Today we find ourselves in the fight of our lives. This will be the definitive struggle of our generation, informing all other conflicts. It will serve as a lesson for those who look back on this pivotal moment in history about who we were and what we valued. Today we stand at the precipice of the second large opportunity since our founding to define the American Ethos. Will we live up to the soaring rhetoric and promises of our founders, or will we succumb to fear, hatred, and darkness?
The side of fear has struck the first blow. Blind nationalism, xenophobia, and demagoguery carry the day, but it doesn’t have to be so. We outnumber them, but our numbers only matter if we band together. Splintered factions of unorganized and leaderless groups won’t get it done. Passion isn’t enough. Social networks aren’t enough. We have to put aside our petty squabbles, rivalries and differences in order to work together for the common good.
One of the largest avenues of opportunity before us is religion. Especially the monotheistic “big three”: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. These are massive big tent groups with countless denominations, sects, and offshoots. Imagine the sheer numbers these groups possess working together as well as working with nonbelievers who make up roughly 26% of the US population. Individuals shine in all four groups, but it’s time for all of us on a larger to scale to put our money where our mouths are. We all claim to be in favor of unity, love, charity and the banishment of hate and prejudice. So what are we willing to do about it?
It would be easy to throw ancient history is Christianity’s face, to remind them of the crusades; the subjugation of millions at the point of a sword. One could heap criticism for the Vatican’s complicit role in Mussolini’s rise and reign of terror in Italy, or for the countless cover ups of child abuse around the globe, or the full throated endorsement of slavery and segregation throughout much of American History. We could talk about the extremists in Islam, the brutal regressionist theocratic regime in Iran, and the violence throughout the middle east and the western world . We could talk about the controversial Israeli Apartheid or the bloodbath on the Gaza strip (15,000 civilians including 550 children killed over 51 days in 2014 alone) with atrocities taking place on both sides since 1967. We could throw in the fact that nonbelievers have been so adrift and so unorganized that one has to squint to find major secular charities or volunteer corps that aren’t government run, and the most famous secular leader in modern history is Joseph Stalin.
We talk a lot about our values, but where are we at this moment? Let’s just take stock of where we are as a people. We have white supremacists in some of the highest offices in the land. Violent crime is at historic lows, but Black Americans are still being targeted and killed by police at more than twice the rate of of White Americans. When people speak up and protest, they are met with deflection, derision, disrespect and disinterest in anything they have to say. Children are being massacred at school, and far too many Americans are willing to chalk that up to a reasonable cost for carrying weapons suited for war zones rather than self defense. When kids are old enough and bold enough to speak out, they are met with the foulest hatred and mockery from a group of people so baseless and depraved that they invent boogeymen to justify their lack of basic decency. It’s not as though anyone told us we cannot disagree with each other, but the lack of empathy and decency showed to these survivors is downright troubling. We as a culture and a nation are in shambles and far too many of us are locked in an echo chamber so cavernous that all we can hear are the distant reverberations of our own paranoia. Shadows of the opposition. Formless. Nameless. Third-hand information from a social media link, far past any form of fact checking.
We have to get out there and meet each other in the street. In bars and town halls and libraries and coffee shops. Rallies, concerts, fundraisers, barbershops, and yes, places of worship. We have to work together, side by side in pursuit of a common goal. That doesn’t mean we never have to disagree. It doesn’t mean we don’t have our issues or qualms: This isn’t kumbaya, this is survival.
With that said, I want you to know this doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. There are few things more interesting than learning new things from new people, including how much you’re actually alike. During the initial run of my show “Impolite Conversation”* in 2016 I had an amazing discussion with Rabbi Jon Adland, Imam Fouad Al-Saeed, and Pastor William Stuart, in which we talked about our four different values systems, the Abrahamic root of the three religions and the universal desire for love and knowledge. We shared laughs and silly pop culture talks, as well as our ideas on how we can move forward as one people united by the common goal of leaving the world better than we found it. Smarter. Kinder. More honorable. Safer for our children.
At the time of his death, President Franklin Roosevelt was working on an address for Jefferson day. It was the last days of the World War Two in Europe, and we were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. He had been worn down to the bone, but he believed he had led us through to the other side of the conflict. However, he wasn’t crowing or taking shots at his critics or doubters. He was talking about the future. What he envisioned and hoped for in the years after the war. Here at the tail end of the single greatest cataclysm in human history, after some of the darkest days in memory, Franklin Roosevelt spoke of a “true and lasting peace”. His final line was his most powerful, “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”
Our most essential faiths are not just about how or whom we worship. It is faith in each other, faith in ourselves, faith in humanity’s ability to get on the right track. Faith in our abilities, faith in our own inner strength and resilience. We have to realize that the greatest weapon against Fear is our own hope and belief that our best days lie ahead. The best way to combat hatred and division is to create a more equal, loving, and pluralistic society. It’s not too late to make your world better with the help of your neighbors. We can do this; and speaking in good faith, we absolutely have to.
Willis Gordon is a musician, stand up comedian, actor, author, essayist, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror. Gordon is committed to quality entertainment and the improvement of our communities through art, action, and inclusion. He organized the “Rock the Block” voter registration concert in 2016, and continues to register voters and fight for civil rights across Stark County. He is the author of The Long Road Home and The Empty Boulevards. His live album, Willis Gordon: Live! is available anywhere you stream music. He wrote the monthly column "The Road Forward: Practical Discussions on Seeking a Better World" for Unlikely Stories Mark V.