How to Heal Our Divides Today

Thought leadership from organizations and individuals dismantling walls

The paradox

Paradox is that strange place where two things are true at the same time. Often, the two things seem diametrically opposed. This idea that two things can be true at the same time is foundational to understanding good white racism. Statements like “You are a good person, and you are also a racist” are, essentially, paradoxes. The idea of paradox allows us to look and to see; it opens us up to the possibility that we may have something deep within us that needs to be rooted up, examined, and called to task. Very often, that truth is that despite our best efforts, people you and I would consider good (ourselves included) very often hold hierarchical thinking, placing more value on one thing than another. Paradox is important because once we embrace its existence, we can begin to journey into our shadow side. 

This goes against everything we like to believe in America – and trust me when I tell you, it does nothing to simplify things. No one longs for simplicity more than I do, believe you me. But where we love to define things as – no pun intended – black and white, the truth is usually somewhere in the grey. Paradox is at the core of what I’m trying to say in this book – that crazy idea that a person can be both kind and kind of an asshole, all in one body. All in one minute. 

From “Good White Racist? Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice” by Kerry Connelly – Westminster John Knox Press

A drift toward self-centeredness

Indeed, many of the corporate titans who dominate the American imagination live by an ideology of individualism that barely masks selfishness and an air of superiority. A philosophy of supreme self-reliance is common, and the pursuit of unfettered self-interest is considered a laudable ethic to live by. The idea that one must do what is best for oneself at every turn – and that only those willing to live by this code deserve to prevail in the economy – has been translated into a subtle but powerful cultural narrative about the unimpeachable fairness of the market and the undeservingness of the poor. Redistributive programs are often criticized as wasteful and an irresponsible use of resources. But lavish displays of luxury, flamboyant parties, global travel, and opulent mansions are the social currency of the elite – all propped up by a growing underclass of largely immigrant laborers. 

A drift toward self-centeredness in private life is matched in the public square. In politics, an overfocus on the promotion of one’s own interests at the expense of others’ has created an environment of relentless zero-sum competition and a repeated failure of compromise. Public debates are characterized not by deliberation on differing ideas, but by demonization of those on the opposing side. Party platforms move toward the extremes. And those in power seek to consolidate their influence by disenfranchising voters unsupportive of their views. The result is a nation more and more fragmented along economic, ideological, racial, and ethnic lines, and more and more dominated by leaders who prove shrewdest at the game of divide and conquer. The inevitable result is political gridlock and a hobbled public sector. Decaying infrastructure, inadequate basic services, and outmoded public programs are a national embarrassment. Citizens rightly despair of elected officials ever being able to accomplish anything at all. 

From “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” by Robert D. Putnam

Significantly more innovative

Working out of the legendary Santa Fe Institute, where he served as president until 2009, West assembled an international team of researchers and advisers to collect data on dozens of cities around the world, measuring everything from crime to house-hold electrical consumption, from new patents to gasoline sales.

When they finally crunched the numbers, West and his team were delighted to discover that Kleiber’s negative quarter-power scaling governed the energy and transportation growth of city living. The number of gasoline stations, gasoline sales, road surface area, the length of electrical cables: all these factors follow the exact same power law that governs the speed with which energy is expended in biological organisms. If an elephant was just a scaled up mouse, then from an energy perspective, a city was just a scaled-up elephant.  

But the most fascinating discovery in West’s research came from the data that didn’t turn out to obey Kleiber’s law. West and his team discovered another power law lurking in their immense data-base of urban statistics. Every datapoint that involved creativity and innovation – patents, R&D budgets, “supercreative” professions, inventors – also followed a quarter-power law, in a way that was every bit as predictable as Kleiber’s law. But there was one fundamental difference: the quarter-power law governing innovation was positive, not negative. A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn’t ten times more innovative; it was seventeen times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 150 times more innovative.

