In March of the final year of my old job, 2015, I visited Alabama for a project. After wrapping up a day early, I took the opportunity to go for a drive. I stopped in Selma, coincidentally, the day before President Obama was due to arrive for the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. While workers erected barricades in anticipation of a parade, I walked around and visited some of the locations marked with plaques commemorating events that had happened here. I crossed and re-crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Another man with a camera waved me over. He was a photojournalist for the Wall Street Journal, there to document the festivities. We stood on the sidewalk chatting, and he told me that local police had urged him to avoid the town of Selmont, which is just to the southeast of Selma, on the way to Montgomery, visible from the bridge if only for the dense tree coverage that hugs those banks of the Alabama River. Of course he'd gone directly there, and he described a community that the media and the movers and shakers of Alabama really don't want the average American to see. He told me he spent a couple hours sitting on the porch of an old Black man, hearing stories, while in the yard of the neighbor across the way flew Klan flags.
He urged me to check it out, and I did.
He was right. I've only seen poverty and urban decay—with a rural vibe here as well—of this nature in Detroit. There are whiffs of it on our Montana Indian reservations as well, if less densely populated. Certainly in other places too that I’ve only seen in photographs but not in person. Tumbledown houses still occupied. Burned-out trailers, still occupied. Broken and battered cars, trash. Deep, generational poverty and obvious signs of addiction. It was heartbreaking. Truly, there were many images from the drive that day that disturbed me, images of pervasive poverty shared by people of all ethnicities ... though I do have to admit being amused by one sign, in a rickety convenience store/bait shop just across the border into Mississippi, hanging above a chest cooler, that read, "Would Jesus Steal Bait?" Of all the photos I opted not to take that day, capturing that image is the only failure I regret.
My point though is this: In this nation, allegedly so benevolent and generous, how do we allow such poverty and inequality to endure? Is this the America we have been urged to make great to again? How do we not look upon these scenes and condemn ourselves?
The Edmund Pettus Bridge has loomed large in our public consciousness again recently with the passing of Representative John Lewis, who was nearly beaten to death on the "Bloody Sunday" events that President Obama visited five years ago to commemorate. The legacy of Lewis's magnificent life, and the words he leaves us, cannot be overstated. People like him are generational, and we fail if we do not venerate them above and far beyond the glory we heap on athletes and entertainers. Not to mention our current crop of the carpetbagger political class, or the millionaires and billionaires who own them. Jeff Bezos and his ilk aren’t worth as much as gum stuck to the tread in John Lewis’s shoes.
Lewis wrote us one final letter in the waning days of his life, to be published in the New York Times on the day of his funeral. It is a necessary read, and you may do so HERE. This line; this stays with me:
"Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe."
Pretty much every spiritual tradition worth considering has something to say about "loving your enemy." I believe that. I believe that nonviolence is the best way to respond to tyranny. But it's really, really hard to live that way, isn't it? My writer friend Benjamin Whitmer said, “You don't get to call yourself a pacifist unless you've taken a baton to the face.” It’s true. When I watch events unfold, I have an irrational, violent reaction toward our despicable, narcissistic president and his soulless, enabling sycophants who allow his oppressions to play out and I feel my pacifist convictions evaporate. When I see these armed and armored mercenaries beating people in the street, I ache to see their violence returned tenfold, to see images of those unmarked vans erupting in fireballs, to join the protesters in giving them all they can handle. I want to see Trump and his minions dragged through the street. I want them beaten and bloodied and dying, I want every innocent who has suffered at their hands and policies avenged. It is an awful reaction and I don't want to be part of it, even as I do.
I also know I need to be better than that. That these soldiers are people too, and violence is no way to make them see the role they play in the deterioration of a just society. That only the courage that is born in love and selflessness might turn the tide.
We are on our own, friends. We have allowed a society where our elected officials somehow think it is acceptable to pack a relief bill for struggling people to be padded with $2+billion to build more weapons of mass destruction, even while leaving out funds for people facing eviction. In the same week the “opposition” party, the ones so many are counting on to "save" us, have chosen to reject Medicare for All in its party platform, as well as ignoring a host of other progressive ideas.
So we must save ourselves.
Let’s love each other with ferocity. Let’s figure out a way to live side-by-side with people we disagree with, as even in their ignorance they are getting the shaft as badly as we are. Let’s be brave in the face of ignorance and hate. Let’s look everything awful in the eye without flinching even though it seems impossible. Let’s be our own shield wall; when one of us falters and needs a break, then another of us will step forward to fill the gap.
Let’s look to our neighborhoods and support our local artists and artisans and growers and shopkeepers, even if it means going without now and then, or waiting a little longer. Let’s set aside some plans for this year for the good of everyone else, even if that leads to disappointment.
I'm reminded of these words from Joanna Macy, Buddhist environmental activist, writer, and scholar. I copied this quote from an interview I read somewhere:
“I think the most important thing we need to hear is the voice inside us which connects us to all beings and to the whole web of life. That is needed now to counteract the crippling of the modern self, which is cruelly contained, as in a prison cell, by the hyper-individualism of the last five centuries.”
Yes! Let’s stop this going-it-alone, bootstraps-hauling-up, “rugged individual” bullshit. Let’s be a community again, just like the animals we are. What is our alternative? Is there a higher calling for our hearts?