In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we saw the people of this great country set aside their differences to stand together with the victims in Texas and Florida. We saw heroes trudging through muck and water to save the lives of people they had never met. We saw a wave of generosity fight back against the storm, as people gave money they couldn’t afford to give.
But when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, leaving the island in shambles, without power, drinkable water, food, or shelter, its 3.4 million people were mostly on their own. Help was far slower, donations much smaller, public concern far less unified, and government assistance much diminished.
Why the difference? There are many reasons, of course: difficult logistics, the island’s infrastructure and bankrupt economy, and just plain compassion fatigue.
But there is another factor. Nearly half of Americans have no idea that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. A New York Times poll found that more than 8 in 10 Americans who know Puerto Ricans are citizens support giving help to Puerto Rico. Of those who don’t know, only 4 in 10 support giving aid.
This leaves us with a startling observation: we’re not helping Puerto Ricans because we don’t see them as one of us.
This breach in the bonds of love is symptomatic of a divided and hostile culture, which celebrates power and self-interest. We grow indifferent to suffering, oppression, and death, when beyond the boundaries of our own tribe, be it family, race, class, nationality, or political ideology.
Our democracy stands imperiled. There can be no “rule of the people,” when there are no people—only individuals seeking the dominion of their own interests.
The solution lies in an ancient and simple (but, by no means, easy) rule: “Be of the same mind, having the same love…. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-5).
The Apostle Paul describes how Jesus did not regard his power as something to be exploited but chose instead to humble himself, to serve others, to feed the hungry and heal the sick—to give up everything, even his life, for them.
Only this recovery of humility, compassion, and solidarity will heal the rancor that now dominates our society. We must get better at listening and seeing one another as citizens of the same community, members of the same family.
Paul says that to find the energy to walk this path we must lean on each other—for God is with us, and in us, whenever two or more are together.
We are like Antaeus, that ancient giant in Greek mythology, who was invincible as long as he remained in contact with his mother, the earth. To have strength, to have the energy of God, we must stay in contact with the body of Christ, with each other.
Martin Buber writes, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”
Our democracy will be fixed when we begin to value the common good over the personal good, when we choose servant leaders over CEO leaders, when we give up our privilege and seek the welfare of the other, when we actually talk about ideas and morals and seek consensus.
I know that sounds difficult, maybe even impossible. So let’s start smaller. Let’s start by taking a cue from Jane Lumb, a dear member of Westminster Presbyterian Church, who at the age of 90 died peacefully on September 28. Jane spoke her mind and had no compunction about disagreeing with you. She was a woman of wit and honesty. But always, in the end, she hugged you. Hugged you with one of those famous Jane hugs, enveloping you in the warmth of her slim, frail body. She hugged you like she loved you. Like she needed you. Like you were the source of her happiness.
And maybe it begins there. Maybe the beginning of fixing our democracy is to be found in a hug. A hug that puts us in contact with our source of strength, like Antaeus with the earth.
So, go ahead, and hug a stranger today. It might just save your life.