2020 has been the poster child for bad news gushing from a spigot with a broken faucet. There’s hand wringing and fearmongering at every turn, an inevitable outcome when media outlets and journalists have to keep the public informed about colliding political, pandemic and environmental emergencies. I’m part and parcel of this toxic dynamic — and I won’t be the first to tell you that even the purveyors of your daily news are about as tired of the doomsday scenarios as you are.
While article after article speculates about bleak futures — a president unwilling to concede an election, upcoming climate catastrophes and economic collapse — there are some who are striving to look at the future constructively, hoping to reframe our narrow view of tomorrow into something more healing and productive than a simple Pollyanna-esque vision of abstract hope.
The Progress Network is brand new, born from urges to harbor an attitude shift toward the future and foster true transformation. The Network connects and amplifies those voices that are pointing our world in a more positive direction, providing a template for a stable and sustainable future. So far, the network includes more than 100 journalists, thinkers and technological innovators, amongst others.
In their inaugural online event Nov. 19, they broached the subject of “Healing the Nation” from spiritual and interfaith perspectives — areas often neglected and shied away from in public life. The panel featured Krista Tippett — founder of the popular On Being Project and its programming, which airs a podcast and radio program around the country — and interfaith leader Eboo Patel, who served on President Barack Obama's inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. They interrogated our simultaneous realities of religious partisanship and the need for public life to be more spiritual to help heal a socially and politically divided country.
Obscuring politics and religion
A 2019 article in The Atlantic thoroughly investigates how America’s religious attitudes have changed in the past 50 years, from the alignment of atheism with a “Godless” communist nemesis during the Cold War, to a shift towards rejecting religion after 9/11 where Al Qaueda provided a reason to pin all religion as divisive and backward. Soon, religiosity would be associated with the political right and atheism, scientific thought and new-age spirituality with the left.
Tippett summarized this conundrum succinctly. “We have reduced the public to the political,” she said. “Religious voices have squeezed themselves into political boxes.”
As a result, Tippett continued, religion — once a way to connect around shared values and find spiritual solace and meaning in life — has become a platform point for politicians to mobilize their base.
Patel’s interfaith experience and work in the Obama administration offered the perspective that connection between political and religious affiliation can be a galvanizing force on both sides of the political spectrum. While the Trump administration’s hold on its base has been strengthened by white evangelicals, Obama was also supported by liberal — Black and white — Protestant churches.
Patel and Tippett approach questions of religion and spirituality through different lenses. Patel looks to interfaith cooperation and dialogue while Tippett’s approach leans more towards spirituality, looking at how religions help us understand big life questions. Both of them suggest that a myopic view towards religion in public life can be harmful and cement barriers between people in the same community who might already be antagonizing one another based on racial and political lines.
Tippett calls it “a betrayal of spirit,” where the reduction of the religious and spiritual to the political oversimplifies the complexity of being a full, layered human. She explains that religion and theology help us grapple with how we live and die and what that means and how we love, connect and understand our own complexities.
Organized religion has plenty of dogmatic traits. Tippett's analysis offers a reframing of dogma. Perhaps religion isn’t inherently dogmatic and divisive. Rather, the strictness is born of spirituality’s politicization. There are countless examples of this: political instability allowing the Mujahideen and Al Qaueda to terrorize civilians and recruit desperate young people into their ranks to the hijacking of Hinduism by the far right in India to gain political power and, here in the U.S., certain sects of Christianity growing to be synonymous with white supremacy, prejudice and conservatism.
These examples — all of which have very violent outcomes — show the dangerous outcomes of organized religion and cement an increasingly American belief that believing in nothing is better than believing in something prone to division, antagonism and coercion. This is, of course, where we are right now, in a country divided by everything from race, religion, wealth inequality and an unwillingness to recognize others who think differently from our own insular groups as part of our communities.
Examples right under our nose
The word “healing” has cropped up in the media post-election, but little has been said about what that actually means. What does it mean to heal in a social sense? There will be many perspectives on what social healing really us, but at its core, it is acknowledging, processing and working through collective traumas and oppressions towards a sense of wholeness and wellness.
Patel suggests that we can find powerful examples of multicultural, multireligious and deeply interdependent networks of people all around us — we just need to look in places we might not otherwise think to excavate. These examples can be a blueprint for imagining a more connected and cooperative public and civic life.
In a thought exercise, Patel challenges the audience to imagine a world where all religious institutions of all faiths suddenly disappeared. We’d be faced with the reality that so many mutual aid efforts, community programming, family, education and health services would also vanish.
Patel’s go-to example is that of the hospital: a ubiquitous and necessary institution in America today and one that has been challenged to the core by the COVID-19 crisis. “Every hospital is a strong citadel of religious cooperation,” Patel said.
Patel asks us to consider that hospitals are, at their heart, a place to tend to the sick and to support and care for people. There are doctors, administrators, nurses and facility maintenance personnel from all kinds of religious, cultural and immigraiton backgrounds who rally around this central goal of well-being every day.
“Let's pay attention where inspiring, practical interfaith cooperation happens,” Patel said.
Patel spoke of the premise that all people are influenced by their beliefs. Many medical practitioners may have faith-based values that led them to the work they do and where they do it, and patients of all religious backgrounds and practices will end up in medical systems. Practitioners have to reach across lines of faith, especially if a patient is facing their last moments.
Further, many hospitals have roots in a religious tradition — that’s why numerous facilities are named after saints. So, whether it means being able to accomodate a family’s traditions around last rites or simply allowing space for mindful breathing or prayer, the modern hospital is an example of how varying spiritual traditions can share space together, help achieve a common goal and guide people through immense challenges.
Wholeness is the opposite of division
With media so sensitized to covering political and racial division, there is little air time given to solutions and to the process of collective healing, and there are large wounds that need to be healed, beginning with the deep-rooted injustices suffered by Black and Indigenous communities. There is the wound of racism, of false promise of a meritocracy and of the American Dream which was always rigged in favor of the most privileged. Then there is the loss of lives, jobs and social networks from almost a full pandemic year. We hold heavy baggage as a collective.
“I worry about the cost to us, coming out of this year, that we haven’t grieved,” Tippett said, noting that grief and mourning are not openly accepted emotions in public. “We also don’t have a public culture where pain and fear have its place,” she added. Often, religious and spiritual communities use rituals to make space for these natural parts of life: grief, pain and loss. She posits that an aversion to spiritual life also alienates the collective public from processing grief and loss: two words that might sum up the year 2020.
Becoming well after being ill for a long time is not a linear or quick task — think of any personal example. The process is step by step and requires endurance and the passing of time.
“Healing is not the same as curing and fixing,” Tippett said. “You can be flawed, imperfect and you can be whole.” She points to the reality that the U.S. is a place where people with so many differences come together — that is plain fact. Those differences are “deep and meaningful,” she said. The key then is to accept those differences and “create a new foundation for what the possibility is.”
As Thanksgiving approaches and we stay home to isolate from a ravaging virus and reflect on the deep racial hurts in our country, it is worth considering not just that a nation divided must reckon with itself, but that we may need to consider what the process of healing actually requires and examples of multifaceted people cooperating and coexisting
The answers aren’t clear, and certainly not easy. They aren’t meant to be. But as Tippett says, a guiding light may be that “wholeness is our destination.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Nov 25 - Dec 1, 2020 issue.