I have a post all ready to go on why unity will be difficult, and I will share it soon, but it was such a downer after today’s events, that I have chosen today to focus on President Biden’s unrelenting, soulful call for a healthier politics.
It’s not a new call from Biden. He ran in a Democratic primary calling for unity, even when he was mocked for it. Even when they said it would lead to his defeat.
He made the call for unity during the general election, even when pundits said it was insufficient in the face of Trump’s demagoguery. Even when they said voters don’t turn out for that kind of vision anymore, that they’d moved on from unity.
He’s maintained this call for unity, to lower the temperature on our politics and to give each other a chance, even over these past two weeks. He understands we don’t really have a choice. Disunity, a politics of animosity, leads exactly to the events of January 6. A reciprocal disunity will do us no better.
What courage to call for unity when others want to call for retaliation.
And so from the same site where democracy was contested two weeks ago, Joe Biden stood to deliver his first message to the American people as their president:
I've just taken a sacred oath each of those patriots have taken. The oath first sworn by George Washington. But the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. On we the people who seek a more perfect union. This is a great nation, we are good people. And over the centuries through storm and strife in peace and in war we've come so far. But we still have far to go.
The talk of unity was given additional weight by not just the setting, but by the president’s stark honesty about the challenges we face:
We'll press forward with speed and urgency for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibility. Much to do, much to heal, much to restore, much to build and much to gain. Few people in our nation's history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we're in now. A once in a century virus that silently stalks the country has taken as many lives in one year as in all of World War Two.
Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses \closed. A cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making, moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can't be any more desperate or any more clear now. The rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, that we must confront and we will defeat.
But he also made clear how deeply committed he is to bringing people together:
To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy - unity. Unity. In another January on New Year's Day in 1863 Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper the president said, and I quote, 'if my name ever goes down in history, it'll be for this act, and my whole soul is in it'.
My whole soul is in it today, on this January day. My whole soul is in this. Bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation. And I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face - anger, resentment and hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness.
With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs…
“My whole soul is in this.”
Then, Biden turned descriptive, in what was my favorite part of the address. Does this not sound like the politics we have chosen, and the politics we would be so much better off choosing today?
In each of our moments enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward and we can do that now. History, faith and reason show the way. The way of unity.
We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbours. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury, no progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America.
If we do that, I guarantee we will not failed. We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we've acted together. And so today at this time in this place, let's start afresh, all of us. Let's begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another. Show respect to one another. Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war and we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.
My fellow Americans, we have to be different than this.
How can we be different? By acknowledging and remembering the aspirations we hold in common.
Many centuries ago, St Augustine - the saint of my church - wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. Defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love, that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honour, and yes, the truth.
President Biden then talked directly to his political opponents, in a display of empathy and understanding on the greatest of stages.
Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand like their dad they lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling thinking: 'Can I keep my healthcare? Can I pay my mortgage?' Thinking about their families, about what comes next. I promise you, I get it. But the answer's not to turn inward. To retreat into competing factions. Distrusting those who don't look like you, or worship the way you do, who don't get their news from the same source as you do.
We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes, as my mom would say. Just for a moment, stand in their shoes.
Then, in a moment that was reminscent of the emotional depth, earnestness and palpable outreach of his victory speech call to “give each other chance,” Biden tied how the tragedy of his life grounded his public service to the need for a similar commitment to the public’s good among citizens, including those who might hold political disagreements with the incoming administration.
Because here's the thing about life. There's no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days you need a hand. There are other days when we're called to lend a hand. That's how it has to be, that's what we do for one another. And if we are that way our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future. And we can still disagree.
My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us we're going to need each other. We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter. We're entering what may be the darkest and deadliest period of the virus. We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation, one nation. And I promise this, as the Bible says, 'Weeping may endure for a night, joy cometh in the morning'. We will get through this together. Together.
Near the close, Biden called upon the lyrics of a song, which he often does:
A story that might sound like a song that means a lot to me, it's called American Anthem. And there's one verse that stands out at least for me and it goes like this:
'The work and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day, which shall be our legacy, what will our children say?
Let me know in my heart when my days are through, America, America, I gave my best to you.'
Let us add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our great nation.
In his address, President Biden set a high standard, a standard we need, for how our politics can and must function. There will be challenges to meeting such a standard from both the left and the right, from domestic and international events, from politicians and citizens themselves. President Biden has offered a standard to which he himself must be held.
In the coming days, I’ll share my thoughts on how the left and the right might be drawn away from the pursuit of unity. For now though, let us each commit for ourselves that we will do our part; that we will “add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our great nation.” Amen.
You can support the work of this newsletter by becoming a paid subscriber. In the coming months, we’ll help you understand how the new administration is developing, how our politics is changing along with it, and the vital role faith plays in it all.