The last few weeks with the attacks on Paris and in San Bernardino, along with even more mass shootings here, have put us in a new place, giving rise to these questions: What will keep us safe? What gives us hope?
A lot of political chatter says that we should close our borders to all Muslims, not admit any Syrian refugees—even three-year old orphans. We hear that we need more guns and more armed people. All of this withdraws our goodwill and fuels potential terrorism. These statements and proposed policies ripple out to mosques being vandalized in several places, Muslims and their children being frightened and bullied, and more fear and terror implanted in our hearts and minds. And, this kind of negative energy toward other people is bad for us.
There are other ways to react to frightening events than by demonizing whole groups of people and by turning inward and baracading our borders. “Our only hope is in valuing each other,” said Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and essayist on NPR’s program On Point.
In today’s political climate, being kind and compassionate about people we don’t know or disagree with isn’t easy. It is so easy to find what Robinson calls the “sinister other,” in people who look different, speak different languages and practice another religion. It’s easy to find the “sinister other” in people on the other side of the political fence.
We can, however, distinguish all the harsh political talk from what we see and hear in our ordinary lives and in our own communities. We can find kindness and hope there. I don’t have to go any further than checking my e-mail, where friends are networking about helping a mutual friend. I can shop around town and find very friendly people everywhere. I can open my local paper and see all kinds of programs that help people who are vulnerable. I can see the outreach to the Muslim community. I can support those programs.
Right after we heard that the towers were falling in New York on 9/11, my prison students and I gathered around in a small circle. They were afraid for their families on the outside and feeling helpless. They were on their way to lunch and talking about how Muslims would be blamed. One man said, “We need to put our arms around our Muslim brothers. This will be a very hard time for them.” Other men agreed, and they reported back to me over the next days that men were asking to sit at Muslim tables and reaching out to them around the compound. I’ve never forgotten those gestures and how much they mattered.
People who are incarcerated have a distinct advantage living and working in such close quarters with many people who are different. There are many Muslims in the prison who are work-mates and classmates. They know each other from their housing units, on the job and in school. Though I live in a very diverse town, I know only a few Muslims, and it bothers me. When I told my students this in a discussion about diversity, one man said, “Mrs. Wenzel. They’re just like you.”
Though it is often a first response to awful events, fear doesn’t do good things for us. It solves nothing. It’s powerful, and it blinds us to the realities that terrorist threats are statistically very unlikely. It freezes us into inaction and makes it easier to slide into stereotyping and scapegoating. In fearful times, we need to be responsible for our own fears, examine them and learn to be cautious and restrained—about our actions and about our speech. Just as hateful speech ripples out, an openness to strangers and a willingness to treat everyone with respect and courtesty have ripple effects too.
“Our democracy,” Robinson says, is “based on the willingness that we think well of each other.”
“A democracy is fragile,” she says, “and safety is not giving up our civil order and what is best in ourselves.” We are not called to fix the whole country, but every smile to a stranger, every small kindness extended, every door held open for an elderly shopper, every attendance at a meeting, everytime we help a child, it matters. We can reach out and be-friend people who are different. We can all do it. At the eulogy for Clemente Pinckney in Charleston after the horror of the shooting there, President Obama quoted Marilynne Robinson’s idea of our “deep reservoir of goodness.” We all have it—and it gives us hope and it gives us grace as a nation. Kindness and love never fail–and they trump terror and fear.