How to Heal Our Divides Today

Thought leadership from organizations and individuals dismantling walls

America is good.

Americans are good.

In his July 2019 newsletter to his followers, evangelical leader James Dobson described a visit to the southern border of the United States during what can only be called an immigration crisis of epic proportions. After stating that many of the “illegals” who cross the border are “illiterate and unhealthy” and will overcome our culture, he states, “America has been a wonderfully generous and caring country since its founding. That is our Christian nature. Except that there isn’t a lot of Christ in what’s happening on our southern border, and there isn’t a lot of Christ in our history. What there is a lot of is oppression, injustice, slavery, torture. You get the gist. But according to certain faith leaders?

America is good.

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

A troubling similarity

The United States in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s was startlingly similar to today. Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation, and cultural narcissism prevailed – all accompanied, as they are now, by unprecedented technological advances, prosperity, and material well-being. The parallels are indeed so striking that the foregoing description could have been written virtually word-for-word about our nation today. Looking back to a time Mark Twain disparagingly called the Gilded Age turns out to feel eerily like looking in the mirror.

Of course, other commentators have already spotted this troubling similarity. They have rightly warned that without a change in course, Americans today will have been guilty of allowing an ugly chapter in our history to repeat itself. But this comparison – remarkably apt as it is – inevitably begs the question of what actually came to pass the last time our nation found itself in such a troubling state of affairs. Clearly, the doomsday prophecies and despairing anxieties of the late 1880s were never fulfilled – the fear that the American project was headed irretrievably off the rails proved unfounded. So how did we get from the last American Gilded Age to our current predicament? What happened in the intervening century?

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

Something about the Web environment

Consider, as an alternate scenario, the story of Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, three former employees of the online payment site PayPal, who decided in early 2005 the Web was ripe for an upgrade in the way it handled video and sound.  Video, of course, was not native to the Web, which had begun its life fifteen years before as a platform for academics to share hypertext documents. But over the years, video clips had begun to trickle their way online, thanks to new video standards that emerged, such as Quick-Time, Flash, or Windows Media Player. But the mechanisms that allowed people to upload and share their own videos were too challenging for most ordinary users. So Hurley, Chen, and Karim cobbled together a rough beta for a service that would correct these deficiencies, raised less than $10 million in venture capital, hired about two dozen people, and launched YouTube, a website that utterly transformed the way video information is shared online. Within sixteen months of the company’s founding, the service was streaming more than 30 million videos a day. Within two years, YouTube was one of the top-ten most visited sites on the Web. Before Hurley, Chen, and Karim hit upon their idea for a start-up, video on the Web was as common as subtitles on television. The Web was about doing things with text, and uploading the occasional photo. YouTube brought Web video into the mainstream. 

Now compare the way these two ideas – HDTV and YouTube – changed the basic rules of engagement for their respective platforms. Going from analog television to HDTV is a change in degree, not in kind: there are more pixels; the sound is more immersive; the colors are sharper. But consumers watch HDTV the exact same way they watched old-fashioned analog TV. They choose a channel, and sit back and watch. YouTube, on the other hand, radically altered the basic rules of the medium. For starters, it made watching video on the Web a mass phenomenon. But with YouTube you weren’t limited to sitting and watching a show, television style; you could also upload your own clips, recommend or rate other clips, get into a conversation about them. With just a few easy keystrokes, you could take a clip running on someone else’s site, and drop a copy of it onto your own site. The technology allowed ordinary enthusiasts to effectively program their own private television networks, stitching together video clips from all across the planet. 

YouTube went from an idea to mass adoption in less than two years. Something about the Web environment had enabled Hurley, Chen, and Karim to unleash a good idea on the world with astonishing speed. They took the 10/10 rule and made it 1/1. 

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

Contrived excuses rather than convincing explanations

Before becoming a pastor, I thought more time in Bible study, more time in prayer, more time exposed to hymns and worship songs, more time in Christian fellowship meant my doubts would decrease, not increase.

But when I became an insider to the religious industrial complex, I saw things I hadn’t seen before. I saw how petty and shabby religious people can be under their Hallelujahs and Praise the Lords. I saw how often money reigns, even in the so-called kingdom of God. Speaking of money, I saw how much of it is expended (along with time and effort) for relatively little personal and social transformation. I encountered a significant minority of my fellow religious professionals who were arrogant, insecure, or emotionally enmeshed with their congregations, creating a narcissist/co-dependent syndrome that often resulted in outward success (measured in money, facilities, and attendance) and inward misery (measured in anxiety, fatigue, hostility, self-hatred, and depression).

To make matters worse, because I was preparing two, three, four sermons and Bible studies each week, I was reading the Bible more than I ever had, and as you’d expect, with all that exposure, I started noticing things. I noticed tensions – I couldn’t yet let myself call them contradictions – between versions of stories told by different storytellers. I noticed passages where God seemed infinitely loving and kind just a few pages away from other passages where God seemed horribly cruel and vindictive. Of course, I read books that tried to resolve these tensions, but they often struck me as contrived excuses rather than convincing explanations. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t employ those excuses when others came to me with their questions about things they were noticing in the Bible.

When members came to me for counseling, I observed how much relief and comfort traditional Christian theology brought to some people. But for others, it did the opposite. It confused them, terrified them, even traumatized them. And it emboldened some to be even more arrogant, judgmental, or insecure than they would have been otherwise. When I compared notes with my fellow pastors, I realized that many of them were struggling with similar observations. 

All these observations piled up like a stack of firewood, and that morning, looking into the mirror in a dingy high school bathroom, I could smell smoke. 

From “Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What To Do About It” by Brian McLaren – St. Martin’s