The Dignity of Difference

Please pray with me. Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth. Come whence it may. Cost what it will. Amen.

On June 16th, 1858, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech that would chart the course for the rest of his life. It was an acceptance speech upon receiving the nomination to run for Senate in Illinois, as a Republican. On the eve of the speech. Lincoln’s closest friends got a sense of what he was going to say and they tried to talk him out of it. They knew that it would be received as radical, maybe even dangerous, and very likely cost him the election.

Lincoln was resolute. The speech he gave 163 years ago is remembered as the House Divided Speech. In that speech, he quotes the gospel lesson you just heard— that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Lincoln was a person of deep faith and he knew his Bible and he knew himself and he put his courageous moral stake in the ground on what he said that night. The Union was fractured and he made the point that it could not remain half slave and half free. It would not stand. He made it very clear where he stood. He believed the Union would stay together, but that it would have to be all one thing or another.

Lincoln was not well-known across the nation. Although he had served a term in the US House of Representatives and during that term had introduced legislation to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, he wasn’t well-known. It was what was happening in the country that called him back to public service. After that speech and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, suffice it to say that Lincoln became known across the country. As his friends had feared, he lost that election. But two years later went on to be elected, against all odds, the 16th president of the United States.

Lincoln was then known and he was also considered a threat. His difference was a danger. Shortly after the election, many of the Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy with their own constitution. Lincoln knew what he was getting into. Very shortly thereafter the threats on his life began to come fast and furiously—so much so that when he made his way from Illinois to Washington, he had to do so in disguise and under heavy military guard. His difference was dangerous and a threat.

In today’s gospel lesson we encounter Jesus, also considered different, dangerous and a threat. You see, Jesus had been teaching and healing and the crowds started to follow him in growing numbers.  Jesus knew who he was, whose he was and his ministry that God had called him to. He was resolute. He became so much of a threat that the religious authorities of the day—many of them—tried to figure out how to stop him; how to silence him. In the gospel lesson, you hear that they question what power Jesus is using to do these miraculous things. They accuse him of working in the power of Satan. Well, Jesus turns that argument on its head. How can Satan cast out Satan? Why would Satan work against Satan’s own self-interest? Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit. He was, then, teaching healing, reconciling and so, too, he is today.

It seems that over the course of history, we, the people, have always had a challenge with those who are different. Why is it that we consider and equate difference with danger or a threat? A little over 20 years ago, I read a book by one of the preeminent moral philosophers and theologians of our time: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The name of the book was The Dignity of Difference. He wrote it shortly after 9/11, when we saw how the global community was becoming more and more fractured. In the book, he asserted that difference didn’t equate with danger. Rather, it was a loving expression of the diversity of God’s creation, to be embraced as God’s gift, and that each and every one of us are created in the image of God.

We know that in Lincoln’s time, eventually, slavery was abolished. We also know that racism was not abolished along with it. We are still struggling with the sin and the pandemic of racism in our time. Our dean, in his very first sermon from this pulpit, said that we are called to be repairers of the breach. And that is true. But I think in order to be repairers of the breach, we have to recognize and understand that which is broken and how it came to be so before we can understand and begin to be those healers and reconcilers. Western philosopher, George Santayana, put it this way: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Our past is not past. It’s truly still present. How do we begin to understand, to listen and to grasp the full breadth of history and how it impacts us? Well, an excellent source that I just came across is the current issue of National Geographic, which has as its theme Reckoning with the Past. Within it are three extraordinary articles that help to deal with these issues in our time. One is written by former Poet Laureate and president of the Mellon Foundation, Elizabeth Alexander, who talks about the histories that are somewhat hidden and how we have to know the full history, not just the submerged ones, but all of it: the good, the bad, and the truly ugly and often horrific history that is ours. DeNeen Brown writes about one of those chapters of the latter, telling the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre. It’s painful to read, but it’s essential. How could we not know about 300 people who were massacred; over 1,115 homes and businesses wiped out solely because they were owned by Blacks in America? How could we not know? What else don’t we know? And critically, we need to know.

These are hard conversations. No one enters into them lightly, but they are conversations we need to have. The third article that I commend to you is written by former NPR reporter Michele Norris. It’s about a project she started over 10 years ago called the Race Card Project. Her premise was simple. Ten years ago, when she was on a book tour, she passed out about 200 postcards that said, “Race. Your thoughts. Six words. Please send.” Now, she didn’t actually expect to get many of them back because she didn’t believe people really wanted to go there, to have those conversations. But much to her surprise, people did. Ten years later, over 500,000 race cards have been submitted. Things like:

“A turban doesn’t mean terrorist.”

“He’s my dad, not the gardener.”

Words from a mother of a black son whom she adores:
“I wish he was a girl.”

What’s your story? What are your six words? Think about entering the conversation. You can go online—a lot of people have—to the Race Card Project. Share your story, your thoughts, your six words online with a growing community and with us at the Cathedral. We are having these conversations. We encourage them. They are hugely important. If you need resources for how to do some of this hard work, look on our website. Enter the program and curriculum designed by The Episcopal Church, which you can find on their website called Sacred Ground. The Cathedral Community has been offering such discussions and the response has been huge.

We have to deal with the sin that is so much a part of our human fabric. I close once again, with words of Lincoln, that he shared in his Second Inaugural Address and the words are these:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle; and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Our dean more recently has called us to help heal the soul of this nation. That’s our work, that’s our call. You and I together—we—with God’s help can do this, to help bind up the nation’s wounds, to respect the dignity of every human being. We can—and we must. Amen.


The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope