If we can’t police ourselves, others will police us. History, that long forgotten study of cultural, social, and national memory, is a clear witness that this is so.
And so I weep when I see Baltimore burn with such division, so inflamed by looters who discredit and dishonor the peaceful protestors of their community. Then, to see the city government allow this to happen, as though sanctioning it. For when law is not ordered, enforced by the state, disorder is seen as lawful.
We live in a democracy, a glorious, messy mix of peoples of all races, classes, ages. We are an experiment, according to European observers, and I often think the experiment is on the brink of collapse at moments like Ferguson and Baltimore. We have grasped a delicate balance between state and individual, between no speech and free speech, between public and private spheres. We are a family of passionate beliefs and ideals, often opposing, thrown together in a whirlwind we call society.
How are we to we get along? How do we express our deeply held opinions and beliefs? How do we protect property and individual freedoms? Provide for our future as a free people? Ensure our defense and care for the poor and innocent, the least among us? We do all of these things through laws, good laws.
Without law, we become slaves, property owned by the strongest among us. Without law to protect us, we allow might to make right. We hide in fear waiting for the looters who will, in the end, rule us.
I am looking forward to reading Os Guinness’s book, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. As Christianity is marginalized in our culture, so are the Judeo-Christian virtues of tolerance, self-restraint, and brotherly love, among many other values supporting democracy. To be sure, Christians and Jews do not always practice what they preach, but ideals must still be preached, they must still be heard and honored in the public square.
We can differ as Americans, but we can continue to converse. We can respect one another’s right to speak, to believe and live in peace, as long as we keep the peace. One group of color or creed need not dominate; but all must keep the peace.
And so as the looters set fire to their own community in Baltimore, and as others smashed car windows in our neighboring Oakland, I thought back to our inaugural lecture on Sunday night taking place at our new Center for Western Civilization, near UC Berkeley. It was well attended by young and old, from many racial backgrounds, and we were told by one speaker that each of us had lit a candle with our presence, adding to the light of freedom. There were also many words of encouragement at the reception afterwards: “So glad you are doing this,” they said again and again as I recalled the Center’s mission:
“Ignorance is the greatest threat to our civilization. Departments of Liberal Arts are shrinking in our major universities. Courses in the Western Tradition, history, literature, art, poetry, philosophy, and ethics are no longer required. Few students have enough understanding of the origins and principles of Western Civilization to maintain or advance our democratic institutions. The absence of this critical knowledge threatens the future of our personal freedoms. It is our responsibility to support every effort to keep the lights of freedom burning before we descend into darkness.”
The lights of freedom – our flaming candles – must help us see where we have come from in order to know where we are going. Fire is good when tamed and used constructively by man. It warms us when we are cold. It cooks our food and burns our garbage. In even turns our flesh to ash to be buried when we die. It lights the dark of the past, the present, the future. Each of us present on Sunday night on Bancroft in Berkeley was lighting a candle in and for our world; each of us was eager to keep the flame burning if only for another lifetime, another year, another day.
And in the end, each of us is only that, a single voice in a sea of voices and one soul in an ocean of souls. I carry, like my neighbor who sat next to me on the hard folding chair in that YWCA hall, a hope within me that my single voice matters, and that my neighbor’s voice matters too. The Baltimore looters matter, each one of them. All of us form America, and we can all carry a flame – our voice – into the public square of our nation, and of our world.
But the flame must not burn others; it must light their way. It must not destroy; it must give life. But how do we keep our candles lit in this darkness?
We keep them lit by respecting law and order; by enforcing peace in our communities. We keep them lit by understanding who we are – where we have been and where we are going.