A troubling trend that I have been noticing as the days go by is the punishment of individuals for the sake of a collective or institutional evil. When we are confronted with a person who espouses or represents an ideology we don’t like, that person often ends up on the receiving end of our (often malicious) disapproval. This is not a justifiable practice, as it is attacking symptoms rather than causes. Furthermore, we are unable to actually affect change when we go into “attack mode.” When one person attacks, the other defends, and a beneficial exchange is rendered all but impossible.
During and after the Vietnam Conflict, military service members were treated like garbage due to strong anti-war sentiments that surged through the American public. Nowadays, due in part to our post-Vietnam guilt, service members are at the very least paid vast amounts of positive lip service regarding the selfless deeds they perform for the sake of our nation’s freedom. Both of these instances forge an unhealthy connection between what is acceptable and unacceptable.
Military service members join the armed services out of a patriotic desire to make a positive difference for their country, as well as to provide for themselves and their families. Such intentions, however, are manipulated when our fellow citizens are inevitably wielded as extensions of the United States government and its various economic and political interests. Both of these statements are true and merit consideration. The soldier cannot and should not be blamed for the misuse of their devotion, and the Powers that Be cannot and should not be sanctified by the sacrifices of others as they rest on capitol hill.
Another example is seen in the world of law enforcement. Let’s say an officer pulls over a person who becomes hostile. Perhaps it comes in the form of a taunt, putting hands out the window and telling the officer not to shoot before an interaction has even begun. Maybe it comes in the form of shouting obscenities, reminding the officer that his salary is paid by the offender’s taxes. In other more extreme instances, officers have been shot in their cars while on break or ambushed on domestic violence calls.
In each of these interactions, the individual officer is seen as a representative of all that is wrong in law enforcement, even though that officer may have never abused the badge. The civil servant becomes the recipient of all the rage and frustration caused by a problem of systemic proportions, and this is as grave an injustice as the inequitable treatment of people of color in the American justice system.
These are two broader examples of something that can happen anywhere at any time. A prisoner can become the means by which a corrections officer violently vents his frustrations. An undocumented Mexican immigrant becomes the face of all that is economically and socially wrong in the eyes of Americans who need someone to blame for a world that scares them. Certain friends, family members, and even strangers become incarnations of racism, sexism, and homophobia to be scolded, maligned, and used to show how virtuous “we the enlightened” are by comparison.
Why is this wrong?
It changes absolutely nothing.
While we are busy laying into one another, the power structures and ideologies that affect us remain strong. Whether it’s killing a terrorist, antagonizing a soldier or police officer, racially profiling an individual, or swearing at loved ones or strangers, the lesson remains the same: violence of any kind toward individuals cannot undo collective or institutional evils. If anything, those evils are strengthened and rooted deeper into our world.
So what is the answer?
I am merely one human being, and I cannot prescribe a foolproof, universal cure for so diverse and widespread a problem. What I can offer is some “everyday wisdom” that any person can apply should they choose to do so. I believe Saint Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 16:14.
“Let all that you do be done in love.”
It is imperative that we take a stand for all that is decent, kind, inclusive, beautiful, generous, and equitable. We should stand against violence, bigotry, fear-mongering, greed, oppression, and hate. All of this, however, can and must be done with love.
Love can be firm and maintain boundaries. Love can call out that which is unacceptable or problematic. What’s more, love can do these things without contributing to the very negativity and violence we are trying to resist!
If we are driven by anger, fear, or hatred, no matter how justified we may feel it to be, our actions will only feed the world’s evils. Yes, we might “get some bad guys” here and there, and we might feel better, but none of that actually reduces the amount of violence and vitriol present in the world. We are just more comfortable with these negative forces because they exist in the name of our cause.
With love, however, we must take responsibility for our feelings. We must process them in a healthy way and recognize that the person in front of us matters. Just as we are shaped by our experiences, so are all other people, and this understanding should inform our actions. This allows us to be more compassionate, more loving, even in the midst of conflict. We can still stand in our truth, but instead of attacking the other, we can connect with them, putting a kind heart and face to their opposition (and our own).
Will this always be well-received? Or will it always end in some beatific vision of reconciliation? Of course not. Yet we cannot attempt to control how others respond to us. All we can do is make sure we respond in a way that best represents our own ideals, not allowing the darkness of the world to determine how we behave.
Imagine a world in which we voted, debated, donated, invested, legislated, and reformed with love in our heart. Imagine a world in which we were able to recognize the humanity in even our worst enemy, choosing to interact on that basis rather than on the basis of our animosity. Imagine a world in which the Powers that Be are starved of our fear and hatred, rendered powerless by our love for one another.
This is an idealistic vision, but pursuing it can lead to very real transformation in this world if we would only be willing to try.
Peace be with you!