A couple of days ago, my wife, a UCC pastor, wrote a blog post called “Stopping Traffic” which has apparently gone viral. (Actually, I don’t exactly know what qualifies as “viral” but it’s been viewed – and theoretically read – by over half a million people in just a couple of days.) The post was about some disrespectful drivers interrupting a funeral procession, and it appears to have struck a nerve across a wide spectrum of people – conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious. Its popularity has surprised me for a number of reasons – first because I don’t think it is as well-written or as prophetic as some of her other writing, but also because she nearly didn’t post it at all. I encouraged her to do so, but was later concerned about the title, since I had been wrapped up in reading about the Black Lives Matters protests and several demonstrations which have stopped traffic on major roads, bridges and freeways.
But I have realized that these are not such different things. Both the funeral procession and the Black Lives Matter protestors are asking, begging, demanding that we acknowledge their grieving, that we stop for a moment and bear witness to their pain. It’s a simple request, too rarely heard or observed in our hectic, crazy, ever-so-demanding world. But it is, fundamentally, a question of respect for other people.
And it reminded me of a lesson from a human rights graduate seminar I took years ago, taught by Wiktor Osiatynski, a scholar who helped draft the Polish Constitution after the fall of communism. He told us that rights are secondary. Let that sink in for a minute – we live in a country founded on the concept of rights, every social movement in our history demanded rights, and our culture is awash in discussions of rights. I suspect we’ll be hearing even more about it in the next two weeks as Amnesty International is sending observers to the Republican & Democratic conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, respectively, to monitor human rights amid the anticipated protests.
But Osiatynski taught us that rights are secondary. They are essentially a fallback position, for when we don’t treat each other with respect. He illustrated his point by observing that we are often willing to surrender our “rights” for things which matter more to us. For example, when we marry we theoretically give up the right to pursue other sexual relationships. When we have children, we surrender the right to a decent night’s sleep. Members of the military surrender most of their rights in order to serve, and I know police and firefighters who would tell you the same. And my wife, like other clergy, has given up many things to follow her calling. We are, as a society, and as individuals, willing to sacrifice rights for things which we value more.
This is not to say, of course, that we should abandon all concept of human rights. Unfortunately, as we have seen, we do not treat each other with respect and therefore need to rely on that fallback position of rights. But let’s imagine for a moment that we didn’t need rights … that we could each bear witness to the needs of others around us and respond with genuine respect, decency, and compassion.
Sound a little like the “Golden Rule?” Yes, probably. It also sounds like a central tenet of most major religions. Which might be why I have been thinking lately that the church could have a role in healing some of the gaping wounds we see in our society. Church is one of the places where I have found myself in community with people who live very differently than I do, who may think and act and vote differently, but with whom I am still acknowledged and respected and heard. It is a place that I have found where people can truly witness each other’s struggles, pain and grief, and there are plenty of hugs to go around. That’s the church I know.
Unfortunately, the church at large – meaning in this case all of Christianity in the United States – has become so intertwined with the hostility and hatred ripping this country apart, with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, with sexism and homophobia and pedophilia, that it has sacrificed its moral authority and weakened itself to the point of impotence. Truly, most of the news I’ve seen about churches in the last week has dealt with whether Pokémon Go will bring anyone in the doors.
So who is left to step up and provide moral guidance for a country which is in desperate need of it? Where are our voices of conscience? Perhaps they are deep inside, silenced by the daily grind, the rush-hour, the deafening screams of violence, terrorism, inhumanity that greet us in our news cycles. It will, in the end, be up to each of us to find our own hearts, and bring them forward so they can bear witness to the individual and collective grief, pain, and promise we all carry.
And maybe it starts when we simply stop for a moment – stop to honor the funeral procession, stop to acknowledge the protestors wearing their grief, pain and fear on their sleeves, stop to listen to the stories of addicts fighting an invisible enemy, or refugees facing unspeakable pasts and uncertain futures. To me, each is like Jesus, showing us the wounds in his hands. Come, see my pain, hear my story, recognize my scars. Maybe our own humanity can start when we simply stop for a moment.
Which just reminds me of one of the most important lessons I learned in driver’s ed – no one has the right of way. The law just says who must yield it. What if we all yield for a moment, yield to the larger truth that none of us are invincible. Yield to a force greater than ourselves. Yield, and bear witness.