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Presented February 17, 2019, by Susan Hebble
"What counts is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made in the lives of others."-Nelson Mandela
From Abraham Lincoln's first Inaugural Address, 1861:
I am loath to close. 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 battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone 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.
Last year, we memorialized two men who, to many across party lines, represented well our country's ideals: John McCain and George Herbert Walker Bush. Now, I am not here to talk politics today-I would not presume to do so. But what struck me last year, what struck many last year, I think, was that in our national reflections on the deaths of Senator McCain and President Bush Senior, we could not help but draw contrasts to the current President, despite the three sharing party affiliation. Regardless of one's inclination to disagree with the Senator and/or former President, most would cede that these two men served our country with integrity and with sincere dedication. And in doing so, each earned a moniker usually reserved for our more noble and, frankly, senior politicians: they were heralded as "Statesmen."
Now, if you know me, you know I love words. I enjoy turning words over in my mind, looking at them from various angles, trying them on like new shoes with different outfits. To that end, the word statesman has been nagging at me for some time, begging me to take it out and see how it fits. And as I've thought about this word over the past few months, I've realized that here, in a church defined by seven admirable and aspirational principles, here is as good a place as any to openly ponder, evaluate, re-assess, and perhaps reclaim the word, with some revision of course. For like our faith, it is, essentially, a word about principles, a word that if used correctly and sincerely reflects the spirit of a person regardless of-not because of--his or her politics. It is a word that captures the essence of an individual whose actions reflect his or her ethos, whose words correspond with his or her aspirations for the world they serve.
So let's save the debate over the politics of Senator McCain and President Bush for another day, and look, today, at what it means to be a Statesperson-yes, our first revision, awkward but necessary-and consider how we might fit the word into our 21st century wardrobe, indeed, how we might find it not only appropriate but necessary for how we view and function in today's world. For I would argue, ultimately, that each of us has the potential, perhaps the responsibility, to rise up, to become ourselves Statespersons and that in claiming that mantle, we might enrich our own spirituality, might deepen our own commitment to the future. Doing so, requires us, however, to look back, to learn from those before us.
So what does it mean to be a Statesperson? Interestingly, despite its roots in Ancient Roman politics and philosophy, definitions of the term are thin, and synonyms for it almost non-existent. If I were to take a poll, you each would likely say some variation of what Merriam-Webster dictionary posts: "1: one versed in the principles or art of government. 2: a wise, skillful, and respected political leader."
But it is in the nuance and complexity of actions and words that we begin to see an individual evolve into someone who embodies the hard-to-explain but not-so-hard-to-see essence of statespersonship. And while historically we admire statespersons for grand deeds done-I think of LBJ's work on Civil Rights, for instance-it's often in the small gestures that we might see a person's authentic character. For instance, what I admire about Senator McCain was not his politics but his integrity, as exemplified in the clips we saw over and over after he died: you know the ones: one in which he corrected a woman who was making bigoted assumptions about Barack Obama, and the other in which he unexpectedly voted against repeal of Obamacare with a dramatic last minute thumbs down. Like all human beings, McCain made significant mistakes, but rarely did he act inauthentically; in fact, the most significant time he did so was when he agreed to put Sarah Palin on the ticket as Vice Presidential candidate-and he realized that mistake, even owned up to it.
And as for George H W Bush, again a lawmaker with whom I almost always disagreed politically, his story is steeped in consistent national service, from his enlistment into the Navy in 1941 on his 18th birthday to his supportive relationships with presidents from the opposing party, particularly with Bill Clinton, who defeated him in the 1992 election. As is tradition, the outgoing President left the incoming President a note on the desk of the Oval Office. Bush's note was remarkable in its humility, in its empathetic and conciliatory words, emphasizing that Clinton was now "our President" and that Bush wished Clinton and his family well. Bush later became something of a surrogate father to Bill Clinton, despite the cavernous differences in their upbringing and in their personal and political histories, and Clinton later recalled Bush as "an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future."
To continue with the President's Day theme, we can look at the notable statesmanship of any number of our Presidents-I suspect we each have our own personal "favorites." But we must start with George Washington. Here's what I love about Washington: not that he led the Patriots to revolutionary victory and that he became our first President by unanimous vote, although those are pretty cool achievements; it's that he stepped down. At the height of his power and popularity, he stepped down, initiating the tradition, and later law, of term limits for the highest office in the land to ensure the importance of the office, not the man.
