This morning I met an old gang banger in the play area at the mall. Teeth capped, tattoos decorating his neck, plaid shirt buttoned at the top over low pants and a scar down his arm that looked like it might have been a knife wound. Seated on the benches, he would occasionally get up to gently wipe his daughter’s nose or to re-assemble his son’s Transformer robot. There was a certain gentleness about him as he cared for his children that often comes from somebody who has experienced and perhaps even perpetrated great evil and lived, to look back upon that part of his life certainly not with nostalgia but perhaps with a sense of remorse salted with acceptance.
America is a land of redemption; a Republic of Second Chances, isn’t it? It’s what makes us such a remarkable land. I have traveled the world over, as I’m sure you’ve ascertained, and what always strikes me is the existential and final nature of decisions, of situations in the lost corners of the world where you only ever get one opportunity – if you get one at all. One injection of money; maybe from a charity or a government program. One opportunity to study; one good harvest – maybe one loan, although not even that for most. One child might live – that’s why you have so many. If you are elected to public office, one chance to steal, often the only way to build a cushion between yourself and desolation for you and your loved ones. This fact breeds desperation and makes the societies more predatory; more corrupt. Harder. Less forgiving.
Not so in America. Somehow here our sense of humanity is perhaps healthier. A respect for the law that brings us to accept those who have transgressed and atoned for it. An understanding of the failings of human nature; risks rewarded sometimes with great wealth but most often with heartache; and a system to catch those who stumble. It comes from our faith too, channeled through our churches to overflow out into society – that spirit of forgiveness and renewal: rebirth.
I watched the old banger’s son play with mine; a lovely little boy who might go to the same schools as mine and who has every chance to grow up to be a what he wishes, and I’m proud of America’s egalitarianism; where we historically have not had elites or nobles or castes. Where your little boy might play at the mall with the grandson of a president or the child of a repentant gang banger. People ask what makes America great? Among other things, this does.