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Spring 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 1 · pp. 10–20 

Reconciling America’s Divided Society Through Religious Revitalization

Alicia Hughes-Jones

Equality of opportunity, compassion for the less fortunate, progress in righting wrongs—these are values central to the American ethos. The Civil Rights Movement saw many of these values realized for historically disadvantaged ethnic groups. Social tensions seem to have remained high, however, in spite of real gains in social justice in the three to four decades of integrated schools, affirmative action, and improved access to higher education and better jobs for these groups. Violence continues to be a social problem, but it is less often overtly ethnic in nature. Violence takes new forms. A highlight of a recent news telecast reported that children in kindergarten are violent towards their teachers, assaulting them with their fists and throwing things at them. 1 Electronic games featuring homicides, violent martial arts, and casual killings are heavily marketed to young children.

The best hope for resolving current ethnic tensions and continued injustices in the U.S. is a revitalization of religiously-based movements for justice.

Ethnic violence today is more subtle and more stressful because it is rarely physical but more often emotional and mental. Self-proclaimed civil rights leaders keep racial prejudice alive by pitting ethnic groups against each other while demanding reparations for past wrongs. Others charge reverse discrimination so that it appears that one group gains at another’s expense, a situation most would agree to be intolerable. Political leaders make public statements about tax reform that appear designed to set the working and under classes against the middle and upper classes. {11}


Charges and countercharges fly, yet there is no public outcry for a reconciliation of the conflicted groups in American society. Indeed, to the extent that a largely secular American society perceives “reconciliation” to be a religious issue, there is unlikely to be public demand for it.

The social science community approaches “reconciliation” in a strictly secular sense. In this view, “reconciliation” follows a strictly logical path and may mean that some people accept or tolerate conditions they may dislike in order that others—victims—are somehow compensated for harm done to them, if only by accepting them as they are.

On the other hand, “reconciliation” can mean that parties to a disagreement review their grievances, admit their responsibilities for harm done, determine to forgive and to be forgiven, and commit to do no harm to one another in the future. In such a case, the parties have come to new realizations about their past, present, and future relationships. They are forever changed in how they view one another and in how they relate to each other. The language of forgiveness and responsibility, and perhaps also guilt and repentance, reflects a distinctly religious perspective on reconciliation. 2


Cultural hegemony confers a sort of cultural blindness. Secure in their majority cultural position, Euramericans were slow to acknowledge that a way of life that seemed “right” to them resulted in institutional discrimination that was a source of social injustice to members of other cultural groups. The Civil Rights Movement (CRM), the American Indian Movement (AIM), and the United Farm Workers Movement (UFW) came as a shock to many Euramericans and forever disabused them of the notion that social, political, and gender equality was central to its ethos.

Each of these social movements was an ethnic movement for social justice, initiated and led by religious leaders who were ordained clergy, Native prophets, or devoutly religious laypeople. They presented visions of an America transformed by the realization of justice long denied. The Euramerican cultural majority, often with great reluctance (and in some instances with sincere bewilderment about the fuss), responded with political restitution for past harm. Reconciliation of Euramericans with the three major ethnic minority groups occurred to such a degree that it is difficult for young Americans today to comprehend the efforts and the sacrifices their grandparents made to secure a better life. {12}

The successes of the ethnic movements had unplanned consequences, however. Nonethnic groups (women, disabled, chronically mentally ill, poor, homeless, and those with same-sex preference) identified themselves as victims of social injustice and demanded political rewards and social acceptance. They had no history of the kind of prejudice and discrimination that included the savage brutality suffered by African Americans, the systematic genocide and ethnocide suffered by Native Americans, or the economic and social prejudice experienced by Mexican Americans. They claimed no religious vision and had no prophets, religious leaders, or other leaders who could appeal to the larger society with the charisma of a Martin Luther King Jr., an Eddie Benton Banai, or a Caesar Chavez.

