I often hear people harken back to September 12th, 2001 when reflecting on the culture of division in our country. The day after the worst attack on American soil saw unprecedented unity as we collectively grieved the loss of over 2,700 people. “We are all Americans” was our refrain, inspired by a headline in a French newspaper expressing solidarity with our nation. We attended vigils, held hands, cried together and stood together in a state of collective shock.
I think this sense of togetherness was something real and important and holy, but only for the first five or so minutes of September 12th. In those five minutes it really was about our collective sense of loss. That it happened in New York, arguably the most diverse place on the planet, made it even more poignant, because we were all grieving the loss and trauma of people fundamentally different from us, whether we recognized that or not.
We were still largely unified after those first five minutes. But tragically, our togetherness quickly shifted from being centered on our shared grief to being focused on our common enemy. The holiness of September 12th ended sometime around noon, when we began to load our guns.
On September 17th President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington to give an important speech on respecting the rights and intrinsic worth of Muslims in our country. This wasn’t an accident of scheduling, but rather a response to the fact that during the previous week threats and attacks against Muslims and Sikhs in our country spiked significantly. (What is also often forgotten was that in 2000, Bush became the first Presidential candidate of either major political party to visit a Mosque.)
Bush would eventually use the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as justification to attack a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, an act that continues to wreak havoc on us today.
We may have felt united on September 12th, but we were already beginning the process of turning on each other.
But if the Trump years have taught us anything, it is that it has always been this way. Any mirage of togetherness that we have seen after a major event has simply been window dressing on the fact that we are as tribal a country as has ever existed. The only difference between now and times in the past is that more of our “tribes” have found their voices and begun to demand that those voices be heard, frustrating those who controlled the means of communication for so long.
A few weeks ago I attended the Lights For Liberty vigil in Austin, a nationwide event protesting the detention of asylum seekers at the border. (As a side note on unity, I was going to attend the vigil in Dallas before I read that there was controversy among the organizers of that event over who should be allowed to speak.) The crowd was very Austin-y, which is to say, weird. With the notable exception of black people, which I believe to be a significant subject to explore, just about every kind of kind you could possibly imagine was standing there in solidarity with each other and immigrants/refugees at the border.
As my politics have shifted leftward, I’ve found myself in these settings with more frequency. I always feel both welcome and embraced, even though I tend to occupy spaces away from the crowd, by myself. But I also feel simultaneously like I don’t exactly fit. Being from conservative East Texas, I was raised to think of these people– protesters, vegans, LGBTQ individuals, peace sign holders, atheists/agnostics/Unitarians/Bahá’í, etc.– as folks from another planet. I’ve since immigrated to their planet, but I still buy my clothes at Kohls and have more than two Jason Aldean songs downloaded on my phone. I belong, but not really.
An example: At the entrance to the capitol grounds that evening was a group “dancing for justice,” complete with drums and old hippies. Their goal was to “dance the detention camps away.” I’m sorry, I’m trying my best here to be as woke as possible, but c’mon.
While I was standing in the crowd, listening to the speakers, I was thinking about this, how I kind of fit in, but kind of don’t. Earlier in the day a friend had recommended a book to me. He told me the basic premise of the book is this: Hardly anyone chooses their politics based on what they believe about any given thing– their ideologies, conclusions, convictions, etc.– but rather based on what groups they belong to. In other words, we ALL practice identity politics. I think I agree with this, and that the principle is the same for our theology, worldview, etc. We believe what those to whom we belong believe.
I was reflecting on this while standing in the crowd with all those weird Austinites. I was thinking that maybe I’m an anomaly, that I’ve somehow found myself agreeing with people with whom I don’t seem to belong. Would I ever belong to this group, I wondered? I was doubting it, until…
I noticed a young, attractive blonde girl with a microphone and a couple of guys with cameras following her, milling about the crowd trying to interview people. At first glance I assumed she was a local reporter trying to get quick clips before the 10:00 news. As she got closer to the area where I was standing I realized she was one of these “guerilla reporters,” probably a YouTube personality with a decent sized following, who finds the most clueless and inarticulate representatives of a movement and asks them blunt, closed ended questions based on dubious or outright false suppositions. The goal wasn’t to collect information to report on, but to mock.
I later learned this was the “Kent State Gun Girl,” made famous for carrying an AR-10 rifle on campus in support of open carry laws. She is now a correspondent/personality on InfoWars. When I saw her condescendingly walk through the crowd looking for her next unwitting participant, the idea of belonging took center stage again. I didn’t, in that moment, feel a sudden rush of belonging to the Austin hippies with nose rings and the dancers for justice, but I knew if I had to make a choice in that moment which one I’d choose.
I’d choose the freaks.
But I also knew in that moment that I had been, and still have the tendency of being, the one with the microphone, looking to find the scapegoat for all of societies ills. I was looking in the mirror, and didn’t like what I saw.
Several days after this experience I happened upon the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. It’s one of my favorite stories in the New Testament for no other reason than that no one really knows what to do with it. The more certain you appear of its meaning, the more foolish you look. It involved Jesus calling a lady who would have certainly been looked down on by his followers a “dog” after she asked him to heal her daughter of demon possession. She persists, he relents, and we are left scratching her head. Did he change her mind about her? Was he testing her faith? Was he challenging his followers’ prejudices?
The passage invites a million interpretations, and we are drawn to it because shines a light on how we all feel about belonging, who to include, and how big our tables should be.
On September 12, we had an opportunity to expand our table, but we squandered it. Maybe we were destined to do so. Maybe its in our cultural DNA. It seems that so few countries, churches, communities, organizations, etc. have found a way to truly bring everyone together. The difficulty is that borders and bylaws and constitutions and family stories exist because they set parameters, creating in groups and out groups. Many people are at the table because others are excluded.
I think maybe this is why I’m drawn to the concept of open communion, the idea that anyone can partake in the sacrament/ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. It essentially says “Everyone is welcome,” but implicit in that welcome is a silent, “except those who would seek to exclude.”