Message 137, Great Moments in American Spiritual History: John F. Kennedy and July 21, 1963
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Lucius Cincinnatus, the namesake of our fair city, was a well regarded ancient Roman patrician, retired army general and elected Senator who lived during the 5th century BCE. At one point in his life, his son became ensnared in criminal activity, he was caught and then sentenced to prison along with an obligation to pay a very large fine. Senator Cincinnatus was understandably humbled by the crimes of his son. He paid his son’s fines, resigned from the Senate in shame and retreated outside of Rome to a small farm.
In 458 BCE, Rome faced a crisis. Surrounding Italian tribes were threatening the Republic and, at one crucial battle, they defeated the last Roman army protecting the city. The Senate was thrown into a panic and a delegation quickly travelled to Cincinnatus’ farm to implore him to return to Rome to help save the Republic. He did so and was quickly appointed by the Senate as dictator – holding absolute and total rule over all aspects of business, the military and government.
Cincinnatus quickly organized the city, closed down all businesses and commanded every citizen to prepare defenses. He put together an army and marched out to meet the invaders. In one day, Cincinnatus and his army defeated the invaders and forced them to abandon any hopes of conquering Rome.
Cincinnatus was hailed as a hero on his return to Rome. As the savior of the Republic and holding total dictatorial power, literally everything was within his control. He could have remained dictator for life and Rome would have been happy to agree. But, only fifteen days after his return, once Rome was assured of its safety, Cincinnatus resigned as dictator, returned power to the elected Senate, and returned to his farm.
Cincinnatus would again be appointed dictator later in his life when Rome faced a political crisis. Once again, he solved the problem almost single-handedly, resigned and then retreated for a final time to his small farm.
Ever since, Cincinnatus has been looked to as the model statesman – one who placed the common good above his own individual interests, one who did not seek the benefits he might GET from Rome, but instead the benefits he could GIVE to Rome. In our own American history, George Washington is often compared to Cincinnatus. After defeating the British army and forcing their retreat back to England, Washington was at the apex of power and popularity. Commanding a large army and hailed as a hero, Washington could have dictated the creation of a government on his own terms. Like Cincinnatus, Washington disbanded the army, humbly resigned his commission as general and went back to farming. Like the many men in his Continental army, he was a citizen soldier, a farmer soldier, and one who acted not with self-interest but in concern for the needs of others, the community, and the common welfare.
In concluding my message series on Great Moments in American Spiritual History, I look today at a more modern moment in our American life. I look to the inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy on January 21st, 1961. It is a speech that spoke to the high ideals and ethics of Cincinnatus and Washington – inspiring a nation and the world to seek peace, end petty bickering, sublimate selfish interests and instead work for the betterment of the community and humanity in general.
Whether or not we believe Kennedy himself lived up to those ideals, his speech on a very cold and snowy day is considered a landmark event in American and human history. It is ranked as one of the four best Presidential inaugural speeches and, according to William Safire, a conservative columnist and adviser to Republican Presidents, one of the 100 best speeches of all time. It has even been favorably compared to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and to several discourses by Jesus.
Kennedy’s inaugural address was only 1,346 words long. It lasted 13 minutes and 42 seconds. It was one of the shortest inaugural speeches in our history. It was shorter than my message will be today – proving the point that great comments and statements are usually brief.
But, like the Declaration of Independence and the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments in behalf of the rights of women, of which I discussed in my last two messages, Kennedy’s inaugural address was a deeply spiritual message. It touched on almost no controversial, political or partisan issues. He specifically avoided those topics as he wanted his speech to speak to high ideals that are universal in their appeal. He intentionally aspired, as he wrote the document, to match the power and impact of other great speeches in history. He succeeded.
The speech began simply but eloquently: “We observe today not a victory of party,” he said, “but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change.”
The address concluded with words that still resonate today: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
True to our own Gathering ideals, such an assertion implicitly tells us that God is not some outside force ordering our lives and our existence. God is us. It is we, as little gods and goddesses, who build a better earth. If that is so, then as Kennedy asserted we must put the interest of others ahead of ourselves.
While the speech was not immediately recognized for its greatness, the New York Times and Washington Post barely mentioned it the next morning, within months it received high praise. Its words have only grown in stature with time. They captured the universal ethics that ennoble humanity as it reaches for the spiritual ideals of justice, liberty, equality, love and compassion. The speech was and is a uniquely American statement but also one that clearly speaks to all people everywhere. In the address, Kennedy said that civil speech toward one another is good, that human dignity is a basic human right, that poverty and disease must be fought on all fronts, that wealth and power must be humble and giving, and that our purpose in life is not to receive, but to give.
President Kennedy was no Jesus or Gandhi in the goodness of his life. He was, as later history has shown, all too human and all too prone to the common foibles of arrogance, selfishness and sexual license. But those flaws perhaps only enhance his greatness and the nobility of his ideas precisely because he was so human – like most of us. As a man born to wealth and privilege, he did not shrink from serving during World War Two and famously saving the lives of over thirty fellow sailors. Like many people who find themselves unusually blessed in life, he felt a keen sense that he must do his extra share to give back, to serve others, and to show compassion to the poor and powerless. Such thinking clearly reflects Jesus’ teaching that to those whom much has been given, much is expected.
