Sermon for St Mark’s, 2 July, 2017
“The First Fourth”
Tuesday will be the first time we celebrate the anniversary of our independence as a nation, the first since the new administration took office. This is the first fourth of July to come around in the calendar, so Tuesday is “the first fourth.” In 1776, the fourth was a Thursday, a day when visionaries risked life and fortune for the highest ideals of nation and dignity. That day a new principle of government was declared, a new order President Lincoln described later as, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Only a few among us did not have to åmemorize those words, “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent…” These are the most famous written by Lincoln, a speech written in a time of war on our own soil, when neighbors and families aimed muskets, artillery and curses against each other. And this Tuesday, we find again neighbors and families at odds. There is hard division in our beloved country, and while we still stand for liberty and justice for all, there is certainly enough confusion and anxiety for all.
Into this confusion and anxiety, Jesus speaks: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.43). We understand the first part, about hating enemies. Mark twain, in one of his witticisms, wrote, “The Bible tells me to love my neighbors and love my enemies, probably because they are the same people.” Yet Jesus thinks differently, a sharp distinction when we see all over the news messages of division, exclusion, kicking people out, heading to the streets to champion opposing views. Jesus concludes, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” A clearer translation is “Be whole, as your heavenly Father is whole.”
So how do we reconcile the hope of Jesus who lives in us, with the tensions we live in? Is there a path through the present wilderness to wholeness? Or must we forget Jesus for a while?
In June, Linda Bitter, Ruth Tsu and I attended a seminar sponsored by Gorge Ecumenical Ministries. The presenter was Heidi Venture, and her task was to help us understand values behind our and our opponents’ positions. Her teaching was based on research in moral psychology, especially Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
Maybe before we make enemies of our neighbors – you know them, “those idiot liberals” and “those narrow-minded conservatives” – we might look at the values behind different traditions. It is naïve to think that any who oppose us are just wrong. So let me encapsulate a few discoveries of Heidi Venture and Jonathan Haidt. These might show us a path which lessens our current anxieties.
Dr Haidt proposed six moral touchstones, six values, which are cherished by most all of us. See if you cannot honor all six. First value, then, is compassion, caring which makes us sensitive and responsive to persons in need and those who are suffering, and makes us despise cruelty. Understandable and good, yes?
Second, there is the value of fairness, in which everyone gets her or his free chance to succeed, and which rewards the good in citizens and punishes cheaters.
Number three is loyalty – honoring family, our nation and our commitments, fosters trust and appreciation, but makes us wary and protective against those who betray.
Authority as a value, is number four. We are taught to respect legitimate authority, honor those who are our mentors and leaders, chosen for their wisdom and commitment to the cause. Respectable authority is essential to the good function of any organization – familial, political or religious – and we challenge systems when authority is misused, or people are not behaving properly in their leadership.
Liberty is a seasoned value for Americans, and in free cultures across the world. It is an expression of human dignity, that we cherish our independence, that we think for ourselves, and form coalitions for the common good. When liberty is oppressed, we resist. We do not tolerate bullies or tyrants and challenge oppression of any stripe.
And finally, as in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Here is the value of sanctity. It is what we hold sacred in community, our noble truths, how we respect creation. Sanctity also gives permission to protect ourselves and others against any corruption in life or in the earth which has the power to pollute or destroy our high ideals
Compassion, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty and sanctity: six moral foundations. Who can argue? But here is the interesting part – our morality can bind us, and blind us. Morality binds us in groups for the common good, but it can blind us to the fact that there are good people on both sides of arguments, something to be learned from those who think differently than we do.
In Dr Haidt’s research, the highest priority for conservatives is preservation of the institutions and traditions which sustain a moral community. How can we argue with that? We can disagree on application or solutions, but the value behind the conservative position is solid and good. On the other hand, the highest priority for liberals is care for the victims of suffering and need. Again, remedies for suffering can be argued, but compassion and protection for victims is noble.
What was most helpful for me in this seminar is a way to see the noble good in those who do not think as I think. If we step consciously into a place of listening for understanding, and choose to respect the dignity of every human being, the equation is changed, and there is balance, a way through our present confusion and anxiety. It does not mean surrendering values, but recognizing the values of the other, and moving towards daylight from a position not of agreement necessarily, but of respect.
Compassion, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty and sanctity: six moral foundations. I believe Jesus would, and did, have something to say along these lines. With these at the fore, we might recognize his counsel: “I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” We are invited to bring Jesus to the table with us, and to see Jesus across the table.
This Tuesday is the first fourth, a day which finds confusion and tension in our beloved country. When the Church gathers, we are also divided, good Christian people who see things differently. As citizens of the United States, let us cherish our deep values – compassion, loyalty, fairness, liberty – and as Christians, remember our highest loyalty is to God, under whom there can be liberty and justice for all. We have too much that is sacred, too much we hold dear, to remain enemies in our own camp. Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.