The Divided States Of America

In 382 BC, the predecessor to Alexander the Great took the throne in the Greek kingdom of Macedon. His name was Philip and he left very little impact on human history except one phrase:

Divide and conquer.

Philip led several battles to consolidate his power in the Balkan Peninsula, and he is credited with creating this military strategy to outwit his foes. Philip used political and geographic barriers to divide his enemies and keep them from uniting against him. A grab-bag of disconnected city-states was easier to conquer than a unified league of nations. What Philip knew 2,400 years ago is a lesson we could relearn today: divided people are vulnerable people; solidarity is a key to sustainability for any group.

America has never been more divided. Sure, we have had more bitter internal conflicts. We had a civil war, after all. But what we have today is more fractured than a North / South, left / right, Republican / Democratic duality. We are splintering to pieces — tiny shards of concern at pointy odds with all neighbors. We aren’t divided in two, we are shattered like safety glass. Black, white, blue, liberal, conservative, libertarian, gay, straight, pro-life, pro-choice, pro-business, pro-government, religious, secular, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, urban, suburban, rural, and on and on.

This summer, I saw a documentary called Best Of Enemies about the political debates between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal before the 1968 presidential election. I have been haunted by that film’s closing lines.

That (1968) was a time when television was still a public square where Americans gathered and saw pretty much the same thing. There’s nothing like that now. The ability to talk the same language is gone. More and more, we’re divided into communities of concern. Each side can ignore the other side and live in its own world. It makes us less of a nation, because what binds us together is the pictures in our heads. But if those people are not sharing those ideas, they’re not living in the same place.

We aren’t living in the same place — not occupying the same national ethos — not living up to our constitution as the United States of America.

There isn’t a Greek conquerer devising our division with designs for a military campaign. There isn’t a mastermind of our dissolving national unity. But there could be a mastermind of our reunification. What if the church of God took seriously her call to live at peace with all people and promote the universal shalom of Jesus? What if we saw pluralism as an opportunity to lead rather than just a problem to bemoan? After all, the church has lived through pluralism before, promoted, in fact, by that very same Greek culture to which Philip of Macedon belonged.

One of my favorite television shows is The Newsroom. In it, Jeff Daniels plays cable news anchor Will McAvoy who gets so fed up with the vitriolic tone of American discourse that he goes on a “mission to civilize.” I wonder if we could follow his lead. And we might discover that he was only following the lead of the Apostle Paul.

Writing to a church in a deeply sectarian culture in the first century, Paul said this:

For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Overcoming racial, religious and cultural barriers means, first, acknowledging them. We can’t pretend our country’s divisions don’t exist. And then it means doing something about them. We can’t wait for someone else to fix this. If our nation is going to heal, it won’t happen because we elect the right president or hire enough cops. Police and politicians won’t save us; they serve faithfully, but their platforms can’t heal the soul of our nation. That’s the Lord’s work.

And it’s work we can do.

Meaningful peace has to come from the people — from neighbors who listen to a different song than the discordant and empty echoes blaring out of Washington, Cleveland and Philadelphia this summer — from citizens who live with peace that passes understanding and friendships that defy cultural barriers.

Last week, I emailed the imam at the mosque in my neighborhood. I told him I am a pastor and his neighbor and that I want to be a good neighbor to him. I told him that I understand how much of our current cultural disunity is driven by fear and suspicion, and that I thought we could overcome that suspicion if we knew one another. He responded promptly with an invitation to coffee.

These are the ways that we pursue our mission to civilize and our commission as agents of shalom. We bless our neighbors by doing the things that police and politicians can’t do — sharing a meal, giving our attention, surrendering our agenda so we can help others pursue theirs. Meaningful peace comes when we refuse to engage suspicion, when we share coffee and neighborhoods with people who look, act, and believe differently than us.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” When faith-filled Americans choose to embody love rather than shouting hate, we are doing the Lord’s work. For the sake of our nation and in obedience to the Bible, let's lead the way in reconciliation. Let’s do the hard work of loving our neighbors. Let’s take the shattered tribal factions of our nation and let Jesus create one new humanity.

We might just light the way for a rescue that not even Philip of Macedon could overcome.