Make America Great (Again?)

Chris Profile 2

This is a sermon I gave at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on September 25, 2016 – Chris Buice

In America we like to say, “We’re Number 1!” and we are. We’re number 1 in obesity. We’re number 1 in the percentage of people incarcerated in prison. We’re number 1 in student loan debt. We’re number 1 in divorce. We’re number 1 in illegal drug use. We’re number 1 in prescription drugs use. We’re number 1 in reported car theft, rapes and murders. We’re number 1 in guns per capita. We’re number 1 in military spending. We’re number 1.

I would also add that we are number 1 in believing our own propaganda. We are told that we live in the most democratic country on earth and we believe it even though we rank 28th in voter turnout. We are told that we have the greatest healthcare system in the world and we believe it even though the World Health Organization ranks us 37. We are told that we are the land of the free and we believe it even though most Americans only get two weeks vacation (and employers aren’t even required to give those) compared 42 days in Italy, 37 days in France, 35 days in Germany, 34 days in Brazil, I could go on but I think you get the point. In America we are number 1 in believing in our own marketing. We’re number 1 in believing our own slogans.

This year, one of our presidential candidates has chosen the slogan “Make America Great Again.” My main problem with this slogan revolves around the word “again.” My question is, “When was America better than it is today?” Was it better in 1776 when it was founded by a disproportionate number of slaveholders? Was it better in 1830 when it broke its treaties with the Cherokee Indians and forcibly removed them to Oklahoma along the infamous Trail of Tears? Was it better in 1861 when our penchant for uncivil discourse turned into the Civil War? Was it better when it denied women the right to vote? Was it better when segregation and discrimination were legal? Was it better during the Great Depression? Was it better when women had to stay in the kitchen, gay people had to stay in the closet and black people stay on the back of the bus? When was America great?

This morning I want us to move beyond our American tendency to automatically believing our slogans so that we can actually think about them. If we are being asked to make America great again then what is our conception of greatness, how would we achieve it and would we really be willing to pay the price?

The scriptures of the world often define greatness in ways that are fundamentally different from conventional thinking. In the New Testament we are told that the disciples were not completely ego-free. Do you remember when your high school coach told you, “There is no I in team?” The disciples did not get that. Jesus had a real challenge coaching his team.

The disciples were in fact preoccupied with the question of greatness. On many different occasions they got into an argument over which one of the disciples was the greatest and so they asked Jesus to answer the question for them, who is the greatest? Who is number 1? And Jesus said to them, over the course of many conversations, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, the servant of all. For the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The greatest among you will be a servant for those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In other words greatness is not about rank, status, wealth, power or fame. Greatness is not about being number 1. Greatness is something different entirely. Greatness is about our ability to stay humble and our capacity to serve. Greatness is a quality of the spirit.

The Tao Te Ching, the basic scripture of Taoism says something similar. In it the philosopher Lao Tzu tells us that a great leader does not aspire to be above others. Greatness comes from knowing how to be lowly, humble, receptive and helpful. “The ocean is greatest body of water because it lies below every river or stream and is open and receptive to them all.”

Confucius, the founder of Confucianism, taught that when we lead through bullying, intimidation or force we might be able to impose our will on the people but when we lead through virtue, honesty, generosity and unselfishness then the people will reform themselves.

This way of thinking about greatness is very foreign to our culture. When people hear the slogan “Make America Great Again” how many interpret it to mean, “Make America Humble Again” or “May America Lowly Again” or “Make America Listen Again”? or “Make America Servant of All Again?” I am going to guess that most people do not hear the statement in exactly that way because our culture has very different ideas about greatness than those enshrined in the gospel and many other religions.

One man running for Congress down the road in Polk County bought a billboard with an explicitly racist message, “Make America White Again.” For this man greatness is about white supremacy, the domination of one race by another.

So when was America white? When asked the candidate hearkens back to the days of Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet and Mayberry. He seems oblivious to the fact that these are television shows about fictional characters back when Hollywood offered us in our living rooms every night an ethnically cleansed version of reality. Did you ever watch the show The Dukes of Hazzard? Did you ever wonder why no one was offended by the Confederate flag on top of their car? It’s because there were no black people in the show – an ethnically cleansed version of the South.

Back in the 50’s and 60’s if you were tired of hearing about Brown versus the Board of Education you could turn on the television and watch Leave it to Beaver. If you were tired of hearing about the violence and the bloodshed of the Freedom rides you could turn on the TV and watch Mayberry. If you did not want to hear about busy boycotts, lunch counter sit ins, attack dogs and fire hoses, you could tune into the Ozzie and Harriet show – because television then and now offers us alternatives to facing reality. Today if you don’t want to hear about Terence Crutcher or Keith Scott or Black Lives Matter you can curl up on the couch binge watch Netflix.

For some greatness is about a return to a mythical past – where minorities are never given a role in the show. (Before I offer the next quote I should say it is a rare church where you can hear both Malcolm X and George W. Bush quoted in the same service. Welcome to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.) Former president George W Bush said at the dedication of the national African American History Museum in DC yesterday, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects its mistakes.”

That’s not everyone’s understanding of greatness. For some greatness is about one group dominating another. For some greatness is bout malice toward everyone and charity for few.

