Reclaiming the Public Square

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Image credit: Bewakoof.com (unsplash.com)

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places” (Wendell Berry). Perhaps more than any other, the public square has been desecrated by violent and destructive words and acts over the past year.

The evidence is overwhelming. There are more examples than we have space to consider — the violent riot and destruction at the capitol, rioting and looting in the streets of our cities, brutal incidents of profound injustice caught and exposed on camera. Sadly, these were not new phenomena, but merely the most recent manifestations of decades — even centuries — of violence.

Many find comfort in being able to distill these complex issues into an “us vs. them” dichotomy — black vs. white, republican vs. democrat, male vs. female. Many find comfort in drawing clear battle lines and focusing all their effort on defeating a perceived enemy.

To reconsecrate the public square is to recognize it as the place where we can encounter the Divine in one another. The scriptures are clear that every human being has been created in the very image of God (Genesis 1:27). To meet one another in this space is to have the opportunity to glimpse the face of God as it is revealed through our neighbors.

What if we could shift our perspective and see the public square as a table instead of a battlefield? The public square can be made sacred when the goal is less about winning and more about connecting. It becomes holy when broken weapons are exchanged for broken bread.

If we are serious about reclaiming this as “sacred space,” I would suggest that we start with preparing ourselves for each interaction. Instead of shoring up ironclad arguments that will destroy our opponents, maybe our preparation begins by shoring up the conviction that, as a divine image bearer, this person has inestimable worth to God. Maybe it begins by first ascribing inherent value to our opponent instead of seeing them as obstacles to be overcome or as enemies to be defeated.

Practically, I would also suggest that we begin by seeking out new conversation partners — ones who are different from us in background and belief. Once identified, I suggest that you don’t start with the places where your convictions diverge. Instead, start here:

Tell me about your family. Where are they from? What did your parents do?

Tell me about how you grew up. What did you dream about when you were young?

How did you meet your spouse? What do you do for fun? What are you passionate about?

In other words, consecrating space is about connecting on a personal level as opposed to an idealogical one. Such encounters open up the possibility of truly encountering God, as the scriptures remind us that “where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to forging a new way forward is simply a lack of imagination and the faulty belief that public discourse must go on in the way that it has. We can do better. We can be better.