I wanted to take some time, not so much to plot out what I would write, but to write from a center of balance and hope. I do not want to write a political polemic–that would not be appropriate for this website. I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat and am critical of both parties; I will never find a party or political ideology in which I would feel at home. But as a Cistercian monk, as a Roman Catholic priest I must write something in response to the tragic events of 12 August in Charlottesville.
The Dignity of Difference: In 2002, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, published a book entitled The Dignity of Difference. The book’s subtitle explains its content; How to avoid the clash of civilizations. As a theologian, as a man of faith and as a religious leader, Rabbi Sacks addresses himself to the pluralistic societies most of us now live in. The secular response of relativism is, of course, inadequate for any person of committed faith; on the other hand, an exclusive model of faith, rejecting all other articulations of faith, can only distort the truth we commit to and live by. It is not a question of being politically correct or of diplomacy to respect religious traditions that do not hold my allegiance; it is a question of humility.
Without turning this post into a book report, the basic model that Rabbi Sacks employs is that of biodiversity; a healthy, thriving eco-system is constituted from a vast array of diverse, even seeming contradictory, organisms. I write “seeming” because there are also malignant forms that are truly contradictory to life and destroy it. That is part of what the debate about climate change is seeking to identify and address: what is contrary to life. And so with metaphysical truth. We are not talking about the co-existence of every ideology possible, since some are patently false and deadly. But we can rightly speak of an environment of diversity and even creative tension, if that tension is properly channeled and shares a common ground with what is truly vital and life-giving.
Racial Diversity: On a very concrete and literal level, what it means to be human is only completely realized in racial bio-diversity. No one race, no one culture, no one gender, no one human being sums up what it means to be human. We are incomplete without one another. Since the beginning of the colonization of the Americas, this realization has been the challenge and the big problem of our history. From the start those of us who came from Europe managed to ignore, dismiss, dispossess–and even, at times, be fascinated by–the native population. The great sin of the “new world”–especially in North America–has been to deny the other a place in “our” society. And yet, we have always depended on the other for our continued existence. Remember, in colonial times, there were slaves, indentured servants and prisoners serving the needs of the greater society in the Northern colonies, as well as in the South. The great denial was to pretend that they needed no voice, no say in the commonwealth.
Like it or not, the United States has been, from the start, a nation of immigrants. Perhaps that’s one reason why we are so insecure about the “other” who is different from me and whom I do not understand. Deep down, subconsciously, I may not care to admit that I am the uncomfortable “other” to someone else better situated than myself. Yet I could never honestly claim that my experience of life exhausts or exemplifies what it means to be human.
Non-violent Common Ground: I expect to persuade no one who cannot see this as a truth, but I have no evidence that violence achieves anything worthwhile. Violence seems to generate more violence. I cannot claim that I am free of the subtle, manipulative, emotional or verbal forms of violence. But I could never pretend that they are a solution and I can only repent and try to make restitution when I fail to control such impulses. There are still non-violent Christians in the United States; I would like to see that conviction propagated more vigorously.
The only place to begin is with myself. Anyone who can remember organizational meetings for non-violent protest in the ‘sixties will probably recall some instance when some brave soul pointed out that there was enough suppressed anger in the room to detonate an atomic bomb! Non-violence can be no more than a pose, denial from the moral high ground. Or it can be an ascesis, a discipline, a training for self-knowledge, honesty, lack of pretensions–humility; and a motivation for true conversion. Non-violence is the ultimate respect of the other–even the violent other–whom I radically cannot understand.
I don’t know whether it is tragically ironic or the inevitable holocaust that the one fatality of that Saturday’s debacle was a non-violent protester.
Non-violent Courage: One hopeful outcome of this tragedy is the public articulation resisting racism and calling our leadership to accountability. We are demanding, as we should, that the President of the United States has the responsibility to heal divisions and not exacerbate them; that we will not accept “spin” but expect responsible action to insure the rights of all people who constitute this nation. “Make America great again”? The only greatness worth hoping for, for any nation, is one based on solid ethical foundations, responsible service to all her citizens–a life-giving, diverse “eco-system.” And, in the United States, respect of constitutional rights, for constitutional procedures and the successful exercise of checks and balances.