From a Nation of Strangers to a True American Community

Tragedies, like San Bernardino, Columbine, Planned Parenthood, Sandy Hook, and the Trayvon Martin killing, remind us how being disconnected from one another is destructive. USA Today and Huffington Post report that there were 352-355 mass shootings in 336 days, or more mass killings than days in this year.1 In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly..." The Thanksgiving through Christmas holiday season represents a rare time during the year where we intentionally and authentically connect with others who are not family or friends. For our own survival, we must move from a season of kindness and giving to a lifetime of positive, mutually caring human connection across the barriers now separating us. Despite the understandable concern and fear of terrorist attacks now gripping our nation, the truth is that "domestic extremists have killed more Americans than jihadists since 9/11.ii" While we must become even more vigilant in protecting Americans, we simply cannot control every evil plot to attack our nation. We can control the way we relate daily to one another within our nation. We are as strong as we are connected to one another, for it has been said that "a family that's in a constant squabble disintegrates.iii" Instead of continuing to operate as a nation of strangers waiting for the next tragic event, we must begin to model Dr. King's "inescapable network of mutuality," by unconditionally valuing and connecting to those outside of our comfort zone. This connection must become contagious and inescapable. Contagious is defined as something (disease, emotion, feeling or attitude) that spreads from one person to another, and affects others. While fear and tragedy connect us as a society, so will the love and respect we spread to those who do not look, think or act like us. Human contact can either string us together like pearls on a necklace or shatter us like glass falling to the floor. Tragedies and holiday seasons provide opportunity for togetherness, while daily moments with others provide opportunity to transmit love and infuse people with joy. Every smile, hello, or acknowledgement of another individual, brightens their path, and makes us both safer and better people. So how would a positive, respectful human-to-human contagious connection help heal deeply divisive issues like race, religion or class we now face? Practice. Every athlete and entertainer knows that you perform the way you practice. Studies show that a habit takes 21 days to form. iv A repeated thought becomes an action; a repeated action becomes a habit; and habits shape character and culture. Every action was first a thought. Transforming from being a culture of strangers to a true American community does not begin with changing our negative behavior towards one another. It begins with altering our negative thoughts about one another. We each have the capacity to control our thoughts, which are too often shaped by stereotypes, not by genuine personal connection. Becoming a true American community where every life matters and is equally valued requires thinking loving thoughts about each other. It includes learning to love others as well as we love ourselves. It means learning other cultures' holidays and traditions; refusing to joke about other ethnicities, races or classes; not making stereotypical jokes and assumptions about those who look differently than us; and not having private negative thoughts and/or private conversations about others we don't know or understand. We each have the power to police our own thoughts and words, too often born of ignorance; not relationships. Having positive, optimistic thoughts make it easier to consciously reach out to others, move out of our comfort zone and encourage others to do the same. We move from a season of kindness to a lifetime of concern, care and compassion by committing daily acts that allow us to positively engage other people. This is not an easy journey, because it is natural to remain connected to those who look, think and behave like we do; those of our own race, faith, class, or political persuasion. Yet, choosing to positively engage with others on a day-to-day basis is how we strengthen the inner core of our nation. My own journey has taken me from being an exclusively Black Power advocate to internalizing the love ethic of Jesus Christ that embraces people of all backgrounds. This journey has compelled me to think differently and more lovingly about others. My prayer this Christmas is that we intentionally work at becoming a nation of bridge builders, not wall-builders. Bridge builders respect others' points of view, even those that differ greatly from their own. Building bridges allow us to respectfully hear one another's concerns about 'hot-button' issues that now easily divide us. It compels us to listen to understand; and not listen to change others. The more we learn about one another, the more we care about that which affects each of us, and more likely we give one another the benefit of the doubt where we can. The first step in building partnerships to addressing the many injustices of our nation, is building these contagious mutual connections with daily practices. You care about the things that impact others, such as attacks on affirmative action, police violence, poverty, racism, and voting rights issues. Building contagious human connection allows us to hear more respectfully one another's points of view and find common ground where possible. Random contagious human connection can impact the greater society. This can happen in institutions, in the body politic, in public policymaking, and even during this election season. Aristotle reminds us that "we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore, is not an act, but a habit."

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iii. See, The Message, Matthew 12:25

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