I appreciate President-elect Joe Biden’s calls to unity after long years of national fracture, but I confess my unease. Not for the concept of unity, but rather because of common mistaken notions about what unity means. In my experience, when some people call for unity, what they really want is uniformity.
I was born and raised within a religious “unity movement”—a movement that (by the time I arrived) had divided into three major streams and numerous other rivulets. Growing up, I was thoroughly immersed in the notion that we were right and everyone else was wrong; that we had discovered what was real and true, and if only you would believe the truth as we believed it, we could all come together in unity. It’s an enticing mindset.
As in the fundamentalist denomination of my youth, I’ve seen similar calls for unity coming from political conservatives in recent years. “Join us in our full throated support of this president and his policies and then we could all get along.” (My op-ed published last year in our local newspaper challenging this kind of mislabeled appeal was met with resistance from my conservative neighbors.)
So maybe you can understand my discomfort with unity movements. Still I believe unity is possible and a noble goal for our nation. However, the goal must be seen clearly as a quest—not for sameness—but for authentic concord and harmony.
One week ago today, 71 million fellow Americans voted to affirm and continue the trumpian vision of reality that has reigned during the past four years. Today, a full week later, 7 in 10 Republicans are being convinced that the election results—an election they lost—was fraudulent. As hopeful as I am that a new administration can do a great deal to repair the harm done to our nation, I continue to struggle with the fact that starkly oppositional worldviews continue to create chaos and division among us. I keep trying to understand.
Some of you may recognize that part of my title comes from one of the delightful Narnia stories by C. S. Lewis: The Last Battle. In this tale, Narnia faces its final days before Aslan, the Great Lion, calls an end to Time itself.
King Tirian of Narnia battles against overpowering forces of evil near an old stable. Anyone who goes through the stable door disappears in a flash of terrible light
But we, the readers, get to go beyond the door and we realize the stable door is actually a gateway into paradise. Many of our long time friends from Narnia are met there in happy reunion as Aslan invites them to keep going “further up and further in.”
Back at the stable door, however, sits a miserable huddle of Dwarfs who can’t (or won’t) see the heavenly landscape; they only know the dank misery of a dark, cramped stall. Our good-hearted Narnian friends pity their blindness and try to help them see the beautiful reality that stretches endlessly all around them.
This may be Jesus’ most difficult expectation. “Love your neighbor” is tough enough, but “love your enemy” pushes me beyond my human ability. I know I don’t love well.
The words come from two of the gospels: Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.
I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you . . .
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Much of what Jesus says in these beatitudes is pretty much impossible for us mere mortals to accomplish. I suppose some of the saints have drawn close to the high standards, but not many of us regular Jesus followers are anywhere close.
Several thoughts come to mind as I unpack Jesus’ words and try to figure out how to be in relationship with too many difficult people in my own life in these current days.
Back in the early days of the mask hysteria of 2020, I saw a photo of a woman with a protest sign: “I need a haircut,” she proclaimed. Her concern struck me as childish. But then later I saw another woman marching in defiance of mask mandates brandishing a large sign that said: “I’d rather bury my family from Covid than to see them enslaved to the fear of it.”
It is a bizarre and tragic twist, I think, that for some people masks have become a symbol of fear instead of a symbol of care.
I’ve thought about that woman’s fear that her loved ones might become “enslaved to fear.” I’ve wondered if these are some of the same folks who, for eight years, lived in fear that Obama was going to take away their guns. If these are some of the same people who are so afraid of “Brown hordes” at our southern border, “Black thugs” in our cities, and “Islamic terrorists” while evidently oblivious to the widespread domestic terrorism of white supremacists.
For the past four years, I’ve been lurching back and forth between various cycles of grief. Shock. Denial. Anger. Rage. Depression. Acceptance. Denial. Anger. Depression. Rage. Pull the covers over my head. Acceptance. Denial . . .
I’ve spent four years trying to understand: trying to understand why too many of my fellow-Christians worship at the altar of a false god. Trying to understand why too many of my stubbornly independent neighbors give themselves over to an authoritarian wanna-be-dictator. Trying to understand why otherwise good-hearted people tolerate and even celebrate bad faith actors.
I really wanted this election to be a blowout for “my side”; I wanted a clarion call to equity, compassion and justice. Or I could live with a close win—even though we knew lawsuits and interminable delays would occur. But I did not want yet another reminder of the huge disconnect that stands between me and my neighbors.
