Why we are struggling and divided
Posted On May 28, 2020
One of the more disturbing aspects of the response to the pandemic is the exposing of how divided we are as a nation. The division has been there for a long time. One could argue that the division has always existed. As soon as the Revolutionary War ended, there was division. Having a nation didn’t solve that division, it only highlighted it. That division took the form of political parties, among other things. History tells us of the early divisions in this nation – divisions often around the notion of race and what to do about it. But there were also divisions on the scope of government. That’s what the two early political parties were founded on.
During the Presidency of John Adams in 1798, our second president, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. Here’s what History.com has to say about these acts:
“The Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1798 amid widespread fear that war with France was imminent. The four laws–which remain controversial to this day–restricted the activities of foreign residents in the country and limited freedom of speech and of the press.” (Source)
And that’s just at the beginning of the nation. As the nation progressed there were division that resulted in a Civil War, in new emerging political parties that stood for opposing ideals and values, the role of government in terms of regulating business, all sorts of rights – voting rights for women, African-Americans, age of voting, etc. Divisions around monopolies and taxes. Divisions around poverty and how to deal with it. Divisions around immigration – lots of divisions around immigration. Divisions about war.
What we’ve had in this country is a paradox. We have told ourselves from the very beginning that we hold in common a set of beliefs and core values – an identity. The problem with this claim is that there isn’t evidence to back it up. Yes, we have slogans. Yes, we have stated ideals. Yes, we have songs. Yes, there are times when the nation has gotten along well together. But history shows that the times of relative stability, unity, and peace as a nation are the exception to the rule. We seem to have trouble living into the ideals we espouse – often completely ignoring those ideals or rejecting them in practice while still claiming them verbally.
Often this unity has come when we were threatened by outside forces. It allowed us to define ourselves based on our enemies – we aren’t them. We don’t stand for what they stand for. But has there been a time of unity in our nation when we have been able to say with uniformity and not pointing to an outside force or opponent or enemy – this is us and what we stand for? We haven’t been able to do this long term because we don’t actually agree on the meaning of the terms we all claim to believe in.
Ask two groups what freedom means – Pick any time in our nation’s history. Can you find a common definition? Freedom meant something different for the Robber Barrons of the late 1800’s than it did for the freed slaves of the South. Even in today’s environment, words that are used by political opponents are not defined the same way. We have two different (or probably many different) ways of defining common words. We always have. The word Freedom comes to mind.
Which gets to the heart of a core value of this nation – individualism.
Individualism has both positive and negative attributes. In the positive, it frees us from forced association with others – allows us to be more fully who we were created to be. And in the negative, it blinds us from seeing how connected we are to others around us. Like most things, Individualism is neither good nor bad by itself. It lives on a fluctuating scale. In the extreme it comes off as narcissism. But that’s not always the case. It is individualism that allowed some of our greatest heroes to say and do the things they did – because they were not attached to or compelled by unhealthy conformity.
Why do we struggle as a nation so much? There are many answers to that question. Here’s one that I propose. We struggle as a nation because we are facing yet another time in which we struggle to answer the question – why are we here? Both individually and communally (or nationally). It makes sense that this struggle would impact us this way. The ideals of individualism and community are at the core of our values and are the reason for our conflict. We have had a difficult time weaving these two ideals together. Our culture has never done well with ambiguity and paradox. We struggle when there are more than two options or ways. Our imaginations struggle to grasp the idea that maybe instead of either/or, that the answer may be both/and.
And so we struggle as a nation. But this isn’t new. This latest struggle to define why we are here – individually and nationally – has been going on for decades now, back to the end of the Cold War. When the Cold War ended, we cheered. We won! We survived. And then we realized something – how we defined our identity just changed. We could no longer define our identity based on our not being the USSR, not being Communists. What were we? And we haven’t had a good answer since.
Is it any wonder that we’ve had two impeached presidents since that time – one from each political party? Let me be clear, having no answer to the question of why we are here does not necessitate impeachment. But it is a symptom of something deeper than just political division. It is a symptom of a nation that has competing answers to the question of why it is here.
