As the United States of America (as opposed to the United States of Mexico or some of the others we never acknowledge) heads into its next presidential election cycle, a universal fear has given voice to anger and derision, and stopped the ears of many who used to pride themselves on openness to new information. I watched Keith Obermann last night for a bit, and was simply disgusted by his reliance on invective to communicate arrogance. For 9-11-11 Paul Krugman launched a column that simply exploited the occasion to complain again about exploitation of the occasion.
I don’t disagree with the politics of either journalist, but I would like to point out, as a pastor and historian, that the purpose of formal occasions like elections and memorials is to pause and listen to each others’ stories, fitting them in with the facts we think we know, double-checking said facts against these stories, and then trying to move forward together. Doing history is so often prophetic precisely because it calls us to surrender to larger stories that may or may not support our personal narratives. That is why people prefer myths — metastories that make key points or offer up acceptable explanations of how “the we of me” (Carson McCullers’s great expression in Member of the Wedding) got to be in a certain predicament or privilege. The anger which comes from being contradicted is why people in stress hang onto hagiography — the creation of saints who make inarguable virtue of what the individual wants to believe is the right thing to do.
At the end of next month, the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society and the Harvard Divinity School will join together to present a panel on the late Professor of American Religious History, C. Conrad Wright. It is my honor to be on this panel, speaking on Conrad’s personal mission of using the academically maligned field of denominational history to witness, as a prophet, to covenants that in his time were under attack.
They are still fragile. They are both right and wrong for this new millennium. But that is for another day. Right now, I lift up the example of a scholar who was willing to research, study, retell and affirm stories from history that did not match the feelings of his contemporaries. Over time, however, those stories became part of who are have become and are trying to be. And in one sense, his point still applies: Covenant means listening with pastoral openness to the stories of people whose stories do not fit with ours. Hearing them out on what they know they need and think they want. And then, looking into our collectivity with honesty to be sure we are ready to meet those needs, without surrendering our ethics to the most extreme or hurtful of anyone’s passions.