I bring good news and bad news. The good news is that the people of Britain are right about something. The bad news is that they are right about how awful something is. Half of our fellow citizens tell pollsters that our country is “more divided than ever before”. Following the Brexit referendum, two US elections and the Black Lives Matter protests, division is suddenly everyone’s concern. But how should Christians respond?
Perhaps we should start by taking a proper look at the scale of the problem. Our divisions are profound. They are also easy to spot; you can see them in our friendships. Half of graduates have no friends without a degree. The majority of pensioners have no contact with anyone under the age of 35 unless they are their grandchildren. A fifth of Leave voters and a quarter of Remain voters don’t have a single friend who voted the other way. Half of us don’t have any friends from a different ethnic background. The greatest divide, though, remains wealth. A British barrister would have to invite 100 people round before they would invite a single person who is unemployed.
But so what? Hasn’t it always been this way? Don’t birds of a feather always flock together?
PEOPLE LIKE ME
Francis Evans was an academic at the Chicago School of Business who became fascinated by door-to-door sales. In the early 1960s he followed 125 sales reps across the United States as they sold life insurance door-to-door. And he found an extraordinary pattern. No matter the competence of the sales rep, the homeowner was more likely to buy if the rep supported the same political party as they did, or if they had the same level of education. They were even more likely to buy if the rep was the same height as they were!
Our divisions are profound and easy to spot…half of us don’t have any friends from a different ethnic background
What Evans discovered was a bias that affects us all, and 37,000 academic articles have come to the same conclusion: each and every one of us have a small and constant bias towards people who remind us of ourselves. Academics call this ‘homophily’. I prefer the term ‘People Like Me Syndrome’. Found across the world – from Kuala Lumpur to Kingston – People Like Me Syndrome affects what we buy, where we work and who we are friends with. It is also at the heart of our divisions.
As Christians, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that our divisions come naturally. There is a story that at the turn of the 20th Century, The Times ran a competition. The newspaper asked a number of British authors to respond to the question: ‘What is wrong with the world today?’ Most writers submitted long, scholarly responses, apart from one, which reputedly came from the writer and theologian GK Chesterton. It consisted of four words: “Dear Sirs, I am.” Chesterton wasn’t just right about the nature of evil in the world. He also provided the perfect answer for why our societies become divided. We are doing it to ourselves.
But does it matter? I love watching The West Wing and am obsessed with the England football team. Surely it is healthy – and probably helpful to everyone else’s sanity – that I have some friends who actually want to talk about these things? Surely there is nothing wrong with having friends who share your interests or your sense of humour?
The problem comes when all of our friends are ‘People Like Me’. Our democracy becomes fragile – when those we disagree with are dismissed as ‘evil’ rather than ‘wrong’, space is created for politicians who rise by pitching us against each other. Our society becomes less fair – with wealthier children monopolising networks and connections that lead to better jobs. We become more anxious, and less safe – as division enables radicalisation – and poorer, as innovations struggle to spread. In short, division is bad news for everyone.
This shouldn’t surprise followers of Jesus. Just look how he lived. His life was full of ‘People Unlike Me’. He befriended prostitutes, ate with tax collectors, asked for water from a Samaritan woman, welcomed children and called on his followers to make disciples of all nations. His mission was to break down divides, both between humans and God and between humans and humans. This was how he summed up the law: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Mark 12:30-31).
So here’s some more good news: it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, God has given us a weapon to combat division. To see it best, let us leave these shores and visit a tribe who live on the shores of Lake Eyasi, in Tanzania. The Hadza tribe have lived here for 60,000 years and are still hunter-gatherers. Every month – when the moon is hidden – the Hadza gather together and perform the epeme, a dance that has been passed down through generations. In darkness, Hadza men gather and hide behind trees. Then, as the women begin to sing, the first man starts to dance. He wears a headdress of dark ostrich feathers and a long, dark cape. He has bells on his ankles and a rattle in his hand. In time with the women’s singing, he stamps his foot and shakes his rattle. As the singing grows, the women and children join in. After each man has danced the epeme two or three times, the ritual is finished. It is now close to midnight and the Hadza bed down and wait for the new day to begin.
The epeme does not settle disputes or decide hierarchy; it plays no role in the economy. So why do the Hadza do it? To find out, anthropologists studied the tribe for ten years, recording who each person shared tools, hunted and ate with. They were looking to discover who the Hadza trust. Unsurprisingly, they discovered the Hadza – who are made up of a series of smaller families – trust their kin more than everyone else. In other words, they trust ‘People Like Me’. But, more interestingly, they found that each Hadza trusted those they had danced the epeme with. Remarkably, more than they trusted their own family!
