A New American Story Comfortably Shared By All

A new American Story comfortably shared by all has been the subject of a half dozen former columns exploring why we need one and how we might go about it. One thing is certain, a new American Story lifting up our highest ideals must be woven into a fabric of appreciative relationships connecting the individual stories of each of our peoples to form a narrative able to endure into the centuries ahead.

We had an American Story that ran in serial form for two hundred years, but it’s reached the end of its useful life. Widely known through oral and written lore, the story celebrated the heroic European settlement of America, the triumph of the War of Independence, the writing of the Constitution, the westward push to realize our manifest destiny, the unpleasantness of the Civil War, the cowboy West, industrial might, and how we won two World Wars. It introduced the middle class American Dream with a side serving of Cold War victory.

The problem: it was a white man’s historic fiction built on real events with real outcomes, embellished to be uniformly virtuous and heroic. The truth it told is worth celebrating, but its embellishments cover a multitude of sins. Most egregiously, it either ignored the equally important stories of black slaves, American Indians, and unwanted immigrants, or it crudely romanticized them. The rewards of the middle class American Dream were reserved for white men (and some women) who were deemed to have earned the right to them. Non white Americans were systematically excluded while the old story denied that any were excluded by anything other than their own inability or unwillingness to do the necessary hard work.

A new American Story must include previously excluded stories, which means there must be open ears and hearts to listen to them. Because they are human stories, they will be embellished with virtuous heroes overcoming the unvirtuous enemies surrounding them. Nevertheless, the truth they tell will be worth celebrating by all who will listen. That’s what it means to build appreciative relationships between them. There are examples of how that can happen. The stories of Irish and Italian immigrants are a case in point. They were among those excluded, often violently, from access to the rights and privileges America claimed to offer. Writers, singers, actors and activists milled the grist that enabled them to tell and retell their own stories in the popular media of the day, until they entered the American narrative to be celebrated as among those who helped build the nation. It took decades, but it happened. That they were Europeans helped. It wasn’t the same for Jews, even though they too were Europeans; a majority white Protestant public was less willing to listen to them. Nevertheless, thanks in part to movies and radio, their presence in the American narrative was eventually accepted if not celebrated. The same can’t be said for Blacks, American Indians and Asians. They had stories to tell, and told them, but white America chose not to listen.

Story tellers long ignored or demeaned are unwilling to let it continue, and a majority of white Americans have become more willing to listen.  Moreover, story tellers from each race and ethnicity understand that building appreciative relationships between them will create strength not easily resisted.  Nevertheless, a significant number of white conservatives intend to do everything in their power to preserve the old American Story, and believe any attempt to change it will eviscerate the very core of what it means to be American.  They can’t do that in a democratic America of rapidly changing racial demographics, and the refusal of non-white Americans to be silenced.  So their best bet is to use their remaining power to restructure our political system along the lines of the old Confederacy in which a thin veneer of democracy covers entrenched autocratic oligarchy.  A minority though they may be, they’re backed by big money, are politically astute, determined, and sense they may be on the cusp of victory. 

How are they to be prevented from having their victory?  By a commitment from the majority of Americans to a new American Story that brings our long held democratic ideals into reality for all of our peoples.  Scholars and journalists have written much on the subject, but don’t have needed mass media appeal.  Story tellers who know how to capture the attention of an inattentive public are needed: writers, singers and actors producing high quality, widely circulated articles, movies, t.v. shows, and social media content that celebrates the stories of each of our peoples, their histories, the roles they have played in our past, and the gifts they are offering to our future as a democratic nation living into “e pluribus unum.”

A previous Country Parson column told the story of Polynesian Voyaging Society, its first voyaging canoe, Hōkule’a, and the upcoming Moananuiākea voyage to visit all the peoples of the Pacific.  It’s the work of weaving a new strand into the story of us.  Another example is the work of the Arlington House Foundation telling the story of all the people who lived and worked on that estate, slave and free.  Their work involves a cooperative effort of white and black descendants of the Custis-Lee family along with the free black Syphax family.  Yet another strand is being woven by the museums and schools of historic Jamestown, Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Ft. Monroe that are bringing to the fore the stories of  the region’s American Indians, and the African heritage of the first blacks to be enslaved in the English colonies.  They are added to the already well known stories of early European settlement, and the wars that swept to and fro over the region.  Similar work is taking place all over the country.  

