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Respectful Conversation as a Deep Expression of Love

A strategy I have found to be helpful when I engage with someone who disagrees with me strongly about a given issue, in the political realm and everywhere else, is to first seek areas of agreement. Can we find some “common ground?”  This starting point fits well with my understanding that politics, at its best, is the search for common ground that seeks the common good.

Current Political Discourse is Appalling

Our conversation partners for September, Republican Jeff VanDerWerff and Democrat Kim Van Es agreed that the sample YouTube video clips from Cable TV political news reporting were deplorable: “drivel” that exemplifies “weaponized distrust” (Jeff); “name-calling that lowers the level of argument to that of mean kids on the playground” (Kim).

The picture doesn’t get any better when you listen to how our elected political representatives typically engage their counterparts on the other side of the political aisle. Motives are called into question; name-calling is common; even demonization. The resulting extreme polarization and hyper-partisanship militate against politicians on opposite sides of the aisle working together to find common ground. What are the reasons for this wasteland?

There is room for disagreement as to the causes of political enmity. A primary reason, in my estimation, is that for too many politicians and their supporters doing politics is about winning rather than about governing well. And this focus on winning has led to pernicious political structures and practices that militate against genuine political discourse. These include closed primaries that attract more ideologically extreme voters who have little interest in dialogue, gerrymandering of voting districts that protect politicians from having to engage opposing views, and the inordinate role of financial support from donors at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. The net result is a hollowing out of the middle that militates against politicians reaching across the aisle in search for common ground.

But I want to dig deeper by focusing on some foundational reasons for the brokenness of political discourse; the attitudes (enduring dispositions) that underlie such questionable political structures and practices. Although it will sound quaint, I maintain that the root causes of political rancor are lack of humility, lack of courage and lack of love.

Ask yourself when the last time was that you heard a politician or staunch supporter of a particular public policy position say “I may be wrong.” As scripture teaches, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). As human beings, the particularities of our social locations inform our views on public policy. The position taken by someone who disagrees with me may be deeply informed by her gender, socio-economic status, her race and elements of her personal biography, which may enable her to see things that I miss. Likewise, my particularities may enable me to see things that she misses. And since we are both finite and fallible human beings, we cannot claim that either of our partial glimpses captures the full truth on the matter, as only fully understood by God. In addition, I can be blinded when I succumb to the temptation to sin by thinking “it’s all about me and those who agree with me.” 

It is hubris and a gross failure to exemplify an appropriate attitude of humility for me to assume that I have a God’s eye view of the truth about a given policy issue. It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that “I may be wrong.”

Exemplifications of courage are also often missing in the political realm. Too often, politicians do not express their deepest convictions for fear of what their constituents will think and the possibility that they may be punished for such honesty on the next election day; another symptom of the inordinate focus on winning in politics.

I have personally witnessed such lack of courage in face-to-face conversations I have had with some local elected officials as I have advocated for the well-being of my immigrant neighbors, documented or undocumented. A specific example involves my advocacy for Iowa state legislation for temporary driver’s licenses for all immigrants, which, in my estimation is a win-win-win situation (good for public safety, employers and immigrant families). The response of one member of the Iowa legislature was, in effect, that he agreed with the need for such legislation and would support it if it were proposed by others (jumping on a bandwagon), but it would be too politically risky for him to take the initiative to propose such legislation.  

Relative to the recent events in Charlottesville, I am not in a position to know or to pass judgement on the motives of others. But I encourage politicians who have remained silent about President Trump’s equivocation regarding the moral culpability of the protestors and anti-protestors at Charlottesville to examine their motives. Is it possible that such deafening silence reflects a failure in courage?

In addition to failures to exemplify humility and courage, I believe that lack of love is the primary attitudinal cause of the current coarseness of political discourse, which leads me to my proposal for a Christian approach to political discourse and all other areas of human discourse

A Christian Approach to Political Discourse

Starting again with an area of agreement among Christians, I know of no Christian who denies that Jesus calls his followers to “love others” (Mark 12:31). But there is much disagreement as to how to express that love. My proposal for a Christian approach to all human discourse, in the political realm or anywhere else, focuses on one expression of love for others that I find to be too rare in Christian circles. I am loving another person when I abide by the following guidelines for respectful conversation:

  • I create a safe and welcoming space for her to express her perspective on the issue at hand. 
  • I listen carefully, seeking to empathetically understand the reasons she has for her perspective.
  • I express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation about disagreements.
  • I explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I conclude that “for now we agree to disagree”; yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and keeps open the possibility of future conversations.
  • I aspire to be characterized by humility, courage and patience.

 

There is an extremely important element that pervades these steps: “getting to know” the person who disagrees with you. Those politicians, pundits and citizens who bash each other on cable TV, talk radio or their local newspapers have typically not taken the time to get to know each other very well. When you take the time to get to know the person who disagrees with you, you may uncover new insights from her reasons for her perspective and you may discover that she too wants the best, although you may differ as to what is best. In politics, this often means that you may find agreement on ends (e.g., the needs of those living in poverty must be addressed); with your disagreements being primarily about the best means to accomplish those ends (e.g., emphasizing free market mechanisms or governmental interventions). During this process of getting to know her you can build the mutual trust and respect needed to continue your conversations.

