A Civic Sermon: Faith in Each Other
“Justice is not an outcome; it is a perpetual effort to set things right. Freedom is not the removal of all restraints on our appetites; it is the acceptance of restraints and of a duty to participate. Equality is not about pillaging and polluting as much as the next guy; it is about acting as if you were the next guy.” Thank you, Eric Liu, for these powerful reminders you share on Civic Saturdays!
Co-founded by Eric Liu and Jená Cane, Citizen University’s Civic Saturday is a public analogue to a religious service: a gathering of friends and strangers in a common place to nurture a spirit of shared purpose. It’s about American civic religion—the creed of liberty, equality, and self-government that truly unites us. A popular traveling civic ritual, Civic Saturday congregants gather, sing, share readings of American civic scripture, hear poetry, stories, and a civic sermon. What follows is a portion of Eric Liu’s sermon, “Faith in Each Other,” delivered at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on November 10 and again at Upswell 2018 in Los Angeles.
We gather this morning more than a little unsettled. We’re still getting our minds around the fact that on November 14 at the Borderline Bar and Grill many young people who had survived the Las Vegas mass shooting were terrorized anew.
We’re still unclenching our pained hearts for the octogenerians and nonagenerians of the Tree of Life Synagogue who had survived the Holocaust and had no reason to imagine that weaponized anti-Semitism would find them on Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh in 2018.
We’re still digesting [a 2016] election in which the good, the bad, and the ugly of American civic life were all amplified and emboldened. This was not what historians could call a settling election. It settled very little. It was an unsettling election.
Meanwhile, devastating fires are raging across California, fires that we know are part of the new normal of our changed climate, though knowing that doesn’t help you now as the menace approaches and our lungs and eyes sting.
And I haven’t even mentioned Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Never has more rested on the ribs of an 85-year old.
I began this morning by saying I was happy to be with you and I admit that I don’t sound so happy right now. But I meant it. I am glad and grateful to be in your company during such unsettled times. Especially during such times. At Civic Saturday we gather people in rooms like this all around the United States—in just the last couple of weeks, there have been Civic Saturdays led by people we’ve trained in Nashville, in Indianapolis, in Ellensburg, Washington and Athens, Tennessee.
Why do we gather? To find reasons to believe that democracy isn’t done yet. To be the reason for that faith.
It is not written anywhere that a diverse and sprawling nation that has no historical memory and measures life by the dollar should be able to govern itself inclusively, justly, and with reverence for the rule of law. In fact, history both written and unwritten gives us reason to believe that democracy in America shouldn’t work, can’t work for long, or can’t work for all. The promise of American democracy is just that, then—a promise, a leap of faith. Hope in the unseen.
Today I want to talk with you about this democratic faith—and about three things we can all do to repair it and perhaps redeem it. First, have values. Second, make choices that express those values. And third, pass the baton.
Let me start with values. My advice is, “have some.” I don’t mean to be glib. I am addressing one of the most salient features of our polluted political environment. In the age of Trump—but, let’s be honest, this started a long time ago and only became unavoidable in the age of Trump—we are surrounded by leaders and fellow citizens who believe that might makes right. That power without values is the true nature of things. That there are no neutral principles or moral truths. Just muscle, Darwinian conflict, and the ability to ram through what you want and then dress it up as legitimate.
The ancient Greek philosopher Thrasymachus put it succinctly when he said, “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, the revered jurist and Supreme Court justice from a century ago, defined the law as nothing more than what a bad man predicts a court will do. The bad man, he said, “does not care two straws” about morality or principle. He just wants to know what he can get away with.
Sound relevant this week? This is the essence of the Trumpian mode of operating—of bending and breaking political and constitutional norms to see whether he can place himself above the law. But “might makes right” is also the implicit lesson that Americans left and right, poor and rich, have taken from forty years of trickle-down economics, forty years under both parties of concentration of wealth and clout into the hands of the one percent, and nearly twenty years of undeclared wars abroad fought by a very different one percent of us. The game is rigged. We all feel it, whether we benefit from it or not.
