THURSDAY morning we all woke up to a very different world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched an unprovoked attack on Ukraine, hitting targets across this independent nation of more than 40 million people.
It remains to be seen how this happens. But one thing is certain. The relative peace of post-World War II Europe, which at some point after the fall of the Berlin Wall had raised hopes that even Russia might embrace Western ideas of democracy and freedom, was broken.
There are growing fears that Putin’s aggression could push further, stoking a war on the European continent that would have devastating consequences for global stability.
And at home, America remains a bitterly divided nation.
We have been here before.
America in the 1930s was also a deeply divided nation. Severe income inequality in the 1920s gave rise to the labor movement, pitting wealthy titans against Main Street workers. The Great Depression led to an increase in the number of people living in poverty. The Dust Bowl caused a massive relocation of people. Lynchings began to increase. Social justice has become a rallying point. Worries about communism fueled many people’s fears. And a bitter conservative backlash against government programs has developed.
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The confusion of the time was captured in Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic book, “The Moral Man and the Immoral Society.” Published in 1932, it argued that an individual’s morality cannot co-exist with collective society, meaning that conflict between the two is inevitable. Even the progressive-minded Niebuhr, it seemed, had lost hope that the country would ever find a way forward.
It took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to unite Americans, for a time, around something bigger than themselves: the cause of freedom in the world.
Putin’s advance on Ukraine is not a direct attack on our shores, but it is a direct attack on the ideals of democracy and freedom of which the West has been the greatest defender since 1945.
As we adjust to our new reality in the days ahead, it is worth remembering again what unites us. There is perhaps no better explanation for this than in the Four Freedoms described by the great American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on January 6, 1941.
Freedom of expression. In a nation of over 330 million people, it is inevitable that we will disagree on a number of issues. What we need to reclaim, however, is this country’s long-standing commitment to hearing all voices. Smearing political opponents with obscenities and accusing them of being un-American because we disagree with them is not why the rest of the world sees the United States as a beacon of hope. Rather, it is because we hear and respect those with whom we disagree.
Freedom of worship. The right to express religious beliefs without fear that our beliefs will be punished is a cornerstone of American history. The rich variety of religious traditions in our own region testifies to the enduring value of this freedom. Whether you are a Muslim or a Christian, a Jew or a Buddhist, or have no faith whatsoever, there is room for you here.
Freedom to want. The pandemic has put a strain on supply chains. But even with these struggles, Americans have not faced a massive food shortage as has too often been the case in other parts of the world. However, too many of our fellow citizens do without it in our society. And every day, our neighbors’ commitment to eliminating that need is shown in the most American way possible, through the generosity we show in our giving. Give to those who need the essentials. And comfort those who struggle against oppression.
Free from fear. It is perhaps the most expensive of all freedoms, and the most difficult to maintain today. Just before the attacks began, Putin went on Russian TV and said: “Anyone who tries to interfere with us…must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead to such consequences that you won’t have ever known in your history”.
We have been here before.