Restoring a Cracked Culture

The firestorm of angry tweets that followed an image of Ellen DeGeneres and George Bush sitting together at a Dallas Cowboys game reveal our culture is holding up a cracked facade of tolerance in dire need of restoration.

Norman Rockwell Mosaic "The Golden Rule." UN Photo/Milton Grant.

A picture, so the cliché goes, is worth a thousand words. At the United Nations Headquarters in New York there is a stone mosaic based on a painting by Norman Rockwell. The mosaic depicts people from different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds standing in solidarity. Inscribed in it are the words, “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You”—words that have come to be known as “The Golden Rule.” The mosaic has become one of the U.N. Headquarters’ most popular attractions. Over time, The Golden Rule mosaic deteriorated and needed restoration. What a poetic depiction of our divisive times.

During the restoration ceremony, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson explained the mosaic’s importance. “It reflects the very essence of our mission as set out in our Charter,” he said. “At its core, the work is about narrowing the gap between the world as it is and the world as we want it to be.” [1]

Is that still true? The firestorm of angry tweets that followed another image—that of talk show host and LGBTQ+ advocate Ellen DeGeneres sharing a suite at a Dallas Cowboys game with Republican Former President and First Lady George and Laura Bush—suggests it isn’t. That image was worth a thousand tweets, a good number of them angry.

To her credit, DeGeneres used her considerable platform to go beyond merely explaining how she found herself sitting with the Bushes. She admitted to being friends with them. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have,” she said. She could have assuaged her followers’ rage by saying it was a coincidence that she was sitting next to George Bush. But DeGeneres took a riskier path of admitting her friendship. The backlash against DeGeneres suggests our country is holding up a cracked facade of tolerance in dire need of restoration.

The backlash against DeGeneres suggests our country is holding up a cracked facade of tolerance in dire need of restoration.

Tolerance used to mean something. When we think of a metal’s tolerance levels, we think of how it can tolerate heat, vibration, or electricity. In other words, a material is tolerant when it maintains its integrity while subjected to stress. The Twitter-bile spewed at the mere site of a gay liberal celebrity enjoying the company of conservative Christians indicates how frail our integrity has become when subjected to even the slightest stressor.

Today’s rule is The Crimson Rule: Draw blood from your opponents so they don’t draw blood from you. We have exchanged the civil public square—where we would seek understanding even while disagreeing—with the Roman Colosseum in which our ideological champions vanquish our foes. Mutual understanding is no longer a virtue—it is a sin. Understanding is seen as capitulation in the arena of combat. Ironically, we’re still surprised when we’re misunderstood. “They don’t understand Us,” we say, “and so They must be vanquished.” Never mind that We haven’t really sought to understand Them.

We have exchanged the civil public square—where we would seek understanding even while disagreeing—with the Roman Colosseum in which our ideological champions vanquish our foes.

The fact that we deny others the understanding that we demand for ourselves is what makes this all so ensnaring. Thomas Bracken’s poem “Not Understood” springs to mind:

“Not understood. We move along asunder;
Our paths grow wider as the seasons creep
Along the years; we marvel and we wonder
Why life is life, and then we fall asleep–
Not understood.

Not understood. How many breasts are aching
For lack of sympathy. Ah, day by day,
How many cheerless, lonely hearts are breaking.
How many noble spirits pass away–
Not understood.

O God! that men would see a little clearer,
Or judge less harshly when they cannot see!
O God! that men would draw a little nearer
To one another! They’d be nearer Thee,
And understood.” [2]

We long to be understood, yet our culture is devoted to an antagonism that makes it nearly impossible. Is this the world that we really want?

The way back is hidden in plain sight. Twenty centuries ago, Jesus uttered The Golden Rule that is now etched into the U.N. mosaic (Matthew 7:12). Take careful notice of what he conveyed. He did not say, “Do unto others so that they will do unto you.” That would be self-seeking. Nor did he say, “Do unto others so that they will not do harm to you.” That would be self-defensive. And he certainly did not say “Do unto others who are just like you.” That would be self-idolatrous. Jesus instructed us to do for others what we would have them do to us—even if they never return the favor. That is self-sacrificial. Jesus’ ultimate self-sacrifice has echoed throughout the centuries’ halls. We need to hear their ring again.

Jesus’ ultimate self-sacrifice has echoed throughout the centuries’ halls. We need to hear their ring again.

Not every idea a person may hold is created equal. Yet every person is created equal. We can dispute an idea without disparaging the idea holder. Indeed, we must. Friendships with those who don’t share our views allow us to share uncompromised convictions with uncompromising compassion. Social media echo chambers simply don’t allow for such meaningful exchanges. Sacrificing the comfort of constant affirmation is the kind of social ethic we need today.

Social media echo chambers simply don’t allow for such meaningful exchanges. Sacrificing the comfort of constant affirmation is the kind of social ethic we need today.

It was a fad a few years ago to create mosaics made from smaller related pictures. A portrait of a child’s face would be made up of hundreds of pictures from that child’s life. Perhaps we can yet create a mosaic of Rockwell’s Golden Rule, each tile bearing an image of people with very different views together at a football game, at the park, or even on the Senate floor.

For all the ire it provoked, one person admitted on Twitter that seeing the picture of DeGeneres and Bush sitting together “renewed my faith in America.” Let us pray for more images of people who disagree over ideas coming together over the common idea that each of us has inherent value. The answer to that prayer can restore our cracked culture.


  1. “Golden Rule, iconic Norman Rockwell mosaic, rededicated at UN Headquarters,” U.N. News Centre, February 5, 2014, www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47089#.WbAS5a2ZORs.
  2. Thomas Bracken, Not Understood and Other Poems (Wellington, N.Z.: Richard Brown, 1905), pp. 7-8.

How to Disagree Without Becoming Enemies Part 1: The Value of Civil Disagreement

Feb 15, 2016

Gay marriage, transgender and sexual identity issues, the ethics of abortion, the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God—this is just a smattering of the major issues currently dividing the United States. Obviously, strong disagreement is unavoidable when we discuss these topics. But these issues are too important to ignore; we need to talk about them. But many of us are afraid to talk about them. In this podcast, we’ll explore a vital need, namely, the recovery of civil disagreement.


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