“Why Can’t We Live Together” was the title of the hit song by Timmy Thomas in 1972. The song’s title and lyrics ask a poignant question today, for schools, communities and even nations that continue to struggle with mistrust, misunderstanding and deep-seated hatred as well as resentment and envy.
So, why can’t we live together? A question I asked myself as I watched the recent news reports from Jena, La . Perhaps it’s also an important question to reflect upon with this month being the 50 th anniversary of the Little Rock school integration. It was September 1957 when Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., became the battleground for a showdown over integration, as nine black students enrolled at the “all white” school.
For me, it was 35 years ago when integration began at my school. I was 14 years old, in the ninth grade and participating in the junior high’s drill team. I don’t recall having any particular opinion about my new fellow students other than feeling sorry that they had to wake up so much earlier than I did in order to make the long bus ride across town to attend school.
But some students did have opinions. Or perhaps they were merely asserting viewpoints they learned from their parents. Many of my new fellow students seemed unhappy to be forced to go to a new school. All in all, there was tension and conflict, and eventually there was violence.
Divisive and abusive speech became daily occurrences. I can’t say “who” said “what” “first” on any particular day. It didn’t seem to matter, actually. The animosity and hostility appeared to be mutual. But that said, I do want to be clear that the ill will that ruled my school days was not harbored by the majority of white or black students. As often seems to be the case, a few became the voice for the many. This reminds me of words by Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, “We will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
And, unfortunately, the voice of the few among the white students was coming from some football players, cheerleaders and drill team members. For me, this culminated one day when I entered the gym in the middle of an argument between some white drill team members and black female students. My entrance was what some would call being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As I walked into the gym, a tennis racket was in midair, with my nose soon to be its target.
My response to the incident was the same as when I heard recently about black students in Jena feeling they must ask permission to sit under the so-called white student’s tree or three nooses hanging from that tree or six students beating up on one student: Why, please tell me, why can’t we live together? Will it ever be possible to have good will for others, regardless of the color of our skin, our religious beliefs, our sex, our age, our wealth, our political viewpoints?
Should I have been angry that day in the gym when I was caught in the middle of an argument not my own? Was it fair that I suffered for the actions of others? Who should have gotten the blame for my injury? I wasn’t angry at anyone, though. I was sad at the time that such pointless tensions continued to plague the peace and harmony of my school days. And I wasn’t about to allow myself to get sucked into what I saw as a disposition that served no good purpose.
Jesus is the ultimate role model of how to respond to discrimination and injustice — both in his actions and in his teachings. It was certainly unfair that he was arrested and treated like a criminal. Some could say his disciples were justified in fighting the guards who came to arrest him, and some would have praised the disciple who cut off the ear of one of the guards. But not Jesus. He rebuked the violent actions and healed the guard’s ear.
Even on the cross — being an innocent man wrongfully sentenced — Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)
His teachings give us specific instruction for our response to others’ treatment of us. He said, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: Don’t hit back at all. If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.”
And regarding those we think of as enemies or those who mistreat us, Jesus taught, “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best — the sun to warm and the rain to nourish — to everyone, regardless: the good and the bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (The Message, Matthew 5:38-48)
It’s quite clear that we will never live together peacefully, in friendship, with mutual respect, until we agree to disagree if need be, replace ill will with good will, hold no grudges or hard feelings, and release resentment, bitterness, rivalry, jealousy — and all feelings that truly serve no good purpose and will never have a good outcome.
We must endeavor to understand one another. Understanding will impel respect and dispel fear. And we must love in the way Jesus taught. “Love, love, love — everyone — no exceptions!” Then we can live together!