A POEM FOR THE INAUGURATION … Of Sorts

The inauguration of our 45th President last month did not include a poem, which has become something of a custom at these events in recent years … at least for Democrats. Poems have only been read at five of the inaugurations, starting with JFK’s.  That innovation lay dormant for decades until Bill Clinton opted to have a poet read a poem at both of his events.  George W. Bush did not follow suit, but Barack Obama did.  Since Trump’s expressed desire was to exceed anything done before, doing everything that had been done before — including a poem — and then some would have been a decent plan toward that goal.  (And, given that several poet/ storyteller/ bard-types had left us in the days after the election, including a poet with a poem to share might have been a way to blunt such an ill-omen.)  Many poems have been written; surely one would be appropriate to the occasion.

One that strikes me as appropriate for the time is very old; indeed, it is ancient … composed long before anyone had ever conceived of the word president … long before anyone spoke in the English language. It was written in Hebrew, the language of a people govenerned by kings, either their own or oppressive kings of other nations. Psalm 12, a lament, seems suited to the time.

 

Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s 1st Inaugural

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;

The faithful have disappeared from humankind ….

Throughout the past twelve months, a number of public religious leaders have voiced support for Donald Trump and continue to do so even as his positions, pronouncements tactics, behaviors contradict the teachings and examples of Jesus. These are ministers, preachers, teachers, who presume to speak and preach and teach in the name of Jesus … who are called to be stewards of the mysteries of God … whose work is to guide others in following Jesus. Whether through the expressed support of the likes of Franklin Graham (who has taken up the mantle of his revered father Billy), Jerry Falwell, Jr. (now president of Liberty University, the Christian college his father established) … public Christian figures such as James Dobson (Focus on the Family) and Tim Wildmon (American Family Association). Perhaps the most galling example of a public failure by a Christian leader to keep faith with God was the invocation at the Republican Convention by Mark Burns of South Carolina, who identifies himself as an evangelist, a herald of the good news of Jesus. But there was nothing of that gospel in his words.

Whether these led their followers or their followers pushed them towards it, exit surveys show over 80% of people who identify as evangelical Christians (and are considered white in our raced society) cast their ballots for Donald Trump. His constant dishonesty was no barrier for their support. The self-identified public champions of family values raised no concerns about his multiple marriages, his well-publicized affairs, and the sketchy comments regarding his daughters’ appearance. None of this mattered. It was all shrugged off with a “well, who can know what’s in his heart?”

In their public support of Donald Trump (who himself has demonstrated no faithfulness to and little interest in the ways of God), so many, who want to be considered godly, faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ and in the words of scripture, have shown themselves to be faithless.

 

Miller Williams at Clinton’s 2nd Inaugural

They utter lies to each other;

With flattering lips and a double heart they speak…

Oh where to begin on this one? The lies … the deceits … the innuendo … the spurious accusations. During the campaign, Trump branded Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” when she was far more honest, direct, and up-front than ever he was. After bullying and belittling her and many, many other women, he claimed that no one respects women more than he does. (Saturday Night Live made good use of that nonsensical remark) He insists he’s a highly successful business man, but where’s the proof? He still refuses to release his tax returns, so how can we know? He points to the opulence with which he surrounds himself as evidence of his great wealth. He claims he has little debt. But how do we know? Where is the proof?

As has been observed, he says many things that are not accurate – and keeps insisting that they’re true. When the inaccuracies are called to his attention, he doubles down, continuing to repeat them and insisting they are true and that any evidence or reports to the contrary are fake news.

 

Elizabeth Alexander at Obama’s 1st Inaugural

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,

 The tongue that makes great boasts.

Those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;

Our lips are our own – who is our master?”…

It’s not just the tongue that makes great boasts; the fingers on Twitter do as well. Nothing is acceptable to Donald Trump unless he is the best ever, lauded in the most superlative of terms. It was inevitable that the crowd for Trump’s inauguration would be smaller than the gathering in 2009 when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his first term. After all, the crowd for Obama’s second inaugural was smaller than the first. That first one in 2009 was truly historical; it will be a long time before anything like it happens again.

But Mr. Trump always has to have the best for himself, the highest praise, the biggest turnout or ratings or whatever. He used a photo of the crowd from President Obama’s first inaugural and tried to pass it off as the crowd at his own. The switch was obvious, especially to those who had been at the inaugurals. But when challenged about it, Mr. Trump doubled down and kept insisting that his was the biggest crowd ever.

But that was just the beginning. He bragged about himself in his address at the CIA the day after his inauguration. A few days later, in an interview for ABC, he boasted of his reception when he was giving that address. He insists everything is going incredibly well, better than has ever been done before … that his proposed cabinet is being met with nothing but astonishment at its uniform awesomeness (even though a number of nominees have faced appropriately harsh criticism because their qualifications and knowledge base are minimal at best) … the travel ban he ordered a week into his presidency was going very well (despite the obvious problems that were happening – in no small part because those who were charged with enacting it weren’t sure what procedure to follow because none of the impacted agencies had been involved in the drafting and there had been no preparations for its implementation). Mr. Trump refuses to hear anything that contradicts his grandiose assessments of himself and his actions.

