Rediscovering our Roots, Moving Forward as One

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For many, the election results became a reason to despair; for others, it was a reason to rejoice. The aftermath of the election has become a revelatory event in many regards. A nation whose founding ideal was predicated upon unity amidst diversity has descended into a mist of obscurity. The Democratic and Republican campaigns have left behind several factions whose walls have been fortified by frustration, resentment, and disillusionment. Who truly won this election? It would seem above all that the cries of a frustrated and divided America have triumphed over any of the candidates who ran. Looking at the vastly distinct responses of my fellow Americans, I feel compelled to ask: which response truly corresponds to the current needs of our nation? Do I rejoice with those who are welcoming the arrival of he who will restore our nation to its former greatness with implicit cries of “Hosanna”? Do I weep, or even march and shout angrily, with those who deplore the spirit of nationalism and the hegemony of the privileged? Or do I remain apathetic, ignoring the reactionary voices that are crying out vague and fruitless proposals? The dramatic nature of this historical moment urges us to look more deeply at the nuances and complexities of the needs of our nation. The next four (or more) years will require a well-reasoned response from those who love this nation, their neighbors, and their own destiny.

Before walking forward, we must look back to the beginning and ask: what was the original desire that propelled the founding of this nation? Those who first arrived to what is now known as the United States came looking for the opportunity to express their deepest held convictions and to freely pursue that which mattered most to them. After their arrival, others made the voyage across the Atlantic looking for the same opportunity. This new land soon became an asylum for those who were persecuted for their religious beliefs to form communities grounded in the totalizing vision of reality that they ascribed to, without having to fear the threat of having their convictions challenged. As these new colonies formed, there arose the desire for unity amidst the plethora of creeds to which each colony adhered. “E pluribus unum,” out of many, they remained one. What ultimately united this diverse array of people was the commonly held desire to live freely without the imposition of external ideals onto communities, or the threat of having their ideals forcibly taken away. As much as the ideals of each colony and community may have differed, they all were united on a more profound level through their commonly held regard for the Deity.

As more and more waves of newcomers arrived on American soil, these unifying factors began to falter. Is it truly possible for there to be a nation in which the array of beliefs and backgrounds are both respected for their uniqueness and fully welcomed into the union? The ideals upon which this nation was founded were being tested. Many of the new immigrants were met with fear and contempt. Perhaps the new waves of immigrants were too different to be welcomed into our union. Perhaps their differences would become a threat to the status quo.

With the many social and ideological revolutions of the mid 20th century came even greater challenges to the status quo. Can it be possible for one nation to embrace such vastly different cultures, beliefs, and lifestyles? How can it be possible for bridges to be built between middle class whites and their new black neighbors; native born Americans and Mexican immigrant workers; men working in executive positions in large corporations and their new female co-workers; Evangelical Christian store owners and their LGB patrons? Perhaps the commonly held regard for the Deity and desire to live according one’s chosen convictions have ceased to stand as adequate unifying factors, and the current despair of some is a reasonable response. The founding ideal of e pluribus unum is in dire need of reevaluation if authentic progress is to be made.

The rhetoric of the Democratic and Republican candidates portray different approaches to the phenomenon of diversity in America. One side emphasized the value of respecting the convictions and ways of life that have been in place for quite some time now, to the point of deeming them as truly “American” ways of life. While the origin of the American nation was indeed composed of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious convictions, those in power were mostly men of northern european descent and of a protestant Christian persuasion-thus the “WASP-y” character of so-called “American values”. The new nationalist spirit touted during this election season could be characterized as a defense of one facet of the American ideal (unum). In order to protect our unified identity, we must “build walls” around the “true America.”

Other voices during this election can be said to have stood for the pluribus facet of America’s founding ideal: that many and all ought to be accepted into the union. The orthodoxies of political correctness, grounded in the new cardinal virtues of acceptance, tolerance, and equality, have sought to protect minority groups from prejudice and violence. While this desire to embrace the “other” can said to be true to America’s original principles, it has employed methods that strive to silence voices of dissent or opposition through censorship and accusations of bigotry and hatred. The unqualified or blind acceptance of particular claims and convictions without the intention to judge their validity or truthfulness has led to the further construction of walls around a particular view of the “true America.”

