Of Enemies and Worthy Opponents
Acts 2:42-47; Lk. 24:28-35
November 13, 2016
The rancor of this election season got me to re-read the opening of George Orwell’s “1984”. The novel envisions a dystopian future when Big Brother, the government, corrals us all into a movie theater every day to reinforce the three slogans of the ruling party, “War is Peace; Freedom is slavery; Ignorance is strength.” Every day people file into a huge movie theater to participate in two minutes of hate, which typically begins by showing the figure head of the opposition party. Orwell writes,
“Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen… He was an object of hatred more constant than [than enemies from abroad]…
“In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. [One man’s] heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind [him] had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck [the screen] and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp…”
Great writing. This election wasn’t quite that bad but most everyone I know feels like they need a bath.
Last week, the liberal Frank Bruni of the NY Times, the conservative Frank Luntz of Fox news and the moderate David Brooks all wrote pieces that agreed on one thing. We unleashed disgust in this election in ways that are dangerous and fractious for our body politic.
I saw another piece in the Atlantic Monthly on the way that social media has isolated us into cocoons where we are surrounded by people that think more or less like we do, so that we find ourselves ginning up our snarky remarks about our opponents. It is almost like they have a moral problem if they disagree with us.
The motto on our money says E plurbus unum, “Out of many, One” These days we have more plurbus than unum. And the question is, how will we put ourselves back together again?
We Christians beckon this question more than others because we are called to reconciliation. Jesus was someone that put people together around a table and ate with them. It is a powerful symbol in the Middle East of putting back together what is broken.
You know when Yasir Arafat and Yitzak Rabin were negotiating a peace at Oslo, they were depicted at a table together. And one of the people setting the shot for the newspapers added a bowl of fruit between them, thinking it would look pretty. But the Israeli’s and the Palestinians explained that they couldn’t have that in the photo because it would communicate to everyone in the Middle East that they had brokered a peace deal and they hadn’t. You would never together with your enemies. It is just not done.
So Jesus ate with religious leaders and invited lepers also to dine. Jesus ate with tax collectors and also invited zealots (the Jewish revolutionaries of his day). Jesus ate with wealthy women and also invited prostitutes. There is a way to be people of reconciliation in every era and it takes gutsy courage in each generation.
In the year, 2000, we got to see it up close at Christ Church because our Congressman, Bob Franks, decided to run for the United States Senate and he was a member of our church.
He ran against Jon Corzine, the head of Goldman Sachs, who was also a member of our church.
Two Summit guys.
I was walking across the atrium when my secretary called out to me, “Chuck I have the Republicans on the phone. They want to know if you can say an opening prayer for Bob Franks when he kicks off his campaign?”
The next day, I’m walking across the atrium when my secretary called out to me, “Chuck I have the Democrats on the phone. They want to know if you can say an opening prayer for Jon Corzine when he kicks off his campaign?”
And then she said, “So what are you going to pray?”
I told her “Peace be with you (looking right)… and also with you (looking left).
Of course, I said the prayers at both and their campaign managers both gave me bumper stickers for my truck.
What to do? I put the Bob Franks for Senate sticker on my truck just right of center… And I added the Jon Corzine for Senate sticker on the far left part of my bumper.
The Newark Star Ledger love the photo and the story became a cute news item. We had reporters calling from the local paper and the Wall Street Journal asking, “Reverend, is there tension at coffee hour?”
“Only when we just have decaf” I assured them.
Two big men in one little church. It was a great story. And the real story is important for us to remember because it might just point the way forward for us.
There comes a moment in every campaign when the political advisors track a way forward to go low. You get rumors that they want you to run with. They get some sleeze that they want you to attack with.
I will never know the real answer. But Bob and then Jon both told their campaign advisors that they weren’t doing that. I like to think that they were both shaped by what they pick up at Christ Church and that they both decided to take the higher way. Every once in a while I’ll run into their campaign people and I’ll remember that they took the higher way, stayed focused on the issues. And their campaign people will look almost nostalgic about the past and say, “No I haven’t seen that since then.”
It was a very tight race, much closer than expected. And like politicians across the land, they both came to church the Sunday before the election. Bob sat just right of center with his family. Jon sat on the far left with his family. The State police were here. The press corps was here.
At the end of the service we came to the Eucharist. And we invited everyone to come to the table of reconciliation. I’m standing there looking out at Bob and his family, looking at Jon and his family. All gathered around this table. And it struck me, looking at so many other people gathered around the table that day. We compete against each other all week in the market place, lawyers adjudicating cases against other law firms, banker competing head to head with other bankers. It is tough fighting too.
And on the 7th day, we stand shoulder to shoulder, as forgiven frail humans in need of redemption. We still have our differences. But for a moment, they are transcended by our common human need for God’s love and acceptance. We seek communion as children of God, our most basic posture before God.
