as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, online service, November 22, 2020
This morning’s sermon is in the form of an open letter to President-Elect Joe Biden. Though its message might sound political, my intention is to raise a key religious question: How do we bind up the broken?
Dear President-Elect Biden:
It is long past time for the United States to have a National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.
I am offering you these words more than two weeks after you beat the current President in the election. Almost exactly fourteen days have passed since the major media outlets called it in your favor. In the presidential race with the largest turnout in history and the highest rate of voter participation in more than a hundred years, in the midst of the worst health disaster in a century, and the most profound economic crisis of either of our lifetimes, you earned more than eighty million votes—ten million more than any other President in the history of this country.
It is an extraordinary achievement.
Your campaign slogan is simple. You said you were waging a “battle for the soul” of the country. The current President has yet to concede that he lost that battle. But in victory you stated now “is the time to heal” and claimed, “we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.”
In these past days, as the incumbent and his allies have comically but destructively sought to undermine the election results, I have found myself thinking a great deal about your desire to be a healer and your injunction “we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.” I know that you long for a country in which people don’t “see Red and Blue states, but a United States.”
And so, I write to encourage you to create a National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation—to spark a dialogue throughout the country on what must be done to bring about healing.
As you know, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He tells us, “True reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow for what you have done.”
And here, I must confess, that your desire fills me with hope and with worry. I am hopeful because I believe that healing is possible. The world saw some of it in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid. There people like the anti-Apartheid activist Malusi Mpumlwana came to the conclusion that a central project in dismantling their country’s racist regime lay in the recognition that its perpetrators were, in Mpumlawana’s words, “God’s children and yet they are behaving like animals. They need us to help them recover the humanity they have lost.”
As Tutu put it, “South Africans were less than whole because of Apartheid… For our own dignity can only be measured in the ways we treat others.” Under the nation’s white supremacist system everyone experienced dehumanization. Black people were targeted, exploited, and brutalized. Many White people “became more uncaring, less compassionate, less humane, and therefore less human.”
The process helped those who participated in it reclaim some of their humanity. Much of the truth of what happened under Apartheid was revealed. And that truth enabled the possibility of reconciliation. It empowered those who had been victimized to confront the perpetrators. It forced perpetrators to come to terms with what they had done. They had to acknowledge their guilt. This offered both parties the possibility of a new beginning. It was a radical process. If we want to heal, we must, in Tutu’s words, “go to the root, remove that which is festering, cleanse and cauterize, and then a new beginning is possible.”
Key to that new beginning was the recognition on the part of the perpetrators that they must act differently in the future. It was not enough for them to confess their crimes. They had to transform themselves. Militant white supremacists had to cease in their efforts to maintain or restore white supremacy. Activists who had deployed violence in the past to achieve political ends had to renounce violence and commit to the electoral process.
It was not perfect. Its focus on political crimes meant that South Africa never addressed the economic exploitation and wealth disparities that lay under that nation’s system of white supremacy. And so, today, while Black Africans now run the government and the legal regime of Apartheid has been shattered, the country remains one of the most unequal on Earth. The economic situation is actually worse for many Black Africans than it was three or four decades ago.
And yet, it did help the country transform itself into a multi-racial democracy, a “Rainbow nation,” in the words of former South African President Nelson Mandela. Violence throughout the country has decreased. The murder rate is now 50% less than it what it was in 1994, the year that Mandela came to power. And while South Africa remains one of the most violent countries in the world, that single statistic is remarkable.
It is impossible, of course, to know for certain how much all of this is due to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But if the past four years have taught me anything, it is that the moral tone—the moral leadership—of the highest elected officials in a country matters a great deal. It has an immeasurable impact on how individuals relate to each other. Cruel and crass politicians encourage cruelty and incivility. They make what should never be acceptable, normal.
