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It's Both / And; Not Either / Or

I have summarized my hope for exchanges between conversation partners for all of my eCircles as follows: They will start by identifying areas of agreement; followed by identifying areas of disagreement with grace and conviction in a manner that illuminates the basis for the disagreements so clearly that a foundation is laid for ongoing conversation about those disagreements. That hope was realized to a great extent in Greg’s second posting, for which I am deeply appreciative.

I agree wholeheartedly with Greg’s assertions that our reflections to date are “deeply complimentary” and that “Christian love requires more” than I am proposing (italics mine). The main point I now wish to make is that the way forward is not to posit an either/or between the aspect of Christian love on which I have focused and the aspect of Christian love on which Greg has focused. It must be both/and. I will attempt to explain. 

I start by clarifying the distinction, as I understand it, between the two differing, yet complimentary, aspects of Christian love on which Greg and I have focused. I have focused on what I call the “conversational” expression of Christian love (the question of “how” we talk to those with whom we disagree), proposing that our conversations should exemplify the Christian virtues of humility, hope and that aspect of Christian love that creates a safe and welcoming space for an expression of disagreement that places a premium on first listening well.

Based on his initial postings, it appears to me that Greg is focusing on that expression of Christian love that I think can reasonably be called “doing justice,” with particular emphasis on seeking justice for the marginalized, powerless and voiceless among us. It appears to me that Greg is not excluding my conversational focus. But he is asserting, correctly, that Christian love “demands something more”: we must “stand on the side of the exploited and the oppressed against their exploiters and oppressors.” I agree. The Old Testament of the Bible contains numerous exhortations to address the needs of the poor, powerless and marginalized (e.g., Isaiah 58: 6-7; Amos 5: 21-24). And Jesus continues that theme in his call to those who claim to be his followers to address the needs of the “least among us” (the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and prisoners and “strangers” in our midst), as recorded in Matthew 25. 

So, my main point in this posting is that it should be both/and, not either/or. Christians need to create a synergy between exhibiting humility, courage and love in talking to those who disagree with them about political issues and they need to demonstrate a deep commitment to “doing justice.”. A possible place to start is to recognize that a commitment to include those who have been marginalized in the conversation is one aspect of “doing justice.” 

Given my argument for a both/and approach, it is fair to ask why my eCircle seems to deal almost exclusively with the conversational aspect to the relative neglect of the “doing justice” aspect.

My primary reason for this “partial” view of expressing Christian love in politics is hinted at in the very title of my eCircle: “Reforming Political Discourse.” One dictionary definition of “discourse” is the “formal and orderly expression of thought on a subject,” which is a narrower view of the meaning of “discourse” then the one Greg is using (what Greg calls “political discourse” I would call “political engagement”).

So, it is the “conversational” aspect of doing politics that I dream of reforming, fully recognizing that this is only a portion of the challenge that Christians face in doing politics. I now realize, based on Greg’s prodding, that this dream, as grandiose as it is, is too small. Possibly I should have chosen a broader theme, “Reforming American Politics,” which could have addressed BOTH the “conversational” mode for expressing Christian love AND the overlapping mode of “doing justice.”

Well, it appears that I (or we) have opened up a Pandora’s box (the toothpaste is out of the tube). That pleases me. As I said in my initial posting, a favorite mantra of mine is that “one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.” My two brief electronic conversations with Greg have illustrated that in a splendid manner. Our conversations are also richly suggestive of topics for discussion in future ongoing conversations for all readers of this eCircle. But before I elaborate on that claim, I will reflect on how Greg has helped me to expand my view of the very meaning of “doing politics.” 

In my initial posting, I shared my view that “politics, at its best, is the search for common ground that seeks the common good.” I now see that this is too narrow a view of the scope of politics. As Greg correctly points out, it makes it sound like that politics is solely about “persuasion,” trying to convince my political opponent, by means of conversation, that my perspective on the political issue at hand is more adequate than her perspective. I believe that if we have the courage to engage those who disagree with us with humility and love, respectful attempts at persuasion, in contrast to coercion, may uncover more common ground than we had originally anticipated. But what do you do if such attempts at “friendly persuasion” hit a dead end? How do you live well together when you cannot find common ground by means of conversation? Greg’s proposal that you then proceed to other forms of political engagement (e.g, the use of strikes, boycotts, occupations. etc. when dealing with the relationships between “workers and their bosses”) flows from his expanded view of what it means to do politics.

In brief, Greg is proposing that a more adequate view of the purpose of  politics is the broader view that “doing politics” is our collective attempt to find ways for persons who don’t share the same views as to a “common good” to, nevertheless, “come together to make a common life.” What Greg says about this ideal in his second posting is important enough for me to repeat here.

