I was out of town last week, fly fishing in the headwaters of the Colorado river at 8800 ft. We live in a beautiful country, as I was reminded, watching Moose in the distance, Antelope scurrying across the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, Golden Eagles majestically surveying the great open sky.
Cell service was spotty and internet connection was sporadic. I only saw glimpses of crowds in North Carolina chanting ‘send her back’ like they were at a WWF wrestling match.
Hamlet came to mind. “Time is out of joint” he said when the world wasn’t right. I’ve seen this cast of the masses strangely ecstatic while invoking emotional anger unto hatred. It was the same disturbing expression that Leni Riefenstahal chronicled in her movies about the new nationalism in the thirties in Germany.
I was disappointed to see this theme setting up for the next election cycle that ‘stokes racial and ethnic animosity’ in order to ‘divide us along color lines’ and pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ in a zero-sum competition for jobs or a piece of the American dream.
Transcending political parties that I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough about from the talking heads on cable network news, on a deeper level, this is about a moral and spiritual vision that we stand for at Christ Church. In the middle of the summer, I think it is instructive to remind ourselves of how promising that vision actually is and why we have committed ourselves to it.
I wrote my dissertation on World War 2, so I read many speeches in the thirties that used these phrases like ‘Germany is for Germans’ and ‘Italy is for Italians’. Back then they called them ‘blood and soil’ movements. And it was a very popular theme at the time, not just in the fascist nations like Italy, Germany and Spain, but also in France and Belgium and the smaller European nations in the east like Serbia, Hungary and Poland.
Today, we see that movement reviving in movements in Italy, France, Australia, Brazil, Hungary, Poland.
In the thirties, they became toxic fascist movements because they also had the right social conditions of a Europe devastated by war, unemployment at 40%, spiritual nihilism on the rise in the aftermath of so much death.
Today, none of that is present, and these movements aren’t orchestrated. They seem more like a grievance, a tantrum.
We had our own ‘blood and soil’ movement in the United States in the 30’s. One of our kids at Christ Church, Marshall Curry, did a very short documentary on it called “A Night at the Garden” that won acclaim this year. It shows a ‘blood and soil’ rally that took place in Madison Square Garden that drew a capacity crowd.
We did it to remind us that this is part of our history too. But it is easier for us Americans to forget because that is not the path we took then.
We were the country with the Statute of Liberty that bears the inscription, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We came in as the good guys to defend the cause of the ‘free society’, to protect the rights of minorities, and liberate the concentration camps. Our own Pete Moran, Christ Church member, flew those early bombing missions over France. He told me once he was his veteran’s hat in London when a Scotsman stopped him on the street, tears in his eyes, as he described for him what it was like to be a prisoner of war in a German war camp in France the first day the American planes flew overhead.
The good guys showed up to be counted, to lead, to take responsibility where they didn’t really have to because it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t just that we had the superior military might, it was that Europeans were sure that the we brought with us a moral compass that would point back towards normal. We were greeted as liberators, as hero’s, as the model of how every nation ought to respond.
And it wasn’t easy then or uncomplicated. It never is. In 1939, the MS St. Louis tried to land in Miami with 937 passengers, most of them Jews fleeing Germany just before the War when the handwriting was on the wall. Cuba turned them away. The United States turned them away. Canada turned them away. At the time, we cited “national security concerns”. At the time, people wondered out loud, if they might have gotten a different reception had they not been Jews? Anti-Semitism was rife in American culture at the time. They were not perceived as ‘us’.
But the fate of the MS St. Louis would haunt our national conversation for years because over a third of them would eventually die back in Germany when they were returned home.
But we came around as a people. We came around to our highest ideals, we liberated the camps. We developed the Nuremburg tribunal and tried these cases of abuse, so that all of Europe would learn the bitter moral lessons of World War 2, explaining why ‘war crimes’ are immoral.
We took the lead in not only rebuilding the shattered European economies. We led the formation of the United Nations to develop a forum where all the nations of the world could develop peaceful relations with each other and promote a common prosperity for all in the place of war and division.
This is why other countries look up to us. David Brooks had a thoughtful piece on Friday in the New York Times (July 19, 2019, p. A25), reminding us of the original religious meaning of American Exceptionalism.
He said, “American is exceptional because it was launched with a dream to take the diverse many and make of them one- e pluribus unum.” “America is exceptional because from the first its citizens saw themselves in a project that would have implications for all humankind. America is exceptional precisely because it is the only nation on earth that defines itself by its future, not it’s past.”
The vision comes from the Bible. We look forward to a City whose foundations are built God, a city that will sit up on the hill for others to look up to. No other nation had yet been able to do this.
The European nations were divided by class, by ethnicity, by tribe. We were open to everyone. John Adams said, “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of humankind from all over the earth.” (ibid).
