Tom Robotham’s Notebook
Cries and Whispers
By Tom Robotham
How big a problem is America’s racial divide? Not as big as it once was, obviously. In my lifetime, the United States has evolved from a nation that relegated black people to the back of the bus, to a country led a black president.
But this progress poses a problem that is in some ways more insidious.
Nothing in recent memory illustrates this more clearly than the eruptions of violence during College Beach Weekend at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront late last month, and the discussions that took place afterward. On the one hand, we had the mainstream media coverage, which scarcely mentioned race at all. But in many backyards, barrooms and coffee shops across Hampton Roads—and all over the Internet—race was front and center in the conversation.
Some of the Internet discussions—which undoubtedly echoed countless private conversations—were overtly racist. Indeed, when I did a Google search for news of the riots, one of the first links to pop up was for a website called Chimpmania.com—a site wholly devoted, according to its managers—to “nigger news and behavior.” Near the top of the site was the headline, “Nigger Utes Riot in Virginia Beach.” (The use of the word, “utes” was an allusion to Joe Pesci’s pronunciation of the word, “youths” in My Cousin Vinny.)
One reader commented: “I used to live there 20 years ago. It wasn’t that bad then, at the Oceanfront. But niggers were all over the place in Ocean View….Lots of niggers in the Tidewater Area. And we had rough neighborhoods, but you didn’t see too many on the beach. Why would niggers want to go to the beach, anyway? They can’t swim; especially in a rough ocean where big waves can knock them on their fat asses. They don’t need to sunbathe. They’re black enough as it is. I have not seen any niggers that like to play volleyball or build sand castles. They have no real interest in going to the beach. Except to drink, muh dik, and rob humans.”
Before I continue, let me say this: A lot of people will take issue with the fact that I’m even quoting something so offensive. My answer to that charge is that this sort of attitude is far more widespread than most people in “polite” society like to believe. I encounter it all the time—though not nearly as often as black people do, I’m sure. One student this semester—an 18-year-old black woman—told me that while she was walking along Hampton Boulevard toward campus recently, a group of young white men drove by in a car and yelled, “Why don’t you go back to Africa, nigger?!”
And therein lies the big problem with mainstream society today. We delude into thinking that if we ignore such racism it will just go away. That’s like having a roach infestation in your kitchen and simply turning off the lights in hopes that the problem will disappear. The only way to deal with this kind of hatred and ignorance is to bring it out in the open.
That said, I suspect that people who harbor this kind of racism in their shriveled hearts and minds represent a small minority in this country. A force to be reckoned with—but a fringe force, nevertheless.
And yet, if you pay attention to what people are saying about the riots, you’ll discover simmering racial animosities that are far more widespread. The top headline on the website libertynews.com read, “Media Covering Up Minority Riots…in Virginia Beach?”
“The Pilot Online, WAVY, local government and those reporting on the chaos,” the article stated, “refuse to point to the obvious critical fact that minorities were indeed responsible for the violent riots and shootings over the weekend. I don’t bring this up to suggest anything other than the fact that we need to get over a fear of reporting such information when it involves minorities….Political correctness has no place when it comes to crowd-powered violent riots, shootings and robberies such as this.”
I heard lots of similar comments from people at a local pub on the Monday evening following the riots. A pub, by the way, that tends to attract fairly open-minded people.
Curious to see how widespread this sentiment was, I posed the question on Facebook: “The local news media are carefully avoiding the subject of race in reports on the VA Beach riots,” I wrote. “Meanwhile, the Internet is abuzz with complaints about this—many of them overtly racist. Isn’t there some middle ground somewhere? Seems to me this represents our ongoing failure as a society to deal with racial tension. Anyone care to weigh in? How should the media report things like this?”
The sixty-plus comments I got reflected a cross-section of opinion.
“It seems like a great opportunity to open public dialogue on the subject,” wrote one Facebook friend. “The media have the power to lead a forum [and] hopefully, discover some truths on how to move forward together.”
Another friend was less optimistic. “Race and any or no discussion thereof,” he wrote, “is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t topic.”
