Attention, Deficit, Hyperactivity, Disorder:
A Four-Part Sermon on the American Crisis
Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I avoided preaching about American politics for as long as I could. As an American minister serving in Northwest England, I assumed no one wanted to hear my reflections on an election happening, over the course of interminable months, on the other side of an ocean. Besides, I wasn’t sure what to say.
But as 2016 wore on, it became apparent that this was a remarkable year in American life — one that would have an impact on the whole world. It’s all interconnected these days. Even as its influence wanes, American life has to some extent remained a template for the rest of the world, to be affirmed or rejected. So even in the U.K., I hope it might be worth reflecting on the modern American condition.
This is the first in what may one day be four sermons on the American condition, called “Attention”, “Deficit”, “Hyperactivity” and “Disorder”. In calling it this, I do not mean to make light of a serious condition affecting millions of people worldwide. On the contrary, I use the term because I think it speaks powerfully to what the nation is going through as a whole.
I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll write the next three sermons, but it probably will be months before I embark on the second sermon in this series. Next week I want to preach about forgiveness.
I want to make it very clear that I’m not asking anyone to agree with me, only to consider with their own mind and heart. My own family often don’t agree with me, and I love them just as much. Heck, half the time I don’t agree with myself.
Here’s praying that all of this reflection that’s going on right now about the state of things today, all over the world, may serve the cause of justice and righteousness, helping them on their way.
Attention, Deficit, Hyperactivity, Disorder
Part 1: Attention
“We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct.
And you know, we begin early to ask life to put us first. Our first cry as a baby was a bid for attention. And all through childhood the drum major impulse or instinct is a major obsession. Children ask life to grant them first place. They are a little bundle of ego. And they have innately the drum major impulse or the drum major instinct.
Now in adult life, we still have it, and we really never get by it. We like to do something good. And you know, we like to be praised for it. Now if you don’t believe that, you just go on living life, and you will discover very soon that you like to be praised. Everybody likes it, as a matter of fact. And somehow this warm glow we feel when we are praised or when our name is in print is something of the vitamin A to our ego. Nobody is unhappy when they are praised, even if they know they don’t deserve it and even if they don’t believe it. The only unhappy people about praise is when that praise is going too much toward somebody else. (That’s right) But everybody likes to be praised because of this real drum major instinct…
The final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct…
Now the other problem is, when you don’t harness the drum major instinct — this uncontrolled aspect of it — is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism. It leads to snobbish exclusivism. And you know, this is the danger of social clubs and fraternities — I’m in a fraternity; I’m in two or three — for sororities and all of these, I’m not talking against them. I’m saying it’s the danger. The danger is that they can become forces of classism and exclusivism where somehow you get a degree of satisfaction because you are in something exclusive. And that’s fulfilling something, you know — that I’m in this fraternity, and it’s the best fraternity in the world, and everybody can’t get in this fraternity. So it ends up, you know, a very exclusive kind of thing…
But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
“May you live in interesting times” is probably not, as commonly believed, an ancient Chinese curse. Like a lot of things in the history of Western politics, it was made up, a fiction. In this case the phrase may have been made up around 1936 by a British Unitarian, Austen Chamberlain, who was a politician, and half-brother to Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. But whatever the origins of the phrase, “may you live in interesting times”, there’s no question that interesting times have come around again.
We have a new President in the USA — the country that is arguably still the world’s most powerful. This new president is a man who some hail as a man of the people, and others see as distressingly reminiscent of Roman emperors of a long time ago. Mr. Trump was overheard, in an audiotape, openly bragging about his ability to molest women. He has built up a brand around the image of gold and ornate living. He is a casino owner and the creator of a so-called University — it was never accredited — that promised a path to quick and easy success, and later settled a class action lawsuit. Before running for office, his main foray into political life was a campaign to sow the seeds of doubt about President Obama’s birth certificate, repeatedly implying, despite all evidence, that he was born in Africa and a Muslim. Doubling down on this anti-Muslim rhetoric, Trump has occasionally proposed that Muslims be banned from the US. He has said any number of incendiary things during the campaign, and has appointed to prominent positions vocal opponents of protecting the environments, opponents to equal marriage for gays and lesbians, opponents to basically every liberal reform that is devoted to the idea of a collective approach to the common good.
