I haven’t slept well since those days of August 11-12. As one who daily gives attention to the events and cycles of life in the world, glorying in the good news and bemoaning the bad, I have felt, verily, embodied in my belly the national anxiety stirred by the conflagration in Charlottesville fomented by torch-bearing, chant-shouting, anti-Semitism-and-racism-live-streaming demonstrators. The more I think and feel and pray about Charlottesville, the more I behold a microcosmic expression, indeed, a tragic realization of a distinctly American conversation that we, as a nation, are not engaging.
It is a conversation, yes, about race and religion, history and heritage, nationalism and immigration, yet bigger. It is a conversation, I think, I feel about our national identity. Who are we?
It’s the sort of question that arises for us as a nation founded on an ideal, indeed, an idea of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” at pressing historical moments, as, I believe, exist today, when it is clear that all of us are not reading from or reciting lines from the same proverbial page nor with a common understanding of the meaning of the words.
And here’s my fear. We won’t have the conversation.
For a number of reasons.
Chief among them, I do not believe that Donald Trump, as President of the United States, occupying that iconic position and, even more, symbol of national leadership and unity, has expressed a desire or exhibited the disposition to call the American people, all of the American people to the table of mutual and respectful dialogue.
An equally chief, no, perhaps the chiefest reason is what I consider our profoundly polarized national religious and political climate; the bitter fruit of seeds planted and nurtured long before President Trump took office. We live in a time of fleet retreat and determined retrenchment behind the impenetrable walls of our differing, often competing and, at times, conflicting perspectives. A time where the act of communal converse in which we intentionally seek out other points of view in the quest for truth has become an unpracticed, unpleasant, even unknown art.
In this, I believe that we, as a nation, have forgotten that whenever we, whether as individual persons or families, communities or congregations, regions or parties talk about what we believe, our core values, our fundamental truths, we, by necessity, must use words, which, at best, are symbols that point to what is inarticulable in its fullness. In a real sense, then, we always only point at what we believe, value, and hold true.
In this, there is an inherent epistemological (having to do with our ways of knowing) and existential (having to do with our way of living, being) danger. That we are tempted and oft blindly fall prey into the pit of temptation to invest too much power or authority in the words, even the actions or rituals that we design to point to our truths. The danger is in thinking, believing that the word, action, or ritual is the truth itself. That’s when we make difference dangerous. That’s when difference is no longer a lens through which we might behold a vision of greater truth, but only the stuff of which swords and spears are made. That’s when we won’t, can’t talk with one another.
And when that happens, indeed, I believe, as it hath happened, then our petitions and intercessions for America enshrined in one of our beloved national songs – praying God “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” and “crown thy good with brotherhood form sea to shining sea” – won’t, can’t happen.
 Words by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)