Yet another person posted this: “I’ve been raising the very same issue over the last few days….And yet nobody wants to either agree out loud or pick a fight over it. One friend refers to the ‘racism … just under the layer of VB affluent skin.’ Only that racism isn’t so ‘under the layer’ any more. When I see and hear affluent young professionals…using racially offensive language and posting pictures of Somalian gangsters brandishing Uzis over headlines saying ‘Welcome to Atlantic Avenue!’ I see disintegrating social capital and a dismal future.”
Still another person wondered if “‘soft-core’” racism isn’t harder to deal with than out and out ‘hard-core’ racism. At least with the hard-core variety one knows where he stands.”
“My point exactly,” I responded.
There were other people, of course, who argued that race had nothing to do with this—that it was about young people getting drunk; about the inevitably of violence in a crowd that large; about class, not race.
It’s hard to answer any of these questions definitively because we don’t know much about the instigators.
“I was there, and I’m not really sure,” an African-American student of mine told me. “I heard it was a gang, or gangs,” she added. “I was really scared.”
Given the nature of gang culture, it seems likely that one or more gangs showed up with the intention of starting trouble and did so easily amidst thousands of drunk people. It’s also important to emphasize to that, yes, this was caused by “minorities”—in more than one sense of the word. A minority of the crowd.
Nevertheless, various videos I watched seemed to reflect racial tension even in parts of the crowd that weren’t overly violent. One video was especially telling: It showed two police officers attempting to handcuff two young black women who were resisting arrest, while a crowd of bystanders—almost all black—taunted the cops with accusations of “police brutality.”
The problem with this charge was, the cops remained remarkably and admirably calm during that particular incident. Whether there were other incidents of actual police brutality that weekend, I do not know. That—among many other facets of this story—is something the local media need to investigate.
At the same time we need to consider this: Does it not cheapen the phrase “police brutality” if people hurl it every time a white cop tries to arrest a black suspect? I think so. Police brutality remains a real problem in some quarters and cops who engage in it must be held accountable. But police also need to be free to arrest people who are posing a threat to public safety without fear of being harassed by bystanders.
In any event, we need to come to terms with the bigger picture here: There remains in this country widespread racial animosity in segments of the black community as well as the white community. And in some cases, as I believe the aforementioned video demonstrates, the animosity is misdirected; it is based on prejudice and knee-jerk reactions.
It is understandable, to be sure. When the early colonists imported the first African slaves, and when our Founding Fathers utterly failed to address the problem of slavery in the original Constitution, the seeds of American racism took root. Nor were they uprooted by the Civil War or even the Civil Rights Movement. America’s original sin haunts us to this day.
It is incumbent upon every American recognize this. Especially parents and teachers, our first lines of defense against the insidious disease of mindless prejudice. White people need to realize that racism—hardcore and soft—remains a pervasive problem in our society, and stop responding with the simple-minded reaction, “Just get over it.” At the same time, we need to recognize and acknowledge that the problem is also fueled by anti-white prejudice in some segments of the black community. While that is understandable, in a historical context, it is still wrong. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
In short, there is no question in my mind that racial tension played a big role here. How could it not, in a region and a society as a whole that remains deeply divided along racial lines? To pretend otherwise is the utmost expression of psychological and sociological denial.
There are no easy solutions here, but for starters, we desperately need more open and honest interracial dialogue in this country. Right now we just whisper about it. Have you ever noticed how white people, for example, will be telling a story and then suddenly descend into a whisper when they utter the word “black”—even when there aren’t any black people nearby? We’ve grown terrified of even uttering certain words, as if acknowledgement of race is somehow unacceptable.
And God forbid, white people and black people should talk openly to one another about their experiences and perceptions, with an aim toward actually understanding each other. It happens here and there, but rarely. Teachers of mixed-race classes tend to be terrified of the subject. The news media are even worse. They tiptoe around the subject. Not long ago, a local television program with a black host and an all-black panel took on the subject of the word “nigger.” And yet, the host wouldn’t allow the guests to utter the word. She opted instead for the euphemism, “the N-word.” Only one guest protested—“But we’re talking about the word nigger,” he said. “We need to be able to say it.” (A black friend of mine agrees with me wholeheartedly. “I hate when I hear the expression ‘the N-word,’” he’s told me on several occasions. “What are we on Romper Room?”)
