Republicans. And Democrats.
Progressives. And Conservatives.
Christians. And Jews. And Muslims and Hindus and atheists.
NRA members. And peaceniks.
Americans. And people of every nationality.
You. And me…
The coffee pot is loud at our house. And my kids sleep with their doors open, comforted by the glow of the hallway light. So when I creep downstairs at 5:30am to begin the morning ritual of coffee and writing, I ease their doors shut to ensure they won’t be awakened by its deep growl.
This morning, before closing their doors, I watched them a little longer than usual. I watched the slow-rhythmic rise and fall of covers above lungs. I watched the long eyelashes and round cheeks and soft hair sprayed in every direction.
I stood and I watched them and I realized: in a world ravaged by an us-versus-them mentality, my children are a them to someone. To all of the nameless souls on my block and in my town and scattered across the globe, my children are an out-group, an other.
And I thought, “Oh my God, my children’s safety is not dependent upon how I treat them or the protection I afford them. The security of my precious little ones rests precariously upon how other people treat their out-group.”
And I shivered because, frankly, we are nurturing a culture of hatred for the out-group.
In America, we just spent more than a year vilifying, demonizing, slandering, and tearing down the other half of the country. The 2012 election cycle was a curriculum in how to simplify, objectify and then nurse our anger toward “the other side.”
From pulpits across the world this week, religion will be preached as an exclusive club: paradise for those who are in, and hellfire and brimstone for everyone else. The in-group is judged to be of infinite value, and the out-group somehow deserving of damnation.
And as the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, became known to the world last Friday, we quickly began to draw the dividing lines again. In-groups and out-groups. Us versus them. The gun debates. The mental health accessibility debates. The separation of church and state debates.
Please don’t misunderstand me. As we move through our grief and begin to emerge from the depths of our pain, debate is desperately needed. Those three children I watched this morning all attend school, and I am desperate for new policies to maximize their safety.
But the truth is, how we debate will ultimately be more transformational than what we debate.
My third-grade son came home from school on Monday and reported that many of “the older kids” spent recess angrily debating a ban on firearms. I think he was confused by his peers promoting peaceful policies in a spirit of anger and divisiveness.
As we move forward and seek to redeem this massacre by affecting substantive change, we must keep one simple principle in mind: if the way we debate perpetuates an us-versus-them worldview, our very efforts to achieve peace and security will actually lay the foundation for more violence—the kindling for hatred. We must remember:
- Hearts and minds aren’t changed by facts; they’re changed by relationships. If a heart isn’t already soft for change, no amount of fact will sway it—there is always a contradictory fact with which to reply. Hearts get softened for change in relationship, when we come to know and appreciate the stories of others.
- No one tries to destroy their in-group. Murder is a relational crime always perpetrated against another soul, and we don’t attack people with whom we identify. Thus, the creation of out-groups lays the foundation for violence. If we debate, we must remember we are all a part of the same in-group—humanity—and we must cling to it as our primary identity.
- Peace is dependent upon the kindness we extend to our out-groups. Even when group distinctions can’t be avoided—after all, they are necessary for our specific identities—we must learn to exist peacefully with the other. When relating to our various out-groups, it is essential to replace our us-versus-them mentality with an us-and-them worldview. Because the way in which we debate can actually ascribe dignity and worth and value to them, the people in our out-group. And when we view the “other” with a sense of dignity and worth, the potential for violence bleeds away.
Us-versus-them kills people. And we all participate in it at some level and it’s time for it to stop.
Is all of this an over-simplification? Yes, absolutely. We are dealing with a complex problem, so any single solution is an oversimplification. And as soon as I start to pretend my answer is the solution to the problem, I have simply created another in-group—the group of those people who agree with me and possess the solution—while everyone else remains a problematic out-group.
So, please, don’t take my solution. Instead, regardless of how much you disagree with me, take my hand. And let’s live our personal, political, and religious identities with such grace that it renders the massacre at Sandy Hook truly senseless.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.