WHAT IS GREATNESS?
Lately the notion of “greatness” has been on my mind, as in making America great again. I’ve been looking for signs of greatness as well as lack thereof. As a South Dakotan who loves our rural state, I have also pondered over making South Dakota great again. Of course the “again” implies that both America and South Dakota have lost at least some aspects of “greatness”.
For two years I have been a lobbyist in our state capital. Don’t nuns belong in churches, Catholic schools and hospitals? What was I doing in the halls of the capitol building? But there I was, sent by my religious community, the Presentation Sisters of Aberdeen, to do what I could to assist in creating law that is characterized by justice and respect for the needs of all. I went with the hope that our SD legislature was working to make South Dakota great. And much of the time they do.
Testifying on certain bills or resolutions in the legislative process found me teaming with folks new to me: Muslims, the American Civil Liberties Union, NARAL, Protestant ministers, Chambers of Commerce and corporate executives from around the state. Dogmatic and other differences were shelved as we joined together to influence issues of injustice for trafficked children and adults, pregnant moms in the work place, greedy payday loans, concealed weapons; for immigrants and our elders; for education and other issues.
I was chagrined to find bills rather cleverly designed to wall off South Dakota from the desperation of refugees and immigrants, going so far as to accuse Lutheran Social Services of self-interest in their resettlement work for these folks. Some legislators believed the SD legislature should vet every immigrant and refugee, implying the two-year, twenty-step vetting by the federal government is insufficient. As I thought about this movement, I wondered why the Native Americans did not vet our European forbears who invaded Dakota Territory, nor require them to learn Lakota and be enculturated into the Lakota ways.
I noticed various occasions when testimony in committees and on the chamber floor was impotent from the outset, since it was obvious decisions on a bill had already been made behind closed doors. I noticed consistently closed caucuses preceding chamber deliberations, which raised doubts about respect for and commitment to “we the people” housed in SD and American constitutional law. I wondered if walls and exclusions and secrecy have something to do with “greatness”. Sometimes it appeared that justice and respect for the good of fellow human beings were left out in the halls of the capitol while the notion of ‘deliberation’ was being mauled to death inside the committee rooms and the two chambers.
Following the legislative session a group of us formed the SOUTH DAKOTA VOICES FOR PEACE out of concern for some obvious signs of deterioration of what has made America, America. SDVP’s vision is, A South Dakota where everyone is welcomed and valued. It’s mission is, Empowering South Dakotans with accurate information about Islam, Muslims, immigrants and refugees to nurture informed, inclusive and civically engaged communities.
Lately not only sexual harassment, but evidence of white privilege and white supremacy are emerging in America as well as in South Dakota. Hundreds and hundreds of our people are patronizing imported presentations which are spewing fear, suspicion and hate especially for Muslims and for the Islamic faith. I have listened to ‘prophets’ of doom tell an audience of 400 of our rural citizens the mosques in Sioux Falls are covert covers for the Muslim Brotherhood who are strategizing to take over South Dakota and America. The plan is to impose an oppressive hierarchical system which is being labeled “sharia law”. I have been told by these same prophets that we “interfaith people are being deluded” by Muslims in our midst who are covertly posing as good citizens until such time as their coup materializes. I have listened to these ‘prophets’ cast our local government officials in Aberdeen, Sioux Falls, Rapid City and the state of South Dakota as inept and ignorant of the covert strategies metastasizing in the woodwork of our cities and our state. And I think about the greatness of our founding fathers and mothers. Perhaps Lady Liberty who holds high our American beacon and her expression of the largess in our American character… “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” perhaps she should be dismantled, for this will make American great again.
No, we need to shove ourselves off our pedestal and put our white privilege/white supremacy on a rummage sale, thereby making space for real greatness to happen. The source of justice and respect is not republican nor democrat; not Catholic nor Muslim; not Native American nor Russian; it is not even American. Justice and respect are the design and gift of our Creator, are at the core of personhood; are constitutive of what it means to be a human person.
When we work to form inclusive communities, then we are great. When we listen to opposing viewpoints, seeking what needs to change for the common good, then we are great. When the pain of others concerns us enough to generate helpfulness, then we are great. When we recognize at our human core, there is no color line, then we might aspire to greatness.
There is no hope for peace until there is a society that works for all. God loves Jews and Christians and Muslims; God cares about Buddhists and atheists, believers and the unwashed. Who among us presumes to improve on that?
-Sister Lynn Marie Welbig, PBVM, SDVP Board Member