While recognizing the excesses of nostalgia, this suggests the need for politicians to go back to the days when Tip O’Neill and President Reagan developed a friendship that made it possible for them to work across the aisle in the midst of their deep political disagreements. Although it appears trivial on the surface, a current problem in Washington is the virtual elimination of adequate time for “socialization” among politicians on opposite sides of the political aisle brought about, at least in part, by the inordinate amount of time spent on fund raising.  

What are my arguments for the importance of Christians expressing their love for others in this conversational mode? I appeal to both personal experience and scriptures.

In my former life as a Vice President for Academic Affairs at two Christian colleges, I have seen some positive results from my attempts to live out these guidelines for respectful conversation in proving leadership for my faculties, which has been likened to “herding cats.” But there was one notable exception, when my commitment to a collaborative leadership style led to my being fired for “lack of deference to the president and Board of Trustees,” who exemplified a top-down approach to leadership.  

As if the pain of being fired was not enough, it was magnified considerably when I was not provided a welcoming space to “present my point of view”; when I was silenced, rendered voiceless. But one day, a member of Board of Trustees who apparently was not involved in the decision that this governing body made came to my home because he wanted to hear my side of the story. Finding someone who willing to listen to my perspective on what had transpired brought joy to my whole being. It was like coming across an oasis on a journey through a desert. As he left my home that sunny morning in south central Pennsylvania, I knew that I had been loved.

But I don’t wish to make my experience normative. What light is shed by scripture? I will limit my reflections to one passage; 1 Peter 3:15 (in Today’s New International Version).

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect …

Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, on whose shoulders I stand since his book Uncommon Decency has inspired me and supports my proposal much more eloquently than I can, once expressed an unusual take on this verse. Paraphrasing generously, Mouw reported that in his Christian upbringing, great emphasis was placed on the first sentence in this verse (express the reasons for the hope that is in you “with commitment and conviction” – to use my own words); but virtually nothing was said about the second sentence (“do this with gentleness and respect”).

This failure to heed this entire exhortation points to the scarcity of a rare combination pointed to by Ian Barbour in his definition of “religious maturity.”

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights. But it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity

As quoted by Jeff VanDerWerff in our September conversation, Richard Mouw draws on Martin Marty in highlighting the importance of “civility” in living out this rare combination of commitment and inquiry, calling for a  “convicted civility.” 

One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.… We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a “passionate intensity” about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.

Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs, you have yours; end of conversation). Commitment to your own beliefs without openness to listening to and respectfully discussing the beliefs of others too easily leads to fanaticism, even terrorism. (As C. S. Lewis has observed, to which past and recent world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.”) One of the most pressing needs in our world today, is for all human beings, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments, to embrace, and hold in tension, both commitment and openness; giving living expression to “convicted civility.” 

Objections

I anticipate at least the following three objections to my proposed Christian approach to political discourse.

First, are there not limits to my call to respect others? Should I respect those white supremacists, neo-fascists, and members of the KKK who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us?” It depends on what you mean by “respect.” Stephen Darwell has made a distinction between two kinds of respect. Appraisal respect is a positive evaluation of somebody’s achievements or virtues. Recognition respect is elicited by the worth someone has simply because she is a person, independent of her achievements or virtues. From my Christian perspective, all persons are of worth because they are “beloved by God” and have been created in the Image of God, however distorted that image has become. Therefore, I recognize the worth of those who practiced bigotry while marching in Charlottesville at the same time that I believe that their beliefs and actions are deplorable. And that means that I would be willing to engage them in respectful conversation about our disagreements, if they so desire.

The above reflections on the marchers in Charlottesville leads to my response to the third leading question that Gregory Williams and I have been asked to address: What does it mean for Christians to love their enemies in politics? Starting with a definition of an “enemy” as someone who is “antagonistic to another”; someone who is “seeking to injure, overthrow or confound an opponent,” then, from the outside looking in, I may have my share of enemies. But my proposal for how I should engage others in the political arena does not depend on whether they consider themselves to be my friends or enemies; whether they seek my well-being or not. When I engage anyone who disagrees with me, I am to love him/her by engaging in conversation according to the guidelines that I enumerate above. But I must say that even if she considers herself to be my enemy, I do not consider her to be my enemy since she is “beloved by God.”

A second possible objection is that my proposal allows Christian perspectives on public policy issues to gain a hearing in the public square. Should particular religious perspectives be allowed in public discourse in our pluralist society? The substance of my perspectives on political issues will be deeply informed by my value commitments as a Christian. Some argue that this is impermissible in the public square. Political discourse should be value-neutral. But that is impossible. No one comes from nowhere. Every person brings their values to public conversations. For some, these values flow from particular religious commitments. For others, they flow from secular views about the nature of reality and our place within that reality.

