George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Healing the soul of the nation: An S-CAR workshop

January 31, 2018

Participants at the S-CAR sponsored workshop

Participants at the S-CAR sponsored workshop. Photo by Tamara Hamilton

By Rich Rubenstein

Is the United States, beset by deepening political, social, and cultural conflicts, experiencing a spiritual crisis? If so, can religious leaders and activists help people resolve their differences and heal America’s soul? These were the questions motivating discussions at an all-day workshop organized by S-CAR on December 13, 2017, at its Point of View conference center in Mason Neck, Virginia.

The talks were facilitated by S-CAR alumna Dr. Mary Wade, founding director of Building Respect in the Community (BRIC), a Philadelphia organization; Marc Gopin, director of S-CAR’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict; and Richard Rubenstein. Twenty-three conferees representing a wide range of religious organizations, academic fields, and practical callings participated fully. A highly abbreviated summary of their discussions follows. 

First discussion:  Are we experiencing a crisis of the spirit? What are its manifestations?

Rev. Martin Luther King’s teacher, the philosopher Howard Thurman, identified three “hounds of hell”: fear, hatred, and deception. Quaker peace theorist Adam Curle added another factor: ignorance. Many of us have noted a significant increase in anger, fear, distrust, and confusion in our own congregations, schools, and neighborhoods.   

One source of fear and confusion may be that social change is accelerating in ways that destabilize people’s expectations. Economic development is uneven and unpredictable, and there are increasing differences among us about basic cultural norms. These differences are magnified by news media that have a “bias for conflict.” As a result, our natural tendency towards empathy is short-circuited, which can create a dangerous propensity for violence.

These problems are not new, except for those living more privileged lives. America has never lived up to its professed aspirations for freedom, justice, or equality.  We have always been “tribalized,” and this tendency is sharpening now, as problems that were especially prevalent among poor people, immigrants, and people of color are experienced by working class and middle class whites as well.

Because of fears of discrimination and possible violence, many people living abroad do not want to come to this country now. A growing sense of unpredictability in American society and politics makes them fearful and distrustful.

These worries are shared among many long-term residents who worry that the individual is no longer valued and that democratic institutions are in danger. Some people fear that there may be another Holocaust. Others believe that ordinary people will not get justice, that our children are being trained to be violent, and that we have lost the ability to listen to each other.  Many also fear that truth has become of no account, and that groups in conflict cannot agree on what is true or how to discover the truth. At the same time, a lack of accountability by decision-makers appears to feed a general tendency towards vigilantism and the politics of revenge.

This is the bad news. At the same time, many participants pointed out, dangers also generate opportunities. There are important sources of resilience in this society. The crises that we worry about also offer opportunities to rethink political and cultural norms and to forge new ones.  We ought not lose faith in people’s ability to learn to talk with, to understand, and even to love those they disagree with.  Religious traditions offer ideas and practices that can help people resolve their conflicts. And there is still time to use these tools to prevent an increase in intergroup violence.   

Second discussion: What are the sources of the current crisis? What ideas and practical approaches may be effective in dealing with it?

Our own discussion shows that it is not easy to empathize with others while also being true to one’s own experience. We tend to view our own fears and dislikes as reasonable and those of our adversaries as irrational.  We need to learn more, in particular, about why so many people equate sensitivity to other people’s needs with weakness, and see aggressive unconcern for others as strength. We also need to learn why many are nostalgic for an alleged past when America was both powerful and good.

Some of this longing may have to do with the fact that the worship of money and power in America is now so blatant and out of control. Our country is divided in many ways, but one of the deepest, most destructive divisions is that between wealthy, privileged people and the poor and near poor. Doing something about that basic division could establish our responsibility toward each other as members of a human community and open the door to solving many other problems.

We urgently need a common narrative in which people take responsibility for the vulnerable members of our society – a narrative that values the sharing of resources. “There’s no such thing as a broken system – systems are designed to produce what they produce.”

Politically, socially, and on digital platforms, we have created “a new apartheid” that separates competing groups politically and culturally. Under these circumstances, it is especially important to help children and teenagers get beyond the “clash of ignorance” that now dominates our internal political discussions.

Above all, we need to confront the tribal and religious arrogance that underlies how we understand “civilization.” A major practical question: how can we structure dialogues that lead to human encounters between people who have stopped communicating? A key to this may be to leave behind the separated egos that many assume are the ultimate reality in order to practice a politics of radical compassion capable of inspiring trust. People need to hear us say, “I’ve got you. I will never let you go.”

Third discussion: What can religious organizations do to help cure the nation’s spiritual ills?

What religious communities do now matters greatly. They have widespread influence because they are strongly socially networked. People outside their immediate ambit will respond to encounters with principled people who come to learn from them as well as to teach and preach.    

Several participants have organized dialogues involving face-to-face contact between people who disagree strongly about political and social values. The result, in some outstanding cases, has been to help the parties humanize each other – a development that permits adversaries to discover issues on which they can collaborate despite their differences. (Specific examples were discussed.)

Many successful dialogues feature the use of history to define conflicts, focusing on the origins of lack of respect.  The key questions they ask include “Where does it hurt?” and “What could make it better?” Collaborative historical work has sometimes led to acknowledgement, contrition, and forgiveness by each side of the other. By contrast, unacknowledged historical wounds tend to generate new conflicts.

Unfortunately, religious leaders are often silent when threats or atrocities take place. This silence needs to end. It’s good to be an evangelist and to stand up for what one believes.  Interfaith dialogue needs to become interfaith “dia-praxis,” in which differing religious groups agree to do social justice work together. We need to work in areas where diversity is not celebrated, for example, in rural areas or mono-cultural suburbs.  (Specific examples were again noted and discussed.)

The greatest danger of violence lies in the existence of small, angry, isolated minorities. A creative answer to this problem is to invite the outcast into the fold – to make him or her one’s friend. This may require going alone to places where you are the stranger.  Where bridges need to be built, “you can become the bridge.”  By doing this, one can discover the commonalities that often get ignored in conflict situations. We all want to protect children, to avoid suffering, to live a life based on more than materialistic values. These commonalities point the way to possible healing of social divisions.

Upon adjournment, the participants agreed to remain in contact and to work together on programs to implement the principles discussed at the workshop.