And perhaps the most distinctly "statesmanlike" of Presidents was Abraham Lincoln, ironically, the least likely to succeed by conventional standards: he was famously unattractive, awkward, unsophisticated, and "moody," with an extraordinary amount of personal challenges and sorrows that would distract most of us from functioning for a day, let alone running the country during its most significant crisis. In fact, Doris Kearns Goodwin points out that his early sorrows-his impoverished upbringing, the premature deaths of his mother, sister, and first love-essentially fueled his ambition, an ambition that took shape as he read (he was self-taught, of course) the ancient Greeks and latched on to the idea that "if you could accomplish something worthy in your life, you could live on in the memory of others. . ." (Goodwin)
He is by most accounts our greatest President, so we sometimes forget that no one expected him to win the Presidency. And when he did, he astonished the nation by appointing his three rivals to his Cabinet, giving shape to what would become known as the imminently necessary "Team of Rivals." And while Lincoln literally saved the United States with his astute political leadership, it was his ability to do so in the shadow of what could have been overwhelming personal tragedy while in office-the death of his beloved son Willie and increasing mental decline of his wife, Mary-that, to me, underscores the extraordinariness of his character and commitment.
As we look at other examples of admirable leaders, we see that suffering is a common thread. And what I've noticed in my very informal studies these past few months is that the suffering-distinct and deeply personal experiences-is not "gotten over," not pushed aside or denied, but consciously recognized as part of one's very being. For McCain, the 5 1/2 years as a POW in Viet Nam, including 3 1/2 in solitary confinement; for Bush, his combat experience as a naval aviator, most notably the 1944 combat crash from which he was the sole survivor, and later, the death of his 3-year-old daughter.
For another notable statesperson, Nelson Mandela, suffering would not only give shape to his own leadership but galvanize a worldwide movement resulting in the remarkably peaceful dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa. During his 27 years of imprisonment (from 1964-1990), Mandela "endured enormous physical and emotional hardship" (O'Grady). For instance, recently published letters from his time in prison describe how "'he slept naked on a cement floor [which was] damp and cold during the rainy season'. . . [he noted] that white prisoners [had] always been provided pajamas, and only black prisoners [had] not" (O'Grady). Yet Mandela "was resolute. He refused to address warders as bass (boss). . . [and] became spokesman for prisoner interests, polite but firm taking on the wrath of warders but gaining the respect of fellow prisoners" (Jentlesen 138).
As Apartheid was eventually dismantled and Mandela elected South Africa's president, he advocated for reconciliation not retribution, even inviting one of his former prison guards to his inauguration and appointing white members of the former government to positions in the new government. For Mandela, freedom from prison was not just the end of an ordeal but the beginning of an opportunity to create positive change; as he later said, "to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
One of his most significant acts of statesmanship occurred when he did what might seem a shockingly simple thing: he put on a rugby jersey. The national rugby team, the Springboks, were "beloved by white South Africans and reviled by most blacks" (Trout), but in 1995, Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. So Mandela met publicly with Francois Pienaar, the captain of the national team, the Springboks, a team which Black South Africans saw as symbolic of racism and oppression. The two coordinated an effort to promote unity, which led to black and white South Africans astonishingly cheering together. Upon winning the championship-they were the underdogs--Mandela and Pienaar stood side by side as Pienaar led the team in singing a Xhosa African liberation song, with Mandela sporting a Springboks team jersey and cap. "It's almost impossible to underestimate the importance of this moment: As Desmund Tutu describes it: 'It had the effect of just ... turning around the country. It was an incredible transformation. An extraordinary thing. It said, yes, it is actually possible for us to become one nation.'" (O'Grady).
And I love throwing the net wider, and looking more expansively at examples of statespersonship beyond the immediate realms of elected offic: I think of Eleanor Roosevelt, of Martin Luther King, of Susan B. Anthony, of Harvey Milk, but also of others, like Nobel Peace Prize winners Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, two otherwise ordinary housewives who founded Northern Ireland Women for Peace, inciting a major breakthrough in Ireland's Catholic-Protestant conflict in the 1970s (Jentleson).
