My Turn: The rise of humanity

For the Monitor
Published: 9/15/2016 12:20:23 AM

When we read and see on television and the internet the horrible ways that human beings treat each other, it makes me despair of the nature and future of humankind.

What is the dynamic that makes possible the kidnapping and recruitment of 10-year-old boys to be taught to torture, kill and commit suicide? What in human nature justifies the incarceration and shooting of Palestinian children by the Israeli military? How can people in the United States tolerate 33,000 people being killed in gun violence each year?

What is the thinking of the Texas Legislature with its vote to permit concealed carry of guns on the state university and college campuses or the New Hampshire Legislature allowing guns to be carried into the legislative chamber?

And what drives a Christian church in Texas to hire armed guards to be present at its services of worship? The television report showed men with body armor and automatic rifles standing against the walls on each side of the church sanctuary.

During this election cycle, what is the human condition that drives grown adults to insult, defame, discredit and hate others under the guise of being strong, truthful and a winner? In contemporary society, how is it that beliefs and actions of civility and tolerance are twisted into perceptions of weakness and gullibility?

The Southern Poverty Law Center conducted a survey from March 23 to April 2 concerning the effect of the 2016 presidential campaign on school children and classrooms. The results of the survey included, “Gains made by years of anti-bullying work in schools have been rolled back in a few short months.” Students have been emboldened to use slurs and engage in name-calling.

Some have become fearful of the people in power in our country. Other children justify their language and blustery behavior as they “point to candidates and claim they are just saying what everyone is thinking.”

In New Hampshire, “one high school teacher . . . wrote, ‘A lot of students think we should kill any and all people we do not agree with.’ ”

These observations invite us to explore the nature of humanity, where we have been and where we are going as the human species on this earth. There are two possibilities.

One, humanity may be too broken to override violence and hatred that cling to our society and world. Commitment to striving in the same historic ways of domination through coercive power and using the ways of more lethal weapons, xenophobia, gender bias and racial constructs may be advancing the extinction of humanity.

However, there is a second possibility. Humanity may be on the verge of becoming a new kind of influence in our world. It may be that we are experiencing the last gasps of people resisting the progress and change of humanity. It may be that we are moving toward a future where the relationships among people and between people and the natural environment are exchanging violence for empathy, caring, cooperation and the complexities of diverse cultures.

It could be that we are experiencing the birth pangs of a future where the intellect and the heart join together to resolve the challenges and stresses of humanity and its relationship with creation.

You see, just as I begin to think that evil and depravity are overwhelming us, I remembered where we have been. I think about attitude changes, just in my lifetime, concerning issues of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism the rights of the LGBTQ community, care for the environment and many others.

I read accounts of people sacrificing their own wealth and well-being to serve the needs of others. I read about people running into burning buildings to rescue victims. I read about a person running across a university plaza under sniper fire to retrieve a fallen student.

On Aug. 6, I witnessed a group of people demonstrating on the Concord State House plaza against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A family from out of town that happened to be walking by joined them. Together they walked to the edge of the Merrimack River to confess and to grieve over the people killed and maimed by the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They threw flowers into the river in their memory.

At the riverside, they met a family picnicking and fishing. The woman wore a hijab. This family also threw flowers into the river.

Then I listen to the account of an educator in Tucson, Ariz., who hosts a classroom of 3- to 5-year-olds. Together, they build a caring community of children who support each other while they learn through questioning, exploring and experimenting. They try out ways among themselves to solve conflicts, celebrate successes and be with someone who is sad. They practice ways of hospitality as they welcome new children, parents and friends into their classroom and include them in their community.

When these children move on to the first grade, their new teachers recognize the children from this pre-school classroom by the way they are energized to learn and by their skill in mediating and negotiating difficult behaviors among their peers.

Many religious faith traditions envision the progress of humanity from bearers of weapons to people armed with powers of persuasion, reason, empathy, community, love and care. The prophet, Micah, envisioned, “They (human beings) will hammer their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives.”

When Peter drew his sword against Roman occupiers seeking to arrest Jesus, Jesus said, “Put away your sword.” Muhammad urged charity toward people in need.

Governments may refuse to relate to populations with compassion and nurture. Some people may resist movement toward equality and freedom for all people in favor of the ways of domination. But some, during this season’s election cycle, will let the vision of a common humanity guide our words and our votes for candidates.

Some will give support to teachers as they provide relationship skills for children. Some will encourage gun-free suburban and urban neighborhoods and churches. Some will reject our government’s plan to fund a renewed nuclear weapons arsenal.

We have the memory, the will and the imagination to define humanity’s future.

(John Buttrick lives in Concord.)

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