Jon Meacham: America is its best when we build bridges, not walls | Opinion – NorthJersey.com
Editor’s note: Journalist and presidential historian Jon Meacham was installed as Canon Historian of the Washington National Cathedral earlier this month. The Pulitzer Prize winner is the first to hold that office and will preach and lead public conversations several times a year at the cathedral on issues of faith, spirituality and civic life. Meacham delivered this homily at the cathedral’s Sunday, Nov. 7 Evensong service.
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” — Romans 12: 9-21
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In his final song, Moses stood once more before the people of Israel. The Promised Land lay in sight. The future was at hand. Deliverance was only steps away.
And yet the great prophet spoke not only of what was to come, but of what had been: “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask thy father and he will tell thee, thy elders and they will show thee.”
Remember the days of old: Like Moses, we believe in remembrance — not remembrance in the sense of sentimentality and least of all for nostalgia, but remembrance as an act of witness and as an act of agency.
From the first Passover to the Last Supper, our ancestral faith is rooted that remembrance — in acts of commemoration and in a recognition of the sanctity and the dignity of every individual human life.
Such principles animate our faith, when our faith is at its best. And they animate our nation, when it is at its best. The common denominator is all of us — We the People, for both our faith and our nation thrives when each of us manages, however briefly, to transcend our frailties and our failings to live in closer harmony with the ideals of love and of light.
The story of that perennial struggle between hope and fear is the stuff of history. It is a story of seeking to love what is genuine; to hate what is evil; and to hold fast to what is good. A story with all too few heroic hours and all too many disappointing ones.
But we must try. For only in trial is progress possible; only in trial can we discover whether we can in fact “run and not be weary … walk and not faint.”
But here we are. I do not need to tell you that we are living in democracy’s hour of maximum danger. Ours is an age of declining trust and growing extremism; the spread of lies and the erosion of truth; the primacy of an impulse for brute power and a deadly dearth of compassion and of neighborliness.
This isn’t hyperbole. It’s the raw, discernible, undeniable fact of the matter.
And yet here is another fact: From the beaches of Normandy to the rending of the Iron Curtain, from Harriet Tubman to Alice Paul to John Lewis, we’re our best selves when we build bridges, not walls — when we act out of generosity, not greed — when we lend a hand, not when we point fingers.
In such moments America gets much right. And honesty compels us to admit that we also get much wrong. How could we not? A democracy is the sum of its parts, and we are the parts— the sinful, the selfish, and the self-satisfied.
I, for one, am all of those things. I am a sinner who falls short of the mark again and again and again — every hour of every day.
I know better.
I know better from the sacred scripture of my faith, the secular scripture of my country — and yet I fail. I’d be willing to wager you do, too.
But we endure, driven by the hope that we might one day prevail. For all of our manifold failings, as creatures of God, we are taught to remember — remember — that we, too, can overcome the darkness.
And there is much darkness to overcome.
A lot of folks who look like me aren’t all that eager to acknowledge that American history is a mix of good and of evil. We would prefer to hear the trumpets rather than face the tragedies. But face them we must, for an honest accounting of who we’ve been can enable us to see who we want to be.
Progress in America is almost always slow and bloody and painful and provisional. The Civil War led to segregation; the New Deal to right-wing reaction; the civil rights movement to white backlash; the presidency of Barack Obama to the corrosive politics of fear and of insurrection.
We must acknowledge the truth of our past and of our present, no matter how painful. We have to acknowledge it because it is painful. We must confront reality in all its anguish and complexity — because that is our reality. We remember that history calls us to close the gap between profession of ideals of equality, justice and love and the practice of those ideals, because that is what our best history is.
In answering that call — one ever ancient, ever new — we must bear in mind that the moral utility of history — the moral utility of remembrance — is not to congratulate but to challenge ourselves to hear and heed the still, small voice of conscience.
To hear and to heed the whispers of God.
To hear and to heed the importuning of the angels.
To hear and to heed the summons of duty and of humanity and of love.
To me, history can be an illuminating conversation between the living and the dead with the goal of improving the lot of the yet unborn. To know that we have met and solved seemingly intractable problems in ages past should give us hope for years to come.
So what can we learn from the past? That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. That compromise is the oxygen of democracy. That our common life must be about the mediation of differences — not the waging of unrelenting war.
What’s true in our own lives, yours and mine — that we ought to love one another as we do ourselves — is equally true in the life of the country.
Now, religion and politics have the most complex of histories, but they are inextricably linked, for both are about the human enterprise. One of the great achievements of the American Founding was the assertion and defense of religious liberty—which includes the right to be religious at all. A totally secular public square is, I believe, an impossibility; our task is to manage and marshal religious belief in the service of liberty and of democracy.
We are enjoined by the Psalmist to put not our trust in princes, and the New Testament teaches us all nations are of one blood. The duty of the Christian, then, is not to force one’s beliefs on others but to bear witness by living as best we can in accord with the Gospel — a Gospel founded on the counterintuitive conviction the first shall last and that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. There’s nothing more counterinutitive than that.
These are also also the motive forces of democracy, which is also counterintuitive and incredibly fragile.
Democracy, remember, is the exception in human history, not the rule. If this were easy, everybody would be doing it.
Democracy only succeeds when we choose — and it is a choice — to give as well as to take — to love each other as we love ourselves. The story of humankind from Eden forward suggests that most people would rather take than give.
Democracy, then, like faith, is forever vulnerable. Yet it is also forever possible, if we heed the lessons of our faith and of our history.
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And our faith and our history tell us this:
From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, from Lexington and Concord to Gettysburg to Omaha Beach, we have moved the world toward liberty and away from tyranny. The future belongs to the men and the women, in power and far from it, who insist on giving all of us what Lincoln called “an open field and a fair chance.”
And how do we know the future belongs to such people—the people who rejoiced in hope and were patient in suffering? We know that because the best of the past belongs to those who did precisely that.
We honor John Lewis. We do not honor Bull Connor. We honor those who build. We do not honor those who tear down.
Perhaps history itself — perhaps remembrance itself — may offer us a path forward through the wilderness of the world, if we define history as the story of the American odyssey from limitation to possibility, from exclusion to inclusion, from constriction to opportunity.
In that history, through the mercy of God, lies our hope.
Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and presidential historian. He is Canon Historian of the Washington National Cathedral.