Throughout its history, the U.S. has found its greatest unity when facing its greatest adversity (repression as colonies of England, two world wars, 9/11, etc.). During those perilous times we have shunted lesser internal concerns aside to focus on existential threats.
However, in the absence of an external enemy, we polarize ourselves into a state of paralysis. We sink deeper into our blueness or our redness and fail to recognize, as cartoonist Walt Kelly reminds us, that we have met the enemy and it is us. The purity of our redness and the superiority of our blueness obscure the essence of our oneness, our humanity.
When Interfaith Winston-Salem was organized five years ago, we acknowledged that religious polarization was a division we wanted to address. Our goal was peace through understanding. We knew we would never overcome fear until we overcame ignorance.
Just over a year later, in 2013 our group worked with Mayor Allen Joines and City Council on the Charter for Compassion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and religious historian Karen Armstrong had issued a challenge for cities across the globe to endorse the charter, to live by the Golden Rule and treat others as they would want to be treated.
The mayor and council unanimously endorsed the charter July 15, 2013, giving Winston-Salem the honor of being only the 18th city in the world to make such a commitment. Our elected officials took this bold step even before cities like Atlanta and San Francisco. More than 70 government entities across the world now have formally endorsed the charter and hundreds of other communities are working to live out the call for compassion.
Six of the seven council members who endorsed the Charter for Compassion in 2013 continue to serve on the council: Denise D. Adams, Dan Besse, Vivian H. Burke, Robert C. Clark, Derwin L. Montgomery and James Taylor Jr. The only newcomers are Jeff McIntosh and John Larson, who replaced Molly Leight.
Over the last few weeks, these city government leaders have been listening to citizen comments and debating the merits of approving a Welcoming City resolution. That document asks the City Council to reaffirm that “ours is a welcoming city for newcomers, immigrants and refugees….” They have heard passionate pleas from citizens speaking from fear and citizens speaking from hope. At times these officials have sunk into petty politics and at others they have raised the specter of reprisals from higher levels of government.
When the Charter for Compassion was presented initially, people asked, “Who can be against compassion?” Today, if someone were to ask, “Who can oppose being a Welcoming City?” the response would be less than rhetorical. We have allowed ourselves to become like lemmings marching to the sea. We don’t see beyond our blueness and our redness to recognize the importance of our underlying oneness, our humanity.
The Charter for Compassion, which was endorsed by City Council, says:
“The principle of compassion calls us to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put the well-being of others there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
“It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others - even our enemies - is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately.
“We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the center of communal life - to encourage a positive appreciation of diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings - even those regarded as enemies.
“We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, and ideological boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.”
By inviting us to look beyond our own narrow self-interest, approval of the Welcoming City resolution would demonstrate that we are both a city of welcome and a city of compassion. Regardless of actions of our local government, our traditions – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, humanist or other -- give us a clarion call to welcome the stranger.