I have been in conversation with leaders of many wisdom traditions over the last few years. These are seasoned leaders who embody compassion, curiosity, and courage. They seek to strengthen their own community of wisdom, to strengthen the neighborhood they live and work in, and to build a more positive, just future for everyone. I heard one phrase from almost all of them:

Things are falling apart.

Last week, I attended a pastors conference. Like the leaders above, each pastor longed to create a better world for our children. I heard the same phrase from most of these pastors, as I have been hearing from many others over the last few years: Things are falling apart.

And we need to do something. But we don’t know where to start.

People are seeing the negative effects of dangerous political speech, income inequality, racist policies and ideas, historical trauma, and the corrosive impact of social media. They see the widespread loss of trust in our democratic institutions, and they feel local people’s loss of trust in each other. Each of these leaders want to do something to make a difference, to make the world better for our children. But many are not sure what to do that would actually make an impact.

Recent surveys show us that 4% of the US population is ready to engage in political violence. That is about 13 million people. They claim that they must engage in violence to “save the county.” But those prone to violence reflect the primary threat to our nation. They have been drawn to this view by a story that says that people of different cultures and traditions cannot live peacefully and productively with each other.

Our analysis is that two primary dynamics are at work in our nation:

  • Exclusive In-Grouping: The assumption that one’s own group has exclusive validity and that people of other groups have less value.
  • Dehumanization: A process in which other in-groups are seen as less than human, thus appropriate targets of violence.

All humans have the tendency to initially feel more trust towards people whom they perceive as “just like them”. Sociologists call this in-group bias. Some in-group bias is normal. But it becomes dangerous when our group has a sense of superiority towards others, and when we believe that conflict with other groups is inevitable. You can hear it when leaders say things like, “If you believe and practice like us then….”, or “God gave us the truth.”

The possibility of dehumanization is also always present for human beings. Throughout our evolution as a species, we depended on our in-group for our safety and survival and strangers were therefore treated as at least a potential threat. This natural caution and fear turns to dehumanization when false and exaggerated claims are made, stating that another group is a threat because they aren’t as fully human as we are. With that view, the normal moral guidelines of our in-group do not apply to “those others” and thus, violence or oppression can be justified. You can hear it when leaders say things like, “It’s either us or them”, or “They are all the same.”

But what can we do to stop these dynamics? What would be effective? What do we have the energy and ability to do, over the long-term, amidst all the other demands of our daily lives?

I have thought about almost nothing else in the last four years.

Together with many community leaders from many traditions, in hundreds of conversations, I and my colleagues at Paths to Understanding have identified a set of strategies that we believe can be an effective, doable, and life-giving response to those forces of separation. These strategies are the foundation of our new program, Let’s Go Together, which we will sharing a lot more about in the coming weeks. We believe that

the power of dehumanization and exclusive in-grouping that is endangering our society must be met with the power of wide-spread, local, face-to-face relationships, work for the common good, and publicly demonstrated solidarity.

We know from experience that everyone in a community gains trust in their neighbors and hope for a shared, positive future when they witness first-hand how leaders of diverse traditions, people with deeply held values, know each other, work together, and stand with each other publicly. Seeing a concrete, local example of peace and cooperation reduces levels of anxiety and energizes other community members to take positive action for the common good.

Paths to Understanding’s role will be to motivate, guide, and work with diverse communities of wisdom over several years to gradually build those face-to-face relationships. We will train leaders, create partnerships, and host events in communities most vulnerable to the dynamics of exclusive in-grouping and dehumanization. Through the Let’s Go Together program, people of all backgrounds will

  • Eat, play, and share stories
  • Work for the common good through service projects, community organizing or advocacy
  • Show up in public together at celebrations, demonstrations or other public events.

Today, we are kicking off PTU’s Spring Fundraiser. By nature, I don’t like to ask for money. While I operate in a very public and extroverted way, I am a pretty shy person. But as we have gained clarity about how to meet this moment, I have found myself changing. Our society is facing a challenging moment. We can either engage in strategic, collective action, or we can watch in passive despair as things get worse.

We can either come together or we will fall apart.

I believe that Let’s Go Together will be one effective, powerful, and sustainable way that leaders and communities of wisdom can help turn the tide of division and despair. It will benefit both their own community of wisdom and the larger neighborhood.

We can meet this moment. So many leaders and communities of wisdom are ready to do their part. If PTU can raise enough money for our staff to catalyze action in so many towns, suburbs, and cities, I know that we can transform our communities and move towards a hopeful future together.

Please join us in meeting this moment and support Let’s Go Together with a donation. Thank you!


Photo: Beth Lewis at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Everett with Pastoral Staff, Jay Bowen, Kay Knott, and Terry Kyllo