One of the recurring themes of the last four years has been what we’ve lost. Mostly, a shared sense of truth. We are a nation disabled by polarized, warring truths. We have become two nations living separate realities. How do we move forward in 2021 to a post-Trump, post-pandemic world?
I just finished a remarkable book, Why Not Me? Finessing Life’s Slings and Arrows, a collection of sermons by Rev. Donald Wheat, who presided and preached at Third Unitarian Church in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood from 1969 to 1996. His sermons will challenge you if you believe in God, but that doesn’t prevent him from quoting the Bible on a regular basis. In fact, he confesses to being “a Christian from the neck down.” He describes himself as a “religious humanist,” and if you think that’s a contradiction in terms, read this book (available at Book Table). In an indifferent universe, he insists, we have that much more incentive to come together, bear each other’s burdens, live a happy life, and strive to create a better world. He believes in human agency.
His sermons take aim at illusions. He is funny, provocative, informative, but never arrogant, preaching without being “preachy.” He does his homework. His sermons sound like TED talks before there were TED talks. He doesn’t expect everyone — or anyone — to agree with him, except perhaps in his contention that none of us should take refuge in comfort faith and call it “truth.” He wants us, in other words, to follow the biblical injunction to “separate the wheat from the chaff.” As a preacher, Don Wheat was aptly named. In fact, he missed a golden opportunity for the perfect promotional blurb on the back cover of his book: “All Wheat, No Chaff.”
In one sermon, delivered in 1987, titled “A Famine of the Worst Kind,” he quotes the Old Testament prophet Amos, famous for the line cited by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
But Wheat is more interested in a different Amos prophecy:
“Behold the days are coming that I will send a famine on the land. Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but shall not find it.”
That predicament afflicted America in 1987, he said. It applies even more to America in 2020.
Wheat defines “the word of the Lord” as “whatever inspires you, whatever gives you sustenance,” whether you find it in the Bible, poetry and song, great speeches from the past, even media editorials.
His quote from Chicago-born playwright David Mamet is especially relevant in 2020: “Who is going to speak for the American spirit? For the human spirit? Who is capable of being heard, of being accepted, of being believed? Only that person who speaks without ulterior motive, without hope of gain, without even the desire to change, with only the desire to create.”
He also quotes Flora Lewis from a New York Times op-ed: “Faith is necessary and irrepressible. But without a message of wisdom and humility in human affairs, it can turn vicious.”
It certainly has turned vicious. What we need, therefore, going forward, is not “truth” so much as wisdom, tempered by humility.
Wheat delivered a number of sermons praising such secular “saints” as Lenny Bruce, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Sanger, H.L. Mencken, Oscar Wilde, and Lillian Hellman, truth seekers all. At this juncture, however, we would do well to turn to another secular saint, Abraham Lincoln, for guidance. I recently engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with a conservative friend via email and the only thing we could agree on was Lincoln, in particular: “malice toward none, charity toward all” and “the better angels of our nature.” This is our common ground, dialogue’s starting point. Here is the context for these touchstones:
First inaugural address, March 4, 1861 (with the Civil War looming):
“We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Second inaugural address, March 4, 1865 (with the Civil War ending):
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln reached out to his polarized opposites in 1861. They did not reciprocate, yet reaching out was the right thing — with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in our ability to see the right, but recognizing the limitations of our grasp of “the truth.” Wisdom, balanced by humility.
We will succeed only if our exchanges with one another pass the “angels” test: Does it reflect “the better angels of our nature” or our “lesser” angels?
A large percentage of Trump supporters identify as followers of Jesus Christ, who said, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.”
If I am your enemy, then love me, and I will try to do the same.
What we need now is wisdom, not “truth;” charity, not malice. With those Lincolnesque notions in hand, we can move forward into 2021 and beyond, rehumanizing those we have dehumanized.
My New Year’s resolution? Every day, I will ask myself four questions:
Am I living on the side of malice or charity toward all?
Are my better or lesser angels showing?
Am I humanizing those with whom I disagree?
How will I love my enemy?
In his 1987 sermon, Don Wheat put the challenge to his congregation this way: “Let us be carriers of the word that speaks to the needs and condition of others. And let us hope — no, let us pray — that someone shall bring us that word in our hour of need.”