Lead With the Heart: A Post-Election Sermon

A post-election sermon delivered on November 13, 2016
at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading
by Rev. Catherine Senghas

There has been a lot of pain this week, all around us. It’s not simply a matter of there not being a presidential candidate that a strong majority could rally around and feel joyous and hopeful about after the election. It’s a pain we each might remember feeling when we’ve had a seismic shift in our understanding of reality. Pain of abandonment, pain of broken trust, or the pain of facing the consequences of a personal failing. Pain points to something that needs attention and care; deep or sharp pain points to something that needs prompt attention and great care. The pain of this week seems to be a grand concoction of all these things felt by so many—abandonment, broken trust and being challenged to assume some new level of personal responsibility. For a lot of us it is just too much pain and disappointment to bear. There is no one issue that divides us. The split is so devastating because it is so nuanced. No doubt there are significant differences right here among us. Even within each party there were people frustrated and angry through the nomination process. People voted for ideologies even as they were not for the candidate personally.

Although I have no doubt that there are actually people who delight in bullying immigrants, people of color, and women as was demonstrated over and over by the now President-elect, I also know that many who voted for him did so instead because they believe in his promises to restore manufacturing to our gutted rust belt and reopen the Appalachian coal mines and bring all those shuttered towns back to life. And I know that although many were stunned that this was not the election cycle to break the glass ceiling for women, and felt that the Democratic candidate was the more qualified of the two in governance, there is still a deep-rooted systemic misogyny in this country, as well as a distrust of the educated elite because they have failed to support, and sometimes have even failed to notice, those crushed by our current systems of accessing education, jobs, and healthcare.

We were not choosing between two competing plans for moving ahead as a nation. We were choosing between two personalities, as presented by their own campaign teams and as demonized by each other’s. In the aftermath, in the victory, concession, and smooth succession speeches the conciliatory messages just don’t ring true. There is not yet a sincere wish to unify, heal and move forward. People are too frightened, too offended, too disillusioned, too bitter to swallow a sudden wholesale change of rhetoric. We wonder, “Do we believe what you told us then, or what you tell us now?”

We are not the country many hoped—indeed that many of us believed—that we had evolved to be. We are not a country that welcomes the downtrodden, as Emma Lazarus’ sonnet proclaims on the plaque mounted on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

We are not yet a nation where women are equal enough, so that the very fact that they are women is still something to take note of when speaking of their achievements, and where the primary responsibilities of parenting are assumed to fall more to women wherever children are being raised by a heterosexual couple or single mother. We are not yet a nation where immigrants are welcomed to the labor force and not seen as displacing members of the existing workforce, many themselves descendants of immigrants just two or three generations ago. We are not yet a country with social services that provide an adequate safety net for children, elders, and those who are physically or mentally disabled.

Michael Sean Winters, a Washington columnist in a national Catholic paper, writes:

Consumer capitalism was never likely to be the friend of civilized democracy: It has raised millions of people whose untamed appetites govern their decisions and obliterate their moral sensibilities. Our democracy now has paid a terrible price for leaving socialization to the markets.

But like others, Winters hopes that this grim shock might be the moral prod we need in order to set ourselves to the task, in his words on Wednesday,

to the task of fashioning a different national identity from the one ratified last night, an identity rooted in a true moral vision for our country, and reaching out to those for whom these election results are personally threatening and to those whose sense of cultural disenfranchisement led them to vote for Mr. Trump…. Let us not flinch from the work ahead,

he urges.

We became so entrenched in our views that we were willing to vilify each other. What does democracy truly mean? I can tell you that it is not supposed to mean “the majority rules.” It is supposed to mean “all voices are heard.” Can we remember that our national anthem ends with a question: “Oh, say! Does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

We need to be able to go directly through this if we are to emerge on the other side, together and whole. We need strategies and tools to get us there. Right now, the only thing I have to offer is a call to compassion. It’s a call to be compassionate of everyone in our own camp who is suffering, and a much more challenging call to be compassionate to those whose experience we do not understand. We can’t get through and beyond this without changing, individually and collectively.

