The affront to our sensitivities, and we are only beginning to endure and suffer this, is an assault on what we know to be one of our highest values—personal life.
Many people feel personal disgust at the state of our political culture. Disgust is a personal feeling that registers our inner rejection of this new world.
And we must reject, resist, these assaults and reassert our person and our values, for ourselves and for those in the world more threatened than we.
And to do this we will need to strengthen our personal bonds of friendship and we will need to become political in ways we have neglected.
Lincoln said we are friends and we must not become enemies. But there are differences abroad in the land, and we have differences, and we must stand for the values of personal life. As he also said, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”
Personal life is no small thing, it is the culmination of our values. For many of us the world, and our own day time experience in it, does not feel right or good anymore. So by nightfall it is as if somebody put a strobe light in the lighthouse and all the signals go berserk, and no ship is safe out there.
I am not speaking mainly of policies, or even party, but of things ethical and aesthetic gone askew. And so we feel the loss of the power to protect personal life as we have known it.
In the delicate balance between virtue and vice our own anemic virtue has tipped to a blood-dimmed tide of vulgar and vicious vice, and that is the cause of our revulsion.
Now the historical foundations of personal life for us truly have been ethical and aesthetic.
Ethically our personal life demands justice, equality, freedom. One reason we believe that Black lives matter is we believe that our lives matter.
Justice, equality, and freedom have made up our ethic to render unto others what we most value ourselves: personal life. The Golden Rule has been a mirror reflecting our better nature.
In the Western world two ideas make the ethical pillar holding up the foundation of our personal life:
The Enlightenment idea of the value, the worth, and the free power of individual secular lives.
The other idea has been the Judeo-Christian religion’s faith that God’s power is on the side of our freedom, our ability to love and have life, perhaps even eternal life.
America, then, has had a philosophy and a religion.
The flame on top the torch of the Statue of Liberty is not just an Olympic Greek torch but a flame from the Burning Bush that revealed to Moses the message of personal and economic freedom from Egyptian slavery.
God was on their side, on freedom’s side.
That gold light has also stood for many in our world as the evening Star in the East that guided the Wise Men to the great gift called Incarnation—that God has made God’s home in humanity. That, historically, is the Christian part of our cultural foundation for personal life, and our ethical foundation.
While our personal life has these ethical foundations, Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian, it also has had an aesthetic foundation. There is a certain level of beauty and order that we require in order to feel secure in our person. We can take only so much ugliness before we begin to feel that we have lost our personal value and have become degraded. We can take only so much disorder, disruption, uncertainty before we feel that the very foundations of our personal lives are endangered, disappearing, perhaps being destroyed.
The assault on our personal life, then, is aesthetic as well as ethical.
The liberal arts have been liberating just as science has been sustaining.
If truth is beauty and beauty truth, and if—as the poet said—that’s all we know and all we need to know, then where is beauty now that truth is fleeing naked into the woods leaving its tattered garments on the thorns of the media?
To the degree that our reality comes to us through the media and news outlets we are in states of high anxiety about the reliability and attractiveness of our world, our world of personal values and worth, our ethical world and our aesthetic world.
Our reality and our senses are under siege, almost everywhere. When, as Meryl Streep said, the President of the United States can mock and mimic a physically disabled person, a New York Times reporter, we have lost a world of ethical and aesthetic order.
This is ultimately for us, for all of us, threatening to our sense of personal value, let alone how women, foreigners and gays feel. Something revolting is going on, and it is so deeply wrong that it suggests that something even more disturbing is going on.
Now there is a broader view.
As Paul Simon sang, “We’ve lived so well so long.”
This is not just American arrogance, it is the great gift of Western Enlightenment and to some degree religious progress—life and the power of life is on the side of the person, the individual self.
Now, we are not so sure, certainly not like we have been.
We may be the last people on earth feeling this. Our city on the hill may be a light house on a promontory about to fall away, a piece of the main.
The American experiment may sink into the American Empire, with our personal values forever to be lost.
But we may be among the last to deal with such personal loss.
Certainly many unvoiced millions of Americans have been feeling for several decades now that their personal worth and value are under siege and being attacked. They have been living, as Peggy Noonan said in the Wall Street Journal, more and more like junk yard dogs and now, she adds, they have their own junk yard dog in the White House.
The modern world has given with one hand the highest hopes for personal life and then seemingly taken those hopes away, from people everywhere, from refugees in Africa, to coal miners in West Virginia, to women news reporters in New York City. In all locales, the flame of freedom turning to smoke.
