Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Beyond Our Walled Streets

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Delivered on the Lord’s Day | July 25, 2010

Luke 10:25-37

It is the nature of democracy to have competing interests among citizens that often create conflict between them. There is tension between have and have not, rich and poor, black and white which thankfully has compelled our country to look squarely at itself, shed its old skin and become something new.  Historically speaking that tension has always created its own momentum for positive change realized in the celebration and perpetuation of freedom, the attainment of civil and human rights and the actualization of justice and equality for all citizens. There has always been in our country an attempt to make America better by honoring and revising it constitution, legislating laws that create parity by  tearing down walls, and through it all, citizens have always raised expectations that the nation would get better and that tomorrow would bring forth the promises of new opportunities for change and progress. Whatever the religious or nonreligious beliefs of the founding fathers, the influence of the enlightenment on their thinking contained kingdom visions of a new heaven on earth, where the people would not be ruled by a monarch or only by a coterie of persons but by the people themselves. And people have always believed that however flagrant Americas flaws, or nearsighted her shortcomings, there has always been hope that things would get better. The saying is true,”The world does better when we get better.”  Says Jim Hightower a statement made to him by his father, “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”

But many people are worried today. The race, class, gender, religion and age tensions are still there, and progress is being made but there are too many citizens now slumping into the doldrums of hopelessness and despair. Many of them have observed that since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, America appears to be abandoning the higher principles of its representative Democracy; that checks and balances are no longer checked and balanced; that local and national politics appear to be increasingly co-opted and controlled by mammoth corporations and powerful interest groups; that government of the people, by the people and for the people is permanently slip sliding away into the hands of only a few powerful people. Is our democracy eroding into plutocracy; governed chiefly by oligarchies whose global reach and enormous wealth eclipse the voices and concerns of what the BP oil executive called the “Small people?”

Many people are worried today about their country and about their future. Great hope they have for the Obama administration whose election and promise of change is a bright light in nation appearing to be descending into the abyss and maelstrom of darkness. Great hope they have that politics as usual could morph into politics unusual and that our country would finally recover its true soul again, and breathe freely again from previous years of ravage and rout. “The issue is not big government. The issue is good government.” The political spectrum may not so much be left to right as top to bottom or maybe in using the title of today’s sermon as metaphor, insiders and outsiders; those behind the walls of power looking out and those outside those walls looking. Whatever the view, there is increasing concern. “We have lost the light,” said one man. “We are losing our way” said another. More and more citizens are asking, “Do politicians really care about what we think and how we feel once they get into office?  The answer is “Yes.” many do and the answer is “no,” many don’t.

For too often promises made before the election are not promises kept after election, but those of us acquainted with the internal workings of politics and understand the B.S. which stands for the bureaucratic syndrome; know that the intricacies of the political process are far more complex than we could ever imagine. We understand that many things in politics are easier said than done. We understand that the give and take of the political process is sometimes more take than give and more give than take and to say that it is a blood sport involving the art of compromise is no misnomer.

But people are worried whether the progress promised will be the progress made. While growing increasingly impatient, they still have hope for a change that would help their beloved country heal old wounds by transforming walls into bridges, swords into plowshares and enemies into friends. Great hope they have still in finally creating a nation where each person can be gainfully employed or own their own business and get access to capital. Each person can put food on the table. Each person can feed his and her families and educate their children people. Great hope they still have for a nation that will encourage each living person to actualize his or her potential, truly and freely live as authentic human beings, enjoy full rights and privileges of American citizenship, and be respected as a valued part of a beloved community whose common ground binds them together into a “single garment of destiny” rather than shreds them apart like tissue paper and discards them into the incinerator because they are different.

Many people are concerned today and this is no exaggeration. They see progress. They taste glory. They still have hope that the President and the Congress will turn things around, as has been slowly done. Remember Rome was not undone overnight. But because of the political gridlock and the dead lock and even the hemlock in Washington and Lansing and even locally, some of the people are still wondering what it’s all about and where our nation is really going.

They are tired of puppet politics. Sure we need sponsors and supporters, but can we think in terms of what is best for the people? For whom are we running? Whose interests are we serving? Is it just business as usual where the names and faces change but the fate and destiny of the people remain the same?

They want to put some buster on the filibuster. They have voiced their concerns increasingly to their representatives and they want to know that they are being heard and something is being done. At ground level I hear those concerns. You need to know this morning and you probably already know that the people still have hope that things will positively and radically change but they are really worried and concerned that things will not change; that the more things change the more they will stay the same. Some believe things will never change and some are really angry.

They are concerned about a golden rule which says that only he who has the gold makes rules.

