Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
A True Union
November 15, 2020Revised Common Lectionary
Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.
This week, I am reflecting on how we might build a true union from the factions in our country, so that we might begin to dream the dream of God for our future.
Current Events & World Affairs
The Road from Serfdom: How Americans Can Become Citizens Again
A deep dive examination of the nature of American factionalism and what the road back to being a healthy nation entails.
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As we in the United States turn toward a new season with new leaders, how can we build a more united country, one that reflects our aspiration to be one nation under God?
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.—I Thessalonians 5:8-11
This week’s epistle is Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica, which he founded. The church was planted in a city that was one of the leading cultural centers of the known world at the time of Paul’s missionary journeys. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the days when Paul nurtured the first Christian community into being there, this city in northern Greece was a teeming metropolis, filled with all manner of different perspectives and types of people. Paul’s letters called them to union as one diverse body in Christ. He urged the new Christians to build one another up, rather than tearing one another down. I am hard pressed to imagine a message more needed for our times in this country, a land also rich with many different perspectives and types of people.
While this blog is not a place for partisan commentary, it is one for my honest reflections, including on matters of import in our current civic and cultural life. Hence, the idea of creating an interdisciplinary set of lessons for each proper. So, I offer this week my reflections on what is, in addition to being a national election, also—as I see it—an historic, watershed moment in our common life as a country. I believe all people of faith have a pressing and high calling in these days, well expressed by Paul in his admonition to the Christians in Thessalonica.
When Mayor Bottoms of Atlanta was speaking on national news soon after the Presidential election was called last Saturday, I burst into tears. I knew I was joining millions of others across the nation, indeed across the world, for whom this historic moment is simply overwhelming. A moment that has been led and made possible by black women.
I am keenly aware that there are those in my orbit who are celebrating and those who are not. Across our land, we Americans see this historic moment in our nation’s history through a range of very different lenses. We live in a country whose longstanding divisions have been exposed.
I am not sure how we can transcend the divides that persist among us. I am not referring only or even primarily to party divides—for in a healthy democracy, these differences only serve to make us stronger. I am speaking about divisions that have been exposed that run much deeper and are different in nature than the classic, creative tensions reflected in party platforms. Where do we begin to transcend divides that leave us wondering if we really mean it when we say, “the United States of America?” How can we build a union that inspires those who no longer (or in some cases never could) trust our system to support them in the living of their lives?
I believe transcending our deep divides begins when we practice listening to the pain of others as a discipline—listening with the intent to act on what we discover—when we understand the difference between things that are non-essential, even though they matter to us—that is, things about which we can disagree and still build democracy, and things which are essential—things that go to the core of people’s safety, liberty, dignity, and humanity. I believe we begin, tentatively, to build true union when we comprehend with humble hearts what we each need to do to protect the essentials for every person. Our first step is to get all the voices back at the table in the spirit of true democracy. This is the beginning of building one another up as the writer of the letter to the Thessalonians urges, rather than tearing down, or leaving millions out.
I believe our presidential election reflects, among other things, a hunger among millions of Americans for us to commence the work of building together true democracy, with liberty and justice for all. We have never had it, though we have, in our better moments, reached for it.
In this week’s current events and world affairs lesson, Danielle Allen describes our descent into American factionalism and articulates the path we will need to take to return to a more healthy national life, where leaders recover a sense of our union. Allen says, “The simple fact is we have lost the shared vocabulary that should bind us all as Americans. We fight over words like patriotism, solidarity, loyalty. Yet there is a word that defines our relationship. Lincoln knew what it was. The word is union. In a political sense, the word points to something concrete. It means talking honestly, fighting fairly, and planning together. It means “Choose unity.”It’s time for all of us to become citizens again.”
For those of us, and I include myself in this group, who have held a naive view of our union in the past, may this be a turning. An understanding that we are, indeed, a people broken and divided. Not just a people with differing political parties, but a people in need of discovering the substance of true union rooted in the principles of our democracy—principles that we have grotesquely violated in this nation—through slavery and all of its cruel torture, thievery of land from those who first possessed it, systemic disenfranchisement that has allowed some to build wealth and position on the backs of and at the expense of others, ripping apart and terrorizing families seeking asylum and hope here, and other forms of oppression—since the inception of this nation.
May this be a turning. And may we, with the help of President-elect Biden, Vice President-elect Harris, and all of our elected leaders of both parties, begin the long journey home to true liberty, true justice, true freedom where everyone has a seat at the welcome table.
And may those of us who enjoy immeasurable privilege come to understand how our fortunes have been made on the backs of other members of our beloved community and their ancestors—at a price of agony we who have not endured such cannot fathom. May we kneel in repentance for the sins of racism, heterosexism, sexism, religious and cultural persecution, and other forms of oppression. May we have a long, restful sleep that lets us dream new dreams. Then, may we rise with hopeful hearts and strong resolve, join hands across all our divides, become truly curious about one another, learn together, and work to build the beautiful union in this land we have dreamt to be possible.