Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Spiritual responses to polarization
How can we respond to polarization in our communities and in our nation? Last week’s New York Times column by David Brooks identified the polarization not only in religious communities generally, but specifically in the white evangelical churches. It is so sad to see political polarization and strife infect our society right down to families and religious congregations. When a church community that preaches love and forgiveness descends to cursing, nastiness, and even death threats, we must all be concerned.
Are there spiritual practices that can help us in these times? Five years ago, the book “Finding Peace through Spiritual Practice” offers, as its subtitle suggests, a “Guide to Personal, Social, and Environmental Healing.” The three authors, a Jewish rabbi, a Christian pastor, and a Muslim imam, have since the 9/11 tragedy been working together to provide perspective and hope that seeks “an inner place of reconciliation of opposites and awakening to the reality of peace.”
They begin by identifying the inner spiritual life as not the opposite of social action and compassion in the larger world. It is, in fact, a critical first step. “Spirituality demands action,” they write. “We all want greater peace, and that requires both inner and outer action.”
While peace strives for the absence of violence, it is sometimes also defined as the absence of conflict and fear. They suggest, to the contrary, that conflict when properly managed often leads to positive change and growth. Absence of fear would endanger our safety. It would be harmful to ignore the fear of the hot stove or the fear of a highly contagious virus. They define true peace as “a way of living in which our conflicts lead us to more meaningful relationships, fear awakens us to live with greater safety, and pain reminds us of where we need support. Peace is an environment in which we help each other become the very best we can be.”
They identify polarization as our basic challenge, not just externally in the public arena, but also in our personal lives. Our human makeup, they write, “permits, promotes, and even perpetuates the pain we bring on ourselves and each other,” while at the same time “is also responsible for the compassion, love, and peace in our lives.”
The Russian dissident and author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, points out the conflict. “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The book’s Jewish co-author, Rabbi Ted Falcon, notes that the creation story from Genesis begins with contrasts of light and darkness, day and night, man and woman, as well as days of work and days of sabbath rest. Creation begins with the interaction of opposites. He says that this is true not only in the world but also in ourselves. According to rabbinic teaching, our human makeup includes “the yetzer tov, the inclination toward good, and the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination toward evil.” Rabbi Falcon notes that the yetzer ha-ra comes from the drive for self-satisfaction and is actually a necessary force for self-preservation. Without it, humans would not build shelters, accumulate goods, engage in commerce, or procreate. The evil inclination tends to turn these efforts to selfish indulgence, destructive of others and the physical and social environment.
Christian co-author and Pastor Don Mackenzie, recognizes the temptation to evil, even as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to respond to the needs of the ego. Jesus resisted the mere satisfaction of physical needs as well as the temptation of pride and worldly power. In referring to the Sermon on the Mount, he writes that Jesus goes further by teaching, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Pastor Mackenzie urges that we not only see others as they might appear to us, but see them in terms of their potential. In discussing the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), we see ways that even the one who appears as a potential enemy can be seen showing mercy, and thus the true caring neighbor.
Imam Jamal Rahman shares Islamic views on the self and our “human tendency to insist that our opinions and judgments prevail. …We can be adamantly attached to our entrenched positions for the sake of individual or tribal interests and unwilling to make compromises for the common good.” He writes that the ego is morally neutral and that at creation we were “infused with the spirit of God,” but our lower self tends to lead us astray. Furthermore, he writes, “Much of the polarization and conflict that we experience in the world is a reflection of that inner conflict. If we could heal and reconcile the wars that rage inside of us, there would be no seeds for war in the world around us.”
To warn of the danger of having an exaggerated opinion of oneself, he relates the story of the religious leader who in his evening stroll peers down into a well and sees the image of the moon. Worried that the moon has fallen from the sky he gets a rope and hook to retrieve it. When the hook gets stuck he tries to force it, but when it gives way he falls to the ground. Looking up he sees the moon in the sky and in self-satisfaction exclaims, “Thank God I came along.”
From each of these faith communities we observe the dangers of taking oneself too seriously and only seeing an extremely limited view of one’s own opinions. Polarization can be the result. But by being open to others and their understanding, we can seek a peace that welcomes all as neighbors and will lead to the flourishing of every human being. In our communities and at this critical time in our nation, let this be our quest.