Washington, D.C. is a city built for power. The massive buildings exude dominance and can be a bit intimidating. Which, I suppose, was likely the intention.
At the far end of the long Reflecting Pool on the west side of the city is one building that, from a distance looks as overpowering as the rest. Yet its very presence indicates that there has been within this city a commitment to integrity, compassion, and sacrifice for the sake of others. The Lincoln Memorial honors the 16th President of the U.S., who in a context of division over the issue of slavery, took a committed—if controversial—stand on behalf of oppressed, enslaved Americans. His commitment to take the side of those with no rights put our country into a civil war, almost divided it, and eventually cost Abraham Lincoln his life.
Like most elementary school students, I knew all this. Yet visiting this memorial for the first time was a powerful experience for me. I’m more aware than ever of a lack of integrity and compassion among us. Rather than looking to stand with those with little or no power, we’ve taken to accepting a culture that ignores these—or worse—blames them for their marginalization.
More than 150 years later, African Americans are no longer institutionally enslaved, yet continue to struggle for equality. The dominance of power among those of European ancestry, particularly males of European ancestry, is so deeply ingrained into our culture that it can be difficult for many white people to recognize. Yet the voices of African Americans continue to tell us it this hard truth.
Abraham Lincoln listened to these powerless voices and, what’s more, believed them. He recognized that those voices which have historically been smothered into silence must be heard if justice is to be obtained. This listening must be intentional, and can be difficult.
This in and of itself can be counter-intuitive for many whites because it is actually counter-cultural. Without realizing it, we of European ancestry give more credence to the voices of those in power. It comes naturally because it has always been “normal” for whites in this country. Now, just as much at then, we need to trust the voices of those who may be outside of white/male power structures. For there to be justice, there has to be the difficult work of hearing the hard truths spoken by people of color, by women, by children, by the poor.
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. is memorial not just to the man, but to his values. When we make the effort to hear the voices that have been hushed, and when we take what these voices are saying at face value, the world changes. Justice is lifted up. Freedom for all becomes more than a bumper sticker. We begin by listening—and believing—the cries of those who are telling us that injustice is still very present among us.