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Donald Trump, because he isn’t very interesting. I’ve met at least a dozen people like Mr. Trump in my life, and they’re all pretty similar — they command all the attention in the room, when they’re in it; they are larger than life, like the Great Gatsby; large events swirl around them, for better or for worse; but then, when you really get to know them — if you really get to know them — you discover that, like the Great Gatsby there’s not much there. Oh, I’m sure that’s not quite true, there may be some soulfulness buried deep within Donald trump’s personality, but for the most part, he’s a very easy person to figure out. I’ll tell you what makes him tick in a second, if you haven’t guessed already. Many of those closest to him already have.
No, what’s interesting is not Donald Trump, but the fact that the American people elected him to be President. This didn’t just come down to President Trump himself, of course. There were other factors at work here — the unusual system of the electoral college, the FBI’s involvement, the interventions of a foreign government (the type of interventions of which the USA has been guilty for decades, I hasten to add). All of these questions are very well discussed in hundreds, if not thousands, of websites. I’m here to give a sermon, and what I invite us to consider here today is the spiritual significance that so many millions of people voted for him. For many of those millions, it may be more accurate to say they voted against Hillary Clinton, or for Republican policy — which is very different from Democratic policy, so, as in this country, many will vote, with good reason, strictly along party lines. But even so, Trump amassed many more votes, throughout the primary campaign against his Republican rivals, and in the general election against the Democrats, than just about anyone expected him to get. I’d like to talk about why. And the reason I’d like to talk about why is because I think it sheds some light on the spiritual condition of the United States of America, which in many ways reflects, and in many way presages, the spiritual condition of most of the world.
So, why did millions of Americans cast their lot with Donald Trump? The title of this sermon is my one-word answer to this question: attention. And in the rest of this sermon I’ll explain what I mean by that.
Donald Trump, as I said, is not a terribly complicated person. If you care to take a quick look at his career, how he handles himself, his operating principles are straightforward. He likes the spotlight; he craves attention. While I’m not remotely qualified to diagnose him with narcissistic personality disorder — as many already have — armed with this psychological analysis it is pretty easy to predict how he will react to any given situation. We all know that President-Elect Trump will put himself in the centre of any crisis, and will work to expand it, to make the crisis more dramatic. (He did this again recently, the day of the women’s marches, calling a press conference and directing Press Secretary to attack the media and to inflate the attendance at his own inauguration, while not mentioning the women’s marches at all.) He likes drama, and he likes people talking about him. He likes to make waves, and so he will find a way to escalate things, whether it means calling out his opponents on twitter, or making large promises to be fulfilled at some later date.
And it worked. America voted for it. Those who live in cities did not, for the most part, but in the rural heartland Trump did very well, and in the suburbs he did well enough to easily capture the electoral votes needed to become the nation’s 45th President. Why did he do so well?
There’s no single answer to this question. Elections are a complicated business, and in America, where two or three candidates for president are decided between by millions of people, based on billions of possible reasons, deciphering why people voted for a given candidate is next to impossible. But attention plays an important role — the need for it, and the ramifications of that need.
As Dr. King noted, we all have the drum major instinct to some degree. We all crave attention. I am not oblivious to the fact that, while I call out my nation’s president for being attention-seeking, I am talking to you from an elevated box! Believe me, I understand firsthand the craving for attention. And while not all of us are preachers and politicians, it is a basic human need to want to be recognised in some way. Not everyone wants to lead the parade, but we all want some form of recognition for the things we do in life.
But it’s not every year that a nation elects the most effective attention-seeker to the highest office in the land. P. T. Barnum did not become President. President Trump is a phenomenon of our age.
We live in a very different time than fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago. It’s so different that neurologists tell us that the way our brains work has actually changed, with changes in technology. We’re still uncovering the ways in which our brain’s performance is changing. The way we process attention, unsurprisingly, is a major area of difference. Scientists have found that in the brains of people who are regular internet users, there is twice the activity in the pre-frontal cortex. This is the decision-making part of the brain, and also the area largely responsible for short-term memory. Information is flying around there, like never before. While we’re surfing the web, the mind is recording it all — “this”, “this”, “remember this” — a jumble of different tiny memories to try and help you come to a decision.
So much information, in fact, that often it feels impossible to come to a decision. We feel paralyzed. Too many choices, too much information, too much stuff floating around. It’s disorientating.
What does any of this have to do with the election of Donald Trump? Quite a lot, because Donald Trump draws your attention. And in our age, to an extent like never before, attention is power.
