“In short, the problem now across the Arab East is not just poison gas, but poisoned hearts. Each tribe or sect believes it is in a rule-or-die struggle against the next.” — Thomas Friedman, “Same Country, Different War,” The New York Times, 9/7/13
This rule-or-die struggle describes not just the Arab East but the growing political and religious divide in this country. We are in the silly season playoffs in Washington with pressing issues on Syria, the fund/defund health care debate, and the debt ceiling fight that could potentially shut down the government. Standing on principle is often code for my-way-or-the-highway leaving uncompromising gridlock, large problems unaddressed, groups at war with one another — and often a rich payoff for a few.
Making political warfare is big business with highly invested and often highly rewarded stakeholders. Big hitters like Rush Limbaugh, Chris Matthews, Ted Cruz and Al Sharpton monetize strife into mega-money, mega-microphones and mega-power. The old Military-Industrial Complex has given way to the Political-Divide Complex.
These professional dividers accuse their opposition of blind partisanship while they themselves bat clean up for their own polarizing line-up. Anyone in their group who even hints at moving to more moderate positions or compromise is pilloried. Uncompromising is their revered new normal while working together toward common solutions is portrayed as weak and unprincipled. Extreme partisanship yields greater political payoff than solving mega-problems. Telling the other side off and winning snarky exchanges in the media, where drama and entertainment are the point, firms the divide. This perverse new political royalty extolls feeding the base while the masses starve for unemployment, health care, and immigration solutions. The fight is no longer the means, but the end.
What if productive relationship replaced unending tribal warfare as our highest principle and we were to stand with conviction on that principle? What if being lukewarm about solving problems and taking action were seen as unprincipled and weak? Actually, democracy was founded on a system of a voting electorate, political parties, branches of government and states specifically designed to value and honor differences while providing ways to exist, compromise, share-power and work together to get things done. It is a “relational” form of government that translates differences into committed action. The lateRobert Capon captured it: “History is made in moments, in decisive instants of transition. And the creation of an us from what was only an I and thou is one of them.”
Democracy, as an inspired form of us, is not a lukewarm idea, but one that people have fought and died for. Relationship, compromise, and freedom to choose are at the center of our system. Where did we get the idea that anyone of us is the “king” that knows it all and that we should force others to submit without say or compromise to our royal way — or “no-way”?
Faith and belief follow a similar pattern. The number of religious groups operating in a rule-or-die mode is truly epidemic. A rather extreme example: The number of churches officially separating from the Presbyterian Church (USA) last year increased by fivefold compared to 2011. Issues of ordination of gay people, governance and general interpretation of scriptures have led to church and denominational versions of divorce — like flight from marriage and political parties. In many ways, disagreement and divide has become the brand of denominational religion. To quote Anne Lamott, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
In a country where 77 percent self-identify as Christian, the words of Christ carry weight. We don’t have to guess about what he thought was most important. When he was asked what is the greatest commandment he said two things (Matthew 22: 36-40): Love God and love your neighbor. He then provided a statement of priority: “All law and all prophesy hang on these two commandments.” He was not lukewarm about loving relationship — it was his highest priority. Hanging on that, the law instructs in relationship. If whatever we do in the pursuit of the law tramples on or is destructive to relationships, it undermines the highest principle. The means are counter to the end.
When actions to disparage and exclude in the name of democracy or religious law become primary, we get it backwards. It may be called standing on principle but it often stomps on relationships and each of us.
We are even to love our enemies. Why? Opposition and the disagreements that come with them do for us what our friends and shared-beliefs cannot — they pressure us to see things differently.
Underneath much of the bluster of rule-or-die lies unvarnished elitism and contempt. Dr. John Gottman (the famous therapist who, based on a brief 15 minute observation of married couples, predicted with more than 90 percent accuracy which would be together 15 years later) concludes that contempt is the most powerful force in the destruction of relationships. Contempt is about self-righteousness, hierarchy and the effort to exclude others by blocking their ascension to our level.
And underneath that elitism and contempt are many wounded souls who themselves feel run over by the other side. We are locked in an escalating relationship arms race, furthered by technology that has brought us to the brink. Our ability to inflict has outstripped our wisdom to prevent or heal relational destruction. And, we don’t seem to know how to stop it. We are not standing on principle but rather like self-anointed czars are trampling on each other.
General Peter Pace, head of the Joint Chiefs at the height of sectarian violence during the Iraq war, stated, “If the Iraqi people as a whole decided today that, in my words now, they love their children more than they hate their neighbor,… this could come to a quick conclusion.” It is high time to stand on the principle of relationship — loving what unites us more than we hate what divides us.