They are concerned about politicians who seem more interested in getting elected than being effective once elected. They are concerned how numerous office holders have now mastered the art of looking good for John and Jane Q Citizen when they run for office and then are good  to the large corporations and interest groups bankrolling their political campaigns into office.

They are concerned about the recent Supreme Court decision giving corporations’ unlimited power in financing elections in an already corrupt political culture.

They are concerned about the undue influence of Lobbyists and how they have smothered the political landscape with, in the title of Robert Kaiser’s recent book ……”So damned much money.”

They are concerned that we still don’t have campaign finance reform and that the average citizen cannot run for office.

They are concerned how certain elected officials seem to put party over country and profits over people. How dare the people who have paid into unemployment all their lives be blamed for being lazy. They paid for that insurance. Stop blaming the victim!!!! Stop taking meat from the little guy. Stop insulting the people who put you in office. Thankfully a decision was made this week to extend those unemployment benefits. Kudos to the party in power.

They are angry that jobs have been shipped overseas, that their homes have been foreclosed. They want fair trade not just free trade.

They are mad that the banksters on Wall Street are still getting away with the bank and can still arrogantly trump Main Street, back street, side streets and no streets. They are concerned that taxpayers bail out Wall Street who have gotten low interest loans from tax payer money and people and small businesses still have difficulty getting loans at reasonable interest rates with their own money. Thankfully financial reforms have been passed. Kudos to the party in power.

Moreover, they are tired of being ripped off by credit card companies; tired of having decisions made for them at ground level by so called interest groups that don’t have their interests at heart. Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, said, “Greed is good, and it can be if it is deployed responsibly, but greed without social responsibility is a tragedy. People are concerned about socializing costs for the little people and privatizing profits for the big people. Thankfully credit card reform has been implemented by the party in power.

Moreover, the people are tired of being propagandized where where lies, smut, smear and half truths of Orwellian Newspeak, with its double think and double speak are shamelessly disseminated across the airwaves. In Orwell’s 1984 the ministry of truth created such slogans as “War is peace, hate is love, slavery is freedom” rather than tell the truth that War is hell and that hatred and slavery are not akin to freedom.

They are concerned about how virtually all the media in this country are controlled by a few companies whose interest is not always in giving the truth and telling the truth but creating a reality that passes for truth because there is no real scrutiny or challenge to what is truth. Information is controlled and as Naomi Wolf reminds us in her book the End of Democracy, and Lawrence Britt says in the Seventeen Signs of Fascism and Chris Hedges says in Empire of Illusion, we had better wake up and pay attention, lest democracy be wrested away, and our whole way of life removed with our consent.

Something has changed in our country the last 30 years; something has changed in our land and the people sense that something has gone awry; that they are losing their say and even losing their country. While advances in human rights have transpired, the Spirit and progress of the Civil Rights years seems to be fading. With the election of an African American President, America finally showed the world that it was growing up. Now we have the resurgence of the “politrics” of race and hate, with Hitler caricatures of the president, and Nazi swastikas smeared on sign posts. It is true that democracy means not always agreeing with what others say, but defending their right to say it. But what we have here is the stirring of a witches brew into cauldrons of fear; the opening of old wounds, the emergence of an ethos of paranoia and hysteria reminiscent of totalitarian regimes which threatens to hurl us back to a time primeval, if not medieval.

But we see it in the political process with the muckraking, the swift boating, the smear campaigns, the theft of campaign signage and literature, the dissemination of lies and untruths about opponents not even remotely verified before being put on the air. If this behavior is acceptable to get into office, is it acceptable after one gets into office?  Is there no reverence for truth? Where is honor and dignity? Tip O’neal said “All politics is local,” but I am deeply concerned as a citizen and as a pastor of how certain groups and individuals are using character assassination of good upright, upstanding public servants, some of whom are members of this congregation. It’s one thing to tell the truth about an opponent’s record to be politically competitive, it’s another thing to wrongly assassinate his character, destroy her family and career by fabricating lies and passing them off as gospel truths. But a culture of illusion, permissiveness and contempt allow these things to flourish and there is something wholly irreverent and evil about such machinations. Someone has said “Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.” Well, we will have long memory about such things and we will be sure to remember those individuals and groups at election time who engage in such tawdry acts of defamation. We will remember and will not put our support behind candidates of any party who use these tactics to destroy good people with good moral character and good standing in their communities just to get elected. This is what the people are tired of in politics; the Faustian tendency to sell one’s soul to the devil for personal gain.

For many this is an all out effort to throw us back to the dark ages. All of this stymies true progress which benefits all Americans. But some people don’t want progress. They don’t want to see others prosper. They have built their own walls, and are comfortable behind them. It may benefit them in the short run but does not benefit all in the long run and they will do any and everything to make a statement.

