We + Them = (All of) Us:
Finding Common Ground in an Age of Division
by Dave Skidmore
at The Universalist National Memorial Church
August 20, 2017
Our pastoral prayer this morning begins with a prayer adapted from the red hymnal:
Eternal God, in whom is harmony, peace and concord; heal the divisions which separate your children from one another, and enable them to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
While there are diversities of knowledge and of faith, and we cannot all be of the same mind, may we be made one in love, and in devotion to your holy will. Deliver us from all blindness and prejudice, from all clamor and evil speaking, that by the charity of our temper and thought and life, we may show forth the power and beauty of the religion we profess, to the glory of your holy name.
Gracious God, in whom we live and move and have our being, we gather in this sanctuary 80 years after those words were published jointly by the Universalist and Unitarian denominations. Clamor and evil speaking—countenanced by the highest officials of our government—again infect out public discourse. White supremacists and Nazis march through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, spewing hate. One of their number killed a young woman with his car. And, once again, the dead lie in the streets of a European city after a terror attack.
So, we pray for peace. We pray for peace in the cities and countryside of our nation, we pray for peace in the streets of Europe and across the hills and plains of Syria. We pray that the weapons that have been ‘locked and loaded’ do not rain down their ‘fire and fury’ on East Asia.
We pray, O God of Love, that the family and friends of Heather Heyer of Charlottesville and the loved ones of the victims in Spain find healing, comfort and consolation. But we also pray for justice. And, for ourselves and our leaders, we pray for the courage and moral clarity to stand against hate.
We pray also for our own city and congregation. We pray for those who have lost loved one’s recently. We pray for those who have suffered career setbacks or are struggling economically. We pray for those who are lonely or depressed. We pray for those who are ill, or who are supporting—emotionally, physically, or financially—loved ones who are ill.
And now—either aloud or silently in our hearts¬—let us speak the names of those we would especially commend to your care. Amen.
The title of this morning’s sermon is, “We + Them = (All of) Us: Finding Common Ground in an Age of Division.” As I first conceived it, this sermon was about religion—about the differences between religious liberals (and most of us here probably would place ourselves in that group) and fundamentalists (especially fundamentalist Christians) and also between religious liberals and atheists. But, in recent months I have been increasingly thinking about the topic in a political context. This morning, I’ll focus much more on the political than the religious. In our church, we generally steer clear of overtly political topics. For the most part I approve of that practice. Many of us spend our weekdays engaged in politics or policy and it is not why we come to church. But in my view some political questions are moral questions and wholly appropriate for the pulpit. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that my remarks today might be too political for some.
In both the political and religious contexts, I’ll ask two questions: Can we find common ground while simultaneously standing our ground? If so, how? Originally I was hoping to talk about ways that those of us who are deeply troubled by our President, and were shocked by his election, might be able to understand the perspective of people who supported him. However, with the events in Charlottesville last weekend, now is not the time for that sermon. So, mostly, I will be talking about standing our ground rather than finding common ground. But I will also be talking about how we, as Universalists who embrace the hope of the final harmony of all souls with God, might regard the people against whom we are standing our ground.
Charlottesville, for all of us, I’m sure, stirs anger—anger at the white supremacists, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis who brought violence and death to that beautiful city. And, anger at a President who did not condemn the perpetrators until, days later, he was given a script to read from a teleprompter—and the next day effectively took it all back! But, for me, Charlottesville also evokes sadness because it is about more than a President. It’s about our country and our society. Many people, myself included, believe the President has empowered and encouraged racists and anti-Semites. But, is he the chicken or the egg? Is his election the cause of some very disturbing trends in our national life—or a symptom? Probably some of both.
When a horrific event occurs, such as a young Nazi plowing his Dodge Charger into a crowd of innocent people or, two years ago, the massacre of nine church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina, we—I at least—may want to tell ourselves it is an isolated act of a troubled person. It is impossible to do that with Charlottesville. The shocking images of hundreds of racists and anti-Semites marching by torchlight, their arms extended in Nazi salutes, their faces distorted by hate, deny us any such false comfort. Those images tell us something about our country and our society—not something confined to history books, but something right now. Over the past week, many politicians have declared, “That’s not America.” But, we must recognize that what happened in Charlottesville does indeed reflect something about our national character. I hope—I know—there is more to our national character than that. So, this morning, as pessimistic as I feel right now, I will try to follow the advice of the Rev. John Murray, the founder of the Universalist side of our denomination, who said, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.”
