THE season of all things divisive is upon us. We are entering the midterm election cycle, with its political rancor, simplistic representation of candidates and policies, and the tiresome efforts by both parties to froth up their bases.
There are consequences to this endless pandering to polarizing rhetoric and action. Certainly one of the reasons U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., lost his seat in Congress is that his own negative political strategies invited similar responses to his own position on issues.
The founders also knew unbridled passions came with a republic, so they created ways to temper the energies with checks and balances. Unfortunately, the checks and balances no longer restrain us, and if we want this nation to survive, let alone prosper, we would need to learn to apply our values and principles to the problems facing us without thinking in terms of zero-sum and scorched Earth.
Our political and cultural decision-making processes need more respect, self-critical reflection and compromise. More specifically, we need an education revolution, one focused on those who lead government or devote their life to organizations trying to change society.
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Fortunately, many programs have these kinds of curricula. One is the Public Conversations Project. It created dialogue methodologies for conflict situations based on best practices in family therapy. But, the most enduring methodologies at dialoguing across differences are often found in religious traditions. The Public Conversations Project actually sharpened its own methodologies by studying how the Jewish Dialogue Group of Philadelphia structured conversations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Since the birth of the modern ecumenical movement in 1910, many Christian traditions have created initiatives to de-escalate their suspicions of each other, deepen their understanding of the real nature of differences and find ways to reach common ground on complex issues. Pax Christi, which has mediated reconciling moments in troubled areas such as Northern Ireland, created one such methodology. The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church unleashed a torrent of energy for these kinds of initiatives in 1962 to 1965, as has the work of the World Council of Churches.
But, educational efforts promoting reconciliation, acceptance of the other, and a commitment to rise above polarization also exist across interfaith lines. The Inter- Religious Federation for World Peace has been bridge-building across divisiveness for more than 35 years, and the Interfaith Youth Corpseducates division-healing leaders for the next generation. For ten years, the Scriptural Reasoning methodology has built bridges around the world.
Sometimes you cannot see the religious roots of a methodology. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which provided a safe space for reconciliation between victims and perpetrators during apartheid, had a religiously inspired foundation, and an Anglican bishop, Desmond Tutu, as its first leader.
Faith-based bridge-building programs have common elements: They teach people to make room in their principles and values for solving the problems in the common life of a pluralistic world. They instruct participants to live their principles authentically and faithfully, but also to identify and think critically about the origins, sources and influences of their positions, to surface untested assumptions and to think critically about themselves before thinking critically about others.
This is a messy process, but it has worked for people of faith for more than 100 years as they have pioneered building common cause on the fractured foundation of difference. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Pope Francis come from this tradition.
Perhaps our problems are now too big, complicated and globally intertwined. Or, maybe the ability to data-mine our habits and preferences has allowed political strategists to become so adept at stirring, igniting and manipulating our passions that we can no longer live the vision of e pluribus unum.
But, there is still hope. If people of historically divided religious traditions can transcend their differences to listen and follow their better and more-reasoned angels, maybe Republicans and Democrats could learn to do so as well.
Mark S. Markuly is dean of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.