many of his almost cult like followers will be upset, and some will be upset to the point of public violence. Terrible things will be said, and we all know that there is a potential of awful things being done by those who would love to start a civil war. Given the deeply partisan divide in our nation, civil war is not even such a fantasy that it can be dismissed out of hand.
What our nation will need on Nov. 4th, and 5th, and 6th will be a literal army of good people who will not resort to violence, who will be firm in their devotion to character, principles, morality, values, and hope for America’s future. Please, do not be sucked into vitriolic exchanges. There is nothing we have seen in either Trump or most of his followers that would make us think that they will lose with civil deportment. But we can be the good people during this transition. We can be the glue that holds America together.
Don’t respond to insults with insults. Try to respond with friendly invitations for them to tell you how they feel, and more than that, why they feel the way they feel. Listen for what they are afraid of and try to console their fear. They may want to portray you as being their enemy but don’t readily put on that mantle. You be the better person. It is not easy to not reply to abuse with a counter punch, that’s why I want you to hear me saying this before the chaos begins.
No one can make you be a bad person. No one can make you stoop to a mud slinging fight. You can choose who you are going to be during the transition, I only ask you to remember what our goal is, where we want to be next year, and the year after that. So, let’s not be petty when our cause is so great.