Amazing Grace

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Fifty years ago, on a Montana late-spring morning as beautiful as this one, I awoke to the news that Robert Francis Kennedy had been shot and killed. That dawn has always seemed to me to be the dawn of a new era, an era of deep mistrust.

In the months and years that followed June 6, 1968, my generation demonstrated in various ways that we no longer believed the stories we had been

He who learns must suffer.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

Aeschylus

raised on. We no longer believed that any war America fought in was good merely because America fought in it. We no longer believed that the political party machine operated in ways that advanced our interests. We no longer believed that the roles assigned to females, to native Americans and to other people of color must be accepted as “the way things are.”

We have learned a lot in the half-century since – but perhaps not enough. We still send young men to die in far-off lands, but the wars are no longer declared and they never end. We send young women, too, in an ironic twist to the advice, “be careful what you wish for.” On paper, women have rights equal to men, but in practice they are still unrepresented in leadership, underpaid throughout the workforce, and routinely assaulted and harassed as a condition of the job and indeed of growing up female in America.

Montana’s native people have greater representation in elective office and in state government, but they also swell the rolls of the poor and the ill and the addicted and are disproportionately represented in the rolls of school dropouts and prison inmates.

People of color still live in a world where their safety hangs by the thread of the ill-founded assumptions and cultivated fear of law enforcement officers and of the public at large, and when representatives of these clearly imperiled sectors of our society take the mildest of steps to call attention to the precariousness of their lives, the inequity and injustice of their treatment – when they raise a fist, say, on the victory stand, or take a knee, say, on the football field – they are derided, disinvited, denounced as unpatriotic toward a country that, at the highest level, won’t grant them even the first and foremost of the freedoms that are their birthright.

Whatever “mechanical” remains of the political parties has been hacked by political action groups that covertly and overly spend the money needed not just to control our elections but to manage our thinking itself. Cable news, talk radio and social media have weakened, if not killed, journalism, replacing it with the cynical management of disinformation and discontent for power and profit.

“Is everybody OK?” the dying Bobby Kennedy asked the 17-year-old busboy whose hand he had just shaken and now cradled his bleeding head.

It is so tempting, 50 years later, to answer, “No.” And yet, when I think back to those days 50 years ago, I don’t think of that bushy-haired dreamer whose lifeblood was draining onto the floor of that hotel kitchen. I don’t think of Jacqueline Kennedy, the somber shadow in the newsreels whose mournful eyes meet ours knowingly, her breathy voice saying, “Well, we know death now, don’t we, you and I?”

I think of the 2 million Americans lining the railroad tracks as the train carried what remained of an ever-learning, pragmatic idealist from New York to Washington, D.C. I think of those people – our people –black and white and brown, young and old, poor and middle-class, throngs crying or singing or saluting or simply standing in wordless tribute, the women wearing dresses and sometimes rollers, like they did in 1968, the kids hanging from trees and trestles and dandled on their mothers’ hips. Near those tracks, the lines of division faded away and we at home, watching, were one with them. We shared the same sorrow, falling drop by drop upon the heart.

What wisdom has come to us, all these years later? Maybe the wisdom that brought our ancestors to this land without knowing a thing about it … the wisdom that brought just plain Montanans to Helena in 1972 to rewrite our constitution and add to our rights as Americans our unique right to a clean and healthful environment, to privacy, and to observe and participate in the decisions of our government … the wisdom that created the legislature’s potent and persuasive Native American Caucus, ever-increasing in number and influence … the wisdom that brought Kathleen Williams from the shadows last night and will propel her forward to be this century’s first (but not last) Congresswoman … the wisdom that keeps a farmer from Big Sandy getting up every morning to cultivate a better world for all of us who call Montana home.

It is the wisdom of faith, of hope, of charity, arrived at even in despair, even, it sometimes seems, against our will. Through the awful grace of God.

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