Chapter 4.5: Who are we?

Nothing unites like a common enemy.

One of the things that Pope Francis points out in Fratelli Tutti is that we can’t really encounter another in a fruitful way (both as individuals and on a broader social or national scale) unless we know and love who WE are. For me to appreciate what is cool and different about you, I need to have something cool and different of my own that I am able to share in return.

But we live in a time when it can be hard to say with confidence who I am and who we are. (I mentioned some of the reasons for that in another reflection that came from Chapter 4.) We live in an age of precarity when everything seems unsettled, and when we aren’t confident or secure in who we are, we have an instinct, I think, to cling to a strong stance on who we are not.

When the Rays beat the Yankees in the AL playoffs and advanced to face the Astros, I heard from a number of Yankee fans that they were rooting for us to take down the ‘stros, who had been exposed in a cheating scandal that had tarnished their recent successes. The fans of other baseball teams may not have particularly cared for each other, but they ALL hated the Astros. It was a common bond among those who might otherwise not have much in common.

When I’d hear those good wishes from Yankee fans, I’d reply back with a “Thanks. Nothing unites like a common enemy.” But that’s both true and problematic.

It’s been commonplace to the point of cliche for coaches and leaders to demean and even demonize opponents in order to force solidarity among their followers. Former Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson, a Hall of Famer, always stood out to me as a master at this, convincing his players that nobody respected them, even as they were the consensus #1 team in the country. For many, having an opponent to fight is the best way to bring a people together. It’s not lost on me that what pulled the US out of the Great Depression wasn’t any of the visionary domestic initiatives FDR launched, but the opposition to the axis powers in World War II.

What’s problematic about this, most of all, is that it means demonizing somebody that is a member of the same human family. Fratelli Tutti’s call to recognize the primacy of our common humanity makes it very hard to organize around fear and hate of others. They can’t be brothers and sisters and demons, really.

But what’s also problematic about this is that building your identity as an individual or a group around what you’re against is a little like building your diet around junk food. In the short term, it provides quite the sugar rush, and it sure tastes good. But in the long term, it’s not sustainable. It’s unhealthy and eventually will kill you by covering over your lack of nutrition.

That’s where a lot of us are. In this age of precarity, when our families and our jobs, our health and our finances, our communities and our sense of purpose all seem to be up in the air, without any real assurance that a happy ending waits on the far end of this dim tunnel, it feels profoundly unsafe to be alone and to face our vulnerabilities. It feels good, even if it’s false bravado, to puff out our chests and shout down what we’ve decided we’re against.

As much as Francis is right, and we need to recognize our common humanity and embrace the other, I think we have a problem we need to figure out together first. We need to drop the crutch of opposition and fear and hate, and get comfortable with who we ARE, and not just who we are NOT.

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