Recommendations for Small Groups Who Wish to Engage in Face-to-Face Conversations about Human Sexuality Issues or any other Contentious Issues

In my November 11, 2018 Musing titled “Pivoting from Respectful Electronic Conversations (eCircles) to Face-to-Face Conversations About Human Sexuality Issues or Any Other Contentious Issues,” I reported on an unfinished local face-to-face small group conversation about my book “Respectful LGBT Conversations” that “started well but then deteriorated.” That series of face-to-face conversations has now been completed. The following recommendations for orchestrating future face-to-face conversations about LGBT issues or any other contentious issues emerged from reflections from those who attended this completed conversation on LGBT issues as to “lessons learned” (what worked and what didn’t work).

ATTENDEES

In order to avoid the conversation becoming an “echo chamber,” it is important to “recruit” attendees who will represent a fair balance of differing views about the topic at hand. This is best done NOT by issuing a broad invitation (to members of a church or community) and “hoping that a good balance will emerge.” Rather, a better approach is to decide beforehand on the differing types of positions that can be taken on the issue; then issue personal invitations (one invitation to someone known to hold each position). When such initial invitations are accepted, then ask each such person to identify other church or community members who he/she believes will hold to a similar position, to whom the planners can then extend similar invitations (while encouraging that first person to encourage the new invitees to accept their invitations)

If the results of the conversation has the potential to significantly impact the well-being of one or more groups of church or community members, then representatives of such groups MUST be “at the table.” For example, despite the strengths of the procedures used in the case studies presented in the Respectful LGBT Conversations book, all three persons who provided leadership for these case studies reported that a flaw in their procedures was that gay persons were not adequately represented “at the table.” Therefore, the conversation too easily became an exercise in into talking “about them” rather than “with them” (as if they were “issues” and not “persons”).

Because of the logical flow of the conversation sessions that will be recommended below, it is important that all attendees attend all the planned sessions, with no attendees allowed to join the conversation after the first session (except under very unusual circumstances)

TWO EXPECTATIONS THAT ALL INVITEES NUST AGREE TO UP-FRONT BEFORE BEING ACCEPTED AS PARTICIPANTS IN THE CONVERSATION

A. AGREEMENT AS TO THE PURPOSE OF THE CONVERSATION, AS FOLLOWS:

  • Although participants will be expected to present their views on the issue at hand with clarity and deep conviction, the purpose of the conversation is NOT to “win the argument.” Rather the purposes are:
    • To give a “fair hearing” to all points of view by focusing on “listening well” to viewpoints you do not share in an attempt to adequately understand the reasons that the “other” has for his/her viewpoint.
    • After all the differing viewpoints are “out on the table,” the conversation will move to attempting to identify areas of agreement and disagreement, including illumination of disagreements sufficient to make ongoing conversation possible.
  • To model “respectful conversation” among person who have strong disagreements (made possible by the second expectation now presented)

B. AGREEMENT TO ABIDE BY A SET OF “GUIDELINES FOR CONVERSATION – For example, the guidelines that were agreed to by all the conversation partners in our LGBT conversation, with one possible exception indicated below, were as follows:

  • I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand
  • I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective
  • I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me
  • In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
  • In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love.

Unfortunately, in our LGBT conversation, there is some question as to whether one of the two the two “late arrivals” who held traditional positions on same-sex relationships adequately understood or actually agreed to either of these two expectations, because he was not present the first session where these expectations were reinforced (which deficiency will lead to one of our further recommendations below).

GETTING THE CONVERSATION STARTED: INSURING A “SAFE SPACE”

The first session together is the most important in that is sets the stage for the modeling of respectful conversations in all subsequent sessions. The first thing that must be established in this first session is that each participant, whether he/she holds to a “conservative” or “liberal” viewpoint on the issue, will be provided with a “safe space” to say whatever is on his/her mind without fear of being personally attacked or demonized.

Our recommendation for creating such a “safe space” is for the first session to begin with a review of the purpose and guidelines for conversation that all participants have already agreed to, to be followed only by time devoted to “getting to know one another” without any presentations or conversation about differing viewpoints on the issue at hand. This can be accomplished by the Moderator posing the following questions to each attendee, with a time limit presented (possibly 4-5 minutes) for each response, without allowing for any interruptions by other attendees.

  • Who are you? (Briefly introduce yourself to us)
  • Why have you joined this conversation? What do you hope to get out of this conversation? What is at stake? – wherever possible draw on aspects of own “story” that inform your response to these questions

The most valuable lesson we learned from our LGBT conversation is the importance of “building initial personal relationships of mutual understanding” (which hopefully leads to mutual trust) before embarking on the presentation of and discussion about differing viewpoints on the topic at hand.

A marvelous testimony to the central importance of “getting to know” a person who disagrees with you was the report from our married lesbian couple that “with the passage of time” a local doctor who was originally strongly critical of their same-sex relationship and not “friendly to them” has now become “friendly.” Our educated guess is that a good part of this change in attitude is that he has “gotten to know them better” by means of doctor/patient relationships.

THE SECOND SESSION: UNINTERRUPTED LISTENING TO VARIOUS VIEWPOINTS ABOUT THE ISSUE AT HAND WITHOUT DISCUSSION

Now that the stage has been set to promote respectful conversation about differing viewpoints, it is time for each participant to briefly present, without interruption (possibly in 5-7 minutes) his/her response to a question or two posed by electronically by the Moderator prior to this second session; questions intended to help all attendees to understand his/her position on the issue at hand. For example, for a small group conversation that Harold is beginning on March 13, 2019 on the topic “President Trump and Visions for America,” each of the 8 participants from the local community, equally divided between “general supporters” of President Trump and “general non-supporters of President Trump, each attendees will have 5-7 uninterrupted minutes to respond to the following two questions:

  • What is your vision for the future of America?
  • To what extent do you believe President Trump is facilitating, or not, the accomplishment of your vision for the future of America?

THE THIRD SESSION AND BEYOND

After this second session recommended above has been completed, the discussion group will now be well prepared to sort through their agreements and disagreements about the issue at hand in a respectful manner that is informed by a good preliminary understanding of the initial viewpoints of all the participants.

Some “heavy lifting” by the Moderator must now begin. To facilitate this, it is necessary that the presentations in the first two sessions be recorded and possibly transcribed for the Moderator’s careful review for the purpose of formulating a set of Leading Questions for the third session that will attempt o identify points of agreement and illuminate remaining areas of disagreement. (to be distributed electronically to all participants prior to the third session)

This formidable task for the Moderator needs to continue for the fourth and subsequent sessions, with the Leading Questions for each subsequent session emerging from the substance of the previous session.

READING MATERIAL FOR THE CONVERSATION.

No consensus emerged as to the suitability of the Respectful LGBT Conversations book as background material for this conversation. One of the attendees who was undecided as to same-sex relationships suggested that this book was very helpful to her because of her “undecided” status, in that it fairly presented both sides for each subtopic on the part of two conversation partners who had the competence to cogently present credible opposing viewpoints; both of whom held to a strong belief in the full authority and inspiration of scripture (while disagreeing on the best interpretation of certain biblical passages).

On the other hand, the author of the book (Harold) wondered out loud whether in this age of increasing “tribalism” (an “us-versus-them” mentality where me and “my people” have all the truth about the issues at hand and “you other folks” are all wrong), this book will only make both sets of tribalists “mad” because they are not interested in listening to a point of view other than the one they already hold, which appears to have been the case for the traditionalist who joined our group for just two sessions who bluntly stated that he had absolutely no interest in reading this book.

Obviously, more conversation is needed as to the best choice of reading materials for future conversations about LGBT issues.

CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS ABOUT THE VIABILITY AND IMPORTANCE OF BEING A 3RD WAY CHURCH

Recall that a 3rd way church is one where no church-wide position is taken as to the appropriateness, or not, of same-sex relationships, but, rather the challenging attempt is made to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ in the midst of disagreements about this issue.