During this pandemic, I see another variation of this same challenge. It comes out when I see the debate raging around the wearing or not wearing of masks, how to deal with the unjust death of black men and women, thoughts about saving the economy, debates about climate change, universal health care coverage, working conditions and pay, etc. If we look at these issues in a compartmentalized way, we will miss what’s really going on. We will run ourselves ragged chasing after each injustice. We’ll get caught up in scoring political points. And we’ll miss what it’s all about – who are we? Why does this nation exist at all?
There are competing answers to those questions. Just as there always have been.
While I admire and support the efforts to change society – to move us towards a more just society – I have a real concern. If we focus on piecemeal changes or policies, we’ll always be playing catch-up. And policies can be reversed very easily. Just watch what happens when you change from one Administration of one party to the other. Especially when it comes to Executive Orders – which is why I’ve never been a fan of these. Easy come, easy go.
If you want to change the situation in the nation, I suggest we change our identity – we answer the question of who we are. Not based on who we aren’t. But based on a vision of who we are and where we are going. That’s how lasting change takes hold and shapes policy and daily life and changes lives. Change an identity and you’ll make lasting change.
And yes, I know this isn’t easy. It’s really hard. Maybe it’s impossible, I don’t know. And we Americans are really bad at it. But there are glimmers of hope. We’ve done it before. Read history. We formed a nation. We won a Civil War. We expanded rights. We protected lands. We have ideals. All of those came in conflict. They came with a cost. And there wasn’t unity. We don’t seem to grasp the idea of coming to an answer through consensus. We seem more inclined to do it by force – either militarily, electorally, or any other means available.
But remember, there’s individualism. And that’s the challenge and the beauty. It’s a challenge because most people have never done this for their own lives. How are they supposed to cast a vision for the nation? Which is why we shouldn’t wait for everyone. We’ll be waiting forever. All of those things I just listed above didn’t happen because we waited for everyone to catch up.
Instead, let us cast a vision together. Let those who will get on board do so. Let those who cast a different vision do so. It’s not about beating out other visions though – that’s an endless struggle where no one wins. That’s been the approach all along and it hasn’t worked. We’re still struggling and doing things piecemeal.
Maybe it’s time to finally admit that we have competing visions and values in our nation. Maybe it’s time to say let’s work together where we can and to live peaceably apart with those we cannot reconcile with. Maybe we need a more realistic vision, one that doesn’t end in killing one another or endless conflict or degrading those we disagree with.
We struggle as a nation and are divided. And those divisions grow deeper and deeper. They blur our vision from seeing the Image of God in those we disagree with. They blur our vision from seeing ourselves in our opponents. We’ve always been a nation that has defined ourselves based on not being our enemies. And that’s what we are doing now – only we see our fellow citizens as the enemy. There is no need for an outside threat when an internal one will do. Do we not see that this will not end well? When will we reach a time when we don’t need an enemy to define what we are about?
So what is our identity? I don’t base identity on nationality. Nations comes and nations go. Political parties come into existence and they die off, only to be replaced by something else that claims to have the banner of truth.
For me, there is only one identity that matters – a Godly identity. God is love. God has an identity – we read about it in Scripture. It defines God’s identity and how God acts. It determines what God does. We see God’s identity in the story of creation. We see God’s identity in the endless stories of God encountering creation and humanity. We see God’s identity in Jesus – willing to go to death itself out of love. Let us not wear rose-colored glasses though. There are plenty of stories in Scripture that depict God as wrathful, vengeful, and murderous. In other words, God is complicated. And so are we. That shouldn’t surprise us.
Maybe the vision for the nation isn’t based on unity, but on the reality of complexity. That we don’t have one unified identity. That we don’t share many common values. Maybe the vision we cast is one based on the truth of our reality – that it’s complicated. It’s not a high and lofty vision or identity. But it is accurate. And it opens us to imagine – maybe for the first time. If we start from where we truly are and are honest about it, maybe then we would finally be free to actually envision what we can be, what we are called to together.