Now, we could be here all day sharing tributes of people who dedicated themselves to the common good, but let's regroup a bit and look at some of the common traits of Statespersonship. And in doing so, let me propose this: that what is important is not the archaic terminology-for "statesmanship" is not necessarily about the "state", even though it comes from an ancient impulse to create and affirm democracy, nor is it restricted to "men", though historically men have happened to dominate in positions of recognition and leadership for reasons still puzzling to many of us. (I am glad to see that is changing, ever incrementally but ever certainly! Shout out to the 102 female members of congress this year!) Nor is it restricted, as implied in the past, to white men and women (indeed-we can draw a beautiful line from Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King to Senator John Lewis, even to tennis legend and, I would argue, 'statesman' Arthur Ashe . . .)
Historian J. Rufus Fears lectured on what he called the
"wisdom" of history: In doing so, he identified some
essential threads among history's most admirable
statespeople: He finds them to be principled/committed to core
values of individual freedom, equality under the law, and
democratic liberty [what he calls a bedrock of principles]; to
be people of integrity, whose "moral compass" never
wavers, whose sense of right and wrong is not swayed by the
lure of power or money or fame;
to be people of vision, with awareness that one must do good for future generations, for a time we ourselves may never see;
to be eager to read and learn and work in the quest that "their leadership [might] ultimately lead to more freedom for more people in the long run."
Or, to paraphrase 19th Century Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke, the "politician thinks of the next election, [but] the [statesperson] thinks of the next generation."
Indeed, the statesperson exhibits a strong and evolving self-awareness both of his or her imperfections (we are all human beings, after all, by definition flawed) but also an awareness of one's abilities and of the obligation to use those strengths for good, not to rest on one's laurels or to succumb to sorrow; the statesperson simultaneously exhibits humility and confidence-I am reminded here of a story about George Bush: "If a speechwriter put the word 'I' in one of his speeches, he'd instinctively cross it out," insisting that leadership was not about him but about the country he served (Brooks). A statesperson also recognizes, as congresswoman Barbara Jordan said, that "A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good." And with integrity and faith in humanity, the statesperson will compassionately appeal to "our better angels." And the real victory is to show the next generation how to be better than they think they can be, to exceed their own expectations.
Now, some of you may recall that the last time I spoke with you, we looked at how we might embrace "generativity"-or care for the next generation-in our personal lives. But today, our view is global; it's about recognizing and accepting a social responsibility, for the sake of humanity, for the sake of our planet.
So many tributes to McCain and Bush last year lamented that they were "the last statesmen." But I believe otherwise. As much despair and cynicism as there is in the world today, I prefer to think that among us are great people who will think and act and do with integrity, with tenacity, and with vision, people ready to do great things for this world, in politics, in music, in arts, in science. And some have already begun to do so: Malala Yousafzai, who as a child in 2012 was shot on her school bus in Pakistan for speaking out in support of education for girls in that country and who continues to this day to work for equality and fairness around the world; Lin-Manuel Miranda, who shook up our understanding of American History with Hamilton and then stood for Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane there failed to elicit compassion or respect from our current president; Mitch Lindreau, who as the mayor of New Orleans overcame his initial reluctance to remove confederate statues in that city by studying the history of those monuments and talking with the citizens of his city and then seeing that those monuments to confederacy were removed, even thought it would have been easy to just let them be. In an admirable speech on the subject, Lindreau said that removing the statues "is, about . . . making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong."
And I think of Bill and Melinda Gates, whose Foundation measurably improves the lives of the disenfranchised around the world, and Al Gore and Jimmy Carter, two more "retirees" who work tirelessly to save our planet. And I think of the teenagers from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School who not only spoke eloquently in the aftermath of that horrific shooting just a year ago but who continue to work tenaciously to bring about change in our government and in our culture, even as they mourn their friends, practice for driver's license tests, and apply to colleges. Bruce Jentleson concludes his impressive book on leadership, The Peacemakers, by confirming that the anxieties of the 21st century may seem overwhelming-our inboxes and newsfeeds are full, aren't they, of micro-demands-but that an expansive, more creative version of 'statespersonship' is not only possible but exactly what we need.
And I would suggest that each of us here is capable, perhaps in our own small ways, of carrying that mantle, particularly if we commit consciously and actively to the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. For these principles-our "bedrock of principles"-reflect the message of the stories I've shared today. Let's look them together:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
So, bolstered by these principles, let us reclaim the word-"statespersonship"-dust it off, expand and energize its meaning for the 21st century; let us take it down from the pedestal and own it, wear it, use it, make it ours, make ours the face of the statesperson. Make ours the face of integrity and hope and service and inspiration for the sake of the common good, for the sake of a common future.
"Every day you may make progress. Every step may be truthful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, every-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb." --Winston Churchill
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.