I just recently read The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. It is about one of those swinging bridges in Peru that allows people to cross over a great chasm. One day, five different people were on the bridge, each going to a different place, when it collapsed. A Franciscan friar watched as the five people fell to their deaths, on their way to becoming mere statistics. The friar then spent immense energy and time writing biographies of each of them.
They were all different people: one was a sympathetic character and one was crazy. One was a conniving sort and one was a really different bird. What they all had in common was their humanity. The friar gave them their humanity–saved them from becoming statistics–by spending a great portion of his life learning about them and telling their respective stories.
A profound message was sent last Tuesday on Election Day. A very large group of people–real people experiencing real pain and frustration–spoke. I am afraid, though, that very few people listened. We have the same old insults, fainting couch melodrama, and the rhetoric that we have grown so used to. I am afraid it would take too much work and introspection to listen and then to examine oneself.
Over the past eight years, a very influential segment of the powers-that-be have been trying to present economic numbers that benefit a president and party for whom they have great affinity. Unemployment numbers that have been reported have had some pretty damning fine print below them: they did not count people who had grown so despondent over finding work that they had stopped looking altogether. Apparently, the unemployment numbers are only supposed to count people who are looking for a job.
Some of the hardest hit among this group were white, blue-collar men. According to statistics reported, they didn’t even exist. Place this in a society in which news “comedy” shows viciously mock them and what they value, and it is no wonder they showed up to be heard at the ballot box last Tuesday. To be heard is to be given one’s humanity.
There is another group of people in this world who don’t have the opportunity to be heard at the ballot box. These are the inhabitants of a country ripped apart by civil war and foreign intervention. These people are not seen as human beings by the forces of geopolitics or in political rhetoric. They are seen as collateral damage because they are in the midst of a horrific war. Understandably, they want to take their families to a safe place and recover from their tragedy. Any of us would do the same thing.
An incredibly sticky situation it is because there are so many of these refugees. They can change the culture of host countries; some of them are bad actors. Some of them are different, some are sympathetic, some of them you would love to know and some are conniving. They are human beings after all.
That is what I wish everyone would remember as we face issue after issue and have election after election: we–and they–are human beings after all. God showed us what he thought of humanity when the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1) When we buy into the political rhetoric that dehumanizes human beings, we not only de-humanize others: we dehumanize ourselves.
–David Browder, Rector of St. Thomas’