Who Do You Look Up To?
January 28, 2018
Hebrews 11:8-12; 2 Samuel 16:6-7
At the Golden Globes this year, Seth Meyers noted that the male nominees for “Best Actor” would be the only men in Hollywood this year that would be happy to have their name said out loud. He rattled off a long and growing list of Directors and Actors that have been called out for sexual harassment, bringing an ignominious end to careers built up over a long time.
Our era feels bereft of role models after the past year. 2017 almost felt like the Year of the Anti-Hero.
It brought to mind the beginning of a college football game from a few years ago between Penn State and Nebraska, the first week after the coaches were fired at Penn State lapses in moral judgment during the storied career of coach Joe Paterno that began back in 1965 and allowed sexual abuse of young people to be covered up.
All the players on bended knee for many minutes, players from both teams, and 100,000 fans in complete, unanimous silence… They were praying for victims of abuse but the longer I watched it, I thought it was also a plea from the rising generation for leaders with character that we can believe in. We really want role models. We need for them to be authentic.
It turns out that that the psychological literature on moral development, underscores this point. Role models and people that inspire us are far more important in our maturity than has generally been acknowledged.
Who is it that you look up to? When you have a difficult decision in a tough situation, who is it that you look to for guidance? It is not a long list is it? It is not nearly long enough.
It is also important to eventually become a role model for someone, that we grow into enough of a person of enough substance that you can show others the way forward.
We have this wonderful story about young David. There is an enemy warrior in the land named Goliath. No one can beat him. So the Israeli military leaders ask the prophet Samuel to ask God to find them a warrior that can defeat their enemy so they can live.
The Holy man prays and asks Jesse to bring his sons. Presumably God has told him that one of Jesse’s sons is the one that can defeat the giant Goliath. So, Jesse brings 6 of his sons, the one’s of fighting age, but each passes by the prophet and the prophet gets no inspiration from any of them. He asks Jesse if he has another son. The old man explains that his youngest is just 13 or so and is at home tending the family herd of sheep. He couldn’t possibly be the one.
And Samuel has this great insight, “God doesn’t look simply upon the outer appearance but upon the heart”. It is not all about strength or skill. It is also about . And that is where role models come in. At some point in our adult life, it is what is inside that really comes to shine.
Most of the time, I suppose it is not all that obvious when we are young. Most of the time, we actually grow into our character through the difficult situations we are forced to overcome in our lives and maybe that is the point.
When Bobby Kennedy was a child he was nervous in public and shy. He was the third son and the fourth of seven kids, one of the lost ones in the middle. It is said that his father so filled all of his children with ambition and determination that Bobby would do wild, almost reckless things to get his father’s attention. His Dad, apparently, referred to him in the family as ‘the runt’.
He led a life of privilege on Hynannis, attending Harvard and Harvard Law, and he put his recklessness to work when he became the Campaign Manager for his brother, John F. Kennedy, when he ran for the presidency.
Let’s face it, campaign managers may be necessary for our world to work, but it is an unlikely place to develop moral leadership. These are the guys that make deals for their candidate in the back corridors of power and dig up dirt on their opponents whenever necessary.
His brother was elected President and Mr. President then appointed his little brother Attorney General, a job for which he was not really qualified, and which prompted accusations of nepotism at the time. There he was still a fighter, less in the background than before, but still so nervous in public that his leg shook when he spoke.
He lived through the first Freedom Riders in 1961 and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in 1962. Though he had precious little actual contact with Blacks growing up, he embraced the cause with his brother, the President. President Kennedy said that year that this was fundamentally a moral issue, probably the first time a president had ever pronounced race a moral issue. He said it was ‘as old as the scriptures and as clear as the Constitution’. Like the rest of the country, he began a quick education into not only the history blacks in our country but also the appalling conditions that still suffocated their people throughout our country at that time.
He was getting an education, getting to know Washington. He was 38, his wife had recently given birth to their 7th child, when he got a call from J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI that his brother had been shot in Dallas, Texas. A half hour later, they called back to tell him that President Kennedy was dead.
I was a child. Schools were dismissed across our country when the Principals announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated. A a sense of shock settled over our nation. For Bobby Kennedy, this was the second brother that had died in his life. His older brother Joe and now Jack were both dead. They were more charismatic, more beloved apparently by their father.
It is hard to say how a death like that affects a man and we can only speculate. But when your brothers die, no matter what your age, you have this palpable, existential sense that the bomb landed way too near to you as well. You interiorize it differently. Grief over their loss is inextricably accompanied by a complicated personal reflection. Life is short and I am not exempt from tragedy. What am I doing with my life that makes my survival worthwhile? And really, what should I be about, not just out of guilt, but what is the point of my being here? What difference am I making?
And then, because his brother was such a public figure, at that particular time, beloved, respected as the President, magnified by the grief and shock of our nation, it must have poured over him in a pretty profound emotional and spiritual way.
Bobby Kennedy went to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City just a few months after his brother’s death and when he stepped to the podium the crowd began an applause that ended up lasting for a full 20 minutes as the citizens of our country expressed their overwhelming solidarity with him and respect for our dead President. I’m sure it must have felt like an emotional wave pouring over him.
