A number of writers have been quietly working behind the scenes on a project called How to Heal Our Divides — where we’re bringing together practitioners of what Brian McLaren calls “un-division” to share their wisdom and stories.
When asked to write to the topic — how to heal divides — I turned the prism on the question. Below is a version of the piece I wrote for the upcoming book on why we should bother with overcoming division in our communities and politics.
The book for the project releases in May. But please go to the website for more information and updates.
There is another question behind the question of how – that is the question of why. Why heal our divides? After all, human beings have survived despite division for as long as recorded history. Indeed, rulers and politicians are skilled at driving wedges between people around them in order to increase their own power. As Julius Caesar famously remarked divide et impera, “divide and conquer.”
In our current environment, fear and anger do motivate communal action, and political expediency often seems the primary goal. One need only be familiar with The Prince to know that modern politics follows the lead of Niccolo Machiavelli far more than the social vision of any ethical or religious master – Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus included.
And so, we find ourselves in a world echoing Gordon Gecko’s famous 1980s dictum, “greed is good,” where the contemporary American political creed seems to be “division is gain.”
Division is one of the most persistent political strategies in the western world. You might say it is our practice, the most deeply ingrained of our political habits. It certainly isn’t new. Why heal our divides? The question might be answered: You can’t. History teaches us that Machiavelli will always be with us – and will most often win.
Why even try to heal our divides?
Because it matters. For our communities, our neighbors. Of course. But it also matters for our own lives.
In 1892, William James wrote, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” A large body of research since then has confirmed how our lives are composed of routinized practices, the habits we develop over years. One recent study found that 40 percent of the participants’ daily actions did not come from intentional choice, but were things they did from habit.
America is a culture that aspires to unity – e pluribus unum – but has habituated division. Blame it on Caesar, Machiavelli, Gordon Gecko or whomever. Truth is, we’ve a national habit of finger pointing, blaming others, assigning people to categories, and pressing advantage for our own side. We’ve a divided national soul, and that line of division runs right through each of our own hearts. Even when we say we want to get beyond division and invective, many (including me) secretly think, “But I don’t want to be with those people. They are beyond the pale. You can’t make peace with them.”
When I finally admit that division isn’t just external but a way of thinking and acting that I’ve learned — a way that I have practiced — it hurts. I may preach a good sermon on nonviolence or taking down the walls of hostility between people, but deep inside, I’m uneasily grateful that something still separates me from others. The boundary between my moral rightness and another’s ethical failing seems necessary to protect. Those boundaries become hidden prejudices, the prejudices turn into partisanship, and all-too-often, partisanship crystallizes as bigotry. For good people, this internal process can be subtle, deniable, and shameful. But it is part of our habituation into being American – a people who proclaim unity while building walls that divide.
Why heal our divides? Because if we do, we heal ourselves.
New Testament scholar Stephen Patterson has recently argued that the first Christian creed was not a proclamation of separation from others (believers from nonbelievers); rather it was a declaration of human solidarity. That creed was part of the very first baptismal liturgies of those who followed Jesus:
For you are all children of God in the Spirit.
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.
He insists that Christianity was successful because it imparted a social vision of unity in a deeply divided world and called people to a new shared identity: “We human beings are naturally clannish and partisan: we are defined by who we are not. We are not them. This creed claims that there is no us, no them. We are all one. We are all children of God.” (Patterson, The Forgotten Creed, p.5)
Not only did the first Christians proclaim these words, they practiced them in their communities. They developed habits of including others, of breaking down barriers, of eating with and befriending those whom they once found objectionable. They literally showed Roman society that it was possible — and desirable — to love every neighbor without regard to religion, class, or gender. During the earliest years of Christianity’s existence, the faith was marked by its insistence of the common kinship of humankind – that we could, indeed, be one. And there is evidence that they practiced what they preached.
Of course, that is an example from my faith tradition. America isn’t made up of only Christians, nor is it a “Christian nation.” But we do have a national creed, and like that early church creed, it proclaims a vision of unity, of oneness.
Is the American creed possible? That e pluribus unum we recite? Or are we forever consigned to political habits that confirm the we and demonize them? History reminds us that such creeds must be embodied in communities of practice, where we are called into a vision of human solidarity, where we create habits of oneness together, where we establish peace across the most durable barriers, and where we get in trouble for standing as one against the political expediency of division.
When I commit myself to that creed, when I find myself in such a community, the divide in my own heart lessens. Something within heals. Creed and community remind me that changing habits is hard, and practicing solidarity involves wrestling with my own failures. But, with the help of others, each one of us can mend the fault lines in our own lives and lend our hands to repair the world.