Bridging the Deepest Divide by Rev. Michael Duda published in the Salem Evening News
The reverberations of last week’s election continue, even to the point of riots in some cities. I think everyone had been looking forward to this election being over, but it seems that no one regardless of party affiliation expected it to end the way it has. I’m afraid the wounds opened during this long season of division and vitriol may take more than ballots to bind, and clearly from the split of the popular vote, our country remains deeply divided. It was bound to happen. Words do matter, and the steady barrage of hateful rhetoric during this painfully long campaign season seems to have broken down any semblance of civility. From all historical indicators this was not the way our democracy was designed to function, and it certainly is not the way any of our faith traditions promote as the path of peace.
Politics become poisonous when self-righteousness poses as truth, and religion turns toxic whenever any group pretends to speak for God. Sadly we no longer need to look back to find isolated historical examples; the propaganda spewing out of ISIS is a deadly demonstration of faith gone bad. So what are we as people of faith to do?
One half of the divide is experiencing grief, and we know that it is important to be in community when grief comes. The stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and being in community provides support in the process. The other half is represented by many who voted out of anger, frustration and despair. At least both sides of our divided electorate have something in common — both share extremely strong feelings. During the campaign I read Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” — I had to read something to help me weather that storm of acrimony! And Haidt helped; he shows how good people base their political and religious belief systems on deeply ingrained feelings and attitudes that are then reinforced by background and affiliation. That helped to explain why the “fact checkers” were so busy during the campaign, and why, even when the facts were checked, it didn’t change opinions. Votes were not cast on the basis of reason, rather ballots were based on feeling.
Understanding this can help in the days ahead as we try to communicate across the divide. Conversation builds bridges that can cross the deepest divide. Listening, understanding, loving even when we disagree can break down the barriers built upon months of rhetoric. I am reminded that Jesus was once asked to choose the greatest commandment of the Law, one that could guide us in times like these. He recited the two greatest passages of the Torah: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” — from Deuteronomy, and: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. I am the LORD” — from Leviticus.
I am writing this musing on Veterans Day, and I am keenly aware that our veterans, as well as those in active service now, offered their service not for one party, one group or one constituency, but for our country. I hope our conversations in the days ahead might reflect that kind of commitment and be rooted in God’s love. In another time of great division and fearfulness the civil rights activist and songwriter James Weldon Johnson wrote:
“God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray….
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.”
The Rev. Michael J. Duda is a resident of Rockport and pastor of First Church in Wenham.