While Kennedy rode the coattails of a rich and powerful father, and having never experienced poverty himself, he, like many wealthy people of the twentieth century, purposefully tried to empathize with and understand the suffering of others. We can credit him not with mythological perfection but, at his core, with a deep sense that humans, and more specifically citizens, are called to serve others more than themselves. Human liberty is not a path to libertarian selfishness. Individual rights are NOT a means to indulge one’s personal wants. To have any meaning and any universal goodness, we enjoy the natural and spiritual rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in order that we work to insure them for all people, to insure the common welfare and to thereby secure those rights for ourselves.
These spiritual ethics were profoundly stated by Kennedy in his address. He offered not new ideas but rather re-stated truths for the modern era. Kennedy reminded America of our almost sacred purpose for existence as a nation and as a people. Such a reminder was as necessary then as it is now, 52 years later. America does not exist to enrich itself. Its purpose is not to amass wealth and power. Its greatness, despite its many flaws, is not found on Wall Street, in the corridors of the Pentagon, or along suburban streets filled with large homes, two cars and an abundance of material wealth. Kennedy implored Americans and people around the world to consider much higher goals in life – we exist as neighbors, brothers, sisters and fellow humans, each responsible for the well being of one another. As he said in his speech, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” Such words speak of a moral imagination for cooperation and mutual care. The rich will not long be rich if too many languish in poverty. The powerful will soon be weak if too many are prevented from climbing the ladder of success. Speaking to all in our land who are economically comfortable, Kennedy insisted that the only way they will maintain their status is if they offer hands up to the poor and disenfranchised.
Kennedy continued in his address, “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life…Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty…”
Such words speak powerfully to our souls. They beautifully express the spiritual sentiments of people of every religion, race, and class. Human liberty, in all its forms, is an essential and natural right – one granted not by men or women, but by nature and by nature’s god. If people are to enjoy their right of liberty – they must be free from the scourge of poverty. They must be free from the oppression of bigotry and hatred. They must be free from the suffering of hunger and disease. They must be free from the sting of inequality and injustice.
To enjoy liberty, as a responsible citizen of the world, one is not free to turn a blind eye to the needs of others. One is not free to pursue selfish happiness at the expense of others. One is not free to abandon all duties to care for, give to and serve one another. For the privilege of simply living, to those whom have been granted the blessings of good health, intelligence and ability of body and spirit, there exists a duty, a calling and a responsibility. We must serve. We must give. We must look beyond ourselves to the needs, hopes, fears, hurts and dreams of one another. That, THAT is what it means to be an American. That, THAT is what it means to be human.
The legacy of John F. Kennedy is a long one, despite his short time as President. Consistent with his call to service, he initiated the Peace Corps, in which over 200,000 persons have served in 139 countries. He initiated the idea of Medicare to which countless millions of elderly Americans have found a health care freedom from fear. Our nation awaits the day when ALL its citizens might share that same freedom – a form of liberty to which Kennedy spoke – freedom from fear of illness and freedom from fear that one cannot afford equal access to affordable health care.
Kennedy initiated calls for greater Civil Rights. While it took President Johnson and his courage to confront a racist south and get Civil Rights laws passed by Congress, Kennedy importantly set the tone in his inaugural address and in his administration – none are free unless all are free, none are equal unless all are equal. We carry forward that appeal in today’s battles for equal rights for women, gays and lesbians and, yes, after so many long years, for African-Americans and our immigrant brothers and sisters. Ultimately, we do none of us any good when even one teenage boy must walk through his neighborhood in fear that he will be assaulted simply for the color of his skin. We harm every marriage in the land when any ONE marriage is dishonored and unequal simply because the partners are of the same gender. We demean men and their desire to live true to their human spirit as dads, husbands and citizens of the world when even one woman is denied the right to an education or to the control of her own body. As the Bible implies in its many verses about love, compassion and understanding, there is neither male or female, neither rich or poor, gay or straight, black or white in those who follow and practice the teachings of Jesus. There is simply us, one common species huddled together on this small planet, limited to but a few years of life out of an eternity of time, sentenced to bear the pain of disease and death, but linked in being ONE flesh, ONE blood, ONE human family.
That common heritage and mutual humanity compels each of us to stop our hatreds, stop our bitter name calling, cease our intolerant attitudes, end our failure to empathize with how others must live, and open our blind eyes to injustice and inequality. As I have discussed in my three messages this month of July, let us sing that ancient song begun when the universe first formed: the song of natural rights whose words were captured by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, shared by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848, and memorably evoked by John F. Kennedy in 1961. Equality. Freedom. Justice. Opportunity. Service.
Much as it was for the Roman General Cincinnatus, for George Washington, Jesus, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and other great figures in history, our life legacy will not be counted by all that we have received, but, instead, by all that we have given.
I wish each of you much peace and joy.