Every Sunday at 10:40 a.m.–sometimes a few minutes later when there’s a holiday, a confirmation, or a particularly fervent sermon–members of First Church’s decidedly progressive flock of urban dwellers are invited to stand and share their joys and concerns: for newlyweds and newborns, for sick friends and dying relatives, for hurricane survivors and innocents caught in the crosshairs. It’s surprisingly cathartic, this confessional exercise, if only because it reminds folks we’re all in the same leaky rowboat.
In March, one of my cohorts in the church choir, a soprano named Linda with a beatific voice, asked the congregation to pray for her son Dan, a husband, father, and member of the Minnesota Army National Guard, who had already served 15 months in Iraq and just learned his tour was to be extended at least through the summer. His return date uncertain, you could hear the alarm, angst, and disappointment in Linda’s voice. For more than a year, she and Dan’s wife had been checking off the weeks and months, struggling to keep their worst nightmares at bay. Now they had to start over, to, as Linda says, ‘push the reset button to zero.’
In that moment, my relationship with the war was upended. Throughout the workday, I still tracked political and cultural analyses of the conflict, reading stories about troop surges and timelines, digesting critiques of our impotent Congress and our stubborn president. Before coming into the office to engage in wide-ranging, often theoretical policy discussions, though, I suddenly found myself scrutinizing the local headlines for news about local soldiers, my stomach tightening each time the portrait of a young man or woman in uniform was featured on the front page. For the first time, the war in Iraq had gotten deeply personal. Unlike the voices on my radio or the images on TV, I could no longer shut it off.
I’ve sensed that a number of parishioners at First Church have also been affected by their close proximity to Linda’s struggle. A born-again Christian would no doubt see most of us as borderline agnostic, highly idealistic, socially strident, and ardently anti-war, and if Linda weren’t in our midst, few of us would know many people in the armed services. Our thoughts usually are with everyone in harm’s way, but it’s a good guess our strong opinions about the unjust, unwise nature of the occupation might have colored our opinion of the troops, whom too many on the left, including me, have often assumed either must agree with this administration or have been duped by its well-documented lies.
Those still on Bush’s bandwagon often make similar presumptions, of course. Linda, a longtime activist who worked for Amnesty International and helped found Minnesota’s internationally acclaimed Center for Victims of Torture, finds herself at a loss for words when conservative colleagues and neighbors, upon learning she has a son in uniform, assume she must be of a like mind.
What is it about the way this war is playing out that keeps us closed off from one another, unwilling to even imagine a compromise? Maybe it’s that we all feel disempowered. Maybe it’s that our political system seems broken, a breeding ground for cynicism. Or maybe it’s simply because the entertainment industry, the powers that be, and corporate America have done such a good job of fulfilling our desire to go on living as if nothing were wrong that we’ve lost touch not only with our common sense, but also our commonality.
It’s this national crisis of conscience that assistant editor Hannah Lobel examines in her hopeful cover essay, ‘Redeeming America’ (p. 36). In describing the downfall of America’s international image and what can be done to repair it, Lobel’s sources–who speak to both sides of our seemingly impenetrable political divide–conclude that to move forward we must first examine our national character, then embrace both our shared burdens and responsibilities.
Because of principled men and women like Linda and Dan, I believe it’s still possible to heal this nation’s wounds. But it requires that we stop demonizing people and putting them in easily labeled boxes. And that demands deep thought, sincere empathy, and, yes, sometimes even prayer.