The fleet of ships

In this election week, which is situated in the context of what has been a particularly arduous and divisive political season, I write with a keen sense of both the weight and the worth of my vote and yours. After a long stretch of days and weeks and months in which candidates have been the primary players, in the act of voting it is we who take the platform. We have been given the privileged opportunity to make an indelible mark on national destiny.


How cumbersome the craft of democracy can be; how haltingly and even sometimes hurtfully we go about the collective work of becoming better than we are, and more than we have been. The pushmi-pullyu effect of a dozen ways of envisioning our nation’s best forward direction often leaves a dishearteningly clumsy trail of steps, counter-steps, missteps, oversteps, side steps, and back steps. Our cherished American sod is the worse for the wear.

John Adams took a different metaphorical tack to describe the profound awkwardness he witnessed as his young country sought to figure out how to move through history gracefully and well. He wrote, “America is a great unwieldy body. It is like a fleet of ships sailing under convoy. The fastest and fleetest must wait for the dullest and slowest.”

There is something so utterly generous in his words; they stir my heart as much as my imagination in the way they express what I believe to be the essence of the American spirit. The idea that a democracy has us waiting for one another is profoundly compelling, a true antidote to the notion that I can justify forcing my personal agenda through the system at any cost. Of course, in John Adams’ metaphor most of us would immediately imagine ourselves and our political kind as the fleetest ship, reluctantly abiding the slower vessels’ exasperating sluggishness as we seek to sail toward a particular destination. The truth is that others probably think of us as the ones slow to tap into the trade winds. Their putting up with us is their own burden of waiting.

Whether it is the “swift” put up with the “slow,” or the “slow” who are forced to tolerate those who presume to be the “swift,” the waiting is mutual. This, I believe, is the spirit of what I sometimes consider the apostle Paul’s single most salient commandment, issued in four words: “Wait for one another . . .” (1 Corinthians 11:33).

As election results are sifted and sorted, and their implications begin to settle in, I encourage you to join me in keeping Paul’s simple commandment close at hand as an analogue to the present political scene. As with Christian community, democracy is not first and foremost about me getting to my destination, but us getting to ours.

Grace and peace.