Visit, events signal that it's time for us to atone


POPE JOHN Paul II is scheduled to arrive this morning at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and may have done so by the time you read this. Not a moment too soon. The city, the state and the nation need some solemn introspection and examination of what's going wrong.

The pope landed in New York City last week as Jews celebrated their most sacred day of the year -- Yom Kippur. On that day, Jews take time out to review their shortcomings and moral and ethical lapses during the past year and ask God for atonement. It is a time of meditation and rededication to what's good and right in life. It is exactly what this country needs right now.

The United States that Pope John Paul II is visiting is deeply divided.

Look at what the O. J. Simpson trial exposed: Women treated like chattel and abused if they dare speak up; a defense team that effectively played "the race card," as one of its members asserted, to sway the jury with emotion rather than facts; a nation where blacks largely stood behind the defendant as though this were a civil rights case rather than a double-murder trial; a police department shown to be sloppy and saddled with at least one stereotypical racist; a nation where whites were quick to assume guilt and ignored mounting evidence that something was deeply wrong in the way this case was investigated.

Not a pretty picture

It was a sorry soap opera, with a nation's weaknesses and troubles on display for the world media to view. And it was journalism at its worst, too. The excesses of the Simpson case make the sensationalism of the Lindbergh baby trial seem mild in comparison.

Now is the time for religious leaders such as the pope -- and political leaders, too -- to ask pointed questions about where we are headed. The gulf between whites and blacks is growing; even their views of what constitutes a punishable crime differ sharply in many instances. What are our fundamental beliefs and principles? Are we on the point of implosion, of tearing apart from within?

Just as the country is torn and divided, so is this state. Casino interests are promising the riches of the universe to legislators if that form of gambling is legalized here. Religious leaders have some strong views on this subject -- about the morality of gambling and resisting temptations.

And at a time when religious leaders seek atonement for past transgressions, many Marylanders are still fighting the last election for governor. We were robbed, they say. Even though three separate probes found nothing to back a conspiracy or fraud, the dissenters insist they were wronged.

Starting over

It is time to wipe the slate clean and -- as happens for Jews every Yom Kippur -- forgive those who have done you wrong and seek forgiveness for your own lapses.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke would like to do just that with Baltimore's white community, which deserted him in the September primary in part because of his decision to play his own "race card." The strategy worked, but now he is confronted with nearly half the city alienated from City Hall.

It takes more than a promise to sit down and talk with these groups to erase their anger and mistrust. It will take action that sends a message.

Unfortunately, the mayor is intent on sending the wrong message. His decision to endorse Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March and to become a participant will make it doubly difficult to mend fences with white voters, especially Orthodox Jewish voters. By embracing this October 16th march, the mayor wraps his arms around Mr. Farrakhan and his anti-white, anti-Semitic rantings.

Yet the purpose for which Mr. Schmoke is going to the Washington march is very much in line with what this country needs: A day to seek atonement, to look inward at our weaknesses and to commit ourselves to lives dedicated to making a difference.

One thing Pope John Paul II brings to Baltimore is a life dedicated to making a difference, a life based on unyielding moral and ethical standards. Somewhere along the line, we have lost our own moral and ethical guideposts. That's true in Brentwood, Calif., in Annapolis and in Baltimore. This is the time to listen carefully to the pontiff's words and to profit from his teachings.

L Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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