Now, in Biblical religion there is a tradition called the prophetic spirit. Walt Whitman says that over the carnage a prophetic voice arises. The prophets tell of destruction and the shaking of the foundations because God is the force of history. Destruction is not the ultimate evil in the Bible. Loss of a living relationship with the holy one is the ultimate evil. The prophet even tells of destruction as the power of God to reestablish justice and to provoke humility and righteousness again.
We need to have the stomach to deal with these words once again.
We hadn’t understood how many fellow Americans live outside of our paradigm of goodness and success. They are not afraid of the one word have not understood, “carnage.”
However, the prophetic voice could and did understand carnage. As did Walt Whitman writing of the Civil War, “Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice.…”
We need to be able to deal with this word. It is one word that names the disgusting results of the depersonalization of our world.
What this present president has done is to co-opt the carnage of life to use as his tool of fear, his magic wand. So that then he will fix the carnage of modern life. But this is carnage that in fact, here and abroad, has on it the finger prints of our moral neglect.
So first of all we need to see that there is carnage in modern life. Second we need to reject political Gods. Third, we need to reassert our value as persons.
Now, Lincoln was a prophetic voice not unlike the prophetic voices found in the Bible. He had Enlightenment values and Biblical values that transcended the political order. He believed in the value of the person. So when political solutions to slavery were offered that betrayed those ideas he had a place to go, to live, and from which to lead. God eventually became for him the force in history that he had known as Fate. God’s justice, to him, was the force behind the carnage. God’s love and mercy became the force that would lead us forward in mercy and in the bonds of memory and affection, the lack of malice. Those were the non-cynical hopes of Lincoln.
Lincoln’s ability to respond to the carnage of his day—the hidden carnage of slavery and the open carnage of the civil war was rooted not just in his enlightenment and biblical values but in his personal life, his habits, and particularly his habitual need for friendship.
I believe that as our lives will have to be more political than ever before they will also have to be more sustained by the bonds of human affection, our friendships. In Whitman’s words, “Affection shall solve the problem of Freedom yet.”
On every day that we feel the assault on our personal sense of self we can renew our contacts with the friends that we have, we can deepen our need for those friendships and as Whitman would say bind our friends close and closer with hoops of iron.
As you know I severed six churches over several decades of ministry. My constant and main fear was this: What would this congregation do if we were in Nazi Germany? That was my plumb line, my spirit level, my measurement of what kind of a faith community we were.
Simply put I could see how much like sheep we all become in church, sheep—easy, quiet, followers. But the moral and political demands of social justice, peace, and even simple righteousness demand, often, that we step out of the flock, and take an independent stand. That seems hard for people in church to do.
So as we strengthen ourselves for the coming of these days I believe deepening the actual daily fabric of our friendships is a necessary way for us to hold together and to embolden us to resist, reform, revolt.
It has always been our mores, our customs, the habits of our hearts, that have made democracy possible and workable. No law would ever work were it not for the common belief in the law and its value. Our ethics and our aesthetics need our personal attention to each other.
We need to know each other better, trust each other more, like each other more. We may or may not be able to reach out and talk with the other side of this great difference we have. But friendship with those we already know suddenly has more importance.
Lincoln once was close to suicide and his friend Joshua Speed was his resource for life. And neither man would have married had they not had the intimacy to share in letters their deepest insecurities and fears. Their friendship is a model of trust and openness. Speed’s hospitality to Lincoln was Lincoln’s doorway into Springfield society and his future career. Together they shared a large bed upstairs over Speed’s store for four years. But more they shared their hearts.
Lincoln later scolded Speed for his own late lack of courage in facing down his own involvement in slavery. They differed politically. I think Speed did not vote for Lincoln but for the Kentucky candidate. But their friendship sustained them, especially in the hard times.
And that is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer celebrated in his last months of life. Friendship to him is particularly the idea that the local congregation could be the heart and health of community.
The strongest church I ever saw was in New Haven, Connecticut. They had two very unusual friendship practices. You may have heard me speak of them. They had a secular program for sharing interests and hobbies. They called it Friends In Faith. It was nothing more than little clubs for social events of like-minded interests. They had a group of younger people who did kayaking together. They had a Scrabble game playing group. They had a baking group, and a book group, several book groups, a hiking group. These people would plan and do their events all on their own. No church board, no official schedule. Just fun together.
The other practice was called One on Ones. A person would ask a like-minded person if they would meet for an hour or an hour and a half at some mutual location to talk about their faith journey, which was more their doubt journey to be sure. These meetings wove a web of sustaining deep conversations—talking and listening—throughout the body of the church. So when issues came up and stands needed to be taken, both within the church and within the community these people knew and trusted and liked each other.
This is the aesthetic church that Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls us back to—even as he went under the Nazi tide of evil.
Friendship is the bread of life. And we are in need of sustenance, ethically, aesthetically, personally.
Let it be so!