This week - as news of the election became clear and the reality of it sunk in - I thought back to a comment I made years ago. We often talk about the American Dream. But I’m struck by the American Questions. Who we will be? And how we will be together? These are our American Questions; we’ve fought and struggled about them in every generation.
Our National Anthem enshrines questions. We mostly listen to the high notes, but the anthem asks real questions:
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The questions in our national anthem contrast to the declarative, affirmative claims in the anthems of other nations. To take one at random - O Canada. Maybe your whistling it at home:
The land of hope for all...
The true North strong and free!
Where other nations make bold claims about who they are, our anthem asks questions. And that’s because Francis Scott Key wrote it from inside his jail cell as a British warship bombed Baltimore. He questioned America, as people in prisons do. The answers were never self-evident. Our national anthem embodies this thought: American patriots always question. And no matter who won the election on Tuesday, raising questions would be our responsibility. If Hillary had won, we’d have to ask questions of her; if Bernie had won, questions of him; and now that Trump won, patriotism means asking hard questions of him whether he likes it or not.
As people of faith, the particular questions we ask come from our sacred stories: what of the poor? What of the widow and immigrant? What of outcast and forgotten? Patriotism always asks questions; and in our patriotism we ask prophetic ones.
But not just of the president. For on Wednesday, I wondered not just about the President-elect but also all the things I learned about my fellow Americans.
Francis Scott Key, our prophet of the prison cell, asked with fear and trembling:
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
This summer I attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I experienced many high points. But my mind held on to one particular moment for what it half concealed and half disclosed.
A preacher offered an opening prayer for the convention. She praised God for Hillary Clinton. At that point Hillary was not the nominee but it was clear she would become it. A Bernie Sanders delegate sat behind me. He started shouting, “NO!” and “NEVER!” The man continued to shout throughout the first few speakers. Right in my ear, for an hour, even as other Bernie Sanders delegates asked him to stop.
The delegated shouted so long and so hard that he worked himself up into a medical condition, exacerbated by a hunger strike he’d started. Eventually he became overcome and medical staff came to help him off of the convention floor.
I think of that moment occasionally. My fellow delegate didn’t represent all Bernie Sanders supporters. But he did represent a strand of our country which views political opponents as not just wrong but dangerous, not just mistaken but treacherous.
Tim Yardley, a New York Times correspondent, recently returned to America after a decade abroad. He traveled America documenting this divide. At a gun range outside Austin, a man reflected on the animosity in America. Alluding to the cold war we once fought with Russia, the man spoke of “the level of vitriol in the country [as like] a ‘cold civil war.’”
This gives our politics an apocalyptic feel: not just an election between left and right but an existential battle between good and evil, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. On both sides of our political divide, and even within our political parties, people see the other side as a threat. Research by the Pew Charitable Trust - of course who believes polls? - suggests over 50% of Republicans and Democrats see the other side as a threat to the existence of the Republic.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, recently spoke about this situation in which we find ourselves, much like my fellow delegate, screaming “NEVER!” at our fellow Americans. He pointed out that disgust operates differently than anger. A couple in marital counseling can have very difficult conversations; any number of crisis or problems can arise in a marriage. But the biggest predictor of which couples will divorce isn’t anger but disgust. You can work through anger and any marital problem; but if someone disgusts you…
What happens to us if we stay in the disgust mode? It’s personally unbearable, as it was for my fellow delegate. And it’s destructive to our national bonds.
Yet I find myself caught up in the whirlwind of disgust. I know why my fellow delegate made himself sick screaming “Never!” I’m not only concerned about what policies a new government might enact, but concerned about my own internal response.
Jonathan Haidt, speaking about disgust, sent me back to our sacred stories. He made quite plain: love is the opposite of disgust. “Where disgust raises up borders, love dissolves them.” Maybe Jesus was a first century social psychologist, because that sounds a lot like Jesus, who gave his life crossing the boundaries of his world: touching lepers, eating with outcasts, gathering together Jews and pagans and Samaritans.
