When I was a child my siblings and I used to divide our playroom with masking tape to keep each other out. Now as a father of three boys I see my children doing the same thing. Why is the instinct to separate and divide ourselves from each other so strong? You've likely heard of a form of legal division in real estate development in the US called “redlining” which began in the 1930’s. At that time, literal red lines were drawn on city maps. Development proposals and home appraisals divided our cities into so-called desirable and undesirable investment zones. The real purpose was to limit investment to artificial boundaries so minority communities and the white majority could live legally integrated while functionally hyper-segregated. The practice of redlining may no longer be legal, but we are still finding ways to separate from each other.
The by-product of redlined investment was sharp disinvestment that cut deep social and economic divisions into the heart of our city, the scars of which can still be seen along Troost and in our community today. While beautiful new plazas, suburbs and public amenities were developed on one side, the other side of the redline saw development of a whole other kind, hidden from the view of the majority. Redlining built communities where traumatic life events are so common they are considered a rite of passage for some children. Redlining paved financial dead end roads that led to sweeping economic stagnation when businesses closed and jobs went south, figuratively and literally in KC. Redlining landscaped a built-environment of social instability that eventually fractured the pillars of traditional community foundations from the internal and external pressures caused by poverty, fear and hyper-segregation.
Born in the late 70’s it's hard for me to imagine a society where this all made sense. In my work at RS I have tried to distinguish my perspective and my belief about people who are different from me from the beliefs of previous generations. In all honesty however, as I have worked in struggling low-income communities, I have come to recognize there is much inherited partiality in my heart still needing to be healed. In tense moments I catch myself wanting to find a way to control others or push people away. I am tempted to treat people as though they are an interruption rather than a neighbor. There is a hidden redline in my heart. I do not intend to draw it, but it is there, inky and bold. Maybe you have seen this hidden redline in your heart too?
The redline in my heart doesn’t appear as classic racism or focus attention on certain people; its boundaries frequently surprise me. Sometimes the redline has to do with issues related to someone’s religion, cultural values, dress, speech, attitude, etc. I will attest, when the redline appears it is demanding and dogmatic. It is as if a person’s mere presence threatens what I believe, my sense of self and what I know to be true. Sometimes it feels like the ground would quake if the tremor of emotion could escape the laces of my shoes. Sometimes I want to lash out and make the redline loud and clear - you and I are different! Why is this instinct to separate from each other so strong?
I recently finished a book by a modern Orthodox Christian monk, Elder Thaddeus, who said, “Everything, both good and evil, comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become our reality.” While reading this book I was reminded that it is not actually an instinct that compels me to want to separate from others who are unlike me - the tendency to redline is not a part of my God-given nature - but the redline is a product of entertaining a whirlpool of negative thoughts, conscious and unconscious, about another person or their community. The redline in my heart is a result of the sinful thoughts I cultivate and these thoughts have the power to shape my reality.
I have asked myself what to do about this problem. Can I erase the redline in my heart? Can I really change the way I think about the complex and difficult people or places I encounter? If so, how? I have come to believe that this side of heaven only the greatest saints erase the redline - people like Mother Teresa, St. Maria of Paris, St. John of Kronstadt are a few modern examples. I know from these Holy ones that there is more I can do to erase this sinful division between myself and the other, but it takes real work and intentionality.
A prominent architectural feature of Orthodox Christian churches, the iconostasis, is a contrasting type of division to the division created by the redline, but the iconostasis has helped me understand what to do about the hidden redline in my heart.
The Iconostasis is a wall of sorts that partitions the sanctuary, where the priest stands before the altar, from the nave, where the faithful stand to sing and pray. On the iconostasis hangs icons of Christ, Mary, St. John the Baptist and other holy men and women. I remember the first time I attended an Orthodox church service how troubled I was by the iconostasis. I saw it as a dividing line separating the clergy and the laity, like a redline in the church. When I spoke to my priest about the iconostasis he challenged me to change my thinking.
He said, “try not to see it as a dividing line but as an acknowledgement of the division between God and man that was created by man’s sin. Face the iconostasis,” he continued, “and pray deeply ...The icons adorning the iconostasis, those holy men and women, are the proof of the possibility of real transformation and reconciliation with God, and with others.” He was saying that the iconostasis does not function to divide us but to make present the possibility of our ultimate reconciliation through acknowledging and facing the division that exists.
I was totally blown away by this explanation! Over the years as I’ve prayed in church facing the iconostasis I have discovered how this holy partition functions just as he said, as a place of meeting, transformation and reconciliation.
Although the iconostasis is a holy symbol of reconciliation and the hidden redline in my heart is a sinful symbol of division, the idea that I have taken away from the iconostasis is this: I will only be transformed by acknowledging and facing the redline in my heart and praying to Christ for healing grace. I can’t simply ignore it or think cultural diversity training or some other program will erase it. It is a human stain too deeply imbedded within my thoughts for simple solutions. I must acknowledge and face the division that exists within. That is what RS is all about for me, a place where the dividing line is acknowledged and faced, prayed before and transformed by grace so that the true strength in each person can be revealed. With every gift given, every act of service delivered, every job created, I am given the opportunity to acknowledge and face the redline in my heart and to love the other in front of me, whoever they are. I want to be more like the saints on the iconostasis. Their witness encourages me to press on towards the goal.
So when I meet that difficult person and my thoughts begin to race as the redline is drawn, I pray for help to seize the opportunity, to see the person in front of me as a living icon, someone to venerate not someone to push away. And in choosing not to redline the other by acknowledging and facing the division in my heart on a daily basis I believe we can find real healing and transformation together.
Article by Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of Reconciliation Services.