America After Donald Trump

This Musing will appear as an Addendum in a book I have written that will be published by Cascade Books in the Spring of 2021. Therefore, you will find references to various chapters in that book, which is tentatively titled “Let’s Talk: Bridging Divisive Lines Though Inclusive Respectful Conversations.”

I wrote this concluding addendum to my book shortly after the Associated Press declared that Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.  I am assuming that the courts will not find sufficient merit in the lawsuits being filed in various states by Trump’s lawyers to overturn this result

In the reflections that follow, I will first explain why I am pleased with this election result. I will then present my vision for the future of America, starting with the presidency of Joe Biden. A critical distinction that will inform all of my reflections is between the “ends” one hopes to accomplish through the political process (the goals of one’s political agenda) and the political “means” one uses to seek to accomplish one’s desired ends. For reasons that will eventually become apparent, I start with the issue of “means.”

Contrasting Modes of Political Engagement

One important aspect of the means you choose to seek to accomplish a desired political end is the manner in which you engage those who disagree with you about the desirability of that end.

It is gross understatement to say that Donald Trump and Joe Biden take different approaches to engaging with those who disagree with them about the desirability of any given political end.

Donald Trump typically vilifies those who disagree with him, by means of numerous tweets and interviews; often resorting to nasty name-calling and demonization. In doing so, he has played to the fears and resentments of his base and has sowed deep divisions among American citizens.

In stark contrast, Joe Biden’s past political experience and his promise for the future point to his respect for those who disagree with him; which motivates his desire to build bipartisan bridges between those on opposite sides of the political aisle who have significant disagreements about any given political issue (recognizing, of course, that whether Biden can succeed in building such bridges remains to be seen – more about that later).

Why does this distinction in the means for engaging political opponents matter? Speaking first from my Christian perspective, it matters to me because Trump’s manner of engagement is clearly antithetical to my understanding of the loving way in which Jesus calls Christians to engage those who disagree with them. As I have said many times in this book, I believe that a deep expression of the love of neighbor to which Jesus calls all Christians is to create a safe and welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express that disagreement; followed by respectful conversation about the substance of the disagreement. I have seen absolutely no public evidence that President Trump ever practiced this deep expression of love of neighbor during his four years as our President.

Of course, not all Americans have made a commitment to the Christian faith. But it is my belief that this loving way of engaging those who disagree with you is an expression of our shared humanity, whatever religious or secular worldview one may be committed to.

But my concern about Donald Trump’s vilification of those with disagree with him runs deeper than what I have just said. During the course of history, such vilification of political opponents has often been the first step away from democratic forms of governance to dictatorships. There is irrefutable evidence that Donald Trump has authoritarian, dictatorial tendencies that, if unchecked, could lead to the unraveling of democracy in America.[1] (witness his continuous assault on the checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government that our Founding Father’s had the wisdom to establish).

My primary reason for applauding the election of Joe Biden is my rejection of the vitriolic means that Donald Trump uses to engage those who disagree with him and my hope that the welcoming of dissent approach that I believe Joe Biden will bring to his presidential duties will preserve the messy democratic process of doing politics in America.

But that conclusion on my part is based only on consideration of the starkly contrasting means that Trump and Biden have chosen to engage those who disagree with them. What about the political ends that Biden will pursue and that Trump would have pursued had he been re-elected?

Consideration of contrasting political ends surely makes things more complicated; as witnessed to by the fact that in the local small group conversation about the Trump presidency that I recently hosted (that I reported on in chapter 7), all the conversation partners agreed that the way in which President Trump engages his political opponents does not measure up to their Christian standards for lovingly engaging others. But, for the four Trump supporters who participated in this conversation, this deficiency in the means Trump has chosen to do politics is outweighed by the political ends he has accomplished, which they view as being consistent with their Christian values. Therefore, I must now address the thorny issue of the nature and significance of the contrasting political ends embraced by Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Contrary Beliefs About Political Ends

The substantive political issues about which Christians in America, and all other citizens, disagree are legion, including climate change, foreign trade policies, abortion, relationships with other countries, justice for all races and other people groups relative to opportunities and social benefits (the list goes on).

To illustrate the complexity of the diversity of beliefs in our pluralistic society about any contentious issue, here are some snippets of the sharply contrasting beliefs about abortion that were expressed in the local small-group Trump Conversation that I recently hosted.

On the one hand, for one Trump supporter, a total ban on abortion at any time during a pregnancy was the only position consistent with biblical values. Therefore, her support of Trump in 2016 appeared to be based primarily on her belief that if Trump was elected President, he would advocate for the appointment of Supreme Court justices who would overturn the allowing for “abortion on demand” of Roe vs. Wade, in sharp contrast to the “abortion on demand” position that she attributed to Hillary Clinton and, erroneously, to “all” Democrats.

In sharp contrast, other participants in the Trump conversation, including but not limited to Democrats, took a more nuanced position. While no participant embraced an “abortion on demand” position, some took the position that there may be tragic cases where an abortion is morally legitimate, such as a case where medical experts judge that a tragic moral choice must be made between saving the life of the mother and saving the life of the fetus. These dissenters to the “total ban on abortion” position also argued that a comprehensive and consistent “pro-life” position cannot limit itself to the “single issue” of protecting life before birth. Rather, attention must also be given to ensuring a high quality of life from the cradle to the grave.

In our Trump conversation, we did not resolve these stark disagreements about abortion. But we at least created a safe and welcoming space for these disagreements to be expressed and we got beyond the unloving tactic on vilifying those who disagreed with us. In fact, as reported in chapter 7, we came to acknowledge and respect the deep Christian commitment of those who disagreed with us about this hot-button issue, which was no small accomplishment.

So, what is my point? My point, as you may guess from the rest of this book, is that the way to begin sorting through the starkly different beliefs that American citizens hold about desirable political ends is to create safe and welcoming spaces to talk respectfully to one another about our disagreements, with the hope that this arduous process will uncover some common ground. This utopian dream of mine certainly precludes the apparently automatic way which Donald Trump immediately vilifies those who disagree with him, and keeps alive my hope that the respectful way in which Joe Biden engages those who disagree with him will lead to a promising future for American democracy.

This concludes my major reasons for applauding the election of Joe Biden as our next President. But before proceeding with a possible cogent objection to what I have just said, I need to present two additional reasons for my being pleased with the election of Joe Biden that focus on what I believe indisputable evidence suggests are two major flaws in both the character and presidential performance of Donald Trump that stand in stark contrast with Joe Biden.[2]

First, I believe that President Trump has exhibited extreme incompetence in his exercise of presidential duties, especially in his handling of the caronavirus pandemic.

There is irrefutable evidence, in his own words to Bob Woodward, that President Trump was aware of the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic shortly after it entered America and he chose to downplay the threat rather than to vigorously address it. The result of such incompetence has been a staggering number of deaths; a significant percentage of which could have been avoided had Trump taken appropriate action recommended by public health officials to contain the spread of the virus

Secondly, I believe that President Trump has exhibited a major character flaw in his inability to be truthful. On a personal level, I find this character flaw to be particularly troublesome because  the primary value that has motivated my work over many years as a Christian educator has been the quest for truth.

The documented lies that Trump has told are legion. The most egregious recent lie has been his assertion that the virus is “disappearing” at a time when all the evidence points to a staggering increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths ss the winter months approach. The magnitude and destructiveness of this lie are astonishing.

Of course, the question remains as to whether President Biden will do better relative to these two problems with the Trump presidency. I am optimistic for two reasons. Despite an occasional gaffe or two in his public statements, Biden is committed to telling the truth and when he discovers that he is wrong.in his understanding of that truth, he, unlike Trump, is willing to admit his error and adjust accordingly.