Let me say this, and I know that I run the risk of offending some of my hearers. Please forgive me . My intention is not to inflame or offend but to speak the truth. We must all know this one thing. We are not going back to a former time. We are not and must not no matter how hard people try to force this nation backwards. Women are not going back solely into the kitchen, Mexicans who have become American citizens are not going back to Mexico where they can’t find work, Blacks are not going back to the back of the bus, and same gender loving people are not going back into the closet.  The issue is justice, compassion, equality and truth. The issue is still freedom, full and equal rights for all citizens. We have come too far. We have fought too long. We must not go back to a former time.

Accordingly, people are sensing that democracy is tilting into a different direction and that the people’s control of their Government has seismically shifted into the control of people who are influenced more by the love of power than the power of love.

They are concerned that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

They are concerned that 1 percent of the American population controls 45 percent of its resources.

They are concerned about climate control and global warming and the pollution of air, water, land and food, the destruction of eco systems that have evolved over thousands, even of years.

They are still concerned that the Presidential elections could be stolen and that future elections could too. They are worried about faulty voting machines that don’t count properly their vote. In order for their vote to count they want their vote counted. They are increasing concerned and worried about their country, and its democracy that the kleptomaniacs don’t turn it into a kleptocracy.

Thank God there has been some change in the political weather and political winds since the new administration took office. We are not there yet but we are getting there. Thank God that we have a president that at least listens to the opposition, although most of the opposition does not listen to him. Thank God we have a Congress that wants to do something to help what Sly Stone called “everyday people.”

I don’t mean to be a Cassandra of doom here for certainly there is hope and many are working for positive change in our country. These trying times can be a creative opportunity to forge new visions, blaze new trails and create a new future. There are so many things good about our country, and more good things are happening than perhaps bad. But what we need is good, solid, ethical leadership; public servants with a heart for the people, who will do what is right and not what is expedient. But we don’t want to be lulled to sleep. We don’t want to think that we have arrived; that more work does not need to be done, especially in this election cycle. Many of us have rolled up our sleeves and gone to work to make a difference. No armchair philosophers here. Just get to the work to solve the problems of our nation, for “Problems are nothing but opportunities in work clothes.”  We would not be here without hope. But now we can take nothing for granted. Now more than ever we must be the change we wish to see in the world. The gains we have made can be lost if we are not careful. We don’t want to lose our democracy. We must do something to make a difference; to vouchsafe our democracy and to work to make a difference.

More walls we don’t need. We need the kind of transcendent unity that brings us together during times of crises. We need reconciliation and most of all compassion. The experience of Shirley Sherrod is instructive for all of us. Let is not rush to judgment but see the end result. Mrs Sherrod did her duty. She helped the white family keep their farm. She rose above her own feelings and did what was right for the people. She is a shining example of how we should move to a compassion that exceeds race, class, sex and everything else irrespective of political party.

That’s what we must continue with today. We need a spirit of compassion; a spirit that says we are all God’s children inhabiting a single planet and we had better work to ensure that we all make it to safety.

The story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10: 30 is instructive for all of us today. Jesus tells this story as a way of challenging his hearers to go beyond the traditional boundaries and assumptions and beliefs that kept them at odds even with people who had historically been their adversaries. The man who had been felled by robbers on the Jericho road and left for dead was passed by a priest and a Levite, but ministered to by a Samaritan. What a statement! You talk about out of the box! This is it! Samaritans were outsiders and outcasts. Many of them had fit the traditional narrative that had been fashioned for them at the time. We live within the limits of the narratives we adopt for ourselves and so did the people of Jesus time. We put our labels on people and put them into our boxes so we can define them, and control them and ignore them and ship them away without ever getting to know them. But the more we do this, the more we create walls, the more we isolate ourselves and create more enemies.

Many people walked by that man that day. They saw him lying there near death but they looked the other way and they went the other way, and only one man, a Samaritan, considered perhaps an enemy of the victim, stopped and helped this man. He rose above his own myopia; rose above his own prejudices and the religious constraints and the negative images that society had of him and him of it. He demonstrated a concern that went beyond the limits and constraints, barriers and barricades of his society. He transcended conventional social practice by showing compassion for this man. He saw that man lying there and could feel for him because he had experienced similar wounds in how he had been treated himself in that society. He may not have been physically waylaid on the Jericho road, but the society in which he lived tried to rob him of something personal and vital; it tried to steal from him his humanity and his dignity and his integrity as a human being. But he rose above the petty thefts of society. He harbored no bitterness for the ways in which his society had tried to rob him of a higher purpose and take from him his true compassion and humanity for other human beings. He did the right thing, the moral thing by helping his fellow man. He did not let the limits of his party, race, religion, politics, family of origin, vocation, friends and associations, stop him from doing good. He did not care about his education but cared about his heart, for the heart of education is educating the heart. He cared about a dying man in need; a genuine human being of flesh and blood like himself; a man, a person who needed his help.

