Aretha Franklin and Senator John McCain:
Two Americans Who Helped to Make America Great!
I am usually drawn to comment on issues that have theological or ethical significance. But the recent passing of two American icons is worthy of some heartfelt reflection. They offer both commonality and contrast. One was the daughter of a well-known civil rights leader and Detroit pastor. The other was the son and grandson of U.S. Navy four-star admirals.
Aretha Franklin was born in the segregated South and got her start singing at her father’s revivals, the beginnings of what would become a life of lifting up the hearts of Americans through her music. John McCain was born at a naval air station of the segregated Navy in the Panama Canal Zone. The service of father and grandfather inspired young John to serve our great nation.
During the past couple of years, there has been a lot of talk about making America great again. The word “again” reminds me of where America has been: slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, poll taxes, lynchings, the Klan, systemic racist social-economic-political systems, fire hoses and police attack dogs, voting rights laws followed by voter suppression, Black Lives Matter, housing projects and ghettos, urban decline and abandonment, the downside of gentrification – on and on. I don’t care to see greatness again if it means a return to our terrible past.
Despite these often-grim realities, great Americans rise from the ashes produced by sexism, racism, discrimination, hatred and bigotry. It is here where the trajectories of great people meet despite their different beginnings. Great Americans rise above the clouds of inhumanity and injustice to champion the worth of every human being; Great Americans like Aretha Franklin and John McCain.
Whether he was refusing to leave his North Vietnam captivity until others were released, correcting the woman who accused Obama of being a Muslim, giving the thumbs-down on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or responding graciously after a Trump attack during the final weeks of his life, people like McCain is why America has never stopped being great.
Aretha belonged to us all regardless of race, creed or color. She lifted up the downtrodden and helped the privileged become more grounded. Her message of love of God, love of others and love for one’s self perfectly fit the J-O-Y acronym of Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last. Hers was a universal language that demanded ethical, theological and sociological reflection. She made America great!
We are far from perfect as a nation, but out of the darkness come voices and lives that light our paths; voices that refuse to be silenced or compromised. America will miss Aretha and McCain. Fortunately, we still have her music of faith, hope and love. And we have his words of unity, peace and humanity.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus speaks about Christians as salt and light. Jesus reminds His followers that in a world that lacks the seasonings of love, justice and equality, we must be those missing ingredients. In a world that seems to linger in the darkness, we are the light that reveals the right path by lifting up truth and denouncing lies and deceit.
With the deaths of John McCain and Aretha Franklin, it is now our turn to be that light, to be that seasoning that keeps America great.
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; 15 nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. NASB
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth E. Harris
President and Academic Dean
Professor of Biblical Studies
Ecumenical Theological Seminary