The Rocky Path to Unity

I simply did not understand her position—that being asked to sing a song as one, in unity, was a reason for more divisiveness.

A woman I know, who is Jewish, said she watched the Biden inauguration only to the point where Garth Brooks asked all present to join with him in singing Amazing Grace.  She was offended, she said, by being asked to sing a Christian song.

Now, I, personally, do not think of Amazing Grace as being an overtly Christian song.  It was sung regularly at services held by the interdenominational church that I attended for many years, although they did, in fact, change just a few of the words.  Our teaching being that, as children of the Divine, we must never speak badly of ourselves, the word “wretch” became “soul”; grace, we sang, taught our hearts to soar, not fear. Our congregation included members from faiths as diverse as Buddhist and Pagan, yet we all sang Amazing Grace together, raising our voices as one.  It was, to us, to me, a phoenix song; a song of rising from the ashes to experience blessings and mercy; of learning that we could trust, believing we were loved.

But, putting that heartwarming memory entirely aside, I genuinely could not comprehend her position: that being asked to sing a song as one, in unity, was a reason for more divisiveness.

Had I been asked to join in a Hindu or Buddhist chant, a Native American or Pagan invocation, a traditional Jewish song, or the lilting beauty of an old Black spiritual, one perhaps written over a century before to lift spirits caught in the squalid darkness of slavery—had I been asked to join in any of these, I would have done so gladly; been overjoyed to do so, in fact, for that would have represented to me the true unity of people of all faiths, all colors—all the glorious variety of humanity that makes up the diverse population of America.  I would have happily sung The Marseillaise or Garibaldi’s Hymn or We Shall Overcome. In a pre-pandemic world, I would have reached to join hands with the people beside me and chanted or prayed or sung with gladness.

Already dismayed by her remarks, I later read that many in American Indigenous communities were offended by hearing JLo sing This Land is Your Land. Again, I shook my head. Despite my mother’s oft-repeated claims, DNA testing has proved that I bear not a single drop of Native American blood in my veins, and I have no comprehension of what it must feel to have had one’s home and culture and language and spirituality wantonly stolen; to have been crushed beneath the heels of one’s oppressors.  Yet I’ve read scholarly articles explaining that Native American tribes waged war with one another for, yes, for land, for cultural and religious differences, for slaves and resources, long before the first Europeans ever dreamed of setting foot on these shores.  Humans are, sadly, warlike beings. Stealing land from one another has gone on for all the millennia of our existence. So a song written as an indignant retort to God Bless America hardly qualifies as an intended irritant to the Indigenous community, despite that it was taken that way.

That is, I think, the point I am struggling so hard to make: I am so weary of everyone taking offense to everything!  I am so tired of the lack of tolerance; of the hardened shells people continually build around themselves, claiming that inclusiveness means only that their perspective, their beliefs, be recognized. That theirs is the important viewpoint.  That everyone must not just listen, but bend, to their preference.

Why cannot “Merry Christmas!” be answered with, “Happy Festivus!” instead of a glare and a growl? Why cannot someone simply answer, “Well, I don’t celebrate, being Jewish, but I know you mean that kindly, so thank you.”  Why can we not consider the friendly intent, and respond in fashion? Why cannot we sip the nectar from the flower, and avoid the bee sting  within?

Unity, pleaded both our new President and the performers at his inauguration ceremony. Raise up your voices and sing together.  Put aside our differences and invoke tolerance, consideration, and courtesy. 

“Can we all just get along?” Rodney King asked in 1992.  And now, 29 years later, I fear the sad answer is, “No, Rodney.  No, it seems we can’t.”  Or won’t. Or don’t really want to do so.

But I will go on, attempting to instill my own behavior with tolerance, and understanding, and acceptance, because, as I was taught in childhood, one must set the example by one’s own life. Because it is the right thing to do.  Because the only way forth to unity is to set aside our propensity to hold tightly to our differences and wounded feelings, and accept, and even glory in, our common humanity.

Wearily, though, I know that someone will take offense, if not at this entire essay, to some point made within it.   They will respond with indignation or bitter anger, even threats, to my words.  Nevertheless, I retract nothing.  After all, (to paraphrase yet another song) I can’t please everyone, so I may as well please myself.

If you liked, rather than hated this essay (!), you might also enjoy “Roses of the Soul”, which you can find in the Archives from December 16, 2017.

Grief and Prejudice

A while ago I sat with an acquaintance, a devout Christian, discussing a mutual friend who was grieving the loss of a loved one. Our conversation centered on whether or not the individual’s grief had exceeded the bounds of normal mourning and become debilitating.

I’d held this same discussion only a few days earlier with another acquaintance, one who is Jewish. During that conversation, my Jewish friend had described to me her faith’s designated period of mourning, which, as she explained it, was far longer and more ceremonial than what most Western society considers usual.  As I listened to her explanation, I realized that the Jewish customs of mourning genuinely ministered to the survivors.

I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes. How wise to accept mourning, even deep and long-lived grieving, as necessary and healthful, and to provide ceremony and time for its passage! Why had I never encountered this civilized concept before?  My friend’s explanation of Jewish mourning rituals forced me to acknowledge that that we as a society were perhaps not doing our loved ones any favor by allowing them only a brief interval of grieving before insisting that they now “get over it”…“get back to normal”…”take an antidepressant med”…“stay busy to take your mind off it”.

During the second conversation about grief, this time with my Christian acquaintance, I mentioned this (to me) enlightened view of the grieving process. Nodding in response to a comment made by my acquaintance, I explained, “Well, a Jewish friend told me that in her faith…”  And although I know that I continued my explanation intelligently and comprehensively, I cannot now recall anything of what I said from that point forward in the conversation, because I found myself focused on only one thing: the expression of utter distaste that flitted across my Christian friend’s face the moment I said the word “Jewish”.  It was there and gone in an instant, but it was unmistakably there: the grimace of aversion the moment I said the word, “Jewish”.

I’m sure my own eyes must have widened in shock at response to what my brain had so clearly registered. Sitting before me was a sophisticated, intelligent, 21st century individual, one whom I was sure that, if charged with prejudice against Jews, would have vehemently denied it.  And yet a single expression unmistakably crossing a face had just clearly said otherwise.

Prejudice knows no sanity. The spiritual leader to whom my Christian acquaintance declares allegiance was born, raised, and lived a Jew. His name was not actually Jesus Christ; Jesus is a Greek rendering of his name, combined with a Greek title.  His Jewish name was probably Yeshua Ben Yosef.  And he, Yeshua, is the spiritual ancestor from whom all Christian faiths claim descent.  Yet more than 70 years after the horror of the Nazi death camps, I witnessed a Christian’s face betray utter distaste at the thought of a modern Jew.

As I think of it now, remembering, I am no longer shocked, although perhaps even more dismayed. Does prejudice never die?  Do the old hatreds never end?

I began the conversation with my Christian acquaintance discussing the topic of grief. And I ended it grieving — grieving the unbounded, undying continuation of hate and ignorance and prejudice.