When I was a kid, our family vacations were almost always to the Florida panhandle. That seemed to be pretty common among West Tennessee families, since it was just a one-day drive to the beach. One summer, though, we went north – the only vacation we ever took that wasn’t to Florida.
It was the District of Columbia where I immediately fell in love with every nook and cranny of the city probably for no other reason than the fact it was different from what I’d known – a world different from a little Tennessee town and my first real feeling that there was a whole universe out there waiting to be explored.
In that cosmopolitan mecca, it was my first time to ride a subway, and the old neoclassical buildings were as foreign to me as Greece. Then there was the history of the place, the way the city just exuded some wild patriotism unexpectedly within you. For an Eagle Scout, it was like the pinnacle of some civic duty merit badge just visiting the 68 square miles.
I was mesmerized with it then. I stayed mesmerized with it for years. But eventually, I grew up and turned into a cynic.
America in the digital age is a divided union – divided largely by foreign interests who have used social media as a psychological tool to create chaos in this 238 year-old democracy. The ideological and culture “wars” they’ve latched onto make the District of Columbia a seemingly dismal place – a symbol of hostage-taking, dysfunctional, ego-driven politics.
All that is to say, when I visited this past weekend, I kind of expected to feel some deep sadness for where we are because most days, that’s how I feel. But that’s not really what happened once I got there.
Maybe it’s because my memories of the city as a teenager were so strong that those feelings came flooding back. Sitting in the US Capitol building, though, we were shown a short movie that provided a history of what went on in the legislative bodies from the country’s inception to our civil war to today.
And it hit me hard that these divisions we face today are not new, regardless of where they come from now. And while that should be obvious and was something I’d thought about before – knowing that generations before me had seen and fought hard against America’s pitfalls – I’m not sure I’d ever really experienced the full scope of what it meant to have a whole 238 years of Americans fighting for progress and to know I’m among them and between the generations that will come after me to do the same. And as silly as the movie was with its montage of scenic America on some overlay of the US Constitution with overly dramatic music, I found myself thinking optimistically for the first time, “You can’t kill an idea,” and that’s what America is and has always been.
I don’t mean to sound too optimistic here. A lot of killing has been successful in the attempt to kill an idea. And I’m a pretty privileged guy who won’t ever personally face the ramifications of America’s sins unless I bring them on myself. It should be said that no matter the progress this country has made, it has and can be set back for generations by bad legislation and bad leaders, and it can even be destroyed or altered into something completely contrary to the democracy we once held dear.
But beyond the flags or buildings or statues, even beyond whatever we might call “the United States of America,” those material and temporal things, I think the point I really am trying to make, the thing that struck me most, is that there’s a hope for something better, those better angels that we carry within. It’s a hope that can’t be killed, and we keep this idea of a united people, of a place where all really are equal, held close inside, because those pure ideas are held in that same special space where we keep love and in the same space where we keep music and in the same space where we hold all sacred human emotion and connection safeguarded against those who want to or can destroy material and temporal things. And not even the powers of psychological warfare can rid the world entirely of those sacred truths that will always have a belonging. So I guess the hope I found in that little moment in US Capitol was that I know we’ll keep fighting and keep pushing forward, because I know I’m willing to do my part and because I believe that what we’re fighting for is bigger and truer than any propaganda that would come to harm it.
It won’t come without great sadness or setback or sacrifice. It won’t come without evil slapping us in the face some days. And yet, as MLK has said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I find myself thinking when I hear that, “Bend faster, will you?” And then being reminded that I have a part to play in making sure it does, as do all of us.
Back in New Jersey, with MLK on my mind, another preacher I know and love – one who in many ways reflects the life of MLK in his own – put it this way when he was talking about the shutdown, about walls and barriers Americans face: “Many people don’t seem to realize that much of the wall our president calls for has already been built, but that’s because it was built first in people’s hearts.”
Yes! This is truth we need to hear loudly and clearly. And it comes with a reverse side: the walls and barriers to true democracy can also be torn down in people’s hearts, their hearts can be “strangely warmed” again, too. The question we have to now ask is, how. And the answer, I fear, is that it’s the slow and painful process of loving fiercely in the face of significant hate. It’s an answer I fear because I don’t know if we have the capacity to bring about systemic justice to a world where systemic injustice already reigns. But I know we have to try.
Today isn’t all that different from the civil rights era. It isn’t all that different from the civil war. It isn’t all that different from before America existed. So long as there have been humans, there have been people who wanted to drive a wedge in human connection. Even in our own lives, we do it to ourselves all the time – sometimes without even meaning to. And tomorrow, we’ll face those same demons our ancestors faced. The same ones our children will face, as well. So long as we can, we keep alive the memory of those who got it right, we tell the stories of those who prevailed, and we keep doing our part, in little and big ways, to make the difference we need to make to remind a world filled with our own personal demons that we bring our better angels to the table, too.
Then, hopefully one day, some kid will be on a first-time vacation to a city that brings about inspiration for what has been, the goodness and complexity of it, but also for what could be.