In which I Reveal My Bapto-Catholic Hybridity

The last two times I have attended Catholic Mass while on the road, I have encountered youngish priests who, though they did not lead their congregations in the Traditional Latin Mass, brimmed with conservative Catholic fervor. One of these experiences was in the mountains of western North Carolina, with a priest who announced that he would miss the next Sunday because was heading off to a conference that he would lead entirely in Latin. The other was in Greensboro, NC. Meanwhile, my own Catholic parish in suburban Atlanta is led by a group of wonderful monks, who strike me as playing it very middle-of-the-road while offering a rich, apolitical, theologically robust, traditional yet contemporary version of American Catholicism.

At this point it is reasonable for anyone who is paying attention to this post to ask why in the world the Baptist author is speaking in this way. That’s because my religious journey began in the post-Vatican II northern Virginia Catholicism in which my mother raised me, saw me drift away after Confirmation and eventually into born-again Southern Baptist life as a high-schooler, a path I have pursued personally and professionally through Baptist ordination and a career teaching at three Baptist schools. However, my Southern Baptist wife fell hard for Catholicism about 20 years ago, and about 6 years ago I rejoined her in limited Catholic practice while not abandoning my Baptist credentials, service, or church involvement. My spiritual life now feels whole, reflecting the entire religious trajectory of my often fragmented life and with each Christian tradition offering dimensions of liturgy, theology, tradition, church culture, and ethics that speak profoundly to me. This is religious hybridity, which is not unusual in these days but certainly not what I expected my journey would look like.

My most recent book, After Evangelicalism, is the first one to reflect this hybrid experience and I think is all the better for it, though of course I cannot claim to “represent” either Baptists or Catholics. Just myself — and, yes, maybe a whole bunch of post-fundamentalists and post-evangelicals, yet another community in which I now claim some measure of religious identity.

Here is one thing I am sure of about Catholicism — it has been deeply divided by the innovations unleashed by and through the Vatican II conference (1962-1965), with many millions of Catholics cherishing aspects of Vatican II and others resistant to any and all of its changes. I cannot help but read Christina Wassell as belonging to one of the most resistant anti-Vatican II sectors of American Catholicism. I find myself in near-complete disagreement on that score.

Here’s what I learned from Vatican II about following Jesus in the modern world: The Church showed itself shockingly able to learn new things and open itself to relevant cultural developments. The Church became a leading exponent of peace and justice, offering astute analysis of pressing global economic, political, and international relations challenges. The Church decided to eschew anti-Protestant and indeed anti-modernist, anti-democratic, anti-liberal reaction (breaking with over 400 years of being defined by such reaction, as in the Council of Trent and the Syllabus of Errors). The Church was able, more or less, to renounce its own long, disastrous history of antisemitism and to revise its liturgy so as not to feed the anti-Jewish passions that had been easily read off of certain New Testament passages and church liturgies and had contributed to pogroms and finally the Holocaust. More broadly, the Church articulated a respectful attitude to people of other religions. The Church now understood itself as belonging to the people, not just to the “religious” and the magisterium; and as a pilgrim people, not one that has already arrived. The Church decided that majesty and mystery needed to be balanced with accessibility and clarity. Meanwhile the Church ultimately did not give ground on such matters as abortion, women priests, contraception, divorce, Marian theology, and a whole host of other traditions and beliefs.

Ultraconservative Catholicism and Protestantism are finding massive common ground in America. The theology may be different, but the spirit — and usually the politics — are the same. Neither holds much appeal for me or for most of the Baptists, Catholics, and post-evangelicals that I know, but perhaps I need to get out a bit more.

I can give you chapter and verse on what is wrong with wimpy liberal Protestantism and liberal Catholicism. Yes, the music is often lame in both. Yes, they have trouble keeping their young. Yes, they can become all social ethics, no theology. Yes, sometimes the abandonment of Tradition simply leaves a vacuum for Culture to dominate.

But still: My path looks more like creative, critical, appropriation of scripture and tradition by modern Christian people who want to bring the best insights of the faith to bear in their lives and churches for the reign of God, care of creation, and human flourishing in this broken world. The riches of the Catholic tradition, including the insights of Vatican II, are a key part of that. Count me as one who honors the legacy of Vatican II and has attempted to weave its best work into my own efforts to follow Jesus.

