HOPING AGAINST HOPE
A sermon preached by Brian Mason
at the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
on Sunday, October 14, 2018
I can’t say for certain when it began, but I first noticed it after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, occurred a little over one year ago.
If you recall, Heather Heyer, a young woman and social justice protestor, was the victim of a hate-crime. Inspired to be there to counter hatred and bigotry with cries for equality and justice, Ms. Heyer was run over and killed by a delusional Neo-Nazi.
It was in the days following Ms. Heyer’s murder that I started noticing articles and headlines with the words “Civil War” in them.
To some extent this was to be expected, as many of the protests throughout the nation at that time were the result of debates about relocating or destroying memorials honoring the Confederacy.
But journalists and talking heads aren’t just talking about the removal of monuments; some of them are asking whether the United States is headed for a second Civil War.
The question continues to be asked quite frequently by journalists, academics, and politicians. Consider this Op-Ed from someone on the Left of the political spectrum: On October 2, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman authored a piece entitled “American Civil War, Part II,” within which he quotes Marine Col. Mark Mykleby who stated: “When I walked out of the Pentagon after 28 years in uniform, I never thought I’d say this, but what is going on politically in America today is a far graver threat than any our nation faced during my career.”
Just think about that statement for a second; if we take Col. Mykleby at his word, then he’s saying where we’re at right now is far graver than Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On the Right of the political spectrum, in the National Review, Victor Davis Hanson published a piece entitled “The Origins of Our Second Civil War,” within which he says: “We are now nearing a point comparable to 1860 and perhaps past 1968.” If I understand Hanson correctly, in his opinion we’re living in time like that of the Civil War and one of the bloodiest years in American history when the nation witnessed horrific beatings and assassinations.
As of writing this sermon, when I searched “second civil war” using Google I got 408 million results.
Therefore, I think it’s acceptable to say that anyone, except for hermits and infants, are aware we live in an era filled with tension and polarization.
Nowhere is this polarization more evident than in our politics. Recent votes in the Senate follow party lines. Democrats don’t show up to discuss bills sponsored by Republicans and Republicans no-show when Democrats bring something to the table. When politics defaults to party lines everyone loses in the end.
Political polarization has gone so far it now influences the way we parent our children; consider this: Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science at U.C.L.A., recently published findings that revealed, “In 1958, 33 percent of Democrats wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat, and 25 percent of Republicans wanted their daughters to marry a Republican. But by 2016, 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans felt that way.”
No longer will we care whether our sons and daughters are dating people who get good grades or avoid drugs or get along with their parents or root for the Green Bay Packers; instead we’ll ask whether their date to prom is Democrat or Republican and leave it at that.
We live in a polarizing time—that, it seems, is undeniable.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham’s latest, The Soul of America, he writes: “Our fate,” that is the nation’s fate, “is contingent upon which element—that of hope or that of fear—emerges triumphant.” To say, as many people do, that we live in an era of polarization is a statement made in fear. It is a statement made by people whom, after surveying the swerve of history in light of current events, choose to arrive at a fearful conclusion.
Given the current state of American politics being fearful and pessimistic is certainly understandable. And it is this fear that leads politicians and pundits and everyday people like you and me to throw up our arms and say, “yes, I, too, fear we are headed towards a second Civil War.”
But what does it mean to say we stand on the brink of a second Civil War?
The Civil War is the most defining era in our nation’s history. It defines us because what was at stake was equality and freedom. In other words, we were fighting for was the very soul of our nation.
“Philosophically speaking, the soul,” Meacham writes, “is the vital center, the core, the heart, the essence of life.” When a nation warns of or wages a civil war what is truly at stake is the nation’s heart, its very soul. But a civil war isn’t something only nations experience. Individuals experience civil wars too.
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr says that within the hearts of everyone there is a civil war that rages everyday.
Alongside the news about divisive politics and policies are the daily reports of natural disasters and violence and starvation. There are nations still struggling to rebuild after hurricanes, other nations unable to offer their citizenry basic necessities like electricity, food, and water. Everyday wars rage throughout nations in the Middle East; and here in the richest nation in the history of civilization, mothers are forced to choose between food or rent every day.
Most of us here don’t have to face questions like that. Most of us lay our heads down at night with full bellies, in warm beds, with manageable mortgages. But this doesn’t mean we don’t suffer our own hunger and pain.
We hunger to love and to be loved. We hunger to feel at home. We hunger to forgive and be forgiven. We hunger for appreciation and to appreciate. We hunger to see that no one goes to bed with an empty and starving belly. We hunger to live in a world where everyone belongs, where love is love, and people don’t have to choose between food or shelter.
There are no strangers to suffering. All of us at have witnessed suffering in one if its terrible and terrifying forms. All of us have or will know disease and death. All of us will suffer the pain of losing someone we love. Let this serve as proof that all our lives are intimately interwoven. There are no strangers in suffering.
Commandments about how humans are to respond to suffering are found in all the world’s religions. In Buddhism we are told, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” In the Sunnah, Islam’s teachings on social customs, it says: “None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself.” And in the Book of Mark (12:31), Jesus Christ says that the greatest of all commandments is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our lives are interwoven, and we are commanded to live according to that knowledge. Try as we might to avoid or ignore, when we lay our heads down at night and images and stories of starvation and war fill our mind we, too, rest with a small piece of that fear and anxiety too.
We share a small piece of this real horror because the terrible truth is that when children and families and nations and hopes are torn apart it diminishes all of us, everywhere. None of us will ever know true peace until all of us know true peace. None of us will ever be full until all of us are full.
The chaos and hunger and war we see on the news everyday reflects the civil wars that rage deep within all of us. All of us have cracks and weaknesses. All of us retreat when we should charge and charge when it’d be better to retreat.
But it is there in the civil wars of our souls that goodness builds the courage it needs to prevail; and so, too, for our nation as well.
“For all our darker impulses,” Meacham writes, “for all our shortcomings, and for all the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight.
There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angles who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.”
To pretend that the nation, left to its current devices, will right its course is a preposterous notion. To give in to the idea that we are slipping into a second Civil War is admittedly alluring, but it is a toxin we cannot afford to ingest.
History proves that when we grapple with even the most painful of issues real change is possible. Let us be reminded that those of us “who have come so far on [this] journey to equality have a responsibility to reach back and help others…Because for all our differences, we are one people, stronger together than we could ever be alone.”
We’ve got a long way to go. We cannot give in to fear and discord. Let us be reminded of Niebuhr’s prophetic words:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
May we forever be people hope and faith and love and forgiveness. So may it be.
Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (New York: Random House, 2018), 7.
Meacham, The Soul of America, 7.
Meacham, The Soul of America, 272.
Barack H. Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality,” June 26, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/26/remarks-president-supreme-court-decision-marriage-equality.
Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Irony of American History” in Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2015), 510.