There are lots of policy changes I don’t want to see in our country, but most of all I don’t want to be a person governed by disgust. As Martin Luther King said, “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” So I realize that for my own spiritual sanity, I need to figure out something other than shouting “NEVER!”
On Wednesday I got together with Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum, the leader of Congregation Shir Hadash [Synagogue]. We talked about what we might do after the election. Tiferet advised, “We need to get out beyond Milwaukee County, to hear and to know what people are feeling. And so maybe they’ll get to know us and what we’re feeling.”
I tried to picture myself driving across Wisconsin with Tiferet. She loves purple, so of course we’d have to drive a purple convertible in our best purple outfits; stopping in country diners and Fleet Farms and gun shops. A gay pastor and a black rabbi in red America. Sounds like reality TV gone awry.
And yet, it’s what we need to do. Perhaps not with a driving tour of Washington County, but perhaps conversations with our siblings and cousins at least, to reach out to listen to people with whom we disagree. Not to change their minds, or not solely to change their minds, but because we can’t allow ourselves to slip into disgust as our new normal.
And yet love calls for more than just overcoming disgust. From his prison cell, Francis Scott Key asked a question he didn’t know an answer to.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
It’s the most poignant question Francis Scott Key asked, but his poetic language may make it hard for us to hear the full force of it. “A home and a country, should leave us no more?” He named that particular dread that our sense of home and place would leave us, that we would feel estranged in our own country, living like expatriates in the midwest.
President Obama, trying to make sense of this, described our contentious campaign season as a scrimmage. He said, “Now, everybody is sad when their side loses an election. But the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage.” I understand his point; but this week I’ve struggled because I feel like half the nation said to Muslims, immigrants, women, Latinos, LGBT people and those that love us that we do not belong on the team.
And the message of who doesn’t belong comes wrapped in the language of faith. Jim Yardley, the New York Times reporter traveling America after ten years away, described a visit to Russell, Kansas, a heartland town. He attended a church potluck; lasagna, potato salad. Church member Cindy extolled her church as a place where the true gospel got preached. Yardley noted, “Cindy explained that too many ministers around the country watered down the true message of the Gospel, serving up baby food, not meat.” I think she means me.
Yardley asked her for the real message and Cindy offered two keys, “Homosexulaity is a sin. And Islam is incompatible with Christianity.” And Cindy continued, “It’s just a matter of time when someone gives the signal [to Muslims living in America] and we’re all going to be beheaded.”
This is why Rabbi Tiferet and I didn’t jump in the car and head to Kansas. And yet it’s also why we’re called to speak up for the Holy truth we know. The truth articulated in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus led a movement of radical change. His own people believed only the descendants of Abraham counted. But Jesus opened up the promise. Baptism replaced circumcision as the mark of belonging. Jesus and his followers baptized everyone: women, men, Jews and Roman soldiers occupying the land, native born and immigrant, no matter what. To everyone, Jesus made clear, you belong.
For years I thought of myself as a single issue voter. LGBT rights. That was my issue. But I’ve come to realize I care about far more. Partly because I realized the truth of what Martin Luther King said, “I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be.” But also because I’ve come to realize the prayer of Jesus “that they may be one” came from his commitment to see everyone as belonging to his family.
On Tuesday, several members from our church drove young adults from Pathfinders to the polls. I love the photos from those trips. Pathfinders provided documentation for six of the young adult because they are homeless; Pathfinders, as the law allows, acted as their home address. One young woman radiates joy in her photo; a first time voter.
The effort to register, educate, and mobilize young adults at Pathfinders was Jesus work. We made sure they knew, no matter what kind of chaos happened in their lives or what people said about them, you belong. It’s the meat of the Gospel: telling people through our words, actions, and witness, you belong.
People in prison cells, people who are homeless, people who practice a different religion, people who don’t fit the “norm,” people who stand out as different, people who are not white wonder like Francis Scott Key:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
As a Christian, as a white person, as a man - I want to say with all my being to all who wonder, “You belong.” Alleluia and Amen.
Haidt, Jonathan, “Can a Divided America Heal,” Ted Talks, Nov. 2016.
Yardley, Jim, “States of Confusion,” New York Times Magazine, Nov. 6, 2016.