How do we define ourselves after the election?
The election for the soul of America is finally over, but the hostility and division it spawned lingers on. The country split into sharply defined tribes, pro- and anti- Trump, fighting over moral imperatives and the survival of our republic, giving no quarter.
One glaring example: According to Match’s annual Singles in America report, the number of singles who believe it is not possible to date a person of the opposite political party has increased from a third in 2012 to more than half in 2020.
What do we do now?
We’ve been given some pretty good advice about our dilemma by people who ought to know. The wonderful Jon Meacham wrote an entire book on the subject- “The Soul of America.” He surveyed the many times when our country has been rent apart by anger, selfishness and competing moral imperatives and yet, in Lincoln’s words “surely touched by the better angels of our nature,” managed to cope, to repair and to rise above the furies of the given moments.
Martin Luther King delivered a passionate and prescient sermon in November, 1957 entitled “Loving Your Enemies” (Google it!) in which he gently but strongly explained that it would be “love, even for enemies, that would save our world and our civilization.”
Pope Francis just issued an encyclical entitled Fratelli Tutti calling for social friendship, the end to cultural colonization and for a community united by higher ideals. And, of course, Jesus Christ taught that it was the peacemakers who were blessed, and that reconciliation was a divine ministry.
Now, most of the Mirror’s readers may not be moved by the lofty words of these lofty personages. Not for a minute. At least not for this minute. The wounds are too deep and too recent. Some Biden voters may be mired in relief and a surging demand for recriminations; some Trump supporters may hope and demand that the new Supreme Court will overturn what they see as the “rigged and corrupt” election.
But soon we have to move beyond this moment and return to the question of what and who defines us.
One of Dr. King’s aims was to convince people that you don’t have to like your enemy in order achieve a loving reconciliation. He conceded that there were plenty of “enemies” who would always dislike him, and the feeling was mutual. (He made these points shortly before he was assassinated.) But that dislike does not and should not preclude reconciliation. And we certainly don’t have to forget in order to forgive. Faulkner said it well: “The past is never dead; it is not even past.” The consequences of the past are always with us.
That does not preclude us from identifying ourselves — all of us — as Americans who share a common destiny. It’s something we all want; it’s something that has compelled us through bad times before. Said Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/ that wants it down.”
We all know that it is hard to overcome perceived evil with good, but we also ought to know that one thing is even harder: to overcome perceived evil with more perceived evil. We want to avoid that mis-step now.
Practically speaking, what does this mean? How do we soften and make more porous the boundaries of our now-rigid tribes? Theologians like to say that history is horizontal, and theology is vertical. Their intersection is the moving force behind our essential collective movements– movements Dr. King described as having “the fierce urgency of now.” This is such a time.
We can talk our opponents off their barricades with reason and generosity; we can peek into their news networks and try to understand their rage. We can take a second look into ourselves and perhaps recognize some arrogance and then lower our own flames at least somewhat.
In his Encyclical, Pope Francis focused on social media, declaring “Digital campaigns of hatred and destruction, for their part, are not…a positive form of mutual support, but simply an association of individuals united against a perceived common enemy…Digital connectivity… does not build bridges and is not capable of uniting humanity.” Perhaps the techno-giants can now be more helpful in dealing with that.
Expanding the boundaries of our tribal identities doesn’t mean that we will agree on all things at all times; we don’t and we won’t. But it’s worth the fight, the effort.
If we keep thinking the same things, repeating the same behaviors, we will remain stuck in the same anger than animated the campaign. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote back in 1947 that our capacity for justice made democracy possible but our inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. That is why we have to now define ourselves with countless private and public acts of grace and love. After all, in the words of the ancient sage Avot d’Rabbi Natan: “Who is mighty? Some say ‘One who turns an enemy into a friend.’”
James Robertson is an ordained UCC minister and a partner at Carmody Torrance Sandak Hennessey.
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