Let’s go back and talk about the context a little more. Many Americans feel completely ignored. They don’t feel that their government — national or local — speaks for them, understands them, or is any kind of meaningful relationship with them. Small wonder a majority of Americans don’t vote at all.
The Americans feel ignored not just by the government, but by “the powers that be”. The manufacturing economy has collapsed, and what has taken its place is a hodgepodge of insecure, low status jobs and unemployment. Life is deeply uncertain: a single health crisis could knock you out of orbit, leave you in debt for the rest of your life. But your problems don’t amount to much, it would seem, the world is always paying attention to someone else. White rural Americans see a TV landscape with diverse casts living the high life, and subliminally, they think “I’m being ignored — real life is happening somewhere else.” In reality, in black and Latino communities the same pressures exist, in fact unemployment is even higher. On a conscious level, most Americans understand this fact, but subliminally — the drum major instinct is saying, hey, what about me? Why is my life not recognized? Why am I not getting any attention? When do I get mine? The American looks at their TV — and the average American watches five hours of TV a day — and feels lonely. TV gives them that buzz, it activates the prefrontal cortex — but at the same time it makes them feel like they’re being left out of real life.
You may wonder, with Americans watching five hours of TV a day, thirty-five hours of TV a week, what has happened to community. And this is important — local community has been utterly decimated in America. The main streets of many American towns are ghost towns, all the shopping having moved out to big-box stores, which are now being gradually replaced by online shopping and home delivery. A lot of the election analysis has said how rural Americans don’t interact with urban Americans and vice versa — but it goes much deeper than that. Many Americans don’t even interact with their next-door neighbour. About a third of Americans never spend time with neighbours at all; and less than 20% regularly spend time with neighbours. They don’t chat with the locals on Main Street anymore, because there is no Main Street; they don’t take part in bowling clubs and civic societies, because who has the time; they live in bigger and bigger houses further and further away from other people. Community isn’t dying in America. It’s dead. Its flatlined.
Now consider the effect of this dearth of community on people’s need for attention. I go to the local Post Office here (the ones that haven’t been closed yet), I stand in the queue, I have a chat with the woman behind the counter. Maybe it’s a little awkward — I can never quite think what to say, on the spot — but we exchange pleasantries, and then walking around I see someone I vaguely know and say hi, you doing all right, you know. And I come back from that — and it’s not a LOT of attention, you understand, but it doesn’t need to be. I’m recognized. I’m a person, out amongst other people. Humanity reaffirmed, in an everyday, tangible way.
It doesn’t sound like much. But if we don’t have that — if the people in our lives our predominantly images on a screen, or stories in the news — then, over time, it feels like our lives are being ignored. And, of course, they are. If we spend that many hours a week surfing the internet or watching the telly, we are ignoring them ourselves, first and foremost. If society ignores our lives as well, at that point it is only pouring salt in our wound.
Small wonder a religious faith centred around a personal relationship with Jesus has such huge attraction, in a nation with fewer and fewer personal relationships at all. Small wonder that the distrust of other human beings is growing exponentially. How can you trust what you don’t even know?
Some Donald Trump opponents have argued that those who voted for him did so because they were deluded into thinking that Trump cares about them personally. I’m not convinced by that; I think for the most part people are too cynical about the world today to believe that a politician, even an outsider politician, cares much about individual people. I believe many people voted for Trump simply because they found him interesting. They sensed that the powers that be are not recognizing their existence, so what do you do? You vote for the one who will shake things up, the person who is the most interesting. “May you live in interesting times” may not actually be a Chinese curse, but one we in the West have made up. And the truth is, we live in interesting times, in America at least, because we want them to be interesting. That pre-frontal cortex needs some more stimulation. And so a man whose chief accomplishment is that he never fails to make life a little more interesting, is now occupying one of the most powerful offices in the history of the world. We will all see what happens next. It will be interesting.
Dr. King in closing his drum major sermon, said that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the drum major instinct, nothing wrong with seeking the spotlight sometimes. But he said we need to seek the spotlight for the right things. If we want to lead the pack, how about we lead the pack in serving the poor, or in being there for anyone who needs a little help. If we want attention, let us seek attention by loving our fellow women and men, and trying to do what’s right. He intoned:
If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. 
For King, this thirst for righteousness was not merely an individual priority. It was a priority for nations every bit as much. It is what casts our common, collective lives in the image of the divine.