 

Richard Blanco at Obama’s 2nd Inaugural

“Because the poor are despoiled because the needy groan,

  “I will now rise up,” says the Lord;

  “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The needy are already groaning – the refugees seeking a place of safety, a new home in which to rebuild their lives … those struggling to support themselves and their families with minimum wage jobs, a wage that doesn’t even cover the cost of living for a single adult … the people struggling with mental illness or addictions and need help from programs like Medicaid, help that is now being threatened with cutbacks … the list can go on.

The promise is there that God will rise up and act. This isn’t an insistence that churches ought to take over poverty relief operations.  In 2014, Bread for the World calculated that if religious organizations were to take over the food stamps program, every congregation (of any religious affiliation) would have to increase its annual budget by $40,000 for ten years. In other words, it cannot be done.

No, it’s not the churches nor the civic government. It is the Lord God who is to rise up. That’s good news for those in need but not so much for the rest of us. The more dependent we are on the established order of things, the more upheaval we are likely to face. Chaos and collapse are necessary parts of the drastic change that it is required to bring forth something new. If nothing else, chaos is a guarantee with the current president and his administration.

 

The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,

 Silver refined in a furnace on the ground,

                                 Purified seven times.

This we are promised – and it is a promise that depends upon God, not us … not our leaders … not our president, whoever he (or she) may be. God keeps promises with or without our help. Our part is simply to live and act as best we are made able in the direction of God’s promises.

 

You, O Lord, will protect us,

You will guard us from this generation forever.

On every side the wicked prowl,

 As vileness is exalted among humankind.

Wicked? Maybe not. Weakness and ignorance are more evident than overt ill-will for the most part. However, this is not to exclude the potential for wickedness on the part of some in positions of influence time will tell on that account.

In some translations of this psalm, vileness is rendered that which is worthless and that we do value on a social and cultural level. Why are enough people paying attention to anything the members of the Kardashian family do that they are featured on covers of magazines every week, mentioned in every news feed? We binge watch all manner of entertainment, invest energy and attention in such meaningless contexts as The Voice or Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice. I don’t even want to start on HGTV.

2017 Inaguration

But wickedness and vileness is in the eye of the beholder. What seems wrong and even evil to one may seem good and right in the mind of another. Who is to say which is true and which is not when each claims his own perspective as the correct one?

2009 Inauguration

We can no longer even agree on what the facts of a situation are. Studies in the weeks since the inauguration people who voted for Trump are choosing to disregard established facts of the inauguration crowd photos from 2009 and 2016 to support Trump’s claim that his is the photo with the largest crowd. When wanting something to be true is enough to make it so, what is left for a standard to determine what is real and factual? Garry Trudeau’s “My Facts” call center in Doonesbury seems almost prescient.

And what is worthless if someone values it, whether rightly or even wrongly? Who is any one among us to tell another what she values is, in reality, trash? If the Kardashian tribe or HGTV provides something of value to someone, then maybe it has value after all. If rooting for or voting for one competitor over another in any competition provides some meaning or purpose or focus for someone, then there is some value. Just like with facts, who can say what is truly worthy and what is worthless for anyone else? Do we value even a common center, point of reference enough to seek one?

There are people of faith proclaiming that Donald J. Trump is God’s man for our times, that his election as president was God’s doing, God’s will. As the Persian emperor Cyrus was a pagan leader used for God’s purposes, they explain, so God will use Trump whether he is truly a believer or not. There are people of faith who see his behaviors and actions, his words and policy proposals as contrary to the ways of God. For them, Trump’s will and ways are often in direct opposition to what they discern of God’s will. Christians of sincere faith disagree – and who is to say which side speaks God’s truth, truly understands God’s ways?

The psalmist doesn’t stand apart from the community in this lament. There is no one left … The faithful have disappeared … humankind … everyone … the language exempts no one. Yet there is some us/them language. Us are those trying to seek God’s ways; them are those seeking their own ways apart from God. But even those who are seeking may not have it right.

Perhaps that is the way out of the right or wrong, true or false conundrum: an honest, humble recognition that seeking is all we can do; certainty may ever elude us. We cannot be certain where God is in this or what God is doing. We can only trust that God is present in this somehow and search as best we can for signs of God’s movement. But we do so with the knowledge that we are not God and it is not our place to dictate to God, to demand God do our will. Instead, we are to let go of anything that is not God – including our established ways, our institutions, and even the world as we have known it, built it, wanted it to be.  Rather than twist Jesus and his teachings to match our desired ends, the call to follow Jesus means fitting our lives, our words, our wills to the example that he has set for us as best we are able.  Lent is upon us.  It’s time to walk the hard wilderness road, following where Jesus leads.

Turn us again, O God… May your justice shine like the sun and the poor be lifted up.

(from the Lenten dialog for Evening Prayer)