Relative to competence, I perceive a major contrast. Donald Trump has suggested that he “knows  everything about everything” (my paraphrase of his exact words) and, therefore, the legislative branch of government should just do what he thinks needs to be done. In stark contrast, Joe Biden gives evidence of commitment to the collaborative form of leadership that I believe is the most effective leadership (see chapter 5), characterized by a willingness to learn from others and work together with others in a way that leads to sone common ground that reflects the best insights and gifts of everyone.

A Major Objection: The Political Ends that President Trump has Accomplished Comport with Christian Values

As already noted, the Trump supporters in my Trump conversation agreed that the way in which President Trump vilifies those who disagree with him is antithetical to Christian beliefs. Yet they support him. Why? Because they believe that what he has accomplished is consistent with Christian beliefs and priority must be given to those accomplishments.

Using the distinction between means and ends, the argument of these Christian supporters of Trump is essentially that the means that Trump has used, even if antithetical to the Christian faith, can be justified because of the good ends, from a Christian perspective, that these means have accomplished. This presents a major objection to my claim, above, that the unchristian  manner in which Trump vilifies those who disagree with him (one aspect of his chosen political means) disqualifies supporting him, however much one may argue that ends that he has accomplished are good in light of Christian values.

To make this more concrete, introducing the distinction between “good” and “evil.” consider the argument that these Trump supporters make relative to “abortion on demand.” They consider abortion on demand to be an evil that must be overcome. And overcoming this evil must take priority even if the means for doing so requires using another form of evil; the vilifying of political opponents.

Of course, this then raise the crucial prior question of whether a good end (from a Christian perspective) ever justifies an evil means (from a Christian perspective). The answer I find in Scriptures is “no.”

Consider Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (emphasis mine). This exhortation seems totally unrealistic; even outrageous. But that is what this passage of scripture teaches.

I can anticipate the following response to this biblical teaching: Trying to overcome the evil in America by “doing good” will not work. We Christians must protect Christianity in America from evil by whatever means we think will work.

My response to this response centers on the words “protect Christianity.” Are you saying “God needs Donald Trump to protect Christianity in America?” May I be so bold as to suggest that if you say that phrase to yourself over and over again, you will eventually see how ludicrous it is. Is your God so small that God must resort to using Donald Trump to protect Christianity in America?

Another way to look at this response of mine is to return to a meddlesome section in chapter 5 where I call into question the tendency of many Christians to seek “’power” within American culture. Christians who seek such “power” must give serious consideration to the response that Jesus gave to the temptation the devil presented to him in the wilderness, as recorded in Matthew 4: 8-10.

…The devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “all these I will give to you if you will fall down and worship me. Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan, for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and only him shall you serve’.”

Jesus rejected an amazing offer of “power,” opting for a different kind of power, the “power of love.”

America After Donald Trump

It is the “power of love” that animates my hope for the future of America after Donald Trump

I see glimpses of the power of love in the self-giving service to others in dire need provided in response to the coronavirus pandemic: The services of front-line doctors and nurses, often provided at great personal risk; The services of first-responders, like EMT workers and fire fighters; the services of essential workers, like those driving delivery  trucks and stocking the shelves of grocery stores; and the numerous little acts of kindness, like singing to neighbors from balconies and holding signs expressing love to those behind closed windows in nursing homes.

But it is difficult to detect examples of the power of love in the hyper-partisan polarized world of American politics. The vilification of political opponents perpetuated by President Trump and his loyalists in the executive branch of government is the opposite of love. And while I applaud the first stimulus package approved by the legislative branch, the failure to find common ground across the aisle for a second stimulus package is tragic..

How should Christians respond to this current brokenness in American politics? As I proposed in chapter 4, three responses are possible: domination, withdrawal and conversation. Recall my  rejection of the domination strategy since our Founding Fathers had the wisdom to establish a form of governance where proponents of diverse worldview beliefs, religious or secular, have an equal voice in legislating the laws of the land.

I must acknowledge that the current hyper-partisan, polarized, dysfunctional nature of current American politics makes “withdrawal” from politics a tempting option for Christians and all other American citizens. But I reject this option for Christians because of my deep conviction that God wishes to redeem all dimensions of life here on earth, including the apparently irredeemable realm of politics.

This leaves me the with the “conversation” model for doing politics that I proposed in chapter 4. Recall that the basis for my proposing this model is my commitment to a number of Christian values: Love is foremost, but these Christian values also include humility, courage, respect, truth, justice, patience and hope. And my proposal for political discourse in the political realm included the following three exhortations:

 

  • Develop personal relationships of mutual understanding and trust with those with whom you have political disagreements.
  • Listen carefully to those who disagree with you about political issues (as a deep expression of love) and, when you adequately understand their reasons for their positions, engage them in respectful conversation about your agreements and disagreements toward the goal of finding some common ground and illuminating remaining disagreements.
  • Reach across the political aisle or dining room table to seek both/and positions that reflect the best insights of those on both sides of the aisle or table.

 

 

A common theme in these three exhortations is the need for bipartisanship in doing politics. That focus has been at the forefront of my personal political endeavors since 2008. And, As you will soon see, it is the centerpiece of my vision for a political future for America after Donald Trump.

It was in the summer of 2008 that I agreed to serve as a local Precinct Captain for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama.[3] I assumed this responsibility because of Obama’s stated commitment to take a bipartisan approach to doing politics.

How well did Obama live up to his promise of a bipartisan approach to doing politics? The results were mixed. My perception is the main reason for these mixed results was the intransigence of a highly polarized and hyper-partisan Congress.[4]

Despite the mixed results of President Obama’s attempts to be bipartisan, my hope for the political future of America is that President Biden will experience some significant success at bipartisanship, remembering that genuine bipartisanship must seek to unite the entire country, not just the Democratic party. Therefore, the monumental task facing President Biden includes his BOTH listening to and learning from the best insights of those Democrats who are “left” of him on the political spectrum (e.g., Bernie Sanders) AND those Democrats and Republicans who are “right” of him on that spectrum.

But Biden can’t make bipartisanship in politics happen all by himself. He made this abundantly clear in his President-Elect acceptance speech on November 7. In stark contrast to the “I” talk  that permeated President Trump’s pronouncements over the past four years, Biden focused on “We” talk: “We have to do this together” – a clarion call for bipartisanship in politics.

But is there a Christian basis for promoting bipartisanship? Absolutely! Here is where a Christian vision stands in stark contrast to the hyper-individualism that is so prominent in American culture. When the Apostle Paul calls on Christians to emulate Jesus, as recorded in Philippians 2:4, he says “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” That is “We” talk, not ”I” talk.

Since President Trump has sown fears, divisions and animosities that feed on “I” talk and will not be easily healed, my dream of bipartisanship seems like utopian wishful thinking; an ideal that is beyond the real world of polarized American politics. It would surely be a remarkable exemplification of the “power of love,” I can only envision it happening through the eyes of faith.


[1] It is ironic and tragic that President Trump did not exercise his dictatorial tendencies when he should have right after the coronavirus arrived in America. He should have made use of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to mandate the production of needed medical supplies (e.g., Personal Protective Equipment (PDEs) and Incubators) and he should have issued a national mandate for the use of scientifically proven means for minimizing the spread of covid-19 (e.g., the wearing of face masks and the practice of social distancing).

[2] For reflections from 30 evangelical Christians on the presidency Of Donald Trump, see Sider. Spiritual Danger.

