Our democracy is in need of some intensive tender loving care. As citizens, we have a responsibility to vote according to our informed conscience, but our civic responsibility cannot end there. On a good day, we the people are responsible for establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. We do this by engaging in our system of representative democracy, paying our share of taxes, and participating in meaningful work, family, and community activities.
On dark days, when our faith in the system is shaken and the tenor of our civic discourse turns nasty and toxic, our responsibility goes even deeper. At times like this we simply cannot check out, give in, or lash out bitterly. Such responses only perpetuate the negative loop we find ourselves in, and there is too much at stake if we are to breathe new life into our 240-year-old experiment in democracy.
It is time for us to remember. We need to step back from the brink of despair and call to mind the values that bind us as a people and find ways to work together for the common good. There is strength for the journey in our story as an American people. As Pope Francis told our representatives in his address to Congress last year: "The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience."
It is a time for us to re-member, to bring the broken parts of our body politic back together, to heal traumatic divisions and nurse our civic discourse back to healthy levels. We need all hands on deck if we are to right the ship of our democracy.
The unrelenting negative tenor of the 2016 campaign season was in many ways a Frankenstein's monster of our own creation. I'm not quite sure when toxicity won over civility, but it has. It is almost as if some virus has infected our collective civic psyche. No matter what side of the aisle one finds oneself on, there is an undeniable haze of disconnection hanging in the air, clouding our national judgement and leaving us ill prepared to continue the never ending task of forming a more perfect union.
In these post-election days, we would do well to look to the tools that practitioners of peacebuilding and conflict resolution use to help communities heal from traumatic experiences of violence, natural disasters, and terrorism.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University worked with the Church World Service to develop a resource to equip religious and civil society leaders to help heal such traumatized communities. The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and Community Security is Threatened by Carolyn Yoder introduces the Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program. Yoder outlines six steps on the path to helping communities recover from trauma, which I would I believe can be adapted as a guide for us to re-member our body politic and heal our democratic spirit.
The first step is to recognize ourselves as leaders. Each of us has a sphere of influence, which we can use in negative or positive ways. The path to healing our fractured civil discourse requires folks who are willing to reach out across the divides, find common ground, and listen to the pain that is behind so much of the fear and hatred that has come to light this election season.
The second step is to challenge our own faith communities to live up to the highest ideals. When faith language is used as to mask or legitimize hatred, violence, or exclusion, we have the responsibility to speak out and challenge those who misuse our tradition and to seek to build bridges with people of other faiths.
Third, we can prevent further trauma by waging peace and promoting nonviolent responses to conflict. This election season, the threat of violence has been more real than ever before in my life time. When we are disheartened or opposed to national policies or government actions, we must seek ways to effect change through nonviolent means or else risk perpetuating the never ending cycle of violence.
Fourth, we must work at both the personal and communal levels. I suspect that most people reading these words have had some personal relationships wounded or strained during this election cycle. Who might you reach out to now with a kind word or peace offering? Our local communities are also fractured. We must tend to the quality of our entire web of relationships if we are to heal our democracy.
The fifth step is to be informed. It is a paradox of our hyper connected social media world, with its tailored cable news channels and news feeds, that we have in many ways become information poor. Our information stream is often one sided. It is difficult to get a complete picture. One way to heal our body politic is to commit to read one news source that is outside your comfort zone. Expand your horizons. Try to understand a perspective different from your own.
The final step is to remember that we are not alone. Yoder writes: "This is not a solitary journey; we need to be connected to communities of like-minded people as we act, listen, and learn in new ways."
We must re-member.
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]
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