For a nation whose Constitution begins with the words, “We the people,” we seem to have an interesting pattern to the exercise and management of our “we-ness.”
I hope it is not cynical to notice an all-too-recurring cycle expressed most profoundly in response to the crises of catastrophe and malice – the terrorism of 9-11, nature’s damage in Katrina and numerous tornadoes, heinous crimes such as Sandy Hook, and now most recently the Boston bombing.
People rally quickly and heroically to help, without asking about political affiliation, religious faith, immigration status or sexual orientation. Those things don’t seem to matter when members of the human family are in dire and urgent need.
Beyond the immediate help, the national community and beyond unites in prayerful concern and generous support for those in need.
Our “we” tent is pretty big in those times. It might even be said that the “we-ness” of who we are is at its best in times of such crises.
But these reminders and affirmations of our common humanity are connected by periods of time when “business as usual” seems to reflect a different picture.
Partisan politics prevents cooperative work for the common good.
After public displays of concern and chagrin at such destructive behavior, it doesn’t take long for elected leaders to resume being the servants of well-moneyed lobbies, even in the face of overwhelming public support for measures, such as those designed to reduce gun violence.
Economic opportunism exacerbates the crippling effects of poverty. Hospitality erodes into protectionism.
Fear and shortsightedness make us vulnerable to ideological manipulation by well-crafted appeals to embrace ways of thinking that support various forms of injustice.
On a personal level, it is not long before the unified voice of community is replaced by expressions of concern that it is my right to live the way I want, regardless of its effect on our ecological stewardship.
It is my right to own whatever kind of weapon I want that is endangered by efforts to regulate the sale and destructive power of guns.
It is my money that the government is spending on people who don’t deserve it. Fairness of taxation usually means that I deserve to pay less.
It is my healthcare that is being threatened by expansion of coverage to include those without.
It is my community being changed by an increase in the number of people who are different.
It is my expression of faith that is being infringed upon when we can’t have a public display of it in schools and on public grounds.
During a catastrophic crisis, our “we-ness” expands to be quite inclusive, and “they” almost disappear or are narrowly focused on the common enemy of a perpetrator or on the impersonal force of nature.
But, in the interim between uniting crises, our “we-ness” tends to narrow and our “they-ness” tends to become wider to include whole classes of people – immigrants, gays, Muslims – who threaten our security, our concepts of marriage or our particular religious beliefs.
Martin Buber put words around the difference between relationships that reflect our mutual humanness (I-thou) and those that objectify the other (I-it).
Perhaps a slight modification of his distinction could be applied to our collective life as we swing back and forth between “We, the people” and the “us vs. them” that seems to seduce us when things “get back to normal.”
Paul Tillich, a formative theological influence for many in my generation, spoke of sin as estrangement – from God, self, others and the world. The alienation that results from this estrangement erodes the “we-ness” that we recognize and affirm as an expression of our better selves.
In the Genesis poetic portrayal of humanity’s origins, the estrangement of two brothers leads to one’s murder and the other’s question when confronted: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The rest of the biblical witness is a long and complex version of a rather simple answer: “Yes!”
It was a haunting post attributed to the older of the two Boston bombing suspects that said, “I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them.”
There are encouraging signs that people of faith – many faiths – are finding community with each other and drawing the circle of “we” wider.
How many future perpetrators of violence might be reoriented by inclusion in the circle of our “we-ness”?
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.