The ideal remains, despite deep divisions among the people and often mindless partisanship in Washington: E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. We fought each other many years ago, and the Union was preserved. Can we keep it?
Members of Congress swear allegiance to the Constitution, whose goals are spelled out clearly in the Preamble: to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Ideals for sure, but no less worthy to pursue. I believe we must, but how do we get there?
Last week, a friend sent me an article in the New York Times entitled, “Searching for a Jesus Who Looks More Like Me” certainly an appropriate piece for Holy Week. While its religious implications are profound, the larger concept behind it may be helpful as we navigate the dangerous political currents ahead.
Author, Eric Copage, gathered a wide variety of artists’ depictions of Jesus for his essay. For example, there is the Australian Aboriginal Jesus, the Chinese Jesus, the 1940s “Head of Christ,” probably the most widely familiar in the US, the Nigerian (Yoruba) Jesus, and the Brazilian Jesus (the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue atop Mount Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro). Many of them, appropriate to the season, depict some aspect of Holy Week. Others, however, are simply portraits or depict Jesus in some scene from the Gospels. But they are all recognizable as Jesus, Jesus as seen through the eyes of different cultures.
So, shifting our focus to the political arena, could we come up with a visual symbol or a word that would capture the essence of The United States of America, but would also permit, even invite, citizens to make their own versions of it—and yet each one would all be recognizable as The United States of America?
Here is one possibility: Justice. Justice is often depicted as a statue of a Roman goddess, blindfolded, holding scales in one hand and bearing a sword as a sidearm. Justice is to play no favorites, hence the blindfold; the scales are testing one’s actions; and justice sometimes requires punishment, hence the sword.
Many in our society believe they have been deprived of justice. They may be coal miners. They may be Black farmers. They may be Asian Americans. They may be members of the LGBTQ community. They may be schoolteachers. They may be ranchers or seasonal farmworkers. They may be the working poor. They may be descendants of enslaved persons. They may be Native Americans.
What would Justice look like to them? What are their dreams and ideals for just treatment? If we knew, would we recognize them as the dreams and ideals of The United States of America? The only way to find out is to listen to them.
That’s what Valerie Kaur did, as she recounts in her book, See No Stranger. She documented the psychological damage sustained by inmates of a super max prison in Connecticut.
One inmate, Darnell, like all the others, was held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. After three-and-one-half years, he was released directly onto the streets, and, as he put it, “I had to learn how to be a person again.” Of the guards, he said, “they want you to think of yourself as an animal.”
But Kaur and her colleagues decided to listen to the guards as well. Mark likened going to work each day as “crossing into a war zone,” and he recounted the high rates of alcoholism, depression and suicide among correctional officers. Pete, another guard, had been diagnosed with PTSD. He reflected on his work: “How twisted we become because of that job.”
Both prisoners and guards would say they have been deprived of justice, that life has treated them unjustly.
But what are their dreams and ideals for justice? And what about those coal miners and Black farmers; those schoolteachers and Native Americans?
Would we recognize in their stories the dreams and ideals of The United States of America? The only way to know is to listen to them; to hear their stories.
Dick Conville is a retired college professor and long-time resident of Hattiesburg.