“You are the largest volunteer organization in the world,” Jonathan Sacks remarked to an audience of 1000 at the conference of Anglican bishops in 2008, held in Canterbury England. “You have to stay together for the sake of the rest of us”, he pleaded, “because if the Anglican Communion fractures (numbering some 70 million people across the world), that could be the death knell for smaller and less established voluntary organizations across the globe…You have to stay together.”
The chief rabbi of the Hebrew congregations of Europe for over twenty years, Rabbi Sacks went on to teach at New York and Yeshiva Universities in America. He died in 2020 at age 72. His lecture to Anglican bishops had a deep impact on me, as did one of his several books, The Dignity of Difference, written in 2002, in which he states that “God, the maker of all… has conferred on human life the dignity and sanctity that transcends our differences.”
The conflict entrepreneurs are making hay (and money) by repeatedly writing, broadcasting, and preaching that our differences are irreconcilable; that nothing can transcend them. And that the democracy which we just celebrated on the 4th of July is beyond repair. To be sure, our differences are disturbing, if not threatening, — leaving so many of us demoralized. In the wake of deepening distress and growing polarization, groups are sprouting up all across the country to build bridges across the political divide, and to honor the dignity of difference.
Many of those groups gathered last week in Gettysburg Pa, on the 160th anniversary of that epic and tragic battle. Convened by Braver Angels, a national movement to depolarize America, 750 people came from across the country to stand up to the divisiveness and commit to work toward building trust, hope – and finding common ground. More than half of the attendees were Braver Angels members (www.braverangels.org); the rest (just over 200) represented groups devoted to bridge building. We were evenly divided between red (more conservative) and blue (more progressive), which was readily identified by the color of the lanyard that held each person’s name tag. Braver Angels was formed just after the 2016 election, and in these last six years Braver Angels has convened thousands of conversations through an array of workshops and debates, bringing red and blue people together in equal numbers to confront the most challenging issues — abortion, guns, immigration, education, to name a few.
The goal is not to change minds or positions, but to find common ground. And the work is making a difference – across difference. Over 100 Alliances of red and blue members have formed across the country to engage in education, homelessness and state legislatures. A movement is being created to engage in civic renewal, marked by deep listening, honoring healthy conflict, endeavoring to arrive at an accurate understanding of differences – and to build community and institutional trust by promoting actions that strengthens bonds.
A movement is being created. It is exciting. And exhausting, because while this movement for civic renewal is receiving more attention and gaining more traction, it is revealing to me and others how much work needs to be done.
There are moments when my exhaustion takes over which leaves me feeling demoralized, and I simply want to take refuge in my blue silo. What I have learned throughout my involvement with Braver Angels, and what was particularly poignant during the just concluded three-day gathering in Gettysburg, is that, through conversation and the building of relationships – and the desire to work together, many of us realized that we are not as divided as we thought we were. That keeps us going.
We need to build on that hope. It is a lot of work. The conflict entrepreneurs are busy – and effective. Demoralization and polarization are always looming – in the air and in our stomachs. Fifteen years ago, Jonathan Sacks implored the Anglican bishops of the world to stay together. I didn’t think we would – or could. There were too many forces and voices that promoted schism. Some have left. But for the most part, through persistence and faith, the Anglican Communion has held together.
The Mayor of Gettysburg opened the Braver Angels Convention by remarking that our country was founded in Philadelphia, but preserved in Gettysburg. Four months after the Battle, President Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate the cemetery. He offered a dream at the conclusion of his famous two-minute address: “that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Our faith and our commitment – and our dedication to fostering trust, can ensure that we build on President Lincoln’s hope.