by Margaret Blanchard
“It’s impossible to struggle for… equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because … fair play, justice, are like the air: we all have it, or none of us has it.” Maya Angelou
Recently I was moved by a key question proposed by civil rights activist Ruby Sales: “Where does it hurt?” She was challenging us to empathize with young bullies on the extreme right who are hurting, angry, alienated. This task goes beyond the Golden Rule, beyond St. Francis’s, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love,” to the Christian imperative, “Love your enemies.” This feels particularly daunting when your enemies claim to be Christian.
Census projections are that by 2044, more than half of all Americans will belong to a “minority” group (any group other than non-Hispanic Caucasian). No matter how active the Right-to-Life movement may be, white American native Christians simply are not going to proliferate in sufficient numbers to prevent this flowering of diversity. It’s ironic that in the context of environmental disasters (however much people deny climate change), with wars and famines displacing huge populations, ruptures of identity politics seem to intensify with the storms even while people of all identities help save each other.
Not long ago we watched the eclipse, a dramatic demonstration of how tiny our planet is in a vast universe. Soon followed hurricane devastation in Houston, the place from which humans first leapt out to touch the moon—then Florida and Puerto Rico—and I couldn’t help feeling the insignificance of any one life among many other beings on this crowded earth—as well as our shared vulnerability. This humility was reinforced by the revelation by some pundit over the radio recently that of all the creatures in our ecosystem, humans are completely unnecessary. Bees, certainly; elephants, yes, indeed; plants; butterflies for sure; and even some remote species of worm—all, he claimed, are absolutely essential to our shared ecosystem. We humans, whether from America or from elsewhere, whether conservative or progressive, are not.
So why are we humans here and for what purpose? To make a very few men, privileged by class, race, gender, age, and nationality, even richer? Despite the American Dream and the Horatio Alger myth, American history reinforces the fact that class privilege is limited to very few. Most young, white, American men, although advantaged by race, gender, and nationality, cannot count on also becoming wealthy. Nor can they conceal fragile identities under the privilege of whiteness. We are all challenged to defy stereotypes in order to actualize our uniqueness.
So back to the young extremists: I can see how Alt-Right Neo-Nazis are being deceived and betrayed by their wealthy “leaders.” I can empathize with anybody eager to earn a living, however meager the salary, with people desperate not to return to horrors they were forced to flee, with people who can’t talk back because they don’t speak the language well enough, even with middle-class folks with college degrees who now find themselves shackled with so much student debt they can’t imagine sending their own kids to college. I know what it’s like to be underemployed, to be a minority, to be vulnerable, to be invisible, not to belong. And I can empathize with people in my own family who voted for Trump because despite their intelligence and their service to our country they were cheated out of fulfilling careers, because of limited options, before Trump. But I must be suffering from compassion fatigue because I have little patience for those violent protestors. (When I was 17, I visited Dachau, site of a World War II Nazi concentration camp. Clearly, they weren’t just another political party.)
Then I heard an interview with Daryl David, an African-American musician who, after a conversation about music with a white man who’d never spoken with a black man before, persuaded him, and then, one by one, over a hundred other white men, to quit their membership in the KKK. He understood about sharing—through music, respect, other qualities which sustains so many of us, no matter how marginal we might be. Then I saw why, as Doctors without Borders puts it, “Compassion knows no boundaries.” Maybe some of those young militants could extinguish their torches if treated with such kindness?
When Ruby Sales was a teenager, during a protest march, her life was saved by a young, white, male seminarian, Johnathan Daniels, who shielded her by taking a bullet fired by another, older white man, Thomas Coleman. Daniels died. Coleman, I’ve been told by historian Peter Thoms, was acquitted by an all-white jury (where blacks outnumbered whites four-to-one), and lived to the age of 86 in the town where the killing occurred. Now Ruby Sales calls on us to empathize with anti-Semitic, anti-gay racists.
For a deep exploration of how this process might work, I recommend “Welcoming the Other” by Rev. Joan Javier-Duval, available at this link: http://ucmvt.org/app/uploads/September-24-2017.mp3
Ironically, it has taken the death of a young white woman to turn the tide of white protest against the system of white supremacy infecting this country since European incursions. Identity and empathy, alas, seem paired. Compassion, and curiosity, may not be so limited.
Crucial as they are, resistance and protest are not enough if we hope to heal this country. Ruby Sales’s advice comes from a legacy of spiritual wisdom about connections and wholes, about how we need people of all colors, all ages, with varied perspectives and diverse roots to move together to transform as well as protect this world, our shared home. Rabbi Abraham Heschel reminds us, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”