That victim on the side of the road is American democracy. That victim on the side of the road are people in need who have been waylaid by misfortune, bad times, trial and trouble. That victim on the side of the road is your country, your city, your village, your state, your community, or your town. That victim on the side of the road is all of the people all of the time. That victim on the side of the road is the people and of this country and that Samaritan can be you. It can be you. You can the robbers. You can choose to be the ones who in the words of Dione Warwick, “walk on by” on your Walled Street or you can be like the Samaritan and stop and give a helping hand to those who need your help.

This is what it comes to. When you serve the people you are not called to serve yourself; or not just your interest group or just mimic and parrot the words of people who put money into your pocket. We need to help somebody else too in the group and outside of the group, behind the walls and outside the walls. If you take your elevator to the top floor ride it back down and help somebody else ride to the top with you! Help the man who fixes the elevator to ride it to the top with you. Sure we are valued parts of political parties and must follow party protocol, but the party thing should be the people thing, and in telling the truth this morning the Democrats are closer to this reality than the Republicans.  But even the Republicans can change that reality if people with compassion and with temerity and moral courage and boldness can step up and say we are going to do it differently now like the party of Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens.  If we cannot work together how can we live together? If we cannot live together how can we work together? It’s not just about us. It’s about not some of the people some of the time but all of the people all of the time.

There was a time when members of both parties had their differences but sat down and brought their families together; a time when a tip O’Neal could break bread with a Ronald Reagan, an Orin Hatch with Ted Kennedy. Although they had policy differences they did not live on a Walled street. The most important aspect of their service was the people and both parties understood this reality. Even though they were ideological opponents they weren’t walled off from each other; living in separate universes. The President has extended his hand across the aisle, but it has been slapped away. Well he keeps reaching one hand but using the other hand to get some things done. Sometimes when that hand is repeatedly slapped away you must take both hands and to do more of the people’s work with the political capital you have. Keep removing the walls yes, but don’t stop there. Direct your attention to radical change with time you have.

What we need today in our world is a removal of those walls in the interests of all the people; walls that discriminate, walls that alienate, walls that keep people sequestered and hidden and afraid behind their walls; walls that hurt and harm, walls that demean, degrade and destroy human beings and their god given potential. In fact the history of America is the long arduous history of walls removals; the walls of segregation, the walls of classicism, sexism, ageism and ignorance. Knock those walls down; walls that keep us divided and afraid; that keep us cowering in defeat and despair. We remember the words of Ronald Reagan to Michel Gorbachev. “Mr. Gorbachev tear down these walls!”

We need empathy. We need compassion. We need to feel what others feel and move to help alleviate if not eradicate their pain. To remove the pain and suffering of the people and to help them interpret the meaning of that pain and how to live with that pain and rise above that pain is not just something for the church or the synagogue, or the mosque or the temple or the ashram or other religious entities. It is also the purpose of government, and elected officials; to help people when they cannot help themselves; to not only point the way to the future and make the hard decisions in the political realm, but not to lose compassion; to help remove the suffering, the pain and the loss of hope so endemic to so many people in our nation and in our times; a compassion that transcends self interest and self aggrandizement; a compassion that does right by the people because it is right.

We have always managed to keep hope afloat in this nation. Through wars and strife, through hardship and drought; through many dangers toils and snare we have already come. Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, we have come over a way that with tears has been watered, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered but we have come. This is our legacy as a nation. This is our promise for the future. We do have hope and will not lose hope.

The people who walked by that man on the Jericho Road made it into a walled street. They did not see or hear the condition of that man, and if they did, they chose to ignore his pleas for mercy and help.  People, candidates, public servants, elected representative whatever your party, don’t live on a walled street in your service to the people; don’t chose to become cordoned off and separated from the needs and suffering of those you are called to serve. Don’t let existing walls stop you from climbing them and overcoming them to make ourselves and our nation better. Remove those walls and make them into bridges. Don’t let your only concern be for interests of people who help finance your campaign. When you accept their money tell them that you will help them as much as you can but that you will help the people all you can by doing what is right and moral and ethical and honorable. What you do not only has political value but religious and moral value. Representative Democracy has kingdom reverberations. What we sow on earth will be reaped on earth as in heaven. So have compassion. Don’t take refuge behind the gated walls. Let the walls of Jericho and the Jericho road come tumbling down as we serve the needs of all America’s people and not just a select few.

Compassion, empathy, moral courage, is what we need. God give us strength. God give you strength to you as you run this race and help America to eliminate those partitions that keep us apart by realizing our common ground and our common humanity. God bless America! God bless the president and those who serve the good of the people.

God bless us all! Amen.

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