Over the course of our story, humanity has been addicted to difference. Far too often, distinctions in race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or social and economic class have been the justification for the cruelest and most wicked acts in history. Thankfully, there have been men and women across the generations who have beaten back the waves of injustice. The late John Lewis – through speeches and non-violent protests – delivered piercing condemnations of America’s racial hierarchy and helped pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi marched 240 miles from his ashram to the Arabian Sea to make salt. With that act of defiance, he – and nearly 50,000 others – put a crack in the edifice of British colonial rule over India. Mother Teresa served “the poorest of the poor” because she saw the face of God more often in the streets of Calcutta than from any preacher in any pulpit. The world has seen immense progress thanks in large part to men and women – known and unknown – who have guided the human race away from difference and darkness, and towards light and compassion and a common humanity. But humanity’s history is a long and connected chain that is not easily broken, and the ties of difference and indifference to the “other” often shackle us today.
A child born in the upscale neighborhoods of wealthy nations will have the capacity to achieve the heights of their potential. By contrast, a child born into less affluent circumstances can expect the headwinds of poverty, crime, and a lack of education to be a constant struggle on their path in life. Too often, the major difference between the first child and the second is what side of a border they were on when they came into this world.
Some use that fact to justify disproportionate outcomes. In the 2018 midterm elections, the president of the United States tried to build up fear and resentment towards migrant families traveling from the dangers of their homes in Central America to the United States. To the president, these migrants were a horde intent on invasion. They were coming for a free ride. But refugees are not criminals; they are fellow members of the human race. They left their countries because of crime, violence, and a lack of opportunity, and fled the desperation of their circumstances to find hope in our land. The president pointed to them as a child points to a closet saying they’re afraid of the monsters inside. And like the monsters, the fundamental difference between these migrants and us is superficial. I ask any mother or father who lives here in the United States, what would you have done if you were in their place? What lengths would you go to protect your family or your children? I think you would protect them – even if it cost you your life – if it meant escaping the traps of poverty and violence. I know I would have. To me, and I believe a majority of Americans would agree, which side of the border you’re born on is not an adequate justification for poverty, or domestic violence, or a lack of education.
I am not here advocating the elimination of borders. The nation-state has been the primary organizing structure of humanity for centuries and to scrap Westphalian sovereignty would only lead to chaos and disorder. National identity provides us with language, purpose and culture. A country is a community bound together under a single identity. Great people have accomplished extraordinary feats in the name of their nation. We should continue to respect national sovereignty and never let the world fall into the chaos that would break out in the absence of borders.
But what we must never accept is permitting our place of origin to blind us to our commitment toward our fellow human beings, or our common humanity. When I travel by plane across cities, or states, or countries and I look down at the vast and diverse landscape that is our planet, I see no borders or boundaries from a map. I see the Earth, the sea, and think of the challenges and advances of humanity. We are more connected now than ever before. Technology and communication have given us new insights into the lives of others around the world, often with just the swipe of our finger. And our new closeness is teaching us – especially during this pandemic – that the problems of one can quickly become the problems of all. We cannot let an addiction to difference keep us from solving the defining issues of our time. We must regain our sense of common humanity by working together through international organizations like the UN or WHO. These institutions are not without their flaws – which we must reform. But they are our best tools in the project of building a better world – one where we move closer toward international community and pursue the universal goal for the equal advancement of humankind. The travails and opportunities of this world are too great for fragmented responses spread out among squabbling nations. To beat COVID-19, or to halt the advancement of climate change, will take collective action.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy once said, with a hopeful tone, “we can perhaps remember – if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment that they can.”
The struggle will not be easy or quick. It will take decades and perhaps eras. There will be setbacks and disappointments. The steady march of authoritarianism and nationalism will not simply listen to the moral pleas of politicians or the UN. But we must make the collective voices of democracy and liberty and equality heard. If the journey is long, let us begin. Let us take the first steps now with courage and determination.