Keynote Address

The Rev. Dr. James Gertmenian

March 24, 2019

If you’ve seen posters for today’s event, you know that the announced title for this talk is:  “Speak Your Mind Even If  Your Voice Is Shaking.”  It’s a great quote, isn’t it?  I’m guessing that at least a few of you know who it comes from:  Maggie Kuhn, of blessed memory, the fiery and indefatigable religious activist who died in 1995.  Do you remember the story?   When her employers at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church insisted Maggie retire at age 65, she replied “Hell, no,” and she went on to found the Gray Panthers movement, powerful advocates for seniors who weren’t down with being marginalized by the culture.  By the way, Maggie was ninety years old when she died, 25 fruitful years after she had been told that her services were no longer needed.  “Speak Your Mind Even If Your Voice Is Shaking!”  Maggie Kuhn’s challenge is an apt one – especially if you are not used to standing up . . . speaking up . . .  acting up.  Why do our voices shake?  I don’t know.  Maybe we’re nervous.  Maybe we’re not entirely sure of ourselves.  Maybe rocking the boat isn’t our style.  Maybe that’s why our voices shake.  Then, on the other hand, maybe we’re simply enraged, and that’s what gives our voices their peculiar quaver.  Whatever it is, Maggie said, don’t let it stop you. “Speak your mind even if your voice is shaking.”  That’s what we’re here to do today . . . to speak our minds.  That’s what we came to do.  And it’s good.  It’s wonderful.  Good on you for coming today.  But now I have to tell you something: “Speak Your Mind Even If Your Voice Shakes” is actually the title for a talk that I was scheduled to give at last year’s Advocacy Days – an event that was cancelled at the last minute.  Though no-one ever heard it, it was a talk that was full of pointed denunciations of Maine’s political status quo and rousing calls for people of faith to go to the barricades.  I don’t know if it was a good talk, but it was very satisfying to write.  Then came the cancellation.  Months went by.  That speech went into hibernation. The organizers this year, apparently quite willing to make the same mistake twice, asked me once again to come and speak, and I was glad to accept.   “Well, this’ll be easy,” I thought to myself.  “I’ll just dip into my computer files and pull up the talk that I had written last year.”   But the minute I glanced at those notes, I knew I was in trouble.  It wasn’t going to work.   The reason was clear:  last year was last year.  You know what it was like.  For those of us here in Maine, it was a terrible time.  Bills that many of us supported were languishing in the legislature.  Or if they eked through that body, they died a quick death on the desk of a retrograde and recalcitrant Governor.  A housing-first bill . . . vetoed.  A bill to make Narcan more readily available . . . vetoed.   A bill to expand Medicaid . . . stonewalled.  The list went on. The fact is, if you cared about expanding health care here in Maine . . . if you cared that another Mainer was dying from an overdose every single day . . . if you cared about our homeless brothers and sisters . . . if you cared about the environment . . . if you cared about civility from our leadership . . . if you cared about income inequality . . . Maine was an agonizingly frustrating place to be last year.  It was easy to be angry.   And it was an easy time to give a rabble-rousing speech.

But then, last November, the people spoke.  Some with steady voices, some with shaking voices . . . but the people spoke.  And now we have a different occupant in Blaine House.  A different legislature.  A more empowered electorate.  And things are beginning to change:   Medicaid expansion . . . check.  A cabinet more sensitive to environmental issues . . . check.  An Equal Rights Amendment for Maine . . . moving forward.   Again, the list could go on.  The atmosphere in Augusta is redolent of promise; there’s a new, hopeful spirit among progressives in Maine.  The change is palpable.  So, for me, even given Maggie Kuhn’s great advice, it was clear that last year’s talk wasn’t the right one for this year.  I spoke with some colleagues, did some reading, listened to my own heart.  What came to me this year is something quite different. A different challenge that I want to talk about today.  And if there needs to be a title for what I’m about to say, it might be this: “The Dangers of Winning.”  