The race was tight, very tight, but late on Tuesday night Bob made a gracious and inspiring concession speech. Jon became our Senator.
The two remained respectful towards each other. Years go by, Jon becomes Governor and he needs Republican support for the budget. Bob is a senior Republican leader, so Governor Corzine re[i]aches out to Bob to see if Bob would be willing to work out a deal and network other Republicans to come on board. Bob says ‘yes’ and they started to work.
A bit of time goes by again. Bob has some pain in his stomach but he is a tough guy, a noble Viking. It won’t go away so he goes to the doctor. Bad news but he isn’t sure how bad the news is, so he doesn’t want to go public with it.
He calls Jon, who meets him at the diner and Bob tells the Governor him he has cancer. I walk in right as Jon is about to leave because Bob wanted the Rev. to pray for him on the QT. And that is the other table of reconciliation.
We may have differences that separate us into competing parties. But when you get a life threatening diagnosis, the three of us just stand there as family men, vulnerable that life is fleeting, concerned about our families that need us, feeling one another’s anxiety and worry. Our shared humanity transcends the very real differences that separate us.
Bob went to Sloane Kettering for a procedure. It was a nightmare. The doctors opened him up and the cancer was far worse than anyone imagined. They closed him up, tried a couple of different treatment regimens. Bob went from a robust guy with that huge winning grin that everyone remembers and a handshake that could crush your hand to being so sick he could hardly sit up… in just a few weeks.
His friends from childhood came. Most of the Republican leadership of New Jersey crammed into his hospital room to offer their support.
I came over to pray for him one day and Fran and his friends told me that the doctors wanted to try a “Hail Mary” therapy but he was so weak that they wanted him in his best spirits, so the plan was to surround him with his closest people and get him as strong as he could. To inspire him to rise to his fighting self.
I called Jon, which I almost never did when he was Governor because he was so busy. But his staff put me through. He was in Chicago for a meeting. I told him that Bob was gravely ill and that I was going to pray for him the next morning with his friends, that we needed people to surround him to rise to his fighting best.
Jon said, “I’ll cancel my appearance, get the red-eye home and I’ll see you at the hospital at 7:30 in the morning.” Next morning, we meet in the lobby as Sloane Kettering. I explained the situation in more detail and we went up to his room.
A few of his friends were there, Fran was there. It was Good Friday. He had slept very poorly, restless, anxious, weak- very weak. All of us surround his bed. Bob opens his eyes, sees all of us and the politician sprang to life. He had that huge winning smile on his face, only he was so weak he couldn’t really talk.
He shook hands with each of his friends, that powerful grip, making you feel like the most important person in the world. Each person said something brief. Jon said to him, “We need you to fight buddy. You are a fighter. Nobody knows that like me.” Bob nodded his head.
In that moment, we were all holding hands around that other table of reconciliation, the table where we lift one another up as mere mortal humans, aware of how frail and fleeting our lives are, spreading the life force in love.
And we prayed, Democrats and Republicans, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”
At those moments, what separates us in our contests in life is so transcended by what binds us together as frail men that they seem almost petty…
I’m sorry we couldn’t save Bob. There are limits to modern medicine, even at the best hospitals in the world. He and Jon weren’t perfect men but they were honorable men- by which I mean simply that they returned to the higher way… They made mistakes, but when they did turned their vision back to the higher path that we are called to pursue.
I recall their too brief friendship here because it is important for us to remember the difference between enemies and worthy opponents. We get into some tough scrapes with both enemies and worthy opponents, but worthy opponents deserve our respect, they earn our respect. Ultimately, we are on the same team as Americans.
And that is what we need to come back to after this bruising season of personal attack. Regardless of what others might do, we need to show each other a basic respect. We are all citizens of one republic and we need a mutual healing.
We love to compete. But what makes competition so fulfilling is that we are forced to coordinate the members of our team to outperform the other team. We only do that when we cooperate with each other, when we coordinate. When we create community. And the other team is not the enemy. They are just worthy opponents. The real gift of competition is not simply winning. It is the community we create to make that happen.
When I was young, I used to love to watch the political debate between William F. Buckley and Dan Pat Moynihan. Both New Yorkers, Buckley the most articulate conservative of his generation, from Yale. Senator Moynihan, the professor of social policy and the great liberal from Harvard. For an hour, they shot zingers at each other with incredible command of the material. Winsome, witty, sharp… And after it was over, you knew they would share a scotch. They respected one another as worthy opponents.
E plurbus… but also unum. Will you join me at the table as we pray together for reconciliation and stand together shoulder to shoulder in our human vulnerability, calling on our higher selves to rise to the occasion of our time? No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here…
[i] Frank Bruni’s piece was in the NYT Week in Review on Sunday, November 6, 2016. Brooks and Luntz both posted columns on election day in the New York Times, Tuesday, November 8, 2016 on the op-ed page.