And here we come to my worries. Your desire to be a unifying figure has already been undercut by the refusal of many of your former colleagues in the Senate to recognize you as the winner. It seems likely that they will refuse to cooperate with your political agenda. It is probable that they attempt to veto several of your cabinet appointments. Texas Senator John Cornyn has already gone so far as to call your potential nominee for Labor Secretary, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, “an ideologue” and indicate “it would be very unlikely he would be confirmed in a Republican-held Senate.”
Equally troubling is the likelihood that legislation essential to address the plight that millions face during this time of pandemic and economic plight will either go unpassed or be rendered wholly insufficient under the rubric of compromise. It is hard to imagine that the Republicans in the Senate will support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, so necessary to ensure that the United States remains an electoral democracy.
You can, however, through an Executive Order, create a National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. Many Democrats in the House attempted to get such a process started this June with a concurrent resolution submitted by Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. John Lewis voiced support for it before he died. It has not passed the House. I cannot imagine it would pass the Senate. But you have the power to create it.
Its initial emphasis would have to be on truth. This is a terrifying prospect. Truth telling is a religious act. It binds us together into a common community by causing us to recognize our shared reality. But part of the truth about this country is that it was founded upon two lies. The first lie is that the land of the United States belongs to the descendants of the European settlers who have been coming here for more than four hundred years. The second lie is that there are such things as different races. It includes the idea that some races are inferior to others. There is only one race, the human race. And no one is inherently better than anyone else.
These two lies were used to build the wealth of the country. The lie that the land belongs to the descendants of European settlers has been used to justify the merciless extraction of natural resources—oil, lumber, minerals, water—from the continent. It has led to genocide and a general amnesia about the truth, in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s words, that under “the crust” of the country “are interred the bones, villages, fields, and sacred objects of American Indians.” This lie continues to be perpetrated by many political leaders and educators throughout the United States. My son has barely studied the indigenous nations of the continent in his years of public school.
The lie that racial difference is real was used as a warrant for slavery. It led to the deaths of uncounted millions during the Middle Passage and in the forced labor camps called plantations. It provided the basis for Jim Crow. It is why African Americans continue to have less wealth, less access to education, and shorter lifespans than people of European descent. It is why far too many people of color are killed by the police. It is why they are incarcerated much more often than individuals with my skin color.
Many in this country appear addicted to this pattern of lying. The truth threatens far too much that they hold sacred. There is a connection between it and the ways in which the United States has failed to properly handle the pandemic.
At the beginning of the week, I heard an interview with a nurse from South Dakota named Jodi Doering. In it she shared about how some of patients were committed to denying reality, denying the truth. Her words are chilling. Some of the people she is treating insist “there must be another reason they are sick.” They have called her names and asked, “why [do] you have [to] wear all that ‘stuff’ because,” they tell her, “they [do not] have COVID… it’s not real.”
They do not have good deaths. They do not die at peace with their lives or sharing stories of love with their families. Their last words are “this can’t be happening, it’s not real.” Instead of accepting the truth of the pandemic—that the virus does not care about your politics, that the virus can kill any of us—they die clinging to a lie. Doering recounts their last moments as “filled with anger and hatred.”
I have a cousin who lives in South Dakota. And I have plenty of relatives who live in rural communities in the United States. I do not know if any of them are pandemic deniers. But I do know one reason why it is so hard for people in their communities to accept that the country’s founding lies are untruths. They do not feel like they have benefited from those lies.
Visiting my cousins over the last forty years, I have witnessed the destruction of rural communities. My mother grew-up on farms in Iowa and Minnesota. Most of her aunts and uncles were farmers. Some of her cousins were as well. They were proud independent people. None of their grandchildren or great grandchildren are farmers. Few of us are as prosperous as they were. Most of us who moved to the cities have forgotten the rhythms of the farming life. Our children have no connection to it.
I tell you this because I think I understand a little as to why many people in rural communities cling to lies about the origins and history of the United States and about the pandemic. I suspect that it is easier than admitting that the country has failed them.