What’s missing is a way to make these stories widely known to a public that doesn’t know and won’t know unless it comes to them as the best of popular media.  Will it happen?  We shall see.  

Hōkule’a & Weaving a New Story

How can the nation create a new story of America that weaves diverse cultures and languages into a narrative shared by all?  Previous Country Parson columns have struggled with the question: A Path Toward Unity, 1.19.21; Segreintegration, 2.16.21; Tell Me a Story, 3.6.21.  The struggle is necessary, but there are people and organizations doing more.  They’re doing the hard work of weaving new strands into old fabric that demonstrate how it can be done.  One of them is Hawaii’s Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Their story demands a bit of condensed perspective. Hawaii, lying in the middle of the Pacific, was uninhabited until around 300 c.e. when a first wave of Polynesians arrived from islands thousands of miles to the south. A second wave arrived sometime around 800 c.e. Western historians first thought they did it by sheer accident. They didn’t. Ancient Polynesians knew how to navigate and where to find islands none of them had seen. Regular travel developed between island groups separated by thousand of miles of open water. Hawaii became a complex, prosperous society of competing kingdoms. As the 1800s dawned, the islands were united as one kingdom under Kamehameha I. Europeans began arriving about the same time to discover that Hawaiians had a functioning government and no intention of being taken over. The kingdom continued as a constitutional monarchy until 1893 when white plantation owners engineered a coup, declared themselves rulers, and in 1895 gave the islands to the U.S. In the years following, native Hawaiians became a minority in their own land, their culture caricatured as an exotic tourist attraction. Native Hawaiians today make up less than 10% of a population in which no race or ethnicity is a majority. Hawaiian lands were expropriated. Their culture was trivialized, but it survived with determination.

That determination bore fruit forty-six years ago when the Polynesian Voyaging Society launched the voyaging canoe Hōkule’a.  It would demonstrate  how ancient Polynesians navigated the far reaches of the Pacific, not by trial and error, but by precise navigation giving the crew exact knowledge of where they were and where they were going.  Fundamentals of the old traditions were known, but completing the full body of knowledge required learning from one of the few remaining master navigators, an old man living on a remote island in Micronesia.  From that beginning, Hōkule’a and her crews have sailed much of the Pacific and circumnavigated the globe.  Other canoes have joined her.  The ancient art of navigating is being taught to new generations of master navigators, with the expectation that what began as a demonstration can have dramatic impacts on humanity and creation in ways not contemplated forty-six years ago.  

Hōkule’a  assertively demonstrated wisdom, knowledge and skills that Western domination had  demeaned as myth.  In the years since, there has been a revitalization of Hawaiian culture and language, and with it well deserved pride in what it means to be Hawaiian.  Hōkule’a helped energize that revitalization.  The story could end there, with native Hawaiians claiming exclusive possession of the nearly forgotten heritage they resuscitated, nourished and brought to world wide attention.  The Society chose to go in another direction, and recently announced a new venture.

“On this World Oceans Day (June 8), we celebrate our deep connection and kinship with the Ocean.  We also celebrate the many people who in ways big and small are becoming navigators of their own lives, families and communities.  Because of this, our voyage continues.  When we launch the Moananuiākea Voyage in May 2022, we hope to inspire 10 million young people [to] become navigators for the planet prepared to chart a new course and face coming challenges and storms with the courage and determination to seek out a thriving future for our people, places and our home.”(Polynesian Voyaging Society, 6.8.21)

It will be a voyage visiting all the peoples of the Pacific.  In a way, it will touch all the peoples of the world.  Demonstrating principles of navigation that unite humans with creation, it can teach us more about navigating our own lives as fellow creatures on “this fragile earth, our island home.”  If we are willing to accept it, it will be a gift of healing from a people who refused to be defeated offered to millions of unknown others desperately searching for ways to live together in harmony without surrendering their unique identity. 

Is Our Democracy Secure? Some Observations and a Few Questions.

A significant percentage of the population desires strong leadership to direct the world about them.  Social scientists have more to say about how big the number is.  Studies I followed many decades ago suggested about half the adult population preferred strong leadership in their working lives: bosses who were clear about what to do, how to do it, and what the reward for doing it would be.  The same expectation transferred to expectations of leadership outside of work, including home and community.  Those old studies were conducted on adult, white males, most were veterans of WWII or the Korean War.  The biases are obvious.  More recent studies, such as a Democracy Fund voter study from March, 2018, suggest the percentage favoring dominant or authoritarian national leaders was in the vicinity of 25%.  An August 11, 2017 HBR article by Kakkar and Sivanathan summarized their studies suggesting the percentage goes up and down depending on the seriousness of economic uncertainty as perceived by voters.  The point is, there are a lot of voters out there predisposed to favoring more autocratic leadership, even as they claim to be individualists valuing freedom and democracy. 