…the goal of political life is not to make everyone else look, think, and act like oneself, but to negotiate the terms of a common life with people who are meaningfully different. Politics happens because people disagree on how to go about achieving basic goods. How are we going to raise our kids? How are we going to take care of our elders? How should we work to avert the coming of a climate catastrophe that is already here for the poorest and the most vulnerable? What should education look like? What should our food system look like? The goal of politics is not to get everyone to give the same, pre-prescribed answers to these questions but to enable people who have radically different answers to those questions to live together in such a way that every person is able to participate in that common life and, in that context, to flourish.

In summary, Greg notes the following contrast between his thinking and my original view of the meaning of politics, drawing on the work of one of his professors at Duke Divinity School, Luke Bretherton  (who I should report, in the interest of full disclosure, was extremely helpful to me as a consultant as I was shaping the agenda for this eCircle, and who recommended Greg as a conversation partner for this present subtopic, which has proven to be an excellent recommendation): “While Dr. Heie speaks of political opponents coming together to discover a common good, I prefer, together with Luke Bretherton, to speak of diverse communities coming together to make a common life.”

I now embrace Greg’s broader view of the meaning of politics because it captures the full scope of political engagement that includes BOTH my “conversational” focus AND a broader view of what it means “do justice” in the political realm.

If readers accept my proposal for a both/and approach, what do Greg and I, and all our readers, need to give more thought to in preparation for future conversations? Five issues requiring further thought come to mind: the relationship between these two means for expressing Christian love; possible “limits” on either expression of love; the appropriate scope of the meaning of “justice”; the scope of what may be considered “political”; and how to address the various structural deficiencies in our American political system.

As to the relationship between these two modes of expressing Christian love, I agree with Greg’s assertion that “When all attempts at persuasion and respectful dialogue have been exhausted, you put on a gas mask, take up a flag, a shield, or a hard banner, and prepare to stand against them [Nazis marching in the streets].” But this leaves unanswered the question as to when you decide that all attempts at respectful dialogue have been “exhausted.” My perception is that all too often attempts at respectful dialogue about contentious political issues have not even been tried, no less “exhausted.” This important question begs for further conversation.

Another huge related question that begs for further conversation is whether there are any “limits” to either expression of Christian love and, if so, what those limits may be. First, consider the possibility that there are limits on pursuing respectful dialogue because the call for such dialogue can be a means of control by those in power, or a way to marginalize those who are left out of the conversation. So, as in the first unanswered question above, when do you say that “something more” than respectful conversation is needed? More conversation is obviously called for, That further conversation will at least begin in the month of November when two conversation partners holding to opposing views will address the subtopic “Are There Limits to Free Speech and Civil Discourse?”

Are there also limits to the “doing justice” mode for expressing Christian love on which Greg has focused? Consider Greg’s example of the potential for “conflict” between workers and their employers, which I quote in full so as not to minimize Greg’s sense of urgency.

… if workers and employers have basically opposing interests, if, as the preamble to the constitution of my union says, “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” then, while the process of making a common life may involve persuasion, it will, surely, involve force as well. Workers will not just attempt to persuade their bosses to pay them a living wage with moral arguments; they will also, often, have recourse to strikes, slowdowns, boycotts, occupations, blockades, sabotage, and all other manner of mass and covert action to force their bosses to comply with their demands. In such a world, in which the common life that people create together is made not only through persuasion, but through conflict as well, Christian love demands that we be militantly partisan for the working class, for colonized people, for racial, religious, and sexual minorities - in short, for the last, the least, and the lost with whom Jesus Christ revealed God’s unwavering solidarity in becoming incarnate in the form of a slave. Christian love in politics will be lived not only at the podium, but on the picket line, not only in televised debates, but through the tear gas and the gall of militant street actions.

Greg’s assertion gives me a lot more to think about. Since I sometimes call myself a “closet Anabaptist” within the Reformed tradition (a theological combination that creates some tensions; while my good friends will tell you that I came out of that closet a long time ago), I am ambivalent about words like “force, conflict and militancy.” It all depends on exactly what you mean by those words. I believe strongly in the importance of “nonviolent resistance,” as was given powerful expression by Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. So, the question arises, at least for me, as to what the appropriate limits are on the use of “force” in seeking to “do justice.” That question is not specifically addressed in my eCircle, as currently designed, but it calls for considerable further conversation in some appropriate venue.

