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Humanity is not red or blue

A religious leader's view on the great American divide: Conflict and civility on an issue are not mutually exclusive.

By Joan Brown Campbell / October 25, 2004


"A house divided against itself can not stand." President Lincoln's famous paraphrase of Jesus was a wise word to a nation torn apart by the issues of slavery and states' rights. Lincoln's words are as correct today as they were the day they were uttered.

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The 2004 election has, in fact, divided our "house." American families and friends avoid discussing the election for fear that the inevitable passion of the discussion could create deep wounds that might be difficult to heal.

But avoidance of a potentially divisive issue is always counterproductive. The division remains and the gulf inevitably widens between the sparring parties. This is true in families, between loving friends, and among and within religions and nations.

Division is inevitable: Passionate believing will continue to exist and - in moderation - is essential to lasting, deep relationships. Our task is not to seek a society, a family, or a friendship free of conflict, but to discover how conflict and civility can exist in the same space.

That requires seeing the humanity in our adversary.

Though this may seem impossible, there are notable examples of its very real possibility. One - in a place more violently divided than America in this uncivil election season - sheds light on what is humanly possible in the midst of a long and bitter conflict. The Parents' Circle is composed of grieving fathers and mothers: Palestinian parents whose children were killed by Israeli extremists and Israeli parents who have suffered the same unthinkable loss at the hands of Palestinian extremists.

For the sake of the future, and in service to the peace of the world, these parents decided to reach out to one another. Instead of setting the "other" aside as enemy, they said, "Let us forgive and let us put an end to the cycle of violence that will only result in the death of more children."

They offer to each other, to their divided nations, and to the world a way to live in the midst of any conflict.

What can we learn from these ordinary people who have chosen an extraordinary path to follow?

First, when dealing with deep division, hurt, anger, and pain, you can maintain civility only if you see your adversary as fully human. Dehumanizing your adversary through derogatory labels makes the adversary easier to hate - or kill, as in war. To a lesser degree than war, but equally destructive to the common good, is when Republicans refer to all Democrats as big spenders, or Demo crats refer to all Republicans as narrow-minded and bigoted. In the world of religion, leaders often dehumanize one another in the same way: Fundamentalists refer to liberals as people without a deep personal faith, and liberals refer to fundamentalists as people concerned about their own soul but not the soul of the nation.

Second, violence begets violence - incivility begets incivility. When getting even or winning a battle - or an argument - seems justified, we must stop and remind ourselves that we are called to a better way of living, to a place of common humanity.