Nevertheless, they benefited greatly from the earlier success of the ethnic groups. The American public had become accustomed to responding positively to demands couched in terms of social justice. Response to demands, however, is not reconciliation. Indeed, American society seems more divided today than ever in its history. Social reconciliation seems a distant goal.

Historically, immigrant ethnic groups “reconciled” to Euramerican cultural hegemony through acculturation—learning the language, norms, and morés of the Euramerican majority. Traditionally, Americans described the acculturation process as a “melting pot” in which the ethnicity of individual groups became blended into a new creation. The cultural hegemony of the Euramerican majority was not challenged. Suddenly in the sixties, it seemed that America’s basic institutions had to come to grips with cultural identity issues. Cultural awareness and sensitivity training had to be provided in schools, businesses, and churches. At the same time Americans desired to demonstrate respect for, sensitivity to, and appreciation of the various cultural groups that comprise the social body.

Today, Americans are at somewhat of an impasse in regard to social justice issues. After more than four decades of seeking to provide social justice for all the groups that have demanded it—of pleas for just one more concession for one more special, victimized group, of rallying yet again for or against something—Americans suffer “compassion fatigue.” Furthermore, there is a strong yearning for community, to feel again as one unified society. 3 We Americans need to be revitalized.


In his study of social movements, Anthony F. C. Wallace discovered that when small, traditional societies came under severe physical, {13} social, and cultural stress, some succumbed to that stress and became culturally extinct whereas others seemed to undergo a religious transformation to emerge with renewed cultural vitality. The old belief system was not merely dusted off, modified a bit, and revived. Rather a new syncretic belief system emerged that reconciled traditional cultural beliefs and values with those of the nonnative, invading culture. Wallace was particularly interested in the Longhouse religion of the Seneca and other Iroquois Confederacy peoples and the Melanesian cargo cults that arose after World War II. He called the cultural change that occurred in these societies “a new Gestalt,” a new belief system, initiated by a charismatic or prophetic leader. 4

In The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, Wallace described how cultural decline, brought on by the loss of much of their lands, and alcoholism affected the Seneca from the late 1780s into the early 1800s. A number were Christians, the two most influential groups being the Episcopal and Quaker denominations. He specifically described how the middle-aged, alcoholic Handsome Lake suffered four years of steadily declining health culminating in a death-like coma from which he awoke to report a vision of a new way to live in peace and harmony. 5 That he was certainly influenced by the Quakers around him should not diminish our appreciation for Handsome Lake’s profound influence on his people. Handsome Lake appears to have discovered overlapping traditional and Christian values which enabled him to reconcile the old with the new to form a revitalizing message which made possible the survival of the Seneca as a people.


Wallace’s revitalization model can be applied to twentieth-century America. First, however, some labels used to describe America’s various subcultures and ethnic groups need to be reviewed to show how cultural definitions have been broadened from specific ethnic groups to an aggregate of nonethnic, self-identified victim groups, a process which has culminated in the institution of perpetual victimhood. The rise of institutionalized victimhood explains to a large degree why many Americans feel so overwhelmed by victim demands that they are becoming calloused to charges of social injustice.

Three labels have been coined to describe the cultural hodgepodge that constitutes the United States: Multiculturalism, Cultural Pluralism, and Cultural Diversity. Multiculturalism recognizes that since members of a minority must function both in their own and in the majority culture, they are multicultural by definition. As a term of reference, {14} however, multicultural fails to recognize the contributions made by minority subcultures to the mainstream culture, and it does not indicate how much of a blend American culture actually is. Cultural Pluralism conveys that some minorities (Native Americans in particular) retain considerable portions of their cultures of origin and that they have a right to do so. The term Cultural Diversity moves beyond mere ethnicity to include nonethnic groups such as the groups mentioned earlier, though scholars disagree on whether any or all of these groups are “cultures” as that concept is normally defined.