Although no consensus was reached as to the viability of trying to be a 3rd way church, the following compelling observations were made during this last session:

  • It is relatively easy for a “straight” Christian to transfer to another local church, but where can a gay Christian (“like me”) find a loving place to worship if there were no 3rd way churches or “affirming” churches available?
  • A cogent concluding observation for an “undecided” member of this class was that she was hesitant to agree to attend this class because she loved the lesbian couple that agreed to attend, and was fearful as to how they would react to her honestly saying that she was “undecided.” She is still undecided at the end of this class, but now feels “liberated” because her gay sisters in Christ have, in this class, expressly given her a “safe space” to declare herself as “undecided” (all three of them being members of a 3rd way church in Orange City).
  • This observation fits well with the suggestion made by Mennonite Scholar Carolyn Schrock-Shenk that a conversation about contentious issues, like human sexuality, may not “change minds” about the issue at hand, but could have the marvelous result of changing one’s perspective about the person holding to a differing viewpoint (which is no small accomplishment).
  • A strength of being a 3rd way church is that it models the possibility of maintaining the “Christian unity” for which Jesus prayed in the midst of disagreements as to issues related to human sexuality, which is no small accomplishment in this day and age when many churches and their denominations are “dividing” over disagreements about such issues.

A Bipartisian Victory that Calls for a Conversation about Separation of Powers

One of my strongest recommendations, and, many would say, my most naïve and unrealistic recommendation for a “Way Forward” in the concluding chapter of my forthcoming book Reforming American Politics is that politicians and their supporters reach across the aisle in an effort to find enough areas of agreement to forge a coherent position that captures the best insights of those on both sides of the aisle or table, even if neither side receives the “full loaf” they were hoping for.

A while back, my hope for such a bipartisan legislative “compromise” on an important pubic policy issue was buoyed when a bipartisan “gang of eight” in the U. S. Senate passed a bill in 2013 for comprehensive immigration reform that included both improved border security and an arduous pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that included the imposition of fines for having entered the country illegally (hence not being “amnesty” since amnesty means “no punishment” and fines are a form of punishment). 

But that was only a partial victory that was soon shattered when this bill died in the House of Representatives. In my book, I speculate that a contributing factor that made this victory short-lived was that, unlike the Senate, the House did not call together a bipartisan group of their members to talk through their disagreements in an effort to uncover common ground.

Since that exemplary example of bipartisan legislation on the part of the Senate in 2013, there have been all too few examples of such reaching across the legislative aisle. But my hope for a flourishing of such a bipartisan approach to legislation received a “spark” on February 16 when a bipartisan conference committee of Senators and House members agreed on a bill for a “compromise” package of immigration reforms that included $1.375 billion for a border “barrier,” which was then approved by both legislative chambers.

But, of course, that was not the end of this story. The distinction between how the lawmakers who reached the compromise and President Trump responded to the compromise is critical.

The lawmakers on the conference committee acknowledged that the law they passed gave no one everything they wanted but gave everyone something; the very nature of compromise. So, they could accept the bill that was passed.

President Trump, on the other hand was very unhappy with the bill, although he reluctantly signed it. But, contradicting his proposal in his recent State of the Union address that “we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution – and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good,” President Trump then did an end run around Congress by declaring a state of national emergency and pleging that he would find more money for his wall by tapping into funds that Congress had approved for other purposes (including military construction projects and some counter drug initiatives). It is this action by President Trump that calls for a conversation about when the exertion of  power by the Executive branch of government violates the separation of powers between the Executive and Legislative branches that our Founding Fathers so wisely established.

That will surely be a heated debate that hopefully can be orchestrated in a respectful manner; possibly going all the way to the Supreme Court. I do not have the expertise in Constitutional Law needed to sort through this complex issue. But I will offer two suggestions as to possible starting points for conversation

First, the National Emergency Act does not give a clear definition of what constitutes a national emergency. This omission creates great uncertainty and disagreement as to whether a given situation qualifies as a national emergency.

For example, politicians and pundits on the political Right point to the many cases in the past where presidents have declared national emergencies that have not been contested.

The response of politicans and pundits on the political Left argue that this proliferation of presidential declarations of national emergencies (starting long before President Trump came into office) have moved our government toward an “imperial presidency” that has diminished the proper role of Congress; especially the “powers of the purse” established in Article 1 of the U. S. Constitution; going on to argue that what makes President Trump’s recent declaration different from all previous declarations is that he has taken Executive action to spend money on initiatives to which Congress has passed legislation that explicitely denies such funding.

It is obvious from this impasse that the conversation that is needed should start by seeking  to more clearly define what constitutes a “National Emergency.” And President Trump did himself no favor when he declared that he didn’t really have to declare a national emegency to get his wall built; he did so only becaue he wanted to get the wall built “quickly” – which gives a strange meaning to the word “emergency.”

But there is a broader aspect to the conversatiuon that is needed; an aspect that emerges from the attitude that President Trump has taken toward the institutions of government thoughout his presidency that has now culminated in the current debate about his recent declaration of a national emergency.

In brief, President Trump has consistently shown disdain for the institutions of government beyond his Office and for the separation of powers so carefully delineated by our Founding Fathers. Two major examples are his consistent, ongoing view that the Department of Justice exists to foster his purposes and his neglect of the recommendations of various national intelligence agencies relative to the threat that Russia poses to our democratic way of life. This self-centered disregard for the constitutionally mandated roles for the institutions of government and the separation of powers is the bigger problem that begs for ongoing conversation. This is indeed a “constitutional crisis” and the separation of powers that has been the bedrock of the American democratic system must be protected against the onslaughts of President Trump and anyone else.

A Christian Perspective on the Political Divide in America

The following is an edited version of my responses to a series of questions posed to me by Matthew Kimbara, a high school senior at the Christian Academy in Japan, an international school in Tokyo

#1: What has been your work in relation to uncivil political discourse?

To say that political discourse in Americas is “uncivil” is understatement. Those having disagreements about political issues often resort to viscous name calling and demonization of the “other.” Why is that?

I propose that the root cause of the vitriolic nature of much current public discourse in America, political or otherwise, is tribalism, an us-versus-them mentality in which me and “my people” have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue at hand and “those other people” are all wrong. Such tribalism, which has been called “affective polarization,” reflects a deep emotional attachment to the in-group and a visceral reaction against the opposition – the out-group. In light of that emotional attachment, there is no incentive to have conversation with “them” to discuss and evaluate whatever reasons each side may have for their contrary beliefs.

Such tribalism becomes extremely destructive when an unwarranted extrapolation is made from  a belief that the other is “wrong” to a belief that the other is “untrustworthy, immoral and threatening,” which leads to demonization.

Around 2011, I became dismayed at the vitriolic nature of public discourse in America brought about by tribalism, especially in politics and, sadly, in the Christian church. What to do? 

Out of curiosity, I did some research on blogs on the internet. What I found was appalling. A blog posting might elicit numerous comments from readers. But virtually all the comments were very cryptic, either praising the blogger or, more frequently, vilifying the blogger, with none of the comments “advancing a genuine conversation.” There had to be a better way to deal with disagreements on the internet, possibly even a “Christian way.”

In pursuit of that “Christian way,” I decided to initiate a “Respectful Conversation” project on a new website (www.respectfulconversation.net) intended to “model” respectful conversation among Christian who have strong disagreements about contentious contemporary issues.

As can be seen from my website, the vehicle I used for such modeling was to host four 8 to 11 month electronic conversations (eCircles); with each conversation followed by my publication of a book intended to capture the highlights of the conversation. The format for each month-long subtopic for each eCircle was to identify two “conversation partners” who I knew to have strong disagreements about the sub-topic at hand; each of whom posted three 3000-4000 word essays. In their first essays, they responded to a Leading Question or two that I posed. The second postings were devoted to their identifying areas of agreement and disagreement in their first essays. The third essays were  devoted to their perception of the sub-issues for which continuing conversation needs to take place. 

The four eCircles dealt with the following topics: An Alternative Political Conversation; A Future for American Evangelicalism; Human Sexuality; and Respectful Political Discourse. The titles of the books that emerged from these eCircles can be accessed on my website, the latest of which will be released in the Spring of 2019, titled Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation (more about the content of that book later).

Prior to being accepted as a “conversation partner” for any of these eCircles, each invitee had to agree to abide by a set of “Guidelines for Conversation” (also available on my website) intended to ensure that their electronic conversation with a partner would be respectful in the midst of major disagreements. It is my judgement that my conversation partners exemplified respectful conversation to an admirable degree (which can only be verified by reading their various postings). A perusal of their postings will also reveal that when the partners were actually willing to “listen” to one another, a significant degree of mutual understanding emerged, leading to an encouraging measure of mutual trust. As a result, while many disagreements remained, the partners were able to uncover areas of agreement, where each partner benefitted from the best insights of the other. 

