Some Lessons from a Streetcar by George Merrill

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Today, Christians observe Palm Sunday. It commemorates Jesus Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, a grand procession, only days before his crucifixion on Good Friday. It’s a festive occasion and a harbinger of hope.

I’d like to reflect on a piece of the story that seems odd. As the narrative unfolds, people in the crowd, at first festive and jubilant and hailing Jesus’ arrival, in a few days demand his crucifixion. It seems very abrupt.

I’ve wondered if this is another historic instance of how a group mentality influences individuals.

I know today our social climate, influenced heavily by politics, has grown increasingly combative and vulgar. At first the vulgarity and violence seemed episodic but they have increasingly become routine. Symptoms of moral decay appear as more boundaries are ignored. In troubled societies, citizens behave in ways they’d normally find repugnant. It’s as if we’ve been given permission at the highest echelons to throw off the basic restraints that social conventions secure for us. As everybody else seems to behave that way, there’s a tacit assumption that aberrant behavior is acceptable. If a culture is healthy and vibrant, its people behave in healthy ways. A morally bankrupt culture behaves in morally bankrupt ways. There’s no trust.

I remember years ago, I was caught up in what I took to be an unhealthy cultural expectation surrounding me. To my shame, I succumbed to it.

In the early sixties, I traveled to New Orleans for a conference. The city was charming and I reveled in its antiquated Franco-southern charm. While sightseeing, I ate my way across the city. Even today, I remember vividly my epic dinner at Galatoir’s in which, for the first time in my life, I had Oysters Rockefeller. I was hooked long before I ever came to live on the Shore. I visited The Streetcar Named Desire. What changed my life, however, was the short ride I took on what I’ve since called, ‘The Street Car Named Integrity.’

Friends said I had to ride one of the street cars around the city to see some of the antebellum houses and other charming sights of the city. I boarded one and sat down on the last seat left in the car. At one of the stops an old woman boarded, shakily, wielding her cane for support. The woman was black.

The car started up again. The woman was maybe ten feet from me down the car. In front of her sat a white family; a father with two young adolescent boys. The woman held on to an upright pole to field the bumps and turns the streetcar made.

I kept looking at the man and his boys wondering why none of them offered a seat to the woman. While I didn’t offer mine, I found myself irked that the father and his boys, right next to her, made no effort. I remember having the strong instinct to offer mine but I had a troubling thought and then hesitated.

Racial conflicts were emerging during that period and I began wondering whether the woman’s race had any influence on why no one offered her a seat.

I began to feel troubled; first about the colossal insensitivity of the white family seated right in front of the woman and then feeling uneasy about what I thought was going on.

I imagined that the people in the car must be racist. If I would stand up to offer the woman my seat, I worried I would get looks of disapproval. The threat of social censure finally took me over and while I obsessed about it I began feeling immobilized. I knew, that I should offer my seat, even as, in my mind, I condemned the others in the car for not.

I may not have read the situation accurately. The incident may have simply been inspired by colossal insensitivity rather than racism. The point, however, is that I was the one who thought racism was the issue and then behaved as I did.

So, I obsessed about how this poor woman was being victimized by racism. As I indulged in my high-minded and righteous sentiments for justice and equality, after three stops the woman got off, while the whole time I remained seated.

An ego that’s soothing a conscience can make anything crazy look reasonable. After the woman left, I felt immediate relief. After all, I thought to myself, she’s gone so there’s nothing I can do. If she’d only stayed, of course I would have offered my seat. Right!

Integrity does have a cost; it may be something as simple as incurring a disagreeable look or as consequential as losing a congressional seat, or having to endure demeaning attacks on twitter. For Jesus, the issue of integrity became a matter of life and death and he chose integrity. It’s worth noting that Jesus could have made a deal with Pontius Pilate and beat the rap. Instead he took the road of integrity. It can be a rough one.

I’ve wished at times that the media today was really feeding us fake news. That would at least offer more hope. Tragically, most of it is true and I’m concerned we are growing inured to it.

It’s painful to watch as our culture slides into moral bankruptcy, see the sycophancy that feeds it and to feel that there is no one with the integrity who is prepared to declare it. Those with power who can, won’t risk it.

Our hope for a national healing may begin with our children. In the Christian tradition there’s a saying,” A little child shall lead them.” Children not yet sullied by the prevailing cultural milieu have faith and hope. They see possibility, they have dreams.

Recently, in an unprecedented way, we’ve watched as many young people took to the streets to protest gun violence and its political complicity. The weaker among us have so far exhibited the moral courage that the powerful have abandoned.

I find that hopeful.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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