Americans have become so divided over issues like gender, race, religion, and politics, we can’t seem to agree on anything.
In fact, a poll last fall by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found so little agreement that it carried the headline, “Americans are divided over everything except division.” Eighty percent agreed that the country was divided. Other than that, the poll found little hope for consensus.
Journalist Carl Bernstein, famous for his reporting on Watergate, believes we are in a “cold civil war” with different groups of people unable to agree even on basic facts.
Our country may be as divided as it has ever been, with the exception of the Civil War, but experts in a variety of fields offer ways to begin healing the divisions.
America’s ‘empathy deficit’
In 2006, Barack Obama, then a US Senator from Illinois, said in a commencement speech at Northwestern University: “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit.” Obama added: “We live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.”
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Christian, says that loneliness is at the heart of what’s wrong with America. He believes we are more connected than ever technologically but increasingly disconnected socially.
“Not only do Americans no longer know their neighbors, but in many cases they simply don’t know many people who aren’t like them,” Sasse writes in Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. “Fewer people know people across class divides.”
Sasse borrows a phrase from a Sports Illustrated article to say we’re missing the “hometown-gym-on-a-Friday-night feeling” he had as a kid in Fremont, Nebraska. “People walked away from political conversations without thinking ill of each other, because that kind of talk happened in the context of actual relationships centered around local things that were a lot more important,” Sasse writes.
Many experts say the digital world has divided us as well.
Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki writes, “Technology allows us to ‘see’ an unprecedented number of people, but what we get back is thin gruel compared to old-fashioned social contact.” He continues, “Real-world conversation is rich and multi-faceted; we catch a glint in a friend’s eye when he talks about his last date, a hesitation in his voice when he says work is great. We see excitement and hear doubt. Emotions are palpable and easy to share. The more time we spend with people, the better we become at reading them, and the more we care about what they feel. Online, social life is reduced to strings of text and images.”
Research in 2015 by the Barna Group found that Evangelicals were more likely than other adults to say they had difficulty talking to someone different than themselves. Eighty-seven percent of Evangelicals said they would have a hard time having a normal, natural conversation with a Muslim (vs. 73 percent of all adults) or a person identifying as LGBT (vs. 53 percent of all adults).
This is in stark contrast to Jesus’ example. He associated with the tax collectors and prostitutes of his day, and they were drawn to him by his loving manner.
The Church seems just as divided today as other institutions. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously called 11 a.m. Sunday “one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America.” Despite efforts at racial reconciliation, much remains to be done.
The Associated Press published a series of articles titled “Divided America” leading up to the 2016 presidential election. One of the articles focused on Macon, Georgia, which has two First Baptist churches, one black and one white. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, they were one church, with white masters sitting in the front and black slaves in the back. But the congregation split over race.
The article said that the South is “dotted” with cities with two First Baptists. The white church in Macon calls itself First Baptist Church of Christ, but visiting worshippers sometimes show up at the wrong church, confused by the similar names.
Fortunately, the two First Baptist pastors in Macon began taking steps a few years ago to heal their divisions, including joint social activities, youth trips, and difficult discussions about race.
“The idea has always been that this wouldn’t just be a relationship that would be a blessing for our people, transformational for them, but something that could spill out into the community,” says the Rev. Scott Dickison, pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ.
Empathy response #1: Contact theory
Zaki believes that associating with “outsiders” is one of the best ways to break down bigotry and build empathy. In psychology, it’s called contact theory.
“One of humans’ most natural tendencies is to divide people into ‘us and them,’” Zaki says. “This is also one of the fastest ways to snuff out empathy. We stop seeing outsiders as humans and start reducing them to their ethnicity, age, opinion—whatever divides them from us.”
Under a heading in his book titled “Time for Everyone to Go Back to Sunday School,” he praises “honesty, humility, integrity, and mutual respect. These values generate trust, social bonds, and, above all, hope.” Friedman lauds the “simplest of all moral guides,” the Golden Rule.
Feelings will follow actions, instead of the other way around, and our gracious attitude will win others over even if we disagree. Brooks says it’s a type of leadership modeled by the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. He could easily have added Jesus Christ to the list.
“It starts with a commitment to acting the way you want to be, not the way you feel at any given moment,” Brooks writes. “With some smiling, gratitude, and repetition, you can and will become a nicer person, a leader admired by others, and a greater force for good.”
Empathy response #4: Practice
Zaki believes that empathy is like a muscle that can be developed by working it: “Through practice, we can grow our empathy and become kinder as a result.”
He says that “people who endure great suffering often become more empathic as a result.” Psychologists call it “altruism born of suffering.”
Empathy response #5: Follow the perfect model
Zaki cites a recent study that used metta—a Buddhist term for loving-kindness meditation—to increase empathy.
For the Christian, that should evoke thoughts of Philippians 4:8 (NIV): “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
The Bible makes it clear that we should show empathy to those different than ourselves. The apostle Paul urged Christians to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
Jesus gave us the perfect model to follow. He befriended people different than himself—of course, no one else in human history was quite like him.
He spoke the truth to an unbelieving generation yet loved his enemies, even those who persecuted him.