A very important result that often emerged from these conversations is that while a particular partner’s overall perspective on the issue at hand may not have changed significantly, his/her perception of the “other” often changed dramatically. Rather than viewing the other as an enemy to be demonized, a mutual understanding emerged that each of them aspired to be “faithful” to their understandings of their faith commitments, with their disagreements often reflecting their differing Christian pilgrimages and other particular aspects of their respective social locations. Most importantly, it soon became apparent that each of them was fully committed to the inspiration and authority of the Bible, with their disagreements often reflecting different interpretations of some biblical passages (thereby recognizing that the Bible is not self-interpreting; the hermeneutical task must be undertaken).

The major premise underlying all of this internet work flows from my Christian faith commitment. Jesus calls all those who claim to be his followers to “love their neighbors” (Mark 12:31). I believe that a deep expression of such love for someone who disagrees with you (albeit woefully neglected by many Christians) is to create a safe and welcoming space for that person to express that disagreement and then talk respectfully about your disagreement. A corollary of that premise is that you don’t love someone who you have silenced.

#2. In your experience, how has the nature of the current divide between the left and the right affected your own communities?

Before responding to this question, I will set a context.

As described above, most of my attempts to model respectful conversation have taken place on the internet. I am now in the midst of pivoting toward attempting to model respect in small group face-to-face conversations in my local community in Sioux County, Iowa. To get started in this new direction has been an enormous challenge because tribalism is thriving in my community. In the realm of politics, Sioux County is reported to be the second most politically conservative county in America and my initial attempts to get diehard Republicans and members of the much smaller group of staunch Democrats in the same room together for conversation have been unsuccessful (Interestingly, I have found that the majority group of Republicans have been the least interested in talking with those from “that other party”).

But I have had a recent success. Starting on March 13, 2019, I will begin hosting a series of face-to-face conversations on the topic “President Trump and Visions for America.” After much effort, I have managed to recruit four local residents for this conversation who situate themselves as “general Supporters” of President Trump and four local residents who consider themselves to be “general non-supporters” of President Trump (I say “general” for both groups because none of those who have agreed to participate in this conversation say they are “for” or “against” everything President Trump says or does).Although the logistics have not yet been worked out, I plan on presenting this conversation on my website in the form of podcasts of the answers that my conversation partners give to Leading  Questions that I will pose prior to each of our 5 to 7 sessions. I look forward with great anticipation to this upcoming series of face-to-face conversations.

All of the above is prolegomena to my answering the above question. In brief, despite the rampant tribalism in my own community, we seem to be able to “get along with one another.” But we “get along” primarily because we don’t talk to each other about contentious issues. That leads to a very anemic negative view of “living together in peace” as “avoiding conflict.” (in our coffee fellowship after the Sunday morning worship service it is much safer to talk about the fortunes of our favorite local or national sports teams than it is to talk about contentious political issues).

What we need to work toward locally is a more robust positive view of living together in peace in the midst of strong disagreements about politics or anything else. We need to create more safe spaces where we can talk openly and respectfully about our significant disagreements as deep expressions of the love for one another to which Jesus calls those who profess to be his followers (which happens to be the vast majority of the residents of Sioux County). It is my hope and prayer that the face-to face conversation that I will begin hosting on March 13 will be first step toward that end

#3. How does the nature of this current divide between the political left and right compare to similar divisions in the past?

I start with a disclaimer. I am far from being an expert on the history of American politics. 

However, I will venture the general observation that a strength of the “American experiment” since the days of the “Founding Fathers” has been its strong commitment to Democracy as opposed to authoritarian forms of government. Such “democratic governance” is “messy” and has led to “political divides” throughout the history of America. Our challenge is America is not to eliminate political disagreements; that would work against our democratic ideals.  Rather, it is to learn how to navigate those disagreements in a respectful manner.

As to the “magnitude” of political divides in America during my lifetime; many political scientists in America believe that a significant increase in the “nastiness” of American political discourse was bought about by Newt Gingrich in the late 1990s when he served as Speaker of the House of Representatives. His basic approach to doing politics was to sow division between the two major political parties. And this “brokenness” of political discourse in America has only increased during the last 20 or so years.

#4.  What do you think a significant improvement in this area would look like? 

My seemingly impossible dream for politics in America, and everywhere else, is for there to be a huge proliferation of respectful conversations among those who have strong disagreements about public policy issues toward the goal of finding common ground for living well together or, in cases where not much common ground can be found, to come to sufficient mutual understanding and trust to be able to live well together in the midst of our disagreements.

And I am hoping that these respectful conversations about political issues will take place in local communities, such as schools, churches and voluntary organizations, as well as within local, regional and national legislative bodies.

Within legislative bodies, I am hoping that these respectful conversations will lead to a significant increase in “bipartisan” legislation, in sharp contrast to the extreme “hyper-partisanship” that is presently dominant due to the scourge of tribalism.

One hopeful sign that has emerged in American politics while I have been writing this document is that a bipartisan group of 17 members of the Senate and House of Representatives in America have just passed bipartisan legislation relative to immigration reform that President Trump has agreed, reluctantly, to sign (later today). As with all bipartisan legislation, no one is happy about all the details of the approved legislative package. Good bipartisan legislation requires “compromise” all around, where nobody gets everything that they want, but everyone gets enough of what they want.

Of course, the challenge we will face in America these next few weeks or months is the issue of whether President Trump can “build his Wall” (on the southern border with Mexico), without this bipartisan legislation providing sufficient funding for that objective, by means of an “Executive order” that declares a “national emergency.” I cannot overstate the importance of that issue since it has the potential to strike at the very heart of the “separation of powers” (between the Executive and Legislative branches of American government) that our “Founding Fathers” had the wisdom to establish.

#5. How hopeful are you that this vision of improvement will become a reality?

A first reading to my response to question #4 above may lead you to believe that I am hopelessly naïve and completely out of touch with the present realties of American politics. Is this all a grand exercise in wishful thinking? How hopeful am I?

My answer depends on which “lens” I wear. From a “human perspective,” I am very pessimistic. The scourge of tribalism is so pervasive in America that the dreams I express above appear to have little chance of being realized. I cannot possibly “succeed.”

But as a professing Christian I am not called to necessarily be successful. I am called to be faithful. Based on the parable of the mustard seed told by Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32, I am called to plan tiny “seeds of redemption” in my spheres of influence, entrusting the harvest to God. So, when I look at the current political scene in America through the “lens” of “faith,” I am optimistic.

#6. What can individuals like me do to solve this problem?

Far be it from me to tell others who profess commitment to the Christian faith what “seeds of redemption” they should be planting in their various spheres of influence. The marvelous thing about the biblical teaching about the “Body of Christ,” as elaborated in 1 Corinthians 12, is that God’s redemptive purposes for the world will be fostered by each professing Christian contributing in accordance with his/her particular God-given gifts. 

I believe that my recent focus on orchestrating respectful conversations about contentious issues fits well with the gifts God has granted to me and comports well with a deep expression of the love for others to which Jesus has called all Christians. I will thank God if any reader of this document who professes commitment to the Christin faith decides to “go and do likewise” in their particular context. 

For readers of this document who do not profess commitment to the Christian faith, I can only say, without elaborating, that the “values” that are the foundation for the above reflections are not just “Christian values”; they are “human values” that I believe should be embraced by all human  beings whatever their religious or secular worldview commitments. In particular, all human beings should love others and a deep expression of such love is to create a safe and welcoming space for those who disagree with you to express and talk about those disagreements.

“No Wall Money in Government Funding Legistation: Eliminating the Possibility of Genuine Negotiation

 To invite someone to have respectful conversation with you about your disagreements while stipulating what the results of your conversation must be eliminates the possibility of a genuine conversation. As I never tire of saying, “one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.”

As I heard recently on national news, that charade has happened once again relative to the current bipartisan conference committee negotiations regarding immigration. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi laid down a pre-condition for negotiations: “No wall money in government funding legislation.” If the conference committee negotiations, which have barely begun, are to be genuine, Speaker Pelosi should not stipulate up-front what must come out of those negotiations.

