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Embracing Political Tension: Healing the Heart of Democracy

by Charlotte Coyle (June 2019)

Political tension is built into the fabric of our nation. The Founders intentionally created a checks and balances tension that forces cooperation and enforces collaboration across political differences.

However …

…when “we” are in power, we wish those checks and balances were not in our way.

…when “they” are in power, we are grateful for the tension that limits the tyranny of the majority.

Good tension maintains the strength of a suspension bridge; creates beautiful music from a guitar string; produces lovely woven and knitted fabrics.

But, of course, there are other meanings of the word “tension:” definitions that include words like headache, anxiety, stress, anger.

This is where too many of us find ourselves in today’s political climate. This is why Parker Palmer wrote his wonderful little book: Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.

Mr. Palmer reminds us of the remarkable character of President Abraham Lincoln. During a time of national crisis even more dangerous than our own current situation:

[President Lincoln] refused to split North and South into “good guys” and “bad guys,” a split that might have taken us closer to the national version of suicide.

Instead, in his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, a month before the end of the Civil War, Lincoln appealed for “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” animated by what one writer calls an “awe-inspiring sense of love for all” who bore the brunt of the battle.

In his appeal to a deeply divided America, Lincoln points to an essential fact of our life together: if we are to survive and thrive, we must hold its divisions and contradictions with compassion, lest we lose our democracy.

Lincoln has much to teach us about embracing political tension in a way that opens our hearts to each other, no matter how deep our differences.

“If we are to survive and thrive, we must hold divisions and contradictions with compassion…”

Unfortunately, our nation did not heed Lincoln’s wisdom. Instead, during the years after the Civil War, too many Americans from both North and South refused charity and instead treated one another with contempt and condescension.

Today we are heirs to that ugly foolishness. Today malevolent seeds of that national tension continue to push their way out through the cracks of our society and spread like poison ivy, infecting us all.

In this our current age of divisions and contradictions, we have another opportunity to turn our nation toward compassion and healing.

It won’t be easy.

It won’t be quick.

But if enough of us accept the challenge President Lincoln offered so many years ago, then maybe – just maybe – we can reverse the damage to our democratic republic that threatens us.

Across the spectrum left to right, too many of us are choosing malice instead of charity. On all sides, too many of us choose self-righteousness over self-reflection so that we jump to judgments, stereotypes and labels as we consider our fellow Americans.

This ugly foolishness can only lead to our national suicide.

The alternative is to reclaim the original meaning of tension that the Founders intended. We the People must lead the way (since our so-called leaders will not). We must embrace the tension, hold the contradictions with compassion and allow our differences and diversity to become our greatest strength.

Only then can we heal the heart of our democracy.

 

 

 

 

Charlotte Coyle blogs about intersections of faith, politics and culture at her website: CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com. She is a past-president of Coffee Party USA and a retired minister.

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