Where shall wisdom be found?
The Book of Esther, Ch. 2
A little black girl saved us. When she stood before what we Americans have in place of a king, on Inauguration Day of 2021, a skinny Black girl descended from slaves, as Amanda Gorman called herself, saved us, meaning, saved us white people.
How? By showing Americans a different way to live with our bloodied history. By showing us a way to live together “with harm to none and harmony for all,” a way to go forward without our historical habit of whites oppressing blacks, strong oppressing the weak, rich oppressing poor.
First, she encouraged us to believe that this wasn’t so awful a country, really—"it isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
Second, she redefined democracy—it’s not a thing, it’s a purpose, one which gets worked out in bits and pieces over time. We lift our gaze, she wrote, beyond what stands between us to that which stands before us, ahead in the future we are making.
Third, she pointed out that our country was not a possession to be proud of (like, say, a fancy car) but more like a quality that we step into by the living of which we repair it.
Fourth, she asserted that we live in multiple emotions simultaneously, never just grief or hurt but always also growth and hope at the same time.
Her whole approach was existential, not abstract; she was reality based not vaguely idealistic. And she captured our attention by using all the great devices available to great poetry—she began and ended in classical fashion with the same note about finding the light, which happens to be our own theme in Epiphany. Her repetitions were incantatory, her phrase-making was aphoristic, e.g., quiet isn’t peace, we will never again know defeat/we will never again sow division, while we have our eyes on the future/ history has its eyes on us.
She wrote in couplets that made for punchy points with alliteration and rhymes like chimes. Along the way, she gave her personal credentials and made clear her personal point of view.
She cited her authorities like scripture, societal norms, Lincoln, Hamilton (by inference), and her own self which you could hear in her voice.
Boldly, she tagged that frightening moment when the whole world saw “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,” that is, the day of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol where they stood that very moment—the moral she drew however was that democracy may be “momentarily delayed but never permanently defeated.”
Her poetry could rip right along as it leapt and jumped because she kept us with her all the way. She blended biblical style and rap with the particular stamp (aided with gestures) of the particular poet that she is.
Anderson Cooper couldn’t explain why he was absolutely taken with “poetry,” of all things. The answer is, Mr. Cooper: good poetry by a good poet makes a kind of fascinating sense that you can’t quite understand but can’t quite shake off either.
Then there is that other young woman, Esther, who stood before her king to make her own testimony once upon a time. It was a very different time, and from our post-Enlightenment, liberal society point of view, an extremely scary time. Monarchs had absolute power. Over everybody—and with women, they held power over the intimacy of their bodies. The power differential was total.
In a constitutional democracy, we have checks and balances (well, theoretically, at least), electoral brakes, popular opinion, and public ethical norms. No such limits exist if you're king over the empire of 3rd century BCE Persia. If two men in your court plot your assassination, the two can be hanged the next day, and that’s what happened in the Book of Esther. If a woman in the harem catches the king’s fancy, you can make her Queen in place of Queen Vashti whom you just demoted last year--and that’s just what happened to Esther (what happened to Henry VIII’s three wives could have happened to Vashti and Esther).
But Esther had a secret—she was Jewish but had never disclosed this to the king. Then, when the pogrom against the Jews in Persia began, she made it her mission to plead their case, as a Jew herself, in which she ultimately succeeded through a very dangerous stratagem. Esther herself managed, within the limits of power accorded to her as a woman but as a favored member of the king’s harem, to enter the king’s courts and make her case successfully. We are familiar with this predicament through Scheherazade who managed to salvage her own life by telling her husband the king the 1001 tales over the same number of nights.
Esther was plucky, and she is remembered in the Jewish community to this day at the Feast of Purim. However, her people were not only spared but they were given the right to destroy any enemy, and so they proceeded to slaughter tens of thousands of their enemies. Clearly, the lesson of mercy was only half-learned. When the Jews of Persia were liberated, they did not extend the same privilege to their enemies. Differences at that time had to be punished with death.
Therefore, whereas they survived by manipulating power (which is supremely important when you're powerless), enmity was not conquered. So, one thing did not change—strangers were forever enemies.
There you have the human situation—the stranger is to be feared—Amanda Gorman and Esther, only because of their extraordinary courage, skill, articulateness, and beauty of person and character were they able to speak truth to power and survive. Amazingly, both Esther and Amanda, despite one being the alien subject of a monarchy and the other a minority citizen of a racist republic, have sweeping effects on their respective native lands.
Different religion, different gender, different ethnicity, different sexual orientation, different race, different language—whatever comes from the outside, has no power inside. Tribal life requires that whatever comes from the outside is to be feared, rejected, exterminated. Tribal life, for the Neanderthal and for the modern teenager, is to protect the Me.
The larger goal of life is to get from Me to We. And once we get to We, then it is time to expand what is meant by We. This only occurs by virtue of a process that promotes the friendship of strangers, a process described by Prof. Danielle Allen of Harvard. Perhaps while Amanda was a student at Harvard, she heard Danielle Allen speak about the friendship of strangers. Amanda hinted at this process when she included a sly little message to the insurrectionists: “We lay down our arms, so we can reach out our arms to each other.”
In sum, Amanda Gorman did not just steal the show, her poetic achievement was to knit together all the parts of that day with the previous two weeks to show how enmity is conquered. With the wisdom of Esther and the wisdom of Amanda Gorman we may yet make our way to a new citizenship.
We must ask, what must our Christian citizenship post-January 6th look like? The church is a citizen in the aggregate—what arts will we employ to make our witness to the world? With every red light at our corner of Centre and Church streets, the number of people stopped outside for 30 seconds exceeds every time the number of our congregation inside for one hour on any Sunday morning. Shall we startle, encourage and inspire them with dance, or with mime, or painting, or sculpture on our front lawn? We now have Amanda Gorman as our inspiration to live up to.
Rev. Richard Chrisman, 01/24/2021
Eliot Church of Newton