Kleiber’s law proved that as life gets bigger, it slows down. But West’s model demonstrated one crucial way in which human-built cities broke from the patterns of biological life: as cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster clip. This is what we call “superlinear scaling”: if creativity scaled with size in a straight, linear fashion, you would of course find more patents and inventions in a larger city, but the number of patents and inventions per capita would be stable. West’s power laws suggested something far more provocative: that despite all the noise and crowding and distraction, the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand. “Great cities are not like towns only larger,” Jane Jacobs wrote nearly fifty years ago. West’s positive quarter-power law gave that insight a mathematical foundation. Something about the environment of a big city was making its residents significantly more innovative than residents of smaller towns. But what was it?

From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson

When a paradigm fails

For many of us, faith is our map of reality, our map of the universe. It tells us where we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going, where to turn. But as soon as our trusted map stops matching reality, we feel disoriented. We have no idea where to turn, what to do, how to survive.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of using a paper map or a GPS guidance system and realizing that because of some glitch or a flaw, it’s leading you astray, or taking you in circles, or telling you to keep going straight or turn right when you’re actually at a dead end. 

Academics often call these mental maps paradigms, and when a paradigm fails and we need to seek a new one, we go through a paradigm shift. That intellectual language might make it sound like we’re dealing with a strictly theoretical problem, but people experience the failure of a mental map, paradigm, or worldview as personally traumatizing. Even scientists, when their conceptual maps fail them and they must challenge some of their fundamental scientific assumptions, use emotionally charged language to describe the experience. 

From “Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It” by Brian McLaren

Diametrically Opposed Belief Systems

If it was puzzling to me how, in spite of the presence of God and the Bible there could be such racism, I was comforted to learn that I was not the only one. The history of this hypocrisy. Throughout history, the pro-slavery and anti-slavery proponents argued their case for their points of view. The pro-slavery proponents believed that God had created and sanctioned slavery, while the anti-slavery proponents believed quite the opposite. A good God, argued the anti-slavery advocates could not possibly approve of how  Africans were being treated, but pro-slavery champions went to passages in the Bible to “prove” that God did in fact approve of the institution. In Frederick Douglas, David Blight wrote that “Dougles loved the Declaration of Independence, but since its principles were natural rights, like the precious ores of the earth, he refused to argue for their existence or their righteousness against the claims of pro-slavery ideologues. “What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue?” he asked in his famous Fourth of July speech. “Why must he prove that the slave is human?” Rather, Douglas claimed his authority from two great scriptures, “the Constitution and the Bible.”

Much later, Howard Thurman, the great spiritualist, described the inherent and indigenous tension in the United States. In spite of both the Bible and the Constitution, Thurman noted that “for a long time the Christian Church has profoundly compromised with the demands of the Gospel of Jesus Chirst, especially with respect to the meaning and practice of love. The Bible and the Constitution notwithstanding. Thurman wrote that “it was taken for granted that the very existence of law was for the protection and the security of white society. 

It seemed that Black and white society had two diametrically opposed belief systems when it came to how to treat not only Black people but also all people, since, as the Creation story taught us, everyone was made by God. Douglas, Thurmand, and so many others based their beliefs on how God intended for people to be treated on the Great Commandment, found in all three Synoptic Gospels, which said that humans were to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, minds, and souls, and their neighbors as themselves. Many white Christians, however, used as their guide the words found in the Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:19: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They viewed it as their godly duty to civilize people whom they believed were inferior to them; God gave them the mandate, they believed to exercise dominion over all the creatures of the earth, including people of color. That way of interpreting the BIble was the foundation of the concept of Manifest Destiny, the nineteenth-century belief that the expansion of the United States, which included subjugating people and their cultures, was the will of God, based on the words of the Great Commission. In the present day, Christian nationalists believe that it is a “God-given responsibility to moralize the world through the use of force.” One group of people sees the primary command of Jesus as it being necessary to love one another and build community, while the other group believes the duty of Christians is to exercise dominion over others and to gain political power, something we will examine later. Both groups call themselves Christians. Both read the same Bible and both are made up of American citizens, but neither group sees or interprets the Bible or Constitution in the same way.

From “With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution, and Racism in America” by Susan K. Williams Smith