VIEW VIDEO I attended a Quaker conference this past spring where one of the event’s sponsors, a non-Quaker wanting to sell us insurance, started listing all the good things Quakers had done over the years—the antislavery work, the work for women’s equality, our feeding initiatives after World War I and II, yada, yada, yada. It felt a bit like pandering, and he didn’t even mention one of our finer accomplishments, that the oldest bridge in the United States was built by a Quaker, William Penn, the Frankford Avenue Bridge over Pennypack Creek, a stone arch bridge built in 1697, still in use today. To be accurate, William Penn didn’t build it himself. He had the Pennsylvania General Assembly order every local male to help build the bridge or be fined 20 shillings, roughly 66 dollars in today’s money. A few people, no doubt Baptists, snidely observed that the bridge made it easier for Penn to travel from his home in the Pennsylvania countryside into the center of Philadelphia. People can be so negative.
We’ve been reflecting on the first maps in our lives, be they people or paper, and their profound effect on us. More specifically, we’ve been discussing the common features of maps and their parallels in our own lives. Today, I want to talk about bridges, and their significance. Not just because bridges help us get from one geographical place to another, but because bridges make it possible for us to cross the cultural gaps that stand between us and others, which in this era of separation and disconnection is increasingly critical.
One of my first bridge memories is the Lincoln Memorial Bridge in Vincennes, Indiana crossing the Wabash River into Illinois. My grandparents lived about four blocks from there and we used to walk down to the bridge when I was a kid. If you’ve ever been on that bridge, you know that the Indiana side is densely populated and that there’s hardly anything on the Illinois side. It’s just nine miles of cornfields until you get to the little town of Lawrenceburg, IL. But on the Illinois side of the Wabash is a monument to Abraham Lincoln, and I remember asking my father why the statue of Abraham Lincoln was on the Illinois side and not the Indiana side. He said all the people who were afraid of the river stayed on the Indiana side and only the brave people, like Abraham Lincoln, crossed the river, so the statue went on the brave side of the river. I didn’t know about ferries, so I asked my dad how Abraham Lincoln crossed the river if there wasn’t a bridge and my brother Glenn called me an idiot and said he flew across on a helicopter. Didn’t I know anything? Geez, was I stupid.
What I remember now, other than my brother’s soaring lack of history, was the idea that there were two kinds of people. One kind summoned the courage to cross the gaps, so statues were built of them. The other kind were those who crowded the shore, longing to cross, but lacked the courage. And that there were always more people who hung back than moved forward, which is why Vincennes is bigger than Lawrenceville. That was my childhood reasoning, which turned out to be somewhat accurate.
Of course, crossing the Wabash River became a moot point when bridges were built, but there for a while it took real bravery to cross a river, to traverse that treacherous gap, and, I guess, in a way, it still does. It has always been easier to fear the gaps that divide us, than to bridge them.
Bridges present us with choices, one of which is, “Should I cross this bridge, or should I burn it?” I was always taught never to burn a bridge. Were you ever told that? I taught that to my boys. Don’t burn your bridges. People told us that just in case we might have future need of someone or something, so shouldn’t cut off the relationship altogether. Don’t burn your bridges. You never know, you might need that connection, that relationship, in the future. But now that I think about it, I don’t think that’s true. There are some bridges that merit burning, not only after we cross them, but before we take them in the first place. There is some territory we should never enter. Some chasms in our lives exist for a reason, and we are wise to stay on this side of them. If it is true that we are known by the company we keep, it is doubly true that we are known by the company we avoid.
Some bridges should be burned, not crossed. Here’s how to tell the difference: If crossing a bridge requires the surrender of our morality, we should remain where we are. If crossing a bridge requires us to ignore tyranny or disregard human dignity, we should stay put.
Some bridges should never be crossed. Some chasms are so vast we can never reconcile where our conscience requires us to be and where others ask us to be.
I’m reading an interesting book about Georgetown University, a Jesuit college in Washington, D.C. The book is called 272, and it’s about a decision made in 1838 to sell 272 enslaved African American Catholics, sold into early graves their own brothers and sisters in the faith, to save and expand the largest American Catholic mission project at the time, Georgetown University. The slaves were sold to two plantations in Louisiana, in the Deepest South, where slaves were treated brutally. Husbands were separated from their wives, children from their parents, families broken and scattered, never to see one another again. The book 272 is about those families and their descendants.
The sale of the enslaved people generated so much money, it also funded and supported Jesuit missions, schools, and colleges in other northern cities including Boston College, Loyola University, and Fordham University. It is no exaggeration to say the spread of American Catholicism was made possible by the sale of black Americans. That is one bridge Georgetown University should never have taken. Isn’t it so true that some bridges appear at first to be our salvation, when in fact they can be our ethical ruination? Some bridges we take would have been better off burned.
A Quaker Query: Will this bridge unite with me with those from whom I have been estranged? Will it help me love more deeply and thoroughly? Or will this bridge take me to a moral territory I should not enter? May we always know the difference.
Parting Quote: The concert pianist Oscar Levant once observed that, “A politician is someone who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it.”