Tension Headache:  Attending the demands and aspirations of those who still “don’t matter,” Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jul

This morning on Twitter, we were alerted by Brian Stelter of CNN (a network I rarely watch) about the contents of the front page of this Sunday’s New York Times (a paper I rarely read).  What was remarkable about that front page is that all of the significant pieces of journalism were focused, in one way or another, on the “above the fold” headline:   America Grieves, Tense and Wary.

We rarely in this space venture into “domestic affairs,” though the nonsense emanating from this presidential election season is sometimes so very tempting.   But today is different – the confluence of anger, confusion, discrimination, weapons access, media bias and more has created a situation that some find predictable but many more find intolerable.  The murders of the Dallas police officers have largely stolen the national headlines, and one doesn’t have to accept the recently-offered narrative of “domestic terrorism” to acknowledge the massive pain inflicted on both families and the reputation of a police department that seems at least to be trying.   But in many news services (not the Times per se) Dallas has become both a watershed moment and a bit of a diversion from a season’s worth of mass demonstrations and senseless shootings by and of police, some of which had their own moment in the media, others merely taking their place on a still-lengthening roster of incidences involving people who are more than weary from the many implications of lives “on the margins.”

This aptly designated “tense and wary” scenario is directly related to activities taking place across the street from where I’m sitting, preparations for tomorrow’s important opening of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) of the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

The agenda and assessment activities for this HLPF are clearly focused on one objective:  “leaving no one behind. “  A noble and hopeful objective, to be sure, though one requiring much and strewn with obstacles both identifiable and unforeseen.

As we have written previously, the UN community is doing due-diligence in getting out in front of the massive responsibilities incurred through the goals and targets of the 2030 development agenda: reducing poverty, ending inequalities of economic, educational and political access; saving ourselves from our own relentless assaults on our forests, oceans and climate; and promoting forms of governance and security that offer inclusive participation and rights-based protection.

Despite these welcome UN efforts, we are currently far from these goals, in some cases farther than we dare acknowledge.  Even if we have articulated and assembled the right goals to pursue; even if we are sincere in our financial pledges and fidelity to agreed indicators of success; this 2030 agenda is a daunting business.  It will require sustained commitments by national governments, vigilance by the HLPF and diverse UN agencies and then some; for it will also require more of each of us.  Slogans such as “leave no one behind” can galvanize some measure of our collective responsibility, but their overuse can deaden us to tasks that will, if we are to overcome our current epochal violence and planetary disregard, require greater self-scrutiny and more reliable attentiveness to others than we have so far in our collective history demonstrated.

The discouraging events of this past week are hardly unique but certainly offer yet another reminder of how many people in our world are still left behind, still on the margins, still don’t matter.  From Baton Rouge to Juba, from suburban St. Paul to Gaza, people struggle mightily for respect and relief, for justice and stability.  Tension and suspicion are partially understandable responses to what we see and read about so many human struggles at home and abroad; but these are the reactions that prompt us to seek out stronger locks for our doors but also for our souls.  These are the reactions concerned less about reaching those left behind and more about not getting “dragged” by them ostensibly towards some uncertain and indeterminate bottom.

We can identify the collective mood as the Times and others have done; we cannot give in to it.   The challenges of inclusion characteristic of these times imply that our routine forays into petty self-distraction are not so petty after all.   From the physicist Stephen Hawking to the man in the local Bodega who sells me beer and dish soap, many and diverse voices are wondering if we collectively have what it takes to extricate ourselves from this “tense and wary” swamp of our own making.

The hope of the 2030 development goals is that we do indeed have what it takes but only as a grand and collective endeavor that invites and integrates far beyond those currently on the world’s VIP lists.  In this, it will be especially important to keep at bay all those “locksmiths” seeking access to our personal, cultural and community contexts.

The young (mostly black) men who work alongside our church folks in the food pantry each Saturday morning in Harlem are not at all immune from the tension that now routinely flares into discrimination and violence.   These men work hard early on Saturdays when most of their peers are sound asleep, carrying and stocking huge quantities of provisions, providing service to people who don’t always treat them with the greatest of respect.

But they also know that they need to watch their back.  The news splashed all over this week’s media was not news to them; neither the killings, nor the arrests, nor the tension and suspicion that are so-often and inappropriately hurled in their direction.

These young men have much to contribute perhaps currently more in potential mode; but potential is also inspired by invitations to participate and opportunities to practice — and a commitment from the rest of us not to leave them behind.

We’re going to see what we’re made of over these next 15 years as our 2030 development promises take shape.  Transforming rampant tension and suspicion might well be our species’ next major test.

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