In 1845, the British explorer Sir John Franklin set out on an expedition to find the mythical Northwest Passage – a sea route for sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean by passing north of Canada. Although these days, climate change is making that voyage into more of a realistic one, 175 years ago it was decidedly less so. When Franklin’s expedition did not return, the British government sent five ships to find him and his men. All of them were lost, having to be abandoned by their crews when they became stuck in impassable Arctic sea ice. When other British ships picked up the stranded sailors, it was assumed that was the end of the frozen vessels. But the next year, just at the end of the summer, one of those ships was found adrift in far northern waters by an American whaling ship. The pack ice had melted enough for the abandoned craft to float free. The Americans split into two crews and brought their original ship and the salvaged vessel back to port in Connecticut.
An uncrewed ship found at sea like this becomes the property of the people who salvage it. But it was proposed, and ultimately approved by Congress, that the US government should buy the ship, repair it, and return it to England as a gift. The War of 1812 and even the Revolutionary War were still within living memory then, and there were a number of significant disputes outstanding between the two nations. The ship was meant as a sign of good will. But that one act alone did not eliminate tensions. Not long afterward, the two states came even closer to open conflict, when an American farmer living on a disputed island near Vancouver shot a pig belonging to a British citizen in order to keep it from eating any more of his potatoes. A series of accusations and escalations eventually led to what came to be known as the Pig War, with soldiers and war ships from both sides facing off in the San Juan Islands – though, thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and the casualties were limited only to the original pig.
The Queen who, as the official head of the British government, had received the gift of the returned ship from the US government also had a practical problem: the ship was effectively unusable. Because it was a symbolically important gift from a foreign state, it couldn’t be sent anywhere to do any of the things naval vessels normally do, for risk that it might sunk or otherwise destroyed. So the ship was kept in safe harbors for a reasonable number of years until it seemed appropriate to decommission it. At that point, the Queen ordered that the wood from the ship be used to make a number of symbolic gifts, chief among them a large, sturdy writing desk which she re-gifted to then-President of the United States Rutherford B. Hays. It was put to work in various offices and rooms of the White House until finally making its way into the Oval Office where the desk – named after the ship it was crafted from, the HMS Resolute – has been the main office desk used by at least seven different presidents.
This month, our worship theme is integrity – the quality of acting from principle, rather than out of instinct or narrow self-interest. And the word resolute – meaning being determined, adamant, unwavering in one’s position – is one dimension of integrity. In order to act from our principles, we first have to be able to hold to a course once we have chosen it. Being resolute isn’t the only measure of integrity, but it is a necessary component of it.
Comic books are often a source of hyper-real, exaggerated characters, but those characters often embody virtues or ideals. One of those characters is a superhero named Captain America, who is meant as a thought experiment of sorts: what would happen if you took the best civic values of the United States during World War II and tried to apply them to the current moment, without any pessimism or guile. Several years ago, on one particular comic book page, that character gave a short, impassioned speech about following what you believe in, despite the opposition of the crowd. Even if you’re not a comic book fan, it’s possible you might have encountered it anyway, because they began to circulate in the wider culture sometime later, when the idea of confronting literal Nazis suddenly became much less quaint and theoretical for a lot of us. Captain America said:
“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.
This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, YOU move.”
That image of a steadfast tree, planted beside a river, is likely drawn from two different passages in the Hebrew Bible. The first is the opening of the very first Psalm (1:1-3):
“Happy is the person who has not followed the counsel of the wicked,
Or taken the path of sinners,
Or joined the company of the insolent;
Rather, the teaching of the Sacred is their delight,
And they recite that teaching day and night.
They are like a tree planted beside streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in season,
Whose foliage never fades,
And whatever it produces thrives.”
A very similar image appears in the book of Jeremiah, 17:7-8:
“Blessed is one who trusts in the Divine,
Whose trust is in the Source of Truth alone.
They shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit.”
Unchanging immovability is one image to call to mind in the goal of being resolute in our practice of integrity. But while a clear, unambiguous “No” can be powerful and even revolutionary in the right context, rigidity can also sometimes be the enemy of strength. Remaining firm, confident, and faithful to what we know is right sometimes requires us to change rather than resisting it at all costs. As the poet and song-writer Ani DiFranco observes:
“Buildings and bridges
Are made to bend in the wind
To withstand the world
That’s what it takes
All that steel and stone
Are no match for the air, my friend
What doesn’t bend breaks
What doesn’t bend breaks”
Refusing to alter our view or adapt our position in the face of new evidence or compelling moral argument is as much a betrayal of our own values as walking away from them entirely would be. At a time of profound polarization in our country – a political and social division that cuts through our neighborhoods, our communities, and in many cases our families – our challenge is to live within this tension: that truth exists; it cannot be unmade or recast by lies no matter how loudly repeated, and at the same time that there is something that binds us together in our common humanity that makes our lives about something more, worth something more, than opposition over truth and its opposite.
