Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Inaugural Weekend Reflection: "A generous national spirit"

by Peter Montgomery

As tempting as it was to join the happy crowd on the national mall, my partner Dan and I decided to watch the presidential inauguration from home this year. We wanted to be absolutely sure we’d be able to hear the president and the poem by Richard Blanco

Even sitting at home in our basement it was exciting to the point of making us giddy. We loved the president’s address, his call for policies that reflect a generous national spirit, his rebuke to political absolutism masquerading as principle, his explicit recognition that legal equality for gay Americans is part of a national lineage that includes the women’s suffrage movement and the African American civil rights movement. We loved all the Latino voices on the platform, including Justice Sonya Sotomayor, Rev. Luis Leon, and Richard Blanco. Blanco’s poem struck me as gloriously Whitmanic – both broad in scope and exquisitely detailed, invoking the expansive diversity of America and the one ground we share, the one sun, the one moon – in the spirit of Walt Whitman’s “one air that bathes the globe.” We loved being able to share our happiness with friends on Facebook.

The spirit of the whole event – exuberant, hopeful, determined – was a blessedly stark contrast to several speakers at a prayer breakfast I attended just before the inaugural. It wasn’t an official event; it was billed as a nonpolitical gathering to pray for the president and the country. But the message of the keynote speaker could not have been further from the spirit of the inauguration. He preaches that God’s judgment is on America, that the 9-11 attacks were a warning shot from a God angered that the country had turned away from Him, and that our economic troubles were the next round of divine punishment for not responding correctly to the terrorist attacks. Another speaker warned that legal abortion, acceptance of homosexuality, and our policies toward Israel are national sins that will cause our land to vomit us out of it. 

I spend more time than is good for my soul listening to people who think like that, and I could not have been more grateful to rush home to my loving husband and join millions of Americans watching the inaugural in a spirit of celebration and gratitude. (And, for the record, any one of the preachers who keep insisting that President Obama is out to drive people of faith out of our public life should listen again to the prayers, music, and message of the inaugural.)

Sunday was a big day, too. Martin Luther King Sunday is kind of like Christmas and Easter at my church, All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, DC. One of our associate ministers was murdered in Selma, where he had answered Dr. King’s call for a multiracial, multifaith nonviolent resistance movement. I reveled in singing with our combined choirs and spectacular soloists. I was challenged to consider the difficult imperative of pursuing justice in community and partnership with people who have differing religious perspectives. And I was left with a phrase of King’s I don’t remember having heard before. It comes from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:

"I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when twenty-two million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice. I accept this award in behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice."

“Majestic scorn.” I can’t stop turning over that phrase. It conveys the dignity and courage of a civil rights movement grounded in the spirit and practice of nonviolence. And, less nobly, it conveys how I feel these days toward political leaders who tried to destroy this president through lies, fear, and conspiracy theories. It didn’t work. But it has taken its toll on our ability to hear, trust, and work with each other.

Sunday night I attended the Peace Ball as a guest of Adele Stan, a good friend and brilliant colleague. I’m not much of a dress-up-and-go-to-fancy-party type, but we did, and I have to say we looked and felt fabulous. The rainbow-colored feather boa I grabbed in a last-minute inspiration was a surprisingly big hit with folks at the ball -- I’m not used to strangers asking to have their picture taken with me! The atmosphere was fun and festive, and it was great to spend a few hours with Addie, until our feet gave out. 

My feet had gotten a workout the night before: on Saturday, People For the American Way held its own inaugural celebration, a party with board members, supporters, activists, and progressive politicians, including the hope-giving members of the Young Elected Officials Network. On my way to the party it hit me just how grateful I was that this was a weekend of celebration, not a weekend of despair; that so many smart and creative people could be spending time strategizing about how to move the country forward rather than digging defensive trenches. Later, we attended the party of a friend who lost his husband earlier this year, a reminder that we don’t know when life will bring joy and when sorrow. 

And we don’t know how long we have to embrace our loved ones and kiss the earth. Or do what we’re here to do. Write what we’re here to write. Time to get back to work.

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