Being an undergraduate student in New York City made it difficult to put up walls between those who were like me and those who were “other.” The temptation to live in a ghetto consisting of like-minded people is impossible in the “Capital of the World,” where religious convictions, political views, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes vary as much as the consistency of service on the R train.
My first roommate, who never worked a day in his life, came from a well-to-do family who paid for all of his tuition. Meanwhile, another student down the hall would sometimes politely decline my dinner invitations because she had to wait for her scholarship check to come in before spending any money. I was also introduced to a variety of new cultures that I was never exposed to in my small suburban high school. I learned that “Latino” is not one big culture, that black people often face racism from other blacks because their skin tone is “too dark,” and that many Muslim girls in New York will not wear a headscarf for fear of being violently attacked.

The experience in my undergraduate classes showed me the ugliness and hopelessness of a mentality that seeks to construct such walls and shelter oneself from the other. My progressive and socially-minded attitudes classmates often expressed their concerns about the heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and the lack of adherence to politically correct standards of speech. These concerns were expressed not only through speech, but in action. Many were involved in social outreaches and service projects, driven by principles and motives inspired by socialist ideals. While many dogmatically defended the ideals of tolerance and acceptance of all voices, certain voices were automatically invalidated because of their ties to the other view of the true America. I perceived this desire to embrace the other without qualification (but not that other) to be contradictory.

As I tried to remain open to the claims of my classmates, I recognized a fear, a pervasive anxiety: the voice of that other, namely the white protestant heterosexual man, has more often than not been the source of the silencing and oppression of minority voices. It could be said that the reactionary orientation of this notorious American man to his other was also based on a similar anxiety and fear. Thus it became clear to me that silencing, censorship, and reactionary responses rooted in a fear of the voice of the other (which ever “other” that may be) offer little to the progress of any people or nation
I find that I’ve been profoundly wounded by the cries of my compatriots of all political persuasions. I too desire the freedom to live out my deepest held convictions about the meaning of life without ideals foreign to my own being imposed on me. I too recognize the need to embrace all people and their cultural and religious backgrounds. And yet, I desire more than to merely tolerate them, just as I want to be more than just tolerated. I want more than to “agree to disagree.” I want to love my neighbors, and I want to be loved by them. I want to be willing to fight with and for them. I want to embrace what is true in their experience, and to argue with them about what I do not recognize to be true in my own experience. I recognize that my convictions about my own humanity constitute less of a wall I have constructed for myself, and more a of hypothesis that requires the accompaniment of others (with both similar and differing hypotheses) in order to verify its veracity.

I don’t want to blindly “accept” my black, Muslim, and queer friends. To do so would mean that I disregard that which makes up their very humanity, and for that matter, that which we do indeed share in common: our personal experiences. Rather than a blind orientation to the other, I need to look at the fullness of the other, which includes his or her unique experience of life. We are in desperate need of a gaze toward the other that regards the totality and nuances of their personhood. While it may be generous of me to “accept [insert social group here] people,” my supposedly charitable gesture remains wanting. Who are black people, muslim people, etc.? We will never know until we encounter the other and begin to dialogue; until we share our experiences in hopes of discovering a point of objectivity that can unite us; until we seek what matters most to us together. We cannot be united until we recognize our genuine need for the other and for his or her capacity to help me to better understand myself.

The need to look toward the experience of the other with true esteem requires more than tolerance. It requires that we take down the walls of supremacy and isolationism, as well as of censorship and political correctness. The problem is that walls of any shade or matter remain obstacles to the pursuit of authentic unity-they prevent us from truly encountering the other. This deconstruction of walls implies a risk: the uniqueness of my own experiences and convictions may be vastly different from those of the other. For bridges to be built in place of the walls, we must be courageous enough to let these differences serve as the building ground for dialogue rather than a retreat to the “agree to disagree” principle. Senator Corey Booker urged those at the DNC to move from the ideal of tolerance toward that of love: “We can’t devolve into a nation where our highest aspiration is that we just tolerate each other. We are not called to be a nation of tolerance. We are called to be a nation of love. Tolerance says I am just going to stomach your right to be different. That if you disappear from the face of the earth, I am no better or worse off.” This orientation toward the other recognizes that in order to be free, in order to truly understand my own convictions, I need “you.” My experience as an American is less full without the other: “Love recognizes that we need each other, that we as a nation are better together, that when we are divided we are weak, we decline, yet when we are united we are strong – invincible!” I must be willing to look at my neighbor and say not only “I tolerate your existence,” but to say with the philosopher Josef Pieper that “it is good that you exist.”

