Live your Unitarian Universalist values out loud. Make your year-end gift today!
Paul R. Beedle
The first step is to notice the mountain. It is there. And it belongs to a
range of mountains. There’s no going around it. The next step is to reach the
kind of acceptance that has us praying in our hearts: "Lord, I don’t ask you to
move the mountain, just give me the strength to climb." The step after that is
where somebody—and then several somebodies—try to climb it. It’s a hard climb. They explore, they find footholds,
they blaze a trail or make a way out of no way. They climb, and finally one of
them, and then another, reaches the top. And the next step is, they come back
down and teach us about the climb, and the view from the top, and the promise of
the other side. With the next step, hikers follow the known trails and make them
well-worn. It’s still a tough climb, but there are markers on the trail and
you’re not up there all alone. And then another step: some new adventurers look
for a mountain pass where a broad road can be paved. Many think that pass
doesn’t exist. They stick to the hard trails. But some believe in the highway,
that the ascent should not require hiking gear, and that we can all go over
together. And at last the mountain pass is found, and a leader appears to help
us take the next step, to build that road.
I think that’s where we are. America has a long and complicated relationship
with a mountain called Inequality. We say—because
Thomas Jefferson wrote it in our Declaration of Independence—that "all men are created equal." And we interpret "men" to mean
everybody, women too, because once upon a time when people meant everybody they
said "men." That was true within the lifetimes of many of us here. Many of us
here remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr giving a speech in front of the Lincoln
Memorial in Washington DC—most of us have seen it
on video, at least a piece of it—and he said he had a
dream "that one day this nation [would] rise up and live out the true meaning of
its creed … that all men are created equal." And he meant everybody, and we all
knew it. And we also knew, from our own experience, that in fact we are not
equal. We are not the same. We are diverse in many, many ways. Still, there is
something true, and something important, that Jefferson meant by saying we are
all created equal.
Most of the time, most of us carry a symbol of our struggle with the mountain
called Inequality in our pockets. Maybe you have one in your pocket now. If you
look at a penny—the smallest-value, most accessible coin in
our currency—there it is. On the back, written over the
top of an image of the Lincoln Memorial, the place where Martin Luther King Jr
called us to rise to the meaning of Jefferson’s words that we are all created
equal, are some words in a language we don’t speak, but in Jefferson’s day many
people studied. The language is Latin; it was spoken two thousand years ago by
people who lived in the Roman Empire. The words are "e pluribus unum." It means,
"out of many, one." It means, we are diverse, but we are one people. Those words
appear on the Great Seal of the United States, a symbol of our nation proposed
by Congress in the same year that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of
Independence. About a hundred years later, Congress required that "e pluribus
unum" appear on all our coins.
The phrase was on the Great Seal and on our coins, but not officially a
national motto. There was no official motto of the United States until Congress
created one in 1956, just a few years before Martin Luther King, Jr. told us about
his dream. That motto also appears on the penny, on the other side, over the top
of the image of Abraham Lincoln himself: "In God We Trust." It is a phrase that
first appeared on our coins during the Civil War, and first appeared on all our
coins during the Great Depression. After it became an official motto, it also
appeared on our paper currency.
Those two mottos—"out of many, one" and
"in God we trust"—are in every way two
sides of a coin. There are things beyond the power of human beings to manage or
control. Regarding those things, the best we can do is to accept and to
understand and to trust in nature and in the grace that we meet in the world,
and adapt to it. And regarding those other things, that are within our power to
manage and to shape, the best we can do is to come together as one people and
use our diverse gifts to shape a better world. I think it is no coincidence that
"e pluribus unum" became more firmly established at times when we were building
together—building our foundations after the
Revolution, and re-building after the Civil War—while "in
God we trust" became more firmly established at times when we faced our greatest
challenges—during the Civil War and the Great
One more symbol on the penny is one you can’t see: the fact that it is the
most accessible coin in our currency means it is a symbol of sharing. We don’t
all look the same, and we don’t all have equal abilities. We are not equal in
wealth, either. Some of us have more money, some of us have less. Money is how
we share our diverse talents and help each other most of the time. Money
represents work. It represents effort. In order to make the world a better
place, using our diverse abilities to shape the things we can, we have to do
work, to make an effort. Most of the time, when we do work that benefits someone
else, they give us money so that we can buy the things that sustain us and make
our own lives better—food and houses and cars
and toys and so on. A lot of those things are things we can’t or don’t know how
to create for ourselves, but other people know how. That’s part of our
diversity, too. And since they know how, they make more than they need for
themselves, in order to share. And most of the time, we share by buying and
selling. A penny doesn’t buy very much by itself, but put lots and lots of
pennies together and pretty soon you’re able to buy what you need. And by doing
some work, you can always earn some pennies.
