I believe that in order for a society to flourish, there has to be an unshakable trust that anyone can be reached and turned aside from violence. Even if this turning aside does not always actually happen—and surely it hasn’t, and surely it won’t—the possibility that it could must live among us for us to be sane in the root sense of being healthy. This is about believing that anyone can be redeemed, but I don’t mean redeemed to Western, progressive, liberal consumerism. I mean redeemed to the far less debatable truth that people are important and shouldn’t be killed by other people.
What happens if we don’t believe this particular redemption is possible? First, we become suspicious. People become potential threats. This starts out in the abstract, but it does not stay so removed. We become suspicious of communities and groups that unknowable by their very remove and so are obviously different from us in some way (geographically, ethnically, religiously, culturally). This is the root of our assent to any manner of foreign war. But, suspicion follows us home. We begin to distrust people in our own cities and towns because they, too, look different or live in different circumstances. And here’s the problem: once one barrier to our belief that people can be redeemed goes up, once we start being suspicious of people we don’t actually know just because they’re other than us, there is no real place to re-draw a circle of trust. We stop risking relationship. Instead, there is a slow creep of us keeping our guard up until even neighborly relationship becomes difficult. Look at homes going up for sale in a rich neighborhood if a black family moves in. Look at the distance people will keep if someone on the block keeps their house or yard in disarray or keeps odd hours doing odd things. Such behavior is not rooted in the belief that you can forge a strong enough relationship with any kind of person that will bind you together in mutual thriving and even affection. Such behavior is rooted in the belief that anyone could be out to get you.
Another troubling thing. As the list of people we trust with our own care dwindles, the list of things we fear balloons. Now, we no longer fear just murder, but theft, home invasion, rape, riot, or someone not returning the rake they borrowed. We no longer just fear that someone here from a foreign land might be building bombs and laying them out in the streets, we fear anyone we meet for an exhausting list of possible threats they might pose. It’s a crazy way to live.
I know there are awful things in the world and people are the ones doing them. I’m not saying we should be naive and completely regardless of our safety. I am saying, though, that there’s a hard thing here that must be embraced. Relationship is the only hope for defusing some of the people that would otherwise harm us. Certainly, strict separation from the ‘others’ either by rejecting them from our vicinity completely or cordoning them off into ghettos surely isn’t going to prevent anything. In fact, such separation will surely only intensify any animosity some may already feel, and might even sow fresh animosity where none was before. Imagine, though, bringing people near and seeing to their flourishing, not just economically buy relationally as well. Of course, this is an individual act, not a ‘societal’ one. This kind of hopeful activity wold necessarily be personal, the act of caring for those around us and possibly going a little beyond what’s easy and comfortable in order to care for just a few more. That is the way to urge someone away from violence, to build a relationship that would not easily be violated. It is the only way. It cannot be legislated as a big solution to a big problem, it can only be lived out on a scale that seems almost microscopic in our supposedly ‘global’ world. We can remember, though, that it takes good microbes in the dirt to grow a crop. We may still get burned, perhaps even literally, but we as a people would still be able to hope for better and not resign ourselves to worse.
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These thoughts were originally sparked by the issue of our country, our neighborhoods and cities providing harbor for people fleeing war-ravaged places, hence the immediate issue of violence. What is violence, though, but the ultimate in a long list of ways we can reduce other people? I think you can take our fear of violence and how we react to those whom we fear will bring it and pretty easily translate those fears into understanding how we reduce people to ‘enemies’ just because we disagree with them politically. That is to say, I don’t think fearful people on the so-called ‘right’ are the only people who are letting suspicion and disdain metastasize among us. We all have to fight our inherent xenophobia both foreign and domestic, even people on the so-called ‘left’ who seem to be talking about Trump supporters in about the same apocalyptic terms a Trump supporter might talk about a Syrian. Just something to think about.