For those of a certain age, Thanksgiving week will always be the week President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
In the same way, Sept. 11 will be the day terrorists brought religious extremism to American shores.
Families have memories; schools, towns and states have memories. Every now and then something scars the “national memory,” and we encounter ourselves as a single people. We grieve as one or we celebrate as one.
Those moments are rare, and maybe they should be rare. It would be artificial for a people as divided as we are to pretend to a national consciousness. We don’t agree on the facts, we don’t agree on our own history, we don’t agree on meaning and ethics, we don’t like each other, and we certainly don’t trust each other.
Now, to echo President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg 151 years ago, we are met on a great battlefield of the wars we wage against each other. It isn’t a field in central Pennsylvania. It is the nation itself.
Cities are set to explode over worsening racial injustice and police misconduct. Football players get a free pass on domestic violence. Colleges shrug off epidemics of rape and cheating.
Banks and a small moneyed set wage unrelenting war on their fellow Americans. Descendants of immigrants turn against new arrivals and call it patriotism. Large companies like General Motors sell defective products. Lobbyists control our legislators, and they in turn deny votes and basic rights to certain citizens.
The question, then, is the one President Lincoln posed: Can a nation so wounded by its divisions, hatreds and manipulated fears survive? Are we setting the stage for even more repressive surveillance, even worse predations by the government-owning few, even more weapons in unstable hands, even worse despair among the many?
Lincoln’s answer was to stand on the battlefield itself, just months after blood started soaking into its soil. I think that must be our answer, too.
We must not give in to seasonal jollity, to the annual pretense that everything is fine and that what isn’t fine can be made fine by shopping at Target. We must stand on the battlefield itself — the streets of Ferguson, Mo., the hiring line when a job opens, a health clinic when battered and raped women show up for help, a voting station when the brown and black are turned away by clever stratagems — and there on the battlefield to see the wounded.
On this battlefield, where many live daily but which the privileged few can’t imagine from inside their distorted-reality bubble, we must ask who we are. Not what advertisers say we are, but who we actually are.
Are we in the crucial stages of becoming a peasant society, where a few live large and the rest fight for scraps? Or are we a “land of the free and home of the brave” that has temporarily lost its way and allowed our fears and greed to discourage our common sense?
This is precisely the world that Jesus was born into. We know where his loyalties lay. We who claim his name need to get out of the checkout lane at Target and onto the battlefield where our future is being worked out.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.