The next series of articles are taken from my new book that is coming out this spring. Its sub-title is “Why We Can’t Talk.” It is evident that we are a nation divided today, alienated from one another, unable to bridge what separates us. How shall we find common ground? Can we? I hope the book will answer those questions. I seek to find a common way for us, but I warn you that it will not be by compromising our principles, or weakening our convictions. It cannot be.
“So God created man in His own image …” (Genesis 1.27)
On March 18, 1958, the Catholic monk Thomas Merton stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets, in the center of the shopping district in Louisville, Kentucky. He was transfixed in awe and wonder. As people walked around him going about their daily lives, he had a vision. In his words: “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. … I have the immense joy of being a man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. … Now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
I want you to hold onto Merton’s image because our entire culture and society seek to blot out that vision. Without his understanding, we blindly cling to our solitude and revel in our own chosen isolation. Our image of ourselves is hollowed out, shallow. Our dreams are stunted. Our character sullied. Our grace is hidden even from our own eyes.
In Merton’s vision we will find a way to listen and to see one another in new light. Yet to do so, we must examine the divisions that plague America today. These are the very same ones that have wrought devastation in every society, in every nation, in every time. They are not unique to us.
Our current culture has thrust us into a mad rush towards our own destruction. Our own apathy feeds our isolation. The culture convinces us that we are alone. Isolated, lost, we are drowning. Without each other, we have no hope. Yet we turn our backs on our brothers to seize upon our isolation as if it could provide us comfort. Instead of reaching out to life, we plunge toward death.
Our divisions dominate us — left or right, urban or rural, Democrat or Republican, Progressive or Conservative, white or black, rich or poor. We focus upon the differences, upon the surface. We put others into slots and categories, thus denying their individual worth. We judge, we push, we rail and scream. We no longer have a common language. We have ears but do not hear. We have eyes but do not see. America is a house divided.
How long will we stand upon the precipice, glaring down into the depths of an abyss that holds hate and violence, malice and destruction. If we focus only downward at the emptiness, despair shall pull us down into it.
Do not look down to focus on that despair. Look up, across to those on the other side. There are your brothers and sisters. Look more closely at who they are ... at whose they are. Look beneath the surface, more deeply than you have ever peered before. They shine with such radiance that if they were visible light you would be blinded.
I am a born again, Evangelical Roman Catholic. Therefore I write from my Christian perspective, using Christian language. However, we will find, as we seek a deeper understanding of one another, that we share common values no matter what our beliefs, or lack thereof. If you doubt this, read C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, where Lewis quotes those common values from every civilization and culture. As we move further along this journey, we will discover that those common values find their purest form in Judeo-Christian ideals.
We may attempt to deny those values, but ultimately we cannot. The reality of our human nature weighs heavily upon us. We rebel against that nature in so many ways, but in doing so we distract ourselves from the pure core of our design. And, that very rebellion fuels our isolation, feeds our alienation.
When we deny the core of our nature, our focus becomes distorted to reflect only upon the surface characteristics of others and of ourselves. It is at this point that we cease to truly see one another. We fall prey to the absolute categories that then divide us. Those categories are pairs of seemingly opposite forces, the political and social ideas to which we cling. What are the divisions that we face?
Individualism and Collectivism.
Secularism and Mysticism.
Subjectivism and Absolutism.
These are the foundational pillars of our alienation. When we succumb to these extreme views, we find that we cannot communicate, that we cannot live in harmony or accept others’ viewpoints. Because we fail to truly see one another and live with our surface differences, we have taken away the power of morals and values. When we no longer honor each other’s strength and value, we are forced to turn to political means to solve our problems.
Therein lies our central problem. We turn to law and politics, which by their very nature are about division. We have replaced morality and values with legal wrangling, with political power plays and endless national and local divisions.
Yet, we become one people when disaster strikes. There are no political divisions in the midst of devastating floods, hurricanes, fires or snowstorms. We rush to aid those in need and we do not ask their beliefs. We give. We serve. It is in those times that we cease to focus upon difference. Our eyes are opened and we see the true value of those souls we help.
Perhaps this is the key to help us overcome our separations. Within the act of serving, of helping to rebuild our community, there is a selfless reaching out which no longer focuses upon me, but upon others. Here also is the answer to how we came to be this divided. Our focus has become inward, self-obsessed.
It is only when we look outward seeking to help our fellow man that we can begin to bridge the divisions we’ve created. We find a way between the extremes, a way that lies in Merton’s image. I urge you to remember that very first image: our brothers and sisters shine like the sun.
Joseph Stringer writes and speaks on Christian issues in culture and community and gives seminars on his book, The Ten Commandments For Business. He is working on his new book, Alien Nation. He is currently the Charleston director for the South Carolina Christian Chamber of Commerce and is an Insurance Broker and Risk Manager at Anderson Insurance Associates. He can be reached at (843)452-1333 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.