It’s especially hard in this region, which consists of a core city that remains strikingly segregated, and a larger suburban community—Virginia Beach—that was founded on white flight. Beach officials have their heads in the sand of that historical fact. But it is a fact. It’s also a fact that history shapes the present.
As one of my Facebook friends pointed out, the mainstream media—especially—need to take a leadership role on this. Right now, they’re shamefully abdicating their responsibility. But then, so is society as a whole, black and white.
Community of Spirit
By Tom Robotham
I like certain months of the year better than others. I’ve always loved June, both because it is the month of my birth, and therefore brings a sense of renewal, and because it marks the end of the school year and promises a vast expanse of gloriously warm, sun-drenched leisure—an opportunity to play lots of tennis outdoors, ride horses through woodlands that are bursting with life and sit or play for hours on the beach in Ocracoke. I love, September, too, when school begins again and I enter the classroom with renewed enthusiasm for lighting students’ minds on fire.
But of all the 12 months of the year, April may be my favorite: April, when light begins to drive away oppressive darkness, and warmth and fragrance begin to fill the air; when the baseball season begins, stirring memories of childhood; when, locally, the Virginia Arts Festival brings a plethora of music and dance to delight the mind and soul.
April, in short, is a month that has the potential to awaken our poetic sensibilities—and it is, in fact, National Poetry Month.
I used to be ambivalent about these kinds of designations, as if those things we are supposed to celebrate—poetry, black history, or what have you—have no particular importance the other 11 months of the year. But I’ve had a change of heart, realizing that any excuse to shine a spotlight on important facets of our culture is welcome.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of poetry, not only because April is its designated month but because I’ve been trying as best I can to teach about 70 students (most of whom are not English majors) how to read and appreciate poems.
It’s always a formidable challenge because my students tend to be puzzled by poetry. It rarely yields its meanings immediately, after all, the way clear prose does, and they quickly grow impatient.
What to make of lines like these, for instance, from one of my favorite poems, “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens: “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, / And the green freedom of a cockatoo / Upon a rug mingle to dissipate / The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.”
Eventually I try to get them to consider what the “ancient sacrifice” might be, using the title of the poem to put the line in context. Before that, I ask them to engage their senses—to smell and taste the coffee and oranges, as they bask in the sunlight streaming through the window and take comfort in the enclosure of their favorite chair. But even before all that, I invite them to just savor the words and phrases, regardless of meaning. As I try to get this point across, I’m fond of quoting Frank McCourt, who writes at the beginning of Angela’s Ashes that when he was a young boy he used to love to read Shakespeare aloud; though he didn’t understand it, he recalls, simply uttering the words was like “having jewels in his mouth.”
Another of my favorite poems, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” by Amy Clampitt, exemplifies this quality beautifully. It begins: “Ground fog blurring the dogwood, / black haw, sweetgum, sassafras / and hickory along the waterways, / the branches overhead so full / of warblers on the move toward destinations…”
Again, aside from the wonderfully vivid imagery that will be familiar to anyone who’s contemplated the beauty of Virginia’s natural landscape, I love this poem because I love simply saying those words together—“black haw, sweetgum, sassafras…”—which through their mere sounds and sensuality seem to share the juices of life of the things they name.
But of course poetry is more than sound and sensation on the tongue. It is a means of expressing the whole range of human experience—our desires and yearnings, our losses and laments, our righteous indignation or our letting go—in all of its mystery and contradiction. In other words, poetry has a power that straightforward prose often lacks.
Consider, for example, my favorite poem by E.E. Cummings, which was used to brilliant effect in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters:
Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond / any experience, your eyes have their silence: / in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, /or which i cannot touch because they are too near // your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers, /you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens / (touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose // or if your wish be to close me, i and / my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly, / as when the heart of this flower imagines / the snow carefully everywhere descending; // nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals / the power of your intense fragility: whose texture /compels me with the color of its countries, / rendering death and forever with each breathing // (i do not know what it is about you that closes / and opens; only something in me understands / the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses) / nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”
I love poems about every conceivable subject: Wilfred Owens’ piercing reflections on the agonies of World War I; Ted Hughes’ meditations on the natural world; Keats’ ecstatic odes about truth and beauty. But I suppose I’m partial above all, as many people are, to poems about love, since love in all its varieties is the most complex, intense and elusive of human emotions.
