Hearts at Half-Mast

July 9, 2016

The flags in the United States are flying at half-mast again. We are in heartbreaking times. Returning home from a tearful vigil in St. Paul for Philando Castile the other night, I pulled out an old tattered collection of sermons by Martin Luther King, Jr. and read until my eyes were as heavy as my heart.

We must be tough-minded, King said, and tender-hearted at the same time. Both, and. Both clear-sighted and compassionate. Both critical and vulnerable. One of our greatest human capacities, he pointed out, is to hold two opposites at once, letting ourselves become conductors of something new.

Of course, this is also one of the hardest human gifts to practice in violent and challenging times. Can we keep our eyes and minds open to the hard truths of systemic racism now live-streaming and replaying while also baring our hearts to the pain and suffering of these truths — both recent and centuries old? Can we keep our fears (even the justifiable ones) from hardening our hearts and closing our minds and instead transform our grief and anger into justice-seeking, love-guided action?

In another sermon, King said, “[F]ear involves the misuse of the imagination.”

Today, I invite you to put your imagination to better use. To engage your tough-minded, critical-thinking, truth-speaking reason in close partnership with your tender-hearted, grief-stricken, love-pulsing compassion. And with these two capacities running full-tilt together, imagine a new way.

Imagine. Imagine if we (citizens and police) spent as much time in de-escalation training as we do in target practice. Imagine if we humans developed tools and technology for spreading love as effectively as automatic rifles deliver bullets. Imagine a plaza like the one in Managua where decades ago people piled their weapons high and then cemented them in place, burying them irretrievably where all can see and remember but not use them. Imagine, if every adult and child were taught the history of systemic racism and the principles of nonviolence as readily as we in the U.S. are taught the history of colonization and the rules of football. Imagine if we pledged allegiance to one another — across declared differences in race, religion, gender, ability, age, orientation, and origin. Imagine saying every day with your hand on your heart, “I pledge allegiance to you and you and you, my neighbors and partners in life; I pledge allegiance to us.” Imagine a vocabulary of loyalty entirely made of “us” and without the concept of “them.”

Adrienne Rich once called What if . . . ? “the first revolutionary question the dying forces don’t know how to ask.” Will you join me in asking that question, engaging our human imagination in a project not dictated by fear? You don’t have to be a revolutionary, or a writer, or an artist or anyone other than who you are to ask this question and engage your imagination in answering it. You can do it anywhere and anytime, with or without pen in hand. Just ask yourself, what is the world that you long for? What is the peace that you crave? What is the future you wish to bequeath to tomorrow’s children?

Then, whenever you are ready, begin with the words, “What if….” and follow wherever they lead.

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