The health-care struggle culminating in Sunday's vote brought out the best and the worst of legislators' and citizens' behavior. The worst of the behavior inflicted wounds that not only hurt individuals, but also damaged the nation's soul.
In some ways, the heat and polarization generated by the health-care debate can be viewed as an opportunity -- an opportunity to expose old wounds that have been festering and need to be healed. When Rep. James Clyburn received a fax of a noose along with racial slurs, when Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was spat upon by a protestor and called "ni---r," when Rep. John Lewis was called a "ni---r," it became clear, in ways that perhaps it hadn't been to all Americans, that racism is alive and well in America and needs to be addressed.
When a U.S. Representative shouted "baby-killer" during Rep. Bart Stupak's speech on the floor of Congress, it became clear that slanderous speech is alive and well, even in the sacred halls of Congress. When pro-choice advocates characterized pro-life advocates as anti-woman and opposed to health-care access for women, it became clear that intolerance and inability to hear the good will in others' positions is alive and well.
Racism, slander, and lack of respect for differing views damage the soul of the nation. America was built on the foundation of mutual respect and rigorous debate. When all positions are heard and seriously considered, the nation is richer for it. When some positions are shut out, the nation is impoverished. When people are demeaned because of their race or political position, the nation's soul is damaged. As Fannie Lou Hamer reminded us, "Nobody's free until everybody's free."
The health-care struggle revealed gaps between America's espoused values and its lived values. America is not a "post-racial" society. America is not a tolerant society. America is not a society of mutual respect for differing points of view.
This is an opportunity for healing the old wounds that have been exposed, for closing the gap between espoused values and lived values. Will Republican leaders step forward and challenge their followers (and colleagues) on their racist and slanderous speech? Will Democratic leaders step forward and challenge their followers (and colleagues) on their intolerance and blind spots?
It's time to heal the nation. We face problems of huge proportions. If we can step up to the challenge to address and heal our wounds, the health and energy that will be liberated to engage our problems will be immense. If we can't, we're destined to limp along when we need to run.
Margaret Benefiel, Ph.D., author of Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader, works with leaders in health care, business, churches, government, and nonprofits to help them stay true to their souls. Visit her Web site.