As also reported in the media, Speaker Pelosi did appear to cut the committee some slack by expressing openness to some type of “physical barrier.” Is the disagreement then semantic; hinging on a possible distinction between a “wall” and some other type of “physical barrier?” If so, the conference committee should be given the opportunity to sort out that apparent distinction.

President Trump is not to be spared from my concern about setting pre-conditions that eliminate the possibility of genuine negotiation. Later in the day when the two media reports noted above came out, President Trump changed his earlier view that the “wall” could be some other sort of “barrier” to a stronger assertion that “a wall is a wall” and any negotiations that do not acknowledge that are a “waste of time.” If that is now a pre-condition for him signing the legislation that emerges from the bipartisan conference committee, that also eliminates genuine conversation about an important aspect of what the committee should be talking about.

In brief, we can’t know beforehand what genuine negotiation within the conference committee will yield and no one should set pre-conditions on what can and cannot emerge.

But each of us can hope. As I hint at in my Musing of January 25 (“Starting with a Political Non-Starter”), here is what I hope results from these current negotiations: a “big” piece of legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers; an extension of Temporary Status Protection (TPS) for those seeking asylum from horrendous conditions in their home countries; and some beefed-up border security measures, including greater use of technology, more personnel at the borders and, yes, some more “physical barriers” in selected “priority areas” that may even include some type of “wall.”

A common response to the hope that I express above is that it is unlikely that the conference committee can agree on such a “big” piece of legislation. Therefore, the committee should be encouraged to seek agreement only on improved border security measures. If that can be accomplished, then broader issues involving the Dreamers and TPS can be addressed later. My concern with that sequential approach is that if agreement is reached only about border security measures, there will not be adequate political incentive to address these broader issues. Besides, part to what such broader bipartisan negotiations may yield are “trade-offs” relative to this multiplicity of related issues.

Speaker Pelosi and President Trump can also express their hopes as to what emerges from the conference committee negotiations. But to impose those hopes on the committee violates a proper separation of powers and a proper understanding of the role of Congress. Neither I, nor Speaker Pelosi, nor President Trump, nor anyone else should stipulate up-front what the results of such negotiation must be. To do so eliminates the possibility of genuine negotiation.

STARTING WITH A POLITICAL NON-STARTER: AN EXAMPLE OF GENUINE NEGOTIATION

In my forthcoming book on “Reforming American Politics,” I propose three major strategies for a “Way Forward” that could move the current sad state of political discourse from conflict to conversation; the most audacious of which is: In your political activities, always seek for a both/and position relative to any public policy issue that reflects a balanced synthesis of the best insights of those who have disagreements, and encourage political representatives on both sides of the aisle to do likewise.

To take this bit of advice beyond being a pious platitude (or, in the minds of some readers, to demonstrate how unrealistic it is), I will illustrate its application by considering a possible “negotiation” regarding President Trump’s January 19, 2018 proposal on immigration, the highlights of which were as follows:

  •  5.7 billion for steel barriers in priority areas
  •  675 million for increased drug technology at ports of entry
  •  130 million for canine units, including training and more personnel
  •  800 million for humanitarian assistance
  •  782 million for 2750 additional agents
  •  563 million for 75 new immigration judges
  •  Three years of protection for Dreamers
  •  Three years of protection for refugees having Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s immediate reaction (even before Trump’s proposal was officially presented) was to call it a “non-starter,” essentially because it included money for a “wall” (of sorts) and it did not end the government shutdown.

I believe that Pelosi calling Trump’s proposal a non-starter was a mistake. Trump’s proposal may have been a very inadequate proposal and may have been only a re-hash of previous unacceptable proposals. But it was President Trump’s “starting point.” So, to call it a non-starter was to forfeit the possibility of any negotiation that could improve on this starting point.

What might be the substance of such negotiation? I will illustrate in an unusual way; by sharing snippets of a conversation I would like to have with President Trump about selected aspects of his proposal (which of course will not happen), saving for later some reflections on how Pelosi might engage in a similar negotiation (which could happen).

HAROLD: Mister President. I appreciate your returning to your previously expressed concern for the plight of Dreamers; those children of immigrants who were brought to America by their parents at a very young age through no choice of their own. But to only propose a three-year extension of their DACA status is to perpetuate a grave injustice. These Dreamers have not broken any laws and. therefore, deserve no punishment. Justice requires that they be provided with the pathway to citizenship for which you once expressed public support.

Furthermore, Mister President, I appreciate your proposal to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for three years for those who are fleeing natural disasters, persecution (or death) or armed conflicts in their home countries. For me that is another justice issue, since I believe that justice demands that we take the steps necessary to address the needs of other human beings who have been marginalized and oppressed. But this suggests that America take steps to address some of the poor conditions that prevail in these neighboring countries (which is a significant part of the “humanitarian crisis” that you refer to; which I believe should be the major focus of the 800 million in “humanitarian assistance” that you have proposed).

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I will consider the concerns and remedies you have expressed. But will you likewise consider some of my major concerns and proposed remedies? For example, we need to increase border security in ways that will minimize illegal immigration and combat the flow of drugs into our country. And many of our border agents tell me that some type of physical barrier (a wall or whatever) are needed at certain segments of the border to help achieve these results.

HAROLD: I agree with the need for improved border security, which could take the form of more physical barriers at selected places along the border, as well as other means, such as greater use of technology. But if the primary concern is with the flow of drugs into America, we will need to increase the use of drug detection technology at legal points of entry, such as airports, since that is where the major flow of drugs takes place.

But my agreement with you about the need for greater border security and the need to curtail the flow of drugs into America masks our significant disagreements as to the magnitude of the funding that is needed to address these problems. You propose 5.7 billion for “steel barriers” in “priority areas” along the border, plus approximately another 2.2 billion for other measures that you perceive as necessary to improve border security. My initial thinking is to agree with the proposal from Democrats that a total of about 1 billion should be spent on border security measures. We are obviously miles apart on the funding needed to improve border security and how this funding should be used. This suggests that we both need to go back to the drawing board. To get that re-thinking started, let us split the difference as to total funding; assuming that a total of 4.45 billion is available (halfway between 1 billion and 7.9 billion). We both need to develop new proposals as to how that 4.45 billion is best spent to improve border security.

To end this imaginary conversation at this point would be to ignore the huge elephant in the room, the partial government shutdown. So, I can imagine our conversation continuing as follows:

HAROLD: Even if we can reach some kind of agreement relative to the changes in your starting proposal that I outline above, we appear to be at an impasse relative to the  government shutdown for which you have publicly taken responsibility.  You call for legislative action on your starting proposal before re-opening the government. I believe the government shutdown must be ended immediately.

My argument for ending the government shutdown immediately is another justice argument. To be sure, the concept of “justice” is “contested,” with room for disagreement as to what it means to “do justice.” But if one starts with the general view that doing justice calls for treating all people “fairly,” then, despite some legitimate disagreements about the meaning of “fairness,” there is no way to argue that it is “fair” for a government employee to be deprived of the means to keep food on the table or medicine in the cabinet because of a political dispute about immigration. Government workers who are no longer being paid have done nothing to deserve that punishment. That is a clear injustice. To make matters worse, there is also strong evidence that national security and even the strong American economy are being increasingly compromised by the shutdown.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: If I give in on the government shutdown, there will be no incentive for Democrats to vote for any of the changes in border security or related immigration issues that I have proposed. If I end the government shutdown, there will be no reason for the Democrats to come to the negotiating table.

HAROLD: I understand your concern, but the Democrats have made it clear that they  will not negotiate until you end the shutdown. And any plans to have the Senate and the House approve separate plans that the other chamber will reject is a dead end exercise in political posturing.

There may be a way out of this impasse. Rather than having each party meet in private to develop plans that the other party will clearly reject, which seems to be the current approach and is clearly not “negotiation,” exert your presidential leadership by declaring that you will end the shutdown on the condition that a bipartisan approach to genuine negotiation about immigration issues be followed in both chambers of Congress, similar to the way in which a bipartisan “gang of eight” Senators came up with a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. To those who question that bipartisan approach because the Senate immigration bill of 2013 died in the house, I respond that this may have been because the House rejected the “bipartisan negotiation” approach that worked in the Senate.

