In a time like this, how do we have conversations about the future of our communities? We can’t have the kinds of conversations we used to, in which we discussed and argued about policies and ideas. Once upon a time, debating health care meant talking about the pros and cons of market-based systems and single-payer plans, about the appropriate role of government. Those debates are long gone.
Public discourse, such as it is, has largely been reduced to name-calling, vitriol, anger, and threats – not just in campaigning but in governing. Some of those threats take the form of action. Protests turn violent. People show up at protests armed, expecting and planning for violence. The original sin of racism has become too blatant for anyone to ignore. People have lost their lives because we can’t talk to each other.
In this chaos, most reasonable people – and despite appearances, that’s most people in our society – have taken to one of two options. They either talk about politics and the public life only with those who share their views (a task made easier by social media). Or they talk about it not at all.
Both choices are doing us no good.
This post is an attempt to find another path. I have no idea if it will have any impact or not. But trying seems better than not trying.
I don’t want to talk about the election, because I don’t think the election itself is the most important thing. Yes, it matters who wins and who loses. But other things matter more. If the “right” person wins (whoever you think that person is) and the country continues to descend into vitriol and anger, to draw farther and farther apart by race and wealth and ability and privilege and all the divisions we have created, then who is in the White House will matter much less than who we are (or are not) as a community. Who’s in government is irrelevant if we are ungovernable.
Rather than making arguments about policies, or even facts, I want to try to identify truths – things that I believe are fundamentally true, and which matter a great deal. Perhaps that’s a different kind of ground on which to have a conversation.
Things I Believe To Be True
I believe that Thomas Merton was right when he said that “In all things visible there is … a hidden wholeness.” That beneath all distinctions and divisions there lies a wisdom that everything is connected. That we, and everything and everyone around us, are all part of the whole.
I believe that the best term we have come up with for this hidden wholeness is love.
I believe that the most important thing about public life – about our life together as a community – is not the policies we adopt, as important as those are. The most important thing is who we are to each other. We have a choice, individually and collectively, to live together and be love to each other or to live divided and fear each other. Policies flow from that choice.
I believe that the divisions we see in our society – race, gender, class, wealth, privilege, disability, and so many others – are creations of our own making. Which means we have the power to un-make them.
I believe that when we espouse, in various languages and traditions and frames, that all are created in the image and likeness of God, that actually means something. Everything, and every person, is capable of love. And everything and everyone can be loved.
I believe that division among people – not difference, but division – harms everybody. It is not only blacks or Latinx or other people of color in the United States who are harmed by racism; whites are too. It is not only the poor who are damaged by classism; so are the wealthy and privileged.
Difference does not have to mean division. Communities can foster and celebrate difference and use it as a strength.
I believe that conflict, based on division, is likewise our creation. It is not pre-ordained or inherent in the universe. The universe is fundamentally connected. Cooperation and coordination are far more “natural” than the conflicts we generate.
I believe that conflict is ultimately created out of fear – our fears of others, which are usually just projections of our own fears of ourselves and of the suffering and loss which is a necessary component of all life.
I also believe that one does not have to have fear to suffer from it. Plenty of us suffer because of the fears of others.
I believe that any vision of the public life of the community which requires conformity – of thought, of race, of creed, of culture – is doomed to failure. Seeking “purity” of any kind is a fool’s errand which only causes more suffering. Difference exists – we can either deny that and increase our and others’ suffering, or we can accept it and build together from there.
I believe that justice is not justice unless it is available to “the least of these”, to the hungry and the poor and the marginalized. This is not merely a Christian notion, though it is obviously that. It is echoed in every great religious and humanist tradition of human civilization.
Finally, I believe that if we don’t learn to talk to each other – past the divisions we have created and the anger we wear like armor and the fear that we hide from ourselves – then, in the words of the great philosopher Theodor Seuss Geisel, “Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”