Polarization and Our Better Angels (Lynch # 5)*

I’ve not “blogged much of late, but a recent conference has changed that. The purpose and spirit of that conference is captured by these introductory citations from speeches before the US Congress:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
– Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861

But there is another temptation we must especially guard against: The simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide into these two camps.
– Pope Francis to Congress, Sept 24, 2015

During these days increasingly bitter days of Trump’s presidency and endless electioneering, with slogan shouting across so many divides, many are concerned not just about political and cultural polarization, but about the ways that a polarizing spirit has become the new normal, making it extremely difficult (if not almost impossible) for people to work together across real differences for resolutions to the challenges we all face.

A Denver-based group, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, recently hosted a “Together in This” convocation — co-sponsored, I’m happy to say, by Regis University and a number of other academic and religious groups. It brought together national and local folks concerned to work against polarization by strategizing how “we” (especially religious folk) might nourish a broad public sense that we are all “together in this” and that all of us can and must work together for the common good — even with continuing and often very deep differences.

I have long admired this group from a distance since it had been my experience — as an invited panelist for one of their programs — that their very good work on immensely important common issues (“religious liberty, racial justice, and economic justice”) was nonetheless too controlled by a left-liberal ideology (think ACLU as well as most mainline Protestant and Jewish groups ) with whose orthodoxy (on abortion for instance) I at times respectfully disagreed.

Still, when they announced a local conference on working against polarizing orthodoxies and ideologies, I was very interested.

For the poisonous effects of a polarizing spirit was, already in “the 60s”, the constant concern of my mentor William Lynch, SJ. He continually worked for the development among us of an alternative integrating spirit – for a both-and rather than an either-or sensibility in both personal and public life. Thus I was immediately interested in this conference billed to take up precisely the challenge which occupied him – imagining realistic ways of nurturing collaboration across important divisions.

I admit to being far more than pleasantly surprised by the conference itself; indeed immensely grateful. Surprised because I went fearing more liberal orthodoxy. Grateful because the conference was, for me and many, a Kairos moment.

I hope that I might, in what follows, give a sense of the conference without being gracelessly long-winded.

The conference focused on the polarizations which characterize both our faith communities and our national situation. It was, as I’d expected, a gathering of the liberal/left choir. But “they” were deeply concerned with a coming together across our polarizations, reaching out from “our side” to “the others.” Put differently, this was a group of “liberals” concerned about how, with continuing commitment to “their” important causes, they might also work with the “others” to re-awaken a fundamental sense of civility or civic trust – what Lynch imagined as a “body of faith” and Lincoln called “our bonds of affection…sustained by mystic chords of memory.”

The opening evening panel was composed of local religious leaders – Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant. It began with a recognition of shared lament – recognition of the widespread sadness, anger, fatigue, and depression so many feel about polarization in families and communities, the wider culture and politics at every level.

The president of Denver Seminary (Evangelical) lamented the way in which his Evangelical tradition, historically strong (since anti-slavery times) in work for justice, has gradually been seduced and reduced by a narrow “conservative” ideology. The president of Iliff Seminary (mainline Protestant) lamented the recent split in his Methodist Church over sexual and gender issues. A Rabbi and a Catholic Sister each in turn lamented widespread polarization within their communities.

I was especially struck by this religious emphasis on lamentation, a rarely heard but very good term for what so many of us feel. Yet the panel then moved from lament to hope. Some even expressed the hope that increasingly bitter polarization might actually galvanize counter movements. Tthat was the topic of the next day’s workshop.

The day’s opening plenary described, with for me shocking statistical graphs, the increasing rates of polarization across so many dimensions of our society. Yet the speaker’s goal, given that big picture, was to argue that religious communities — despite the widespread cliché that religion is the cause of polarization — might again nourish a renewed “American Consensus” or “body of civic faith.” The speaker was Allen Hilton whose ideas are developed in his book A House United: How The Church Can Save The World (Fortress Press, 2018).

After his talk, Hilton led us into small group discussion about divisions in our religious communities and stories about healing those divisions. Indeed, for me the heart of the day’s program was successive break-out and small group sessions among the participants who were mainline Protestants, Jews, some Muslims, and at least one Sikh. (I was, I believe, the only Catholic.) They were clergy and church workers, seminary and grad students, many elders and (typically) far more women than men.

The morning break-out I attended was led by Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, a national movement trying to get religious voters to oppose Trump’s deliberately polarizing spirit. Pagitt was in Denver for a rally later that day as part of a national bus tour. I urge you to check out their excellent website.

The afternoon plenary involved wonderful motivational talks by two leaders of the Interfaith Alliance . Rev. Amanda Henderson is the Alliance’s founder and executive director. Her colleague, Iman Jodeh, is a first generation Palestinian American, spokesperson for the Colorado Muslim Society (a rare Muslim woman elected for such a position), and is currently running for the Colorado State Senate (where she hopefully will be the first Muslim to serve). Both told compelling personal stories about their reasons for being “together in this.”

The afternoon break-out I happily chose was led by a local volunteer for Better Angels, a national movement started after the 2016 election to bring together Trump and Clinton supporters. Again, I urge you to explore their great website. For they have developed  a variety of meeting formats which carefully bring together an equal number of “red” and “blue” participants (in churches, neighborhoods, and civic organizations) to meet as human beings and fellow citizens in response to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” For me their effort, which will continue well past the current election cycle, was a magnificent end to a great day.

* I recently append to my blogposts (this is the fifth such) notes about William Lynch’s writings which are relevant to the post’s topic.

In the preface to his 1965 book Images of Hope, Lynch wrote (here in an edited version): “As I see it we are always faced with programmatic alternatives: We can decide to build a human city in which all have citizenship, Greek, Jew, and Gentile, the black and the white, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, the mentally well and the mentally ill, [the red and the blue, women equally with men]…. Or we will decide to build various walled cities, from which pockets of humanity [the many  “others”] will be excluded.” He then added, realistically but ominously: “how many will be up to building this [inclusive] city remains to be seen” since walled-off enclaves “offer an extraordinary fascination for the souls of fearful people and we are fools if we underestimate how strong and seductive they can be.”

Lynch’s final book, Images of Faith (1973), argues that any truly human and inclusive city is best understood or imagined as “a body of faith.” Put differently, a good city (whether a village or a neighborhood or a major metropolis) is actually constituted by many interwoven relationships of trust and collaboration. Such a city, in other words, is not just made of streets and structures, traffic and business, legal rules and economic processes. For such structures and institutions will work only when they actually embody a fundamental sense of trust and faith in each other. The alternative is all the patterns of distrust, fear, opposition, and withdrawal into walled enclaves which we today so often experience.

Of course the actual city where each of us lives is a messy mix of both faith and fear, trust and distrust. And the real question remains: how many of us will be up to working to build such trust by overcoming fear and distrust?

A final personal pique. At one point early in the workshop John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” was played while its words flashed on a screen. I love that song’s melody, but hate its lyrics. As if we actually should try to imagine no differences, no conflicts, all happy together in some la la land. These lyrics are romantic BS. The real task, as Lynch continually urges, is to develop a realistic imagination (not romantic-fantastic) which could guide us in work for the inclusion of differences amidst real conflicts. Just imagine that!  Despite the Lennon song, that’s what the conference actually (and for me successfully) tried to do.

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