150th anniversary leaflet published by All Souls Church Unitarian, Washington, DC, 1972. Reprinted with permission.
The most persistent problem in American life has been the gap between the values espoused and the values observed. The reality of American life, once one moves away from the orator's platform, has been deeply embedded in disvalues—discrimination and inequity, selective and self-serving freedom, moralism without morality.
Candidates for elective office talk about bringing us all together. Over and over we hear the word reconciliation.The usual road to reconicliation begins with such lofty expressions as "We are all brochers and must learn to live together, young and old, black and white, rich and poor." The road usually ends with "We will all live together in harmony as one people and one nation." And if the orator wants to appeal to the broadest spectrum, he'll add, "under God."
This road that most politicians talk about, and also not a few humanists, is built on pontifical fantasy. It is about an illusion. The road runs from the rainbow to soft, puffy clouds. As we travel this road, we feel good. We feel secure. We feel a sense of the majestic. The words lift us to a sense of fulfillment and well-being.
In fact, we owe a lot to the pontificating conductor: for a short while our longing needs are met. Whether we be young or old, black, brown, red, or white, rich or poor, we can fantasize at stretching out our arms across the aisles and holding hands. For in each of us is the longing for harmony, not disharmony, the longing for personhood, not depersonalization, the longing for life, not death.
I wish this road were real and not an illusion. I wish the wind would not blow the soft, puffy clouds away. I wish the rainbow would not fade with the lowering of the sun behind the hills of reality.
But the illusion has within itself its own awakening. How long could the oppressed have walked in brotherhood with the oppressor? How long could the poor have walked willingly and joyfully with the rich?
The real road to reconciliation will not be like that at all. The real road to reconciliation will be a bumpy road. It will be a road that speaks to the issue of survival with the same degree of concern that it sepaks to the issue of security. It will deal with the dream deferred with the same determination that it presently deals with being number one.
It will be a road that deals with the values of life, not disvalues. It will run through the pain and depression of men's lives as well as to their lofty peaks of hope and aspiration.
Some years ago when I was being interviewed by the search committee of this church, we got into a discussion of the Black Power movement and I was asked, "How do you see your ministry?"
And I said, "I am first a Black man, and second, an individual."
Very alertly, the search committee asked, "How can you then call yourself a humanist and say you can minister to all the people?"
And I looked at the committee and said, "I believe with every sinew of my being that the first society that builds its priorities on the disinherited will be the first universal society.
"When our agenda is tailor-made for the Black, the Chicano, the American Indian, the poor White, the poor of our land, then we'll understand that the last can be first. Then we'll understand that when we do it for the least of our brothers, we do it for ourselves."
I wish I could be more comforting. I wish in every sermon I preach I could heal the sores, help you slip through life as smoothly as possible. I certainly would be more popular. I would run less risk of being misunderstood.
But if I understand the traditions of the prophets, if I am to struggle with you so we can develop our new insight together and come to a new perception, it will be a bumpy road for us, and it will start with our fears and our depression. It will start with the oppressed among us and in us, and it will go, a bump at a time, to a new heaven and a new earth.
It's a bumpy road, but it's the only one I see that will get us there.
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Last updated on Tuesday, July 26, 2011.
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