The upcoming presidential inauguration has raised more than a few questions for me: How do I “show up” for the inauguration of a president who refuses to see me except through lenses of diminishment and mockery? And How do I bear witness to the peaceful transfer of power that our democracy requires when I am gravely concerned about where the new leaders will take us?
As I often do when riddled with questions, I turn to the dictionary, which tells me the word inauguration derives from augur, which means to “portend a good or bad outcome.” Fair enough. Surely this inauguration offers many signs about what will come. That’s precisely my dilemma and dis-ease. I wonder how to read those signs. And how to respond to them.
In ancient Rome, the augurs were a group of Roman officials (initially chosen from the elite and eventually drawn from commoners too) responsible for reading the signs present around major events and either pronouncing divine approval or warning of divine disfavor. The augurs were especially focused on birds, then regarded as messengers from the gods. They noted what kind of birds showed up and in what numbers, how they flocked and flew, what their voices were saying, and what they were doing, and then interpreted the meaning.
I am reminded of a definition of prophecy I learned in seminary that said the biblical prophets were not so much predicting the future as they were reading the signs of the times and speaking clearly what they learned when they did. Theirs was no easy task – first correlating the realities of the day with ancient sacred teachings about justice, and then speaking truth to power, often at risk of their own lives. Many tried to deny their assignments. But most, in the end, were claimed by a loyalty to something larger than their individual lives, larger than the powers and systems they were challenging, larger than their fears.
When I think about this, I have to ask, what if the most significant transfer of power in this week’s inauguration is not from one president to another, but from one era to another? What if, in the new era, we are all among those to whom the power is being transferred as we wake up from the long slumber of thinking we were not needed? What if we, who are concerned about the poor, the marginalized, the people of color, the women, the immigrants, stepped into the title and power that democracy bestows on us as “we, the people”? Am I ready to accept this mantle, to exercise my powers as a member of this democracy? Are you? Are we as a people willing to serve as augurs – reading the signs of the times, naming what we see and speaking truth to power? Will we let ourselves be claimed not by fear but by a larger loyalty to justice, equality and peace and a belief in the real power we wield when we pay attention and work together?
We no longer believe in reading the future in the flocking of birds, but what if we read it instead in the flocking of our fellow citizens and neighbors, gathering close to home to ask what can we do, what must we do now? Or, on the day after the inauguration, in the flocking of those marching in Washington and around the nation, walking peaceably and lifting their voices as if they were wings? What outcome might these signs portend?
I will not watch the inauguration in Washington on Friday, but I am already witnessing and paying homage to the transfer of power it portends — most importantly, the transfer of power to all of us who will in time, together, determine its outcome. In this reading of the times, I can find my place. In this reading of the times, I can find hope.