This means that political discourse should be characterized by a “level playing field,” where all perspectives, religious or secular, should be given a hearing; an approach that has been called “dialogic pluralism,” where each perspective is not evaluated on the basis of its genesis (e.g., did it come from a Christian, a Muslim or an atheist, or from a Republican, Democrat or Independent?), but, rather, on the basis of the extent to which the perspective being proposed can lead to public policy that fosters the common good.

A third possible objection to my proposal is that it has absolutely no hope of being “successful.” I can only imagine some of my readers rolling on the floor laughing: “Harold, you are living in la-la land; totally out of touch with political reality.” It is hopelessly naïve to think that a significant number of politician and their supporters will soon be embracing the virtues of humility, courage and love in their engagement with political opponents. Such virtues are in short supply, even among those, like Christians, who pay them considerable lip service.

I acknowledge the force of this objection. But “success” is not uppermost in my mind. My aspiration is to be faithful to my understanding of how a follower of Jesus is called to engage someone with whom he/she disagrees in the political realm and every other area of discourse. I entrust the possibility of success, or not, into God’s hands. In my numerous attempts over many years to facilitate respectful conversations about contentious issues, I have been sustained by the parable of the mustard seed told by Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and makes nests in its branches.

In ways that far exceed my limited understanding, the “Kingdom of God” inaugurated by Jesus “is here but not yet.” In our broken world, we see only faint intimations of the eventual fullness of the Kingdom of God to come, something like the early morning sunrise provides a hint of the full noonday sunshine to come. In the meantime, I am called to plant tiny seeds of redemption, entrusting the harvest to God. As I am fond of saying, “One cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.” Therefore, it is only through the eyes of faith that I can envision my proposed Christian approach to political discourse bearing any redemptive fruit. 

Model! Model! Model!

Since I am not trained in political science, I am not competent to address the deficiencies in political structures that I point to above. I can only encourage other Christians to commit themselves to the messy hurly-burly of doing politics as a career, encouraging them to address these deficiencies.

But I know what I can do. I can plant and cultivate tiny seeds of redemption. About seven years ago, I decided that rather than just writing essays, like this one, trying to convince others in the abstract about the need for a Christian approach to dialogue about contentious issues, I would just “do it” (to borrow a phrase from Nike). So, I recruited 47 conversation partners for my past eCircles on American Evangelicalism and human sexuality and 22 conversation partners (myself included) for this present eCircle on political discourse, all of whom agreed, up-front, to abide by the guidelines for respectful conversation enumerated above. 

Readers of my web site will have to judge. But if you take the time to read the many postings on my past eCircles, I believe you will conclude that these 47 Christians have modeled my proposed Christian approach to dialogue to an admirable degree. And it is my hope and prayer that by the end of this current ten-month conversation on political discourse, readers will conclude that it has again been demonstrated that it can be done: Christians who exemplify humility, courage and love and commit themselves to the guidelines for respectful conversation that are deep expressions of love can engage in conversations about political issues that uncover some common ground about public policy issues that promote the common good. I don’t expect the postings for this eCircle to go viral any time soon. But I will entrust the redemptive harvest to God.

But planning such seeds of redemption cannot be the work of a lone ranger or two or three. I applaud my friend Kim Van Es for the way in which she has planted such redemptive seeds through her series of face-to-face “Plain Conversations” in Sioux County, Iowa. I applaud my friend Steve Mahr who has made his Town Square Coffee Shop in Orange City, Iowa a welcoming place for respectful conversation. I hope and pray that many readers of this eCircle will do likewise in their respective spheres of influence.

My Quest for Truth

Some of my friends and readers may wonder about the genesis of my passion for seeking to orchestrate respectful conversations among persons who have strong disagreements. As the above narrative suggests, I am responding, in a way that fits with my gifts and abilities, to the call of Jesus for me to love others and my understanding of a deep expression of that love.

But there is another foundational reason for this passion. It has emerged from a continuous integrative thread in my life since my early teaching days: my insatiable “quest for truth” at the cognitive level and my aspiration to live out that truth one day at a time. The ultimate authority to which I am committed is not to be found in the pronouncements of church leaders, the Pope or anyone else, or to the interpretations of Scripture and doctrines of any particular Christian tradition or denomination, for no person or Christian tradition/denomination has a corner on God’s truth. Rather my ultimate authority is the truth as God fully knows it. The fact that I am not God presents a considerable challenge. Since I only have a partial glimpse of the truth, at best, it is important for me to engage with humility, courage and love in respectful conversations with those whose glimpses differ from mine, so that, together in conversation, we can gain better approximations to that truth.

The Scandal of Silence or Complicity

What is at stake if Christians don’t model a better alternative to the brutal rancor of current political discourse?  The credibility of the prophetic witness of the Christian church is at stake. It is tragic that many Christians have been silent in the face of the current broken nature of political discourse that directly violates Christian teachings regarding humility, courage and love or, worse yet, gladly contribute to such pernicious discourse. 

That is not to suggest that my particular proposal for a Christian approach to political discourse should be normative. I welcome alternative proposals as to how Christians should engage others in the political realm. But for Christians to acquiesce or contribute to the current appalling state of political discourse is inexcusable and scandalous. We need to model a better way to do politics that is deeply informed by our Christian faith.   

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