Earlier today, some friends of mine, a bus full of people who used to be my neighbors, traveled to their state capitol to present a proposal. The state was considering a bill to expand the capacity of the prison system in the state, and my friends represented a community in which a prison site had closed several years ago, eliminating jobs and weakening the economy of the community.
Their proposal was to use the existing building and reopen it, bringing back a number of jobs (apparently at union salaries, though I’m not familiar with all of the details of the bill). My friends were prevented from presenting their information at the hearing, because a protest disrupted the session. The protesters were standing against any expansion of the prison system, because (as they believe and statistics bear out) sentencing falls disproportionately on people of color. Instead, they were (as best I could tell) advocating for investment in education, early childhood development, and other programs that could, over time, reduce the need for prison cells.
I understand at least parts of the positions of both groups. It is sad evidence of broken systems in our society that we need as many prisons as we do. And I have some serious questions about privately owned facilities. It is also true that prison sentences fall more heavily on those who have been given the least opportunity to begin with. On the other hand, I also understand my friends’ desire to have a new employment opportunity in their community. I love the people and communities of rural America; it’s why I have intentionally served in rural ministry since I graduated from seminary. And I definitely wish that my friends had been able to present their proposal without interruption.
But the thing that horrified me the most was the rhetoric of the people commenting on the Facebook thread where there was a film clip of the last few minutes of the protest (see the news clip above). As I read several of the comment threads, I was sickened by the vast number of comments that were rude and insulting to anyone who held a different opinion. And the reliance on stereotypes and generalizations instead of nuanced thinking nearly made me cry. At one point, I decided to count the number of times someone (regardless of their position on the issues) used the word “they” to characterize a whole group of people in a negative way. The word “they” was applied to protesters, to residents of the community with the prison facility, to all people of color, to all Democrats, to all Republicans, to all prisoners, and there were probably a few more over-generalizations that I missed. I gave up counting after I reached 100 occasions of over-generalization. I don’t imagine that any of those groups is comprised of people who all have identical histories, identical beliefs, identical priorities. And it makes me sad that anyone would seem to think that “they” can all be painted with the same brush.
I know and respect people with whom I am likely to disagree deeply on any number of issues. And it hurts me when some of those very people say that I cannot possibly care about the lives of rural Americans because I do not support Donald Trump or Scott Walker. In the middle of Holy Week, this degree of pride in intolerance is especially tragic. Perhaps my friends think their venom was worthwhile, because the vote eventually went their way, at least for this round. If there is any truth to that, it would make me even sadder.
I wonder what it would take for people who disagree to stop calling each other vile names, or – could it ever be -maybe listen to the needs and hurts that motivate the other person’s thinking.
There’s a Christian song in which these words are attributed to God: “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for me alone.” Maybe God needs to do it again. Maybe God already has done it, by continuing to love us even after we have done our absolute worst, to God and to one another.
In this Holy Week, Lord, wake us up to our own self-centeredness and give us eyes to see our neighbors as children of God, just as we are. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
[A NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS: Comments are always welcome. You may agree or disagree; but I ask you to do it with civility and respect. I would love it if you tried to point out something of value in the other person’s argument, even though you might not agree with their conclusion. Any comments that are rude, profane, or demeaning may be deleted.]