[3] A major portion of my responsibilities as a local Precinct Captain was to canvas local neighborhoods, knocking on doors to advocate for candidate Obama. I did that for about 3-4 hours each Saturday for about 8 weeks. Being an introvert by nature, I didn’t look forward to these Saturdays. But, in general, I was pleasantly surprised by what happened.  Most notably, I discovered that a number of residents of Sioux County who invited me into their homes were polite and open to listening to my pitch for Obama (some of them even confessed to being “closet” supporters of Obama – feeling the need to “stay in  the closet” – before I talked with them – because of the ultra-conservative nature of Sioux County – a county that was reported at the time to be the second most politically conservative county in America; with first place going to some county in Texas). The one exception to this generally good canvasing experience came when a resident of Rock Valley ran me off his lawn. Fortunately, I could run faster than him.

 

[4] One example of such intransigence was the failure of Congress to take legislative action relative to the status of those DACA recipients known as “Dreamers, which led Obama to take a much disputed “Executive Action” to allow undocumented immigrants who came to America as Children to stay.

Not Voting is Your Worst Possible Choice

Since I plan on voting for Joe Biden in the upcoming presidential election, my first target audience for this reflection consists of those citizens who consider themselves to be “progressives”; having supported Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the early primaries.

Having talked with a number of such “progressives,” I sense that many citizens who situate themselves in that category are thinking of not voting because they will not vote for President Trump and they don’t believe Joe Biden is progressive enough to warrant their support. I will now unpack why I think such a decision by these progressives “not to vote” is a bad idea.

I believe I understand the reasons these progressives have for not wanting to vote. They are strong proponents of the progressive agendas advanced by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and they do not wish to settle for the “less progressive” agenda that would likely emerge under a Joe Biden presidency.

But such reasoning misunderstands the nature of the messy world of politics. Since there are always strong proponents on both sides of any contentious public policy issue, politicians and citizens will seldom “get all that they want.” They will typically have to settle for only a portion of the legislation they consider to be optimal. The result of not being willing to settle for less than all that you want is that you may well get nothing of what you want.

Therefore, those progressives who decide not to vote because their “ideal” cannot be realized in the messy world of politics have abdicated the doing of politics to their political opponents and will have to live with what they will surely consider to be unsatisfactory political outcomes. And if enough progressives decide not to vote in the upcoming election, the unintended consequence may well be another four years of a Trump presidency, which, in my estimation, could do irreparable damage to Democracy in America.

But my encouragement to vote in the upcoming presidential election is not limited to citizens, like me, who plan on voting for Joe Biden. Whoever you favor to serve the next four years as our President, you need to express that by voting. The only way to cut through all the nonsense, misinformation and nastiness that currently dominates political discourse is for “we the people” to decide, collectively, who should serve as President for the next four years. And that can only happen if the overwhelming majority of us decide to vote.

Harold Heie, Orange City

Peaceful Protestors are not Vandals

This Musing was published as a Letter to the Editor in the August 13, 2020 issue of the Sioux County Capital Democrat. 

I am writing to express strong disagreement with the assertion by Bonnie Reinders that the Democratic party “calls riots peaceful protests” and “justifies vandalism and violence in our cities.”

Bonnie fails to acknowledge a clear and indisputable distinction between two groups of people who have been out on the streets, in Portland and numerous other cities in America, including Orange City, where about 400 local residents participated in a peaceful Partnership for Justice march.

To be sure, a small minority of protestors, representing unacceptable extremes on both the political right and political left, have been vandals. Those in Portland who have damaged a Federal building have clearly broken the law and should be held accountable. I agree completely with President Trump that they should be punished in accordance with the laws of the land.

But what saddens me is that President Trump has ignored the central issue raised by the vast majority of those out on the streets; those who are nor breaking any laws, but are exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly to peacefully protest the prominence of racial discrimination and racial inequalities in America; persistent problems rooted in America’s original sin of slavery.

President Trump’s silence on this pressing question is deafening. How does one explain such silence? John Bolton, former National Security Advisor to President Trump, presents one response to this question in his book The Room Where It Happened, when he says that he is “hard pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my [Bolton’s] tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations” (485).

President Trump is building his hopes for re-election on sowing division between the races (and elsewhere) that feeds on fear and resentment rather than building the unity that is needed if America is ever to become a truly multi-racial democracy.

So, I, a registered Democrat, do not call riots peaceful protests and I do not justify vandalism and violence in our cities. But, based on my understanding of the Christian values of love for neighbor and justice, I do embrace the need for racial equality and I applaud all those who peacefully gather to promote this noble end. It is my hope that the fact that President Trump has done nothing to foster that desirable goal, but has stood in its way every chance that he gets, will be a decisive factor for citizens on both sides of the political aisle when they vote before or after November 3.

Note carefully that I am not basing my support of the quest for racial equality on the platforms of either major political party. My starting point when considering public policy issues is not what my political party says. Rather, I dig down deep to my understanding of the Christian values to which I am committed, which include love for neighbor and justice.

I Will Listen to Your Pain

The first step that led to my commitment to listen to the pain of others came when no one was willing to listen to my pain.

It was in the summer of 1993 when I was called into the office of the President of Messiah College (PA) and was told that my services as Vice President for Academic Affairs was being terminated immediately because of my “lack of deference to the President and Board of Trustees.” From my perspective, the reason for my being fired  was that my collaborative leadership style was diametrically opposed to the command-and-control style of the President and Board.

A bruhaha resulted amongst my faculty. In an attempt to calm the troubled waters, the Board solicited the services of a mediator, who, I was told, talked to a lot of people, but never talked to me.

How could that be since it was my firing that led to the turmoil? The pain of being fired was amplified significantly by the fact that this mediator was not willing to listen to my side of the story; not willing to listen to my pain. I had been silenced.

But then, much to my surprise, I found a Trustee who was willing to listen to my pain. Or, more accurately, he found me.

That happened one sunny morning a few months after my firing when this Trustee, who was not involved in the decision to terminate my employment, showed up, unannounced, at my door in Dillsburg. His first words to me were “Harold, I want to hear your side of the story.”

These few words were a marvelous gift. Finally, a person in authority invited me to share my pain, with a commitment to listening. I cannot find words to adequately express the joy this kind gesture brought to me. Although it did not change the outcome, a sense of peace washed over me. It was something like coming across an oasis on a desert journey. As he left my home that morning, I knew that, at long last, because I had been listened to, I had been loved.

Since that experience over 26 years ago, I have aspired to listen to the pain of others, primarily by means of attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements about contentious issues. The reason that listening to the pain of others is foundational for navigating such disagreements is that if you are willing  dig beneath the surface to uncover the reasons a person has taking a particular position on a given issue, you will often uncover a deep experience of pain, amplified by an unwillingness on the part of others to listen to that pain.

For example, there are many Christian members of the LGBT community who have experienced the great pain of being rejected by their families, friends or churches, or who have been relegated to second-class citizenship by being silenced within the Christian institutions or organizations, such as some Christian colleges, with which they are associated. And this pain of rejection or being second-class citizens has been amplified many times over by the refusal of other brothers and sisters in Christ to first listen to their stories of pain and then refusing to listen to the ways in which they also aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus.

Stories of heartbreaking pain now fill the airways; stories that make my story of pain pale by comparison. Precipitated by the brutal murder of George Floyd by policemen in Minneapolis, we hear, once again, of the police brutality, racism, discrimination and unjust inequalities in areas such as housing, health care and educational opportunities that cause considerable pain for black Americans. The root of many of these abuses can be traced back to the founding of our nation because of America’s original sin of slavery.

So, are there any lessons that we will finally learn? Three possibilities come to mind, all related by the common need to listen well to the pain of others.

First, as politicians struggle in the quest for adequate legislative responses to this persistent abuse of black Americans, they must not just talk “about” the problems that black Americans continue to experience, they must talk “with” black Americans, and the place to start that conversation is to listen to their stories of pain. For the last few weeks, peaceful protestors across the country have been pleading with the political class: “We need to be heard”; “You need to start listening  to our pain.” This plea has come not just from black Americans, but also from  Americans of various races and ethnicities who stand in solidarity with members of the black community.

