The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on Jan. 18, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Inas Younis was born in Mosul, Iraq, and emigrated to the United States as a child. She is a writer and commentator who has been widely published in various magazines, websites and anthologies.
When I first came to the United States, I did not speak a word of English. But every day I would join my third-grade classmates as we congregated around the American flag and placed our palms on our chests to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Compelled by ceremony, we all conformed to a higher standard of behavior, and for a short while at least, the cruelty of my childhood tormentors was put on pause.
Not wanting to appear ignorant or insensitive, I too participated in this daily ritual by inelegantly moving my mouth in imitation of my peers. At some point, after many embarrassing attempts, I was finally able to recite the pledge from memory. This short patriotic verse became the first English words I had ever learned to vocalize. And although I did not comprehend the pronouncements I was making, I intuitively understood that whatever the meaning, this daily exercise was designed to inspire reverence, not toward an individual, but toward some inscrutable idea.
I eventually learned the meaning behind those words, especially the bit about liberty and justice for all. As an adult, my chief sense of duty has become the advancement of both. Although my current fluency in English allows me to understand what this means, I still often wonder: What do justice and liberty really entail? Especially when so many horrors in the world have been committed in the name of these noble abstractions?
When we regard these words as moral expressions, we allow for them to be expropriated and used to disguise the intentions of those with pernicious goals. Justice and liberty cannot be understood in just moral or metaphysical terms, but they must be in incorporated into our political vocabulary. Only politics offers us definitions with concrete implications.
Justice is equality before the law. It is freedom from intimidation and coercion. It is not, however, a tool to legislate morality. We cannot legislate morality because morality is a function of choice, and by extension so is compassion. Compassion, like morality, is an inclination that cannot be invoked through political coercion.
Rituals allow us to connect to experiences that are not our own until they become our own. They allow us to transcend time and space. Rituals deliver us from cynicism and from the belief that evil is too potent to defeat. Rituals, whether they are secular or religious, are acts of humility. They remind us that it’s not about us, but something bigger.
– Inas Younis
We need a different technology for that. We need a spiritual technology. For people of faith, that technology has traditionally been ritual. Rituals allow us to connect to experiences that are not our own until they become our own. They allow us to transcend time and space. Rituals deliver us from cynicism and from the belief that evil is too potent to defeat. Rituals, whether they are secular or religious, are acts of humility. They remind us that it’s not about us, but something bigger.
It is necessary and valuable for our public officials to engage in community-wide rituals, whether it’s a tree-lighting ceremony or attending an interfaith potluck. When we cultivate a communal culture of kindness within the public realm, we create a social destination for people to have face-to-face interaction. That is so critical, not only to the preservation of our democracy but to our sense of identity and mental well-being.
One of the more beneficial side effects of living in a diverse society is that we are exposed to people and ideas that consistently challenge our internal narratives. Facts on the ground have a way of bursting through our locked doors of perception.
In the last couple of years, I have had the privilege of working with SevenDays, a local organization that promotes kindness and understanding through education and dialogue. SevenDays was created when Dr. William Corporon, Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno were tragically killed on April 13, 2014, by a white supremacist in Overland Park. Every year, in partnership with our business leaders, our schools, our elected officials, and our faith leaders we inaugurate a week-long community-wide initiative, starting with our Kindness Breakfast and ending with a unity Kindness Walk event at the WWI Museum and memorial.
The kindness rituals that have evolved around the work of SevenDays have become an integral part of our local culture in Johnson County.
Through our work, we have reached 1.3 million Kansas City metropolitan residents. We have provided 40,000 K-12 students access to kindness resources. Some 15,642 units of life-saving red cells, platelets and plasma have been collected at more than 260 blood drives during the SevenDays Kindness Week. And 530 students have engaged in social projects through the ripple of kindness initiatives spearheaded by SevenDays.
SevenDays has come to encapsulate the power of meaningful rituals in the public realm. They have had a significant effect on our local culture and community. Thanks to the collaborative leadership efforts of our public officials, faith leaders, and business community, kindness has become our brand here in Overland Park and beyond. Kindness is and should be the American brand.
As our 32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said: “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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