My favorite poem by Pablo Neruda, for instance, speaks to both the pain and possible transcendence of loving someone “as the plant that never blooms / but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers; / thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, / risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.”
In many of his other poems, Neruda expresses the quality of erotic love better than anyone. “Your whole body holds / a stemmed glass or gentle sweetness destined for me,” he writes in the opening of his poem “The Potter.” “….Your knees, your breast, / your waist, / are missing in me, / like in the hollow / of a thirsting earth / where they relinquished / a form / and together / we are complete like one single river, / like one single grain of sand.”
When all is said and done, however, I always return to the poems of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Whether dwelling in sadness or joy, I am comforted by his wise reminder of the infinitude of love in the world, or at least the possibility of love, beyond the ego’s seeming insatiability. And so, I’ll leave you with these lines, which speak not only to the availability of such love but to the call of springtime and the promise of poetry: “Join the community of spirit. / Join it and feel the delight / of walking in the noisy street, / and being the noise. // Drink all your passion, / and be a disgrace. // Close both eyes / to see with the other eye. / Open your hands, / if you want to be held. // Sit down in this circle. // …. Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. / Live in silence. // Flow down and down in always / widening rings of being.”
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a City
By Tom Robotham
I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms.
~ Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’
This January marked my 22nd year as a resident of Norfolk. During those two decades, a lot has changed in my personal life. I’ve watched my two children grow up; I’ve owned and left two houses; I’ve been through a divorce, and I’ve formed meaningful relationships with dozens of people, many of whom have subsequently moved on to other places.
And yet, in contrast to all that change, it doesn’t seem to me that Norfolk itself has changed very much at all. Oh sure, you can point to a number of specific developments: downtown development; the addition of a light-rail line; the transformation of the ODU campus. But in spite of all this, Norfolk still feels, by and large, like the sleepy town to which I moved in 1991.
Reflecting on this recently, I got to thinking about Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem about the importance of perspective.
Perspective, it seems to me, is everything. It shapes our moods, our experiences, our philosophy of life and our very sense of identity. It all depends on focus. When I contemplate the dissolution of relationships, for example, I try to remind myself that I have the choice to grieve the loss or dwell in gratitude for good times. But ultimately, I’ve concluded, it is unwise to choose one or the other. To fully understand anything, we must see it from multiple perspectives.
And so it is with this city, my adopted home.
I. At times Norfolk seems more than sleepy; it strikes me as downright catatonic. All the talk of art districts or other initiatives to attract the grossly misunderstood “creative class” is not going to change that. Indeed, in spite of the much-celebrated downtown “renaissance,” the energy level on lower Granby Street is barely a notch or two above what it was two decades ago, when it was largely a ghost town. That’s not my perspective alone. Some years ago, at the very height of the so-called “renaissance” of downtown Norfolk, I was a guest on a radio program of a talk show host who was visiting from New York City. It was a Tuesday morning in early spring. At one point on the show, he asked me whether it was a local holiday of some sort. I told him it was not. “Oh,” he said. “I was just curious because earlier I took a walk and saw hardly anyone on the street.” Little has changed in that regard.
II. Little has changed, I believe, because our city’s leaders have never wanted Norfolk to become a bustling city. They want some of the benefits urban vitality—a variety of businesses and better mass transit, for example—but also want it to retain the highly sanitized character of a suburb. And there is, to my mind, an upside to this. It is what attracted to me to Norfolk in the first place: the relaxed atmosphere and the ease of getting around. Norfolk will never become a bustling center of creative vitality, but it remains a great place to raise a family.
III. I don’t mean to suggest that Norfolk is utterly lacking in creative vitality. Only that the creative energy comes in isolated and short-lived seasonal bursts: the Virginia Arts Festival, the Stockley Gardens Art Show and the Sea Level Singer-Songwriter Festival, for example. All of these things are wonderful. There’s no shortage of things to do here. It’s just that the city lacks a kind of connective cultural tissue because of its largely suburban character and mindset.