In his letter to the Romans, the early Christian missionary Paul lamented: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” Knowing what is right is different from doing what is right in at least one crucial dimension: its practical effect. In the Gospel According to Mark, the father of a child struck by a debilitating affliction cries out to the teacher Jesus: “I have faith, help me to be faithful!” The will to do what we already know must be done is frequently elusive. This can be all the more true at those places in life which are more marathon than sprint. Keeping a promise, maintaining a commitment, keeping faith with someone who has put their faith in you, over the long haul draws on different strengths and requires different qualities than making a hard choice just once and moving on. And moral endurance is among the most needed virtues in our era of compassion fatigue.
One of the leading religious answers to this challenge is to let go of the idea that we have the capacity in us to be resolutely good by ourselves, and instead to give ourselves over to God – to allow the Divine will to substitute for our own. This can be summarized in words from the book of Isaiah 26:4-7:
“Trust in God for ever and ever,
For in the Source of All you have an everlasting Rock.
For the Holy has brought low those who dwelt high up,
Humbling the secure city,
Humbling it to the ground,
Leveled it with the dust—
To be trampled underfoot,
By the feet of the needy,
By the soles of the poor.
The path of righteousness is level;
O Just One, You make smooth the course of the righteous.”
There are a great many people – perhaps several of us here today – for whom this orientation is stirring and effective. Who find strength in the God of their understanding when their own moral courage inevitably falters. But for many others of us, particularly those who do not have a God-centered personal theology, this may not prove as meaningful or effective in helping us to live the lives we are called to lead.
In the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of the Taoist religion, we find somewhat different counsel on the same subject. In its tenth chapter, we read:
“By patience the animal spirits can be disciplined.
By self-control one can unify the character.
By close attention to the will, compelling gentleness, one can become like a little child.
By purifying the subconscious desires one may be without fault.
In ruling their country, if the wise magistrate loves their people, they can avoid compulsion.
In measuring out rewards, the wise magistrate will act like a mother bird.
While sharply penetrating into every corner, they may appear to be unsuspecting.
While quickening and feeding their people, they will be producing but without pride of ownership.
They will benefit but without claim of reward.
They will persuade, but not compel by force.
This is Te, the profoundest virtue.”
That one untranslated word in the last line – Te – bears explanation. It can be translated as “virtue,” or “moral character,” or “inner power,” but also as “integrity.” This Te is the same Te as the middle word in the title Tao Te Ching – Ching means book, particularly a very important book, and the Tao is even harder and more complicated to translate, but one common English version of this title is, “The Book of the Way and its Virtue.” Te is a central concept in Taoism, and particularly in this chapter it is about self-discipline, and cultivating the will necessary to live with integrity – this, according to the Tao Te Ching, is the highest virtue. Presumably since, without it, no other virtue can be dependably practiced.
Because we are at the start of a new year, many of have newly-made resolutions on our mind – a term for a firm decision from the same Latin origin as resolute. Some of you have heard me say this before, but the New Year’s Resolution strikes me as a bit of a self-defeating cultural practice, because, while many of us make them, as many or more of us accept as a given that most people don’t actually keep their resolutions, once made. Still, this is exactly the time of year when we could all use an increased dose of resolute determination – the will to complete the goal or keep the promise we have made to ourselves for this year. If you are still looking for such a resolution, I commend to you the semi-famous list of “New Years Rulin’s” that a relatively-young folk singer named Woody Guthrie made at the start of 1943. This compilation includes fine rules for productivity such as “1. Work more and better” and “2. Work by a schedule” as well as good tips for clean living, including “3. Wash teeth if any” and “12. Change bed cloths often.” There are practices for self-improvement, including “13. Read lots good books” and “15. Learn people better” and a strong set of guidelines for maintaining the existential strength necessary to do what needs doing: 17. Dont get lonesome, 18. Stay glad, 19. Keep hoping machine running, and 20. Dream good. There are also more specific considerations that may appeal to you in your particular context. “26. Dance better,” is definitely a resolution I would benefit from undertaking, though I’m still debating about whether or not I have the will to commit myself to it. And “27. Help win war — beat fascism” is another case of everything old becoming new again in light of the global trend of rising authoritarianism. Guthrie closes, however, with these three rules which I offer to you as a three-point plan for staying resolute in the face of the many challenges to your integrity that will inevitably come this year: “31. Love everybody,” “32. Make up your mind,” and “33. Wake up and fight.”
Due to its prominent association with the American presidency, the Resolute Desk has become something of a symbol of will and decisiveness – the place where the most powerful person in the world makes the most important decisions. As a matter of national myth I don’t think that’s particularly good or bad; it simply is. But the actual history of the desk itself – of its beginnings in a ship sent on a mission of mercy, its status as a gift from one nation to another in the hope of peace, its being recrafted and returned as another gift with the same hope – speaks to a different sort of will. A collective determination, to achieve something that no one person can do or decide by themselves: peace, and understanding. A determination that must be renewed again and again with new creativity and action – not just decided once, to remain so automatically ever after. If the United States and Great Britain, two nations with so much in common and such a large history of complimentary interests, managed to arrive at peace only through so much ingenuity and hard work, how much more effort must be required to accomplish peace between countries with different dominant languages or religions or cultures? Peace prevails only where the people – and their leaders – hate war more than they love their egos. At the start of a new year, in a troubled and uncertain time, may we be so resolute together in the practice of our values.