June 28, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

Another day, another two broken windows. Another day, another senseless attack. Another day, another chance to experience anger and sorrow.

Another day, another opportunity to practice serenity.

God, grant me

Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian, wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society, one of my favorite books in seminary. The basic thesis is that as individuals we may always try to do the right thing, but when we become a group we are more likely to sin corporately. Niebuhr believed individual human beings could set aside their egotism, transcend their existence and think about others. Groups, on the other hand, require each member to set aside his or her ego for the sake of the group. Once this ego is cast away, the group takes control and has no mechanism for considering others, whether individuals or groups.

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change

I mentioned how much I liked this book, and I do, not just for itself but for its influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, perhaps the most accessible German theologian in history, disagreed with Niebuhr’s embrace of pacifism, finding it naïve and simplistic. Bonhoeffer was executed for taking part in a failed plot to overthrow Hitler. As it happens, Bonhoeffer was hanged in April, 1945, at Flossenburg Concentration Camp only a few days before the camp was liberated by Allied troops.

The courage to change the things I can

For most of humanity in most places at most times, I suspect Niebuhr was right. Individuals do behave better than the groups to which they belong. While crowds of Red Sox fans may chant “Yankees suck” at a guy in a pinstripe shirt, very few would do the same if they pulled up next to the Yankees fan at a gas pump. Although mobs are composed of individual people, mob violence is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts.

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Most and most and most, of course, is not all and all and all. My own life stands in stark contradiction to the notion I am more moral alone than I am in a society, at least when that group is composed of people I respect. In recovery, I’ve found such a group. Although it may be ever-changing (like life) and imperfect (like life), the collection of recovery folks with whom I’ve thrown my lot in are people whose approval I value in a way I never valued my own opinion of myself. Alone, I had a feeble and inaccurate moral compass. Creation and Destruction were merely opposite sides of a coin I flipped hundreds, even thousand, times a day. Through recovery, I’ve found a group that helps me know what to do and why. I am a better man—not just a more sober one—than I was 13 years ago.

Amen.

Now, back to the broken windows. I suspect one person is responsible for all the damage over the past few months. Video footage suggests this—or at least we have no evidence any attack has been made by a group and all the footage seems to show the same person. I suspect this person is a very sick and sad man, one who’s tried to find recovery but keeps letting it slip out of his hands over and over and over. I suspect this person is not part of any group that’s offering him moral guidance. I suspect he’s secretly disgusted with himself and everyone around him.

I also suspect I want him punished good and hard. Oh, yes, and slowly.

God,

Grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

The courage

To change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr

Early 1930’s

Repeat until internalized.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith