On June 3, 1990 Maya Angelou’s poem “These Yet-to-be-United States” was published in the Los Angeles Times. In the six stanza masterpiece, not once is America or the United States mentioned. Instead, Angelou refers to the influence and control that implicitly belongs to the United States and questions how the pain, suffering, and cries of America are so easily overlooked. She writes: “Tremors of your network/cause kings to disappear/your open mouth in anger/makes nations bow in fear/Your bombs can change the seasons/obliterate the spring/what more do you long for/why are you suffering?” Such lines juxtaposed against her title “These Yet-to-be-United States” suggests that the united front America portrays may help in her foreign affairs, but it is her internal division that is creating the deep sorrow felt within her borders. In light of this, the question Americans must wrestle with is, in spite of immense difference is unity truly achievable?
The Morning News
Today, I read Sunday’s articles and news reports from The New York Times on my iPad. Whether watching the video of swing state voters speaking of our current moment and the way forward, reading of how some believe Kamala Harris has retreated in preparation for her new role as Vice President, or even how President Trump’s coronavirus task force has not been allowed to communicate with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, the consensus is that America is experiencing a period of great division.
Can we unite and over this period of division? “I don’t think we’ll ever get there. We’ve always been divided,” says Christie Mackey in her comments on The New York Times video report “Swing State Voters Look to the Future.” And reading today’s news reports definitely make you feel this way; like the hope of American unity is unattainable. I mean according to Michael Crowley, to date, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris still “has not been contacted by her departing counterpart, Vice President Mike Pence.” And with the recent and suspicious disappearance and death of Quawan “Bobby” Charles, a 15 year old boy from Louisiana found dead in a muddy river, the country only becomes more and more polarized. From our electoral process, to the immigration crisis, to the vast minority distrust of law enforcement, the American divide seems to only be deepening. But can this division be mended? Is the goal unity? Is unity even achievable?
An inspiring piece entitled, “Staying Apart, But Praying Together” by James Estrin highlights how various faith communities in New York have been impacted by coronavirus and social distancing orders. Speaking to the practices and adjustments of St. Agatha’s Church, The Jewish Center, Dar Al-Dawah, the Hindu Temple Society of North America, and the Christian Cultural Center, Estrin shows that these vastly different faith communities are all taking precautions in how they gather, how many, and for how long. Services have been shortened, temperatures are always taken, and others are exclusively virtual. What is consistent, is that each is being intentional about maintaining community and creating space for people to express and experience their faith, all while being considerate of the larger human community that is not a part of their particular house of worship.
Of great note is a statement from Rabbi Yosie Levine who has served at the The Jewish Center Synagogue since 2004. He says, “In Judaism, the preservation of life is of the highest priority, and that has to come before all other consideration.” Skeikh Kassab, Dar Al-Dawah’s Imam, says, “In our religion, we have to keep our soul and our body healthy. We have to respect the religion and we have to respect our neighbors and keep them safe, whether they are Muslim or not.” Dr. A.R. Bernard of the Christian Community Center really encapsulates these statements declaring, “we are still doing community. Isolation is antithetical to our sense of purpose. The building is closed, but church is open.” What I see from these differing faith communities is that we will not be united in everything. We will not be united in our beliefs, our politics, our approaches, our values, or our ways of being. But what makes America great is that she was founded on the principle of the freedom of religion. When humans have the space to exercise the freedom of religion you open the door for them to have the space to exercise every other kind of freedom. When various religious expressions are celebrated we better exemplify a freedom that celebrates difference of political thought, educational background, and other polarizing social factors.
This kind of freedom necessitates difference. It requires that our unity not be found in that of religion, education, race, politics, or any other abstract human construction. In this way our goal is not to necessarily be united, but to unite in the aim of, as Paul says in Romans 12:18, “living at peace with everyone.” We must, as instructed by Rabbi Levine and Imam Kassab, unite in our prioritization of the good, health, and well-being of all created things. When we unite around this goal then we attain a much better aim: peace, health and harmony amidst difference.