Grace and Blame in the Real America

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

I struggle with depression on a daily basis.  Metaphors fall short–describing depression as some dark octopus lashing tentacles around the human brain, that removing those creeping arms will cure the disease.  But that’s not true–it is part and parcel of myself, as much as my shadow, my love for mountains, my blue eyes.  My depression strengthened after leaving Afghanistan–some vital barrier crumbled in the dust and heat and senselessness of it all.  Yet the fault cannot be assigned to me or the war.  We cannot point to a single instance and say, “Ah, this right here is where you forged your illness, and you could have done different.”  Those who live with darkness always at the edge of their vision know the seductive power of poor coping mechanisms–drugs, alcohol, distraction from thinking about why we can’t seem to join the perfection of our peers.  Some succumb, some fight–the rights and wrongs of it all jumbled together.

Yet, in our society, we seek blame.  We want to believe that people are responsible for their own faults.  Some sort of twisted Calvinism entrenched in our worldview makes us deride those who we view as failures–druggies, alcoholics, addicts, the homeless.  For those with the good fortune to be born into middle-or-upper class life, treatments exist.  Money opens paths that the downtrodden cannot walk.

This plays itself out across our politics.  There is a hard edge within conservatism today that is frighteningly uncaring about the margins of society.  A graceless conservatism that threads itself around capitalism and sadism.  It departs from a message of smaller government and localized solutions–the “pulled up by bootstraps” ethos–towards something crueler (Note:  I fundamentally disagree with the original ideas, but it at lest generates debate along the role of society, government, economics, and how to create positive change–we can argue solutions and policy, understanding that both sides view each other with respect).

Fear, jealousy, and–perhaps worst of all–pettiness infuse the new conservatism.  We who have reached the land of the Mother of Exiles then shut the door on others.  We are aghast at the presumption of living wages.  We seek to deny fundamental rights to others unlike ourselves.  We “Drill, baby, drill,” simply because we can–unknowingly or knowingly supporting multinational corporations’ rapid devastation of our environmental legacy.  We empower an administration that seems to delight in cruelty.

Our politics must by necessity be contentious.  350 million people will have 350 million views on any given issue.  Except grace.  America can and should be a nation of grace.  When we discount human rights, we are graceless.  When we create byzantine and hopeless systems that unduly affect the poor, we are graceless.  When we view the poor as failures, guilty of some intrinsic and economic original sin, we are graceless.

But I don’t believe America is meant to be so.  I read with trepidation Mike Higdon’s excellent article on those left behind in Reno’s economic book (here), and worried that the comments would seek to blame the poor for being so.  Yet, this expected nastiness was absent–people wanted to make Reno a better city for all, including the alcoholics, the addicts, the elderly, the wretched refuse.  A recognition that human beings are flawed creatures, but we can–as Americans–acknowledge and accept those flaws.  We can be a better society; we can live with the faults in ourselves and our neighbors.  Whether we believe that what we need is more drug treatment centers or more open markets that provide jobs, we are still speaking the same language of truly making America great.  When we seek not to blame, but to understand, to lend a hand, then we are real Americans.

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