Now, let’s talk about that a little bit: [a dialogue begins]
That’s what I mean when I say a penny—and money in
general—is a symbol of sharing. We don’t need it in
order to share. But it’s a tool we invented to make sharing simpler to do. The
fact that we invented that tool means we think sharing is important. So when you
look at a penny, it can remind you that sharing is important. That’s what
symbols do, they remind you of things that are important.
Sharing is important to us. Helping each other is important to us. That’s why
we invented money. That’s why we use it. The idea is that, whoever you are, if
you have some money, you can buy what you need. Everyone is treated equally in
that way: everybody’s money spends the same. If you’ve got it.
Justice is also important to us. Being fair and playing by the rules is
important to us. That’s why we have laws. And that’s what Thomas Jefferson was
talking about when he wrote that "all men are created equal." He meant that
everyone deserved respect, and fairness, and justice. That was a new idea when
our country was founded, that all people should be treated the same, should be
equal before the law. The law wasn’t supposed to be different for you than it
was for other people. It wasn’t supposed to be enforced differently for you than
for other people. Everybody plays by the same rules and gets the same respect:
that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s what "equality before the law" means.
Everybody’s money spends the same, and everybody deserves the same respect
and fair treatment under law. There’s another word on the penny that symbolizes
those two things together: "liberty." We’re all supposed to be free to do what
we want within the law and to buy what we want within our means. That’s what
Jefferson meant when he wrote that "all men are created equal." It’s not that
we’re all the same, or should all have exactly the same amount of money, or
anything like that. We’re diverse. Our diversity is a strength when we share and
help each other and treat each other with equal respect and are generous in
offering and creating opportunities for each other to fulfill the promise of who
we are. The promise of who we are as a people rests on who we are individually—out of many one. It’s not about what we own
or who owns more or less—it’s not about having an
ownership society. It’s about how we use what we own and what we are. It’s about
sharing and caring and being generous and helping one another and respecting one
another and making a better world for all of us. I would call that a stewardship
society. Because there’s nothing in this world we truly own. Everything there is
in the world, we’re just taking care of for a while—that’s what a steward does.
So here we are, looking at the great mountain called Inequality, which stands
in a range of mountains called Diversity. There are many other peaks in the
range whose names we know: Race, Class, and Gender among them. Nothing we can do
about those. They are the contours of Diversity. But long ago a mountain pass
was discovered on the shoulder of that mountain called Inequality. It’s broad
enough to build a highway on it. Jefferson told us it was there. Martin Luther
King Jr challenged us to build the highway. And now Barack Obama is asking us to
get to work. Will we build that highway? Will we get over Diversity, all of us
together as one people, and live out the meaning of Jefferson’s phrase, that we
are all created equal?
Soon-to-be-President Obama has called for tomorrow to be a national day of
service: a day when we all do something to help each other without using money.
And he’s calling us to participate, and to continue to help each other without
using money after that day, not to stop doing it after tomorrow. Some of us got
an early start yesterday over on our Brand Lane property—we chopped up most of that wall that Hurricane Ike blew down. If you
were there yesterday, I think you can take tomorrow off. But truthfully, Mr.
Obama is not asking us to do anything we don’t do already. Service is our
prayer. Right? He just wants us to keep on praying. The nation needs our
When we trust the wisdom in each of us, when we tell our stories from deep
inside and listen lovingly, when we feel the power of each other’s faith, when
our hearts are in a holy place, we are building a highway over that mountain
called Inequality. When we share, and help one another, and treat each other
fairly and justly, we are building a highway over that mountain called
Inequality. When we draw a circle that encompasses all of us, and proclaim
liberty throughout the land, we are building a highway over that mountain called
Inequality. When we do these things, then in those places in our national life
where it is lacking, we may be assured and know that freedom is coming.
Our new President is calling us to service. Many have begun. Let us join with
our neighbors and make a better world for us all. So may it be.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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