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m as happy and as excited as anyone about the changes here in Augusta.  I’m thrilled about the possibility of true advancement of progressive causes.  Those of us who fought for Medicaid expansion are glad that it’s becoming a reality, and we should be glad.  So, lift it up!  People who felt that education was being underfunded in our state are glad to see the Governor’s budget that begins to remediate that problem, and we should be glad.  Lift it up!  People who were disturbed by the anti-immigrant attitude of the last Administration are glad to hear a more welcoming tone from our leaders.  Lift it up!  We should celebrate our victories, for sure.  But I want to say that when we celebrate, we should do it with our eyes wide open, with a healthy analysis of what it means to win.  Winning is great.  It can also be dangerous.   In the next few minutes I want to unpack this idea and speak briefly about four dangers we face:  presumption, self-righteousness, co-option, and narrowed vision.   Let’s take them one by one. 


In Roman Catholic moral theology, there are two sins against hope.  The first is despair and the second is presumption.   In this case, what is true theologically is also true politically:  the two sins against hope in the political realm are despair and presumption.  Despair is a sin against hope because despair assumes that all has been lost, and presumption is a sin against hope because presumption assumes that all has been won . . . or, at the very least, that the ultimate victory is somehow assured.  Presumption makes hope unnecessary and too quickly dampens the fire of our work.  Like many of you, I have leaned heavily on Dr. King’s saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I believe it, and my faith supports it.  I bet you do, too.  But too often we ignore that first phrase . . . that the arc is long . . . and what’s more, experience tells us that it is not a steady arc but a jagged one that is riddled with setbacks and reverses.   So, if last year here in Maine we were tempted by despair because we were beaten down by so many losses, such long odds, such implacable opposition, this year we need to take care that we not become tempted by presumption, by thinking that now everything is ok, or it’s surely going to be ok . . . that we’ve won.  

Rebecca Solnit, in her remarkable book Hope In the Dark, recalls a day in 1982 when a million people gathered in New York City to demand a bi-lateral nuclear weapons freeze.  At the time, the freeze movement was massive and gaining momentum.  The people in that crowd, Solnit suggests, were buying into a storyline in which the world would soon be made “safe . . . safe for, among other things, going home from activism.”   This is the danger: the idea that if we just win enough elections, just get the right bills passed, then we’ll be able to “go home” from activism.  It is the presumption of inevitable progress.  The German government, for instance, has announced its intention to shut down all coal-burning power plants and to depend entirely on renewable energy by 2050.   Lawmakers in Florida are proposing the same thing.  Wonderful!  But if we got that done across the land, around the globe, does it mean that all the climate activists could go home?   Of course not.   Take another example.  Many people believed that when the United States passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, that the voting rights activists could finally go home.  After all, they had won!  But recent decisions by the Supreme Court and successful attacks on voting rights by many state legislatures over the past decade have proved that wrong.  In some ways, voting rights are more under assault today than they were in 1964.  As Solnit says, “It is always too soon for [the activists] to go home.”  

Those of you who are here in Augusta today, by your very presence, have announced yourselves to be activists.  Guess what?  In one sense, you’re just like Supreme Court justices, and here’s how:  you’ve got a lifetime appointment.  No-one is ever going to say, “It’s ok, you can go home now.”  There will not be a year when you will not be needed here in Augusta.  There will not be a session of our legislature that doesn’t need the influence of faithful advocates.  There will not be a time when your voice is no longer needed on the side of justice, a time when you can just go home.  Beware of the presumption that we are inevitably on a progressive path.   That presumption is one of the dangers of winning.  We’re in this for good – a daunting fact, to be sure – but that’s ok, because what could be more ennobling than to know that our whole lives, to the very end, will be taken up by a holy cause?


The second danger of winning is self-righteousness.   As Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.”   For many people, winning is the ultimate self-validation.  “We won, therefore we must have been right!”   But then there’s the obvious and inconvenient truth that people who are “wrong” also win their share of contests.  For winners, often the first thing laid aside is the practice of self-critique.  In place of it, we get caught up in waves of self-congratulation.  And again, there is nothing wrong with celebrating our victories.  Nothing wrong with feeling good about what we have accomplished.   But, here’s the thing: it is self-critique – deep, honest, continuous, unflinching self-critique – that keeps democracy alive.  If we pass an Equal Rights measure for Women here in Maine, we cannot stop asking ourselves, in a searching and fearless way, “In what ways is gender inequality still a part of our personal and collective make-up?”  Were we right in fighting for Medicaid expansion?  Obviously we believe we were.  But what about the argument that in accepting that victory we undercut the urgency and political will for the real goal which is universal health care?  Is there any room in us for even asking questions like that?

