Friday, November 19, 2010

Remembering the Founders

This month, in public and private schools across the nation, children learn about the Pilgrims who left England in search of a place where they could worship according to their consciences. They were absolutely certain that their quest was one ordained by God and praised Him for providing safe passage, land upon which to build, and life itself. Their courage is noteworthy.

The ship they will board has little room for cargo other than food and drink sufficient for a long voyage. They must choose from among their possessions, taking with them only the most essential and precious items, leaving everything else behind. Women must leave behind the family china, surrendering it to memory. Men let go of handmade keepsakes passed from father to son. Pilgrims shed their worldly goods, replacing them with an idea only: an unseen tomorrow built upon hope and made with faith.

Each dawn, Pilgrims must have searched the horizon for some sign that their mission was not undertaken in vain, for some sign of an Eden they could carve with their own labor. They must have chastised themselves if doubt wrapped itself around their hearts. They must have wondered if they were indeed among the chosen if they grew weak or became sick. Yet they persevered. They summoned courage to exchange the known world for an unknown one. They braced themselves for deprivation, and they suffered. Most Plymouth colonists perished; the survivors forged a partnership with the Wampanoag Indians, but when the Native Americans did not cooperate or refused to bend to the will of the Puritans, their religious intolerance and convictions allowed them to become brutal and cruel.

The Pilgrims and later the Puritans betrayed themselves by demanding religious conformity. They lacked compassion for others who did not believe as they did. They exiled, imprisoned, and executed the disobedient and different, and in doing so, they could not live up to John Winthrop’s vision for a perfect community, hereafter described in his own words from “A Model of Christian Charity,” 1630:

Now the only way to . . . provide for our posterity is to do Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly . . . , for this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each other, make others’ Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

How much courage will be needed to bring about such a community? How much compassion will be needed to care about the needs of others? How much sacrifice will be needed to insure that others have what they need? I challenge each of you to summon the courage, compassion, and selflessness required.

[Source for Winthrop's words: Note: I have altered spelling, using modern rules to make the passage easier to read.]