My vocation denies me the privilege of participating wholesale in death-denying American culture. Only those in the medical professions, law enforcement, and the funeral industry are as intimately acquainted with death as the clergy. I cannot pretend that people don’t die; nor can I pretend that people aren’t supposed to die. Our culture idolizes the beautiful, strong, sexy body that never grows frail and knows no limits. The siren song of eternal youth and vitality is both alluring and completely mendacious.
I hear a similar song being sung in the body politic. Many of our political leaders and some in the punditocracy are heralding that great days of strength and power lie ahead for America. They tell us that we will create more jobs, we will improve education, and we will bring back the economic prosperity that we once thought to be the default setting of this nation. This language is appealing and it may be necessary for the psychological health of voters and the election prospects of those seeking office. But all of the photo-ops, focus groups, staged grins, and well- placed women and minorities for the wide angle television shot belie something deeper, dare I say even sinister. We don’t want to see the hard truth, we don’t want to hear the hard truth, and we don’t want to speak the hard truth. We want staged pep rallies. The theme song for the national conventions of both the Republicans and the Democrats might as well be Evilene’s “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” from the Wiz.
Our leaders are serving up the slop that we demand that they feed us. We want them to tell us that we can have something for nothing. We want them to tell us that we can improve our infrastructure, have excellent schools, excellent health care, and security in our old age without paying significantly more in taxes. We want them to tell us that we can have the strongest military in the world and vanquish any enemy, foreign or domestic, without our sons or daughters having to enlist. We want nuclear power plants, heavy industry, and oil drilling – there’s only one caveat – nimby (not in my backyard)! Our leaders are spinning a yarn that America will remain strong, safe, and prosperous forever at minimal cost to us. It is the siren song that we will stay as we are forever without having to change or to sacrifice; it is both alluring and mendacious.
I detect that something may be dying. Sometimes death comes suddenly. Those instances are especially tragic and acutely painful. There are times, however, when death comes slowly and its cold, cruel advance happens right before our eyes. In our nation, in our time, we may be witnessing the gradual death of the language and ideal of community. Indeed, any “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony” notion of American community is ahistorical. The European settlers who largely conquered this continent through violence weren’t keen on building community with the natives that they encountered upon their arrival.
Africans who came to this continent by force and their descendants have struggled to be a part of the American community since the early 1600s. Italians, Irish, Poles, and Jews only recently joined the ranks of the American community when the gift of whiteness was reluctantly conferred upon them as a demographic and political necessity to consolidate the power of the majority. Most Asians and Latinos are viewed as outsiders on sight because they don’t look American, which can only mean that they don’t look white enough. The current occupant of the White House isn’t even American enough. Birth certificate, please, Mr. President?
By and large, America has only acted like a community when forced to by freedom-fighting, justice-seeking women and men willing to die to make America live up to the ideals she sells in her founding documents and foreign policy. I don’t know whether or not a true notion of American community has ever taken root. I would like to hope that it is possible. It is definitely necessary if this nation is to have any hope of surviving the 21st century in a recognizable form.
The only way this troubled land will survive is if we learn to take responsibility for one another. Our faith communities, our political leaders, and our thought leaders must emphasize that Sikhs are as American as Southern Baptists. Mormons are as American as Methodists. African and Asian immigrants are as American as Andy Griffith and apple pie. Generation after generation we have allowed the powerful and the politically expedient to divide us on superficial grounds and walk away with all of the spoils. I am hopeful that today’s young people will be smarter than my generation and those that came before us.
Any mention of community is derided as socialism or communism. How ignorant. How costly. As long as my kid goes to a good school, all is well. As long as my family has health care, all is well. As long as my neighborhood is safe, all is well. All is not well. In “The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity,” Jeffrey D. Sachs writes, “At the root of America’s economic crisis lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite. A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world. America has developed the world’s most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way. Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.”
Is this sickness unto death? I do not know. But the clock is ticking ………..
Rev. Lamar is pastor of Turner Memorial A.M.E. Church in Hyattsville.