The most essential reason why the “agree to disagree” and “tolerate everyone” attitude is inadequate to respond to the needs of a post-election 2016 America is that we can actually learn from those who are different from us. I found that as much as I disagreed with my socialist classmates, I was extremely moved by their attentiveness to the suffering of the marginalized. They reminded me of the importance and beauty of being engaged in charitable work. I also learned a great deal from my fellow theology majors, whose dissent from Church teaching was less a matter of obstinance and more of a reaction against the violence done to them by those who used Church teaching as a weapon against them. I grew deeper in my conviction about the Abrahamic God after learning about the differences and commonalities between Islam and Christianity while attending events put on by the Muslim Students Association. I learned even more from those whose national or ethnic origin were different from my own, showing me the beauty of how the human desire for meaning, as expressed through culture, is manifested differently throughout the world. Loving the other implies a willingness to discover the truth with and in them, even to become their “student,” as we both pursue the fulfillment of our lives together.

At the current moment, it is essential that we look back to the origin of this nation and return to the original desire that impelled our founding fathers and mothers. It was a love for the nation. A love for the good of its citizens. Only love for the common good, the good of the other, and the good of the nation that we all call home, is an adequate starting point for the progress of America. Booker continues: “This is the high call of patriotism. Patriotism is love of country. But you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and countrywomen. We don’t always have to agree, but we must empower each other, we must find the common ground, we must build bridges across our differences to pursue the common good.”

As we seek to move forward in the aftermath of a divisive election season, I must seek the common ground that I share with the other. I must be willing to encounter the other, not in spite of, but because of her differences, because of the things we disagree about. In you, in the other, I discover more about myself and about my own convictions, and ultimately, the Truth. The more we take seriously this desire for Truth, to discover that which makes my life more full, the deeper we can grow in unity as a people. As much as this may be a struggle at the present moment, we can find solace in the encouragement of Pope Francis during his address to Congress in September of 2015: “The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.”

Francis continues, “Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it [can only be] an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good…”

Returning to these “roots” will require that we begin to take risks, that we put down our weapons and approach our enemy with the courage to begin a dialogue. Francis admonishes us: “When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue – a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons – new opportunities open up for all. This has required, and requires, courage and daring, which is not the same as irresponsibility.” This means our shouts and generalizing statements must take a back seat to openness and listening. As much as this new method may imply a sacrifice, it seems to be the only alternative to the violence brought about by our shouting matches and slinging of insults back and forth. As much as this may seem a long shot, all it takes for a dialogue to begin is the presence of one person with a question. Such a presence has the capacity to transcend the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. The exceptionality of one who seeks not to shout and “make statements” out of despair, but who has the audacity to ask a question can surprisingly shine as a light of hope in these bleak times. It is the exceptionality of an invasion waged without weapons that can win a war already plagued with violence, fear, and anger.

While it may be less threatening to adhere to our tradition blindly without making ourselves vulnerable to the opposing views of the other, we put ourselves behind a wall of false certainty, making any chance of unity and concord impossible. As a teacher, I must be willing to not merely tolerate the difficult student or the one who disagrees with me, but must love him and be willing to encounter him. Unless I am willing to “become a student” of those students, rather than just the ones I prefer, I not only find myself in constant discord with them, but I also find myself less certain of who I am and of what fulfills my life. We must be willing to risk dialogue with everyone if we are to grow in true certainty of that which adequately responds to the needs of our heart. Without passing through this verification, we will remain on shaky ground, constantly in a position of defense, ready to take up armed battle with anyone who may disagree with us. Certainty cannot be a weapon that shields us from dialogue, but rather must depend on dialogue if it is to become true.

After witnessing the reactions of several friends and coworkers, I’ve had a desire to respond to their fears with something of my own. I honestly cannot say I am in a state of despair, as much as I may not be pleased with the happenings of this election season. Rather, I find myself excited and hopeful for what is to come. The turmoil of this election can either become an opportunity for us to become further divided and disillusioned with the state of affairs, or to begin a dialogue that has one eye toward our roots and the other toward our future. What allows me to propose this with confidence is a conviction that there is a promise of something truly beautiful and fulfilling in the present moment. I awoke the morning after election day with the same desire to encounter the presence of meaning within my work and relationships as I do every morning. Amidst the many gloomy faces I saw were also the faces of my students, my coworkers, my loved ones, from which the promise of fulfillment emerges everyday, regardless of who runs the government of this country. It is from here that I progress freely into the next four years. It is with this awareness of what matters most to me that I begin to dialogue with my neighbors about what will allow us to discover the fulfillment of our lives together. Only this positive and loving gaze toward life and toward the other has the capacity to break down the iron-clad walls constructed during the past election season and to build bridges toward a more promising future.

Corey Booker, speech at DNC: http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/07/dnc_2016_what_njs_booker_told_the_delegates.html

Pope Francis, address to US Congress: https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/september/documents/papa-francesco_20150924_usa-us-congress.html

 

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