Now that I have ended my imaginary conversation with President Trump. I may have only convinced most readers that I am totally out of touch with political reality, which is true if you accept the adequacy of the current way of doing politics, which I do not. So. I will close this Musing with some reflections on the example of “political negotiation” presented above that anticipates some possible objections from readers.

THE WAY PRESIDENT TRUMP TALKS TO OR ABOUT THOSE WHO DISAGREE WITH HIM DOES NOT FIT WITH THE WORDS YOU HAVE PUT INTO HIS MOUTH

You are correct about that! The words I put into President Trump’s mouth in the above imaginary conversation were meant to focus on the message, not the messenger. For example, I avoided what he might have said as an impulsive response to my suggestion that his proposal for only extending relief for Dreamers for another three years was inadequate, which could well have been to vilify me for even suggesting that idea. Such a harsh response could prematurely end the conversation before it hardly got started.

The tone of my words and the words I have put into President Trump’s mouth in the above example reflect, without apology, the way I believe persons who have disagreements about political issues, or anything else, should talk to one another about their disagreements, As I elaborate in the closing chapter of my forthcoming book, this belief flows from my deep commitment to certain underlying values like love, humility, respect, patience, hope and an unswerving commitment to seek after the “truth” about the issue at hand. As one who aspires to be a follower of Jesus, my commitment to these values flows from my understanding that they reflect the teachings of the Christian faith. In particular, I believe that a deep expression of the love for others to which Jesus calls those who aspire to be his followers is to create a safe and welcoming space for the other persons to express disagreements and then to talk respectfully about the nature of of our disagreements. But these values to which I am committed are not just “Christian values”; they are “human values” that all persons of good will should embrace.

 

But there is little evidence that President Trump embraces these values. His first impulse is to vilify anyone who disagrees with him. That is wrong in and of itself.  But it is also an ineffective political strategy. There is great wisdom in the proverbial teaching that “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).

So, what would I do if in an actual conversation with President Trump, he vilified me? I would not respond in kind (as one person has put it, I would not allow him to determine my behavior). I would still present the arguments I present above, assuming that President Trump does not walk away from the negotiating table. If he storms out on me, that is his choice. But that leads me to reflect a bit on how Nancy Pelosi could, in actuality, engage in the type of negotiation that I imagine above.

WHAT COULD NANCY PELOSI DO WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP’S NON-STARTER?

I have no idea if Nancy Pelosi shares any of the arguments that I have included in my imaginary conversation with President Trump, which focus on my understanding of what it means to “do justice.” But she could present her own arguments in opposition to Trump’s proposal and counter with her own alternative proposals, which is what negotiation should be all about.

But, having said that, I would commend for Pelosi’s consideration my proposal for trying to break the current impasse about whether the current government shutdown needs to end before any negotiations can begin by suggesting to President Trump that he should end the shutdown on the condition that some type of bipartisan approach to negotiation be taken, similar to what the Senate “gang of eight” did in 2013. 

I close this Musing with two general recommendations that I believe are pertinent to engaging in genuine negotiations with those with whom you disagree on immigration issues (which I believe are also applicable to disagreements about anything else).

DON’T POLTICIZE EVERYTHING 

In an Adult Discipleship class that I was leading at my home church, I asked attendees to express their beliefs about President Trump’s proposal a while back to curtail the family reunification component of immigration. To a person, attendees parroted what the political party they belonged to said about that issue, with Republicans preferring to use the phrase “chain migration.” But I wasn’t asking them what their political party of choice believed about this program. I was asking them what they believed the Bible taught that might be relevant to this issue.

The prominent mistake that my Christian attendees were making was to substitute a “political lens” for a “Christian lens.” To quickly politicize every issue is a common mistake for Christians and everyone else.  

I intentionally avoided making that mistake in my imaginary conversation. I did this by avoiding any reference to either my political party (Democrat) or President Trump’s political party. Rather, I drove the conversation down to a more foundational level by seeking to uncover the operative value commitments that inform the beliefs of the two conversation partners. (in this conversation the meaning of the value of “justice” being the key issue).

Of course, not all citizens share my value commitments as a Christian. Therefore, at this deep level of conversation, disagreements as to the adequacy of differing value commitments still abound. But at least the debate is being carried out at a deeper level than “what does my political party say.”

HAVE THE COURAGE TO RISK MAKING EVERYONE UNHAPPY

I imagine that my proposal in my imaginary conversation with President Trump that funding for all border security measures be limited to about 4.45 billion rather than the 7.9 billion proposed by President Trump or the 1 billion proposed by Democrats will make both Democrats and Republicans unhappy. So be it!

The scourge of contemporary politics is tribalism, an “us-versus them” mentality where “my party” has the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue at hand and those in the “other party” are all wrong, at best, or downright evil, at worst.

Such tribalists will not settle for “half a loaf;” it’s “my way or the highway.” Such extremists, in either political party, eschew any attempts to reach across the aisle to seek a balanced synthesis of the best insights from both parties. What scares me most about the current political scene is the gradual disappearance of “moderate” politicians who reject tribalism, the root cause of which is that doing politics has become more about getting elected than governing well.

Therefore, my call for “genuine negotiation” about disagreements in the political realm may not gain much traction in a culture that is becoming increasingly tribalistic. But, given my value commitments as a professing Christian, it is the right thing for me to do.

[Authors Note: What a difference half-a-day can make when it comes to political discourse. I composed the above Musing on the morning of January 25, when the government was shut down. Half a day later, the government shutdown was revoked for three weeks. Although that makes some aspects of the above reflections inapplicable, I decided to post this Musing for two reasons. First, this piece still illustrates my understanding of how “genuine negotiation” should be carried out toward the goal of seeking for a both/and position relative to a public policy issue that draws on the best insights of those on both sides of the political aisle. Secondly, who knows what may happen in the next three weeks. The government may again be subject to another shutdown, in which case my recommendation that President Trump not propose such a shutdown provided that both chambers of Congress agree to “bipartisan negotiation” (such as carried out by the Senate gang of eight” in 2013) may be relevant].

Holding onto Power Lightly

A good friend of mine from Massachusetts shared with me the following reflections on what she called the “summer of shame” within the Catholic Church where she worships relative to widespread sexual abuse problems: “while our bishops continue to fail to act and do the right things, the laity is shifting around like crazy,” possibly leading to a “smaller and more faithful church.”

A failure to “do the right thing” on the part of those in power is not limited to the Catholic Church. Without seeking to generalize from my experience, I will report on some painful experiences I have had with those “in power” within Protestantism.

All too often. I have found that a number of Protestant leaders are strongly motivated by a desire to maintain their power and they maintain their power by ensuring that they are in control. This motivation leads to a command-and-control view of leadership where the important decisions are made by those “at the top,” without adequate consultation with those who report to them who will be significantly affected by their decisions.

To elaborate a bit, I have had a few painful conversations with Protestant Christian leaders that revealed that the values that they were motivated by had more to do with maintaining their authority and control and the “prestige” of their organizations than with fostering timeless Christian values like love, justice, truth and community.

In his book The Active Life, noted Quaker sociologist Parker Palmer provides important insights into the limitations of a command-and-control type of leadership designed to maintain power, suggesting that Jesus modeled a different type of leadership that fosters the Christian value of community.

Jesus exercises the only kind of leadership that can evoke authentic community – a leadership that risks failure (and even crucifixion) by making space for other people to act. When a leader takes up all the space and preempts all the action, he or she may make something happen, but the something is not community. Nor is it abundance, because the leader is only one person, and one person’s resources invariably run out. But, when a leader is willing to trust the abundance that people have and can generate together, willing to take the risk of inviting people to share from that abundance, then and only then may true community emerge (p. 138).

There is much to unpack from Palmer’s insights. In my own words, the fatal flaw in the command-and-control model for leadership is that the decisions made are only as good as the best thinking and giftedness of the boss who has the power. In stark contrast, a collegial process for leadership, which I have embraced (more about that later) can lead to decisions that reflect the best thinking and giftedness not only of the boss, but also of those members of the community the boss is leading. 