A real Truth and Reconciliation Commission will have to ask why the United States has failed rural communities alongside the questions it asks to uncover the enduring horrors wrought upon far too many by the country’s founding lies. A real Truth and Reconciliation Commission will point to the ways that poor and working-class people of all races have been played off of each other for the benefit of the wealthy.
Reconciliation, Desmond Tutu wrote, is “not about pretending that things are other than they are.” President-Elect Biden, if you are serious about being a healer and unifier then you will have to be willing to share uncomfortable truths. You will have to be prepared to expose the horrors, the abuse, the bitterness, the pain, the violence, which is to say the truth that has shaped much of the United States and continues to shape the country.
Much of the political division in the United States comes from a refusal on the part of some in power, and many who support them, to recognize these truths. But helping the country state them clearly will be an important step towards real healing.
President-Elect Biden, you know that the United States has been a divided nation before. It was divided in the lead up to the Civil War. It was divided throughout the Civil War. It was divided over the course of Reconstruction. And it was divided during the civil rights movement.
In each of those periods there have been people who look like you and me—people with what one of my friends likes to call the complexion connection—who have preached unity and healing. But so far, whenever people of European descent have spoken of moving forward together, they have only tried to heal the divisions between people who believed themselves to be White. In the aftermath of the Civil War, White liberals in the North sought healing with White former Confederates in the South at the expense of African Americans. After the civil rights movement, many Whites—whether they self-identified as liberals or conservatives—decided that the United States was a post-racial society and that no further work was needed to dismantle white supremacy, which is to say to uncover the truth behind the lies and to begin the difficult work of reconciliation.
If you are serious about the work of healing that you have set yourself upon you must not make the same mistake. You cannot seek to reconcile White people at the expense of everyone else. You must take the bold step of telling the truth about all that has happened and how it has harmed everyone. Continuing to live in a nation founded on lies does not just hurt indigenous people, African Americans, or other people of color. It hurts everyone. Think again about the stories that nurse Doering shared. Were they not stories about people dying from their refusal to accept reality?
I am delivering this open letter to you on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I have chosen to deliver it today because this Thanksgiving is the four hundredth anniversary between the encounter between the Wampanoag and European colonists at Plymouth that has been mythically turned into the first Thanksgiving. In many indigenous communities it is a time for mourning and recognizing all that has been lost.
I am delivering this open letter to you on a Sunday when about 200,000 new cases of COVID will be reported and around 2,000 people will die of the disease. It is traditionally a time to gather with family and friends. This year I won’t see my parents or my stepdaughter or my brother and his partner. This year I will be reflecting upon all who have been lost.
I am delivering this open letter to you as a sermon to my congregation in Houston, Texas. We have not had an in-person service since March 15th. We have faithfully met via Zoom and held worship online. But it is not the same. I miss my people. I miss looking over my right shoulder on Sunday morning, seeing our music director at the grand piano, and, beyond him, the choir risers filled with choristers. I miss peering over the pulpit and seeing the assembled members of my community, voices joined in song or offering an “Amen” at the end of a prayer or sermon.
President-Elect Biden, I am delivering this to you cognizant of many of the ways in which this country desperately needs truth telling. And I am offering it to you aware that you must not choose healing the differences between members of White communities over addressing the injuries that have been done to all peoples. The Christian New Testament offers us the wisdom, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
I urge you to establish a Commission on Truth and Reconciliation so that the peoples of the United States might, collectively, begin to know the truth and be set free from the lies that continue to poison all of us. It is only then that the binding of the broken might begin. And it is then when you, as the President, might say that you have been elected by a stunning majority of the voters to, in the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:
be a herald of joy to the humble,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
liberation to the imprisoned…
[and] to comfort all who mourn.
the Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
And now, I invite you at home, my beloved congregation, absent in body, but present in spirit, to say Amen.