I begin with a story. It doesn’t particularly apply to Charlottesville, but I hope it may apply to some of the other issues that divide our country. I heard it second-hand, from my neighbor, Rick. A couple of weekends ago, Marsha and I went out for our morning walk, and Rick was walking his dog, Mikki. We mentioned that we planned to attend a reunion of people who worked at a now-closed newspaper in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when I worked there in the 1980s. It caused Rick to recall a reunion at Dartmouth College some years back. The speaker at that reunion was the late Budd Schulberg, who is best known for his novel What Makes Sammy Run? and his screenplay of the movie On the Waterfront. At the reunion, Schulberg told a story about his undergraduate days at Dartmouth, in the early 1930s. He wrote a story for the college newspaper exposing poor working conditions at a marble quarry near Dartmouth. Sometime later, he was called into the office of the college president, who — parenthetically but not irrelevantly — was an admirer of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (at least according to Rick’s retelling of Schulberg’s story). The college president opened his desk drawer. It was full of letters that the president said were from local business people and Dartmouth donors complaining about the story and calling for Schulberg’s expulsion. “What should I do about that?” the president asked the student. Brimming with youthful idealism, Schulberg replied with a discourse on the importance of the First Amendment and the importance of universities as havens of free intellectual inquiry. The college president looked at Schulberg for a long moment and replied, “Unfortunately I agree with you.” And that was that. Schulberg stayed. He graduated and, over the years, kept in touch with the college president.
What is the moral of that story? In what circumstances should we apply it? When shouldn’t we? The psalmist, in today’s opening words, tells us, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” It is, the psalmist says, “like the precious oil on the head.” But what do we do when we are not living together in unity, either religiously or politically?
First, briefly, I’ll discuss that question in the religious context. I know a lot of people who are atheists. I know a few people who are conservative Christians. I am neither but, if asked, I’d say at least the people I know of those persuasions are good people, moral people, sincere people. Oddly, as different as their beliefs are, it seems to me, their worldviews have something in common—and that is literalism. Fundamentalists read the Bible and interpret what it says literally—Jesus is literally the only Son of God, born of a virgin, who walked on water, turned water into wine, etcetera, and accepting him as savior is the only way to avoid eternal damnation Atheists read the same texts and reject them in their entirety because, in their experience, they cannot be literally true. As a religious liberal, I strive, in the words of Marcus Borg, to take the Bible seriously, not literally. But I find common ground with atheists in the recognition that a lot of evil is done in the name of religion and their skepticism, even cynicism, is an important reminder of that. I look at some evangelicals, such Jimmy Carter, and see that their religious beliefs have motivated them to lead good lives and help others and I think, well, perhaps they see the wisdom of the Bible so clearly that, for them, its metaphors seem literally true. With both atheists and fundamentalists, I am interested to know why they think as they do and I am content to let them believe what they believe without too much judgment.
In years past, I have imagined that I could extend that live-and-let live acceptance to most topics in the political realm—but the recent election and, especially, last weekend, made me re-examine that belief. I still do think that reasonable people can disagree on many issues and have productive conversations on, for instance, how best to structure the tax system or the appropriate balance between public and private education. But, many differences simply cannot be compromised away. Consequently our focus must shift from trying to find common ground to deciding how best to stand our ground. There can be no compromise with racists and anti-Semites.
