Poem for Inauguration Day: Let America Be America Again

Today I am grateful for President Barrack Obama last eight years of leading our country. He did many good things to strengthen our country, but as the leader of a military superpower, many lives were needlessly lost due to the ever-increasing military industrial complex. Under his watch, this continued to grow and further erode our morals as a nation. I knew that President Obama was never going to be my savior, but I had hope that he would do more to stem the tide of militarism.

Yet today I have no words to describe my feelings about our new President Donald Trump. My feelings are frustration, sadness, and fear. For the most part, it is not feelings about my own safety and security. Instead I am frustrated, sad, and fearful for my friends of color, my transgender friends, my friends who are one doctor bill away from bankruptcy (if the Affordable Care Act is repealed and not replaced with another law that protects people with pre-existing conditions) and my friends all across the world who suffer from my country’s idolatry of our military industrial complex, where more killing equal more profits.

I am left with Langston Hughes’ desire to make America be America Again. A desire of us to live up to the ideals that the founders had back in the 1700s of what America could become. I reject the notion of “Make America Great Again” but it has never been great for many Americans. But we should continue to strive to live up to lofty ideals by us redeeming America, as Hughes write at the end of his poem:

We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

This is just as important now as it was in the mid 1930s when Hughes wrote this poem. We should have been working on this a long time ago, but today is the day we need to start.

Here is the full poem:

Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967

langston-hughes-1

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? 
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

 

Overcoming Hate with Patience

A version of this sermon was preached by me at Spring Friends Meeting on December 11, 2016.

– Greg

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

– James 5:7-10

After first reading this passage, I was like “Really, be patient for the Lord to come! How can I be patient when the world seems like it is crumbling down all around me? What about the people of color being unjustly gunned down in the streets by the people who are supposed to protect them? What about my Muslim friends who are scared about whether or not they will be able to worship in this country under Trump? What about my undocumented friends who want to stay in this country because they cannot go home or this is only home they have really have known? How can I be patient with all of this going on around me?” After this first reading, this passage seemed to be utterly useless to be preached this Advent season as we are about to have President-elect Trump inaugurated in just over a month.

Ultimately I was drawn back to this passage with the farming metaphor. In the last month I have often been outside pacing my backyard thinking about what is this world coming. As I look around my backyard and the neighbors’ backyard. I see garden beds sitting still and fallow waiting for the Spring crops to be planted, squirrels busily collecting acorns before winter sets in, birds looking for scraps to eat, my compost piles steaming in order to help provide nutrients for our garden next Spring. I realize that even though my lens on the world look pretty bleak, because of recent events, the natural world continues on. New life will spring up in my backyard, no matter who is President. In the same way God will still be with us in the Springtime too, no matter who is the President.

Then on Friday, my friend Mark posted a quote on Facebook from the esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman: “No prophet ever sees things under the aspect of eternity. It is always partisan theology, always for the moment, always for the concrete community, satisfied to see only a piece of it all and to speak out of that at the risk of contradicting the rest of it.” I thought back to the last part of the passage from James’ epistle: “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.”

If we look back on the prophets, we find many examples of prophets standing up for justice in the face of injustice and suffering. For example, Old Testament prophets, Amos and Micah, spoke against corrupt rulers in Israel and Judah, respectively. These rulers took advantage of the downtrodden and the poomicah-6-8r for their own gain. This is not the way of the Lord both prophets argue. Instead, in Micah 6:8, we hear that the Lord requires of us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

For these reasons, I do not see this passage from James as actively promoting passivity as I initially thought. This is definitely not the time for passivity. I know a lot of people are trying to figure out what to do to oppose the draconian proposals that Trump has already offered.  James has a good response for us all. In raising up against the new regime, we need to reflect that our works are not done out of hate for others, including those in power, no matter how evil their deeds may seem, but instead coming from love and rooted in justice.

Let’s remember that the ultimate prophet of Christianity, Jesus said, in Mark 12:30-31, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

My wise friend, Margaret, who pastors New Garden Friends Meeting once remarked that there are actually three commands in this passage. 1. Love God 2. Love your neighbor and 3. Love yourself. Without the third command, you cannot love your neighbor or even love God with your whole self. I have been thinking about the third part. Sometimes loving myself is the toughest command of the three of them. But if we are to ever love God and love our neighbor, we need to possess that love within ourselves before we can give it out to God or others.

For me this means all our neighbors, not the ones we like. It means loving our neighbors who are ok with having Muslims being registered or ok with gay marriages being nullified. Loving our neighbors does not mean agreeing or condoning all their actions. We can love our neighbors while vehemently disagreeing with them. We can still work for justice so that all of our neighbors are treated with dignity because we are all children of God. All of our neighbors have a piece of the Light within them and we should work for a more just world that recognizes that. Hopefully along the way our neighbors will recognize that others they hate do have that same Light within them as they themselves do.

Friends, in this time of Advent, the season when we are awaiting the miracle to happen in a stable in Bethlehem, we need to keep building the Kingdom of God. It may seem dark, but the Light is coming. We need to keep working for justice, working with the oppressed so that we are free. This work would have still needed to be done under Hillary Clinton if she had won the electoral college, as it has been needed to be done under President Obama. Yes, it may be harder now, but I am also sure that we are up to this task.

Just as we try to be patient waiting for the baby Jesus to be born in a manger in the back of an inn in Bethlehem, we need to be patient and continue to work like the prophets did before us, slowly building the Kingdom of God here on Earth, despite all the odds.

Just as the Romans did not have the last word on Jesus, the politicians in Washington will not have the last words, Love will ultimately win and we need to work together to make the Kingdom of God here on Earth a reality, no matter who is in the White House.