Who among recent presidents might be considered strong, dominant, even a little autocratic?  Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, and Trump come to mind.  What about Reagan?  I think not.  His staff is another question, but they weren’t elected.  Clinton?  I don’t know what to do with Clinton.  Strong and decisive tending toward autocracy does’t seem to fit.  He didn’t earn the nickname “Slick Willy” for nothing.  What about Obama?  Libertarian acquaintances complained loudly that they suffered much under his eight years of authoritarian rule.  When pressed on exactly how they suffered, or in what way he was authoritarian, it turns out the problem was he was smart, articulate, able, and black.

Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were strong, decisive leaders, dedicated to American democratic values.  Johnson, the undisputed master of political strong arming, was deeply committed to civil rights and the working class, but the Vietnam War undid him.  His decision not to run for reelection seems a little like the moment in Greek tragedies when the hero recognizes he is his own fatal enemy.  

Each in their own way appealed to the 25 to 50% of the voting public that favor an authoritarian hand of strong, decisive national leadership.  Nevertheless, they understood the sanctity of the three branches of government, the need to work through and with Congress, and the limits of executive authority, even as they pushed those limits.  That made them acceptable to the majority of Americans who oppose autocratic rule yet recognized in each of them persons of enough integrity to be trusted to defend American democratic ideals.  Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower would push boundaries of executive authority, but respected limits imposed by law and tradition.  Their political opponents were vigilant and tough, yet always displayed respect for the office of president, if not the person in the office.

That brings us to Nixon and Trump.

Nixon was a devious autocrat with little regard for the law.  I’d like to think there remained in him a germ of dedication to American democracy, but suspect he got out just ahead of the posse to save his own skin.  With that said, listen to some of his campaign speeches.  They were well crafted, intelligent, demonstrated a solid grasp of issues, and assured voters that he had their best interests in mind.  Nixon may have been an autocratic crook, but he was a well educated, very intelligent, highly experienced crook who knew how to run the government and engage foreign leaders.  For all his crimes, he also engineered detente with China and established the EPA.

Trump had none of Nixon’s qualities.  Poorly educated, street smart but not intelligent, ignorant of basic civics and history, and lacking in empathy for anyone but himself.  But he had the gift of selling illusions to people who desperately wanted to believe the illusions to be real.  It made a lot of money for him if not as much as he claimed, and it appears that illegally cooking the books has been his standard operating procedure.  There were enough successes amongst many failures to give the illusions a veneer of substance.  He was so good at selling illusions he began to believe in them – the con man conned himself.  His greatest con was to present himself as the one and only person in all of America who could give to the common (white) man all that his heart desired.  With the swagger of Prof. Harold Hill, he barely edged his way into the presidency, while claiming the most overwhelming victory in presidential history.  He acted the role of what he imagined a strong, decisive, autocrat to be, and he acted it well enough to convince a sizable following of disciples.  Four years of blundering, directionless, incompetent, corruption laden presidency were enough to end his time in office, but not enough to disillusion his dedicated followers.  

Trump’s strutting across the presidential stage in the role of strong man autocrat would be comically buffoonish, except that it captured the loyal imagination of millions who would willingly trade American democracy for trumpian autocracy.   With his defeat, the door was opened for other, more competent would be autocrats to seize the possibility of moving the nation away from commitment to American ideals of democracy, and toward a pseudo democracy ruled by oligarchs.  Will they succeed?  Is that the path the nation will take?  We don’t know.

A lot will depend on 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election.  A lot will depend on the public’s perception of Biden’s leadership and accomplishments.  He is a decisive, forceful leader, but doesn’t have the swagger too many voters associate with strong leadership.  He insists on thorough evaluations of conditions and probabilities.  Instant solutions are not his thing.  His public demeanor evokes images of Mr. Rogers.  He knows how to delegate, and doesn’t need to be the smartest, toughest person in the room.  He is unalterably committed to the ideals of American democracy, and believes little of lasting consequence can happen without congressional cooperation.  How all that plays out remains to be seen.  The right wing media are intent on portraying him as a doddering old fool unable to keep up with the fast changing world.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, but it’s an easy sell because their gullible audience was raised on a cavalcade of revenge movies glamorizing authoritarian heroes meting out lethal violence and calling it justice.