Secondly, for those politicians and citizens who claim to be followers of Jesus, they need to be reminded of the central call of Jesus to love others and the pivotal truth that you don’t love someone who you have silenced. If you truly love someone, you will want to listen to their stories of pain. Creating a safe and welcoming space for someone to honestly share what is on their minds and hearts. including their stories of pain, is a deep expression of love.

Thirdly, I share a recommendation to those readers who have been following on this website my various attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among those who have strong disagreements, based on a change I would now make in my “Trump conversation” if I could do that all over again.

A good aspect of my Trump conversation is that I did not allow the four Trump supporters and four non-Trump supporters to jump directly into the fray by laying bare their disagreements. Rather, we started our conversations by “getting to know one another” in a non-confrontational way by addressing questions like “Why are you here?”; “What do you hope to get out if this conversation?”

I had hoped that my conversation partners would respond to these questions by drawing on their personal stories. But few of them did so. I should have been more directive in my instructions for this initial session together. For those  readers who may decide to replicate my Trump conversation or who would like to initiate a small group conversation about any other contentious issue, such as endemic racism, I recommend the following Leading Question for your first session: What aspects of your personal story, including your experiences of pain, draw you to this conversation? And initiators of such conversations must include as conversation partners those for whom the issue is not theoretical; those whose life stories will reveal the great pain they have experienced.

Jesus Would Approve: Serving Others During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic is ubiquitous. Much of this coverage focuses on the respective roles of politicians at both the federal and state governments in addressing this crisis, a topic for a possible musing at a later date.In this musing, I will focus on those media reports that are often reserved for the end of newscasts; reports about the on-the-ground heroes among us.

I am encouraged and moved to tears by the media reports on those many citizens, irrespective of political affiliation, who are actively serving fellow Americans in dire need. These heroic Americans include doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners serving Covis-19 victims in hospitals, emergency rooms and  nursing homes, often putting themselves in danger while doing so; persons volunteering at food pantries seeking to provide adequate food supplies for those who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic; those working in grocery stores; those providing delivery services of food and other necessary goods; those first responders, such as paramedics, policemen and firefighters; those participating in drive-by birthday celebrations or singing to their neighbors from their apartment balconies; those making encouraging telephone calls to elderly friends who are house-bound; those providing for the education of the children of America by means of virtual learning; and those parents caring for their children round-the-clock at home. The list could go on.

What is it that motivates such heroism? Each such hero will have to give a personal response. My sense is that in times of crisis, what comes to the fore, in the minds of many citizens, if not always in the political class, is a fresh realization that human beings are meant to care for one another; they are not isolated individuals who seek only their personal good. And those heroes demonstrate that special attention needs to be paid to addressing the needs of those who are less fortunate than they are; persons who are often marginalized in our society.

Jesus would certainly approve. For when he was asked about who would “inherit the Kingdom [of God]” he pointed to those who did the following:

… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was  stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me  (Matthew 25:35-36).

When those who heard Jesus speak this parable couldn’t comprehend how these acts of kindness toward others were also acts directed toward Jesus, he added that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (v. 40).

News reports about these modern-day heroes say little, if anything, about the religious or secular faith commitments that may motivate their caring so deeply for the well-being of others. I am guessing that these commitments are quite varied since a number of views about the ultimate nature of reality (what have been called “worldviews”) embrace the obligation to care deeply for our fellow human beings.

As a professing Christian, which I take to most fundamentally mean that I aspire to be a follower of Jesus, I must confess that I do not always live up to the Matthew 25 ideal of caring for the well-being of others, especially those who are less fortunate and marginalized. At the same time, I am dismayed at the large number of professing Christians who no longer embrace this ideal. It is as if they skipped Matthew 25 in their Bible reading.

From my recent conversations with such professing Christians, I can only surmise that they have become captive to the values of hyper-individualism that pervade American culture, often falling captive to their political affiliation. They appear to embrace the unbiblical view that “freedom” means exclusively pursuing your own personal goals, as long as your doing so does not impede others from doing likewise.

In sharp contrast, if one calls into question the dominant individualistic cultural values in American society by digging down deep to Christian values, the concept of “freedom” is defined in communal terms. Our freedom should be expressed in service to others rather than as an “opportunity for self-indulgence” (see Galatians 5:13).

This is not to present a false choice between “individualism” and “community,” properly understood. Human beings are both individuals and social beings living in various communities. So, each professing Christian must strike a proper balance between pursuing personal goals and caring deeply for members of the communities in which they live. My perception is that too many who profess to be followers of Jesus have succumbed to a severe imbalance that ignores the teachings of Matthew 25 and Galatians 5.

So, Jesus and I (placing myself in good company) applaud the many modern-day heroes who are caring deeply for others (neighbors and those they don’t even know) during the perilous coronavirus pandemic with which we are all struggling.

Christians Viewing Reality Through Western World or Global South Lenses: A Two-Way Conversation

It is indisputable that Christianity, as practiced by the institutional church, is thriving in the global south (centered in Africa, Latin America and Asia), where the majority of Christians now live, and is declining precipitously in the western world, especially among those many millennials in America who now designate their religious affiliation as “none.”

Given that reality, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, in his excellent book Future Faith, calls Christians in the Western World to listen carefully to their brothers and sisters in Christ in the global south about their views regarding the Christian faith that are at odds with dominant Western Views.

I heartily agree with Granberg-Michaelson’s call for such careful listening on the part of those of us who inhabit the Western World. At the same time, a careful reading of his book points to the need for a two-way conversation open to the possibility that residents of these two worlds have much to learn from each other. Granberg-Michaelson calls for this two-way conversation when he indicates his “hope and trust that it [his book] may start a conversation” (4). In what follows, I will elaborate on four elements of such a needed two-way conversation pointed to by Granberg-Michaelson, concluding my consideration of each element with a proposal for a specific “leading question” to get the conversation started.

ME FOR THE COMMUNIUTY OR THE COMMUNITY FOR ME: Granberg-Michaelson  accurately points to the excesses of individualism in America where an inordinate focus is on the rights of individual members who “then make agreements and social contracts for how best to preserve those rights” (111). As an extreme expression of such individualism, Granberg-Michaelson points out that Ayn Rand “took individualism to such extremes that selfishness became a virtue, dismissing altruism And self-sacrifice and advocation a radical laissez-faire capitalism free of any government interference” (112, 113).

What is clearly missing from such hyper-individualism is recognition that “we are social beings, and collectively we decide – through various political processes – how best to secure the rights of all who belong to a shared community” (111,112). And to talk exclusively about “rights” is to ignore the possibility that “rights” and accompanied by “responsibilities” toward other members of the various communities in which we are embedded.

Granberg-Michaelson accurately notes that “when Jesus calls people to follow him, he calls them into a community and not to private individualistic fulfillment” (114); and he, therefore, expresses appreciation for the fact that “Non-Western cultures … often begin with the primacy of the community, stressing the values of belonging and mutual relationships” (49).

But Granberg-Michaelson also notes the potential excesses of a focus on community that contradicts the fact that, in addition to being individuals, we are indeed individuals. He notes in particular the extreme of Marxist ideology which “declared that all supposed individualism was an illusion since the real destiny and circumstances of working people were completely controlled by those who owned the means of production” (112).

In light of the above, it appears to me that “me for the community” or “the community for me” is a false choice in the sense that both statements contain some elements of truth, but neither statement captures the whole truth.  It is not “either/or,” it is “both/and.” And, as for all both/and positions, the primary need is to create a proper “balance” between two positions that become untenable when taken to their extremes (it being my belief that the extreme views in both the western world and the global south are out of balance).

