How Shall We Live Together (1)
Well, it’s good to be back with you. I thank you for the expressions of concern we received when you learned Joan was ill and I had been placed in charge of her care. I know you weren’t implying anything negative about my abilities, but were simply affirming your love for Joan, which she appreciates. It was a bit frightening. Joan has had strep throat twice in her life, the first time while in college and the second time last weekend. On both occasions she experienced hallucinations. Her doctor, a highly trained professional, pulled me aside and said, “Her boots aren’t laced all the way to the top.” That was a comforting analysis. But she’s much better now. Her boots are laced all the way up and neatly tied, so we are grateful. And grateful to all of you for your kind thoughts.
There are quite a few folks these days whose boots aren’t laced all the way to the top, indeed, who are walking around without any shoelaces at all, and it has nothing to do with fever or infection, unless intolerance and ignorance can be categorized as such. Those appalling “i” words—intolerance and ignorance, and add to them another “i” word, infallibility—and we are left with a dangerous and bitter brew. So you’re not well, but can’t admit it. It can only be countered by yet another “i” word—imagination, and that’s what I want to talk about this morning. Imagination.
I’ve been thinking this week how imagination is the parent of every human creation. The houses we live in were first conceived in an architect’s imagination. The cars we drive were first imagined by an engineer. The towns we live in were the products of a planner’s imagination. Every human creation began with someone’s imagination. Imagination is powerful. Imagination has consequences. When we elect a political leader what we’re actually doing is declaring our preference for one person’s imagination over another person’s imagination. The candidates told us the kind of country they imagined, then we voted for the image, for the vision, we found most compelling.
Imagination serves both the virtuous and the evil. It can bless, as well as curse. The founders of the United States imagined a black man was only 3/5 human, and that women shouldn’t vote, and we’re still reaping the bitter harvest of their imagination. In 1845, President James Polk imagined what it might it be like if Mexico’s northern provinces in modern-day California, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico belonged to America, but when his offer to purchase the land from Mexico was turned down, we went to war, drove Mexicans from their nation, and claimed it as our own. We need to remember the current refugees didn’t cross the border, we moved it. Sometimes our imaginations can unleash the most cruel forces causing the ripples of injustice to linger on and on.
But pendulums swing both ways. John Woolman imagined the end of the slavery. Susan B. Anthony imagined women could vote. Gandhi imagined a free India. Sometimes our imaginations can transform nations.
When we imagine, we are constructing in our minds that which is not yet evident or real. It exists only in our minds, where everything must first exist. In the book of Revelation, when John wrote about a new heaven and new earth, it existed only in imagination. He had not visited a new heaven and new earth in a parallel universe then returned to earth to write about it. This new heaven and new earth existed only in his dreams of what might be possible. But listen to what he imagined: “God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…” Imagine that. We imagine in order to give shape to that which does not yet exist.
In the weeks ahead, I want us to imagine how we should live together. I am not asking us to imagine an America that once existed and now does not. For we are, and always have been, an imperfect nation. We must not pretend in some mythically perfect past. Ask any person of color or woman about our mythically perfect past, and they will tell you it was only a myth. That time, that nation, has never been, though I believe it can be. What I’m asking us to imagine is a question humanity has been asking since our earliest days. How shall we live together?
Our challenge today is the challenge of competing imaginations. The America some imagine and dream for is a vastly different nation than the America many others imagine and dream for. We have a crisis of conflicting imaginations. Ignoring these conflicting visions, pretending they’re of no consequence to us, is a luxury we can’t afford. When babies and small children are taken from their parents, when the free press is castigated as the enemy of the people, we mustn’t pretend all is normal. And though we are Christian and are called to treat all people with charity, we are also called to speak with clarity. The nation some of our leaders imagine bears little resemblance to our imaginations, our hopes, our dreams. This is not about the differences between the Republican imagination and the Democrat imagination. America has long wrestled with and was all the stronger for the legitimate and competing imaginations of political parties.
No, today we are asked, and perhaps one day required, to embrace an imagination that will be our ruination, an imagination that would exclude all but the white, the wealthy, and the native-born. So we must act with charity and speak with clarity. Grace and truth, each of equal and vital importance. No hating, but also no going along to get along in order to spare ourselves an anxious or awkward moment.
Grace and truth. Grace: the determination to love the unlovable, to devote ourselves to their ethical growth and moral evolution. And truth: the determination to live in reality, to speak with courage, integrity, and clarity. As Quakers this is our calling—to imagine a world where all people everywhere are loved, equal, and free, and to commit our time, talent, and treasure to that end.
How shall we live together?
There is a story in the Gospel of Luke about Jesus encountering a wretched man outside the village of Gadara, shackled with bonds of iron, bound by his inner demons. For some reason, this man had permitted demons to take up residence within him. What possesses a man to do that? I don’t know. I’m just asking. Power? Money? The need for acclaim? The townsfolk had responded the best way they knew how. They exiled him to the graveyard outside of town, to live with the dead, chained among the tombstones. Along came Jesus. Grace and truth. Jesus did not pretend the demons were figments of an imagination, of no consequence. He asked their name, and they told him. Legion. That was the name of Herod’s armies.
They knew immediately what Jesus was about.
They said, “Don’t kill us. Instead, let us enter that herd of swine.”
So he let them enter the herd of swine, and the herd rushed down the hill and into a lake and drowned themselves.
Remember this, friends, evil invariably, inevitably carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Just as grace invariably, inevitably carries with it the seeds of ongoing creation. And so this man from Gadara, healed by grace, sat at the feet of Jesus, in his right mind, happy and whole, his boots laced to the very top and neatly tied.
At whose feet will you sit? And how shall we live together?