The following post is written by Rev. Denise McKinney
I remember one of the first times I was careless with another person. It was first grade, and my friends and I were walking home from Manor Heights Elementary on a snowy Wyoming afternoon. A group of boys that lived nearby began pelting us with snowballs. The next day, the pelting began again. I remember feeling what could be described as a 6-year-old’s indignation and decided that I would seek justice the following morning.
So my friends and I asked to go to see our principal, Mr. Rock, at the start of the school day. When we shared our saga of mistreatment, the principal called in the group of boys for questioning. They defended themselves and gave their side of the story, which included that we began the conflict several days earlier by piling up snow on the slides as they were going down during recess.
Then Mr. Rock’s demeanor changed. He got up and retrieved a paddle that said “board of education.” Fear seized my heart. Suddenly I was in danger of getting a spanking from my principal as a tender first grader! He looked at all of us and asked if we could work it out to treat each other better or if we needed help from the board of education. Everyone quickly agreed that we could figure out a way to coexist peacefully on the playground and on the way home!
In my defense, I thought the snow piling up on a slide was harmless fun so it didn’t even occur to me that it could be used against me. However, boys throwing snowballs at my head crossed the line. But I can only guess that they were responding with what they thought was fun. I appreciate Mr. Rock’s response because I know now he probably never intended to spank us. He wanted to make a point about the consequences of careless actions. Without a lecture, he communicated that a cycle of retaliation and blaming does not end conflict, it spurs it on.
That childhood memory surfaced Wednesday as I watched and read about the violence in our nation’s Capitol. Of course I know the difference between a child’s early lessons in getting along with others and the costly lesson learned Wednesday about the deterioration of our country’s unity over years of growing polarization. The chasm of intent, guilt and consequence between the two stories spans between little ones who are learning to know a better way and grown humans who should know better. But what holds these two events in tandem for me is that human trust and empathy are broken when we are careless with one another.
One was a momentary life lesson. The other represents the most egregious grown up version of that lesson not being learned. The survival of our republic and the soul of our nation are both hanging in the balance of us choosing to be careful over being careless with democracy, with our neighbors, and with conflict.
Careful: anxious to protect (something) from harm or loss; and the definition of careless: not giving sufficient attention or thought to avoiding harm or errors.The Oxford Dictionary
My fellow Americans, we have become careless. We have not given sufficient attention to the harm we are inflicting on each other with political retaliation and inflammatory language. We have not given wise thought to how exaggerated divides are robbing us of shared identity. We have not been willing to admit the errors of government, structures, or relationships that perpetuate polarization and pit people against each other as only binary winners and losers.
As a part of the One America Movement Board for several years now, I have learned that it takes care to listen to opposing views and groups to find common ground. I have witnessed the cultivating of deeply-rooted friendship and healing when we begin with fully caring for people we don’t understand or think we won’t like. Much like my little lesson in elementary school about fighting for my rights and beliefs concerning snowballs and snow piles, we must be willing to acknowledge the whole story—and our part in it—if we are to figure out a way forward. What we may see as harmless or someone else’s fault may very well be something we still bear a responsibility to change.
I feel like Wednesday was our nation’s visit to the principal’s office. The oceanic depth of our fractured democratic story was laid bare. The hard question we must answer is whether the pain of this undeniable reality is now enough to move us towards a care for one another that restores and reconciles.
My hope is that we would be so careful—so filled with care for protecting the well-being of our neighbors and nation—that we can hardly sleep when unity within either is threatened with polarization.
My prayer is that it would be impossible for us to enjoy our own freedom while someone else is being oppressed or treated as less than.
My challenge is that we be willing to listen to the story of another before we decide they are trying to ruin everything for us.
The reality is that we are not as far apart as hyperbolized rhetoric and social media echo chambers make us think we are. We have so much in common. And we could share so much more and be richer for it personally and nationally. But first, we have to learn to be careful with one another because a few snowballs may seem harmless, but blizzard after blizzard of carelessness can ruin us.
We should remain restless, anxious, unsatisfied and maybe even a little sleepless until we see the icy hatred that has been building melt and that care-filled culture flourishing in all the places each of us can help make it happen.
Rev. Denise McKinney has been a youth, worship and connections pastor over the last 25 years. She started The Well, a dinner church in Tulsa OK in 2020 (yes in the middle of a pandemic!) She is the author of Mile Markers: A Path for Nurturing Adolescent Faith. She is passionate about connecting people in relationship and mission and serves on the One America Movement board.