A few weeks ago I came across a fictional satirical conversation between two people over the Internet, one person cantankerous and the other calm. Before I share it I will offer this trigger warning. Because trigger warnings are not about the suppression of free speech they are about courtesy when you are sharing potentially offensive material. Bare with me to the end and you will see why I am sharing this statement.

First person: I hate Muslim people look what a Muslim did at that LGBT Bar in Orlando.
Second person: So does that means you care about LGBT people?
First person: No gay people are pedophiles, and transgender women are just men who want to invade women’s restrooms and harass women. We need to protect women.
Second person: So you care about women?
First person: Shut up feminazi. Women in the United States are not oppressed! If you want to talk about women’s oppression, you should focus on how women in other countries are treated!
Second person: So you care about people from other countries?
First person: Stay out of our country! Why should we care about refugees when our own people need our help.
Second person: So you care about people who need help?
First person: No! Get a job freeloader!

This is an imaginary conversation, a political straw man if you will, but it does illustrate some of the curious dynamics of in-group/out-group thinking that can affect our society and our political process. This election season has been dominated by the politics of divisiveness – but can America ever be great unless all of us are great? There is another slogan that applies here, “United we stand, divided we fall,” or “E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many One.” a bit of wisdom to remind us that our greatness comes when we make every effort to keep unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

As Americans self-promotion comes naturally to us. Last Saturday I was in Neyland Stadium for the Vols Game with when the voice over the loud speaker announced that we live in (and I quote) “the greatest nation on the face of the earth.” Sitting next to me was my friend Dr. Amadou Sall who is from Mauritania in Africa. On other occasions I have been sitting in the same stadium with Nathan Paki from Sri Lanka or Kahin Nassir from Somalia or Sarah Pedlow from England. The statement by the announcer did not offend my friends as American hyperbole is known throughout the world and thus takes on the quality of local color.

In fact when Nathan Paki and I were in New York City for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Conference we used one of our free evenings to go to the Brooklyn Brewery where we ran into a young couple from England. When I asked them what brought them to America the wife said, “We came for the wrassling.” The two had flown across the ocean just to watch professional wrestling matches in America. She continued, “And I learned this song,” she cleared her throat and began to sing, “I am proud to be an American where at least I know I am free…” which sounds very different in an English accent. I told her that if Nathan and I ever came over to see them in England we would have to find a karaoke machine in a pub and sing it all together. American hyperbole is one of our most successful exports.

But I would add we should not believe our own publicity. Because over the course of that night in the Brooklyn Brewery that very young couple showed us pictures from their world travels to places like Egypt, India, Japan, Greece, Italy – all the sorts of places young people can go when you have five weeks vacation and no student loan debt. Needless to say America is not the only land of the free.

So we need a new definition of greatness. In the New Testament there are many passages where Jesus is critical of the Pharisees. Many scholars find this odd because it is very likely that Jesus himself was a Pharisee. There is a debate worth having here but we do not have time for it so let me just offer a Chris Buice contemporary translation of the gospel according to Mark. My main contribution to the text is that I take the word Pharisee out and replace it with the word “poser.” Try it some time. It almost always works.

And Jesus said to the people, “Don’t be a poser. For posers love to wear nice clothes, appear smart and speak to applause. They love to sit on stage in houses of worship (you know sometimes scripture hits a little too close to home but let’s continue) they love to sit above people at political rallies and have places of honor at banquets. Posers are like a cup, clean on the outside and dirty on the inside, for posers would rather look good than be good.” Thus endeth the gospel lesson loosely but faithfully translated by your humble servant.

And this scripture lesson is important because it shows the gap between where we are as a culture politically and where we should be spiritually. And I believe it is unfair just to blame the politicians because it is a culture problem. The truth is you can’t make it in American politics today if you don’t dress well. You can’t make it in American politics if you don’t want to sit on stage or in the place of honor at banquets. You might say that the qualities that Jesus desires the least in people are the qualities that Americans expect the most from their politicians.

At last Sunday’s church board meeting Marco Castenada shared some words from the Tao Te Ching that describe four kinds of leaders. The worst kind of leader is the one that the people fear. An equally bad leader is one the people despise and defy. A better leader is one that the people praise, honor and celebrate. But the best leader has near anonymity. When great leaders are at work the people barely feel their presence or know they exist. Great leaders speak rarely and never carelessly so that when all is done the people will say, “We did it ourselves.”
In America we like to say, “We are number 1!” We like to hear the announcer in the stadium tell us we are the greatest nation on the face of the earth and if we try real hard we can be. For as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “A nation’s greatness is judged by how it treats its weakest members.” Our greatness comes from how we treat the least, the last, the lost and the left out. And as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, and this is a paraphrase that if not true to the letter captures the spirit, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve therefore American can be great because America can serve. We don’t have to have the biggest military budget in order to serve. We don’t have to have the most jails on earth to serve. We don’t have to have the most billionaires per capita on earth to serve. We don’t have to have the most thermonuclear weapons to serve. All we really need is a heart full of grace and soul generated by love and the realization that we are all in this together –that’s all we need for America to be destined for greatness.