When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for.
~ Mark 3:23-26 CEB
As we enter a new year, across the nation many of us are breathing sighs of relief as we give thanks for a new President and VicePresident-elect. We celebrate together new leadership and the historic election of Sen. Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black and Asian American elected to the second highest office in the land. As Vice Presidentelect Harris said in her victory message: “To the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before.”
Sadly, many others choose to live in another reality, unready or unwilling to utter a simple truth: Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. of Delaware and Kamala Devi Harris of California won the election.
We are now as we have always been: a house divided – or perhaps more accurately, two separate houses, two separate nations, engaged in a civil war that did not end in a small courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia.
Since the election, there has been much said and written about the need to end the divisions and heal the fractures in our body politic. As President-elect Biden said in his victory speech:
I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.
There are echoes of Barack Obama in that line, to be sure, and echoes of Abraham Lincoln, as well.
In the Gospel of Mark, we find the inspiration for one of Lincoln’s most memorable speeches.
The “House Divided” speech was delivered in 1858 at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, two years before Lincoln was elected president. One hundred forty-nine years later, Senator Barack Obama, standing on the steps of the Old State Capitol announced his candidacy for President of the United States. Eighteen months later, having secured the Democratic nomination, it was where he introduced his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden.
The following is an excerpt from the House Divided speech, an address Lincoln used to open his campaign for the United States Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas, the man who introduced the bill that would become the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and who spoke in support the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision.
Language, as we all know, matters. Lincoln, as he often did, leaned on language from the Bible to communicate a simple, but prophetic truth. Here, in Lincoln’s own words, is a condensed version of the speech.
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.
Have we no tendency to the latter condition?
John Blake, CNN Enterprise writer and producer, recently posted an article entitled, “What Trump’s Four Years Taught Me About the Two White Americas.” Blake wrote about the hope he feels when he sees White Americans celebrating Trump’s defeat in the streets and sees them marching with Black and Brown people demanding justice and an end to racism. “I now know that likely millions of White Americans were willing to risk their lives in the middle of a pandemic to hit the streets to protest racial injustice. I now know that there are countless White Americans who swallowed tear gas and took rubber bullets to the face while standing shoulder to shoulder with Black and Brown anti-racism protesters.” He notes that he’s not the only person in the Black community who sees that as progress and hope for lasting change. Blake quoted Harry Belafonte who observed:
for all the bitter lessons we have learned from Trump’s presidency, he’s [Belafonte] also learned something else: “That we have never had so many White allies, willing to stand together for freedom, for honor, for a justice that will free us all in the end, even those who are now most fearful and seething with denial.”
In contrast to that hopefulness, however, is a stark reality. The hope is heartening, Blake wrote, “But the fact that a president who is widely viewed as a racist can still command so many White votes – after also playing down a pandemic that has killed at least 234,000 Americans – is chilling.”
Trump may have lost an election, but neither Trump nor his supporters are likely to go away or change anytime soon.
In an Atlantic article last December, “A Theory for Why Trump’s Base Won’t Budge,” Dan P. McAdams wrote:
…Trump’s unusual brand of narcissism has simultaneously worked to solidify his loyal base of support in the American public at large. Those who admire him from afar may enjoy an extraordinarily durable para-social relationship with a reflected persona that is deeply familiar to them. They know in their heart who Donald Trump is. They continue to admire his wonderful and unchanging essence, beautiful like the boy in the pool [the Greek mythological character, Narcissus], even if they know very little about what it is like to encounter Donald Trump as a real human being.
In another Atlantic piece entitled, “When the MAGA Bubble Burst,” author McKay Coppins quoted from a 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, written by three social psychologists who studied a small religious sect in Chicago called “The Seekers.”
The psychologists who studied the Seekers attributed their rationalizations to the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. When a true believer is faced with “undeniable evidence” that what he believes is wrong, he “will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.”
If we accept that some meaningful percentage of the 70 million American voters who voted for Trump are unlikely to have a sudden conversion experience, how do we move forward – can we move forward – “one nation under God?”
The short answer is I don’t know. But it seems to me that finding common ground requires us to start by healing the divisions among ourselves – those who voted for change. In other words, we must clean up our own house before we encourage others to join us. That effort, I believe, will require at least two elements that are at the core of McCormick’s mission: truth and leadership.
We – those of us who voted for change – are the majority in this country. Over the last four years, we have often expressed the need to “resist” Trump and his agenda, and rightfully so. There is a time for resistance; resistance is required in the face of power greater than ours. But the power is in our hands now and our power is greater than hate, greater than fear. We must move from resistance to leadership; leadership built on truth.
In 1960, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman gave a speech on leadership at Boston University. Dr. Thurman wrote in part:
One of the most searching demands of leadership is integrity and honesty. The leader must above all else be a seeker after truth…. The integrity of the act cannot be separated from the integrity of the person and the word. Therefore, the leader must seek the truth….
In addition to accepting himself, the leader must be willing to take responsibility for his own actions. This is a most searching demand. It is very tempting to shift the responsibility for decisions…. As a man he is responsible for his actions in his office.
In addition to taking responsibility for his action, the leader must be willing to take responsibility for his reactions…. Again and again we are involved in experiences and events which sweep into our lives without any reference to our own wills. They arise in regions beyond our control. But the moment we encounter them, how we react to them, what we do with them – these matters are our responsibility and concern. It is here that the true character of the person is often revealed. It is for this reason that two people visited by the same circumstances may be seen to react to it in diametrically opposed ways. One may respond with bitterness and hostility, the other with gentleness and grace. The leader is responsible for his reaction to life.
We are living in a time of revolutions, technological and social. We may in our reaction be stripped of all hope and all confidence not only about the meaning of our own lives but about the significance of the future for mankind. Or we may in our reaction be inspired to a deeper commitment to higher purposes and more meaningful resolves to the end that in us the dreams for mankind that are cherished will be worked at with fresh vigor and new hope. How we react is our responsibility – and from this there is no escape.
If we can find ways to bridge our own differences, if we can be “inspired to a deeper commitment to higher purposes,” perhaps we will find ourselves on the path toward a more perfect union. It won’t come all at once and we will not get everything we want tomorrow, or next year, or even the year after that. The pandemic has claimed nearly a quarter million American lives, a disproportionate number of whom are persons of color. It has ripped massive holes in local, state, and federal budgets. Millions remain out of work. But, if we work together, if we embrace what Rev. Dr. Wendell Griffen calls a “subversive and liberating vision of hope based on the faith tradition inspired by the religion of Jesus,” perhaps, with God’s help, we will find a way that, as Rev. Griffen writes, “will allow those who believe in the Spirit of God to confront, condemn, and overcome political, social, commercial, and religious actions that promote alienation, fear, hate, and despair.”
My dear friends, McCormick’s work is more important than ever. Our communities and churches need leadership for this moment. Your gifts and support are what sustain us and our work. Please help us develop the next generation of leaders who, with grace, truth, and courage, will guide us away from fear, hate, and despair and toward the building of beloved community.
As Dr. Thurman said, how we react is our responsibility – and from this there is no escape.