Making the world safe for diversity
Six months before his death, John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement address at American University:
“So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
While these seldom-referred-to words of JFK were spoken at the height of the cold war (which makes them all the more beautiful), they have enduring significance for our divided times. Let’s think of the implications of inhabiting this planet together. Not only do we breathe the same air that dinosaurs and Aristotle and Jesus breathed; we inhale and exhale the same air that people in California, China, and Mexico do.
As the most testy political issues in our country increasingly get tossed from federal oversight to individual states’ control – from environmental protection and healthcare reimbursement to concealed carry laws and voter registration requirements – I sometimes wonder if I should live out of my car. That would give me all kinds of flexibility for benefiting from states that have exactly what I want or need. When I want to live in the least segregated city, I move to Sacramento, California. When I decide that I want the greenest city in America, I move to Portland, Oregon. If certain labor laws matter to me most, I move to Texas. If I want death penalty laws on the books of my state – I don’t! – I consider moving from Iowa to Indiana.
How wonderful, though, if we could think of the states in this country as not being pitted against one another for citizens to locate what they need. Historian Gary Wills makes an interesting point. Prior to the Civil War, he notes, the “United States” was invariably a plural noun. “These United States are a free country.” After the Civil War, particularly after Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the noun became singular. “The United States is a free country.” Lincoln leaned heavily on the concept that America was a single people dedicated to a common proposition.
As the world order experiences new vibrations every day, with international alliances coming under review, refugees wondering where next they will go, and America’s business community guessing about nations they will be discouraged from trading with, President Kennedy’s words are helpful. “At least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”
I take this not merely as an admonition for America’s citizens and elected leaders (though Kennedy most certainly intended that), but also as a particular call to Christian people. We are to help make the world safe for diversity. This requires some Jesus courage on our part. And a definite restlessness. Let us not rest until we know that the fear and worry of diverse peoples, especially the most marginalized among them, have been transformed into feelings of true safety.
–Peter W. Marty, senior pastor
Copyright © 2017 Peter W. Marty. All rights reserved. Any use of this material must be attributed to Peter W. Marty. To reproduce this material in published format, please contact Peter.