To begin, let’s ask ourselves each day to try to do the most loving thing we are able to do in each moment. I am not asking that we do more than we are able, only that we each do what we are able to do. Small kindnesses will have to be enough until we regain our balance and strength and stamina. Perhaps today’s “enough” is being a caring listener, or to write love notes in chalk on the sidewalk to those we know are feeling vulnerable right now. Perhaps tomorrow’s “enough” is to examine our own assumptions about other people and their intentions. Perhaps the next day’s “enough” is to calmly sit next to someone who you can sense is fearful in whatever public space you share because she is wearing a headscarf or he has a strong foreign accent. Some people here in the US have taken up the practice started in England after the Brexit vote of wearing a safety pin to demonstrate solidarity and a willingness to support those who suddenly became the target of xenophobic hate and violence.

The hardest part of all of this is to try to understand and accept other people’s stories about life experience that we have never felt personally and cannot truly know. To do this requires that we let go of some of our own ideas, which are really just stories we make up in our minds to make sense of the world. James Baldwin, African American writer of the last century, wondered: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I invite you to think for a moment about the way you feel when you suddenly realize that you may have been wrong. For many of us such a realization triggers a shame that prevents us from correcting and healing and instead goes to rationalizing and justifying; we become entrenched and then harm deepens and change becomes even more difficult. We are trapped in our idealized self-image. Let’s be honest: neither candidate got a mandate this week, and the now palpable mandate for change is much bigger and wider than we could ever have imagined. We will need to rise above our own disappointment.

Baldwin also wrote: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” We can do this in a way that is compassionate and constructive only if we start from a place of personal commitment and ownership. It’s our country, in the biggest sense of “our” that we can imagine. We own this mess.

As religious people we look to whatever our theological beliefs are to make sense of what happened and to find hope. I’m not a believer in pre-ordained destiny, or that things happen for a reason. I do believe that what happens does so because all the conditions for it to happen are present. We are where we are today because of all the conditions that were present on Tuesday morning. What conditions must be present to get to where we thought we were supposed to be, the nation we thought we were, the people we wish to be? Establishing those conditions is what we are called to do, how we are called to be.

My friends, we are all adrift together in a lifeboat on a dark and stormy sea. We need to row together. We probably will need to take turns to extend our collective stamina. We need to pay more attention to read the stars as we navigate—what have we been we missing? Some of us—perhaps most of us—will not make it to the promised land, but our effort will help make arrival there possible some day. People who never saw their dreams realized but changed the world include suffragettes, black abolitionists, those who drafted our Constitution and many who have fought to uphold it. …Our Constitution, that begins with:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Is there reason to be hopeful? I think so. I’m hearing what children in the classrooms of friends and relatives who are teachers are saying about the resolve that follows the sadness their young students express—they are resilient! My heart lifted when I read a posting from a woman who was moved to tears when her 12-year old adopted immigrant daughter leaned over and whispered to her as she stood in line at the polls on Tuesday, “If your generation votes to build a wall, I just want you to know my generation will be strong enough to tear it down.”

We can’t give up on this divided nation. We need to be part of the surge to what is good and right. We need each other and the world needs us. It needs our unconditional compassion as much as it needs our individual righteousness. We need to show up, listen up, speak up.

The UU Urban Ministry, where I used to work, posted this from the Islamic scholar and poet Rumi:

I said: what about my eyes?
He said: Keep them on the road.
I said: What about my passion?
He said: Keep it burning.
I said: What about my heart?
He said: Tell me what you hold inside it?
I said: Pain and sorrow.
He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

So that’s my message this morning—lean into the pain and sorrow of this week, of these past few months. Dig deep and pull up all the compassion you can muster. The road ahead will likely be long and bumpy, but our work has certainly been made clear. And right here we will find companions for the journey and a shared commitment to being transformed ourselves along the way toward peace and justice.

Amen. May it be so. Blessed be.

© C Senghas 2016