So, if it is the case that voices from the global south that focus on “me for the community” are more in accord with the teachings of Jesus than voices from the western world that focus on “the community for me” (on which both Granberg-Machaelson and I agree), there are non-extreme elements of  truth in both foci that need to be acknowledged and integrated into a coherent whole.

It appears to me that Granberg-Michaelson agrees with my plea for such integration when he suggests the need for “a healthy political dialogue between the primacy of individual freedom and the responsibilities of upholding the common good  of society” (112).

In that spirit, the first “leading question” that I suggest should be discussed in a two-way conversation between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south is: What is the relationship between my Christian responsibilities as an individual and my Christian responsibilities as a member of a Christian community and other communities?

RATIONAL OR SUPERNATURAL APPROACHES TO KNOWLEDGE: Grandberg-Michaelson describes this contrast between predominant views in the western world and the predominant views in the global south as follows: “Western, Enlightenment culture placed a priority on the mind’s ability to know truth through rational thought and inquiry. … Non-Western cultures often assume that supernatural forces, both good and evil, are the means that unlock knowledge and truth” (50).

Once again, I believe this is a false choice. My elaboration of this belief will not draw extensively on Granberg-Michaelson’s book (although I encourage you to read his helpful insights). Rather, I will draw on the results of my struggles with this apparent dichotomy over many years, which I have reported on in a number of my past writings As you will now see in summary form, my search for a both/and position will embrace elements of both western and non-western thinking.

The version of this apparent dichotomy with which I have struggled has focused on trying to make sense of the relationship between a Christian  saying I have acted in a certain way because it reflects my rational understanding of what the Bible teaches and a Christian making some experience based assertion that sounds like  “I did that because God told me to do it.”

The latter assertion based on intense religious experience suggests that there can be a “supernatural” source of knowledge based on personal religious experience that is not the result of rational deliberation. Granberg-Michaelson notes that this belief is particularly pronounced in the Pentecostal Christian tradition, where preachers see their “purpose” as “not so much to expound well-reasoned theological truths as it is to incite an intensity of spiritual experience” that “grip[s] one’s whole being and all the senses” (93)

My response to this apparent dichotomy may surprise those readers who know that my formal education is as a scientist. Scientists attempt to capture that portion of reality that is amenable to investigation using the scientific method of testing hypotheses about the nature of observable phenomena. That is an exercise in rationality.

But it is a gross expression of human hubris for a scientist, in his/her role as a scientist, to assert that the portion of reality that the scientist has the method to investigate captures all of reality. Such a narrow view of the scope of reality (called “scientism”), may indeed be true, but its truth, or not, cannot be ascertained using the method of the scientist (that is a “metaphysical” question that I believe (contrary to much scholarly opinion) philosophers/theologians can investigate – which is a topic too complex to address here).

So, I believe there are aspects of reality that are not subject to any scientific or other modes of rational inquiry. And such mysterious aspects of a broad view of reality could include some very strange things, including even “literally hearing a voice from God” (which is how some biblical passages are interpreted); even though I  have never heard such a voice and I believe that, even if such a voice could occur, that is not  the primary means by which God communicates with Christians as to what they should do.

This all points to a possible connection between rational and supernatural approaches to knowledge. I do not take any claim to special knowledge based on reported human experience at face value. Such claims are not self-authenticating. Many atrocities have been committed for years by Christians claiming a direct “experiential pipeline to God.” Any such claim must be tested against adequate understandings of teachings in the Bible as to what does and does not foster God’s redemptive purposes; which “testing” is a form of rational inquiry.

In light of the above reflections, a second “leading question” that I suggest should be discussed in a two-way conversation between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south is: What is the relationship between rational and non-rational claims as to how to live well as a Christian and how can one evaluate such claims?

BELIEFS BASED ON CHRISTIAN VALUES OR CUTURALLY BASED BELIEFS

Given my own efforts to orchestrate respectful conversations among Christians relative to human sexuality issues, on this website and in the book Respectful LGBT Conversations that emerged from that online conversation, I found Granberg-Michaelson’s chapter on “Defeating Divisive Culture Wars” (163-190) especially compelling; helping me to add two new dimensions to my view as to conversations needed regarding this contentious issue.

As a context for the first new dimension, Granberg-Michaelson notes that while such conversations about human sexuality must include consideration of issues like biblical interpretation, which must be “honest” about “the diversity of faithful biblical interpretation” (175), and scientific knowledge (both elements of the conversations I have orchestrated about human sexuality), there are two prior dimensions that need to be addressed: “honesty about faith and culture” and “honesty about the role of politics in the church’s discernment of moral issues” (175). In this section, I will briefly consider this first prior dimension (savig the second dimension for the next section).

Granberg-Michaelson’s accurate claim is that “attitudes in the church toward same-sex relationships are invariably shaped by cultural contexts in any culture. Advocates may sincerely  believe that they are resting on the ‘Bible alone,’ but the Bible is always translated, interpreted, and understood through a particular cultural context. That is true for every Christian” (175-176).

To illustrate this point, Granberg-Michaelson notes the cultural influence on the positions taken relative to same-sex relationships by most of his Korean Christian friends: “Most of my Korean Christian friends … are opposed to any acceptance of same-sex relationships. They also are shaped by a culture where family honor and fidelity to one’s clan is huge value. Transgressing traditional familial expectations form one’s parents, grandparents. relatives, and even ancestors comes with a formidable cost. That doesn’t settle whether the views of my Korean friends are right or wrong, but simply recognizes that those views are held within a cultural context” (175). Grandberg-Michaelson then goes on to describe how “The same is true for African church leaders” (175).

It appears to me that those of us in the western world do not feel as beholden to maintaining fidelity to the views of those who have come before us regarding same-sex relationships (and other moral issues) as Granberg-Michaelson describes for his Christian friends from Korea and Africa. We appear to be more open to exploring the possibility that those who have come before us “got it wrong.”

This points us to another “leading question” that should be discussed in a two-way conversation between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south: For any given moral issue, what is the effect, if any, of the previous positions that Christians in our culture have taken relative to that issue on our understanding of Biblical passages that address that issue?

BELIEFS BASED ON CHRISTIAN VALUES OR POLITICAL AFFILIATION

A second dimension that I should have paid more attention to in my online conversation about human sexuality is embedded in Granberg-Michaelson’s accurate claim that there is a need for more “honesty about the role of politics in the church’s discernment of moral issues” (175).

Granberg-Michaelosn wonders out loud about “why it came to be that relationships between gay and lesbian persons took center stage as the key ethical concern consuming the attention, energy, art ofand focus of much of Christianity in the United States” (180).He accurately asserts that “Part of the reason was simply politics – specifically American politics” (150), noting that “When the Religious Right emerged on the US political scene, traditional ‘family values’ became a rallying cry for support, including opposition in general to affirming the rights of gay and lesbian persons and specifically against any possibility of same-sex marriage being legalized” (180).

Granberg-Michaelson concludes by asserting that “it was not a process of careful biblical reflection, deep theological study, or discerning cultural analysis that primarily motivated the churches’ unending focus on the ethics of same-sex relationships. Instead this was fueled by those who adopted this as a calculated political strategy in the US electoral process” (182).

Once again, as in the above section calling for honesty about cultural influences on Christian beliefs, Granberg-Michaelson is not addressing the question of whether the position of the Religious Right is “right or wrong.” Rather, he is rightfully calling for honesty as to the significant role that politics plays in America in shaping the beliefs of Christians about same-sex relationships.

At this point a reader may ask “What is the problem with letting your political affiliation inform your beliefs about same-sex marriage or any other moral issues?” The problem arises when Christians uncritically embrace the position taken by their political party without asking whether that position actually comports with Christian values. My painful experience in orchestrating some local conversations about public policy issues is that too many Christians embrace the views espoused by their political party without “digging down deep” into their Christian values to ascertain whether the position of their political party fits with those Christian values. As Christians, our positions on public policy issues, and everything else, should be based on our understanding of Christian values.