 

The Traditional Latin Mass & Reactionary Politics

I found Christina Wassell’s account of moving from “generic Protestantism” (my term) to the Roman Catholic Church very compelling, and I certainly understand the quest for liturgy. As an Episcopal priest, however, I found the following sentence a tad confusing, explaining her move from the Episcopal Church to Rome: “While we had made an intellectual and theological leap of faith toward the tradition that would give us the Transubstantiated Body of Christ, it felt like moving to the desert.” I wonder: Why would Ms. Wassell move from the Episcopal Church (not “Episcopalian church,” by the way; the adjective form is shorter than the noun) to Rome in search of “real presence”? Most Episcopalians I know—including myself—emphatically believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. (I don’t have statistics for Episcopalians, but according to a 2019 Pew survey, only one-third of U.S. Catholics believe in transubstantiation.)

Ms. Wassell goes on to say, “It was belief in the sacraments that fed us, along with spiritual reading and the scaffolding of Catholic piety.” Again, though I’m not certain what the author means here by “Catholic piety” (and there’s little in the essay to suggest what that might be), Episcopalians certainly believe “in the sacraments”; during the recitation of the Nicene Creed every week, for instance, we affirm our belief in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

So I’m left to wonder whether the migration from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism to the Traditional Latin Mass is motivated by something else.

I understand the lure of tradition and history, which many find in the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). And I absolutely share Ms. Wassell’s sense of the centrality of the Eucharist—not music or the sermon—in worship: “The whole point of Mass for Catholics is what happens at this moment on the altar.” I’m also sympathetic with her preference for Gregorian chants over “impoverished Catholic worship tunes,” though I confess a certain fondness for some of the Taize music. I don’t agree, however, that the priest facing the congregation during Holy Eucharist necessarily gives rise to showmanship; I have come to appreciate the holy beauty of a priest celebrating with reverence and care.

But here’s my confusion (and I’ll doubtless raise a similar question when we get to the Reformed tradition): Why does fondness for the Latin Mass necessarily go hand-in-hand with reactionary politics? It seems to me eminently plausible for someone to evince a preference for the Latin Mass on aesthetic or historical grounds without having to buy into an entire conservative agenda. It’s no secret that the TLM leadership—and, I gather, many of the followers—regard Pope Francis as a flaming liberal. That caricature is ludicrous, of course, but it appears to be fervently held by the TLM contingent—and it is suggested in Ms. Wassell’s statement that she and her family “were engaged in a fierce battle against the culture with our dear Catholic friends, but this battle wasn’t truly led by our Catholic priests and bishops.”

This sort of sentiment, I surmise, is behind the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ attempts to deny President Biden access to the communion rail because of his prochoice stance on abortion. Curiously, those same bishops have yet (as far as I know) to censure Roman Catholic politicians who support the death penalty, which also violates Church teaching. Hmmm. Although I disagree with the bishops’ position—in what moral universe is Joe Biden subject to episcopal censure when the same bishops fall over themselves to extol Donald Trump?—I’d have a lot more respect for them if they made even a cursory stab at consistency.

I wonder if TLM has devolved into a kind of signifier, much the way that even displaying the flag in recent years has become, for many, a signifier of allegiance to Trumpism. That’s a pity, in my view. Both the flag and the Latin Mass have their own rich history and integrity; reducing either one to a kind of totem for, let’s face it, division diminishes both.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives have glommed onto the Latin Mass. One sure way to wage “a fierce battle against the culture,” I suppose, is to embrace Latin. But I still see no necessity for the Traditional Latin Mass to be braided with reactionary politics.

Politeness is Good but not Enough to Uncover Bipartisan Common Ground in Politics: Strong Listening is Required

In the face-to-face conversation that I hosted involving four supporters of president Trump and four non-supporters, reported on extensively below, I insisted on politeness, characterized by a willingness to listen, without interruption, to the viewpoint of a person who disagrees with you and the reasons he or she has for holding to that contrary perspective.

My eight conversation partners (CPs) did well in practicing politeness. But, as our conversation proceeded, I came away with the impression that a number of our CPs were practicing what I call “weak listening.” They were being polite, but they had no intention of re-examining their own beliefs in light of the contrary beliefs expressed by others. They were patient and polite in listening to the contrary beliefs of others, but their mindset sometimes was to “get that over with” so that they could express and advocate for their beliefs.

