Bridges Not Walls


20 May 2017

As news reports about him and his close associates continue to flood the media, Donald Trump begins his first major foreign-diplomacy trip. Regardless how his trip goes, people wonder if he will still be president a few weeks from now.

I really don’t know how much longer Donald Trump will occupy the White House. I leave that kind of speculation to others.…..I do, however, have a big concern about what occupies much of contemporary America: POLARIZATION.

American polarization — extreme, sharp, and often bitter — is more extreme today than during the nineteenth century Civil War. Whether Trump remains president or not, polarization, I fear, will continue to threaten American identity and existence.

Like many of you, I suspect, I lived through the heated debates, demonstrations, and civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. I vividly remember the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. What’s happening today, however, is more serious and more sinister than the unsettling events of the ‘60s and ‘70s, because it is more widespread and more deeply rooted. People are retreating behind strongly defended walls constructed on racism, ignorance, fundamentalism, and narcissistic economics. These polarization walls, stretching across the country, are far more threatening than any real or imagined wall between Mexico and the USA.

Republicans and Democrats, today, are more ideologically divided than at any point in the past twenty years; and American society is being pulled apart by strong ideological divisions along educational, generational, and religious lines. The issues are hardly limited to politics or battles between Fox News and NBC. Contemporary Christians are more divided by “fundamentalists” and “new earth creationists” battling “progressives” than they are by Catholics who can’t get along with Protestants or vice versa.

And all across the country, civility appears to be a lost virtue; and it is being replaced by proud partisan nastiness and demeaning rhetoric. “Unfriending” on Facebook is the new fad; and tweeting is a sure way to screw and destroy school classmates, annoying business associates, or the guy down the street, who just married his buddy.

The roots of our contemporary polarization are in our changing U.S. population, with its rapidly growing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. Some people cannot deal with reality as a developing life story. I don’t agree with them, but I can understand the anxieties of white supremacists. Thanks to large-scale immigration from Latin America and Asia, since the 1960s, as well as higher fertility rates among non-whites, the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States has undergone a major transformation. Non-whites now comprise a major share of the overall population; and non-Latino whites will make up less than half of the country’s population by 2044, if not before.

Today, for the first time in U.S. History, there are more students of color than white students in American public schools. White supremacist rhetoric is not going to change this reality.

The other part of the demographic trend that accelerates polarization in the United States is that African Americans and Latinos continue to experience significantly worse health conditions, poorer educational and job opportunities, inferior housing, higher unemployment, and lower incomes than white Americans. They also encounter more hostility and prejudice in their interactions with public officials and police officers.

The big questions confronting Americans today — the really big values clarification questions —- are not whether or not Donald Trump will be leaving the White House; but whether or not Americans have the will and understanding to build a more inclusive, and less deeply segregated country. In many parts of the country —urban, rural, and suburban—the status quo will have to radically change.

Americans will have to become bridge builders in a big way.

Building walls is easy, compared to building bridges. Building bridges (in a polarized society) is hard work: One pillar is built on “my” vision and values. The other pillar is built on “their” vision and values. The roadway connecting the two pillars, however, can only be built with OUR shared vision and values.

The process of bridge-building begins, first of all, with family sharing based on mutual love and respect. It then moves on to neighborhood conversations and dialogue and learning-discoveries in schools, social groups, and churches.

To build solid and long-lasting bridges, we need to establish channels for dialogue and we need to insure that our religious, educational, and civic institutions promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.

To build solid and long-lasting bridges, we need to practice genuine humility and to acknowledge that we may not have all the answers for today’s problems, that our vision, whether “progressive” or “fundamentalist,” may indeed be a very limited kind of barrel vision. No one has all the truth locked up in his or her own doctrinal formulation. We need to share visions and concerns and construct together.

Ultimately, we need to translate our new vision-gained-from-humility-and-respectful-dialogue into concrete and achievable mutual goals and actions.

With good bridges, we can walk together, live together, and flourish. If all we do is build more self-protective walls, we will lock ourselves in our own prisons, cut ourselves off from human water, light, and air; and we will die.

……

Next week, some reflections about Christianity in Eastern Europe. Then, as I did last summer, I will escape, until July, to work on a new book and get some R&R with my wonderful wife of forty-seven years.

18 thoughts on “Bridges Not Walls

  1. I wonder if our times are really worse than other eras of division or if we are able to find like mindedness through the immediacy of modern social communication. It is so much easier to feel like there is a group “like me” out there, almost like a virtual mob mentality. I, too, remember the horrors of losing our heroes in the 60’s and the feeling of division in our country. But, as you have said, Jack, the hostility somehow didn’t seem so immediate and surrounding. The advocacy for hostility never seemed to come from the top and the violent voices seemed more like fringe or splinter groups. Now, so-called leaders invoke the worst of feelings and attitudes leading to uncivil actions from the followers. Plus, any radical behaviors get immediate publicity and exposure. Every disgruntled agent gets national recognition and, in some cases, validation for inappropriate behaviors. Unfortunately, in the polarization it seems that the more conservative or dogmatic the position, the less willingness to build bridges. A wall isn’t negotiable—it is or it isn’t and compromise won’t work. A half-wall isn’t a wall. A ban on immigrants, muslims, etc. only works if it is absolute. It’s so difficult to find middle ground with intransigence. Communication needs listening on both sides. If one side is always listening while the other is always speaking, where is the common ground? Thanks for opening up this important discussion. Blessings on you, Jack.

  2. Jack, your thoughts offer some insight for homilies on this weekend’s Gospel — trying to be open to the Spirit of truth in the situations we are living in these days. As some have told me lately, “that gospel stuff is for church, and has nothing to do with real life”. Oh, well . . . Both of you enjoy your R&R.

  3. Thank you for another thought-provoking blog, Jack. Hope you, and your bride, have a wonderful June, away from the chaos we now call America, a time for peace and love, which is what our God is about, as you said, and also Pope Francis, building bridges, not walls. God Bless!

  4. Indeed – enjoy your time away with your “wonderful wife of forty-seven years,” Jack! Life is fragile, but love indestructible. I’ve been “mining” the treasures of my life with my own “wonderful” husband of 40 years by writing about them since he died in January, 2010. Can you imagine that he asked me to sing to him as he would be dying? Hence, the main title of my first three books (two of poetry, one a memoir): SING TO ME AND I WILL HEAR YOU.

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