My knowledge of politics in the global south is almost non-existent. So, I am not in a position to reflect on the influence of politics, if any, in the various countries in the global south on views regarding same-sex relationships. My educated guess is that this influence is significant. But whether that is the case or not could emerge from a two-way conversation between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south around the following “leading question”: What role has your political affiliation played in shaping your views about same-sex relationships (or any other moral issue) and to what extent do these “politically shaped” views comport, or not, with your understanding of Christian values?

Well, as those who have been following the postings on my website know, I am always seeking to formulate some good questions that can be starting points for respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements about contentious issues. Inspired and deeply informed by Granberg-Michaelson’s excellent book Future Faithl, my reflections above suggest four “leading questions” that I believe could be good starting points for future conversations between Christians in the western world and Christians in the global south.

Christian Churches and Colleges Moving from Weak to Strong Views of “Acceptance” and “Peace”

I applaud those church congregations who have made a commitment to the core value of “acceptance.” One such church that I know well has been criticized as the church where “anyone can go.” That should be taken as a compliment.

But I propose two challenges for such “accepting” congregations and for Christian colleges that claim commitment to the Christian value of “acceptance.”

First, it is too easy for the word” acceptance” to be interpreted in a very weak sense as “mere tolerance.” To make this caution more concrete, a church may “accept” both gay and “straight” members, and yet harbor sentiments among some of its members such as “It is OK if those gay Christians worship with us; but once they are given positions of leadership in our church, I’m leaving for another church.” (this is an actual quote from a member of a church that has admirably committed itself to the core value of “acceptance”). Similarly, a Christian college may “accept” gay Christians into their communities, but essentially silence them by not giving their organization “official status,” relegating them to second-class citizenship.

Secondly, it is too easy for a Christian church or college that is committed to a core value of “acceptance” to interpret a related admirable commitment to the value of “peace” in the weak sense of “absence of conflict.” with the effect that those who worship at that church or attend that college “keep the peace” by not talking to each other about their disagreements. After a church service we may talk about the Cubs or the Twins, or the weather or the latest town happenings, but we judiciously avoid talking about controversial issues like same-sex marriage or a hot-button political issue out of fear that such a conversation will harm a friendship.

So, while I applaud Christian churches and colleges that claim commitment to the Christian values of “acceptance” and “peace,” I want to challenge these gatherings of members of the Body of Christ to aspire to attain stronger manifestations of “acceptance” and “peace,” as follows.

First, I believe that the word “acceptance” is too weak since it is too easily interpreted as only “co-existence,” sometimes in the extremely anemic sense of just “putting up with someone.” I prefer the word “embrace.” As a Christian, I should “embrace” every other member of the Body of Christ.

But what does it mean to embrace another? It means that “The other is received as one who is beloved” (James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, 798). I should love everyone because everyone is loved by God. So, I should not just “put up with” the married lesbian couple who attend my church or the gay Christian students who attend my Christian college. Rather, I should “get to know them”; which starts by empathetically listening to their stories of the ways in which they have attempted to be followers of Jesus and the enormous obstacles they have faced during that quest.

Secondly, in a related way, all Christian churches and colleges need to move beyond a weak negative view of “peace” as “absence of conflict” to a strong view of “peace” as “shalom,” a state of affairs where everyone in the church community is flourishing in the midst of their diversity. Once again, such flourishing precludes silencing anyone. Rather, it understands that we will flourish together only if we listen respectfully to each other’s stories of the ways in which we aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus and the differing challenges that we have faced. In other words, we do not flourish when we submerge our disagreements. Rather, we flourish when we get our disagreements out on the table and talk respectfully about them, thereby opening up the possibility of learning from one another.

There is a fundamental premise that underlies my challenge to Christian churches and colleges to move from weak to strong views of “acceptance” and “peace.”  All Christians agree that Jesus calls those who claim to be his followers to love others (Mark 12:31). But too many Christians ignore or violate a particular deep expression of such neighbor-love. My fundamental premise is that to create a safe and welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express that disagreement and to then talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love

Expressing your Christian Beliefs with Deep Conviction, Openness, Gentleness and Respect

Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, points to the rarity of Christians combining deep convictions about their beliefs with gentleness and respect toward those who disagree with them in a fascinating and disturbing reflection on the many sermons he heard during his boyhood days in a Christian Reformed Church in New Jersey on the last two sentences in 1 Peter 3: 15.

 … 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 … (NIV)

Richard’s observation, expressed in a meeting we both attended, was that he had heard many sermons on the first sentence, but he has no recollection of ever hearing a sermon on the second sentence.

This radical example of the penchant of many Christians to tear biblical passages out of their context (within the same verse, mind you) points to the rarity of the combination of commitment and openness. Here is my own elaboration.

The first sentence from 1 Peter 3:15 suggests that Christians should be prepared to state their beliefs with clarity and conviction. That reflects strong commitment to one’s Christian beliefs. So far, so good! But the oft-neglected second sentence suggests how a Christian should state her strong convictions; with “gentleness and respect.” For me this exhortation to be “gentle and respectful” means that at the same time that you state your Christian beliefs with clarity and conviction; you are open to listening to the contrary beliefs of others and then talking respectfully about your agreements and disagreements.

In this day when many Christians succumb to the scourge of tribalism, an us-versus-them mentality that asserts that “me and my people” (e.g., my particular church or Christian tradition) have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but truth about the issue at hand, and “those other folks” possess very little, if any, of that truth, it is all too easy for Christians to embrace commitment, but to eschew “openness.” The rarity of this combination of “commitment” and “openness is the main obstacle to Christians embracing and learning from Christians who worship in “other” churches or Christian traditions.

Before suggesting a strategy for overcoming this obstacle, I will reflect on what I consider to be three root causes of the rarity of effectively combining commitment and openness: a denial of diversity in Christian belief; a desire for prominence and power; and a lack of humility.

Diversity in Christian belief has been prominent since the early days of the Christian church and it is here to stay. Many Christian historians have documented this truth. As Catherine Breckus and Clark Gilpin have cogently pointed out, failure to acknowledge this truth is often driven by a tendency to consider “manyness” a failure and, therefore, to falsely identify your “own part” of the entire Christian tradition “with the whole.”

… Christians usually identify “manyness” as a failure. Christians believe that in the ideal world, the tradition is supposed to be singular, and rather than confronting its plurality, they have usually chosen to identify their own part of it with the whole (American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity, 4)

One major obstacle to combining commitment and openness is the denial of “Christian diversity” that considers “manyness” to be a failure.

A second major obstacle is the tendency for some Christians to submerge or marginalize those from other Christian traditions to maintain prominence and power. It appears to me that some Christians avoid engaging those from other Christian traditions, or those who hold differing beliefs about a given issue, for fear that if they are given a voice, the result could be a diminishment of the current dominance of our tradition, or our particular beliefs about the issue under consideration, or the respectability or prestige or support that our Christian organization has?

In conversations I have had with some prominent Christian leaders related to my focus on giving a voice to everyone and  creating a safe and welcoming space for the expression of disagreement (and from similar conversations that other people have reported to me), I have been saddened by a pattern in responses that in effect asks “What will our constituents or supporters think if that find out we are even talking about such a controversial issue?” Is such a response guided more by adherence to values such as cultural acceptance, admiration, prestige and power than commitment to foundational Christian values like love, courage and the quest for truth? I respectfully suggest that these prominent Christian leaders failed to dig down deep to foundational Christian values?

A third obstacle to combining commitment and openness is a lack of humility. That will take some explanation since the Christian virtue of humility is often misunderstood.