In 1650, when the people of Scotland had proclaimed Charles II their King, Oliver Cromwell sent a message to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.  “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”   This is the great paradox of true activism:  we must be, at the very same time, convinced that our path is the right one and open to the possibility that it may be the wrong one.   The minute a democracy devolves into warring camps of mutually exclusive blind certainties, that democracy is dead.  We need to be able to understand the difference between conviction, which is a good thing, and certainty, which is a dangerous thing.  For example, I have a deep and unshakable conviction about the urgency of saving the planet from ecological degradation.  But I do not have certainty that my particular solutions are the right ones.   This is hard, very hard, but as we meet with legislators today and tomorrow, and as we argue for our various causes from a place of firm conviction, we must also carry in our hearts and minds that germ of self-critique that allows for the fact that we may not be seeing everything clearly.  There must be room for discussion, for debate.   To leave ourselves open in this way may seem to be a form of unilateral disarmament, especially when our adversaries seem to have views that are hardened and unwavering.  Why should we be vulnerable if they aren’t?   Well, it’s a matter of integrity and courage.  You know this instinctively: certainty doesn’t take any courage at all; in fact, certainty is most often a defensive posture that hides a deep weakness.  Self-critique, vulnerability, openness:  these demand a compelling courage and bespeak great personal strength.  Self-righteousness is death.  So, let’s be honest with ourselves: how open are we to challenges to our positions?


The third danger of winning – especially for those of us whose activism is based in our faith – is of being co-opted by purely political forces.   This is the tragic story of much of evangelical Christianity over the last generation in America.   Sometime in the 1960’s and 1970’s, radically conservative secular political operatives in the United States created a strategy by which they would manipulate the conservative and evangelical churches into becoming unwitting tools to further a political agenda.  They wanted to convert religious fervor into political capital. These political operatives had one religion, and it was not Christianity.  Their religion was unfettered free-market capitalism wed to a strong dose of American military power and exceptionalism, all of it with a subtext of racial bias.  Early on, these people seized on abortion (which before that time had not been a central concern of evangelicals) and like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, they drummed up a sense of moral outrage around it.  “You got trouble . . .” As they did this, they created a juggernaut of frenzied political power . . . a force whose base was built on church membership lists and the support of evangelical pastors who had so long been marginalized from American political life that they were desperate for legitimacy, for a seat at the table.  Thus was the Religious Right created as a wholly-owned subsidiary of America’s Political Right.  Co-opted.  And there is no more pungent proof that this is still true than the willingness of some conservative faith leaders – mostly evangelical Christians – to overlook the gross indecencies of our current President in order to maintain their access to the Oval Office.   Now, I say all of this not so much as a condemnation of these Christians but as a warning to all of us who are progressive people of faith – Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others.  When we enter the political realm, we need to know who we are.  We can’t lose sight of where our essential mandate comes from.  When we enter the political realm, our core identity cannot be Republican.  It cannot be Democrat.  It cannot even be American.  We are people for whom all such allegiances must be secondary because we are people who have been seized by a holy vision of what the world is meant to be like and whose primary allegiance will always be to the Source of that vision.   That Source and that vision – and no political party – they own us.  That’s who we are.  That’s who we belong to.   Many of us have recently and urgently called on certain lawmakers, including Susan Collins, to put country over party.  What would it mean for us to listen to our own words . . . and then what would it mean if we put the will of God over party and country?   If the Religious Left which, by all accounts, is growing stronger these days, becomes nothing more than the Democratic Party at prayer, we will have sold our very souls.   If, with a spate of Democratic victories, we allow ourselves to be co-opted the way Evangelical Christians were in the 1970’s, we will have traded our birthright for a bowl of pottage.  We need to remember who we are.  Winning is great, but we have to beware of building our identity around it.


