Back in the Sixties –yes, I was there – I wrote about the list of American institutions that were being seriously questioned: the church, the press, the police, the armed forces, Congress. At the time, because of rapid social change, a struggle between the counter-culture and the establishment and the decade-long Vietnam War, everything was being challenged.
Some days it seemed as if the very institutions we had built and depended on were being tossed up in the air and we didn’t know where they would land. Who could you trust? Who was in charge? What was the church’s role in our lives? How could effective change come about without violence? Why were we continually at war? Could you believe what you saw and read in the media?
Sound familiar? You bet, right down the line.
The focus this week (and I say that conscious of how quickly the issue changes) is on law enforcement and race. Can we trust the police?
Broader than that, can we believe in and depend on the justice system to deliver justice when a community achingly cries out for it?
Many people—now as then— take these questions personally. I know I do. Back then, the war at home over the war in Vietnam ate at me every day as I watched friends fight amongst themselves and read the headlines quoting daily casualties. I watched as my country seemed to be splitting itself apart, right down the middle.
Today I sit in sadness and disgust as I read about police shooting a 12-year-old in Cleveland and see a community burn itself down in Missouri. I’m angry that we can’t control our use of firearms. I’m fed up with the people we have elected to Congress, men and women who are supposed to be our finest representatives. I resent it that we apparently believe that we have to be the guardians of the world and continue to sacrifice human beings and resources on wars in other countries. I shake my head in amazement that people still fight and kill over who God is and how he or she should be worshipped. I am ashamed for this country when I hear that one third of those eligible to vote did so. And the mass media; there is such a proliferation of news reports now that we have thousands of versions of the truth. I guess we simply choose the one that fits our beliefs.
This is not an idle, personal rant from a cranky old geezer. These are serious, ongoing issues that thrash the body of a whole society. One could say that the public display of all this turmoil is a healthy sign of an open society, where the freedom to express yourself is paramount. Yes, openness is a plus, but it is not problem solving.
On these somber days we seem to have lost several important things: leadership (at many levels), trust in each other and an over-riding sense of unity that carried us, for instance, through World War II.
As in any relationship, individual or social, when trust goes, when that sense that we’re in this together slips away, the relationship itself — the community — is doomed. Please don’t picture me holding up a “The-end-is-near” sign on a street corner. But you have to admit, we’re a mess.
When Congress does nothing, when people don’t care enough to vote, when women are being raped on college campuses, when police are shooting people they are supposed to be protecting, when we don’t know what to do with a few million immigrants, when you don’t know who to believe and when neighbors burn down neighbors’ businesses, it ought to get our attention.
We should be outraged. We are losing something.
Neighbors forced to live together will end up as enemies unless they act and live animated by a hope one day to become friends.
Dag Hammarskjold wrote this a long time ago and he was not the first to point out that we human beings need to believe that we can be together in peace and build something worthwhile together or we will be at each others throats.
The violence and abuse that we seem to witness daily are the result of our failure to communicate, the misuse of power and the absence of compassion. We don’t want to deeply listen to those ‘others’ in our world, one-on-one, one group to one group so that real understanding and empathy can happen. These are things we are capable of. It begins with each of us as individuals.
Is it too much to ask, one more time: Peace on earth?
John Thomas Wood