Am I Going to do Honor to the Democratic System Today?

Last week the citizens of the United States elected our 45th President. This election cycle was long and grueling without much humility or civility on either side. It did not represent the best of us nor did it bring out the best in the American people. The months, weeks, and days leading up to November 8, 2016 were contentious and shone a spotlight onto the deep divisions that exist among demographic groups in our body politic. Divisions in our country are not new, but somehow these divisions seem to be far sweeping and span race, gender, class, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. The process has left us all with an “us-them” taste in our mouth that we may not be able to move past anytime soon. For many it feels like the heterosexual White middle-class Evangelical Christians against the rest of the country, regardless of how true or untrue this sentiment may be. This is a very uncomfortable place to be and let me say in all honesty and transparency, as a White openly-gay progressive Christian clergyperson and scholar, it is a frightening place to be. I, like many of my friends and colleagues, were left bewildered by the apparent shift in sentiment against diversity (or dare I say the apparent rejection of diversity). I myself suddenly feel like a stranger in a strange land and wonder if I might wake yet another day to the news that my individual rights are being systematically dismantled. I remain confused how those in privileged positions can claim to be “forgotten” by a system designed to reinforce their norms and rules. I sit here and wonder how we as a people lost our passion for justice and inclusivity. Have we forgotten the words of Emma Lazarus etched onto the base of the Statue of Liberty?

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I admit that I worried deeply over this blog post, increasingly so as the week drew on. This is a weighty responsibility I do not take lightly. Knowing all too well (and appreciating) the diversity in our beloved United Church of Christ, I didn’t want this to be a lament though in many respects it can be nothing other than a lament. The CARD blogs are meant to convey to the church research that matters – these are to be data-driven expositions on ways the church might consider its ministry and witness in the world. If you have read my other posts, you know I published a book two years ago called Chasing the American Dream. I talked to a lot of people about their American Dream and about what it means to be an American. I heard and we chronicled some fascinating stories of triumph and tragedy, of struggle and success, of dreams realized and dreams lost. One story – yes, this is your dose of data – has rung loudly in my ear all week. In 2011, I sat down with a US District Judge appointed by President Obama. A woman raised in a working class family, whose father owned a small manufacturing business. A woman who blazed the trail for corporate attorneys at a time when women were not allowed in the ranks. A woman who understands the weight and responsibilities of civic duty. In that conversation we discussed her appointment process and she provided important insights into our modern political process.

She expressed frustration about the way our elected officials govern and make decisions that affect us all. She said,

They ought to be looking at the person. Are they honorable people? Are they people of integrity? Are they intelligent enough to do the job? Will they do the job with integrity? Those are the questions that ought to be asked, but they don’t care about those questions at all. So one of the senators asked me what do I have to say to my fellow panel members about being a judge? And I said well, you know, it’s a very daunting experience. I wake up every day and walk in there and hope that I’m good enough to do my job the way that it’s supposed to be done. So one of the written questions that I got from a senator was “You expressed hesitancy about your ability to do your job. Do you feel that same way about being a district judge?” Well, don’t they have any humility about the job that they are doing? Don’t they have any sense that they are senators for Christ sake? Do they walk in and say am I good enough to deliver what the people who elected me to do, am I going to do honor to the democratic system today? Am I going to do honor to the citizens of the United States today? And I feel like we had more statesman 20 years ago than we have now, and I don’t feel that they are walking in and saying am I going to do honor to the lofty position that I have been put in today? I feel like that’s how I am required to do my job, and I find it so sad that I either did not express myself well enough for him to understand that or that he has no sense of it himself.

Am I going to do honor to the democratic system today? It’s an important question for the Church of Jesus Christ. We are not immune from the political process. The United Church of Christ came of age in the Civil Rights era and has always been civic minded and social justice oriented. From the Congregational Church’s leadership in the abolitionist movement and subsequent founding of colleges for freed slaves to the German Evangelical Church’s focus on social service ministries. We have been, are, and will be a church forever engaged in the democratic system. We believe in justice for all. It is who we are; it’s in our blood; it’s in our Statement of Faith. You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory. It is nothing less than the call to live out Jesus’ ministry in the 21st Century.

I love the United Church of Christ – a church my family has been a part for generations. When my family immigrated to the US from Germany in the early 1800s they settled in Illinois because it was a free state, rejecting slavery from the time they first considered themselves Americans. Sentiments such as these have permeated our beloved church for generations. In worship pastors have inspired congregations to fight systems of oppression, to overturn the powers and principalities in the Temple. But it is not lost on me that frequency of worship attendance is associated with voting patterns in presidential elections, with higher worship attendance being associated with voting for conservative candidates. I recognize and admit that our denominational stances on some social justice issues have put the national church at odds with local congregations and that our diversity is at once our biggest asset and our biggest challenge. Nevertheless I affirm the important work the UCC is doing to create a just society for all. This is work we should all be involved in at every level of society. This is not work only for denominational leaders and local church pastors, but it is the work of the people! It’s difficult work on behalf of the democracy. It’s difficult work on behalf of the God we have come to know through Jesus of Nazareth who himself fought for justice until his final dying breath on the cross.

We have a lot of work to do in this country, and it starts by answering the question how we are going to do honor to the democratic system every day. I dare say, for us in the United Church of Christ the answer to that question rests in our work for justice, peace, and reconciliation. It rests in not allowing racism, sexism, isolationism, misogyny, and homophobia be the American narrative and certainly not the narrative of our church. It rests in us working together regardless of difference to make this country a welcome place for all, and doing it one congregation and one community at a time.

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