And that leads me to the fourth danger of winning, perhaps the most dangerous of the lot.   To talk about it, I want to share with you some lines from a poem entitled “The Man Watching,” by Rainer Maria Rilke.   (I’ve made copies of Robert Bly’s translation available to you so that you can follow along.)  The latter half of the poem draws on one of the most pungent images in Hebrew Scripture.  It is the story of Jacob, camped out at night by the River Jabbok, attacked (or was it embraced?) by an angel – by God – and drawn into a wrestling match which continued until dawn and from which he walked away limping.   Listen to Rilke!

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after 
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes 
that a storm is coming, 
and I hear the far-off fields say things 
I can’t bear without a friend, 
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on  
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age: 
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,  
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

Here’s the part that is so telling for us, latter day Jacobs:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!  
What fights with us is so great.  
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,  
we would become strong too, and not need names.

Now it gets more pointed.  See if you can make a place in yourself for this truth:

When we win it’s with small things,  
and the triumph itself makes us small.  
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.  
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament: 
when the wrestlers’ sinews  
grew long like metal strings,  
he felt them under his fingers  
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel  
(who often simply declined the fight)  
went away proud and strengthened 
and great from that harsh hand,  
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.  
Winning does not tempt that man.  
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,  
by constantly greater beings.

Focus on that line: “When we win, it’s with small things/and the triumph itself makes us small.”   Don’t take it the wrong way.  Getting a health care measure passed isn’t unimportant.   Passing a budget with more money for schools isn’t unimportant.  A measure to increase renewable energy isn’t unimportant.  They’re all very, very important.  They’re worth working for, fighting for.   But in the end of the day, as people of faith, we are not just here to press for a legislative agenda.  We are here to embody and lift up the broad, white-hot vision that animates all of the great faiths: a holy vision of shalom, salaam, of peace.  Our purpose isn’t simply to enact laws; it is to imagine, seek out, and usher in a new world.   We are here to talk with legislators not just because we are in favor of certain programs; we are here to talk to legislators because, as I said, we have been seized by that vision, because it has taken hold of our very souls and will not let us go.  That vision wrestles with us in the night and gives us our names.  It is a vision of a world utterly transformed by that shalom, salaam, peace, by which we mean not simply the absence of conflict but the active presence of the Holy One in every aspect of life.   So, we are not just seeking universal health care; we are seeking Universal Health of all God’s people.  We are not just seeking better educational programs, but we are seeking the embrace and blessings of Wisdom.  We are not just seeking a cut-back to carbon emissions, but we are seeking an Earth in balance, all of its holy systems in harmony.  We are not just seeking a fair minimum wage, but we are seeking true Economic Justice for all peoples.   It is this larger vision – seemingly unattainable but nevertheless vivid in our hearts – that fuels and gives shape to our day to day work on the issues before our legislature.   And it is what gives us hope . . . gives us faith that with our imperfect aid something great and perfect is being coming to pass.  

The Shakers, that indomitable, lovely, improbable sect that has given so much to American culture, used the motto: “Hands to work.  Hearts to God.”  That says it, doesn’t it?   We’re here in Augusta to put our hands to work.  To wade into the muddy waters of the political process, where the currents are swift and dangerous and to draw up out of them every victory, large or small, that we can manage.  It is hard work.  (“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes!”)  But it is holy work, too, because as our hands are put to work, our hearts are tuned to God.  Because we know that beyond and within the muddy waters of history, there is a clear-flowing river of Divine Love:

Then [I was shown] the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God . . .  through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.  There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God . . . shall be in it, and God’s servants shall worship the Holy One, and God’s name shall be on their foreheads.  And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light  . . .

So, bless you for being here today.  As you go into the halls of government . . . as you talk with legislators . . . as you interact with other activists . . . as you do this exhausting, difficult, often daunting work, do not presume victory, or assume you have all the answers, or let yourself be manipulated by partisans, but rather rejoice in the fact that you are in the embrace of the Holy One.  Rejoice in the truth that you are part of a mighty company that stretches through history, before you and after you.  And rejoice that you have been entrusted with the sacred, wild, shimmering vision of a world healed by Love, lifted by Joy, and blessed with peace.     May it be so . . .