I pray that our leaders may serve the good. I pray for Donald Trump and Theresa May and all the leaders of the world, that may find wisdom, patience, vision, support and humility. I pray for us all, that we may pay attention to each other, and remind each other, that we are real people, and this is real life. It’s important. Let’s treat life, and one another, as something worth serving. In so doing, we will find, I have faith, that it will be so.
 Amos 5:24
 Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” homily was adapted from J. Wallace Hamiltion’s earlier sermon, “Drum-Major Instincts”, preaching on Mark 10:35–45. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/
 “Your Brain on Google: Patterns of Cerebral Activation during Internet Searching”, by Small, Moody, Siddarth and Bookheimer. https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/5230/136.pdf
 See, for example, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz
 An overstatement for effect, and to be sure there are a few places in America — urban, suburban, and rural — where community is thriving. But for the overall trends eroding community in the USA, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone remains the authoritative chronicle.
 King, “Drum Major Sermon”, op. cit.
AMERICA IN CRISIS:
ATTENTION, DEFICIT, HYPERACTIVITY, DISORDER
PART 2: DEFICIT
We begin with an excerpt from Dr. King, which he wrote just over 50 years ago today, when the world, like now, teetered worryingly towards an international nuclear war:
…If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.[i]
If you ever been to Times Square in New York City, you know there’s a lot to see there: billboards, TV screens, hordes of yellow taxis, people dressed as Spider Man and Princess Elsa, even a naked cowboy (usually only half-naked, I’m happy to report)[ii]. With all the sights of that metropolis, if you went there as a tourist you might miss the U.S. National Debt Clock, posted on a billboard on 6th Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Street. The U.S. National Debt Clock is not actually a clock, because it doesn’t tell the time. And not because it’s under repairs, like Big Ben: no, the US national Debt clock is a giant, green electronic sign that lists America’s national debt, how much we owe on our national balance books. It currently stands at just over 20 trillion dollars. It’s a big sign. Takes 14 digits just to fit in the whole figure; 20 trillion dollars of debt. Just underneath the 20 trillion figure, the sign helpfully estimates each family share of that debt to be around 170,000 dollars per family.
The clock was the brainchild of a real estate developer named Seymour Durst, who is a fascinating American story in his own right. Seymour’s father Joseph was a Jewish tailor who immigrated to the US from the kingdom of Galicia, an extremely poor country in what is now Poland (I myself have ancestors who were Jewish tailors from Poland, so I can empathise). He came here with next to nothing, from the kingdom of Galicia, a nothing country in what is but worked as a tailor, then worked his way up to a partner in the dress factory, and then a real estate mogul. His son Seymour, also a real estate developer, built the debt clock. He wanted to call attention to the nation’s rising debt. Seymour’s children include writers and philanthropists, as well as an alleged murderer currently awaiting trial. Robert Durst is suspected of killing his wife, his neighbour and his friend in three separate incidents. It’s the kind of salacious story of great wealth and terrible crime that screenwriters dream about; and indeed, there has already been an HBO documentary on the subject.[iii]
The Dursts may not be a typical American family, but this preoccupation with debt is a very typical American theme. There has been a strong movement in America to keep the budget deficit low, or even to erase it completely if possible. You may have austerity here; the idea, in its modern incarnation, began in the US. The Republican party have been especially strong in denouncing the ever-growing deficit, the amount we owe. They also have contributed to this debt the most, because when you raise military spending and reduce taxes, the money has to come from somewhere, and so inevitably, you borrow it. Seymour Durst was actually a Democrat: he built the debt clock in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s spending policies, to show how much they were really costing. The Republican party has, for the last 40 years, been a little at odds with itself on fiscal matters, with many in the party wanting the country to not spend beyond its means– and yet wars and walls, and a hatred of taxes, have meant that the balance books are always more and more in the red.
How come we go into debt when we expressly say we don’t want to go into debt? We could ask the same question of our world of nations, and ourselves as individuals. Circumstances is one explanation. Human nature is another. This desire to avoid debt keeps coming back to our own individual lives — and we keep failing to achieve our desire. In America a vast number of radio programs and internet sites are devoted to the goal of climbing out of debt[iv]. Pay off your credit card loans, these financials pundits urge. Achieve financial independence. Turn your life around. Get out of debt.
