Note: the author served as a chaplain in the US Air Force and is now retired.
Recently a friend of mine commented that she was glad the impromptu BLM memorial in our city’s park had been removed. Actually, it had been vandalized and some stalwart citizens had cleaned up the debris. What I said to my friend startled both of us. Where did my passion come from? The answer to that question led me to reflect on how some challenging events in my life had formed my thinking on this issue.
One was a high school experience. When integration became mandatory in Virginia in 1970, most of my childhood friends migrated over to a private, all white, Christian–according to their definition–school. I chose not to join them. I could not articulate my reasons at the time. It just did not feel right. My folks offered to pay but I turned them down. For the first weeks of being one of the few white students to integrate a previously all Black, inner city high school, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of being invisible until a Black student invited me to look at a book with him. After I realized what kind of book Calvin was sharing with me, I said in a shocked voice, “I didn’t have anything to do with any of this.” The book contained pictures of lynchings.
From Calvin’s book I learned that between 1882 and 1968–4,743 people were lynched in the United States. Of that total, 3,446 were African Americans. Less than one percent of these first degree murders were investigated by law enforcement and prosecuted and most of those brought to trial were given a light sentence or were acquitted by a jury of their peers, which was always white. Given these statistics, it’s no wonder that the spectators in the pictures of Calvin ’s book, all white people, appeared to be completely unconcerned about any photographic evidence linking them to the scene of a first degree murder. Those images will always haunt me–the juxtaposition of those celebrating underneath the wrecked bodies of their victims hanging in a tree above them.
Twenty-five years later, in 1995, I was deployed as a United Nations peacekeeper to the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. The murders, rapes and torture committed by one ethnic group against another in that region was coldbloodedly called “ethnic cleansing.” While talking to survivors in overcrowded refugee camps and orphanages, I slowly realized this tragedy could happen anywhere. All it would take is for one group of people to believe they had the right to do whatever they wanted to another group of people. The horrific result of this belief was exactly what Calvin’s book had graphically shown me and what I was witnessing in real time all around me.
The same destructive components that contributed to the self-evisceration of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia–racial hatred; conflicted government institutions; multiple, independent, politically motivated, highly-armed, paramilitary organizations– are, unfortunately, part of the political landscape of the US today. The unprecedented anarchy that happened in our nation’s Capitol on January 6th, 2021 struck me as all too similar to what I had witnessed more than 25 years ago in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia.
Another influencer was the Reverend Fred Rogers, who answered the question “Who is my neighbor?” in a much shorter format and one better suited to our age. We, unfortunately, don’t seem to have the time to listen to anything longer than a soundbite. I always get a little lump in my throat when I watch an old episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood with my grandkids and hear Fred sing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” That song, for me at least, is a reformatting of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, told by an itinerant rabbi of long ago who was brutally executed in a way not unlike those victims in Calvin’s book. Who is my neighbor? Well, what I hear Jesus and Fred Rogers saying over and over to me is: A good neighbor acts neighborly to strangers.
My response to my friend, who I mentioned at the beginning, was basically: All Americans have the right to peacefully protest. That right is guaranteed in our constitution–a document I took an oath to protect from all enemies, both foreign and domestic in 1973. After 31 years of military service, I believe more than ever that the Constitution needs me and all Americans to defend it, especially after what happened on January 6th, 2021. Otherwise, we are going to lose what this great country is supposed to be about.
Epilogue: My friend and I are still talking. We still love our country. We still want to be friends. This means there’s still hope.