This weekend we traveled to Washington DC to help our daughter, Katie, relocate for a new job. Saturday morning we boarded the Metro for the quick trip over the Potomac to the capital. When I realized that the timing of her move would put us in DC just a few days before the election, I have to admit, I was more than a little nervous, given the division tearing our country and people apart with increasing vitriol.
The last time we were here was the spring of 2017, and I remember the crush of people walking the National Mall, the pathways between monuments and memorials littered with blossoms from the endless rows of cherry trees. In spite of the unseasonably hot weather, which always makes me cranky, I was struck by the beauty and relentless hope on display. In the midst of memorials and museums lamenting the suffering woven throughout our nation’s history due to multiple wars and the systematic oppression of whole people groups on the basis of skin color or gender, the resilience and courage of ordinary people was the common thread running through all that we saw that day.
Saturday’s visit was much different. Emerging into the bright sunlight from the underground Metro station, the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was, eerily quiet. As we walked towards the White House, almost everyone we passed on the street was also wearing a mask – not just in businesses where it was required for entry, but even on the streets. I note the difference from scenes in my hometown where people angrily proclaim to grocery store greeters that masks are an assault on their personal liberty. Reports in the past few days of record breaking new case numbers are a sobering reminder that COVID is still a real threat, and likely played a huge role in the lack of weekend visitors to our nation’s capital. However, I believe something even more dangerous was to blame – FEAR.
Everywhere we walked, construction crews were busy measuring and cutting, boarding up windows and glass doors on businesses and homes closest to the city center. A few had been up long enough to have colorful murals painted on them, like the ones at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, located on Lafayette Square, across from the White House. We stood on the square where peaceful protestors were gathered on the evening of June 1, lamenting the death George Floyd, yet another victim of disparate police brutality against people of color. Scenes of police and national guardsmen forcibly removing the lawfully assembled demonstrators, in order for President Trump to stand in front of the church holding a Bible, in a staged photo op designed to appeal to his base, were surreal. It was not surprising to see both grief and anger on display in that space. It was a powerful picture of the tension of this current moment in our nation, on the eve of an election that some have said will decide whether we survive as a democracy.
That tension became more palpable as we stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, watching in dismay as a crowd of Trump supporters marched a huge Thin Blue Line flag, with the words “Trump” and “Law and Order” in bold print across the stripes, up the steps of the memorial, covering any people who didn’t move out of their way. They chanted “Law and order…we love Trump…God bless Trump.” As we traveled through Pennsylvania and Ohio on our drive home Sunday, we passed multiple caravans of Trump supporters, lined up on roads and bridges, their cars flying both American flags and Trump flags. Again, the word that kept coming to mind was “surreal.”
Chris and I talked about all we were feeling – the mixture of sadness and excitement in getting Katie settled in a new place, but also our fears for the days and weeks ahead depending on the outcome of the election and the likelihood of a violent response. Chris shared an interview he had just listened to with Tim Shriver of The Call to Unite movement, and social scientist Arthur Brooks, author of Love Your Enemies. In their conversation, they share that they have a long history of friendship, despite ideological/political differences. Brooks shared compellingly about a common false narrative driving our belief about conflict. “In any human conflict, both sides believe they are motivated by love, while the other side is motivated by hatred.” That is an error, he says, pointing out that both sides can’t be simultaneously motivated by love and hatred, but the bigger error is that love and hatred aren’t opposites, the opposite of love is actually fear. And fear, he says, can only be neutralized by love.
When I think about all that this year has held, with the terrifying threat of a global pandemic, volatile national and local elections, protests exposing racism and injustice, and unprecedented natural disasters accelerated by the climate crisis, it is hard to feel anything other than fear. We are being fed a steady stream of fear at every turn, resulting in self-protection, a scarcity mindset, division, and an “us vs. them” mentality. What if we remembered that we are all motivated by both fear and love? How could that change the way we respond to those whose views or beliefs seem so opposed to our own? The power to unite us is found in our “shared loves”, the things we care the most about, that aren’t defined by our political or religious views – our families, friends, neighbors, the communities we belong to. No matter what happens this week with the election, may we all remember that love neutralizes fear – not power, not loyalty, not certainty, and not winning. Only love.