Hope in our Time

My Turn                                                                                                                            March 2, 2016  Concord Monitor

Daily print and electronic reports are filled with disheartening news. This past week these reports invaded conversations I had over dinner, over a cup of coffee at the True Brew Barista, on conference calls, and at meetings. We inevitably found ourselves mired in despair over the state of affairs at home and abroad. There are stalemates in Congress. Our country is involved in chaos in the Middle East. The danger of terrorist attacks invades our daily lives. There was a tangle with the Pope over the ethics of wall-building verses bridge-building. Our economy is not supporting the wellbeing of the middle class. The frontrunner in the Republican primary process is a candidate proven to speak misinformation approximately 75% of the time. The Democratic Party options are framed as choosing between practical responses to the issues of the day or ethical visions and goals that may be laudable but unrealistic aspirations.

In this primary season, many of these problems have been laid at the feet of our President and Congress. We are being told that the “American people” want a change. The Executive and Congress are stalemated on almost any issue. Bills are proposed and others stalled based upon pledges of non-cooperation with the Executive Branch. Many members of Congress are clear that their recalcitrance is based upon personal antipathy toward President Obama. The latest expressions of non-cooperation include declarations to refuse to participate in the process of nominating a Supreme Court Justice or considering the merits of closing Guantanamo Prison. Other issues dividing us include the Iran nuclear agreement, Mexican Border Reform, and gun regulations. Add to these denials of human induced climate change, acceptance of huge amounts of money for campaign financing, and introducing bills into Congress written by lobbyists that favor big business and the wealthy. The result is a formula for failure.

However, even amidst protests of this troubling state of affairs, the same conduct we witness in the halls of our Senate and House of Representatives is being magnified in the daily debates and commercials in the Republican Presidential campaign. Those who identify themselves as “outsiders,” free from the influence of the vagaries of Congress, are choosing an even lower road littered with antics of name-calling, crude imagery, interruptions and yelling at each other and at anyone else who dares to challenge them. It seems obvious that when a candidate resorts to personal attacks on rivals it demonstrates a weakness in the candidate’s position and/or the inability to communicate effectively. The default position is to declare, “Never mind the issues, my opponent is a bad person and a loser, I’m a good person, a winner!” Focusing on winning trumps any process toward understanding and problem solving. This approach is hardly a formula for effective change.

Chris Christie has suggested, “There is no better fighter than Donald Trump.” Evidently the “better fighter” is the one who has perfected the technique of personal attacks on critics and the demonization of whole groups and categories of people. Particularly in the Republican primary contest, some candidates are learning to mimic the “fighter” rather than seeking to be an effective debater. Courtesy, consideration, understanding, and empathy are relegated to weakness and being “politically correct.” It is interesting that respect and love of neighbor wears this derogatory label. A potential president who is the best “fighter,” skilled in hurting and destroying any who are different or who disagree, is hardly fit to demonstrate the way to “make America great again.”

However, there is already a great America buried beneath all of this tough simplistic talk of building an America in the image of bombastic bravado. Burdened by the despair of my friends and colleagues, I’ve looked for respite by recalling the America I’ve experienced over the years, not only in New England but also in the Mid-West, the west coast, and the south. Here in New Hampshire I know and live with people who support our refugee community, work with the homeless, advocate for prison reform, attend churches open and affirming to GBLT folks, collect food for the hungry, volunteer to teach English as a second language, organize to end racism, raise consciousness for establishing a living wage for all workers, collect money for disaster relief around the world, and serve as volunteers in international settings.

When I was in the military, training in Texas, two of my Yankee friends and myself were regularly invited into homes for Sunday dinner after church. They remained hospitable even when we laughed at the name of one of their grocery store chains: “Piggly Wiggly.” Living in a barracks at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC I experienced for the first time the contrast of my New England cultural upbringing with the culture of men from the African American community. Together we figured it out.   When I lived as a student in the San Francisco Bay area, I experienced a community of extreme diversity, where people argued and demonstrated with great energy and then ate together at the same table and mingled during intermission at a symphony concert. In the Mid-West I lived with people who were troubled by my love for controversial debates. However, they put up with me and at the same time taught me the values of compromise and nurturing those in distress. In South Dakota I learned a new expression of hospitality. “Stop by our home for a visit” meant come by unannounced on any Sunday afternoon – in contrast to the New England way of going home and anticipating an invitation with a specific date and time.

This is the greatness of the America I’ve experienced. It gives me hope in this time of disconnect, common among many people. I’ve been reminded there are countless other people across our country demonstrating what it means to be a neighbor: learning about, recognizing, and celebrating the diversities of cultures and ethnicities among us. It’s easy to devalue one another. It takes courage and effort to risk changing ourselves prompted by relationships with others. However, as we give voice to our changes, our government and country will be influenced to change. This is what it means to be strong. This is what it means to be a real winner.

Rev. John Buttrick