Recently, I was in the Atlanta airport waiting on a flight and I noticed two groups of people standing off to the side of the boarding gate. The first was a Muslim woman in full burka with three children between the ages of 3 and 5. The kids, also in traditional clothing, were nestled on the floor watching a video. Next to them was a white woman with a little boy, also about 5. She occasionally eyed the woman in the burka with suspicion.
After a few minutes, when his mother wasn’t watching, the little boy slowly sneaked over behind the other kids and began watching their video. Something funny happened in the piece and he and the other kids started giggling. Without hesitation, he sat down, curled up beside the little girl and kept watching. Without even looking up, the little girl turned the iPhone a bit so he could see it. The moms looked down, looked up at each other, then smiled and shrugged.
Those kids didn’t see the differences — clothes, race, nationality, religion; they saw common ground. And that, my friends, is what could happen in our world. Could happen. But we have to be the ones to make it happen.
Ah, if there was only a video the entire world could gather around, watch and laugh about together. Short of that, let me suggest three other ways we can find common ground, practical ways based on our recent tragic headlines.
This week (and weeks past), we’ve watched as our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico struggle to meet basic needs after the devastating hurricane strikes. We’ve also watched as aid to Puerto Rico has lagged. And more importantly, we’ve seen public outrage over this lack of support lag. Why is this happening? Overt prejudice is certainly one reason. But another is ignorance.
While most everyone knows that our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico are struggling after Hurricane Maria, what most everyone doesn’t seem to know is that these brother and sisters … are American citizens! A recent poll found that only 54 percent of Americans knew that people born in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, are U.S. citizens.
Besides being really embarrassing, why does it matter? Two reasons: No. 1, It means one half of Americans think that what happened there is a foreign disaster and not a domestic one, which leads us to problem No. 2: Studies show that people attach an overwhelming priority to problems at home — and that includes prioritizing aid distribution.
There is absolutely no excuse for such ignorance, especially given the access to information these days through the Internet, the media, Amazon.com or the free library system.
Jesus commanded that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and sometimes that may seem a hard road. Our neighbor may seem separated from us by a mountain of differences. They may seem like a foreign nation. However, if we educate ourselves about each other (which might include learning about the states and territories of our own country, or learning about an unfamiliar religion, or someone’s sexual orientation, or a different political party), we will eventually find common ground.
This week, we witnessed a gunman perched on a high floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel take a cache of automatic weapons and systematically kill 59 people and wound more than 525.
Many are once again crying out for public debate on gun control. But rather than engage in debate, gun lobbyists are dismissing the effort at conversation, arguing that it is simply politicizing the tragedy.
Trevor Noah, the comedian and host of The Daily Show, had some thoughts on this. He said: “I wish I had used this logic as a kid when I’d done something wrong, when my mom wanted to ground me. I should have just said, ‘Is this the time, Mom, when we politicize what’s happening right now? This is not the time to talk about my lack of discipline. This is the time for us to unite as a family to focus on the fact that I’m stuck in the kitchen window trying to sneak back in.’”
I can’t help but think about Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 : “… with the judgment you make you will be judged. … Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” I’m going to go out on a limb and say, if you applied Jesus’ parable to the gun debate, you might get something like this:
“I can’t believe the speck in the eye of these gun control advocates. They are politicizing this tragedy by using it to force a debate. OK, yeah, 11,000 people in the U.S. are killed annually by firearms; and yeah, the U.S. leads every developed country in gun violence; and yeah, America has 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but 50 percent of the civilian-owned guns, and yeah, there are 50,000 more gun shops in this country than McDonald’s; and yeah, gun stocks do tend to rally after shootings. But pushing public debate on gun control during this tragedy is just reprehensible.”
Like in any human dynamic, without conversation, without public debate, we shut ourselves off from the possibility of information, insight and empathy. We shut out the possibility of reconciliation. We shut down the possibility of ever finding common ground.
So many of our tragic headlines, including those around racial violence, can be traced not only hate and judgment, but also blame. Case in point: Claireborne P. Ellis, a Klan leader turned civil rights activist. Our church’s Bible study class recently read about his life story as documented through his obit and an NPR interview.
Ellis grew up in poverty in Durham, N.C., in the 1920s and ’30s. The son of a mill worker who was himself a Klan leader, he married at 17, fathered three children young, including a special needs child. Despite working two jobs, he could rarely pay his bills.
He said: “They say abide by the law, go to church, do right and live for the Lord and everything will work out. Well, it didn’t work out. It kept gettin’ worse and worse. I began to get bitter. So I joined the Klan. … It made me feel like somebody.”
Ellis eventually became the leader of the local Klan and battled for years over race issues, including battles with a local desegregation activist, a black woman named Ann Atwater.
For years they fought vicious fights. But then, over time, something happened. Ellis said, “During those days it became clear to me that she [Ann Atwater] had some of the identical problems that I had, and that I’d suffered like she had and what … had I spent all my life fighting people like Ann for?”
It took years, but in the end, Ellis resigned the Klan; he began fighting for desegregation. When he died back in 2005, Ann Atwater spoke at his funeral and said, “God had a plan for both of us.”
I read that obit and immediately thought of Colossians 3:14: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Love is the glue that has the potential to unify the world. And if we can get past our blame, then that love will slowly seep in and bond us back together.
Brothers and sisters, these are glimpses of what could happen in our world. Could happen. But we have to be the ones to make it happen. We have to be the ones to educate ourselves, to engage in public conversation, to transcend blame, and to laugh together. It’s only then, that we will begin to truly heal. It is only then, that we will begin to see common ground.