Mayday! Mayday!

May 3, 2020


Reverend Furrer preaching on the fate of the earth and civilization in the age of pandemic. Taken from the international radiotelephone distress signal (from the French m’aider, “Come, help me!”)

“Mayday! Mayday!”

There’s so much to talk about when it comes to May Day. It’s a kind of a pagan holiday with Celtic roots from antiquity. The May-Pole at Merry Mount, by Nathanael Hawthorne (1836) reveals the tension between the joyful, nature worshippers and John Endicott and his stern Puritan scolds. A tension that continues to this day.

So there’s the pagan Maypole Dance and its corollaries. Then in late 19th century, as labor movements grew, May 1st was chosen by trade unionists to celebrate labor. Dolores Huerta, held up in this morning’s Story for All Ages, exemplifies workers’ May Day celebrations. Bellicose military parades replete with megaton missiles in Moscow and other 20th century communist regimes led President Dwight Eisenhower to counter by declaring May 1 National Law Day.

So in one day we have three elements being celebrated:

  • Pagan exuberance
  • Solidarity and union among working people
  • /even, for some, revolutionary aspirations
  • Legal stability/order

And then there’s “Mayday! Mayday!” an international radio signal word used by airplanes and ships in distress. [From the French (venez) m’aider, (come) help me!]. So it seems an appropriate title for a brief homily on how imperiled is our American ship of state. And Spaceship Earth, too. Mayday! Mayday!

It took my brother-in-law three years to figure it out, but he told me two weeks ago that he now thinks President Trump in over his head. Perhaps Mr. Trump wasn’t paying attention before he ran for the office or he doesn’t care about violating longstanding Presidential norms (releasing taxes, divestiture of assets) and protocols (against nepotism, prohibiting Administration officials from testifying under oath). But the way it all comes across to me: he brings no dignity to the office. He trashes and seeks to humiliate those with whom he disagrees; he is never conciliatory. One of my high school coaches had a formula he wanted us to follow: in victory act like a gentleman; in defeat act like a man. Mr. Trump does neither.

He rules by distraction, obfuscation, and propaganda. And it gets worse as time goes on. The perfect pitchman, he distracts us with histrionics while paying off the Republican donor class—the top 1 to .001 % of the population—with massive tax and regulatory relief. Does Mr. Trump really understand the articles and sections of the Constitution he’s sworn to uphold, protect, and defend? Give him another four years in the Oval Office I honestly think our government of checks and balances may be checkmated into a corner and collapse. Or fall prey to opportunistic terrorists. Or yet another opportunistic virus. But I pray otherwise.

For weeks Mr. Trump shamelessly downplayed and belittled the growing contagion—until it’s revealed to be serious; then he starts acting like he was sounding the alarm all along. Routinely begging all questions about testing availability, he makes a bad situation even worse. But what did people expect? Donald Trump is a Reality TV impresario. That’s his training. Not government. Mayday! Mayday!

Political leadership requires clarity, adroitness, and, first of all, the ability to get everybody singing from the same sheet. But that is not President Trump’s style. He’s a believer in and a virtuoso of divide-and-conquer—which he’s used very effectively politically. But the novel coronavirus is a “novel” kind of problem; try as they might, Mr. Trump and his apparatchik cohort cannot use his familiar, “divide and conquer” political tactics; they won’t work. Tearing down, blaming, and condemning “enemies” are political tactics. But this contagion is not a political problem; it’s a common problem; and it can only be solved by common approaches and common means. To solve pandemics, our country needs everyone to pull together, something that’s apparently beyond Mr. Trump’s capacity. Give the President credit where credit is due: he knows how to divide and conquer as well as anyone. But gather together and lead the people as one people? On this score, he’s not so good. Mayday! Mayday!

* * *

The crisis is more than that. Even if, come November 3, we fix the immediate catastrophe of a President far over his head in the Oval Office, that’s just the beginning. All that means is an end to presidential denials of Global Warming, species extinction, habitat loss, deforestation: the whole ecological disaster. Shelter-in-place orders across the country (across the whole world) have revealed a planet free of factories, cars, and jet streams. Whatever our post-pandemic world is going to look like, the perils of hyper development and the fragility of the global economy make an ecologically sustainable future a lot more imaginable for a lot more people. What will our global future look like? A world of militant oligarchs fending off the growingly desperate poor? Or one more cooperative, more community based, and more democratic? I vote for the latter.

Our whole Unitarian Universalist movement votes for the latter and has for centuries. We have embraced a progressive, democratic stance from the days of abolition to women’s suffrage, LGBTQ rights and many other efforts to broaden and expand human rights. Our Sunday schools have used child-centered curricula since the 1930s, seeking to kindle the natural sense of wonder and curiosity in our children—a sense that will alert them to the miracles of life that abound. And we teach critical thinking skills that will challenge their hearts and imaginations to recognize and nurture the common good.

* * *

Today we celebrate May Day. We celebrate the world of nature bursting forth everywhere with color, fragrance, and beauty. We celebrate solidarity among people the world over striving for security and the opportunity to live in peace. In the words of Uruguyan Eduardo Galeano “Sometimes I recognize myself in others. I recognize myself in those who will endure, friends who will shelter me, beautiful holy fools of justice and flying creatures of beauty and others… …[and] when I recognize myself in them, I am the air, coming to know myself as part of the wind.” So we celebrate solidarity, and love.

We celebrate as well the revolutionary aspirations of terrorized and dispossessed people everywhere. And finally, on this day also known as National Law Day, we celebrate the principle, in America, that no one is above the law.

Our country, our whole world is seething with underlying tensions—between races, between religions, between Puritans and libertines, between developed and undeveloped countries. These tensions can be stoked in such ways as to gain power over others. But that’s been going on for far too long already. Mayday! Mayday! Another option, one we’ve been holding up in worship services and teaching our children and youth in Sunday school for decades now: we can align ourselves, as it says in our Purposes and Principles, with “the forces that create and uphold life.” This is Relational Power. Not power over, but power in relationship. It’s spiritual power, too. Satyagraha: Gandhi’s soul force as distinct from the brute force exemplified by Donald Trump. Relational power is the real power that makes communities whole and harmonious. “The force,” as the poet Dylan Thomas put it, “that through the green stem drives the flower.” Let us celebrate that! And with joy and thanksgiving. Let us celebrate the liberating, healing power of love.

Oh my soul! Oh my soul! Amen.