We live in a society that is basically at war with itself. People speak with incredible contempt about – depending on their views – the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign born, the president, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it’s applied to our fellow citizens.—Sebastian Unger, Tribes
And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.—Matthew 10:36
To love our enemy is impossible. The moment we understand our enemy, we feel compassion towards him/her, and he/she is no longer our enemy.—Thich Nhat Hanh
Once there was a nation, created by an idea: that all people are equal and have rights that cannot be taken away by government. It began haltingly, with some people more equal than others, mostly white men who owned title to land. Over two and a half centuries, the concept of equality was slowly and imperfectly expanded: first to former male slaves, and then to women. But that equality was not all there was: there were religious and racial minorities, sexual and gender minorities, each of which was, in ways both large and small, not equal to everyone else. Equality finally came to them, as well. We called that nation America.
The problem with having a nation created by an idea, rather than the things that usually create nations, namely, language, religion, and ethnicity, is that it can be undermined by ideas as well. There have been times in this nation when we almost fell apart. In the early 1830’s, following Vice-President John Calhoun’s incitement of Southern states to “nullify” federal laws pertaining to tariffs and international trade, civil war was barely averted. In 1861, after years of social ferment around the legality and morality of an economy based on human trafficking, war finally came. The idea of America nearly died.
Somehow, as if by a miracle, the idea did not die, though it was grievously wounded. Every time the idea of equality was expanded, first through voting rights, then through access to equal protection under the law, new friends were made, but so were enemies. They were not across a national border, as enemies traditionally were, but across the street, or across the dinner table. The divisions grew stark and each side was more and more convinced that that the other side was not just wrong, but morally depraved.
There are now two prevailing sets of ideas pushing against each other in the Nation of the Idea, two narratives competing for the American soul. Unless we come to understand why each side feels aggrieved by the other, unless we are willing to approach the enemies in our own household with honesty, humility and compassion, the American idea will not endure.
It is difficult to listen to someone nullify what you believe to be true. It is risky to speak truth in love and respect. You might be rebuffed. The division may grow deeper. Or, it may be healed, at least enough that you and your enemy can go on, with a new found understanding of each other. It does not require that you change your mind.
It requires that you change your heart.