It has been my experience that elements of my biography deeply inform my beliefs, as do other elements of my social location, such as my gender, my race, my sexual orientation and my socio-economic status. The beliefs of someone who disagrees with me about a given issue may be deeply informed by her differing set of particularities that may enable her to see things that I miss; just as my unique 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.” As scripture teaches, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is hubris; 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 the issue at hand. It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that the contrary beliefs of another person may help me to refine my beliefs; possibly improving them, and possibly even correcting them.

Note that such humility does not mean being wishy-washy about your beliefs. Rather, it involves you holding in tension that very rare combination of embracing and expressing your beliefs with clarity and deep conviction at the same time that you publicly acknowledge that you may have only a partial, truncated view of the “whole truth” and you may even be “wrong” about some things.

Both Ian Barbour and Richard Mouw have given eloquent expression to the nature of this rare combination. In his book Myths, Models and Paradigms, Barbour proposes the following 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 (136).

In his splendid book Uncommon Decency, 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 (12).

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.” – Reflections on the Psalms, 28): 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.”

Do we Christians often avoid engaging those from other Christian traditions, or those who hold differing beliefs about a given issue, because we lack that measure of humility required to acknowledge that our finitude and fallibility beg us to engage in conversation with other finite and fallible Christians having differing views of the truth, so that together we may gain a better approximation to the full truth as only understood by God?

Overcoming these three obstacles will be difficult in an age where many Christians have succumbed to the scourge of tribalism. Assuming that by God’s grace these formidable obstacles can be overcome, or at least ameliorated, is there a practical strategy for effectively combining commitment and openness when engaging with those “others” (Christian or otherwise) who disagree with you. I close with a strategy suggested by Richard Mouw

Based on his extensive experience with inter-faith dialogues with Catholic, Jews and Mormons, Mouw has provided excellent advice on how to signal to your conversation partners your openness to listening to their contrary viewpoints as a first step in your conversation. He used to jump right into the fray, telling the other person, in no uncertain terms, why she “is wrong,” which only led to defensiveness. Now he starts by saying to the other person, “help me to understand what it is you believe [about the issue at hand] and your reasons for believing that.”

Mouw found that this way to start the conversation “softens the heart.” As the writer of Proverbs says (15:1), “A soft answer turns away wrath.” I have some first-hand experience that testifies to the wisdom of this way to start a conversation in my many recent attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about hot-button issues. It is wise because when the other person realizes that you are genuinely interested in understanding what she believes and why she holds to those beliefs, she will often reciprocate, leading to the quest for mutual understanding; which, hopefully, can lead to the trust needed to begin sorting through disagreements in the hope of finding some common ground, or, if that doesn’t happen, at least illuminating remaining disagreements sufficient to enable ongoing conversation.

Sitting with Others and Listening

In my recent book Reforming American Politics, I propose 12 steps toward reforming American politics that flow from my commitment to stated Christian values. My first proposal is that before you begin talking about disagreements regarding hot-button political issues, you first need to lay a strong foundation by developing personal relationships of mutual understanding (hopefully leading to trust) with the person with whom you disagree. But how do you do that?

Two persons who have in-depth of experiences respectfully engaging others who do not share their own faith commitments tell us about the way to start in their stellar contributions to the book My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories on Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (Orbis Books, 2012).

Najeeba Syed-Miller, a Muslim practitioner of conflict resolution among communities of ethnic and religious diversity, shares a “basic precept she lives by.”

I must sit with others and listen to them in order to get to know them (p. 110).

Richard Mouw, a Protestant Christian practitioner of respectful engagement with members of the Catholic, Jewish and Mormon faith communities strikes a similar chord.

I have tried to understand people with whom I disagree about important issues, listening carefully to them (p. 116).

My own attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among those who have strong disagreements comport well with the suggestions of Syed-Miller and Mouw.

I have failed miserably when I have allowed those who disagree to prematurely “jump into the fray” (“Here is why you are wrong”).

I have had a modicum of success when I have provided those who disagree with one another a safe space to eventually express and discuss their disagreements by first allowing them to “sit down together” (figuratively in electronic conversations and literally in face-to-face conversations) to listen to one another and openly share their beliefs about the issue at hand and the respective reasons they have for holding to those beliefs.

I have found that by first “sitting with the other and listening well,” the other person’s tendency to be defensive can be overcome (it “softens the heart,” so to speak): “Wow! She actually wants to understand me.” This encourages reciprocity (“I should also seek to understand her”). Hopefully, this reciprocity will establish that level of mutual understanding and trust that must be attained before fruitfully laying bare and discussing disagreements.

A First Step Beyond Postmodernism and Tribalism: A Soft Answer Turns Away Wrath

THE DIFFERING CHALLENGES FROM POSTMODERNISM AND TRIBALISM

Postmodernism is a complex movement that defies an easy description. But one discernible aspect of the movement is to call into question the “universality of Truth.” As the argument goes, we all have our socially constructed views about the “Truth” relative to the matter at hand; but there is no “Truth” (with a capital “T”) that transcends our individual or group “truths” (with a lower-case “t”). This leads to an easy relativism; you have “your truth,” I have “my truth”; there is no point in talking about our “differing truths.”

I spent 40 years serving in the academy, where the merits and demerits of Postmodernism are hotly debated. But since my “retirement” (of sorts), in my attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations regarding contentious hot-button issues, especially political issues, with men and women on main street and the men and women sitting in church pews, my primary challenge has not been postmodernism; it has been quite the opposite.

In brief, most persons outside the halls of institutions of higher education are not conversant with the academic debates regarding postmodernism. And in my many conversations with them, not once have I heard anyone call into question the “universality of truth” that is called into question in Postmodernism.

Quite to the contrary, most of the people I have engaged with in  northwest Iowa hold to the “universality of truth” with a vengeance, by which I mean that whatever hot button issue is being discussed, they believe, with great emotion and passion that there is “Truth”  relative to that issue, and, furthermore, if you want to know what that Truth is, just ask them.

In brief, the challenge I have experienced again and again in engaging such persons is their belief that relative to the hot button issue they and those who agree with them have the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth and “those other folks” who disagree with them do not possess one iota of that Truth, and in its most pernicious form they believe that because those “other folks” are completely wrong, they are evil and need to be demonized. Those “other folks” can be those who attend another church, or those who worship in another religious tradition. those who claim no religious commitment, or, in the political realm, those who belong to that other political party.

Therefore, my experience in the trenches of political conversations in northwest Iowa, especially in numerous conversations I have had about the need for comprehensive immigration  reform, the main challenge has been “tribalism,” an emotionally based “us-versus-them” mentality that believes that me and my group (our tribe) has the complete Truth about the issue at hand, and, therefore, there is nothing to be gained from engaging  “those other folks” in respectful conversations about our disagreements. (the same conclusion reached in Postmodernism, but for a different reason).

The lesson to be learned from this first segment (of three) of my Musing is the need to know your audience. The challenges you may face when attempting to orchestrate respectful conversations about strong disagreements in the academy will differ from those you face on main street or in your church (although, as I will only hint at in my third segment, the “place to start” in addressing these differing challenges may be similar).

A GOOD POSTMODERN INSIGHT

I would like to “put in a good word” for a “soft version” of postmodernism (a friend of mine once called me a “soft postmodernist”). That begs for some explanation.

Whereas I reject a “strong postmodernism” that says that “Truth is a myth,” I believe there is truth in the postmodern assertion that our claims to knowing that Truth are socially conditioned., what has been called “perspectivalism.” Let me briefly elaborate.

