Bridging the Great Divide

Our culture has become so divided today that it seems we are about to unravel. 

But this is nothing new, is it?

American history is replete with eras of social and political unrest—even violence in the streets. In fact, the USA was birthed as a result of political unrest. Prior to the Revolutionary War, Americans were sharply divided between loyalists (those preferring to remain loyal to the British Empire and King) and the patriots demanding freedom from British control.

The industrial revolution also threw the status quo on its head.  Factories replaced family farms and small businesses, resulting in a struggle between labor and management as laborers began demanding better salary and safer working conditions. Strikes became violent with destruction of private property and loss of lives. In time, however, Americans learned to cooperate.

The Industrial Revolution and poor economic conditions in Europe led to an influx of immigrants seeking a better life. With every wave of immigration, there was a predictable pushback—including street violence—fueled by prejudice and fear of losing control of the status quo. Sometimes the response included enacting laws that directly discriminated against an ethnic group, such as the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 re-enforced the already existing Page Act of 1875. The first law excluded all female Chinese from immigrating to America. With the additional law, all Chinese were excluded by a legal barrier. The new restrictions generated a strong social prejudice against these aliens from Asia.

Italian immigrants also faced severe prejudice and a fear that these “inferior” and “dangerous” people would steal jobs from American citizens. The KKK and other organizations instigated physical violence against Italian immigrants, including lynching. Eleven Italians were lynched by a mob in New Orleans in 1891.

The Irish immigrants, after passing through Ellis Island, would soon discover that the welcoming words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor huddled masses, yearning to be free” were just that—only words. 

Only one period of social/political unrest resulted in actual warfare. America was divided between pro-slavery and abolition sentiments. A great deal of blood would soon be shed to determine if America would—or could—remain “one nation.”

Even after The Emancipation Proclamation became the law of the land and the Civil War cannons had been silenced, racial strife continued for generations. Violence against Blacks became a shameful blot on our history. To this day, prejudice and fear still threaten to divide us. Clearly the problem runs deeply in the American psyche.  Legislation has not (nor can it) create true racial reconciliation. The problem is a heart problem.

Although labor disputes and ethnic prejudice have torn at our cultural fabric, we Americans have always learned to come together for the sake of the nation. Until now. 

So where are we today when words like toxic, noxious, venomous or malignant describe our conversations? I use the word “conversation” lightly, because conversations require listening—something too often missing in our public and private debates.

We have, it seems to me, flipped the wise counsel of James on its end: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…” (James 1:19) Most of us, and I know it is true of me, prefer to be heard. That’s why we interrupt or, while pretending to listen, we are preparing our rebuttal. It’s always been this way, ever since we declared independence from God. The problem today is that the Internet and social media have created a platform that has amplified our communication problem. We don’t have to listen to anybody. We can just fire away, spewing out whatever vulgarity and negative emotion that we feel at the moment, no matter who is wounded or destroyed.

Sometimes we resemble a radio talk show or a cable news program with the host talking over guests and guests insulting each other.  Don’t you wish you could just shut off all their microphones? That is why I have essentially taken a fast from such nonsense.

Thankfully, politicians no longer challenge each other to a deadly duel with their derringers. Today they prefer to lob insults and ridicule at each other—each claiming to have all the truth on their side—each refusing to listen or to seek a solution. Men and women that we have elected and entrusted to act as mature adults more often act like adolescents, insulting each other while the can continues to get kicked down the street.

So what is the solution? Is there yet hope for reconciliation, or have we crossed the line? Is it inevitable that the shared hope that once bound us together has been forever been shredded? Is anarchy inevitable? 

I offer two alternatives. One is to return to just plain common sense and decency. Let us heed the wisdom of James. Let us learn to listen patiently to one another. Let us refrain from tossing out word bombs. Let us turn down the temperature on our anger lest we prove ourselves to be absolute fools.

I wish those simple prescriptions were sufficient to heal the wounds in our country and in our churches. But they won’t. The problem is not just our tongues (or our fingers hitting keys on our smart phones and laptops) but our hearts that have been infected, and our focus is only on self.

There is, I am confident, only one cure for our fragmenting culture. Only one bridge to span the gulf separating us from each other. One person that can dismantle the barriers that isolate us. One great leader that has all truth because He is the truth, the way and the life.

Most secular readers are probably, by now, ready to leave the front porch. But for you who are still with me, let me illustrate why the cross of Christ is the answer.

Paul, in two paragraphs (really two long sentences) in Ephesians 2, demonstrates that the death and shed blood of Christ dismantled the impenetrable barrier separating sinners like me and you from our holy God. No longer, Paul writes, are only the Jews God’s chosen people. Even Gentiles have received a special invitation to join God’s family. They were always invited, but man-made barriers and social prejudice had hindered the way. Gentiles are described as dead in their sins, disobedient and destined to face God’s holy wrath. “But,” writes Paul, “God being rich in mercy” raised them up to spiritual life. 

On the heels of Jesus’ death and resurrection, a vast earthquake did more than shake the ground. At the same moment, it ripped the great curtain that had separated everyone from the most holy place, demonstrating that the invitation was now open to all sinners to return to the Creator who loved them. That reconciliation between a holy God and fallen sinners is illustrated by the vertical pole suspending Jesus on the cross.

In the second paragraph (Ephesians 2:11-22), Paul describes how Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension tore down, totally removed, the barriers that once separated Jews from Gentiles. Gentiles were described by these painfully haunting words: “without hope, without God in the world, separated from Christ and alienated from Israel.” But now, Paul writes, Gentiles have been brought near by the blood of Christ. The legal and prejudicial barriers that once locked Gentiles out were now removed. The literal, physical wall that had prevented Gentiles from enjoying the Jewish festivals and temple worship was to be removed. (This literally happened when the entire temple region was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Imagine that day when the wall that once separated East Berlin from the west was demolished and families were reconciled again.) 

No more would the signs denying Gentiles entrance under threat of death be appropriate. The barrier separating Jew and Gentile has been replaced by a bridge—a welcome path—Jesus Christ. There would be no more second-class God-seekers. Warning signs with death threats have been replaced with signs welcoming new citizens into God’s kingdom and into God’s family.

The horizontal bar on the cross symbolizes, in my mind, that Christ has removed all barriers between ethnic groups. God has also, in His great love and wisdom, provided the power (desire and ability) to love one another, regardless of race or ethnicity or political persuasion.  This has been accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent to live in us and to continue the work of reconciliation.

No longer can we justify racial prejudice. No more excuses to shout down or insult those who perceive things differently—whether it be vaccination and mask mandates, gun control laws, global warming or any other issue that divides us. We can hold our opinion, but we must turn down the volume on our debates. 

We can learn to be slow to speak, quick to listen and slow to erupt in anger. 

The ultimate test tube to demonstrate this new way of thinking and speaking ought to be the local church. Let us put aside differences that seem petty, when compared to the realization that many of those outside the church are searching for meaning and purpose and for love and acceptance—for family. 

Let us offer hope and reconciliation in Jesus Christ, the great barrier breaker, bridge builder and way maker.

After all, didn’t He say they would know that we are His disciples by our love for one another?

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