Dean Lloyd: “A New Community”
You can feel the buzz in the air. Something is about to happen in Washington that has the whole world watching. Preparations have been underway for weeks, even months. Grandstands have been built in front of the Capitol and up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands of chairs have been set in place. Inaugural parties and balls are ready to run late into the night. A half million people are expected to be at the rock concert on the Mall this afternoon. (If you’re going, though, you better bundle up!) We hear there may be as many as four million visitors to the city.
The word “historic” can be tossed around too easily these days, but no one is questioning the fact that we are in the middle of something historic. A remarkably gifted African American man will take the oath of office as President of the United States.
From the beginning of its history our country has dealt with what many historians have called the original sin of slavery, the blight on our life that gave a lie to many of our deepest convictions about freedom and equality. Condoleeza Rice a few months ago referred to slavery as America’s birth defect.
That blight, of course, cannot end in a single election or inauguration. But I was struck by a political cartoon in The Washington Post a day after the election. It showed a small Barack Obama figure walking up the sidewalk toward the imposing columns of the White House. Across the top of the cartoon were scrolled the words from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And at the bottom of the cartoon it said, “Ratified November 4, 2008.”
You could say that it has taken two hundred and thirty two years since 1776 for America fully to embrace its deepest beliefs. Of course this can be no claim that racism, inequality, and injustice have suddenly vanished. But we are a different nation with a president by the name of Barack Hussein Obama, whose grandparents lived in Kenya, and who grew up in Kansas, Indonesia, and Hawaii. In fact, several people I know who did not vote for Barack Obama still speak with a sense of pride and hope because of what he represents.
And this isn’t true just for us Americans. After the election, we saw television images of dancing in the streets in Kenya and across Africa, and expressions of joy and goodwill from around the globe. Listen to an email that arrived the morning after the election from a friend in Britain:
The scenes on television of black voters who suddenly felt that the electoral system might work for them will stay vivid in my mind, and they do your country huge credit. The post-mortem here is all about why we can’t envisage the same sea-change in the UK, but I don’t see many people of the stature of Obama, black or white, on our political scene.
The event has even captured the imagination of children. Here’s a 12 year old child’s letter to the new president, one of several published in the New York Times yesterday:
Dear Obama, I have grown up with a very liberal mom and a very conservative dad. Thank you for bringing my parents somewhat closer together. You are my idol, Mr. Barack—I am partly African-American and I am very happy to see an African American leading the country.
In the midst of as bleak a time economically as this country has known in eighty years, we seem to be experiencing a strange sense of hope that seems, at least for now, oddly bipartisan.
In one of the grace notes of history, our country will be inaugurating this new president the day after Martin Luther King Day. The two events are inevitably intertwined. We can’t help but look at this moment in the light of Martin Luther King. You may have heard the line being circulated around in recent weeks that shows so clearly the legacy that gave us our new president: Rosa sat so that Martin could walk; Martin walked so that Obama could run; and Obama ran so that our children can fly.
Presidents in the past have used their campaigns and inaugurals to launch a theme for their presidencies. Franklin D. Roosevelt promised what he called a “New Deal” for America immersed in the Great Depression. In 1960, John Kennedy began to talk about a “New Frontier.”
Today I want to suggest a theme for this new presidency that comes from Dr. King himself. Instead of a New Deal or a New Frontier, I propose that President Obama take as his theme “A New Community,” what Dr. King would have called “The Beloved Community.” That is what I believe our country and our world most need.
Dr. King believed that our fate as a human race depended on how we cared for and treated each other. You can hear it in the passage from Jesus’ teaching we heard this morning:
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, … pray for those who abuse you… Give to everyone who begs from you….
And you can hear it in what is called Jesus’ own “inaugural” sermon when he stood up in the Temple at the beginning of his ministry and simply read this passage from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
King believed that this country was called to become a “Beloved Community,” a society in which every life is of equal worth and every human being is entitled to health care, to a living wage, to education in a good school. This was their birthright as human beings, as American citizens, and as children of God. He believed that a new community to bring this about was possible in America, and that Christians were called to work to make it a reality.