Make something of your life. It’s what just about everyone wants to do. And yet, just about everybody owes. Median credit card debt is about $16,000 student loan debt from going is about 49,000[v]…and debt from medical bills, under private healthcare, is gigantic with 43 million people reporting having problem paying their hospital tab, and millions of bankruptcies — actual bankruptcies, from being ill[vi].
“If I can…make it there, I’ll make it…anywhere…”[vii]
Hard to make it there. We all want to make it. Who wouldn’t?
Have you ever heard the term self-made man? It has a long provenance.
The phrase “self-made man” was popularised by Henry Clay, the Senator from Kentucky, in 1832. He was using it on the floor of the Senate in favour a proposed compromise bill about tariffs. It’s a bit complicated, but basically, in those days many of the Southern politicians, such as Henry Clay, were worried that Northern taxes on foreign goods were pricing items out of the reach of Southern industrialists and planters[viii]. Henry Clay said, “In Kentucky, almost every manufactory known to me, is in the hands of enterprising and self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.”[ix]
So began the history of the term self-made men, a phrase still popular today. There is a deep, resonant, historical irony to the fact that this phrase gained traction by Senator Henry Clay, in describing the industrialists of Kentucky. For, as you may be aware, almost every major industry in Kentucky in 1832 would have profited from slave labor. All of those “self-made men” who owned those companies also owned human beings, and kept them at the barrel of the gun. Henry Clay himself, a Senator of great fame then, and still prominent in the history books now for his accomplishment, came from a family of slaveowners. His father and mother owned 22 slaves. Think about that for a moment: the man who more or less coined the phrase “self-made man”, when he was a young boy, upon waking in the morning would have had his meals prepared by an enslaved person, helped to get dressed by an enslaved person, had his house cleaned, and the field sown, by enslaved persons. And it was no different when he grew up: the Clay family owned over 60 slaves on his plantation. Now, to give Henry Clay his due, it should be pointed out that the Senator, unlike many of his colleagues, proclaimed that slavery was a moral evil — “the darkest spot in the map of our country”, he called it. To his view, it was a necessary evil, and he was in favour of gradual abolition of the practice. But his stated beliefs didn’t stop him from owning slaves, as he worked his plantation and attempted to make a go of it in the world, as a self-made man, with 60 others under his overseer’s whip.[x]
The term self-made man caught on. (I’m grateful here to the research of John Swansburg, who I’m paraphrasing)[xi] Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Seymour wrote books about self-made men in the 1850s. this fad was not confined to America — here in the United Kingdom, Samuel Smiles founded the self-help movement with a series of highly popular biographies of people who had come up from nothing and achieved great success[xii]. The rags to riches story was a hugely popular genre in English and American fiction.
It’s not totally fiction, though, is it? Rags to riches does happen. We all know people who made the most of their lives — a great many people — and quite a few of them from humble circumstances. The opposite of self-made men and women, I suppose, is to say that none of us control our own fate, we don’t control our own destiny, we’re all just victims of the prevailing winds and the tides of our hour upon this earth. Surely we don’t want that.
“If I can…make it there…”[xiii] We not only want to make it, we each want to do it our way, don’t we? We want to be a success, to not owe anybody anything. “I hate to be a bother” …that’s a pretty regular British phrase, isn’t it? And most people really do.
You know that feeling, when someone does you a favour, and you can’t figure out a way to repay it? There’s nothing worse than that, is there? We’re behind in the balance books. Someone did something wonderful for us, and there’s nothing, really, we can do about that. Sometimes we crouch in wait…you tend look for opportunities, don’t you? “Yeah, you may have helped me out — but I’ll get you back. It’s just a thank you card right now…but wait until I have a chance to really do something nice for you. I’ll get you back!” We want to redress the balance. We don’t like to be in anyone’s debt. “Neither a borrower or a lender be”, as the profligate playwright William Shakespeare put on the tongue of the sanctimonious old fool Polonius[xiv]. Most of us, if we had it our way, wouldn’t owe anybody anything, and on the other hand, no one would owe us anything. Life is easier that way.
And yet, that’s not the way of the world, is it? Whether it is money, or it is kindness, we are caught in an “inescapable network of mutuality,” as Dr. King puts it. An inescapable network of mutuality — if we pay attention, we’ll notice that our very act of eating breakfast makes us dependant on half the world. It’s astounding, isn’t it.
So, what do we do about that fact? What do we do about the fact that we are all connected, not just brothers and sisters, but each other’s keepers, each other’s debtors. We trespass on each other’s lives, as the Jewish rabbi Jesus acknowledged in what we call now the Lord’s Prayer, which we sing here each week.