Might makes right is on display right now in the efforts to stop ballot-counting in Florida and Georgia. It’s been on display in the process by which Mitch McConnell rammed through two justices of the Supreme Court. It is on display in a hundred transactions a minute in this great city, from studio and agency boardrooms to underground brothels. The law is what a bad man thinks he can and can’t get away with.
This approach to the law is sometimes called realism and it seems very practical. But let’s be clear: it is also the raw material for fascism. The absence of morality—the utter shameless immunity that leaders display to the norms of morality—eats away at our ability as parents, as workers, as neighbors to be a good man or woman.
Justice is what the strong say it is. That’s the kind of nihilistic language that made the Nazis so appealing to their aggrieved followers. We should remember this, on the morning after the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I was reminded of this last month when my wife and I were in Berlin, where I was meeting with a group of citizen activists from across Europe who are working to rehumanize political life and to create thicker ecosystems of civic groups and gatherings in their countries.
Whether they came from Serbia or Poland or Bulgaria, Britain or Sweden or Greece, they reported that the habits of citizenship were evaporating. As one participant from the Balkans put it, “We are not citizens. We are just population. There is no concept of the citizen.” He wasn’t talking about passports and papers. He was talking—as am I—about the deeper notion of the citizen as a member of the body, a pro-social contributor. Without it, a people becomes a mere population—and susceptible to a strongman.
The civil rights activist Ella Baker once said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” I love that line. But it doesn’t tell us what to do when a people is weak or weakening. The answer is, we must fortify them. Fortify their moral core and their capacity for courage.
Let me put it simply. The key moral question of our time is whether it is possible to stop an ethical race to the bottom. If you answer nihilism and raw power plays with decency and principle and character, can you save corrupted institutions? Or are you just a naïve sucker who will get steamrolled?
I believe that we can reverse this race to the bottom. Decency is not weakness. It is strength. Time’s Up. Me Too. Black Lives Matter. March for Our Lives. Vote for Our Lives. These movements prove it is possible to reverse the cycle. To create brand-new power coupled with values of inclusion and fairness. And these movements are migrating from social activism to political action. Though it’ll be months before we get complete data, the first analyses of the midterms tell us that youth turnout and turnout by voters of color reached highs not seen in decades. We already know how many women and women of color are now members-elect of the 116th Congress.
And it’s not just DC. Whatever the final results of the gubernatorial and Senate elections in Florida, that state has already, by vote of the people, re-enfranchised over 1 million former felons. In Michigan and Utah and North Dakota the people voted to unrig partisan gerrymandering and expose dark money.
The antidote to law without values is having values. The cure for power without character is cultivating character. And when I say, “have values,” I mean reflect upon and codify your core beliefs as a citizen. Not with single nouns like freedom and justice and equality, though those are of course foundational. I mean fuller statements of creed.
Here are a few that we at Citizen University believe:
- Society becomes how you behave.
- We’re all better off when we’re all better off.
- There’s no such thing as not voting.
- True patriotism means “My country—when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right.”
And one more, special for you Angelenos:
- You’re not stuck in traffic; you are traffic.
As these distillations of our creed remind us, justice is not an outcome; it is a perpetual effort to set things right. Freedom is not the removal of all restraints on our appetites; it is the acceptance of restraints and of a duty to participate. Equality is not about pillaging and polluting as much as the next guy; it is about acting as if you were the next guy.
I urge you, when you go home today, to think about your own civic creed. To share with your family and friends the values that form how you live in public. Maybe you value individual liberty more than I do or are motivated by greater mistrust of authority. That’s great. Know what you believe and why. As you deepen that process of discernment, you will be able to choose mindfully when circumstances demand it.
Eric Liu’s full Civic Saturday sermon is available here.