IV. Perhaps our greatest asset is Old Dominion University. OK, I’m a bit biased in this regard because I teach there. But the value of ODU should not be underestimated. In addition to pursuing its core mission of educating nearly 25,000 students at any given time, it provides a cultural enclave for the community, with its University Village, library and other facilities open to the general public. It also attracts many international students, who bring a cosmopolitan flavor to the city and thus offset the parochial mind set of the old-Norfolk elite.
V. The vast military presence does the same thing, not only because people stationed here have lived all over the world, but because it attracts visiting military personnel from other countries. A case in point: One night at my favorite pub—The Taphouse Grill in Ghent—I struck up a conversation with a group of French Marines who were here on some kind of training exercise. My college French largely failed me, and most of them spoke little English, but we had fun trying to converse, and the experience reminded me that this area does have an international flavor.
VI. That said, the military presence has a twofold downside. First, Norfolk is far too dependent upon the military economically. Second, it secures our national reputation as a “Navy town.” Justifiably or not, this image often overshadows the area’s cultural offerings.
VII. Another characteristic that undermines cultural progress is Norfolk’s lingering racial divide. Norfolk’s leaders like to pretend that there’s racial harmony in this city, but let’s face it: The city remains largely segregated. I had thought that Old Dominion University offset this, but a student of mine told me recently that the legacy of racial segregation remains evident even on campus, particularly in the student center. This is not exclusive to Norfolk, of course. But vestiges of the Old South remain strong here. About seven years ago, for example, a neighbor of mind sold a house in West Ghent to a black couple. Another neighbor got in his face about that, saying, “This is West Ghent. We don’t sell houses to those people.” Thus, the West side of Norfolk remains largely white, while the east side remains a territory that many whites fear. I know some fairly liberal-minded people, in fact, who are afraid to visit the Attucks Theater for fear of being mugged. Their fears are largely unjustified, but the effect of these attitudes is very evident.
VIII. Racial prejudice—euphemistically known as fear of the “inner city”—is, of course what gave rise historically to the city of Virginia Beach and the fragmentation of our region. And that’s a problem. Let’s face it: Virginia Beach is a “city” in name only. In reality, it is a vast and sprawling suburb that, for better or worse, secures this area’s largely suburban mindset.
IX. Not that Virginia Beach is utterly lacking in sites of interest. There are some nice nightspots at the Oceanfront, and two superb small music venues that come to mind: The Jewish Mother at Hilltop and Havana Nights Jazz Club at Town Center. But I don’t visit these places nearly as often as I would like because if I’m going to go out and have a few drinks I’d rather be closer to home. A serviceable mass-transit system would help, but that is at least another generation away, if indeed it ever emerges at all.
X. It should be clear enough why this is so: Traffic, as I said during a recent roundtable discussion, the transcript of which was published in this magazine, simply isn’t bad enough to heighten demand for better mass transit. And that, of course, has its upside. Having grown up in the greater metropolitan area of New York, where traffic can be murderous, I continue to enjoy the ease with which I can drive across the region.
XI. Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed this area’s opportunities for outdoor recreation, whether in the form of a canoe trip on the Lafayette River, a visit to the beach, or a stroll through Norfolk’s Botanical Gardens.
XII. I also enjoy Norfolk’s proximity to other places of interest: The Outer Banks, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Washington D.C., among them. Moreover, Norfolk’s airport, while limited, is a relatively pleasant place, compared with, say, the oppressive intensity of Newark Airport.
XIII. In short, there are a lot of ways to look at Norfolk and its surroundings, and many of them are quite lovely. But its image problems will continue to hold it back. In addition to the aforementioned reputation as a “Navy” town, it remains too weak to earn respect from the residents as the urban heart of the region. As such, it is just a piece of something called “Hampton Roads,” a region with a ridiculous name and without a clear identity.
