The following reflection was originally shared with my
Merton and Me email list on October 31, 2022.
As we suddenly find ourselves leaping into the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, as other religious and cultural traditions are celebrated within and outside of our family circles, and as the year 2022 starts coming to a close, just how open will our minds and hearts be to a spirit of Gratitude and Kindness, Honesty and Humility, Love and Forgiveness? These qualities will swirl about our lives in the upcoming months and rest assured there will be abundant opportunities to embrace or reject them, especially as another election cycle plays itself out here in the United States...
On November 8, roughly 1 million Americans will join together in voting precincts across the country to work together to administer what is arguably the most sacred component of our still very young and profoundly vulnerable democracy. The vote. My entire adult life I have quietly marveled at this fact. Citizens of different political parties, people of different races, languages, religions, and orientations come together on election day and conduct themselves with grace, sincerity and integrity, treating each other and every voter with the courtesy, respect, and dignity that they deserve, regardless of political persuasion or ideology. This while the course of our nation is being determined by we the people. These poll workers are our friends and relatives and community members, and perhaps even you, and they have always been an integral part of ensuring free and fair elections in our country (to the degree which our evolving laws have permitted). And I do believe in my heart, however naive you may find this statement to be, that the overwhelming majority of these people, we the people, have recognized the duty they hold in honoring the integrity of the democratic process as it unfolds, knowing full well that there will be robust and healthy disagreement about the ultimate outcome. And to be clear, I am not speaking about disagreement over the legitimacy of the result, that is largely a very recent and disturbing creation. I am simply speaking about the natural disagreements that ebb and flow, and at times erupt over values and policy, over the current circumstances of our country, the legacy and meaning of our past, and the vision for our nation as it moves into the future. These disagreements must be a part of our democracy.
I was a poll worker on September 11, 2001 in NYC as our Mayoral Primary was set to unfold. I reported to the elections office that morning and was awaiting my neighborhood assignment when suddenly the world was turned upside down and nearly 3,000 people from over 90 countries, people of every race and creed and language and party, were murdered. A sacred religious tradition practiced in all corners of the globe had been hijacked by brainwashed zealots conducting a “holy war” on any and all “non-believers” who did not think, pray, and live according to their myopic and deformed vision of total theocracy. Ideology and religion violently merged into a grotesque act of terrorism, successfully thwarting a democratic election in the process - an element of that horrific day I have come to realize is little known outside of New York City.
But on September 25, 2001, just a little over three weeks after the carnage of that day, 850,000 New Yorkers, wounded and grieving, filled with feelings of anger and despair and thoughts of revenge and seemingly naive dreams of religious tolerance and peace, went out to vote while their friends, families, and neighbors worked the polls. A free and fair election was held that day and our enormous municipal democracy stated in no uncertain terms that violence, fear, hatred, and zealotry could not and would not stop a diverse and pluralistic people from carrying out its sacred duty of giving “we the people” its voice at the polls.
To this day I remain profoundly grateful and humbled to call myself a New Yorker. And so here we are one week away from a national election day, when our friends and family and neighbors will once again come together in voting precincts across the country to administer the vote, except this time they are being relentlessly bombarded by accusations of lying and cheating and stealing, of being evil enemies of the state and of God and of one another…
I sincerely believe that the vast majority of Americans yearn for a free and impartial election to take place regardless of their ideology, regardless of the desperation they feel for their party, their candidates, their vision to prevail. Is there an outcome I wish for? Of course there is. Do I wish for it to be obtained through deceit or fraud? Of course not. How profoundly disingenuous would it be for me to suggest before the election even occurs that if the outcome is not to my liking it surely must have been rigged? That is absurd. It is anti-democratic. It is dangerous. And it is profoundly Unchristian.
In light of these present conditions in our country I end with this.
In the preface to the Vietnamese edition of his book No Man Is an Island Thomas Merton writes,
“Violence rests on the assumption that the enemy and I are entirely different: the enemy is evil and I am good. The enemy must be destroyed and I must be saved. But love sees things differently. It sees that even the enemy suffers from the same sorrows and limitations that I do. That we both have the same hopes, the same aspirations for a peaceful and harmless human life. And that death is the same for both of us. Then love perhaps may show me that my brother is not really my enemy and that war is both his enemy and mine. War is our enemy. Then peace becomes possible.
“It is true, political problems are not solved by love and mercy. But the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good for men. When a country has to be rebuilt after war, the passions and energies of war are no longer enough. There must be a new force, the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive. The will for reconciliation.”
And so I return to my original question, just how open will our minds and hearts be to a spirit of Gratitude and Kindness, Honesty and Humility, Love and Forgiveness over the next few months?