We’ve been hearing the word unprecedented a lot this month. My friend Howard Macy recently said the frequency of the word unprecedented is unprecedented. Every time I watch the news, I hear the word unprecedented, as if for the past 245 years, the United States has been one giant lovefest. But there were the Haymarket Labor Riots in 1886, the Civil War Draft Riot in 1863, the Tulsa Riots of 1921 when the wealthiest black community in the nation was burned to the ground by a mob with government assistance and nearly 300 black people were killed, a similar riot in Atlanta in 1906 saw over a 100 black people lose their lives, the Orange Riots of 1871-72 when Protestants and Catholics fought one another to the death on the streets of Manhattan, and the 1866 riots in New Orleans after the recently defeated Confederates passed a series of laws called the Black Codes stripping blacks of their rights. When blacks had the temerity to complain, nearly 40 of them were massacred. So let us dispense with the word unprecedented.
The only things unprecedented about January 6th was its location—the seat of government; the target of the mob’s anger—white, wealthy people of power as opposed to black, poor people who lacked power; and an American president who egged on the mob, resulting in his ban from nearly 20 social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, may their names be praised in the highest heavens.
Of course, in times like these people are quick to pick sides. I certainly did. I want certain rioters and political leaders charged with sedition. But once that is done, if that is done, we will all have to figure out how to be in healthy relationship with one another again. It might mean, ironically, all of us being banned from social media. I know I’m not my best on there. My filters just disappear, which might be cathartic, but isn’t always helpful.
There’s a guy I’ve been buddies with for a lot of years, but I noticed after the election he stopped talking to me, so I reached out to him and he told me he didn’t want to be my friend any longer because I had, in his words, “voted for a communist who’ll take his guns.” I’ve since heard from others who’ve experienced the same kind of rejection from their family and friends. It just hasn’t been people on the right saying that to people on the left, it goes the other way too. I can’t tell you how many Facebook posts I’ve seen that say, “If you voted for Donald Trump, unfriend me now.” Seriously? We’re now to the place where people must agree with our political philosophies before we can extend the hand of friendship to them.
We’ve been talking about the characteristics of good relationships, having learned from Dr. Robert Waldinger and Harvard Study on Adult Development that good relationships are the secret to a good life. Good relationships equal good lives. Not money, not fame, not position, not power, but good relationships. Good relationships are the secret to good lives.
So let’s talk about the characteristics of good relationships, and allow me to suggest the first one: In good relationships, people are not asked to be something they are not. If I am a gay man, a good friend will not insist I become straight in order to be friends. If I am conservative, a good friend will not insist I become liberal in order to be friends. And vice-versa. In good relationships, people are not asked to be something they are not. This does not mean good friends cannot challenge one another. It does not mean good friends give one another a pass on ethical matters. It does not mean good friends will ignore one another’s destructive behavior. It does mean that in good relationships we do not demand people change the essence of their being to please us.
If someone’s behavior or philosophy is so egregious we cannot in good conscience abide it, we can decide not to have them as friends. That is always an option. There are some people, a relative few, whose values so contradict my own, we lack any mutual interests around which we can unite. But those people are relatively few. If you have decided you cannot be friends with the other half of America who voted differently from you, you are going to die sad and alone, estranged from members of your family, alienated from some of your oldest and dearest friends. Does this mean differences should be ignored? Of course not, while we don’t demand others change who they are to please us, we are nevertheless committed to the growth of those we love, so tenderly and honestly discuss our differences with them. Just as we invite them to challenge that in us which keeps us from wholeness. It’s called being an adult.
The problem with conformity of thought is what we’ll call the escalation of exclusion. Here’s how it works. When we begin to demand conformity of thought and behavior from our friends, we never start small. We defend our exclusion by starting with something big and noble-sounding. “I simply cannot be friends with a Nazi.” Well, who’s going to argue with that? Who likes Nazis except other Nazis? But did you notice how good it felt to exclude Nazis? It felt nice, didn’t it? In fact, it felt so nice, I’ve grown rather fond of my moral superiority. So next I’m not going to like communists, then socialists, then Social Democrats, then Democrats, and then my neighbor. That’s what happens when we begin demanding conformity of thought and behavior from our friends, the escalation of exclusion. It always starts with Nazis, but it keeps right on going until we hate our neighbor. Conformity and exclusion are insidious that way, their tentacles eventually reach into and poison all our relationships. Therefore, in good relationships we do not demand people change who they are to please us.
Just as we do not demand others change who they are to please us, we are careful not to change our essential selves to please others, for we realize that inauthenticity is never conducive to good relationships. We allow others to be who they are, while being our authentic selves, being who we are.
The song we listened to earlier, Get Together, by the Youngbloods is known as The Hippy’s Anthem. But if you stop and think about it, it makes a pretty good Christian anthem.
Love is but a song we sing
Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring
Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing
And you may not know why
Come on, people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now