American democracy is an idea.
It is not established by immutable law. It is not a guaranteed by the relentless forces of nature. Should we fail at our democratic enterprise, there is no outside force that will compel us back on the road to a just and free society. There will be no humanitarian intervention from the U.N., no NATO armies attempting regime change here. If our democratic republic fails, it will be because we will have allowed it to, and we will have no recourse thereafter. No, our democracy is not guaranteed, it is sustained only by our common commitment to that democratic idea.
The shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, a congressional staffer, a lobbyist, and two Capitol police officers is a symptom of a deep problem in our political life, that goes right to the heart of whether our democracy can be sustained. For while it is not the first act of political violence that we have seen in our 241 years as a nation, it takes place against a broader backdrop of incivility, hyper-partisanship, and divisive political discourse that makes me wonder wither this is a harbinger of things to come.
If it is not to be a portent of the complete breakdown of our democracy, then that will only be because we will have recommitted ourselves to the fundamental values and virtues of our republic. The first and foremost among those values is that we are one people—all of us.
Our first national motto is e pluribus unum: out of many, one. It serves as an all too important reminder that we have a common destiny, a common life together. It is a motto we need to reclaim.
For too long we have viewed our political opponents not as fellow citizens with whom we disagree, but as something fundamentally “other.” We deride the other side as libtards or rethuglicans; we toss around terms like “traitor” and “fascist.” We declare that someone elected by a majority of votes through the electoral college, as chosen by the electorate of the several states, per the dictates of the Constitution, is nevertheless “not my president.” And in all these things we do damage to the very idea of community that is necessary for civil discourse.
Our ability to have civil discourse, to have civility, is entirely dependent on our ability to recognize our fellow civis (“citizens”) in our common civitas (“city” or “community”). Civility doesn’t make community, it flows from a shared sense of community.
It is hard to have community, especially the kind necessary to a democratic republic, if we are quick to demonize one another, if we are inclined to imagine the worst motives for the other, or if we never make any effort to understand the other. If we do not see one another as fellow citizens, worthy of dignity and respect, then it will become impossible to build any sense of shared community.
The Republican members of Congress who came under attack this morning were practicing for the Congressional baseball game—our national pastime. That game has been played since 1909, and is an appropriate metaphor for what our politics ought to be: a friendly rivalry not against enemies, but for the love of the sport that brings both sides together. And to accomplish some good (proceeds from the game go to charity).
Baseball is our national pastime not because it is the most popular sport, but because it embodies something fundamentally American: notions of fair play, individualism (batting) balanced with communitarianism (fielding), self-sacrifice, and sportsmanship. Those same virtues that make baseball the sport it is are the same ones that make our republic what it is.
And so let this be a moment wherein we pause to reflect and to rededicate ourselves to the very virtues that sustain our democracy: a sense of community and common purpose, a respect for the rule of law, for the integrity of our democratic processes, and for our unity in our diversity.
And to that end, I offer this prayer:
Creator of all Life,
As we pray this day for those touched by this senseless act of violence
and pray for their swift recovery and healing,
We pray, too, for the healing of our nation:
That we might recommit to the values that bind us,
That we might see our opponents not as our enemies,
That we might find common cause in love of country,
seeking together the general welfare,
That we might build authentic and meaningful community,
That we might work to end all violence,
especially that which threatens the unity of the body politic.
Unite us across the divides
of race and nationality,
of religion and ideology,
of class and status,
of sex and gender,
That we might see one another as fellow citizens,
as travelers together along a common road.
Heal us of our brokenness,
make our eyes to see the views of others,
make our ears to hear the cries of our neighbors,
make our hands busy with the work of building community,
make our minds open to understanding,
make our hearts vehicles for love of neighbor,
and make us
out of many,