Even though we are sometimes mocked for it, there is a friendliness in the American South that is contagious. Walking down the street, we wave to passersby. I don’t know why. It’s just in the air. I seldom have to wait long in a string of traffic before someone motions to let me in, and when I’m into that lane, I always look in the mirror and wave a simple “thank you.”

There’s a collective soul that fills a place and its people. 

Slowing to let someone into traffic may seem too small to be a significant means of peace-making, but think of how you feel when the other driver offers an angry shout or an equally universal hand motion of a different kind altogether. Episodes of “road rage” are just further evidence… 

The collective soul of America is broken. 

Maybe it always has been – like people themselves, that brokenness may just be part of the human predicament. (But for fear of sounding too much like a Baptist minister, I could remind you the Bible calls this deep-seated brokenness “sin,” and it has been called that from the beginning.) But the reality of America’s broken soul is too evident these days. The media reminds us of every egregious failing, failings which were mostly present before the advent of 24/7 news cycle – so this adds to the angst, but the news cycle is new - the news is not. Our wound is deeper than airing dirty laundry. 

So when a Baltimore episode erupts into flame, why are we so surprised? Our collective soul needs healing. The angry rebellion in the wake of the recent death of another young black male is tragic—but it should not be surprising. It is regrettable but explainable, unfortunate but perhaps inevitable. We have never fully repented of the sin of American slavery nor fully acknowledged the depth of its pain, and many Americans are simply unaware of the tangible ways the oppression and humiliation of one race of people leaves scars for generations. Generations. 

Your sins will find you out” (Numbers 3.23). 

The recent, tragic deaths of so many African American males at the hands of mostly white police officers is not evidence that all officers are evil or racist or out of control, nor that all of their victims have been spotless in their behavior, leading to confrontation. We simply cannot deny, however, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Our collective soul needs mending. Blacks and whites often speak of their very different experiences in dealing with the police. Our brokenness spills over into the daily, mundane interactions of law enforcement and civilians. It is clear that officers patrolling black neighborhoods in Baltimore haven’t been waving and smiling, for a very long time. With what tone of voice, do officers approach blacks on the street? With what attitude, are officers, in turn, engaged? We can argue which comes first, who’s to blame – but that’s only more evidence of the depth of the problem. 

Repairing our problem will require changes to the criminal justice system, economic structures, and miserably divided partisan politics, but a more intrinsic repair involves finding peace within our own souls. So, a wave and a smile and enough patience to let someone out in traffic may have far greater impact than we realize.