President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his first inaugural address in the midst of the worst economic depression our country ever faced. Some responded to this situation with demagoguery. Around the globe many nations turned to dictators - Hirohito in Japan, Stalin in Russia, and Mussolini in Italy; Hitler would come to power within weeks of FDR’s inauguration. FDR responded with his stirring comment, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While other politicians played up fears, FDR responded with programs small and large aimed to rebuild our broken economy.
The first part of his statement came back to me this week as I thought about our politics in America and around the world. FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But it feels like this week we heard an opposite message. It comes in the rise of Le Pen in France and it comes from our own would-be presidents, who busily trumpet the message, “The only thing we have is fear.”
John the Baptist lived in an era of fear as well. On the one hand, the economy grew: new cities arose in the decades before and after John and Jesus. Contractors remade Jerusalem into one of the shining cities of the world. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruled a large Jewish kingdom and acted as a regional power-broker in the Roman Empire. But, on the other hand, the booming economy only benefited a few; most people lived an impoverished life, made worse by the corruption of tax collectors and soldiers and the vagaries of drought. While Herod Antipas lived in luxury, most of the people around him suffered through poverty and oppression.
Economic hardship led some to turn to violence. Revolutionaries fought Herod and the Romans. And Herod and the Romans responded with ever more repressive strategies. Disparity, desperation, violence: the trinity of fear.
John wanted change. He went to wash in the River Jordan, inviting others to join him, as a way to begin the renewal and restoration of his society. Other rivers could be found throughout the region but John chose the Jordan for its spiritual significance: long ago the Israelites returned to the Promised Land, after 400 years of slavery in Egypt, by crossing over the Jordan. John knew people in his time had to cross over from a slavery of fear to a promised liberation. So he baptized them; a symbolic splashing of water to represent their journey from fear to freedom.
Crowds came out to watch what John did. They knew all about the troubles in their society. It was as if the axe was at the root of the tree; danger just one violent spark away. The crowd asked, “What then shall we do?” And John heard the voice of the tax collectors, “What then shall we do?” And even the soldiers, sent out to keep an eye on the wild prophet, began to ask, “What then shall we do?”
John faced impossible problems - drought he couldn’t end, Roman armies he couldn’t defeat, rapacious elites he couldn’t curb. Faced with the enormity of these problems, he gave out simple directions. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation.”
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he said, “Be decent. Act like you’re midwesterners.”
John began the great big transformation of his society with small gestures: bathe in a river, give away a coat. We face big challenges in our society too. From violence - so many mass shootings, but also so much other violence as we come close to making this the most murderous year on record in Milwaukee. And disparity - a study this week documented how rising inequality shrunk the middle class to a minority in our country. To terrorism and global warming - issues which threaten us but which we seem unable to deal with realistically. What then shall we do?
I’ve been thinking about this question for a month, since terrorists attacked my favorite city. And then came the terrorist attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado. Then the Inland Regional Center in California. And all along the shootings in our own city. Just this week Loretta Collins, 19, Thomas Elliot, 62, and Frank James, 30. It can be hard to know what to do. At least for me the complexity and depth of a problem can make it hard to know where to begin. What then shall we do when such enormous problems loom?
But John reminded me: renewal begins with small acts. Of course he knew one soldier who didn’t bully a peasant wouldn’t solve the oppressive nature of his society. Yet small acts still matter. Back in 2000 Al Gore ran against George Bush for the Presidency. The campaign seemed to be going for Gore until the debates. During the debate, as Bush answered a question about his litmus tests for Supreme Court nominees, Gore leaned over his podium to sigh expressively into the microphone. Analysis immediately after the debate suggested Gore won; he more convincingly answered the questions our country faced. But in the days and weeks afterwards the Bush campaign replayed “the sigh” until Gore became a joke. A small gesture turned a race Gore led into one too close to call. One small gesture changed the direction of our nation. Small gestures matter.
Whenever a mass shooting happens in our country, the Onion reprints its satirical news story from 2014. A picture shows a group of grieving Americans under the headline, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The story ends with the observation, “At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as ‘helpless.’”
