Like many others, I watched the inauguration and was blown away by the poet Amanda Gorman. If you have not seen or read the piece, here is the link. Her piece touched on the moment that America seems to be in, acknowledged the difficulties swirling around us, and elevated those parts of the American project that might offer us all hope. To accomplish all this with one poet and one poem was extraordinary, as she was clear that this is a country full of powers and tensions that pull in so many directions, tensions that have been with us from the beginning. The best parts of the American founding documents do the same, and I was reminded of the preamble to the constitution: “We the people in order to form a more perfect union…[to] secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” This moral vision of a society whose citizens are safe, flourishing, and able to pass that flourishing to their children comes from the juicy center of the American dream, for sure, but this year has chipped away at each of those promises. Few feel safe. Many are far from flourishing. And children seem to be caught in the middle of all of these tragedies without school or other supports. This inauguration lifted up these civic promises at a time when the country seems far from a “more perfect union.”
Gorman flags this up:
And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine,
but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.
All inaugurations are events that attempt to consecrate the best of our values to the work of the future. Think of H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” or JFKs “ask not what your country can do for you.” I have been thinking about these promises Gorman highlights because during the inauguration, Habitat of Orange County bought back a house from a long time homeowner who had been in the home a long time and this family was able to cash in a significant amount of equity from the sale of their Habitat home. This is equity that their children will be aided by and Orange County has, no doubt, been a better place because these folks lived here for a long time. This, of course, is what we hope for with our work: a flourishing through homeownership that can be passed down to children, helping to build wealth. At this moment it seemed that this family was living into the crossroads of a civic promise, Habitat’s promise, and a family’s hope for a better future, right when Gorman was performing the words: “striving to forge our union with purpose.”
I like her metaphor of a forge. To get two pieces of metal to stick together is no picnic. Hammers, heat, bending, anvils, all to realign chunks of metal into a stronger union. But like the constitution, Gorman seems to agree that in the end it will be our ability to unify, however difficult, hot, or stubborn the process, that will, in the end make this place “more perfect.” Habitat tries to do that by partnering with families and communities to build homes so people feel they belong in a place. Churches also can do this by transforming their communities through faith and faithful practices. Faith communities can lead with a vision that gets lost in governmental bureaucracies; they can see land through eyes of faith. Gorman flags this up too:
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.
This reference in Gorman’s poem comes from several sources (Hamilton, G. Washington), but its chief source is the scriptures both 2 Kings and Micah. In the scriptures the image is peace, unity and flourishing. In 2 Kings, Solomon “forged” the two kingdoms together and in that unity there was a flourishing peace. In Micah, the prophet excoriates an unfaithful land for three chapters then unloads this shatteringly beautiful bit of poetry:
Many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
It takes vision to see the possibilities for peace and flourishing. I was struck through Gorman’s poetry at how essential poems are to our ability to name and see the world and the union we would like to be. I am struck by how true Gorman’s poem rings in our moment: “victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.”