When he finally spoke, he said, spoken like a brother. “When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet…
‘When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he shall make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
His staffers later said that after his brief speech, he was overwhelmed with sorrow and stepped out onto the fire escape behind the convention center to be alone.
It is hard to know how these things change a man but I believe that Bobby Kennedy went through a spiritual conversion during this time. He never spoke about it, so this is simply my conjecture. But, he was standing on his own now, not working for his brother. And even though he was schooled in power, partisan politics, he acted less and less out of that way of being. And even though he was raised in privilege, he began to immerse himself in the lives of ordinary people, and people who were living through hardship.
I suspect that his personal and family suffering grew his spiritual capacity for compassion. People who have had to live through deep personal loss have a bond that they share, an awful bond, but one that can be healing precisely because it is so expensive, that it cuts right to the heart of what you are all about.
It was a time in our country when there was a great deal of upheaval that forced our attention on the plight of deprivation. In 1965, the riots in Watts, exposed the frustration and rage of the ghettos of Los Angeles, even as we had similar riots right here in Bedford Stuyvesant, in Newark and Patterson. Bobby Kennedy simply spent more time campaigning in these areas for the Senate than he needed to, listening to the community leaders describe the practical effects of racism and poverty as it existed then.
In 1966 the Migrant workers in California had a strike over the working conditions for Mexican workers, another voice that added a different type of poverty. But in the backdrop, we were really thinking as Americans about the meaning of Civil Rights for all our citizens.
Something in Bobby Kennedy was changing and it was affecting his personal sense of mission and identity, the difference he was going to make while he was here. When he was running for President a couple years later, he was down in Southern Mississippi. He’d stopped along the campaign route to talk to some black sharecroppers in rural Mississippi.
Of course, the press just thought it was a photo op stop. And to a large extent, probably so did his staff. They were largely composed of the recent crop of law graduates from Harvard and Yale. Bobby Kennedy was listening to the sharecroppers and the conversation was going too long. One of the staffers told him they had to go. Again, they give him the quit sign. Finally, one of them says, “Senator Kennedy, your people are waiting for you in New Orleans”. The next event.
Eventually Kennedy made his way back to the campaign fleet. But before he got in his car, he gathered the staff and said to them, “You don’t understand. These are my people.” Looking back, who wouldn’t be moved by the nobility of those struggling for the basic dignity that we sought in the Civil Rights movement.
But, I remember once asking my grandmother why I don’t remember our politicians in the South or our Ministers in the South ever talking about Civil Rights even though we lived right in the middle of the movement. She looked back at me and said, “Honey, that’s because they never did”.
Bobby Kennedy was implicitly making Civil Rights and that dignity of every human person his mission statement. He was forming his identity around this. He was going to becoming more deeply compassionate with the noble ideals of the movement. And because of his celebrity family, he had a broad influence.
In 1967, He was invited to South Africa to speak at the burgeoning Student Movement that gave rise to leaders like Steven Biko that would later challenge apartheid in South Africa. You can imagine that the Afrikaner government was a little nervous about him visiting. They didn’t want him to stir up demonstrations. They didn’t need to be lectured to paternalistically from Liberal Americans. So, there was a lot of tension when he came. At the same time, there was a tremendous expectation. Students poured out in droves and packed the hall. It was one of the early times when black students and white students joined forces together.
So, the place was rapt, when he stepped to the microphone, in Capetown, South Africa. And this is what he said, “I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.”
There followed a nervous laughter that grew into a full, throated laughter. If compassion learns by listening first in solidarity with other people’s suffering, leadership learns by identifying with others as broken people on the way, trying to figure this thing out together. It was very disarming.
It allowed him to go on and speak of the high ideals that we all share, the hopes that bind us together. He said, “We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because of the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.” And, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Probably because he was so positive, Bobby Kennedy sparked no violent protests when he was in South Africa but he unquestionably inspired the students to continue their cause that would lead to the end of apartheid in the next couple decades.
Something in him changed in him spiritually. Towards the end of his too short life, he became focused on living a life of honor. And the way you know it was for real is that he engendered widespread respect from ordinary citizens all across our country.
After he was assassinated, President Johnson had his body sent from California where he was killed to Washington, D. C. They brought his casket on a train all the way across our country. And someone took a video of it in town after city after rural junction, people from all walks of life would gather as the train slowed through their village and you would see young and old, men and women, people from every walk of life, white, black, brown… it was our whole country.
One after one they would take their hats off their heads and pay their respects to that which was honorable about it. 1968… (when I saw that video with black and whites paying their respects together, I thought to myself, ‘we haven’t been that integrated since).
Honorable leadership brings us together like that.
And you can do that too. It becomes more and more important as you mature through the life cycle for honor is the point of our lives. For God looks not simply upon the outer appearance, but upon the heart. It is not about power, or status, or sexy. It is about spiritual character.
It is the divine way because that is the way you become a genuine blessing to the rising generation. It is the way we defeat Giants that are around us.
And may you so come to live that your people reflect respect upon you. And may you come to embody compassion and send out ripples of hope through your people, bringing them together, making them stronger. May you redeem the pain and difficulties of your life, so that they inspire you to live out of your higher self.