Americans have a long history of sympathy for the downtrodden; compassion for the less fortunate has always been a mark of the nation’s underlying decency and morality. 6

Many Americans have ancestors who were victims of oppression or persecution. Native Americans are descendants of the victims of invasion, genocide, and internment on reservations. African Americans are descendants of the victims of kidnapping and slavery. Many Americans are descended from immigrants who came here to escape political, religious, or social oppression.

Traditionally, Americans have viewed victimhood as a transitional status—America is the land of opportunity after all. Traditional American values strongly favor assistance for victims of oppression of all forms in part because it is assumed victimhood is temporary. Nevertheless, there has been strong social pressure to accept others by how they present themselves rather than how they may be perceived by others. Once self-categorization is accepted, the question then arises how to reconcile them within the social body. Here the cultural divide widens. 7


In postmodern societies such as the United States, a more rationalistic form of revitalization emerges that seeks legal rather than religious solutions to social injustice. Christian sociologist Russell Heddendorf states that the “idea that the spiritual was disappearing from modern life was one of the major characteristics of the process of rationalization. Weber referred to this process as disenchantment: the loss of religious elements from social life and their replacement by systematic, predictable elements.” 8 Disenchantment has accompanied secularization in contemporary America. It means a decreasing tendency to view the {15} world in terms of religious good and evil and an increasing tendency to view it in terms of social good and evil.

Who is responsible for the evil in . . . a bureaucracy? We become more conscious of evil as what people suffer than evil as what people do. 9

In a bureaucratic society such as America, victim advocates charge that racism, sexism, heterosexualism, ableism, ageism, affluentism, and domicilism create a social structure in which institutional discrimination victimizes the less fortunate. Responsibility for poverty, homelessness, and the other social ills become the responsibility of society and remove from the victim any need to be accountable to anyone for his or her actions or social status. To effect reconciliation under these circumstances is next to impossible without the kind of social and cultural transformation Wallace terms “revitalization.”

For traditional societies Wallace describes five stages: “Steady State,” “Individual Stress,” “Cultural Distortion,” “Revitalization,” and, ultimately, “New Steady State.” 10 They are not necessarily discreet but may overlap to a greater or lesser degree. In postmodern society, the five stages appear to cycle rapidly as social and cultural stress is more or less a constant.

Revitalization in postmodern societies can be ongoing as small groups or coalitions of groups seek to reconcile themselves to the various stresses they face. Further, in postmodern society each small group is likely to produce its own prophet or charismatic leader, as one needs only to look back at some of the people who made headlines in the sixties and seventies to determine.

A new Steady State should have followed the three ethnic movements, but the period of Cultural Distortion—which was resolved by Revitalization and the successes of these groups—did not go away. In fact, it continues to the present, fueled by each new victim group that arises and by failure of some of the old victim groups to go away.


Wallace devoted considerable discussion to five elements he saw as necessary if revitalization is to succeed: Mazeway Reformulation, Communication, Organization, Adaptation, and Cultural Transformation.

By mazeway Wallace means what anthropologists would term worldview. An individual is in a sense a microcosm of the pattern of his or her culture. To change one’s worldview is a wrenching experience {16} since it must of necessity deny the validity of the old norms and morés at the same time new ones are presented that are untried and must be taken on faith. It is this process that produces Wallace’s Gestaltic transformation, which Christians may view as a sort of “Damascus Road” experience in its transformative power.

When worldview is transformed, the leader (or designate) communicates the vision of the new cultural system and social order to the people. There must be face-to-face interaction so that laypeople can experience firsthand the immediacy of the vision and participate in the ceremonies of healing and renewal it requires. Television may be an acceptable medium for cultures accustomed to it, but it is a poor substitute for personal participation. Ask any man who has attended a Promise Keepers rally.

As people hear and absorb the message, they are transformed. Whereas before they were helpless to change themselves or their situation, they now acquire hope and take action. Addicts tell of having the desire for alcohol or drugs instantly removed. The poor and/or homeless receive a changed attitude that empowers them to try to secure jobs and homes which they were formerly too dispirited to attempt. Organization enables these transformed people to take the message to others. The current move of compassionate conservatism is part of the organizational stage of revitalization.


