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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

What Cures Polarization?

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Over the last month we have explored how polarization in society affects congregations. This week we suggest five effective responses. Congregations are uniquely placed to help divided communities to reconnect. Doing this requires new forms of leadership that draw on our deepest traditions and are committed to local presence and action.

Following are the five responses, ranging from intrapersonal (what happens inside of leaders) to inter-congregational (what happens among congregations in a community). If we are to overcome polarization, the process of doing so will happen in one relationship, and in one community, at a time.

  1. Practice Moral Leadership. To overcome polarization, we must begin by practicing a moral leadership characterized by transparency, humility, and compassion. David Gushee and Colin Holtz, in Moral Leadership for a Divided Age, profile fourteen people “who dared to change our world.” The leaders they examine are women and men from multiple religious traditions and countries, ranging from William Wilberforce to Malala Yousafzai. According to Gushee and Holtz, all fourteen shared a commitment to transparency and humility and to enlarging their “circle of moral concern”—a demonstration of compassion for all of humanity—not just for those who looked and believed as they did.
  2. Honor Human Dignity. The antidote to the demeaning discourse of polarization is a commitment to honor the dignity of every human being—including the ones with whom we most profoundly disagree. Donna Hicks, in Leading with Dignity, notes that “empathy is the greatest casualty of conflict.” In our highly polarized age, we quickly dismiss those we deem ignorant or deceived enough to differ from us. This results in what Arthur Brooks calls a “culture of contempt,” in which we come to despise those on the other side of our cultural divide. Hicks is clear that honoring dignity does not mean respecting ideas or behavior that we find reprehensible. But we can denounce offensive ideas or behaviors while still honoring the inherent dignity of the human beings who espouse them.
  3. Pursue Economic Justice. As I documented in the first article in this series, there is a robust correlation between growing social polarization and rising income inequality. If we want to address the root causes of polarization, we will need to change the social and tax policies that benefit the wealthiest in our society (and world) at the expense of the rest. This will require a commitment to provide a living wage to working-age adults as well as an effort to restore the traditional progressive income tax that has been whittled away since the 1980’s. When the gap between the rich and the rest grows every year, we are left with an angry society vulnerable to grievance narratives from both the left and the right.
  4. Build Local Alliances. The truly creative initiatives that are overcoming polarization are happening not at the national level but at the local one. In my own community of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Virginia, a coalition of 24 local congregations, including the local mosque and synagogue, came together several years ago to form an organization called “Faith in Action.” Faith in Action initially organized a campaign to “welcome our immigrant neighbors,” resulting in a formal action by the Harrisonburg City Council to join the “Welcoming America” national network. Faith in Action is now focused on criminal justice reform, listening to the voices of those impacted by the criminal justice system and advocating for the greater use of restorative justice practices. Working together on shared goals in our own communities counteracts polarization.
  5. Become “Greenhouses of Hope.” My colleague Larry Peers offered this metaphor in a  previous article in this series. When we focus less on Washington and more on our own communities and congregations, we discover myriad opportunities for overcoming the polarizing divisions that surround us. Two years ago a more conservative friend and I co-organized a small group from our local congregation composed of the two of us and four additional friends with widely varying perspectives on many issues. The six of us meet once a month, rotating among our six homes, to discuss whatever issue or idea the host proposes. We began with six consecutive weeks of each of us sharing our “life story” with the group. As often happens, we have come to realize that there is more that connects us than divides us.

Political polarization in the United States has reached a level not seen since the Civil War—and social polarization is following apace. But if leaders at every level commit to providing moral leadership, honoring human dignity, pursuing economic justice, and building local alliances we can construct “greenhouses of hope” throughout the country that nurture reconnection rather than division. As our communities and congregations become more connected, our country will as well.

[box]Promise and Peril, by David BrubakerDavid Brubaker has consulted on organizational development and conflict transformation in the U.S. and in a dozen other countries. He is the author of Promise and Peril, an Alban book on managing change and conflict in congregations. David holds a PhD from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Eastern University, and teaches organizational studies as an associate professor at Eastern Mennonite University. email David[/box]
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