Like many of you, I am weary of the tidal wave of solicitations that daily jams my email inbox, my U.S. Mailbox and the voice mail on my telephone. It takes more and more time that I increasingly see as precious to wade through these unsolicited and largely unwanted attempts to separate me from my limited supply of money. And to make matters worse, more than half of these solicitations are scams.
One, the constant stream of solicitations, inevitably labeled as “urgent,” is a constant reminder that our electoral system has devolved into an auction where offices are sold to the highest bidder rather than awarded to the winners whose better ideas and character have ultimately persuaded voters to elect them.
The fact I am pummeled by these solicitations daily reminds me that even though the power to change this toxic arrangement has always been in our hands, my countrywomen and men have proven more than willing to avoid the discomfort of dealing with this festering wound on the body politic. They’re opted to escape social responsibility through binge watching streaming programming or engaging in addictive social media. As Erich Fromm so presciently foresaw 70 years ago, they have chosen to escape from freedom.
I did a little research to uncover who this enigmatic Derek might be. What I found surprised me. He’s hardly your typical politico.
Derek Penwell is a Christian Church pastor in Louisville, KY. He is a published author and earned two theological degrees, a Masters of Divinity and a Doctorate of Divinity from regional seminaries as well as a Ph.D. in Humanities from the University of Louisville. He has also been a part-time lecturer in humanities and theology at two local colleges.
All of that shows up in his ad. I am struck by both the nobility of his thinking here as well as how jarring it will sound in the ordinary political discourse of our time driven by cynicism and soundbites. And yet, we badly need critical thinking visionaries like Penwell, Even so, I would guess the probabilities of his electoral success are at best limited.
Norman Rockwell, Four Freedoms (1943)
The southern states were unified in defying the federal government and in fighting for the enslavement of other human beings—and again for the next 100 years of Jim Crow in working to keep the ancestors of those same human beings out of power and “in their place.” Our country was mostly unified in thinking that pursuing a war in Iraq was in our national interest…. Any unity based only on the felt need to get along is merely a cease-fire. It doesn't address the underlying causes of division; it just promises to act as if there were no division
Hank Willis Thomas, Four Freedoms ( 2019)
Penwell is hardly the first to observe this. In 1972 Pope Paul VI told the world: “If you want peace, work for justice.” More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has put it even more succinctly: “No justice, no peace.”
An obsession with imposing a superficial unity at all costs seeks to preserve the comfort of those who are the beneficiaries of the status quo by stifling the dissent of those who bear the costs of that benefit. No one likes conflict. But living under a patina of “unity” when you are the target of injustice quickly becomes an unbearable burden. And in the end, no real unity exists in such a situations. It is merely conformity to the demands of those demanding comfort.
A Political Ad Actually Worth Reading
I offer it with the awareness that this man is running as a Democrat in a state election in a very red state of Kentucky (represented by Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell). Thus his willingness to paint the Democratic Party in noble terms is hardly surprising. And it is not particularly difficult given the alternative the Republican Party increasingly manifests today.
I also readily admit that I am less sanguine these days about that Democratic Party in which I am still registered given its inclinations to be beholden to large corporate interests. (Yes, Joe Manchen, I am talking about you) When Democrats sell out to fundamentalist market forces, that only offers voters the choice of two corporate parties - a Hobson’s Choice on a good day.
I applaud Penwell’s idealism in pointing us in a new direction. If nothing else, it is a refreshing change from the tsunami of money driven campaigning we currently endure as we spend our mornings deleting these ads from our emails, phone mails and recycling them from our postal service.
As I always say, we can do better. But to do so we must end our willingness to acquiesce to a toxic status quo and dare to think differently. Derek Penwell offers us a good example of how that can happen. But let him tell you himself:
The Unity We Really Need (Derek Penwell KY House ad)
If we know anything from our cultural and political experience over the past 5 years, it’s that our country, our state, our neighborhoods are divided. In fact—and despite the irony—if we could unite on anything, it would probably be that there is no unity.
That kind of division leaves us all feeling embattled. Even a trip to Kroger or the doctor’s office holds the prospect of an unpleasant encounter with people who see the world all wrong—at least from our perspective. It feels like the longterm prospect of disunity is something that we have to solve—perhaps at any cost.
Unity isn’t an end in itself.
Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were largely unified. The southern states were unified in defying the federal government and in fighting for the enslavement of other human beings—and again for the next 100 years of Jim Crow in working to keep the ancestors of those same human beings out of power and “in their place.” Our country was mostly unified in thinking that pursuing a war in Iraq was in our national interest.
If enough people are wrong together, that’s unity. But I think we can all agree unity in that case isn’t a good thing.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me: unity is something we should aspire to, something we should want. But for unity to be moral, it has to be accomplished in the service of some larger good. In other words, positive unity—unity based on our moral values—comes not from agreeing to agree, but from agreeing to do the right thing.
Any unity based only on the felt need to get along is merely a cease-fire. It doesn't address the underlying causes of division; it just promises to act as if there were no division.
After all, what is the common ground upon which we might build a unity between People of Color and White Supremacists? How do we successfully bridge the chasm between LGBTQ people and homophobes and transphobes? To which bar of adjudication may we retire to settle the matter of whether it is morally permissible to throw little kids in cages?
When faced with injustice, oppression, and exploitation, sometimes the best thing is to refuse to settle for an easy unity that papers over profound moral differences.
Americans, Kentuckians, have no stake in unity for its own sake. We should invest our passion in unity for the sake of protecting the weak and the vulnerable, in unity that allows us to exercise empathy and compassion for those different from us, in unity that reminds of us our responsibility to one another, in unity that empowers people to live equitably in a just society.
Empathy, protecting the vulnerable, responsibility toward our neighbors, and empowerment for everyone—these are “Big D” and “small d” democratic values. These are the kinds of values we ought to be uniting around.
Politics always begins with the question: What is the moral thing to do? And that question is driven by an even bigger question: What kind of world do we want to live in, to pass along to our children and their children?
We begin with a picture of the world we want—and work backward from there. Generally speaking, Democrats unite around a vision of the world where we look out for one another, not just for ourselves.
· A world where everyone has enough, not just those who have the wealth and power to take what they want and leave the scraps for the rest of us to fight over.
· A world where everyone is welcome, not just those born White, middle class, and straight.
· Democrats find unity in a world where women don’t have to wait around for a bunch of men to tell them what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.
· A world where people don’t have to declare bankruptcy because they can’t afford the treatments that save their lives.
· A world where labor is recognized as wealth creators, instead of always defaulting to management as job creators.
· A world where immigrants and refugees are celebrated for the gifts their presence brings us, rather than as alien invaders who drain our resources.
You know, this is a free country. People can do what they want .I mean, people have the right to invite whomever they want to invite, and work to keep out whomever they want to keep out.
People can turn the other way as our Black and Brown siblings live in fear for their lives and the lives of their children from the very people who are supposed to protect and serve them.
People can look at the world and think that freedom is a constitutionally protected license to be selfish—to do only what they want to do, with no responsibility for anyone else.
Folks can help to make a world where some eat and some do not, where some are welcome, and others are rejected—a world where “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” wind up having to huddle somewhere else … where your wretched refuse have to teem on some other shore—across the cafeteria, on the other side of town, next to the garbage dump, in the closet ... out of sight.
Our unity is a sign of our persistent commitment to doing the right thing when so many other people are determined to do the wrong thing.
That’s what sets us apart. That’s what makes us Democrats. That’s what makes us Americans.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2021