As a finite, fallible human being, I do not have the mind of God that gives me access to “Truth” (with a capital “T”) about the issue at hand that may only be known to God  All of us human beings have only partial, fallible glimpses to that Truth, for as is taught in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we all “see through a glass darkly.” So, my partial glimpse of the Truth may differ from yours, reflecting my particular social location. Because of my personal pilgrimage, including my upbringing in a particular religious tradition, my socio-economic class, my gender, my unique experiences in life, I may see things that you miss. And, likewise, because of the unique elements of your personal pilgrimage you may see things that I miss.

Therefore, as we collectively seek to gain a better approximation to the Truth (as only God fully understands it) we need to listen to and talk respectfully to each other, so that we can learn from the particular insights into that Truth that emerge from our respective pilgrimages.

If I am right about that, this has potential implications for one element of how Christian scholars in the academy can engage non-Christin scholars regarding postmodernism (what I called the “Postmodern Opportunity” for “Christians in the Academy” in an article I published in the Winter 1996 issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review)

Briefly put, no one comes from nowhere. Every scholar, whatever his/her religious or secular worldview, has a set of beliefs about the nature of reality and his/her place in that reality, including a set of value commitments. The idea that Christian scholars and other religious scholars bring their value commitments to the academy while secular scholars are “neutral” is nonsense.

If I am right about that, then simple logic demands that all perspectives, religious or secular, should be “out on the table” for discussion on an “even playing field” in the academy.  In their conversations about postmodernism in the academy, Christian scholars should hold their colleagues to that logic.

THE FIRST STEP IN A WAY FORWARD ON MAIN STREET AND IN YOUR CHURCH

I believe that the logic behind my call (immediately above) for an “even playing field” in the academy, where all perspectives regarding postmodernism and its implication for having respectful conversations about strong disagreements can gain a “fair hearing,” is impeccable. But the reality in many institutions of higher education is that this logic is generally ignored; perspectives informed by explicitly religious convictions are generally not welcome. I will leave it to those serving at such institutions of higher education to struggle with how best to address that obstacle. But in the remainder of this Musing, I will outline a “starting point” that I have found, without exception, to be effective in my attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about strong disagreements among persons on main street and sitting in church pews, just hinting at the possibility that this strategy could also be effective as a “starting point” amongst academics who disagree about whether perspectives informed by explicitly religious convictions should be given a hearing in the academy.

My proposed “starting point” for embarking on respectful conversations about any controversial issue is the first of 12 steps that I propose as a “Way Forward” in my recent book Reforming American Politics: develop personal relationships of mutual understanding with those with whom you disagree.

The priority of this proposal flows from something that Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, once said about a radical change that he made in approaching someone who disagrees with him. He used to jump right into the fray, telling that person why he/she was wrong, which only led to defensiveness. Now he starts by saying to the other person “help me to understand what it is you believe about this issue and your reasons for believing that.”

Richard found that this way to start the conversation “softens the heart.” As the writer of Proverbs says (15:1), “A soft answer turns away wrath.” I have first-hand experience of the wisdom of this way to start a conversation in my many attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about hot-button issues. It is wise because when the other person realizes that you are genuinely interested in understanding what he/she believes and why he/she holds to those beliefs, the other person will often reciprocate, leading to the quest for mutual understanding; which, hopefully, can lead to the trust needed to begin sorting through disagreements in the hope of finding some common ground, or, if that doesn’t happen, at least illuminating remaining disagreements sufficient to enable ongoing conversation.

To take this proposal beyond the level of abstraction, let me cite a concrete case where my educated guess is that this quest for mutual understanding once yielded common ground in the U. S. Senate relative to the hot-button issue of immigration. The year was 2013, and a “gang of eight” senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, crafted a bill for comprehensive immigration reform that included BOTH a pathway to citizenship (likely proposed primarily by the Democrats) AND appropriate fines along that pathway as punishment (hence this was not “amnesty”) for those who had entered the country illegally (likely proposed primarily by the Republicans).

The Senate passed this bill, but it died in the house. Is it possible that this bill died in the House primarily because the intransigence to the Tea Party members of the House precluded the strategy of gathering a similar “gang of eight” members of the House to reach bipartisan agreement based on first having achieved mutual understanding?

This failure is an example of what I believe is the primary dysfunction in current American politics: a severe hyper-partisanship that has succumbed to the “tribalism” of believing that my party has the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth about the issue at hand and “those folks” in the “other party” are totally devoid of any aspect of the Truth about the matter.

This raises a critical question: What is the primary cause of such political tribalism that fuels hyper-partisanship? My response is that it reflects a lack of “humility.” Let me briefly explain.

When was the last time you heard a politician or political pundit say “I may be wrong?” That is almost unheard of because it is considered a sign of weakness (when it is actually a sign of immense strength). It reflects a failure to practice “humility.

It is important for me to note what I do NOT mean by “humility.” I do not mean that you should be wishy-washy about your beliefs. No! You should be willing to express your beliefs with clarity and deep conviction, even passion, True humility means that at the same time that you express your beliefs with deep conviction, you are open to the possibility that you could be wrong about some of your beliefs and, therefore, respectfully listening to and talking to someone who disagrees with you could help you to refine your beliefs; possibly even “correcting” some of them. That combination of commitment and openness is a rare commodity these days.

By now you may have detected what some would consider to be a fatal flaw in my proposal: You cannot legislate humility. Harold, you are living in la-la land, totally out of touch with political reality, if you think that all of a sudden a large number of politicians and their supporters are going to exemplify the humility that is needed to even begin the conversation that is necessary to first attain mutual understanding on  the path to seeking some common ground.

I cannot ignore the force of that objection. It is because of that objection that I decided about 7 or 8 years ago to initiate a Respectful Conversation project on my website, www.respectfulconversation.net, the main focus of which would NOT be to talk or write, in the abstract, about the need for respectful conversation (as I am doing at this very moment), but rather to “just do it” (to borrow a phrase from Nike).

But, how best to just do it? You will recall the old joke: What are the three most important things about selling real estate – location, location, location. I decided that the best way to promote a “better way” (a “Christian way”) for public discourse was to model, model, model.

So, to make a 7 or 8 year old story short, The electronic conversations (eCircles) that I have hosted on my website, which featured conversation partners (usually two in number) who I knew to have strong disagreements about the given hot button issue, talking respectfully to each other about their disagreements and the subsequent  books I have published that attempt to capture the highlights of these eCircles are intended to “model” the respectful conversations that I call for.

Now, readers of this Musing will have to read the many electronic postings on some hot-button issues that appear on my website, or less onerously, read the resulting books to judge whether they model respectful conversations about hot-button issues. My opinion, no doubt biased, is that they do model respectful conversation to an admirable degree, with an amazing by-product, the actual uncovering of some common ground, which in my latest book meant uncovering some common ground relative to such hot-button political issues as  the role of money in politics, immigration, the disparity between the rich and poor in America and healthcare.

You may ask whether my attempts at “modeling” respectful conversations about hot-button issues will be “successful” in inspiring others to do likewise. That is not my first question. My first question is whether I am being “faithful” to my understanding of my commitment to being a follower of Jesus. By God’s grace, I am at least aspiring to be “faithful” to my understanding that, given the call of Jesus for his followers to love others, to provide someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love (which is the underlying premise behind my Respectful Conversation project).

As to the possibility of my Respectful Conversation project being “successful” in inspiring others to do likewise, I hope and pray that all who profess to be followers of Jesus will “do likewise” because to do so is a deep expression of the love for others, to which Jesus calls his followers. But there are many persons who hold to other religious or secular faiths who are also committed to loving others. I hope and pray that they will also “do likewise.”

Having said that, however, I leave the issue of “success” in God’s hands. Claiming the truth of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, as recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32, I believe I am called to “partner with God” as God works to foster the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, by planting tiny seeds of redemption. I view my Respectful Conversation project as a tiny seed of redemption that God has gifted to me. I can only envision a fruitful harvest through the eyes of faith. I entrust that harvest to God.