My message in my sermon is that we don’t shy away from the fact that we are caught up in this inescapable network of mutuality. Realize we share “a single garment of destiny”, that we are all in this together. That may not sound like much, but it is, in a real sense, a matter of life and death. Dr. King saw that if we do not learn to live together as brothers (and sisters), then we are going to die together as fool. We see that ever more so today.
A continent and a century away, people were so desperate to become self-made men that they actually kept other men and women and children at the barrel of a gun to do their work for them. This is the power of the myth that we can do it all ourselves. Mighty nations will go to great lengths to prove their own independence. They will bankroll armies and stockpile missiles rather than admit we must all work together. A certain level of self-determination is a healthy thing, for an individual and for a nation. We must all live our own lives as peoples. But there comes a point of maturity when we realise that our lives are not separate from other lives. Nations, as well as people, who fail to reach this point of maturity spend their years scrabbling at a delusion, holding themselves to a chimera of self-sufficiency while they disempower and oppress others.
In America, perhaps this fanatical obsession with fiscal independence is a way of hiding the greater debt underwriting our collective and individual lives as Americans, the shameful moral debts of slavery, genocide, and oppression. As Dr. King put it in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the American promissory note of justice has never been paid out to the descendants of slaves. Nor has it been paid out to the remnants of the peoples of this continent who were wiped out by the marauding, duplicitous tribes of Europe. We want to be forgiven our debts to a past of plunder and rape, forgiven our most lethal trespasses, without even acknowledging that we have them in the first place. Forgiveness doesn’t work that way.
That reckoning has not happened yet. But let us begin by acknowledging how connected we are with each other, and how connected we are with the past. Your fiscal balance books may be in the black, or they may be in the red, but there is no total, final, and complete self-sufficiency in this life. And that is what is what the life of gratitude, the life of faith, realizes. We all owe somebody something. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. We could wish it were otherwise, wish that we could be completely self-enabled — in other words, alone. Or we can recognize this fact of our fundamental togetherness, and be grateful that God has so constructed the world, that it brings ever and ever again in need of one another.
May we take the wiser course. And may our days together, be glad ones.
How shall we build the city of God,
when we cannot even stand on our own two feet?
Only this, brethren: support one another,
and you will find ample strength, in your shared keeping,
for the foundation of all eternity,
the work of love.
[i] “A Christmas Sermon on Peace, by Martin Luther King, Jr., broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of the annual Massey Lectures.
[ii] Though some in the congregation were unhappy by this revelation.
[iv] See, for example, www.daveramsey.com, www.mrmoneymustache.com, http://www.dreambeyonddebt.com/5-blogs-that-inspired-me-to-pay-off-my-debt/, etc., etc. Most of these have some genuinely helpful advice and are, in my view, worth a listen or viewing — though not, at all costs, worth a lifetime obsession.
[vii] The lyrics, of course, are from the song “New York, New York”, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, performed by Liza Minelli and a few years later by Frank Sinatra. When I was an undergraduate studying at the University of Birmingham in England, at the student disco they would always end by singing this song, and everyone would join arms and do the can-can kicks with their legs. I never really understood why, except that it’s such an obviously great way to end the night.
[viii] Even the kids’ version is complicated nowadays: http://www.american-historama.org/1829-1841-jacksonian-era/compromise-tariff-1833.htm
[ix] The entire, sorry speech — written by Clay read from the floor of the U.S. Senate on February 2, 3 and 6, 1832 — can be read at https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/AmericanSystem.pdf.
A fascinating document. “Debt” is mentioned 19 times. “Slave” is mentioned five times, and “slavery” none at all — though the title “The American System” could be meant to include slavery as part of that system. Part of the thrust of Clay’s argument is how cheaply and how well products can be made in America and in particular the South. This is despite a few “faithless slaves” (in his words) who sometimes set fire to the factories.
[xi]http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2014/09/the_self_made_man_history_of_a_myth_from_ben_franklin_to_andrew_carnegie.html. The most obvious — and most helpful — source for this sermon, and worth a read in its entirety
[xii] As biographer John Hunter has recently described in The Spirit of Self-Help: A Life of Samuel Smiles. I reviewed this excellent book in the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of Faith and Freedom.
[xiii] Again, from the song “New York, New York”, op. cit.
[xiv] Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3