Truth, Hope, and America

The Third Reconstruction, part 1

The Spirit of Truth image has stood before her White Plains congregation for over 80 years, on the front of the pulpit I have occupied for less than four of those years. I admire the equanimity and equipoise with which she assesses all that comes within her purview -- including, this week, a Time magazine cover asking, "Is Truth Dead?" -- using the same red letters on a black background as Time's 1966 cover asking, "Is God dead?"

In 1966, Unitarian Universalists were mostly intrigued by the Time cover. Few of us were bothered by the suggestion that God may be dead. (Many of us were familiar with Nietzsche's "God is dead" claim.) This time, however, knowing, as we do, what prompts the magazine's question, it does bother us. There are such things as facts, and they deserve our respect. While we can never predict with detailed precision all the effects of a given policy, attention to the general direction of the evidence is vital for building "a land that binds up the broken." We need the truth, or our most careful and rigorous attention to the evidence, of who and what is broken, where, and how badly.

In our fallibility and finitude, with brains built for confirmation bias rather than for truth, we can never be sure when the Spirit of Truth is smiling upon our words. What we can do is pursue unflagging fidelity to the evidence, with a vigilant attention to where our own biases may be leading us down paths of misinterpretation. No, we can never be sure that Lady Truth is smiling upon our words, but with a humble commitment to the evidence, we can at least have confidence that Truth isn't tearing her hair out -- nor has she succumbed to her abusers. As long as there are those who elevate the question, "What does the evidence say?" over the question, "What does my ego want to believe?" then Truth is not dead.
What though the tempest round me roars
I know the truth, it liveth.
We need the truth, or at least careful attention to real evidence, to speak to power, for power will not concede on its own. We need the truth, especially when the evidence is surprising, does not confirm what we thought. We need the truth, not because it sets us free all by itself, but because it gives us hope that the oppressor’s story is not the only possibility. We need the truth because energized by that hope we can then take action and make ourselves and all the children of the Earth free. Dear Spirit of Truth, may we be thy faithful servants.

If truth is dead, then so is hope, for all that would then be left would be the narrative of power's self-justification. Looking for sources of hope -- disruptions of the Oppressor's Tale -- I read William Barber, The Third Reconstruction. Barber sees the current time as one of possibility and hope for significant new progress toward justice against those forces that oppress the poor and the darker skinned -- a third period of reconstruction in US history, following the first Reconstruction in the post-Civil-War years and a second reconstruction in the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s. Barber's book is the 2016-17 Common Read selected by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
"Drawing on the prophetic traditions of Jewish and Christian scripture, while making room for other sources of truth, the book challenges us to ground our justice work in moral dissent, even when there is no reasonable expectation of political success, and to do the hard work of coalition-building in a society that is fractured and polarized." (Gail Forsyth-Vail, Discussion Guide 2016-17 UUA Common Read)

For an introduction to the reality we face, and the sense of hope for transformation, Langston Hughes' 1935 poem remains resonant.

“Let America Be America Again”
Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Out of the recognition of our national failures, Hughes lifts up the possibilities of redemption. The poem "hopes" us. The mix of realism and hope was the brew William Barber was raised on. A few pages into The Third Reconstruction, he relates:
"When we were growing up, Grandmamma and her nieces always cooked for the whole family....When I was at her house, I often sat with them in the kitchen. They would hum songs from church as she rolled out biscuits and stirred pots on her old gas stove. They also had a ritual whenever the food was done. Grandmamma would take a bottle of the anointing oil that she rubbed on people’s heads when she prayed for them and slip it in the front of her apron. She and the other ladies would take some money, a rag, and some of the food they’d cooked and they would say, 'We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.' As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking – that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon....She knew in her bones that faith and works, belief and practice, were inseparable. And she knew in her careful choice of words that love in action was not simply about helping people. It was a practice of hope that both enabled others to keep going and helped her to keep her eyes on the prize and hold on.” (3-4)
About 120 pages later, at the end of his short book, Barber affirms the hope that has run throughout his story.
“If we refuse to be divided by fear and continue pushing forward together, I have no doubt that these nascent movements will swell into a Third Reconstruction to push America toward our truest hope of a “more perfect union” where peace is established through justice, not fear. This is no blind faith. We have seen it in North Carolina. We have seen it throughout America’s history. And we are witnessing it now in state-based, state-government-focused moral fusion coalitions that are gathering to stand against immoral deconstruction. Ours is the living hope of America’s black-led freedom struggle, summed up so well in Langston Hughes’s memorable claim that although America has never been America to him, even still he could swear, ‘America will be!’ Despite the dark money, the old fears, and vicious attacks of extremists, we know America will be because our deepest moral values are rooted in something greater than people’s ability to conspire. All the money in the world can’t change that bedrock truth. This is the confidence that has sustained every moral movement in the history of the world.” (122)
Truth is not dead. And as long as she lives, America may yet be born.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Third Reconstruction"
See also
Part 2: I Thought I'd Be Saying...
Part 3: More of Us Than of Them

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