I just don’t get it. I don’t get them. The spiraling grief dizzys me.
Then this morning it occurred to me that understanding is not one of the classic stages of grief. Healing through grieving, it seems, must happen without clear-cut understanding, without knowing the “whys.” Instead, healing acceptance must come right in the messy, muddled middle of not knowing; of not understanding why.
Joan Chittister is a Benedictine Sister, theologian, author, speaker, and persistant advocate for social justice. I so appreciate her affirmation here of something I believe deeply: there is an overwhelming number of us humans who live our lives with kindness, fairness, and compassion. There are more of “us” than there are of “them.”
In all my years of traveling around the world, one thing has been present in every region, everywhere. One thing has stood out and convinced me of the certain triumph of the great human gamble on equality and justice.
Everywhere there are people who, despite finding themselves mired in periods of national [disruption] or personal marginalization refuse to give up the thought of a better future or give in to the allurements of a deteriorating present. They never lose hope that the values they learned in the best of times or the courage it takes to reclaim their world from the worst of times are worth the commitment of their lives.
These people, the best of ourselves, are legion and they are everywhere.
I’ve been reading the prophets of Israel in the Old Testament recently. It’s as if the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls.
From prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have treated he wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace…
They have grown strong in the land for falsehood, and not for truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies….
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored….
Thus says the LORD: “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight,” says the LORD….
One hundred years ago, men voted to limit their privilege and share their political power. In 1920, American men across the nation voted to approve the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing women’s right to vote.
For one hundred years before that, thousands of women had been marching, protesting, lobbying, and insisting that suffrage was their God-given right as citizens, but standard bearers of the status quo recognized the inherent dangers in admitting that women should have such an equal right; they foresaw the foreboding dilution of their power.
Even so, enough American men voted to do what was right because they understood this suffrage movement and the 19th Amendment as a quintessential American effort firmly grounded in the commitments of the U.S. Constitution “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility . . . promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . . ”
In the infant days of our nation, “we the people” meant White Male Landowners. As this nation matured and grew wiser, “We the—Female-Male-White-Brown-Black-Blue-Red-Rich-Poor-Old-Young-Gay-Straight-BornHere-and-GotHereAsSoonAsWeCould—People of the United States” are figuring out that guaranteeing citizens’ rights and expanding the vote does not limit power nor dilute privilege.
Rather we the people are recognizing that we are stronger and smarter together; that it takes all of us “to form a more perfect union.” When we all vote, when we all educate each other about the importance of voting, when we all participate in the process—from City Hall to the Halls of Congress—then we have good cause to celebrate this nation we hold in trust. When we all vote, we do our part to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
The first year I got to vote in a presidential election was 1972 when I proudly cast my ballot for the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. As far as I could tell, voting for Republicans was what my family had been doing for generations. As far as I was concerned, this was what White Southern Christians were supposed to do.
Needless to say, I was disillusioned by the corruption of that president and the cover-up efforts of those Republicans. I was embarrassed to admit I had wasted my first chance to vote by voting for a crook.
However, this experience became a life changing learning opportunity. I learned that appearances can be deceiving. I learned that people in positions of trust will sometimes look us square in the face and lie to us. I learned that my parents, my grandparents and my White Southern Christian community weren’t always right. I learned to do my own research, challenge my assumptions and trust my own judgment.
I learned that disillusion—letting go of illusions—is a good and healthy thing for a grown-up to do.
We love the romantic story about the 100 colonial revolutionaries who snuck aboard ships anchored in Boston Harbor and dumped 90,000 pounds of British tea into the sea (tea worth nearly $1million in today’s currency). “No taxes without representation!” their bold action declared.
Their meaning was clear: “Injustice must be actively resisted!”
Many people today probably don’t know that there was a second Boston tea party and other similar acts of resistance in numerous other harbors in Maryland, New York and South Carolina. The protest against unjust taxation imposed by an over reaching government was popular and widespread.
I’ve been pondering the tradition of civil disobedience these ancestors birthed along with this infant nation so many years ago. Even though their own cultural blinders kept them from seeing other injustices that allowed inequality to be enshrined into our founding documents, still their tea party precedent established a long proud tradition of active resistance that has helped grow this nation toward greater justice.