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An Independence Day Message from President Jinkins

Jul 03, 2018

Statue of LibertyLike many people I know, I made a decision to avoid watching or listening to the news this summer. A confirmed newsaholic, this was a big decision for me. But I thought it might just make me feel better. I didn’t think my voice mattered much or that my vote did either, so why shouldn’t I retreat into the cocoon of mystery novels and the process of relocation?

Last week, however, and I don’t really know why, I picked up Edmund Burke and read him again. Burke was the brilliant, iconoclastic genius behind British conservatism. I mean, incidentally, real conservatism, not the angry, anti-intellectual, highly reactionary, misogynistic, nativist and often racist movement that has stolen the name these days, but the conservatism that at the height of the Enlightenment helped establish many of the democratic ideals that continue to undergird the institutions of our day.

An Anglo-Irish politician of the eighteenth century, Burke was the original voice behind a freedom-loving, justice-seeking political movement that committed itself to conserving that which is best in human society, not just the assertion of individual rights, but the primacy of the common good. Burke’s greatest literary work was his study of the French Revolution; he is well-remembered for his debates in print with Thomas Paine. But most people remember him today for a few extraordinary quotes.

George Santayana, the nineteenth-century Harvard professor, often gets the credit for one of these, but it was actually Burke who first said: “Those who don’t remember history are destined to repeat it.”

Burke also said: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good [people] to do nothing.”

And it was Burke who said: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

I suspect that there was some providence in my turning to Burke last week, because as hard as you try, unless you move to a secluded off-the-grid cabin on the backside of a mountain, you are going to get at least a smattering of news. And I realized, as I saw children separated from parents and locked in cages, and I read the comments that equate the arrival of refugees and immigrants with an “invasion,” that my feeling of political impotence is no excuse for not speaking up. And a few days ago as I learned of a three-year-old being separated from her grandmother (who is her legal guardian), I asked myself what I would do if I were in that grandmother’s shoes. What would I do if I had rescued one of my grandchildren from a despotic regime in Central America and made my way toward the border that boasts those famed Stars and Stripes that promise freedom and justice for all, only to be treated as a criminal just for seeking asylum? And what would I do if Grace or Clara or Anderson was torn from my arms in the name of that country to which I had fled for safety?

To unplug from the news and to tune out from what is going on in our country is an act of cowardice on my part. Certainly, if I’ve learned anything from Thomas Merton and William Stringfellow, Dorothy Day and Thich Nhat Hanh, Isaiah, Amos, and Jesus of Nazareth (not to mention Jesus’ mother!), it is that there is such a thing as a spirituality of politics, an engaged spirituality, a faith that speaks and acts not out of anger, but out of compassion, that does not seek to divide and conquer, but seeks to make whole that which is broken. And what is broken today lies at the heart of our country and our world. It didn’t get broken overnight. It took decades to get this way.

Somehow we have allowed the least compassionate voices to prevail. Somehow we have allowed the most self-centered, angry, greedy, and uninformed voices to prevail. Somehow we have allowed our common life to become more accommodating of office-seekers, careerists, and power-mongers than of servant-leaders. Perhaps we justified this to ourselves as members of political parties with some sort of “ends justify the means” mishmash of “Realpolitik,” but the terrible disease of factionalism that always infects political parties has grown now to the point where we can no longer ignore it as people of faith, no-faith, or as citizens.

I do not want to see the world lose the shining hope that resides in the idea that is America at her very best. America is and always has been an idea more than a place or a particular group of people. America stands for freedom, not just of the strong, not just of the dominant, but of all. America stands for the idea that no one is above the law and everyone deserves justice and a fair shot at a good life. At our best, we have stood for the ideas for which America is recognized and about which we love to boast. But that is what is threatened today — along with the lives of many of the poorest and most vulnerable people among us.

America deserves better than we Americans are standing for today. And make no mistake about this, the evils being committed are being committed in our name as Americans. History will hold us all accountable. And so, at the risk of redundancy, I will remind us of Edmund Burke again:

“Those who don’t remember history are destined to repeat it.”

“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good [people] to do nothing.”

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

God bless you. And especially this week I pray that God will bless America, but I also hope we will seek to keep the promises made in the name of America for the sake of the whole world.

Michael Jinkins
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

"Whatever you did for one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did unto me."
-Jesus of Nazareth
(Matthew 25:40)
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