Perhaps you’ve seen a version of this sign at a restaurant: “The whole world is short-staffed. Please be kind to those who are here to serve you.” Everywhere we look, we see Americans losing their cool, demeaning others.
As ugly hyper-partisanship continued to drill down on our political and social interactions, a pandemic raged in, making things worse. We’re in a tough place, to be sure. But yelling at the server because we had to wait an extra five minutes for our food? Or fighting with flight attendants? Or road rage? Something deeper and darker is going on.
A hard look in the mirror is needed. Do we like what we see? Are we creating the kind of community we want to live in and pass on to our kids and grandchildren?
America is suffering from a self-inflicted wound of which we rarely speak: a poisonous, bloated sense of individual entitlement that undermines community. Not just the super-rich or those who take advantage of government largesse, but many of us over-indulge at the slop trough of entitled privilege; our selfishness is eroding self-responsibility and crippling our communities.
We teach our young ones that America is the greatest nation in history. But, to be honest, this myth is an overreach. In many ways, America is great, but not for everyone. We have years of work to do before this moniker becomes real. Part of this society’s 400-year story is mired by racism, slavery and Native American genocide, and stifling economic inequalities. We lie to our children when we claim that “anyone can make it in America if they work hard enough.” We know better. For far too many of our compatriots, this claim is more fiction than reality, and degrading.
America is great because its diversity of immigrants has given us economic strength and creativity. This claim, however, is fraught in practice because of our society’s long history, yet alive, of anti-immigrant sentiment. Our society, as is a rope of multiple strands, is stronger when it is diverse.
We both have long experience working with immigrants. They struggle hard to make life better for their families, without assumptions of entitlement. This American way needs to be recovered.
The new American way is to rage at compatriots with differing views, to be a culture warrior. It’s destroying our society. Nothing will lift us from the killing floor we’ve created as long as we don’t trust and respect each other. We need humility and hope. There’s no community without humility to listen and consider others’ views and then jointly craft action.
It’s time to walk out of our yards and apartment complexes to discover the attributes of the wide variety of Americans around us. Community building depends on curiosity, mutual respect, and action.
We can agree on some basic challenges: childhood poverty, homelessness, an unfair criminal justice system, for example. Simply because we don’t agree on the best way of addressing them should not give way to not listening to each other and doing nothing. Compromise is good. Above all, we have to honestly face our own insidious selfishness and convert it into generosity, shoring up our community. Jesus called this “loving our neighbor as ourself.”
The Hebrew Bible continually uplifts the practice and maintenance of community as life-giving: “Celebrate all the good things the Lord your God has done for you and your family—each one of you along with … the immigrants who are among you” (Deuteronomy 26:10-11).
A community is forged by respect, generosity, and mutual agreement to build rather than tear down. Let’s bite the bullet and get to work. Through constructive actions, we can not only eliminate the signs on restaurant doors that speak of our incivility to one another, but we can restore our society to be one that values responsibility, respect, hard work—and each other.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned jointly by the Rev. T. Carlos Anderson and the Rev. Jim Harlingen. Anderson is director of Austin City Lutherans in Austin, Texas. Harrington runs Proyecto Santiago at St. James Episcopal Church, in Austin, Texas. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the authors. Anderson and Harrington can be reached by email via: [email protected].
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