Being polite is necessary, but not sufficient, in any conversation that is seeking to uncover common ground. To find common ground, “strong listening” is required, which means listening with an openness to re-examining one’s own beliefs in light of what you hear the other person saying that is contrary to your present beliefs.

What are the obstacles to making “strong listening” a hallmark of contemporary political discourse in America? Two major obstacles are obvious

The major obstacle is an unwillingness to talk respectfully with those who disagree about contentious public policy issues that includes critically re-examining one’s beliefs. This unwillingness eliminates the possibility of uncovering any common ground This is the result of the rampant tribalism that pervades American culture these days, a “us-versus-them” mentality that causes “us” (our tribe) to view those “other folks” who disagree with us as not only wrong but evil.

In his splendid book Enough About Me, Richard Lui describes this unwillingness to re-examine one’s beliefs about political issues as follows, “We tend to quickly demonize political opponents, throwing around accusations and labels in the hope that they’ll stick so we don’t have to argue our points, much less examine them critically” (p. 128).

An egregious example of this unwillingness to re-examine one’s beliefs about any political issue is contained in Mitch McConnell’s recent statement that “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this administration.” 

In effect, McConnell is saying that he will fight any political legislation that the Democrats propose. This stance precludes the possibility of Republicans and Democrats respectfully talking to one another about their disagreements. It precludes those on both sides of the political aisle practicing “strong listening” about the issue at hand toward the goal of uncovering some common ground.

A second major obstacle to making “strong listening” a hallmark of contemporary political discourse in America is that the current procedures for congressional deliberations work against the possibility of having respectful conversations about political disagreements that could uncover some common ground.

To take what I believe is the most egregious example, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to see how ludicrous it is that one person (Mitch McConnel) can control what proposed bills get to the floor of the Senate for deliberation (full disclosure: I once was a rocket scientist). 

I do not have the expertise to propose a definitive solution to this current brokenness of congressional procedures. But three initiatives toward a solution come to mind, all of which have the common element of calling for the conversation that is needed to uncover some common ground (since not talking respectfully about political disagreements will make it impossible to uncover any common ground – No talk = no hope for uncovering any common ground). 

First, the call to a return to “regular order” must be strongly supported. Such regular order must include orchestrating committee hearings on any proposed bill, leading to “markups” and then allowing for amendments from the floor, all of which calls for conversation. Members of Congress must embrace such an open process for deliberation and debate.

Secondly, consideration must be given to re-shaping the use of the filibuster. The original intent of the filibuster was, and remains laudable: To ensure that a “minority voice” is adequately heard in congressional deliberations. But it appears to me that currently the filibuster is often used to stifle the conversation between minority and majority voices that is needed to uncover common ground.

A third initiative that I propose flows from my experiences, both good and bad, these past ten or so years, of seeking to orchestrate respectful conversations among persons who disagree strongly about contentious issues: Start any congressional deliberation about any proposed bill with a relatively small bipartisan group of legislators.

My hard-earned experience suggests that attempts at orchestrating respectful conversations will be fruitless if there is a lack of mutual understanding and trust among those who have strong disagreements. And the fostering of such mutual understanding and trust is best accomplished in relatively small groups where conversation partners can get to know one another on a personal level before jumping into an attempt to sort through their disagreements in the search for common ground.

This experience of mine suggests that there is wisdom in starting congressional deliberation on a proposed bill with a relatively small group of politicians. A good recent example of the effectiveness of this starting point is found in the work of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 58 members equally divided among Republicans and Democrats, who have succeeded in forging bipartisan agreement on eleven issues for consideration by the 117th Congress. 

I do not underestimate the challenge of finding any common ground when the proposals from the Problem Solvers Caucus come to the floor of the House or Senate; challenges precipitated by the fact that those outside of the Problem Solvers Caucus have not taken the initiative to get to know one another to build mutual understanding and trust.

I have no easy solutions to this challenge. Possibly a return to Regular Order can be orchestrated in a way that enables there to be a series of small group conversations that will build the mutual understanding and trust needed to uncover some common ground before the bill is brought to the full House or Senate for a vote.