From a political and societal perspective, as citizens, we must unequivocally oppose evil and raise our voices and cast our votes accordingly. This morning, though, I want to focus more on how we should think about the racism and prejudice we are more likely to find in the people we know, perhaps even ourselves. As a white man, I have not been the victim of prejudice. That doesn’t mean, though, that we white folks don’t encounter racists. They may not carry torches and foam at the mouth. Instead we might encounter a rancid joke or seamy assumption voiced by a relative, or someone we went to high school with, or a friend of a friend. Or, broadening it out, it could be someone who was anti-Semitic, or anti-Muslim, or anti-LGBT, or anti-Asian, or anti-Hispanic, or misogynistic. It could even be that that person was our younger selves who later came to question and grow beyond assumptions we might have grown up with. How should we think about these day-to-day encounters with people who might be reachable? Or, as Jimmy Carter might put it, “What would Jesus do?”
David Aldridge, an African-American and former member of this congregation, offered some practical advice on Facebook for his white friends. If you are a basketball fan, you might know David from his work as sports journalist for ESPN and Turner Broadcasting. He wrote, “When someone you like tells a racist joke because he or she is comfortable, you must take away their comfort. You must tell them their hate is not welcome and you won’t back their hate with your laughter or, worse, with your silence.”
Aldridge was speaking about racism in “someone you like.” What about people like the marchers in Charlottesville? They seem beyond reason. It’s true—you cannot talk to some people, and it is physically dangerous to confront some people. But will that be true for all of them for all time? One does occasionally hear of people who turn away from their racist beliefs. Most famous perhaps is John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace. He was an 18th century British slaver who became an abolitionist after his conversion to Christianity. Just a few years back, a book, “Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead,” got some media attention. This past week NPR interviewed a former white supremacist who now heads an organization called Life After Hate. Maybe these examples are more common than we know. Maybe they are very rare exceptions. I don’t know.
I do know that every week in this sanctuary we profess to believe in the final harmony of all souls with God. And Jesus told his followers, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other.” But what does that mean exactly? Surely it doesn’t mean tolerating or excusing evil. The same Jesus who advised his disciples to turn the other cheek also—in a display of righteous anger if there ever was one—over-turned the tables of the money-changers defiling the temple in Jerusalem.
Another indication that turning the other cheek doesn’t involve overlooking evil comes from our reading this morning from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus instructed his followers on how to confront sinners: First, talk to the sinner one-on-one. If the sinner doesn’t listen, get some help in confronting the sinner. If the sinner still doesn’t listen, then, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”¬¬—in other words, don’t waste your breath anymore.
A few days ago The Washington Post published a story with a heart-rending example of someone who had to set boundaries with a sinner. A father in North Dakota had to confront his 30-year-old son after the son returned home from the Charlottesville march. The father had been confronting the son for two years about the son’s beliefs, to no avail. After the march, the father told the son his actions were unacceptable and the father published a letter in the local newspaper denouncing his son’s beliefs. He told his son he would continue to talk to him but he was no longer welcome at family gatherings. He hasn’t heard from his son since.
Is that that what Jesus would have done? Perhaps it is. Perhaps what reconciles the Jesus of the turning cheek and the Jesus of the overturning tables is the distinction between sin and sinner. Jesus stood his ground against sin but did not give up on the possibility that a sinner might repent. The father’s offer of forgiveness required repentance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi Lutheran clergyman who was executed at a concentration camp near the end of World War II, gave a famous sermon inveighing against cheap grace, which he defined, in part as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.” In this morning’s lectionary reading—part of the story of Joseph in Genesis — Joseph forgives the brothers who stole his coat of many colors and sold him into slavery. Just before the passage we read this morning, the story seems to imply, though doesn’t state explicitly, that the brothers were remorseful. And our own Declaration of Faith speaks of the need for both “repentance and forgiveness of sin.”
I don’t see any sign of repentance from the racists and anti-Semites who marched in Charlottesville, such as the son of the North Dakota father. I’m not feeling hopeful these days, but I said I would try to give you not hell, but hope and courage. So, I will close with some hopeful words that President Obama tweeted this week. (Yes, tweets can be a force for good!) He quoted Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
May it be so. May we draw courage from the hope that is so. Amen.
Hear now the words of the late Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick: “God of grace, God of glory. On your people pour your power … Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour … for the living of these days. … Cure your children’s warring madness; bend our pride to your control. … Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.” Amen.