The point of the epeme is simple: unity. It knits the Hadza people together with people who seem less like them. How does it work? First, the Hadza do not choose who they dance with. This means that there is no space for ‘People Like Me Syndrome’ to have an effect. Second, the dance creates a bond between those taking part. We have no word in the English language for an institution that does this. I call it the ‘Common Life’. Once you start looking for ‘Common Life’ institutions, though, you can see them throughout our history. As hunter-gatherers, we relied on rituals like the epeme. Once we became farmers, we used feast days and rites of passage. When we moved to the cities and became factory workers, we relied on three new institutions to connect us: mandatory schooling, the workplace and clubs and societies. This was the ‘Common Life’ that connected our grandparents and great-parents together.
Jesus’ mission was to break down divides
There is one ‘Common Life’ that I have left out of the story. One gathering that has been bringing people together for more than 2,000 years is, of course, the Church. Consider the early Church: it saw no difference between Jews and Gentiles. It brought rich and poor together. It required believers to meet regularly with anyone else who believed. In 2014, researchers built a league table of places where people from different walks of life were most likely to connect. At the top of the table: the Church.
Is the Church perfect at bridging our divides? Of course not. Here in the UK, Church attendance – especially among young people – is on the decline in many denominations. We have struggled to reach people without degrees and those earning less. We need to do much better in welcoming Black and ethnic minority Christians into our churches. As a result, in our big cities, we have Black-majority and White-majority churches right next to each other. Martin Luther King once described 11am on a Sunday morning as “one of the most segregated hours in America”. Nonetheless, despite its imperfections, the Church remains one of the few places where our divisions are regularly crossed.
When these divisions are crossed, good things happen. Consider Salt Lake City, Utah. Poor children there have a better chance of getting out of poverty than almost anywhere in America. Is that because lots of money goes into the schools? Far from it; remarkably, no state spends less on education. What makes the difference is that 40 per cent of Salt Lakers go to their local Mormon church every week. Critically, Mormons don’t choose which church to attend – they are obliged to attend the local church. The result is that poor kids and rich kids mix – giving children the same access to networks, connections and aspiration. If the Mormon church can do this, so can we.
FINDING POINTS OF CONNECTION
Consider my friend Sam. Like her dad before her, she became an investment banker. She worked long hours on the trading floor. The man she married is an investment banker, as is her brother. Although she had other friends, she spent most of her time with people who earnt big salaries and even bigger bonuses.
But one day, that all changed. “I wanted to do more with my life,” says Sam. “So I went to see my vicar and asked what else I could do with my finance skills. He suggested helping people in debt.”
Sam set up a debt counselling centre at her church. Today, she spends half the week with bankers and the other half with people who can’t afford to pay the bills. “It’s changed me,” Sam says. “I always knew that people struggled. But it’s different when it’s your friend who has to choose between putting money in the meter or food on the table.”
Many of us have long believed that the Church should be the hope of the world. In a divided society, it really can be. But we have to get the basics right. How do we reach a diverse group of people, make sure they feel at home and find ways to connect them together? Here’s some ideas:
1. Attract people who are not the same
We need to be honest and see if our congregation is full of ‘People Like Me’. Most churches have some level of difference – whether age, income, education, politics or race. If you don’t, you need to work out why you are not attracting people unlike you. The best way to do that is to get out of your church and ask people. Knock on people’s doors if you have to.
2. Create a welcoming environment
We need to make sure everyone feels equally at home in our churches. How do we do that? Look at who’s upfront during a service. If you’re a person of colour attending a church, someone older or younger than average or someone with a different accent, can you see or hear someone who looks and sounds like you? Look at the activities that are organised. Do they cost money to take part in? What message might that send to people on a budget? Look at the language that is used from the front. How much do you assume the congregation already know?
3. Bring people together
Research shows us that two things are brilliant at building trust and connection in disparate groups of people: intense shared experiences and routine. Could someone at your church start a sports team? Could you serve the community (set up a food bank, perhaps) or organise a team to run an event? The key in this is to get people who seem different working together. Routine – where everyone follows the same set pattern – is also useful. Some churches do this through communion, laying on hands in prayer or worshipping together. Others do it through eating meals together, or setting up home groups to share life’s ups and downs.
For too long, we have been obsessed with the divisions inside the Church. Today, our society is obsessed – rightly – with its own divisions. The Church has the chance to make a difference, to be at the centre of healing our society. A chance to be good news for everyone.