While I did not plan to watch the inauguration, something compelled me to turn on the TV on January 20, 2017, a few minutes before 10 a.m. Tucson time. A black preacher was at the podium, reciting the Beatitudes, from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12):
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
I have always loved the Beatitudes, mostly because they mention peace, poverty, sorrow, loss and failure as conditions where God is present. They are, to say the least, not the most Trumpian of values, and it was strange to hear them coming from a stage set up in front of the U.S. Capitol, one of the biggest symbols of power and wealth on Earth.
Wonderful as they are, the Beatitudes are problematic. The words, like many in the Bible, can be interpreted a multitude of ways. Calling guns and missiles “peacemakers” has a long tradition in American history, long before the term “Orwellian” entered the language. Anti-abortion extremists believe they are being persecuted for Jesus’ sake. Combatants in wars since time began have believed God is on their side.
Despite the ambiguity, my surprise at hearing the Beatitudes allowed me to take solace in the words and even think about them in a new way. What I heard was: Blessed are the losers, the Hillary supporters. Even though we are in the wilderness, God is going to protect us and see us safely through the next four years.
The message also came through that we must find power in our rejection – in our humbling – and use that power to fight back against those who would dismiss us and call us un-American.
After the Beatitudes, the Missouri State University Chorale came on, and this time, the message wasn’t open to interpretation. The words they sang, while Trump sat and listened glumly, were crystal clear:
Here are the voices of every creature, Here are the calls of every heart; Here is the place of strangers’ welcome, We who once walked in strangers’ shoes. Once we were strangers, We were welcomed, Now we belong and believe in this land.
Here are the rivers of many echoes, Here are the leaves of every tree; Within us live the long horizons, Winds that stir the sacred stones. Once we were strangers, We were welcomed, Now we belong and believe in this land.
Keep faith, keep watch, Take heart, take courage, Guard mind, guard spirit. Feed love, feed longing.
Here are the cities where we have gathered, Here are the barns where hope is stored; We are the gleams of every being, Filled with the dreams that build the day. Once we were strangers, We were welcomed, Now we belong and believe in this land.
Keep faith, Guard mind, Take heart, Guard spirit, Take courage, Keep watch. Feed longing, Feed love.
I went to the Internet and learned the piece, titled “Now We Belong,” was an original chorale work, commissioned and composed by two university music professors, John Wykoff of Tennessee and Michael Dennis Brown of Minnesota, before the election was held.
The phrases were taken from standard scripture: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25: 35) Yet hearing them sung from the podium after an election where immigrants were often vilified was startling and welcoming.
While there aren’t a lot of issues the Bible is clear about, treatment of migrants is one of them. Dozens of references are made throughout both the Old and New Testaments to the importance of caring for strangers in our midst.
These were the words that inspired the original sanctuary movement, today’s faith-based efforts to prevent migrant deaths in the desert, and the new sanctuary movement that vows to resist deportations, use of local cops as immigration enforcers, and whatever else is in store.
I don’t know if it was intended, but it was as if the words sung on Trump’s Inauguration Day were meant for me, for today’s immigrants, the undocumented, refugees, and everyone else who thinks like we do. A subliminal message was sent out across the land that this is our America, and in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, we are going to defy the prevailing power structure and claim it as our own.
Trump’s bombastic and bellicose speech aside, I was glad to watch the inauguration. It reminded me of what we are fighting for, and what we are going to be fighting against, these next four years.
–Feb. 10, 2017