If Revitalization movements are not strongly religious, Wallace believes that “human relationships will be increasingly contaminated by character disorders, neurotic acting out, and paranoid deification of political leaders and ideologies.” 11 How accurately Wallace predicted the current state of American society! The near canonization of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, the reverence many youth currently give to deceased entertainers Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, and the American Left’s continued fascination with Marxism in the face of its failure in Russia and China bear out Wallace’s assertions.

Revitalization is apparent when there is noticeable reduction in symptoms of social and cultural distress. The disparate and conflicting parties within the cultural system are reconciled. In postmodern societies, the scope of Revitalization is as yet unrealized. By definition, Revitalization is a positive and affirming process in which victims of social injustice are transformed. Persons who have been transformed can no longer be victims. The power of choice becomes the empowering vision and the reconciling element, making it possible to relinquish {17} victim identity. Grace embodies the gift of free will which, in turn, conveys empowerment to all who accept the gift, transforming and revitalizing that person.

Native American Christians, for example, are presently engaged in one of the many revitalization processes taking place in American society at this time. 12 Recently, one evangelist reported that in a service in Canada, an elderly woman came forward weeping to confess that she had hated whites all her life and she wanted to be healed of that hatred. Others have established healing “circles” addressed specifically to alcoholism and drug rehabilitation. Healing and reconciliation appear to be frequent sermon topics, if frequent mention on the several Christian Native American web sites is any indication. Healing themes concern the longstanding problems of reservation life, such as poverty, domestic violence, teen suicide, alcoholism and addiction, and abuses suffered at boarding schools both past and present. Reconciliation themes include intra- and intertribal relationships, as well as those between Native and non-Native. The latter is of primary concern here.

Returning to Wallace’s revitalization model, one can say that Native Americans are among the most stressed cultural groups in North America. Yet few avenues for resolving this stress are open to them. Land claims, treaty violations, and similar matters take years to resolve in the courts while poverty, unemployment, violence, and health and education issues remain untouched. The issue of gambling casinos on Native lands, the revenue from which could alleviate Native social problems, is a divisive topic between the Nations and the states in which these casinos are located.

“Reconciliation” as previously described in religious terms is vital to the changed life sought by Native Christians. And, as stated above, there are levels of reconciliation. Revitalization for the Seneca involved the Gestaltic transformation which Wallace perceived. This is the level of reconciliation of primary importance here—a reconciliation between the Native American community (including those Nations with members in Canada and the United States) and the Euramerican cultural majority.

One might expect, since the Euramerican invaders were the aggressors, that overtures at reconciliation should come from that quarter, but this is unlikely except in local instances. Some Native Americans are actively seeking reconciliation worship services with non-Natives so that hatred, bitterness, resentments, and mistrust can be laid to rest.


Two instances will serve to illustrate this. 13 The present author has {18} worked in tribal development, Indian child welfare, and as administrative assistant for the Transcultural Family Counseling Center, a mission project of the Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma. She served on the Human Relations Commission for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, and has worked as a volunteer with addicted mothers. She and her husband were therapeutic foster parents for ten years, and she continues to serve as an education advocate for children in state custody. In these varied venues, the people who have succeeded have been the ones who developed their spiritual lives so that they could forgive those who wronged them and could try to reconcile with them. Reconciliation has proved to be more important than welfare assistance or charity from private sources.

In September 2002, a Native American from Oklahoma went to Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, accompanied by representatives of twenty eastern Native American nations for a reconciliation ceremony. They were joined by local officials. The goals of the ceremony were to bring repentance and forgiveness between Native peoples whose ancestors had been wronged by the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and the descendants of those Pilgrims. The Plymouth Rock officials represented those ancestral Pilgrims. A second goal was for the Native peoples to forgive the Pilgrims for what some Native Americans view as a wrongful or misguided Christianity the Pilgrims brought here.

In an unrelated reconciliation event in Cherokee, North Carolina (also September 2002), Native representatives met with representatives of the Roman Catholic, United Methodist, and three nondenominational church groups. Slowly, and small group by small group, a revitalization of Native Americans is taking place as more accept Christianity. Reconciliation often follows as these new Christians absorb the fact that a Christian cannot harbor hatred, bitterness, and animosity toward others no matter the provocation and the wrong.

The Euramerican cultural majority will balk at taking the Native American reconciliation movement as a model for itself for a number of reasons. The principal reason is the high level of secularism, even among many churchgoers. A second reason is the requirement of an admission of harm done, an admission of guilt, culpability, accountability—which most Euramericans seem unable to admit. This secular outlook and resistance to admit guilt predisposes Euramericans to offer monetary restitution when spiritual healing is needed. It may be necessary for Euramericans to become a minority culture—in the society where they have exercised cultural hegemony for almost four hundred years—before they can be brought to a realization of their own need for {19} reconciliation with those they have harmed. In so doing, they themselves may be made whole.


Revitalization in American society is possible when the majority culture accepts the grievances of the minority groups within it. The ethnic group movements (CRM, AIM, and UFW) bear out the viability of radical change in group interaction when structural evil is made plain. The charismatic leadership of these groups and their religious foundation were responsible in large part for their success. Nonethnic groups have also been successful but at the cost of increased resentment by many Americans who question the authenticity of victimization in comparison to the ethnic groups.

It is possible that American society may be revitalized from the individual group revitalizations taking place within it. Native American Christians may lead the way in this regard. Political action and legislation can motivate changes in behavior but not in the hearts and minds of people. Only through religious means can real cultural transformation occur because only spiritual answers empower and transform.


  1. Fox News telecast, January 16, 2003.
  2. A number of self-help groups have formalized a series of “steps” or stages by which this kind of reconciliation may be achieved. Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon are prominent, but many others have similar formulas. These steps require that a person seriously reflect on harm to others, confess these shortcomings to God in the presence of another person, and seek to make amends to those who have been harmed. See for example One Day at a Time in Al-Anon (New York: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1981), 372-73.
  3. “Compassion fatigue” has come into general usage to refer to a decline in charitable giving. See Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), 12. Initially the term referred to those in the helping professions whose stress level rendered them incapable of functioning in their roles. See Charles R. Figley, ed., Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized, Brunner/Mazel Psychosocial Stress Series, no. 23, July 1995 (Levittown, PA: Taylor and Francis). {20}
  4. Anthony F. C. Wallace, “Revitalization Movements,” American Anthropologist (1956): 264-81.
  5. Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York: Vintage, 1972), 239-42. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, several instances occur where God seems to choose the least capable person to fill a leadership position to accomplish great things. Moses was a murderer and had a speech impediment, yet God chose him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Handsome Lake seems to have been another “least of these.” His teachings developed principally from 1799 through 1801.
  6. Sykes, 12.
  7. James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic, 1991). Hunter’s discussion of orthodox conservatives and progressive liberals explains the philosophic gulf between some Americans’ belief in temporary or transitional victimhood and other Americans’ view of perpetual victimhood.
  8. Russell Heddendorf, Hidden Threads: Social Thought for Christians (Dallas, TX: Probe, 1990), 51-52.
  9. Stephen Charles Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 12. Emphasis added.
  10. Wallace, Revitalization, 275.
  11. Ibid., 511.
  12. Many Native American evangelists share news of their ministries on a variety of Internet sites.
  13. To protect the privacy of those involved, no names are mentioned here. Other examples of reconciliation and healing may be found on various web sites managed by First Nations Monday. As more Native Americans embrace Christianity, there seems a desire for reconciliation, particularly in the context of their forgiveness of their victimizers, the Euramerican cultural majority.
Alicia Hughes-Jones is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Oklahoma.

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