A third area that begs for further conversation is the scope of the meaning of “justice.” In my “conversational” focus justice requires that all voices be included, especially those marginalized populations that have been systematically excluded from conversations that could have a significant effect on their well-being. Greg’s focus on “doing justice” clearly places emphasis on fostering the flourishing of the poor, oppressed and marginalized in our society. But there may be more to the multi-faceted meaning “justice.” Greg gives us place to start thinking about this when he talks, more than I do, about the “importance of institutions”. 

For example, what does it mean to “do justice” to the non-governmental institutions of our civil society, such as families, businesses, churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, unions, journalistic outlets, service organizations, professional organizations and other voluntary associations such as the PICO National Networks that organize religious congregations to drive change in their neighborhoods on issues of issues of racial, and immigrant justice? I know that at least one of the conversation partners will address this question in the December conversation on “the Notion of Politics.” That conversation will no doubt also continue, and expand, the conversation that Greg and I have initiated about what politics, “at its best,” should be about.

A fourth issue that needs to be talked about further, closely related to the third issue above, is the scope of activities that can be considered to be “political.” Is politics more than what the political parties do? What about the efforts of the many non-governmental institutions noted above whose citizen-led initiatives are clearly political in nature (in the broad sense of seeking to forge a flourishing common life together)? These questions will surely be addressed in the January 2018 conversation on “Party Politics and Beyond,” as well is in the closing June 2018 conversation that will provide case studies about how two churches and one para-church organization have, or have not, engaged in political activities. 

Finally, much more conversation is needed to address the structural deficiencies in our current political system. Not being a political scientist the best I could do was to point to what I perceive to be some of those deficiencies, such as closed primaries, gerrymandering of voting districts, and the inordinate role of financial support from donors at the extreme ends of the political spectrum. Greg expresses appreciation for my at least pointing to these structural problems, saying that we need to create “just institutions.” But how can that be done? When I read books like It’s Worse Than It Looks (by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein), I get depressed about the possibility of ever effecting positive structural changes in our political system, due to the existence of so many vested interests. 

Much more conversation is needed to address these huge and apparently intractable structural problems. The February 2018 conversation on “The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics” will include some of the broader conversation that is needed. My own sense is that such future conversations need to address a common characteristic of most, if not all, of these structural problems: the “hollowing out of the middle” caused by favoring the extreme elements of both parties. For politicians and their supporters at the extremes, it is too often “my way or the highway.” There is a notable lack of that modicum of humility required to acknowledge that those on the other side of the aisle may actually have some good ideas that can be incorporated into bipartisan legislation; another example of the need for both/and thinking rather than either/or thinking.

In conclusion, what has emerged in my conversation with Greg is something I could have never predicted, again exemplifying my claim that you cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation. But another unpredictable surprise may emerge out of a conversation I will eventually have with myself. That will take some explaining.

As in my last two eCircles, after this eCircle is completed, I hope to publish a book that attempts to capture the highlights of the ten monthly conversations in  a way that does not gloss over disagreements. As before, the way I will be proceeding is that during the month following each month-long conversation I will write a first draft of a book chapter, which I will send to the conversation partners for that month for their review and comments. Then for the next few months after June 30, 2018, I will try to make coherent sense of it all in a book manuscript. What will emerge from that conversation with myself is unpredictable. Given the five upcoming monthly eCircle conversations noted above, as well as what could emerge from the other remaining three conversations (about some “hot-button” current political issues), it is conceivable that the scope of my ten conversations will have expanded so much that the tentative title of a forthcoming book will change from “Reforming Political Discourse” to “Reforming American Politics.” How audacious is that? 

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Reader Comments (1)

Coming from a life experience of visual expression as a painter, Greg's emphasis toward communication and dialog as physical action, involving space and place validates my mode of discourse and dialog.
All the arts by their nature of individuals working singly or collaboratively to reveal truth about creation satisfies Greg's requirement of diversity and individual freedom of expression.
Yes. there is a qualifying context of aesthetic integrity and artists do disparage each others efforts. Yet they also seem to unify against the high priest of art the critics.
When art speaks truth the strongest critics and sometime censors seem to be institutions of the kind cited by Greg. That is because art is a very powerful activity of human expression able to breach the confines of those who own political language and the people who act on their behalf.
Counterintuitively artist are pragmatic and often devise mean of public visual discourse such as so called graffiti or unsanctioned imagery in the public view.

Is the above and example of civil discourse that has any effectiveness on the 'owners of political speech' as described by Greg? Would Greg give credence to this active voice from the culture of the marginalized and oppressed to the ears of those who own the political voice?
In my experience it has at times begun a civil dialog. But I would not expect it to transform the political language of power.

October 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRein Vanderhill

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