The Akron Beacon Journal has been running a series on the polarization of America, often featuring stories where the bridge is crossed and people on opposite sides come together.
One story last week in particular caught my eye.
It seems that the Planned Parenthood clinic in Akron, like a lot of abortion providers, has a small but devoted group of protesters who keep vigil outside the center. Words are often exchanged between the protesters and the clinic workers, and they are, as you can imagine, hardly friendly ones.
One day a pickup truck lost control in front of the clinic and struck one of the abortion foes on the sidewalk outside, breaking one of the woman’s vertebrae.
The nurses from the clinic sprang into action. They called 911, and one of them cared for the woman while awaiting the ambulance, keeping her from going into shock. Another went down the street, where the woman’s husband was shopping, and informed him of the accident.
And then they sent her flowers in the hospital. (You can read the story here.)
The story intrigued me for many reasons, not least the fact that I, too, once kept vigil outside an abortion clinic and thought the worst of those who worked there.
But this tale rang like the parable of the Good Samaritan: in each case someone despised as outside the Law, a moral alien, comes through and acts with kindness and charity. It made me realize that I was wrong to assume that someone associated with such evil as abortion must be devoid of all goodness. For surely if these women were truly evil they would have mocked the accident victim, whom they would have perceived as an enemy, instead of coming to her aid (let alone sending her flowers.)
I realized that these women are primarily nurses, that abortion is only a small part of what they do; the bulk of their work is probably providing prenatal care for poor women. And I realized that in presuming knowledge about their attitudes on abortion I was wrong, assuming a knowledge that I did not have; for all I know they may consider abortion a tragedy, an unfortunate necessity.
That is, like most Americans (and humans) they may well be consequentialists, willing to accept certain evils as justifiable, given the situation.
I thought, too, about President Obama’s address, a couple of weeks ago, to the grieving community of Newtown in the wake of that town’s horror in the aftermath of the massacre of its children. The President had tears in his eyes, and immediately antiwar and antiabortion critics accused him of faking compassion. After all, how could he be sincere if he did not grieve over the children killed by his drone attacks? Or those killed by abortion?
But that too is presuming knowledge that one cannot possibly possess.
For all we know the President grieves for the children killed in his drone attacks, but views their deaths as collateral damage, an unintended and necessary consequence in his just war to defend the nation against terrorists. He may console himself by noting that if he adopted the strategy of his predecessor – bombing the hell out of their villages, and then initiating an American invasion – not only would there be more dead children, but dead American troops as well.
I have been a harsh critic of the drone wars; I am not defending this analysis, only noting that it is possible that this is how he sees it.
It seems less likely that Mr Obama grieves those killed by abortion. But does that mean he is murderous? Or only that -like most who defend abortion- he is blind, unable to recognize his shared humanity with the unborn?
It is unfortunate, but we live in a time when it is increasingly popular to assume that one’s political or religious enemies are not just wrong but evil, devoid of all human good.
This tendency is but one manifestation of the human proclivity to tribalism.
It is interesting that while our names for “primitive”, ie, preindustrial and preliterate, peoples is nearly always what their neighbors called them, and is often unflattering (“Sioux” meant “snake” in Ojibwa, for example). But it is almost universally true that what they call themselves means “The People”, or “The Real People”. Those who are not in the tribe are by implication “Not the Real People”.
Early European explorers in North America frequently commented on the warmth of native communities, on the way they cared for one another, were gentle with their children, and shared all things.
But they also commented on the way that they would torture captives, from very similar tribes, creatively intensifying their suffering for pure entertainment. As Not Real People they were outside the sphere of compassion.
This is pretty universal among humans; peoples identical, or nearly so, to outsiders hate one another with a passion. Think of the Ukrainians and the Russians, for example. To anyone not of the Tribe they are indistinguishable in language, cuisine, religion and music. But there is a long history of mutual hatred. And Israelis and Muslim Arabs? Both worship the God of Abraham, refrain from pork, circumcise their sons, and observe fasts and feasts. And can anyone distinguish between Jewish and Arab pita bread or kabobs?
But when the Other is a different color, or has differently shaped eyes? Then any recognition of common humanity is even harder to see. Indeed, it is not uncommon, as we saw all too recently in the US, to question the humanity of “other” races. (In truth, of course there is one race, the human one).
And unborn children, at the very early stages when most abortions take place? These are truly alien; they don’t look human yet, they do not communicate, they do not do much that is recognizably human.
Yet human they are; for what other species can they be? But as they are not of our “Tribe” they are easily dismissed (and dismembered).
For tribalism is not just a matter of the preliterate; what is nationalism but sophisticated tribalism?
Against this tendency, so amenable to brutishness, there are various trans-nationalist solutions, from Islam to Buddhism to Marxism to Catholicism. Humans being what they are, though, even these anti-tribal entities easily become quasi-tribes: it is the Faithful vs the Infidel, or the member of the True Church vs the Heretic, or the Revolutionary vs the Reactionary.
And among modern Catholics there is the “orthodox Catholic” vs the merely “nominal” Catholic; (“orthodox Catholic” being a misnomer, of course; they are as selective as any faction within the Church). Within this sectarian view the Church is not the inclusive”here comes everybody” of tradition- sinners and all- but “We, the Righteous”.
Paradoxically, the proponent of a universal faith becomes a quasi-gnostic elitist.
Catholicism, for all that, stands alone as the best and most realistic hope of truly transcending tribalism. As anyone who has had the privilege of worshiping at St Peter’s in Rome- as I have- can testify, the witness of people of every color and language praying together is powerful indeed.
For the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and it is Christ who, as we were reminded on the Feast of the Theophany, has sanctified all of Creation by His Incarnation, remaking the broken world and remaking the icon of Christ in the human soul. His birth in a cave sanctified the earth, His baptism, the water, His speaking, human communication. And His birth, all of humanity.
And it is He who prayed that all would be One in Him, reconciled with the Father, in a world made whole, a world made new.
This implies a universal solidarity, and at the least it should mean refraining from the demonization of our enemies. They may not be evil, just mistaken. After all, there are very few who are given over wholly, or almost wholly, to evil, just as there are few that are truly holy.
Most of us are a mixed up mess of conflicting aspirations: desiring goodness and virtue, but full of selfishness and fear and moral blind spots, with both noble and sinful inclinations.
I realize that I say this with a history for all to see of fiery words and a certain fierceness in intellectual battle. I hope, though, that I never cross the line in demonizing my enemies of whatever stripe.
And if I do I trust that you, dear readers, will be quick to correct me.