What a sad situation occurred recently at the Lincoln Memorial when video clips captured three groups exercising their constitutional rights to assemble for three completely different causes. The clips captured a series of verbal and non-verbal confrontations that left our nation enraged, embarrassed or just fed up with the lack of civility.
This unfolding fracas of incivility involved an obscure Black Hebrew Israelite sect whose members were allegedly taunting high-school-aged Catholic students from Covington, Ken., who were visiting the memorial to advocate on behalf of the anti-abortion movement.
It also involved an Native American man who witnessed the escalation of tension between both groups. The Indian activist was there to hold a rally on behalf of tribes concerned about the encroachment of the Keystone oil pipeline in South Dakota. Nathan Phillips apparently intervened between the two groups and began beating a traditional drum to cool down tensions.
One of the students stood inches from his face with what to some appeared to be a smirk or sarcastic smile. Others have disagreed with that interpretation.
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Phillips says nothing while this Vietnam era veteran beats his drum.
What we know is that the old expression that perception is reality took over and that much of the nation fell into the blame game of accusing one side or another. All of this took place in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln, one of the nation’s most beloved presidents.
That is the most unbecoming aspect of this matter. Shouldn’t everyone have been more conscious of and respectful of the Lincoln Memorial, a sacred place in the culture of America?
What is more unfortunate is that religion itself failed that day to remind everyone that spiritual people don’t intimidate each other or yell invectives or show arrogance to elders or do anything that risks triggering a potential melee. Religion was the loser because all this incident demonstrated was that everyone involved was not able to see the bigger picture of being peace loving and respectful to their neighbors.
During a television interview, the teenager expressed regret and said he wished he had walked away. He added that in the aftermath of this event, he would like to speak to Phillips.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful — and a reaffirmation of all faith traditions — if the adults in the room could arrange a real meeting to show that we can do better in America?
It’s not too late to sit everyone down together and talk about how they felt, about how the situation could have been handled in a less confrontational manner. It’s an opportunity to help the boys reflect fairly and thoughtfully about what happened and what they might have learned from this experience.
The Black Hebrew Israelites need to realize that they, too, played a role in and contributed to the tensions and they, too, own the hurt feelings they helped instigate that day.
The point is not about the right to assemble or the right to free speech. It is about the responsibility of religious groups to set an example, to remember a sacred teaching for all faith traditions which is “Anything that is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
Have we forgotten how to live with each other, even as we as Americans are divided by differences of opinion on the critical issues of the day?
Shouldn’t we teach our youth that talking to one another about our differences is the way to go for us as Americans?
The way to live in a civil society involves managing relationships where we inhabit the same space and disagree about politics and religion. Issues such as race relations, reproductive rights or simple respectful behavior with elders may strain the moral fabric of our beliefs, but we cannot succumb to those pressures lest we fall into the abyss of hatred.
The Black Hebrew Israelites, who allegedly ignited this brouhaha, have damaged their own standing as a result of their role as provocateurs. If they are peace loving people, then let them do their part to right the wrong of that day and, as the prophets say, “Seek peace and pursue it.”
We may never get the real facts and truth about the context of how things got to the point of a confrontation that day.
But can we focus on a shared responsibility to heal hurt feelings and grow in wisdom?
Can our faith traditions help all the participants take the moral high ground and find the peace that is waiting for us. It is not too late to transform a confrontation that became a media spectacle into teachable moment.
Don’t we owe that to the memory of Abraham Lincoln?