A mis-reading of a collegial approach to leadership is to think it is an abdication of the responsibility of a person “in power” to “take charge” and “make things happen.” I can best point out how wrong-headed this view is by noting my own experiences in relative positions “of power” when I served for 13 years as a Vice President for Academic Affairs at two Christian liberal arts colleges.

I didn’t leave the teaching of mathematics that I loved for a VPAA position because of the supposed greater prestige of my new position. I left for a relative position of power primarily because of a dream; the wild idea that I could expand on my attempts to make connections between my academic discipline of mathematics and my biblical/theological understanding to inspire a whole college faculty to pursue such connections in their various academic disciplines (thereby fostering the Christian value of knowledge about God’s Creation). So, I could now use my relative position of power to seek to implement that goal. 

When I saw that something needed to be done toward the realization of my goal, I didn’t sit around waiting for my faculty to take that initiative. I took proactive steps in pursuit of my vision. But I didn’t proceed as a Lone Ranger. I assigned the initiative to the appropriate faculty committee at the same time that I “put my oar in the water” (as my faculty jokingly described my modus operandi). What this meant was that whatever the issue at hand (e.g. a curriculum change or an academic policy change), I always sent the appropriate committee a detailed document that presented my current best thinking on the issue, with the exhortation that I expected the committee to improve considerably on my initial thinking. What typically resulted was that the final product reflected the best thinking of all of us and, in the process, a strong sense of community was fostered (if that sounds too easy, it wasn’t that easy – for further elaboration see my essay “Planting Seeds for Redemptive Change” in the book I co-edited with Mark Sargent titled Soul Care: Christian faith and Academic Administration). That was my attempt to hold onto power lightly.

But my journey in the corridors of power didn’t end well. At the end of my 5th year of service as VPAA at Messiah College (PA), I was called into the president’s office and told that my employment was being terminated due to my “lack of deference to the President and Board of Trustees.” To make a long and painful story short, my “firing” reflected an irreconcilable conflict between the command-and-control leadership style of the President and Board and my collegial leadership style. My downfall was that I insisted on following the collegial governance process for making academic decisions about curriculum and programs of study spelled out clearly in the Faculty Handbook. Those who had more power than me wanted to bypass those approved governance procedures.

I was glued to my TV for the funeral services for President George H. W. Bush. The splendid eulogies made it clear that he held onto his power lightly. For example, his decision to change his position on taxes, due to an evolution in his beliefs about was “good for the country” probably cost him re-election. The contrast with President Trump is stark. 

My experiences, good and bad, in a position of leadership are an example of an attempt to use power to promote Christian values, as I understand them, in the context of an individual Christian organization. Such attempts get more complicated and controversial when one is dealing with a group of organizations, like churches, falling under a larger umbrella, like a denomination. This brings me back to the second aspect of the reflection of my friend from Massachusetts about the “summer of shame” in the Catholic Church.

Recall that my friend did not only lament the failures of those in power (the bishops) to “do the right thing.” She went on to report on how the laity in Catholic churches were filling in the void by “doing the right thing” at the local congregational level. This local approach fits well with the principle of subsidiarity that is prominent in Catholic social teaching: wherever possible allow decisions to be made at a local level rather than by a central authority.

This principle of subsidiarity makes a great deal of sense to me for all Christian traditions, primarily because it is at the local level that Christians get to “know each other” well (especially by listening empathetically to one another), thereby being attuned to what needs to be done in their local congregations to foster the growth toward Christian maturity of all their congregants.

Of course, implementing the principle of subsidiarity requires an extraordinary measure of “holding onto power lightly” on the part of those having central authority (e.g., the leaders of Christian denominations). And the implementation details are extremely complex – for one example of this complexity, I refer the reader to the section titled “Navigate Denominational Conflict” regarding contentious human sexuality issues in my book Respectful LGBT Conversations (pp. 273-279). But I believe it is the “right thing to do.”

In conclusion, I observe, as an example of gross understatement, that any attempts of finite and flawed human beings, like me, to hold onto power lightly pale in comparison to the example of Jesus who. although he had unlimited power, chose to hold onto that power so lightly that it led to his crucifixion.

Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8)

Pivoting from Respectful Electronic Conversations (eCircles) to Face-to-Face Conversations: A Big New Challenge

As reported on this website most of my attempts over the past seven years to orchestrate respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements regarding some contentious issues have been done electronically (through my eCircles), with follow-up books that seek to capture the highlights of these eCircles.

While I am thinking about a possible theme for a new circle, I am now focusing my activities on orchestrating face-to-face conversations in my local community. This presents a whole new challenge. 

In this musing, I will report on one local attempt that was a dismal failure and a second attempt that worked well until it didn’t. My next musing will report on a third initiative that is just beginning. I am hoping that these three reports will be helpful to those readers who want to take the bold and very challenging step of initiating such face-to-face conversations in their local communities.

THE GENERAL CHALLENGE ONLINE AND FACE-TO-FACE

I have found it to be extremely difficult to gather Christians, or any other group, together. either online or face-to-face, to listen to differing views about contentious issues and then respectfully discuss areas of agreement and disagreement. I believe this reflects the us-versus them tribalism that is so rampant within both our Christian communities and the broader culture. After all, if the members of my “tribe” have captured the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue and the members of other “tribes are “all wrong,” what is there to talk about?

I believe it is fair to say, perhaps immodestly, that I have met that challenge rather effectively in the various eCircles that I have hosted on this website. My “conversation partners” for each eCircle have demonstrated to an admirable extent that Christians who have strong disagreements about some very contentious issues (e.g., LGBT issues and issues pertaining to American Politics) can express their contrasting positions and their perceptions of areas of agreement and disagreement in a very gracious, loving and respectful manner, provided they all agree before the conversations get started that they will aspire to measure up to certain clearly stipulated “ideals (guidelines) for conversation.”

But I remind the reader of the enormous amount of work that went into recruiting my conversation partners. To recruit 21 conversation partners for my eCircle on human sexuality, I extended 80 invitations. I sent out approximately 110 invitations to recruit my 23 conversation partners for my eCircle on “Reforming American Politics.” Most who declined my invitations expressed very good reasons for doing so; typically, for the many Christian scholars I invited, their busyness with other scholarly and teaching commitments. 

But, although I have no empirical evidence for what I am about to say, it is my educated guess that some of the hesitancy on the part of Christian scholars to join my eCircles reflected a lack of enthusiasm for the prospect of engaging other scholars who disagreed with their particular scholarly findings. To whatever extent that may be true, however, that recruitment challenge for online conversations pales in comparison to the challenge I have experienced in my local attempts to get Christians in the same room for face-to-face conversations regarding controversial issues about which they have strong disagreements. I will now report on two such initiatives.

A FAILED ATTEMPT AT A FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATION ABOUT AN IMMIGRATION ISSUE

Given my interest in immigration issues, my interest was piqued when a local resident sent a Letter to the Editor to our county newspaper, the Capital Democrat, criticizing our County Sheriff for his policy of not honoring ICE Detainer requests from the federal government after a local offense has been adjudicated. I came to the defense of the Sheriff in my Letter to the Editor in the next issue of the newspaper, at the end of which I included an invitation to all county residents to join me in a group to discuss this debatable issue.

I received 3-4 email responses to my invitation from other local residents who shared my views and would be willing to explain why in a small group conversation. I received no expressions of interest in joining such a discussion group on the part of local residents who took a position that differed from my position.

It is important to point out that this lack of interest on the part of the more “conservative” residents of my county in Iowa did not reflect a lack in numbers. Since it has been reported that Sioux County is the second most politically conservative county in the United States, I believe it is safe to guess that the vast majority of my neighbors would disagree with the position I espoused So, why didn’t they want to join my discussion group? I didn’t ask, so I can only conjecture.

First of all, I believe that part of the lack of interest on the part of my more conservative neighbors reflects the us-versus-them tribalism that is so rampant throughout our country, including Sioux County. Why would I want to talk to Harold and his tribe of fellow “liberals” about this immigration issue when “they” are all wrong? 

But I made a big mistake when I reinforced such tribalism by the very nature of my Letter to the Editor. I revealed my particular position on the immigration issue, thus giving undue prominence to my position. Any invitee with more conservative leanings might guess, erroneously, that I was “laying a trap”: I would recruit a bunch of my more “liberal’ leaning friends to bolster my position in a group discussion; overwhelming those who disagreed with me.

