By Brent McDougal
A patchwork tapestry hangs in our home, a cherished gift to my wife, Jen, that was first created by her great-grandmother. Jen’s grandmother repaired and added to it, as did her mother. Now Jen stitches it back together from time to time and even adds a piece or two, as 100-year-old fabric tends to deteriorate.
It serves as a generational symbol of diversity and commonality. Its beauty derives from various colors and shapes, but its form depends on the common threads.
Many say in these days of bitter partisanship that we have lost something important. Having grown up in a divided Montgomery, Alabama, I can say that much of what we believe we lost was an illusion. If you think it was so much better 50 years ago or even 25 years ago, ask your black or Hispanic neighbors.
Even so, there’s a strong sense that America is fraying at the seams. It may be that it all needs to fall apart before it can be stitched back together in a stronger, more beautiful way. But for now, it feels like the fabric is unraveling.
The common thread of neighborliness.
Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s the command second only to loving God with all of one’s being.
What if Jesus meant our actual neighbors — the people who live on the right and left of us?
There’s power in this simple teaching, one that can help to mend what’s tearing apart. It can create the social cohesion that we are lacking.
Social cohesion may be defined as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper.” Societal cohesion deals with the interconnectedness of social relationships to achieve social outcomes. Such factors as inclusion, identity, cultural factors, individual well-being, income equality and social justice all contribute to the success or failure of a society to remain united and flourishing.
United means knit together, and true flourishing is about more than money.
Researchers in Canada have identified key components necessary to any useful concept of social cohesion. One ingredient is the willingness to get along. Are people willing to cooperate in the array of collective activities that allow a society to survive and prosper? This may include the willingness to help a neighbor with their yard or coach a little league team. Obeying traffic rules, paying taxes — these indicate one’s willingness to cooperate.
There’s a little hope there, at least where I live. I often see soccer coaches loading up the car on a Saturday morning. I see neighbors lending a hand.
A second essential component is that socially cohesive societies value and celebrate diversity rather than resisting it. A society can have social order but not social cohesiveness. Authoritarian regimes that rail against diversity and promote the values of only a portion of society may appear orderly, but the lack of true cohesiveness will eventually erode order.
Now we’re in trouble. Most people value diversity in principle, but not practice. We’ve given up on school desegregation, opting for neighborhood segregation. We hang out mostly wth people who share our skin color, education, and interests. Plus, some people disproportionately make the rules that others must follow. Like a cast over a broken bone, order can mask a fracture.
Collectively, we have to want to be cohesive. Ironically, cohesion isn’t possible unless we value diversity. Diversity necessitates common threads.
But what if some people only make room for certain pieces to be included in the American tapestry? What if some people actually desire that we would disintegrate?
One of the most potent responses we can have to the unraveling of America is our recommitment to being good neighbors to one another.
Followers of Jesus can act counter-culturally by demonstrating love, care and active involvement in the lives of their neighbors, no matter their party, skin color or creed.
Furthermore, we need a revitalization of the neighborhood church. These churches take responsibility for the field has God has called them to work. They don’t try to be the biggest or most popular. Their focus is outward. Their outcomes are harder to measure, because they're focused on messy, beautiful, broken people through long-term relationships. They love God and seek to be good neighbors.
We’re in the mending business. Our thread is neighborliness.
So invite a neighbor over to pass out candy for Halloween. Open your Thanksgiving table for the person on your block who seems isolated and alone. Knock on a door and start a conversation.
You’ll be making something beautiful to pass down for generations.