This is the sermon, “When Our Institutions Fail Us,” that I delivered on February 2nd, 2020:
The decision by the United States Senate not to call witnesses in the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump demands moral commentary, ethical analysis, biblical perspective and spiritual reflection. It is an example of a governmental institution failing the people, a decision that is causing great pain. If you detect some shock, anxiety and surprise at my assertion that our institutions have failed us, please understand that I am an older, white, heterosexual male. I do not expect institutions to fail me. Others – African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, female Americans, LGBTQ Americans – expect institutions to fail them.
Their response to my commentary might well be, “When don’t our institutions fail us?” With that context in mind, the Senate decision not to call witnesses hit many of us very hard. In a country ostensibly committed to justice for all, where is there any semblance of justice in blocking witnesses at a trial? With its vote, the United States Senate declared there is no longer any institutional check on the power of the president. It went on record as stating Congress has relinquished any ability to say to the president, whether they are a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, male or female, “Stop. What you are doing is wrong, illegal, unjust and immoral.”
Instead, with this decision and the subsequent vote yesterday to acquit the president, the Senate has proclaimed for all to hear, “Mr. President, we surrender our ability to check your power.” With this surrender, a central governmental institution has failed us. With this failure, the only thing that will stop this president, or any future president, from wrong, illegal, unjust or immoral action is his or her conscience, his or her moral compass.
How did we get here? In seeking to answer any such question about life in these United States, racism, racial anxiety, white privilege and white fragility are always central factors. Other issues are in play, but in a country that came into being via the genocide of native people, the enslavement of millions of African descent, the exploitation of Asian and Latinx immigrants, it is difficult to overstate the role of race.
In her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo writes, “White people in North America live a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress.” “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” she explains. “I would argue that these moves include electing presidents, senators, representatives and others that have signaled that they will work to keep black, yellow and brown people ‘in their place.’” In order to protect white privilege, white people have cried out, “Give us a king.” We are not the first, or the last, to decide that a king, dictator or potentate is the way to protect ourselves from a deeply seated anxiety. We don’t know all that was going on, but at some point in their development as a nation, the people of God known as Israel issued a similar plea, “Give us a king.” God, their true king, spoke to them through Samuel. His words are found in I Samuel 8:10-22, which I would paraphrase as follows: “You can have a king but be not fooled, there will be a cost, often a dear and personal cost, for the king will do whatever it takes to take care of himself and protect his power.”
Our institutions of government have failed. They have given us a king. How then should we respond?
- Speak our truth and name our pain.
- When voting, make an honest and thorough evaluation of the candidate’s moral compass a central concern.
Positions on major issues are not unimportant but instead of focusing on them or on questions like, “How will this candidate benefit me?” let us pay great attention to the content of the candidate’s character.
- Follow the lead of Howard Thurman.
In his 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, this great preacher, teacher, poet and philosopher spoke to us from the perspective of one who expected religious, political, economic and educational institutions to fail him, to fail his community. Rather than seeking hope in institutions like the church, which taught his grandmother that it was God’s highest will that she, a slave, obey her master, Thurman urged us to seek hope in Jesus and the disinherited from whom he refused to be separated. “The basic principles of his way of life cut straight through to the despair of his fellows and found it groundless,” Thurman writes. “By inference he says, ‘You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea – Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.’”
Fear not. Hate not. Worship only God. Love Jesus. Foster meaningful relationships with the disinherited in whom he dwells.
When our institutions fail us, as they have done and will do again, we must turn to these central teachings, these life-giving actions.