I “threw in the towel.” Since I have no interest whatsoever in reinforcing the prevalent “echo chamber” approach to discourse, where we only listen to and talk with those who already agree with us, I told those who agreed with my position and wanted to join my discussion group that there would not be a discussion group since I failed at recruiting group members who would disagree with them.

A first glimpse of an important lesson emerged from this debacle. Impersonal blanket invitations to face-to-face conversations do not work well. I may have had more success

If I had approached friends one-on-one with personal invitations to participate. This was a lesson that I learned slowly and attempted, up to a point, in my next initiative.

AN LGBT CONVERSATION THAT STARTED WELL BUT THEN DETERIORATED

Shortly after the publication of my book Respectful LGBT Conversations, I advertised an Adult Discipleship opportunity in my home church that would be devoted to discussing my book. Once again, to avoid the echo chamber effect, I noted my desire to gather a group that had a reasonable balance between representatives of three populations: Those who affirmed same-sex marriage; those who did not affirm same-sex marriage; and those who were “undecided.”

The initial response was far from overwhelming. I should have guessed this would happen because, once again, I had extended an impersonal blanket invitation. A married lesbian couple from my church signed up, as did two members who were “undecided.”

So, I talked to friends one-on-one. A married couple from another church in town agreed to attend. But they both took an “affirming” position; creating a further imbalance in representation from my three target populations. I still had no non-affirming representation. So, I extended a personal invitation to a friend from my church who I knew took a non-affirming position. He agreed to attend one meeting. I asked him if he would invite any of his friends who shared his non-affirming position. He agreed to do so, and a golfing buddy of his agreed to attend our second meeting.

Our second and third meetings went well. Since the two now non-affirming members made it clear that they had no interest in reading my book, I made a mid-course correction and devoted these two meetings to simply discussing questions that anyone could raise.

The best part of these two meetings was that the married lesbian attendees were able to “tell their stories” and the two non-affirming attendees listened with respect. No agreement was reaches as to whether same-sex relationships are “sinful.” But we were all listening well to each other; thereby achieving a significant measure of “mutual understanding” that would, hopefully, lay the groundwork for ongoing future conversation.

Alas, at the end of our second meeting of this expanded group, our two non-affirming attendees abruptly announced that they would no longer be attending, without elaborating on their reasons for that decision. So, in our fourth meeting, we finally started discussing my book (the announced intention for this class). In my estimation, these discussions went well. But my hopes for this class were only partially realized because of the absence of voices from those who take a non-affirming position. 

But I was slowly learning how to, and how not to, go about orchestrating such face-to-face conversations. In my next musing, to be posted within a few weeks, I will report on a third attempt that I am just beginning that I believe will “work better” because of lessons I learned the hard way from my first two attempts.

The Nature of Respectful Conversations

Although a focus on orchestrating “respectful conversations” has permeated my website since its inception, my understanding of the nature of such conversations has evolved in the process of my hosting multiple eCircles and writing books intended to capture the highlights of these eCircles. What follows is my summary, as of early November 2018, of the essential elements of “respectful conversations” among those who have strong disagreements. 

FOUNDATIONS

UNERLYING PREMISE: An oft-neglected dimension of the call of Jesus for me to love others (Mark 12:31) is for me to create a safe and welcoming space for those who disagree with me to express and explain their beliefs. You don’t love someone who you have silenced. 

THE RARE COMBINATION OF COMMITMENT AND OPENNESS: Holding to Your beliefs with strong conviction while being open to refining your beliefs in light of the differing beliefs of others (A “Convicted Civility”)

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.

Ian Barbour, Myths, Models and Paradigms, 136

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.

Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency, 12

A MIDDLE GROUND BETWEEN RELATIVISM AND FANATICISM: Believing in “truth” but not willing to resort to violence in light of your understanding of the “truth.”

Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs about what is “true”; you have your beliefs; 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.”

IDEALS FOR RESPECTFUL CONVERSATION: THE SHAPE OF CIVILITY

All persons wishing to engage in “respectful conversation” with those who disagree with them should personally agree to abide by the following ideals.

  •  I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand
  •  I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective
  •  I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me
  •  In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
  •  In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love

A POSSIBLE OBJECTION: Aren’t you limiting my “free speech” by expecting me to abide by these ideals for conversation?

Yes! Freedom for speech, or anything else, is not “license” (doing as you please). As proposed by Mark Douglas, there are three conditions under which “free speech” needs to be restrained.

RESTRAINING FREE SPEECH TO AVOID VIOLENCE: “Where speech is used to incite, encourage, or valorize violence, it can be restricted or prohibited.”

RESTRAINING FREE SPEECH TO AVOIDS SILENCING CRITICS: “Where speech is used to end conversations, to silence critics, to shout down unpopular positions, to harm through deception, or to reject the diversity of voices, it can be restricted or prohibited.”

RESTRAINING FREE SPEECH TO AVOID TRIBALISM: “Where free speech is used to categorize people, to generalize and then demean people, to reject and then to dehumanize people, it can be restricted and prohibited.”

Speech guided by the above “ideals for conversation” will avoid violence, the silencing of critics and the us-versus-them Tribalism that is so rampant in contemporary American culture.

The Future of the LGBT Controversy will Depend on Who is Given a Voice

 In the concluding chapter of my recent book Respectful LGBT Conversations that emerged from my eCircle on human sexuality, I propose some concrete steps for a “Way Forward” for Christians, churches, Christian colleges and denominations currently struggling with issues related to human sexuality. A common element for many of my proposed “next steps” is the need for ongoing respectful conversations among those Christians who have strong disagreements about these contentious issues.

This leaves unanswered the crucial question as to the results that may emerge from such ongoing conversations. Ignoring the suggestion of a number of my conversation partners for this eCircle that it is folly to attempt to predict this future, and tempering my own favorite adage that “you cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation,” some of my experiences since the publication of my book embolden me to peer a bit into that future.

The context for what I envision for the future is set by two of my proposed next steps for a Way Forward. My primary proposal is the need to Build Relationships of Mutual Understanding and Trust with those with Whom You Disagree (279-282). A second proposal that is a “means” for building such personal relationships of mutual understanding and trust is the need to Listen to the Stories of Your LGBT brothers and Sisters in Christ and Listen to Those Who Disagree with You About LGBT Issues (265-266).

Given that context, two recent sets of experience in my local setting prompt my audacity to predict two directions for what may emerge in the future.

First, I have found it to be a challenge to gather together into the same room for conversation those Christians who embrace a “traditional” view of marriage (reserved for a man and woman) and those Christians who embrace a “non-traditional” view of marriage (God will bless a monogamous, life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners).

What I have generally found is that the non-traditionalists are anxious to talk, while traditionalists have much less interest in talking with those who disagree with them about same-sex marriage. I think I understand somewhat the reason for such reluctance to engage in conversation on the part of many traditionalists. The non-traditionalists are calling into question the status quo (the traditionalist view) in many churches and denominations. What is to be gained by engaging them in conversation? To do so could upset the status quo. 

The context for a second set of recent local experiences is that my calling for “listening to the stories of your LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ” in one of my proposed next steps had two sources. The first source was the regret expressed by the leaders of my case studies for two churches and a Christian university that a significant deficiency in how they attempted to navigate strong disagreements at their institutions was that they didn’t adequately listen to the stories of the LGBT individuals within their churches or on their campus (238-242).

The second source of my call to “listen to the stories of your LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ” was the powerful effect on me of hearing first-hand stories of how LGBT individuals were seeking to faithfully live out their commitments to be followers of Jesus, and how difficult and painful that has been in their church and denominational settings.

Well, since the publication of my book, I have listened to a few more of these moving stories from LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ, which has amplified the urgency of my call for inviting them to recount their personal stories and for those of us who are not LGBT individuals to listen with great empathy.

My conclusion from these two sets of recent experiences is that the results of my proposed steps for a Way Forward will depend on who is given a voice in future conversations and two distinct directions will emerge, which I will now seek to describe.

One direction that I believe will emerge will be for an increasing number of Christians to create venues that will enable our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ to tell their stories, whether in churches, Christian educational institutions, denominational meetings, or local coffee shops.

