What holds us together?
Ray Waddle, editor of Reflections, a publication of the Yale Divinity School, addresses that question with a story.
He writes about artist Michael Seri, who was traumatized after 9/11 and sought relief through artwork.
Seri painted on plywood a battered-looking U.S. flag. He covered the flag with glue and affixed a sheet of glass over the flag to the plywood. Then, he shattered the center of glass, radiating rivers of fractures to the very edge of the wood where chunks of glass splintered away. A jarring image – shattered glass over a battered flag.
As damaged as the flag looked, the flag held – held together by the glue.
The flag is the symbol of nationalism and patriotism. The nation has long honored the flag through wars and disasters, and despite angry protests and commercial profiteering.
The nation has too infrequently honored the glue that holds the nation together. We take the glue for granted. We overlook it.
Today, however, we need to consider the glue. What is the nature of the invisible glue, with its unknown properties, that holds the nation together?
What holds together a people battered by $2 billion of bitter campaign advertisements of character assassination?
What binds us as one when the national debt is unimaginable, taxation is unfair, war on terrorism is unending, shared sacrifice for the common good is uncommon?
What keeps us connected in a nation with calcifying incivility, ideological rigidity and deadening polarization?
Perhaps the glue is our common humanity.
“We lived in a glass house before 9/11, and now the glass house was shattered,” Seri told Waddle. “The glue holding us together is our humanity.”
Maybe the glue is our shared values.
“The glue that keeps the fragments of national identity and purpose from flying apart” is our values, writes Waddle.
Then again, maybe the glue is community. Community is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human – and communities form around prioritized values.
How we understand the properties of the glue depends on whether we are thinking about a secular state or the faithful communities within a secular state. Those entities are different, albeit connected. Their values are different, albeit overlapping, sometimes competing.
On the American scene, the glue that holds together a nation has far less bonding strength without the faith community.
Given the shattered feelings about the election and the economy, the brooding pessimism about cooperation in Washington and the future, the widening polarization and deepening incivility, we need church leaders and churches to be much more aware of their valued role and much more intentional about being the glue going forward.
If for everything there is a season, then now is the season for healing and creating common ground.
That means prioritizing projects and highlighting issues around which there is agreement – where a real difference can be made in real lives. That means speaking with discerning civility and moral clarity, not with apocalyptic threats, demonization and partisan talking-points.
Let’s think more about the invisible glue and its many properties that hold the nation together – and the role of the faith community in that process.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.