I delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers at Harvard this morning. The scripture passage I refer to below is Matthew 25: 31-46.
As a kid growing up in a working-class, Catholic home, I took Jesus pretty seriously—not always in the way my priests and parents would have liked, but as a pretty good role model for how we might conduct ourselves in this world. Feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, heal the sick and the suffering—these are not random items on some Biblical “to do” list; they are radical directives for living an intentional, moral, and just life.
We often hear people ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” For me, the answer is too often the same: not this. We all know that we live in a world full of violence and prejudice and suffering of all kinds—stains on our humanity that have been enabled by political indifference, personal ignorance, and structural inequalities in which all of us are implicated. Here in the United States and across the globe, we have far too many people who are hungry, homeless, naked, sick and suffering. As today’s scripture illustrates, Jesus was very clear about these things—after all, he spent so much of his time talking about poverty and peace, about “loving thy neighbor as thyself,” never about gay marriage or abortion or immigration or affirmative action. It is a sorry statement about our modern world that so many of us—including Christians and other people of faith—fail to embrace the better angels of our nature. As Gandhi once lamented, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”
Last week, a powerful hurricane ravaged the eastern seaboard of the United States—reserving its worst wrath for New Jersey, Connecticut, and my home state of New York. These kinds of storms always bring out the best and the worst in us. On the one hand, we have witnessed many of our fellow citizens, including first responders and elected officials, doing precisely the kinds of things Jesus called on all us to do: treating others as we would want to be treated, especially during a time of crisis and suffering. On the other hand, we have also seen the ugliness of the human spirit. You may have heard about Glenda Moore , a young mother from Staten Island, the borough one of my friends once jokingly—and callously—referred to as “New York’s unwanted stepchild.” At the height of the hurricane last week, Moore’s car was submerged in water as she was trying to drive her two small children—Connor and Brandon, ages 4 and 2—to a family’s place in Brooklyn. When her car was flooded, she rushed to a nearby home to ask for help. When she got to the door, her neighbors refused her, saying “I don’t know you. I’m not going to help you.” Glenda Moore, as it turns out, is black. Her neighbors are white. As the door slammed in their mother’s face, Connor and Brandon were swept away and killed by the storm, Sandy’s littlest casualties.
There is a much bigger storm brewing in America—one that is illustrated, on a personal level, by the tragic story of the Moore family. But the storm is political, too. Today, we vote. Each election season brings with it debates about voting—who can vote and who can’t; who we should vote for and who we shouldn’t; whether we should even vote at all. For me, voting is essential, a right and a responsibility, the building block of our democracy that allows us to articulate—frequently and forcefully—our voice in the present and our vision for the future. To vote is to go on record, but it is also to honor the memory of all those who have struggled for this precious right far too many of us take for granted. I like to remind my students that none of the women who gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848 for the first women’s rights convention in the history of the world were alive to vote in 1920, when women finally gained the right to the ballot. The long lines we have seen at polling stations across our own country trigger memories for me of the snaking lines in South Africa in 1994, when that nation’s black majority was finally allowed to participate fully in the political life of a nation long burdened, as ours has been, by the ravages of racism and the stains of white supremacy. Whenever I enter a voting booth—as my husband and I will do together this morning—I think of those heroic women from Seneca Falls, those resilient brothers and sisters from South Africa and elsewhere, who gave their lives to liberate us all.
The stakes this political season could not be higher. On the one hand, we have a party and a president, both imperfect for sure, who seem to understand that the nation is better off when everyone has opportunities to flourish, that government has a vital role to play in creating and sustaining these opportunities, and that compassion and fairness should be the principal standards by which we measure the success or failure of our democracy. In contrast, we have another party and another presidential candidate who have, time and again, shown themselves to be craven and callous, who pledge to shred our safety net and control our bodies, who reject the way we love and restrict our right to vote. Their plan is not only politically irresponsible; it is profoundly immoral. Jesus wouldn’t like these Christians either. Frankly, he wouldn’t even recognize them.
My prayer this morning is this: that we all exercise our right and responsibility to vote today, that we honor the memory of those who came and struggled before us, and that we raise up our voices and visions to repair a world that we have broken. Moving forward, I also pray that we will ask not merely “What would Jesus do?” but more importantly: “What will we do?” How will we feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and clothe the naked, and heal the sick and suffering? How will we love and honor our neighbors? So long as the meek still inhabit the earth, it is our moral duty to tend to them. This will be our inheritance.
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