Our text in Isaiah, unquestionably one of the most inspiring lines in scripture, says “It shall come to pass in those latter days that all the nations shall come together in God’s Temple in Zion”… And God will decide between the nations, and God will decide to include the many… And the people “shall beat their swords into plows; they shall turn their spears into pruning hooks; and Nations shall not lift up swords against other nations; neither shall they learn war anymore.”
There is a better way, a divine way, that includes other people. It includes everyone.
It includes you too. Because you are a child of God. You matter. You are important. That is the spiritual vision of the Bible.
And so Lady Liberty beckons us, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We are going to transcend the limitations of the past and grow towards this future ideal. It is about the future. David Brooks says, “America is exceptional precisely because it is the only nation on earth that defines itself by its future, not its past. It is pluralistic, future-oriented and universal.”
We are steadily transcending the limitations on the past, with our eyes on the kind of world we hope to become. Our greatest leaders have been transformational like that.
I think of President Johnson, LBJ, as he was known. The same age as my grandfathers, he reflected the same racist view of the world that my grandfathers had. He lived in the segregated South, represented the state of Texas where almost all of his constituents held the same racist views that he inherited. It was impossible not to.
But when the zeitgeist of History tracked him down, when he had to make a decision during his 15 minutes of fame and power, he didn’t just please his constituents back home, he didn’t let himself simply be guided by the past. He felt the pull of this vision of the future, one I’m sure he couldn’t really even understand entirely.
When the issue of Civil Rights arose on his watch, it wasn’t just about partisan politics for LBJ. It became a matter of moral conscience. And he knew the costs too. He knew that if he passed the Civil Rights legislation- he said at the time that he was consigning his own party to being just a minority party in the South for the rest of his life because the resistance to equality was that great.
But it was the right thing to do. He let the future guide him, not the past. He let the ideals of our nations finest moments focus his values, not the prejudices of our compromised history. He changed his mind, personally. It wasn’t good for him personally, but it was good for our nation. He died, a contradictory and cussed man, (aren’t we all) but today, I admire leaders like him. He changed.
And we are better for his leadership today. He opened the door, so that more people could take to the playing field and realize their potential. It took 30 more years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but eventually African-Americans were accepted to all of the colleges across our land, not just the historically black colleges.
Even when I was in college, higher education was largely limited to White guys. Even in the 70’s most of our elite colleges had only men or almost all white men. But slowly, the doors opened. More people could realize the American Dream, realize the potential that was inside of them, develop economic prosperity, realize a fuller life for their children, and make our national conversation that much richer.
I was listening to a panel speak recently- most of them media pundits you see on our news channels. They had 8 people on the dais- White, black, brown, women, men, straight, gay. All thoughtful, insightful. I thought to myself, they all sound like they are in a graduate seminar together at Yale… and that is because they all were in graduate seminars at Yale, Harvard, Chicago… We opened the doors to higher education and we are all the better for it.
And there is no priority in this social vision or in God’s spiritual vision. None of our tribes has some special claim.
Last month we had the National Spelling Bee and this year, we had 13 kids that aced the entire spectrum of words to spell, so the Judges decided to grant them all a tie for first place.
What was interesting is that 12 of the 13 winners were from families that migrated to the United States from India. They grew up with English as their second language.
Is it a little threatening? Sure. The Rush grandchildren now have to endure Papa asking them from the front seat of the car, “Charlie, how to you spell “naivete”? “Circumlocution”? “Supercalafragalisticexpealidosius?” The bar is rising.
But zoom out. Think about what it means for those kids who won. Our country, the exceptional country, allowed them to realize their potential, to become the best version of themselves. We will all be blessed because of it. Our country will become better for it.
In September, all of the top banks will announce their new crop of talent, usually in full page ad’s in the Wall Street Journal. Even in the 90’s, those announcements looked pretty much like the Men’s Lacrosse team at Princeton with ties on… because it pretty much was the Men’s Lacrosse team at Princeton with ties on.
Today, this new crop of the best talent are the valedictorians of their class from literally all over the world. Our banks are now all over the world. And our world is increasingly becoming one inner-connected global village. And we are seeing more and more people invited to the playing field. We are giving more and more people the opportunity to realize their potential and share their gifts with us. It is the pull of the future, not the prejudice of the past. It is inspiring. We are lucky to be alive to see it flourish.
Jesus said to his wee band of 12 disciples, “Go ye, therefore, unto every single nation, invite them in and teach them to become followers in the higher way”.
Like Lady Liberty, bring them the light of freedom. You have been blessed- not simply with life but with abundant life- so, my brother and sisters, bless others. Grow the love. Grow the opportunity. Help those that come after you.
Become the change you hope to see in the world said Gandhi. Let the future pull you forward. God’s hope is at work in you, yes, even you. Amen.