As I write these words to you, I am perched on a high stool at a coffeehouse in our nation’s capital looking out at a normal intersection of pedestrian foot traffic where street meets avenue.
Hurry is the speed limit here. The ebb and flow of folks is like a riptide of swirling coats and head-wraps of many colors all battened down and buttoned up and zipped past the chin to beat the chill. The coats are thick, but they hide something warm and wonderful. A “you.” A “me.” A “them.” A “we.”
So here “we” are. “We,” the people. There is a chill of cold conflict in the air. It is being raised to an art form all around us. Icy winning is everything. And I just don’t know how long we can protect the warmth of our feelings and our hearts from this freezing stab.
Win! Cable news is a 24/7 argument. Radio talk pours accusation. Internet flashes assaults from all sides. And Tweets?! We have institutionalized and industrialized the “double-dog dare you” into an emotionally eroding, friendships-ending death spiral. The consequences of “must win” are utterly profound. And every election only increases the power and speed of the maelstrom clutching this ship of state in unresolved conflict. Fighting precariously borders on the unceasing.
Our “we” cannot hold when the “me” only seeks to win.
The Battle of the Somme just came into my mind. You will remember with me that it was the largest battle of World War I on the Western front. It lasted for four months. On the first day of the battle, the British jumped out of their trenches and charged the German lines. It was the bloodiest one day ever for Britain’s army. They had 57,420 young men killed or wounded in one day. Overall, 1.3 million men were the total casualties in the battle. When the Battle of the Somme was over, the British army had advanced six miles to another stalemate. Six miles. History has witnessed that the “war to end all wars” left a world in seemingly ceaseless conflict.
So, too, the trench warfare of our elections. Each time a side surges. Immense energy and dollars are expended. Back and forth. Back and forth. The no-man’s land of who rules changes hands, but the conflict goes on. Winning is elusive. But the feelings deepen. This must stop. But how?
Surely we know that we must allow one another the simple gift of our own convictions that really are our deeply held beliefs. And we must hold as precious our deeply embedded feelings that are the soil out of which our convictions grow. But we also know that while our individual feelings and beliefs are crucial to our lives, it is the community of blended beliefs and feelings that is the only protection of our individuality. We must celebrate our diversity as we all commit to common values that transcend each of us for the good of all of us. But how?
A picture, a people, and a man are now coming to mind as an answer. I’m amazed to remember. It was in the spring of 1963. I was eighteen and had just had my impacted wisdom teeth removed. I was at home on the couch missing school and watching TV. I was about to witness a seminal truth and turning point in human history.
For some weeks, the civil rights movement had been laboring in Birmingham, Alabama, seeking realization of common humanity. The news cut in. Children and youth marching and singing “We Shall Overcome” turned a street corner, and there at Kelly Ingram Park waited police, fire hoses, and dogs. Three pastors in their liturgical robes leading the children (some as young as eight years old!) knelt in the street in prayer. As they prayed, the children walked forward.
I witnessed what we all now remember as the Battle of Birmingham. Except only one side chose to fight the old way. Their fire hoses were set at a level “that could strip the bark off of the trees and separate bricks from mortar.” Their dogs were set at a level to rip and tear warm human flesh to pieces. The children walked forward. And all hell exploded over them.
My life changed that day on that couch. I was sobbing. I am sobbing now as I write to you. I can’t help it. But I wasn’t the only one. America changed that day. So did the world.
Movements must never change from something to heal into something to win. For then they never win the will of man and they never heal the heart of man.
My friend Reverend Nelson H. Smith was thirty-three years old when he knelt in the street in his robe along with Reverend A. D. King and Reverend John Porter that day. Then, on a Sunday, May 16, 1994, N.H. and I were walking together in Kelly Ingram Park. He had asked me to preach at his church, New Pilgrim Baptist, that morning for Friends and Family Day. And now we were there in the park when we walked up to the statue of the praying pastors. N.H. was there kneeling with the others in marble.
We stopped. Silent. Then he said, “Mack, Movements must never change from something to heal into something to win. For then they never win the will of man, and they never heal the heart of man.”
And now I remember, we must stop trying to win for the “me” and we must commit above all to heal the hurt in our land for the “we.” Only then can we win the world for our children. Only then can they march and sing their way into a new future.
Rene Descartes observed, Cogito ergo sum. “I think therefore I am.” I guess maybe that holds some truth. But I believe that I will follow the ancient proverb out of the heart of Africa, “Because we are I am.” It just fits better with the Birmingham children’s banner, which read, “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for My sake, [which is the good news of God’s Love for all of us] will find it.”
Community Renewal is here to help us truly win by walking together and caring for one another. Come join with us, and we will be today’s bridge to a new tomorrow. Your “me” will get better and better, I promise.
So “We, the people!” That’s exactly the prescription the Doctor ordered to heal a “you,” a “me,” and a “them” mentality.
“We!” The people of planet earth. Warm and wonderful.