To create such safe and welcoming spaces where LGBT persons are given a voice will require a significant measure of courage on the part of Christian leaders; especially those whose constituents will threaten to withdraw institutional support if LGBT members are allowed to speak up.

When LGBT Christians are given safe and welcoming spaces to tell their stories of how they aspire to faithfully live out their commitments to be followers of Jesus, I believe that all who listen carefully to their stories will be open to taking a fresh look at the Bible, rethinking possible interpretations of those specific biblical passages that appear to clearly condemn same-sex relationships in the context of the overall message of the Bible, similar to what was done in the late nineteenth century relative to those biblical passages that appear, at first glance, to condone the institution of slavery. 

I believe that the hermeneutical conclusion that will be reached by many members of this segment of the Christian church is that the context for those biblical passages that appear to preclude any same-sex relationships is not that of same-sex couples wanting to enter a monogamous, life-long marriage commitment and, therefore, these biblical passages do not preclude such a covenant commitment.

If this interpretation that these particular biblical passages are “silent” relative to the sanctity, or not, of a monogamous, life-long marriage commitment, is the most adequate interpretation, how does one proceed? Members of this segment of the Christian church will typically argue that Christians must discern what the overall message of the Bible is relative to the possible sanctity of such a lifelong commitment. A common persperctive is that the Bible teaches that every human being needs to experience intimate relationships with other people characterized by enduring commitments to give and receive love that seeks to foster the well-being on the other and that for humans who have not chosen their sexual orientation, this means that God will bless a life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners.

Of course, I am only predicting here that this is one direction relative to human sexuality issues that will emerge among Christians; a direction that will emerge when our LGBT brother and sisters in Christ are “given a voice” in a safe and welcoming environment. 

I believe another direction will emerge. A segment of Christianity will continue to hold strongly to a traditional view of human sexuality without providing their LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ a safe and welcoming space to express their commitment to a non-traditional view.

Evidence for this second direction includes the challenge I have experienced  when trying to get those who hold a traditional view of same-sex marriage into the same room to talk with LGBT Christians and their allies. This stance on the part of many traditionalists amounts to “silencing” their LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ; not giving them a “voice.”

Such “silencing” is not unique to my experience. I know it to be the case within some Christian institutions of higher education, where the existence of a group of LGBT community members is acknowledged, but they have been effectively “silenced” in the larger campus community (e.g., since they are not an officially sanctioned campus organization, they are allowed to hold meetings, but such meetings cannot be officially advertised campus-wide).

In conclusion, as I peer into the future, I believe that the distinction between giving our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ a “voice,” or not, will lead to the emergence of the two directions I have described, which will co-exist without significant respectful engagement between Christians in the two camps.

But having said that, I believe that those Christians who opt for giving their LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ a “voice” have made the better choice from a Christian perspective. I base this assertion on my belief that all Christians are called to love others, and you do not love someone who you have silenced.

How Can Those who Advocate for Inclusion of LGBTQ Persons in Faith Communities be “wrong” when so many LGBTQ Individuals are Suffering from their Exclusion

A friend posed this question to me at a recent meeting. I gave a very inadequate response. I am typically not very good at thinking quickly on-my-feet in responding to unexpected questions. I need a lot of time to think about appropriate responses. So, I hope this written response will prove to be better.

The context for this question was a presentation I made at this meeting in which I proposed that since Christians do not have a “God’s-eye view of the “truth” on human sexuality issues, those holding to a “traditional” view of marriage (reserved for a man and woman) as well as those holding to a “non-traditional” view of marriage (God will bless a monogamous, life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners) need to be open to the possibility that they are “wrong” at the same time that they present their respective positions with clarity and deep conviction.

To take my response beyond the realm of abstraction, I refer the interested reader to the electronic exchange between Justin Lee and Eve Tushnet during my eCircle on human sexuality on my website, the results of which I reported in chapter 1 (“Voices from the Gay Community”) in my recent book Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity. Justin and Eve are gay Christians who disagree about same-sex marriage. Justin holds strongly to a non-traditional view that God will bless a monogamous life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners and Eve holds just as strongly to a traditional position that Christians whose sexual orientation attracts them to members of their own gender should remain celibate for life. One of them is “wrong.”

If you read their electronic postings or my attempt to capture the highlights of their postings in the first chapter of my book, as well as the comments of some of the readers of their postings, you will find considerable heart-breaking evidence of the truth of the assertion that many Christians have caused many of their LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Christ to suffer greatly. I was particularly moved by the comment of a sixties-something reader whose church experience was so painful that he wonders why he didn’t hang himself in the rafters of an empty garage or jump from the bell tower (3).

Based on my reading of such stories of pain and suffering inflicted on my LGBT brothers an sisters in Christ by other Christians, I conclude, in the closing chapter of my book,  that there is no “Way Forward” until many Christians “confess the harm done and repent” (265).

But the suffering from exclusion that many of my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ experience continues while Christians disagree about who is “wrong,” a disagreement that will probably not be resolved in the near future. How should that problem be addressed?

Eve Tushnet has suggested that one way to address this intolerable situation is for churches to “rediscover the many forms of love, friendship and care which exist outside of marriage” (4-6). She cites “service” and “celibate partnerships” as two categories for “giving and receiving love.” Wesley Hill, a gay Christian biblical scholar who shares Eve’s belief that gay Christians ought to remain celibate, elaborates on the “gift of friendship” in his thoughtful book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. 

But Eve’s proposal does not address the prior question as to what stance a church congregation as-a-whole can take that will ameliorate the “suffering from exclusion” that many LGBT Christians experience. Three distinct stances have been taken.

Some churches have declared themselves as “affirming” churches that have taken a church-wide position that God will bless a monogamous life-long marriage commitment on the part of same-sex partners. Many LGBT Christians who share that position will find Christian fellowship within such “affirming” churches without suffering the pain of exclusion.

Other churches have declared themselves as “welcoming but not affirming.” An LGBT Christian who believes that same-sex marriage is sin and, therefore, gay Christians should remain celibate, may well find Christian fellowship within such churches without suffering the pain of exclusion; especially if the church implements Eve Tushnet’s proposal (which proposal, I would add, also makes sense for “affirming” churches). But an LGBT Christian who believes that God will bless a monogamous life-long marriage commitment of same-sex partners will likely suffer the “pain of exclusion,” or, at least the pain of being considered a “second-class church member,” despite the “welcoming” sign.

But there is a “3rd way” that some churches, including my home church, have taken, a way that draws heavily on Ken Wilson’s book A Letter to my Congregation. For this 3rd way, the church congregation does not take a church-wide position that supports either a traditional or non-traditional view of same-sex marriage. Rather, the church congregation opts for a church-wide commitment to love and care for one another, whatever view a given member takes on same-sex marriage; embracing one another because we are all “beloved by God” (282-285). As James Dunn has put it, “the other is received as one who is beloved.” 

I am personally attracted to this 3rd way because, during this time of considerable disagreement among Christians as to who is “right” and who is “wrong” regarding human sexuality issues, it promotes “unity” within the Body of Christ that is based on our shared aspirations to be faithful followers of Jesus despite our lack of “uniformity” regarding our beliefs about human sexuality. But, will an LGBT member of such a 3rd way church still suffer some pain, knowing that there are church members who strongly disagree with his/her position on human sexuality? They will have to respond for themselves. So far, members of my home church on differing sides of human sexuality issues are committed to loving one another because we realize that we are all “beloved by God.”

As I re-read the above reflections, I am struck by the tensions between three values that I embrace, as hinted at in the sub-title of my book. I have an insatiable desire to better understand the “truth,” as God fully understands it, about human sexuality and everything else, and I am painfully aware of the limitations on my grasp of that truth due to my fallibility, finitude, and, yes, sinfulness. At the same time, my claim to be a follower of Jesus is authentic only if I “give love to others,” especially the marginalized and those who suffer, like many of my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. And as I seek after “truth” and attempt to “give love,” I yearn to contribute to the “unity” of the Body of Christ that Jesus prayed for, which appears to be an impossible dream.

It is my deep conviction that these three Christian values are compatible. I must seek to foster all three of these values, not just one or two, and figuring out how to live well when these values are in tension is a constant challenge for me. I am in dire need of a special measure of wisdom and grace.