I often feel that way, but last week a high school in a suburb of Portland, Oregon gave me some hope. It’s a story that involves many of the things our culture faces: racism and violence, but also repentance.
I was especially interested in the story because it’s from the town where I grew up – Forest Grove, Oregon. I loved growing up in Forest Grove. As I moved throughout the country after graduating, I heard horror stories about other high school experiences, but Forest Grove High School gave me wonderful experiences – great friendships and some of the best teachers I’ve ever had.
But not every student had it so good. Forest Grove has the highest Latino population of any Portland metro area school district, and, unfortunately, there were some racial tensions when I attended. Of course, my home town isn’t alone in those tensions. Racism permeated the United States back in the 90s when I was in school, and it continues to insidiously infect the country in 2016.
That racism came to a head last week as students celebrated “Unity Week.” They made inspirational posters and hung them on the walls. But the conflict began when one student decided to make a poster that was not so unifying. He wrote, “Build A Wall” on a large sheet of paper and placed it over a unity poster prominently displayed in the foyer.
The poster hung there for less than five minutes before a teacher took it down, but the damage had been done. Many students, along with teachers and administrators, were offended by the poster. The poster is a reference to Trump’s proposal to, you know, build a big, beautiful wall between the United States and Mexico, and have Mexico pay for it. Why? Because, as Trump claimed when he announced his presidential bid last July, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending … people that have a lot of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…And some, I assume, are good people.”
The vast majority of students at FGHS aren’t buying that lie. The following day they protested the sign by marching out of classes in a sign of solidarity with the Latino community. They know that Latino immigrants “believe in the importance of hard work” and are not the violent caricature Trump has made them out to be.
And, even more important, these students know deep in their bones that, whether immigrants come here legally or illegally, they are united with U.S. citizens in their common humanity. In religious language, it really doesn’t matter whether someone is here legally or illegally. What matters is that all people are united in sharing the image of God. That’s one reason that the Bible states, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself…”Showing solidarity with those who are often scapegoated by our culture is an amazing thing and I’m grateful for the students at FGHS for their witness. But something else happened that is equally amazing.
The student who posted the sign was “disciplined.” I’m not sure how he was disciplined, but he soon wrote a heartfelt apology. He stated that he doesn’t really want a wall, but he felt that his freedom of speech was threatened. So, he posted the sign in protest. He also stated that he didn’t realize how his words would harm his fellow students, that he has embarrassed his family, and he promised to learn more about the plight of immigrants.
Now, we could be cynical at this point. He could have been forced into making the apology by the administration, otherwise they would expel him. But the apology is very self-reflective. And I hope he is learning that with freedom comes responsibility. That is, when our freedom comes at the expense of another’s safety, it’s no longer freedom. It’s a form of slavery to a scapegoating “us vs them” mentality.
Unfortunately, that form of slavery affects all of us in some form or another, and it creates divisive walls between people. Hostility is mimetic, that is, imitative. We naturally respond to another’s hostility with hostility, creating a vicious cycle. The point is to recognize when we fall into the trap and repent from it. That, I hope, is what the student who posted the “Build A Wall” sign experienced.
We see this hostility at another point in the story. In his apology, the student stated that other students had been driving by his house, yelling threats of violence against him and his family.
Adults could say, “Oh, that’s just high school kids being high school kids,” but that’s a convenient way to get us off the hook. Unfortunately, this is how we often form unity – by uniting in violent hostility against a common enemy in acts of revenge. Yes, high school students do it, but adults are much more adept at this form of scapegoating. We scapegoat the scapegoater and call it justice, but really it just makes us all scapegoaters.
The fact is that children and teenagers absorb the culture around them in profound ways. They learn how to be in the world through their culture, specifically, through adults. No matter which side of the political divide we are on, our hostile political discourse has deep consequences, including the fact that children and teenagers absorb that hostility and act it out in various ways.
Ultimately, our desire for unity must be based on compassion and inclusion that embraces everyone, especially those with whom we disagree. That’s the great challenge of unity. This is why the major spiritual teachers call us to be one. United not over and against a common enemy, but united in a way that invites even those we call our enemies into a community of love and care. Or, as Jesus simply put it, “Love your enemies.” It’s that love that opens our hearts to true freedom and unity.
Image: Screenshot from YouTube: Students protest “build a wall” banner at Forest Grove High – by the Oregonian