The Tragedy Continues
By Tom Robotham
Jesus Christ…saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there…But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the wake of my last column in this space (“An American Tragedy, January 2013), I had planned on writing something a little more light-hearted: a celebration of the local music scene, perhaps, in recognition of the VEER music awards, or an essay about the pleasures of good beer. But after reading an article in The New York Times last week, I feel compelled to write about the Newtown massacre yet again—and our massive failure to learn any lessons from it.
According to the article, a Lutheran pastor—The Rev. Rob Morris—was reprimanded by the leader of his denomination for participating in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown. It seems that the denomination has a prohibition against interfaith worship because such activities might appear to be an endorsement of “false” religions.
In all fairness to Lutherans with more open minds and hearts, I should point out that this particular pastor is a member of something called the Missouri Synod, a 2.3 million member church that is more rigid than the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that this kind of thinking is limited to a few fringe groups. Indeed, I sometimes get the feeling that our country is overrun by people who call themselves “Christians” but seem to be entirely unfamiliar with the Gospels.
A case in point: Some years ago when I was more involved with the Episcopal Church than I am now, I went to a bishop’s conference. During a break, I was chatting with someone from another church in Norfolk. “It’s our job to bring people into the fold,” he remarked. “After all, Jesus said there were two great commandments: Love God, and go out and preach the gospel.”
Talk about a misquote! In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind,” he replies. “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The irony is that the most strident evangelicals rarely quote the Gospels. Instead, they go directly to the epistles of Paul, which do, in many respects, put judgment before love. That, in fact, is precisely what the Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Missouri Synod, did in his open letter asking the Rev. Morris to apologize for participating in the interfaith service. Citing Romans 16:17, he asserted that Morris’ participation “violated the limits set by Scripture regarding joint worship.”
This sort of trivial thinking has been going on in churches for a long time, of course. When Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to the senior class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838, he argued that “historical Christianity” has largely missed the point. Many churches, he said, have “fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal…[and] the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every [person] to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love….The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions, which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking.”
Emerson went on to observe that the “idioms of [Jesus’] language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth. Churches are not built on his principles,” he added, “but on his tropes.”
He might, as I’ve said, added that churches are not even built on Jesus’ tropes, but on Paul’s.
That, at any rate, is my reading of the Bible and historical Christianity. A testament to the genius of our Founding Fathers, of course, is the fact that they wrote into the Bill of Rights a clause embracing the idea that each and every man, woman and child in America has the inalienable right to believe whatever he or she pleases. Though I find the Rev. Harrison’s position to be a gross distortion of the spirit of the Gospels, I would fight for his right to live in accordance with his own beliefs. The Rev. Morris as well. In his own defense, he argued that before the interfaith service he spent hours educating his parishioners about the differences between Lutheran teachings and “the teachings of false religions such as Islam…” [Emphasis added].
Yes, it is their right to believe what they please. And it is their right, in accordance with the First Amendment, to publicly denigrate other religions. But I see no contradiction in defending freedom of speech while still finding some expressions of belief utterly sad.
What is it about human nature that causes so many people to feel so insecure in their beliefs that they must put other people down in order to feel elevated themselves? Why isn’t the Gospels’ message of unconditional love enough?
Surely, in this dark hour of our nation’s history, we need such love more than ever. To paraphrase Emerson, is the figure of Jesus really more important than his message? Does it really matter whether agape—as the ancient Greeks called love of humankind—comes from the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha or Muhammad, or simply from the instincts of the human heart?
Over the course of my life I have drawn on all of the great world religions in an ongoing effort to find some glimmer of wisdom. For me, it is an ongoing struggle that cannot be resolved by some simplistic acceptance of creeds of any kind. And yet, to this day, I continue to find great personal value in the Anglican ritual. All the while, I have known many self-proclaimed atheists who are far more Christ-like than I—far more generous with their time and resources in their efforts to help the less fortunate, for example. And perhaps far more loving.
That is my cross to bear. And with this in mind, it occurs to me that I might greet the Rev. Harrisons of the world with more tolerance and love than I am sometimes capable of doing. Perhaps in time I will be able to do so. But at the moment, such apostles of divisiveness just leave me feeling sad, and despairing for the future of our nation and our world.