The Onion names what we all know: we could change this. One approach to reduce mass shootings and murders would be stricter background checks. Consider the case of Dylann Roof, who killed 9 people at Mother Immanuel Church in Charleston, SC. Roof was able to purchase a gun despite a disqualifying arrest record because our hampered background check system could not process the request in time. The minimal checks we have are too weak to catch people like Roof or like Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho.
Now most of our country, and 80% of Wisconsin voters, would like to see stricter background checks. But legislators don’t pass the laws and don’t fund the programs. Why? The NRA. When the Onion reports we’re helpless, I think they mean were helpless before the NRA.
I may have mentioned this before, but it sticks in my mind. Congressman Barney Frank once explained to me why the NRA wins on its legislative agenda. The NRA shows up. NRA members would write Barney Frank, or call, or show up in his office. All of this happened despite the fact that Barney Frank wouldn’t vote their way. But the ability to mobilize and constantly show up does affect many congressional representatives. It’s why the NRA is effective.
And the 80% of us who want stricter gun control? Legislators know we won’t write or call or show up. And as a consequence they listen to the 20% engaged with this issue.
Jay and I own guns: I’m not against gun ownership but I’m for gun control. And this Sunday I think it’s time for us to be as vocal and engaged as the NRA. What then shall we do? I hope this Sunday, downstairs in Coffee Hour, that you will write a letter to one or all of our legislators to tell them of your support for stricter gun control. We need this small gesture - made again and again - to create change.
But it’s not all we need to do. We need to speak out against the nonsense suggested by some in response to violence, such as the suggestion this week by Donald Trump to ban all Muslims from entering the country because the shooters in San Bernadino were Muslim. It was a further escalation of his earlier call to start closing Mosques. Targeting people because of their religious identity is as ugly as it is unconstitutional.
This Presidential election it seems as if some would ride hatred and fear of Muslims to victory. I remember past campaigns when the scapegoat was LGBT people. In 2004 candidates used fear of gay marriage and gay people as a winning strategy. It now seems immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, are the campaign strategy.
Imagine how it would have felt in 2004 if our congregation received cards and letters of support from other MICAH congregations. This thought makes me think we ought to be writing the Islamic Society of Milwaukee to express our care and support while they are in the cross-hairs of fear and prejudice. They are our sisters and brothers in MICAH and they need to know they are not alone.
This Sunday, along with your letters to legislators, I want you to pick up a letter to send to the Islamic Society of Milwaukee so that Muslims in our community know they are not alone.
Of course Trump’s comment was not the only ugliness this week. During oral arguments over affirmative action, Justice Antony Scalia questioned the wisdom of admitting African-Americans to Texas’ premier state university. Justice Scalia kept interrupting the lawyer for the University of Texas to make his point: “It does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower track school where they do well.”
It was a flashback comment: I thought Justice Scalia was standing on the steps of the University of Mississippi in ‘62. The lawyer for the University of Texas felt it too, saying, “With respect, Justice Scalia, I don’t think the solution to the problems with student body diversity can be to set up a system in which not only are minorities going to separate schools, they’re going to inferior schools.”
The exchange between Justice Scalia and the lawyer point to the on-going issues of race and privilege in our society, the reasons why we need to say, “Black Lives Matter.”
A church member this week suggested a small act we could all take on: wearing a Black Lives Matter button for a month, everywhere we go, to see what kind of reactions we get and to spark needed conversations about race in America. Down in Coffee Hour we’ll have a bunch of buttons. I hope you will wear one; let me know what conversations you get into as a result.
Supporting background checks. A letter to a mosque. A button on your coat. These are small acts. And yet they counteract the culture of fear which feels so overwhelming.
John the Baptist felt overwhelmed by Herod and the Romans. So he started doing simple things. A ritual bath, giving away coats. Two thousand years later the dynasty of Herod and the Empire of the Romans are long gone. But still we practice baptism. Small acts can change the world.
What then shall we do? Your legislators need to hear from you. Our Muslim brothers and sisters too. And all need to know Black Lives Matter.
Join me in these small acts to renew our society. Alleluia and Amen.