Thank God that’s over. For the better part of two years now we have endured the grating sounds of the presidential candidates’ name-calling and heckling. We have listened to them criticize each other’s worst flaws and those of their supporters. Week after week we have been told that America has lost its greatness, that it is under attack from within and without, that its citizens are in imminent danger of unemployment, rape, and cyber infiltration. We have shed tears (or not) over the fraying of our relationships with friends and family members of differing political views. But at least it’s over now.
Except it is really isn’t.
True enough, this campaign season has reached its end. Voters have cast their ballots, and one candidate has obtained the required 270 electoral votes. The people of the United States have spoken, and Donald J. Trump will be our next president. Nonetheless, the conclusion of this presidential election has no more resolved the political and social tensions that flared over the past two years than Barack Obama’s election ended racism. To be sure, Obama’s election symbolized the major strides African-Americans have made in the march toward equal rights, but social ills like racism are never jettisoned all at once like spoiled food that has reached its expiration date. Prejudices linger in communities and individual hearts even after society as a whole seems to have declared them unacceptable. Indeed, we have seen the ugly persistence of racism in this election as we have surging fears about terrorism, immigration, job security, police brutality, and domestic crime.
It’s true, now that a president-elect has emerged, we won’t see candidates caustically debating these issues in the national spotlight, and the receding of the election-year furor might make it seem that these problems have abated. But that will be an illusion. Although some politicians have stoked Americans’ fears in order to serve their personal advancement, for the most part the presidential candidates merely embodied and amplified the tensions present within our communities and within each of us. We detest the candidates’ quibbling and the ceaseless parade of attack ads because they put our differences and frustrations constantly before our eyes. We should lament that these divisions exist at all. And we should be very conscious of the fact that, after the spotlights and microphones have been rolled away and the echoes of all the campaign speeches have faded, those tensions will continue to fester in the darkened corners of town halls and American homes.
Those who flocked to Trump as America’s savior will soon discover that extreme vetting of immigrants, higher tariffs, and a wall along our southern border won’t fix our nation’s biggest problems. Clinton’s policies would not have been able to fix them either. Although good legislation can bring about significant improvements to society, wounds of the sort afflicting our nation cannot be healed by civil laws and government programs. Likewise, no president, for all his power, can mandate the things that beget real social progress, namely, mutual trust, justice, and compassion.
Rather, these virtues and values and the social transformation they catalyze arise from a converted heart. To offer an example from the not-so-distant past, Martin Luther King and those who stood with him began their crusade for justice by searching their own hearts and purifying their intentions. They did so so that when they encountered opposition—even violent opposition—they would be able to respond to their antagonists with the love and respect they demanded for themselves. The Civil Rights Act made racial equality the law of the land, but long before it was signed into effect equality had become the law in many Americans’ hearts. Such a change of heart does not occur instantaneously, and it certainly doesn’t occur in the midst of a mudslinging contest. As Thomas the Apostle learned, conversion occurs when we recognize the wounds of others and are willing to admit our own woundedness.
The fears and prejudices that marred the 2016 presidential election are still with us, and they will remain with us unless we, the citizens of this country, are willing to recognize the wounds of others and to bare our own wounds in turn. Most likely we will not find each other’s wounds attractive—our suspicions of politicians and police, our prejudices toward people with different skin tones, our anxieties about those who speak a foreign tongue. And yet recognize these wounds we must.
To quote the poet Rumi, “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” If we are to grow stronger and more unified as a nation, we must shed light on our wounds rather than papering them over with scapegoating and political conquests. In order to acknowledge the wounds of others we must be in contact with them. Speaking concretely, that means re-friending the person you unfriended on Facebook when you couldn’t stand their posts anymore. Better yet, it means spending time together because punchy Facebook posts are even less conducive to mutual understanding than are the sensationalized media reports and debates that shape modern elections. If the discord is ever to reach a definitive end and not merely slip back below the surface, we need to spend time in each other’s presence, talk to one another, and break bread with one another. Otherwise the next election will be just as ugly as the last.