Wednesday, July 4, 2018

keep your eyes on the prize...

So today is Independence Day in the United States: what an odd, challenging, beautiful, confusing, heart-breaking, demanding and paradoxical time to be alive. I used to celebrate this day by reading Langston Hughes - out loud or to myself - and listening to Springsteen. Last year, I joined Sara Lee Guthrie, the Hoping Machine and the Four Freedoms Coalition for our annual parade singing "This Land Is Your Land," "If I Had a Hammer" and more. Today, however, my heart just wasn't in it. Not even the prophetic jeremiad of "America Never Was America to Me" cut it. Instead, we ate chips, salsa and Mexican beer for lunch. 

The truth of the matter is that America's shadow is no longer in the closet: both our ugly violence and generous compassion are on full display. Ultimately, this will be cathartic. Potentially it might even be healing if we take stock of the wounds we cause by arrogance, ignorance or plain old naiveté. But inside our borders and beyond I sense it will become a lot worse before it gets better. Like a drunken, raging bull filled with fear and shame, today America is acting out in public in ways we've always tried to hide away or deny. Of course our better angels speak out daily in newspaper editorials and op ed columns, but most of us no longer read. Hell, most of us can barely read the menu at McDonald's in 2018. For the short-term, I am not optimistic.

But that doesn't mean I am without faith, hope or love. Nor does it mean that I am pessimistic. Rather, this is a season for small acts of local compassion and a large dose of quiet prayer. We are not living in a time of rising expectations. This is not "morning in America." It is twilight. And as anyone who has ever driven our ribbon of highways in a car at dusk knows, it's best to keep your eyes wide open and wits dusted off at twilight. The rising heat can play tricks on your eyes as the sun sets. Animals are feeding and sometimes dash out into the road unexpectedly. Its just best to slow way down and take stock of what is real before racing forward. 

And to my eyes I see the most vile and viscous forms of racism, misogyny and fear of the future spilling out all over this country. Children in cages. Trade wars. Honoring dictators and degrading allies. Dismantling health care for the most vulnerable. De-constructing regulations to safeguard both the environment and free elections. Encouraging racial discrimination for entrance into college. Vulgar and stupid rhetoric in public. Chipping away at a woman's right to choose. Fear mongering and bullying as standard operating procedure. At the same time, I see ordinary working people caring for their neighbors in quiet and heroic ways every day. Millions of middle class women, men and children turning out in our streets every month to protest saying, "This regime is corrupt and does not help make America great in any way, shape or form." Women being elected to public office in record numbers. Progressive candidates finding a message that has traction beyond "no!" Allies willing to call out the President's stupidity in public. New coalitions agitating for economic justice. And the return of radical interfaith cooperation on behalf of the "least of these, my sisters and brothers."

It is, as my friend P from Brooklyn says, "the best of times and worst of times" with a tip of the hat to Dickens. And it must be: our shadow must be exposed - and challenged. Our collective heart must be broken open so that there is more room to love. And America's disillusions of grandeur must be exposed so that they can be embraced by more than the radical fringe. This is how we atone for our sins with humility. Fourth of July feels to me like THIS version of Springsteen's masterwork:

Last night the speech of Frederick Douglas was read aloud to the citizens of our small community. "What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July" is no less poignant in 2018 than it was in 1852: 13 years before the American Civil War ended. Douglas celebrates what is real in both promise and deed in America even as he clearly names the evil within and among us, too. And then he closes with the words of poet William Lloyd Garrison.

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,


God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;
But all to manhood’s stature tower,
By equal birth!
That hour will come, to each, to all,
And from his prison-house, the thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive —
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,
Be driven.

I see it coming to pass among us - unevenly and painfully - but powerfully. Hold on, hold on, keep your eyes on the prize hold on. The Boss hits it out of the park for me today with this one as he gets the joy and sorrow of this moment right.

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