I should be an optimist. Every movie and TV show shows the big guy as jolly, right? Furthermore, I’m a socialist who believes another world is possible through collective action, and a humanist who believes that the solutions to our problems can be found using our own hands and feet, mouths and ears, eyes and brains.
I should be an optimist because I’m a former Unitarian Universalist who still believes that there is wisdom to be found in most if not all of the world’s faith traditions, once you jettison the artifacts of the uninformed past (oh, so many artifacts), and I’m in a seminary full of Christians and UUs that is situated next to a rabbinical school with which we partner in an interfaith effort that also works with members of the local Muslim community, an effort that includes this very blog (State of Formation as a whole) and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies under its umbrella. And so I’m surrounded, in person and online, by passionate, compassionate, and highly motivated people of all ages who are striving to build a better and more just world in whatever vocation they’re pursuing.
I should be an optimist. I should be relieved that the news media actually took note in April of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. And while I was pleasantly surprised to hear that sad, senseless chain of events recounted in some depth, with some looking back for lessons learned, I can’t say I’m optimistic, because the phrase “Never again” has proven to be only that, a collection of two words.
We said “Never again” at the end of World War II, when my great-uncle and 12 million or so of his best friends helped I don’t even know how many millions more save the world, only to find that while no one was looking — or rather, while too many people in positions of influence were closing their eyes, plugging their ears, and humming “Accentuate the Positive” — Adolf Hitler’s regime had killed several million Jews, gays, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, intellectuals, and people with physical or mental disabilities.
We probably said “Never again” after Nigeria starved a breakaway nation named Biafra out of existence, but you never even hear about Biafra.
We said “Never again” after Hutus massacred Tutsis, and even Hutus who were not sufficiently bloodthirsty fell before machetes, with a death toll of half a million to a million cut down in just over three months.
By the time people started dying in Darfur, Sudan, our politicians weren’t bothering to say much of anything.
We said “Never again” after Columbine, though. And Aurora. And Newtown. And mass shootings are pretty much a daily occurrence now.
So, I find that optimism is elusive. For while I have no doubt that we as a species are capable of great and lofty things, that we have the ability to stop genocide and mass violence and poverty and the degradation of our climate and rape and the marginalization of any number of groups, and even to strike the name Justin Bieber from our collective memory, that confidence in our collective ability to do all of those things is matched — overwhelmed — swallowed whole without even putting up much of a fight — by a near certainty that we won’t.
The United Church of Christ has sued the state of North Carolina because that state’s law against same-sex marriage forbids clergy to carry out a solely religious wedding, one that involves no state-issued marriage certificate. This is a case of the state government establishing a fundamentalist reading of scripture as a state religion, and this week the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in New York that essentially says that anyone who’s unhappy with sectarian prayer at city hall knows where the exit doors are located.
Republican-dominated state legislatures and Republican governors are still talking about President Obama creating “death panels” while they refuse to accept money to expand Medicare. They’re standing knee-deep in blood they’ve allowed to spill and calling Obama a killer, and the midterm elections look pretty good for the GOP.
The radical Islamist (versus Islamic) group Boko Haram is kidnapping girls and young women by the truckload to sell into slavery for the crime of pursuing an education, and the response is thus far all talk, no action. But then, we often let supposedly Christian parents go without much legal fuss if they choose prayer over medicine and let their children die of appendicitis or diabetes, so can our nation really judge Nigeria?
There’s a strong case to be made that the weak efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict have stemmed in part from the apocalyptic Christianity of people who are now or have in the past served at the highest levels of the United States government. The sorts of people who walk into a Unitarian Universalist church or a Sikh gurdwara or a Jewish or Islamic community center and start shooting find their access to guns virtually unlimited thanks to a large, well-funded lobbying body whose members think their dues are a mark of patriotism.
The supposed man — let’s call him just a male — who opened fire in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church a few years ago said he’d wanted to go to Washington, D.C., to kill liberals, but he had to settle for going to a local place whose membership probably voted liberal. That was in 2008. This spring, a Republican political candidate in Alabama used guns as a prop in campaign adds promising to “target” the so-called “Obamacare.”
We enjoy the small victories, take comfort in the small comforts, and that’s necessary to our sanity. But the people left behind on the Titanic got to hear some lovely chamber music, and so did the residents of at least one Nazi concentration camp.
I’m surrounded in person and online by people who are determined to make this a better world. And all I can do on some days is hope they will prove me wrong.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons