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Scorched earth politics won't help nation's healing

More than 40 large wildfires and hundreds of smaller ones alternately smolder or rampage today through our parched, overheated, western states. One of the largest, the Wolverine fire in Washington's Cascade Mountains, has so far incinerated some 50 square miles of forest. From a distance, my family and thousands of others around the country have anxiously watched this fire consume the valley where a place precious to us, a remote retreat center, once a copper-mining company town, sits along a glacier-fed creek 13 miles upstream from Lake Chelan.

Thanks to the ingenuity and heroism of Forest Service firefighters, the facilities have apparently survived. In the lifetimes of any adult who has spent time there, however, it will never again be the picturesque setting it has been since the last fire torched the valley in the late 19th century. For now, naked mountains and a moonscape of ashes will surround the village.

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The forest will heal, however. In a few years, a carpet of green will once more clothe the mountains. Wildlife will return. After a few decades, my grandchildren will hike along thickly forested trails.

Life is tenacious. By some miracle or mystery, nature knows how to do this healing thing.

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So do we, given half a chance. Our childhood owies and kitchen knife blunders heal. Broken bones knit. Somehow we recover even when accidents or surgeons take us apart and we need stitching up like tattered rag dolls.

More remarkably, perhaps, we heal from wounds inflicted amid unspeakable ordeals. This week Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus, abducted as teens and held captive for several years in the home of a sadistic, sexual abuser, published their co-authored story of healing titled "Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland." Despite scars and unwanted memories, their painful past will not define or limit them.

Wounded, broken communities can also heal if enough people make determined efforts to accept their differences, put a hurtful past behind them, and choose anew, every day, to live together and look out for each other. Good-faith efforts at such work have emerged in strife-torn places like Ferguson, Missouri, although the work is hard, progress slow, and healing is repeatedly tested. Violent flare-ups surrounding the anniversary of Michael Brown's death, coupled with the community's overall response, demonstrate both the difficulty of the task and the distance people there have come.

Two factors make healing impossible--entrenched fear of one's neighbors and a willingness to dehumanize "the other." Unless we can sit unarmed in the same room and recognize our common humanity, no community can recover its health. The politics of recrimination, demonizing, bombast, and rhetorically scratching out each other's eyes only leaves us with bloodied hands and scorched souls.

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Which brings us to the prospects for our nation, arguably the community most in need of healing. Not since Vietnam and the Civil Rights era have we found ourselves so polarized, and even then we didn't suffer from such an enormous chasm between the few who hold all the wealth and power and the majority that sees itself living at the plutocracy's mercy. In the preliminary blooming of political campaigns on the way to 2016, however, the voice of a healer is not yet audible. Instead, candidates try to win us to their side with fear-mongering, xenophobia, sanctified selfishness, and a desire to strip our shared governmental structures of every capacity except that of waging war.

Scorched earth politics will eventually leave us in some desolate valley, with only ashes for a view. Must we really proceed like the forest, which only renews and heals itself after dying?

Niedner is senior research professor and associate director, Institute of Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University.

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