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A New Metaphor for Modern America

Rev. Al Carmines

What holds American together today?

What is the metaphor for this great monster of a country and its citizens with all their rights, privileges, responsibilities and experiences?

The idea of Melting Pot has kept us going for most of the 20th Century, but we are seeing that metaphor ebb as the century does. Melting Pot somehow is too bland and too happy an image for the spiky and individualist ethic reality that fills America today.

Before that, it was the idea of free people in a free land, but we all know that neither Blacks nor Indians nor women nor children were exactly free. So that passed with the beginning of this century.

We need a metaphor. But sometimes a metaphor is not a phrase or an intellectual idea, but is a person or an animal or a flower or even a kind of impregnated silence. The thing that holds the church together is the person of Jesus the Christ. The thing that holds a union together is equal pay for equal work. What holds America together? How do we experience the America today?

I have decided that the metaphor for America as we enter our third century is not an idea nor an abstraction, but a person. That person is Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln fascinates me in the way that figures from history like Jesus, Socrates, and Bessie Smith are fascinating. Within the vaults of their personalities are mysterious and elusive rooms. Abraham Lincoln I choose not because he was perfect. He was not. Not because he was pious or holy, for in the traditional sense he was not. And not because he was right on the issues. That he was not. He was less right on the slavery question than John Adams. His eloquence was less crystal clear than Thomas Jefferson and he did not have the majesty that Washington had.

But in a speech, Lincoln once said:

"I am like a tug boat. I steer from lighthouse to lighthouse hoping that in them I will arrive home."

Isn’t that what America is about and doing today?

Here we are -- Christians, Protestants, Catholic, Orthodox, secular humanists, Moslems of several varieties, Buddhists of some variety, a few Hindus, many Jews -- all engaged in being a country. I don't think that a phrase will do it for us, but I do think a life sacrificed does provide a way for us.

Oh my God, why must a sacrificed life always be the price of a way to God? Why the mystery of the cross, the hemlock, the bullet? That I do not know. But I know there is a connection between sacrifice and cleansing. This has been so since Abel and probably will be so until this time passes and perhaps -- just perhaps -- we reach a point where sacrifice either is no longer needed or is woven into the war of our lives in a way that we can accept with bowed head and rejoicing.

Lincoln is a model in these ways:

- First, his certainty that God was mysterious and profound, but finally the God of all creation. I love my denomination -- the United Church of Christ. But I disagree with one basic tenet of the denomination: that is, its creed begins with Jesus Christ rather than God. I love Jesus and I believe He is God, but I believe, like the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, that our faith begins with "I believe in God" -- and all else comes from that.

I believe that God is the God of every single creature and Lincoln is my model in that belief.

- And then Lincoln possessed an assured awareness of who he was. Although he was afflicted with disease and depression and periods of great sorrow, he knew in his bones that he was meant to be doing what he was doing. And with all of that he was humble.

I believe that humility is the cardinal virtue for us in this time -- for Moslem, Jew, Protestant, and Catholic. When we get behind how all the scriptures and the creeds engage the heart, there is no place to go but humility. So I believe Lincoln is a model in that way.

- Lincoln is also a model in his attitude toward what I can only call fate. And here I borrow not only from the scriptures, but from the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Sumerians, and modern thinking. I believe not quite in predestination -- that God is handing out sentences. However I do -- for some reason I can't explain -- believe in fate. I don't believe we can escape our fate no matter how we wiggle and squirm. It's like love. Love is like a pineapple, the poet said: it hits you on the head -- and it's a sweet and spiky thing. That is fate.

- And finally -- and this may surprise you, Lincoln is a model because he had a personal life which he took very seriously.

He had a wife somewhat given to hysterics -- but who can blame her with what she had to put up with. Oh, the wives of great men -- there will be a higher place in heaven for all of them!

Lincoln also had children whom he loved. And a step mother whom he adored. And a real mother who remained a sacred memory. He had a personal life he took seriously. And so should we in this age. If you don't have a husband, a wife, a parent, a sweetheart, a brother, a sister, grandchildren, or a close friend, get one! It will prolong your life and it will teach you things you wouldn't know otherwise.

I learned more from the occasional arguments of my mother and father than I did from their usual amity. And I learned more from the even more occasional spouts of my grandmother and grandfather than I learned from their comfortable manners.

I remember once my grandmother was kidded by my grandfather for getting too fat. So she read where smoking might cause you to eat less and lose weight. So being a Methodist, she waited until every one was out of the house and went upstairs and grabbed a cigarette from one of her son's packs. She sat down and lit it like some of ritual. With half an hour, she was in the bathroom vomiting her guts out. She stayed fat. He stayed happy. And life continued.

As I deal with my Moslem newspaper owners, Jewish bridge players, Palestinian grocer, Korean fruit marketer, and my Egyptian and Bengalee cab drivers, I find this: That when all the typing that we wear fades a way under the heat of the hot sun and the rains of our time, we are friends. I won't say brothers because I am not sure about brotherhood, but I will say friends. Lincoln knew that and we must learn it in this new time if we are to understand -- or at least live out -- what it means to be an American.

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