Voters who would prefer a more autocratic national leadership are int he minority, but they’re rabidly intent on a more trumpian form of government, somehow believing it will preserve their individual rights.  Some corporate leaders, epitomized by the Koch Network, have long hoped for the U.S. to become a republic in which libertarian oligarchs hold the reins of power.  Not only would it keep government out of the business of business, but, in their view, successful oligarchs are more capable of running things than politicians and the lower classes.  Trumpian voters are the pawns they need to make it possible.  They’d rather do without Trump, but they need his voters and they think they have them through a web of junior chipmunk trumpian wannabes in congress and state houses.  

Can they do it?  It depends on how hard the majority of Americans who treasure our democracy are willing to protect it.  Right and left centrists will have to  collaborate with liberals to see that authoritarian right wingers fail.  It will require a new form of politics where no race or ethnicity is labeled a minority, and each is able to participate as a part of the whole, with their traditions and cultures given full voice in the public debate.  Can they do it? 

Six Months to Answer a Question: How Did Jesus Love Us?

We’ve entered the season after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, my favorite season of the church year.  The past six months have been filled with special times to await the Messiah’s birth, celebrate his arrival, anticipate his death, and rejoice in his resurrection.  Now we have the luxury of six months to dive deep into the gospel narrative.  This year it’s Mark, giving us time to examine what Jesus said and did, and how it relates to our lives.  

The linchpin for understanding how what Jesus said and did relates to our lives is the new commandment: to love one another as he loves us.  Recorded in John’s gospel, chapter 13, it has echoes in the synoptics and throughout the epistles, especially in the letters attributed to John.  As some skeptical students said in years past, that’s all fine and dandy, but how did he love us?  Answering the question is what these next six months are about.  Sunday after Sunday, churches in the liturgical tradition will hear readings from Mark’s gospel demonstrating what Jesus said and did that point the way to what Christians are to be saying and doing in their own lives.  Associated epistle readings often give us a sense of how the early church tried to live into this new way of being, but not without plenty of trial and error.  

Preachers are counseled to avoid straying too far from reminding congregations about the central question: how did Jesus love us?  It’s tempting to go off on tangents, which, taken to extreme, leave the in depth study of the gospel far behind, and evade hard issues about what the Christian life requires.  We have six full months.  It’s enough time to take our time, read slowly, think deeply, raise questions and probe for answers. 

There may be some discomfort.  A congregation may not like having to struggle Sunday after Sunday with practical questions about the meaning of Jesus in their ordinary daily lives, especially if they are accustomed to giving absent minded attention to sermons telling them what the gospel reading already told them, linking it to some amiable principle.  But when we end services with the admonition to go in peace to love and serve the Lord, we need to have a solid, practical understanding of what loving and serving the Lord means.

Too often the work God has given us to do is assigned as something far removed from ordinary daily life, a mystery to be solved.  Sometimes it is far removed from our daily lives, but it’s never a mystery to be solved.  We don’t have to search for it.  It finds us where we are.  Parishioners and congregation may be called to do extraordinary things, but the call will come from the compelling force of God’s Holy Spirit – no mystery about it.  We’ve seen it happen when schools and hospitals have come into being, communities revitalized, and justice for the poor and oppressed raised up.  As important as such things are, they are not the core of what it means to love and serve the Lord.

The fundamental work God has given us to do in the way of love that Jesus commanded, is no farther away than the place where we are, among the people we’re usually with, doing the things we normally do.  To love others as Jesus loves us is to engage in ordinary daily life with daily recommitment to do and say as Jesus taught us.  It has everything to do with being persons of integrity who respect the dignity of every person.  He gave us simple guidelines: be humble, honest, merciful and peaceable.  Let your yes be yes and no be no.  Don’t be too pious, give generously, serve God not wealth.  Don’t be so quick to judge others.  Let your good works inspire others to give thanks to God.  These are the ordinary ways of daily life that define what it means to love and serve the Lord, what it means to do the work God has given us to do.

Is there more?  Of course there’s more.  That’s why we will take six long months to consider how Jesus loves us as recorded by Mark, and discuss how that guides our daily lives.  It’s a life long work in progress, one step at a time.