Human family

Can we all get along?” That was Rodney King’s question during the 1991 riots in Los Angeles, and it’s a good one today.

The acquittal of four L.A. police officers of charges related to their beating of King as he lay helpless on the ground – a beating captured on video and widely broadcast – resulted in the worst single episode of urban unrest in American history (The New York Times, “Rodney King Dies at 47,” 17 June 2012). At a news conference during the riots, King asked, “Can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”

Yes, the question is a good one today. We are plagued by wars and rumors of wars; mass migrations as people flee war, starvation, and natural disaster; deep racism and white privilege that threaten the integrity of society; a growing economic divide that sets a small number of the super wealthy against the swelling number of the poor and disadvantaged.

Can we get along with each other? Can we learn to create a world where justice and peace prevail? – the kind of justice in which we remember what belongs to whom and return it to them, the peace that is not merely the absence of conflict but the equitable sharing of all resources so that everyone has enough and no one has more than is necessary. Can we all get along?

The Hebrew and Christian scriptures raise the hope that we can – that we will. The psalmist envisioned a community in which historic enemies discover their common roots in God and live together in peace (Ps. 87). Isaiah foresaw a time when implements of division and conflict would be transformed into tools for unity and peace and prosperity (Isa. 2:1-4). Jesus called us to value our enemies as we value our closest friends (Matt. 5:43-48) and to treat others – everyone else – as we would have others treat us (Matt. 7:12).

The vision is lofty and challenging. It may seem impossible to attain. It’s tough even within the church. Saint Paul had to admonish the early Christians to stop quarreling over opinions and differences of faith (Rom. 14:1-6), he scolded them for dividing into factions as they lived their faith in different ways (1 Cor. 1:10-17), and we’ve been quarreling over our differences ever since. If we’re going to get along, how will we do it?

There are lots of excellent guides for how to have helpful, reconciling conversations about difficult subjects. Every religious denomination and organization has good resources to offer, and still we struggle with disagreement and conflict and division in our churches, our society, our world. What’s missing in our efforts to get along?

Tomorrow, September 18, I’m celebrating Dag Hammarskjöld Day. It was on that date in 1961 that Hammarskjöld, perhaps the most revered secretary general of the United Nations, was killed in a plane crash while on his way to help negotiate peace in what was then Northern Rhodesia. Something he wrote in his book Markings suggests a good starting place.

“The best and the most wonderful thing that can happen to you in this life,” he wrote, “is that you should be silent and let God work and speak.” First be silent, and let God do what God is doing. Be silent, and don’t quarrel over opinions. Be silent, and suspend your inclination to judge others and what they do and what they believe. Be silent, and don’t try to hold anyone else accountable to your notions of right and wrong.

Before we do anything else, we need to be silent in the face of the mystery of what God is doing in the world. Before we quarrel over opinions, we need to be silent so we might hear what God is doing through the other person. Before trying to set someone else right about what we think is true, we need to honor the truth that lives in the other person.

“Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister,” St. Paul asked. “Or why do you despise your brother or sister?” (Rom. 14:10). When we do those things, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. And when we find we’re doing those things, it might be a good time to be silent and start listening. What truth is God trying to speak to me through the one with whom I am quarreling over opinions? In my judgment of someone else, how is God judging me?

The psalmist envisioned a time when even historic enemies would recognize each other as children of the same God, citizens of the same homeland (Ps. 87). And that’s the starting place, I believe: to recognize that despite all our differences, we are one in God’s eyes. Maya Angelou said it well in her poem “Human Family.”

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world,
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike. ▪


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