The United States has a long and proud history of taking to the streets. Revolutionaries, abolitionists, and prohibitionists are but three waves of protesters who have used the street march to prosecute their case.
The first decades of my life were dominated by civil rights marchers, and we eventually made their leader a national hero. For the last four decades, the cause has been life itself, always on January 20 with all the wind and weather that day can bring.
“Congress shall make no law,” we defiantly quote, “abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
That same constitutional article mixes in the freedom of religion and the rights of a free press, and it was all three of these that met in Washington DC last Friday and precipitated a cultural uproar about what happened and what it means.
What happened was this: three groups of strangers, each animated to some degree by faith and values, collided on the National Mall at the end of a long day of assembling and petitioning. Videos of what was said and done have been augmented by testimonies and statements, all used in the sad search for what has become a depressing pastime of too many people: victimhood.
First, there were the Black Hebrew, a small, shrill group centered in the southern dessert of Israel and the norther district of Manhattan. They have made a name for themselves on the streets of New York and Washington DC, at least to those who walk those streets on their way to work or pleasure. To the rest of us, they are strangers.
Second, there were the Catholic boys with their red hats reading MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. These, also, are strangers to us. For two years, we have been witnesses of a slightly different demographic, the Evangelical crowd with their Trump-loving MAGA testimonies.
These latter believers have been described and diagnosed more thoroughly than any of us desired; but the former—not so much. Who even knew there was a MAGA-wearing cohort coming out of the Catholic sanctuary?
Finally, there were the Native Americans, the smallest of the three groups but, in the happenstance of things, the most visible and the most audible. They have been around a long time; but that day in Washington, they were unknown to all who listened to the beating of the drum just as they are to us who feel the reverberations of what happened when these groups of strangers met on the National Mall.
We may never know what really happened last Friday. Memories and messages are quickly reshaped to gain the most traction in the race for sympathy, support, and political sense.
But what is important is what happened before last Friday and after. And what happened before was, actually, nothing.
These three groups—the Black Hebrews, the MAGA Catholics, and the Native Americans—had never met, had never listened to the narrative of the other, had never even sought to understand the human search for dignity that lay beneath the prayers and protests that went public that day in Washington.
And what will happen after last Friday?
Who knows, except that evil forces Left and Right will use bits and pieces of this unplanned encounter to advance some self-serving scheme of political power or cultural advantage.
But who knows if these three groups will gather once again, this time to act out that strategic verse of spirituality, the one embedded in the Hebrew Bible and situated at the core of Christian gospel, the one at the center of true religion, authentic community, and genuine humanity:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Torah said it first, and Jesus said it second. And I have repeated it a thousand times in the prayer my family has grown tired of hearing. “Help us, Lord, to love and understand one another.” I mean it, mostly, in reference to the five of us and others we bring into our circle by love or law.
But the Jewish sages and Christian saints have meant it for everybody—all the people we meet in unplanned conversations and confrontations, including those we encounter when we exercise our freedom to assemble and march and protest.
Maybe these Black Hebrews, these MEGA Catholics, and these Native Americans need to meet once again, out of the range of cameras and crowd; maybe they need to sit there in the presence of the other and listen. Just listen.
This prescription for peace reminds me of the answer Mother Teresa gave to the newsman Dan Rather when he asked, “When you pray, what do you say?” She replied, “I don’t say anything. I listen.” To which Rather ask, “What does God say?” And she replied. “God doesn’t say anything. God listens.”