Walking with Integrity


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

May 27, 2018

Texts: Psalm 26; Proverbs 11:1-6; 12:17-22

       Growing up in Washington, D.C., usually has one of two results. Either you become a political junkie or, in response to the all the wheeling and dealing, you hate politics. I am clearly the former. During my high school summers, I would walk to the highway to take the bus to a transfer station where I could get a trolley – yes! Wash-ington had trolleys – and take the trolley down to the Capitol and watch Congress in action – or inaction – but it was all thrilling.

        Washington in the 1950s was a very different place than it is now. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown, it was desegregated, at least on the surface. The Southeast slums, primarily populated by black Americans, had not been torn down to make way for what became the urban removal of the poor. The Mall only had a few of its current museums and the old Mellon Art Gallery, which I also haunted. And we still even had a baseball team: the Washington Senators, which pundits noted had about as much success as the Senate.

        Capitol Gallery tickets were easy to get and it was exciting to see a new young Senator from Massachusetts take on the old establishment and argue for new ways of thinking about America. Congress was controlled by two Texans:  Lyndon Johnson in the Senate and Sam Rayburn in the House.

       Although much has changed in the landscape, not much has changed where it really counts. Very few of the members of that august body, the Congress, can claim to have walked with integrity. Or, as John Adams sings to God in 1776,

            A second flood, a simple famine, Plagues of locusts everywhere, 
            Or a cataclysmic earthquake I'd accept with some despair, 
            But no! You sent us Congress! Good God, sir, was that fair?"

       What does it mean to “walk with integrity?” Perhaps on this Memorial Day Weekend we could consider two politicians in light of this morning’s Psalm, who hailed from the same state but came from different parties and devel- oped a close relationship. I am speaking of Morris Udall, a fiercely liberal Democrat, and John McCain, a fiercely honest Republican. Although they differed on certain issues, both have been regarded as more than honorable – to the point of pain.

        Udall died twenty years ago in 1998, and John McCain is very ill. Both are examples of what Congress could and should be. It goes without saying that the comment a White House aide made regarding Senator McCain on his opposition to Gina Haspel as CIA Director is more than reprehensible; it is simply disgusting.

        Now there are some aspects of Psalm 26 that may seem self-righteous, not to mention bold, such as inviting God to judge the Psalmist’s integrity. Here the Psalmist is entering the temple, always considered a dangerous place by the ancient Hebrews because they believed God was physically present there. So to enter, one needed to be truly clean, such as through ritual washing of the hands.

Entering the Temple of the Lord also required a clean heart. As David calls to God in another Psalm, “Create in me a clean heart.” The Hebrew scholar and translator Robert Alter puts some of the opening lines thusly: Judge me, O Lord, for I have walked in wholeness. I shall not stumble. Test me, O Lord, and try me. Burn pure my conscience and my heart.”

         We hope that when we walk with wholeness and integrity, we will be judged and vindicated. The differences in the two translations are more than literary; they are theological. It’s quite a different matter asking God to judge me and to, in a sense, absolve me, acquit me, or justify me. One is a plea; the other is a challenge.

         I’m not sure I would ask that God judge me, for apart from a ritual, can I honestly say I have clean hands? Or a clean heart? But we do through our actions ask God to judge us as we strive to be faithful to the Gospel.

        Let’s go back to the two examples of leaders who walked with integrity in their public lives. I’ll start with Udall, and, here I have to confess that when he attempted to gain the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1976 I was a volunteer field organizer in his campaign in Connecticut.

         Committed to safeguarding the environment, Udall was a leader in the fight for a tough strip-mining bill, finally getting it passed over two vetoes by Gerald Ford in 1977, supported legislation to break up the large oil companies, and helped to create the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve. Giving up a lucrative law practice, he also supported limits on lobbyists and was a leader in campaign finance reform.  Known for his acerbic and self-deprecating wit, he even joked about losing out to Jimmy Carter for the nomination.

         Udall had served as a commander of an all-black squadron in World War II and as a result of that exper-ience broke with his Mormon church on the issue of race. He supported desegregation of the Armed Forces and worked tirelessly for civil rights as well. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he resigned from his seat in 1991 and as the disease progressed, he was hospitalized in a veteran’s hospital.

        When John McCain won the Senate Seat in 1986, Udall reached out to him and guided him around Washing-ton. They became friends even though they disagreed on certain issues. They are examples of how we can be in a community of faith even though we may not see eye-to-eye on everything.

         Most, if not all, of us are aware of McCain’s past experience as a captured pilot and the torture he endured. As a result of that torture lasting more than five years, he signed a statement that he himself called “dishonorable,” but as he said later in opposition to the U.S. torture program euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation,” He said, “Every man has his breaking point.” He opposed waterboarding in black site captivity, deprivation of food and water, hanging suspects in so-called “stress positions” as well as other forms of torture that our government used following the days of September 11.

        These are two men who have walked with integrity. They are examples of what we as a Nation can be as we think about the importance of this weekend. There are other examples of such integrity, such as the U.S. District Court judge Robert Brack, who is resigning over the so-called “zero tolerance” policy pushed by Jeff Sessions, a miserable excuse for a human being who belies everything he swore to uphold when he took the oath of office.

         The difference between these two men could not be more palpable, the former an example of judicial integrity and the latter an example of little more than white supre-macy deporting people because they don’t come from Norway. Appointed to the federal bench in 2003, Brack began writing the White House in 2010 asking for a change in policy at this part of the Southern border. He never even received the courtesy of a reply.

         Like some other federal judges, like Robert Posner who resigned from the Seventh Circuit last year, Brack will become an advocate for the very people he felt forced to convict of a criminal charge of illegal entry, which could foreseeably bar them from getting asylum.

          Posner, now 78 – that’s not that old – resigned from the Seventh Circuit, unfortunately leaving a seat open to be filled but has used his reputation for integrity to lace into another Circuit for not giving a pro se litigant the consideration he had a right to expect under the law.

        The New Yorker this week has a story about another resignation, this time from the State Department, because, as John Feeley, a career diplomat for more than 30 years, he could not serve the current administration and maintain his integrity. His resignation presents a dilemma that many in government service feel:  how does one square integrity with orders that violate the very foundation of one’s mission?

        So, what does walking with integrity mean for us, we who are not elected representatives or diplomats or even low level scientists stuck with political myopia at the EPA? We do get some guidance from the short statements in Proverbs, a book composed by multiple anonymous authors reflecting more than the sensibilities of the time.

We are urged to speak the truth not in a prideful way but in a way that will change the direction of not just our be-havior but the behavior of others. Easier said than done, of course, but very necessary, especially as we face the chal-lenges that arise out of dishonest discourse.

          Walking with integrity means we must speak publicly when we see human beings diminished, our national ideals tossed aside as relics of the past, and hate filled speech become the order of the day. Walking with integrity means not only remembering the many who have fallen for the true ideals of our Nation but also continuing their memory through striving to expand liberty rather than shrink it.

         Let us pray: Eternal Guardian of our lives, we pray for guidance as we seek to be witnesses of your call to establish not just a more perfect Union, but to expand your Kingdom to include all. In the name of him who came to show us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.