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For National Havdalah of Reconciliation

For video of this teaching, see the videos page.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

If something in these familiar words felt missing, it’s because Congress amended this original version of the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 to add “under God.”  “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” was a response to the Cold War.  Congress made clear then, and courts reiterated ever since, that these words affirm not religion but rather our national unity, our shared identity and our collective humility to submit ourselves to a higher purpose.

Our national motto, “In God We Trust,” followed in 1956, emblazoned today on courthouse walls like mine.  They remind that whatever our origin, color, creed, gender or sexual identity, the pursuit of justice is our equal birthright transcending any one of us.  True justice and rightness are works in progress, always imperfect because we are – however right and righteous we believe ourselves to be.

That’s why we aspire to a more perfect union.  Whatever our politics, the task of building a more perfect union never ends, not in electoral victory and not in defeat.  It’s much as the prophet Jeremiah (29:5-7) taught after the first Israelite exile to Babylon in 586 BCE.  To those people who lost it all, Jeremiah said: 

בְּנוּ בָתִּים וְשֵׁבוּ וְנִטְעוּ גַנּוֹת וְאִכְלוּ אֶת־פִּרְיָן…. וּרְבוּ־שָׁם וְאַל־תִּמְעָטוּ. וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת־שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַעֲדָהּ אֶל־ יהו”ה כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שָׁלוֹם:    Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit…. Flourish there and do not become diminished.  Seek the shalom of the city where I exiled you, and pray to God for her – for in her shalom will you have shalom.

Shalom – we know the word to mean peace, but it really means wholeness.  Seek society’s shalom, her wholeness, “for in her wholeness will you be whole.”

Pirkei Avot (3:2) extended this sense of wholeness to government itself:

הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בְּלָעוֹ.Be a pray-er for the shalom of the government: but for awe of her, each person would swallow one’s neighbor alive.

Talmud (Avodah Zara 4a) went further: only true shalom – peace coming from wholeness – can keep the strong from swallowing the weak.

We learn that real reconciliation isn’t about peace but rather wholeness as a continuing path.  It isn’t for when we return from exile, whatever that may be for us.  Real wholeness is always working for a more perfect union: that’s our “one nation, under God, indivisible.”  And so wholeness also isn’t just for the strong, or for us or people like us, whoever we are.  Real wholeness is an ongoing journey for everyone, especially the marginalized and disenfranchised, so that nobody is swallowed alive: that’s our “liberty and justice for all.”

We learn that any God truly worth our trust will call us toward that whole of democracy, not the Democrat; that whole of the republic, not the Republican.  This kind of reconciliation, this shalom, by definition transcends all parties and candidates.  We must resist turning ideology or partisanship into our God – not in victory, and not in defeat; not now, and not ever.

We have a long way to go: these years have shown us just how far.  We face pandemic, polarization and political gridlock, privilege and systemic oppression, pollution, planetary warming and more.  We’ve seen how losing faith in our institutions – how cynicism and propaganda corroding the whole of democracy itself – can unleash hatred, oppression, violence and death.

That’s why real reconciliation asks more than voting in elections – which in Jewish tradition is a sacred act of holy collective partnership – then calling for unity afterwards.  Real reconciliation, real shalom in our realm, asks our active citizenship every day.  Only active citizenship – organizing, advocating and serving – can reconcile our nation toward her ideals of an ever more perfect union.  It’s not about poetic platitudes, or only thoughts and prayers, or a lowest common denominator, and certainly not about pacifism as if conflict is always wrong.  Reconciliation means action to keep bending that arc of the moral universe toward justice.  As Congressman John Lewis showed us, it’s about getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble,” lest our social compact fray, lest our institutions falter, lest our planet overheat, lest we swallow each other alive.

It won’t be easy.  It will ask all we’ve got.  It will ask us to hold victory with humility and defeat with resilience.  Even more, it will ask our willingness to be turned, all of us, toward the whole of democracy more than toward any Democrat, toward the whole of the republic more than toward any Republican.  It will ask our willingness to be turned toward our shared ultimate truths and ultimate destiny, all of us, as children of the One we call God.

Let that call to action be our path to reconciliation.  Let it re-dedicate us to the whole of this realm, the shalom of this nation.  May the One who makes shalom on high inspire each of us to make shalom among all of us, by fulfilling with renewed common purpose these words of our national creed that we now say together: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

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