Just days before Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he preached his last Sunday sermon from this Canterbury pulpit, and in it he described his vision this way:
Through our scientific and technological genius we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.
Four decades ago Dr. King was seeing a vision as old as Jesus, as old as the 17th century poet John Donne, who said, “No man is an island entire of itself. Each is a piece of a continent, a part of the main.” Now our everyday life is demonstrating how interconnected we are. We are held together by the internet, by global trade, by our dependence on other nations for resources and goods. Our banks are intertwined, our corporations are international. If one nation goes through a recession, poor nations and small villages across the globe feel the impact.
The environmental crisis has linked us globally to our fellow human beings around the world in ways that no other crisis ever has. The fate of the world is tied to the question of whether the United States, China, India, and the other powerful nations of the world will be willing to change their ways of life rapidly, before destroying life as we know it on this planet. If the oil addiction of developed countries isn’t turned around soon there will be wars and natural disasters around the globe. We will succeed together, or perish together.
This is an historic moment not simply because of the leader who will be inaugurated on Tuesday, but because this economic crisis has given us a chance to change the paradigm of our nation’s life. There is a chance that we can learn new ways of interdependence, of service to others, rather than simply independence. Do you remember John Kennedy’s rallying cry, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?” President elect Obama has already called for tomorrow’s Martin Luther King Day to be a day of service. And that sounds like the beginning of what promises to be many calls to sacrificial service.
We have an opportunity to imagine in our personal and public lives a conversion from a culture of consumption, drivenness, pollution, and anxiety, to lives more peaceful, more responsible and interconnected, more willing even to see our standard of living change in order to protect the environment, reconnect with our own neighborhood, and live saner days.
Several weeks ago we hosted at the Cathedral the well-known African American radio and television personality Tavis Smiley at the Sunday Forum, and I asked him what his expectations were for the new president. Obama can be a great president, Tavis Smiley said, but he will only be as good as we help him be. We can’t abandon him, Smiley said. We in the African American community, he said, will need to hold him accountable.
This new president will need the best counsel we Americans can offer, both agreeing and disagreeing. He will need our support and our accountability. And he will need our prayers, our daily prayers, as he leads us through perilous times.
Last year, when Congressman John Lewis preached the sermon for our commemoration of Dr. King’s final Sunday sermon, he seemed to be summing up King’s vision when he spoke of how we all live in one house. As he put it, black or white or Hispanic or Asian American or Native American, whether we are democrats or republicans or independent, we are one family.
That is the essential insight for our time. There is only one house, the house we will build together, as Americans and as world citizens.
And then he told a story, of growing up in what was called a shotgun house, a small, plain, rundown structure with holes in the tin roof and places where you could see the ground under the floor, and surrounded by a dirt yard. One Saturday afternoon, he said, he and a dozen or so of his cousins were playing in the yard of his aunt’s shotgun house when a terrifying storm blew up—with lightning, rain, and winds so strong his aunt thought they would blow the house away. The thunder boomed, the rain pounded the tin roof, the wind blasted. His aunt got all the children together and had them hold hands. Sometimes one corner of the old house would start lifting from the foundation, and when it did his aunt had them step to that corner to use their weight to hold it down. When another side lifted, they would do the same. He says, “We were little children walking with the wind, but we never left the house.”
Not a bad image for the world we are in right now. The winds are blasting, and it is going to take all of us, in this house together working together, holding hands, if we are going to come through.
Let us pray for our new president, Barack Obama, for his Vice President Joseph Biden, for his cabinet, for the Congress, for the Supreme Court. Let us pray for President Obama’s strength, his wisdom, his safety, and let us pray that a New Community can take shape in our life.
May God go with Barack Obama and with our nation in the months and years ahead.