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.

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"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.

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.

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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.

Because churches are the venue I know best, it is there - where incivility is most astounding - that I have witnessed America's polarization. Congregations of all denominations nationwide are deeply divided over this election. Accusations fly back and forth. In some cases I've seen, faithful church members have canceled financial support, and some have moved to different congregations. If the pastor preaches peace, he or she is heard to be anti-Bush. If the pastor expresses grave concern about terrorism - and the need to protect ourselves - it's seen as anti-Kerry.

I know one pastor in the heartland who has left the ministry because he felt he couldn't be faithful to the gospel message calling for justice and peace. In this highly politicized atmosphere, such a sermon would draw severe criticism from Republicans in his congregation because they hear it as taking sides in this political atmosphere rather than preaching the Gospel.

Congregations and ministers - indeed, all Americans - need to allow each other to have passionate views and to express them. But no one has a right to impose views upon another.

We all have the right and the responsibility to speak the truth, as we see it, in love. The key is to show respect for one's adversary even when there is deep division.

But how do you do that?

If we are committed to the unity of humankind, then we must be willing to continue talking to people whose views we abhor. And it's the commitment to unity that allows us to rise above our baser instinct.

Theologically, if we recognize that all are made in God's image and all children of God are worthy of our love, then the door to civility is opened.

So in a divided nation where passions are running high over war, a tight presidential race, joblessness, and antagonistic media, let us remember the common good.

But being civil to an adversary does not mean sacrificing core principles, because in challenging an adversary, you can separate what that person says from who they are.

Peace comes only when we treat even our adversaries with respect and love. And even scientists now tell us that those who live this way live longer and more productive lives.

Nelson mandela summarized it well when I asked him why he was not bitter after years of unjust confinement: "They imprisoned me for almost 30 years. If I now come into the bright light of freedom filled with hate and determined to get even, then I will be their prisoner for the rest of my life."

A word to the wise: Reserve your passions for loving, speak forcefully to what you believe, and always reserve for yourself the possibility that you might just be wrong.

This will enable you to receive wisdom from unlikely sources. To declare that some are evil closes the potential for redemption. It may be politically sellable in the short run, but it is a fatal and destructive long-term strategy.

The Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, is the director of the department of religion at the Chautauqua Institution. She is also the chair of the Global Women's Peace Initiative, where she works for peace between Israeli and Palestinian women.

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