In the 1960s television sitcom “Get Smart” (whose reruns I watched as a kid every afternoon on Super Station WTBS), at the most crucial moments of discernment and decision, Max, Agent 99, and the Chief would sit across a table and activate “the cone of silence.” The futuristic, Plexiglass cone would descend from the ceiling and envelop all the conversation partners. But the cone never worked correctly. It was an echo chamber. Rather than facilitating listening, the cone of silence prevented anyone from hearing anyone else. Max, Agent 99, and the Chief could make out only a word here or a phrase there, and through their partial hearing they often came to the wrong conclusions. They ended up frustrated and confused, unable to discern how to move forward. The irony was that, at the very moment in which listening to one another was most important, the characters created conditions in which listening was impossible.
On Wednesday morning of this past week, roughly half of the voters in our nation were relieved at the presidential election’s outcome, while the other half were shocked and saddened by it. And, both sides also immediately called down the proverbial cone of silence, in which the echo chamber completely cut them off from hearing any divergent voices. Consequently, we have thus far heard only the sounds of our own disappointment or joy, fear or relief. Indeed, more than a few people—again, representing both sides of the divide—have actually and honestly said to me that they aren’t interested in hearing from someone who cast a vote different from their own. In our digital day and age that avoidance is easy. Our cones of silence are so impermeable that even the Facebook algorithm, we now know, sends us only those news items that track with our own already-expressed opinions.
This across-the-board response is, of course, the fevered extension of what was surely the most toxic election cycle in my lifetime, and perhaps in our nation’s history. Epithets and reckless speech first lobbed from the top then bounced down until common citizens began to believe the worst motives of one another. Sound bytes prevailed; real conversation among people ceased; and even among folks who’ve known each other for years, suspicion began to take root. At our Dean’s Hour forum just last week, Ambassador Linnet Deily shared poignantly, “I’ve never seen an election that has divided friends and family such as this has.”
Of course, such a failure to listen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is human nature that when one feels unheard, one begins to speak more loudly, more vociferously, with less care, and with greater abandon. Since Tuesday, some elements among both the relieved and the fearful have responded in ways that should concern us deeply.
On one side of the divide, news outlets report numerous instances of threat and actual physical assault across the country against Muslims, Latinos, and African-Americans. Perhaps most distressingly, several of these events have occurred in high schools and middle schools, which reveal the extent to which our children also hear the bits and pieces of our rhetoric and respond in their contexts. It is as if we have forgotten that we form our children in particular ways by careless words. They are mirrors to us, and we should see ourselves in their actions.[i] People of color and religious minorities are afraid, and their fear is real. They wonder if the America they thought they knew—and in many cases the American dream that drew them here—is an illusion.
On the other side, CBS News reports that a man in Chicago was pulled from his car and assaulted after a traffic altercation, while his attackers vocally cited the man’s support for Donald Trump as their motivation.[ii] National Public Radio reports that the protests of the past few days in some American cities have becomes riots, with rioters attacking both police and the very livelihoods of small business owners, engaging in, according to police, “criminal and dangerous behavior.”[iii]
As you know, in preparation for the fall Dean’s Hour series, I have spent the past several months studying the faith, lives, and leadership of four of the greatest presidents who have ever served our country. As I have struggled through this election cycle, their words have sustained me in ways I did not expect. This past week, as I have watched our nation and felt the echo chamber descend, the words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address have come back to me again and again. On the cusp of conflict far deeper than our own, the President reminded his fellow citizens:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”[iv]
This begins here, at Christ Church Cathedral and places like it. Here, we must model the better angels of our nature. For us, of course, Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory extend all the way back to the days of Jesus and Isaiah. They are our inspirations and models; they, and not today’s political candidates or elected officials, are the ones who rightly form our beliefs, our convictions, and our actions. It is either serendipity or grace that today both the Prophet and the Savior remind us of what God will do in the midst of turbulent times. Isaiah shares with us God’s promise to “create a new heaven and a new earth,” one in which distress and weeping are heard no more. But, friends, until the Lord returns, the vanguard of that new heaven and new earth is no one but us.
This is daunting, and never more so than in conflicted times. But Jesus adds today the promise that he will grant us words and wisdom that no one can withstand or contradict. In my past two sermons, as the election approached, I sought to convey the character and content of those words and that wisdom. Three weeks ago, I conveyed St. Paul’s last will and testament, when Paul says, in the end, all that matters is that we hold fast to the faith and love of Jesus, and share it in all our words and actions.[v]
Last week, I talked about the bliss of communion with God that is felt most deeply when we recognize, in our most vulnerable moments, how we are connected with all who suffer and are vulnerable. Not when you and I are strong and triumphant, Jesus says, but when we are weak, or afraid, or on the very precipice of life is the time to take note of that experience, so that we always remember, in both times of strength and weakness, to do good to those with whom we disagree; to stand up for those in need; to be kind, and be merciful.[vi]
As long as Christ Church Cathedral endures, I pray we will do these things, not because of politics on the right or the left, but because the prophets and the Savior compel us. (What does it mean to be Christians, after all, other than follow the Way of Jesus?) I pray we will deny the echo chamber and listen to those who differ from us. That will not always lead to agreement–nor should it–but it will move us toward understanding and away from imputing false motives to one another. And I pray we will, without doubt or hesitation, stand with and for all of God’s children who are vulnerable and fearful in this world, whatever their color, creed, religion, lifestyle, or political belief.
Yesterday I read a remarkable blog post[i] by Riaz Patel, a Muslim, Pakistani-American, gay man who supported Hillary Clinton. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, Riaz wanted to shed his echo chamber, to hear and understand those who supported Donald Trump. So Riaz traveled to Ketchikan, Alaska to visit with third-generation fishermen who were themselves fearful of economic displacement from proposed environmental regulations that would upend their ability to make a living from the sea. In a diner called The Landing, Riaz and his husband broke bread with locals Nicole, Jim, and Paula. Together, they were a motley crew who could not have been more different in virtually every way, but they all spoke openly. They all shared their fears and concerns. In their conversation, the mystic chords held, and the better angels of their nature prevailed. I daresay that neither Riaz nor his conversation partners changed their vote, but I have no doubt that their connection altered the way they saw one another and, God willing, their commitment to one another in time of trial and need.
We do well to embrace the words of Jesus and the words of those two prophets, Isaiah and Abraham Lincoln. Today, tomorrow, next year, and until the Lord returns, we are called by God to embody the better angels of our nature. We are called to shed our echo chambers and listen to those who differ from us, to see the best in them and hope the best for them. We are called to stand unequivocally with those who are vulnerable. We are called to receive grace and reflect grace. In these ways, and no others, will the mystic chords and bonds of affection that bind us as a nation be preserved. In these ways, and no others, will we, at Christ Church, be the vanguard of God’s new heaven and new earth.