A common element in all that I have proposed above creates venues for us to talk about our disagreements regarding contentious public policy issues. I am not suggesting that such a search for common ground will necessarily uncover some common ground. As I like to assert every chance I get, “one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.” 

Therefore, as I have proposed in an earlier posting [Bipartisanship is a Process Not an End Result], a politician on either side of the political aisle is being is being bipartisan if she practices respectful conversation characterized by the rare combination of passionate commitment to her beliefs and openness to re-examining her beliefs in light of “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs of others. Therefore, “strong listening” is bipartisanship. One is practicing bipartisanship relative to a given piece of legislation if one practices “strong listening,” even if the final vote on the legislation includes no votes from those on the other side of the aisle. (Remember that one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation).

A possible objection to all that I have said above is a rejection of the idea that the search for common ground is the essence of doing politics. Those who situate themselves at either extreme of the political spectrum may argue that it is “my way or the highway”; I will not settle for less than a “full loaf.” I believe that this argument misunderstands the nature of politics, which, more often than not requires settling for “less than a full loaf.” It also reflects a lack of balance between the two poles of the rare combination of commitment and openness that I have argued is a pre-condition for having a respectful conversation that uncovers some common ground: strong on commitment, which is to be applauded, but weak on openness. I urge those who situate themselves at either extreme of the political spectrum to seek for a better balance between commitment and openness.

In conclusion. I address the question of how well President Biden is doing to date in what he calls his commitment to bipartisanship in politics. Let me focus my response on the current debate over potential legislation regarding infrastructure. A good start was that at the very beginning of debate about this contentious issue, President Boden hosted a meeting with Republican legislators. But my question is whether this meeting went beyond being the “weak listening” that characterizes being polite, to the “strong listening” of re-examining one’s beliefs about infrastructure in light of the contrary beliefs of others in the room. I don’t know if such “strong listening” took place, since I was not in the room and media reports about that meeting shed little light on that question.

But I do have a perspective on what should be the “ideal” in such a meeting: “Strong  listening” should be taking place The participants should exhibit that rare combination of deep commitment to their own beliefs about infrastructure and openness to re-examining their own beliefs in light of their “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs about infrastructure embraced by others in the room. If such “strong listening,” characterized by that rare combination is prevalent in the conversation, then there is hope for finding some common ground. But, even if the common ground uncovered is sparse or even non-existent, if “strong listening” was practiced in the deliberations, then bipartisanship was practiced.

Whether such bipartisanship emerges remains to be seen. There appears to be movement toward agreement on the size of a package.  President Biden has put a $1 trillion package on the table (after his earlier proposals for $2.2 trillion and $1.7 trillion) and Republicans have moved from an initial proposal for a $568 billion package to a $928 billion package. But the biggest obstacle to agreement is how to pay for whatever size package is agreed upon. It is my hope that in the days to come, some “strong listening” will lead to agreement on a package and how to pay for it that reflects the emergence of some common ground.

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.

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].

A note from Harold Heie.

THANKS!

I wish to express my deep appreciation to the 23 conversation partners who made such marvelous contributions to my recently completed eCircle on “Reforming Political Discourse.” You all dealt very effectively with some contentious issues regarding politics in America today and you expressed your disagreements with your respective partners with great respect and love. This project would not have been possible without your splendid work.

As for three of my previous eCircles, I am now working on a book manuscript that hopes to capture the highlights of this eCircle. I am aiming to complete this manuscript by November 1, 2018, with a publication date shortly thereafter. My tentative title for this book is Reforming American Politics: A  Christian Perspective.

Below you will find a copy of a talk I gave on June 9, 2018 at the bi-annual conference of Christians in Political Science held at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain in Georgia. This talk presents the foundational premise behind this eCircle; my reflections on the “pre-conditions for a respectful conversation in politics and beyond”; a Table of Contents for my forthcoming book; and some “preliminary findings” that will eventually be elaborated upon in the book.

Harold Heie

RESPECTFUL CONVERSATIONS IN POLITICS AND BEYOND

I am the token mathematician in this splendid gathering of Christian political scientists.

I was delighted when Kim Conger, a member of the CPS Cabinet invited me to give a talk on the topic “Stability of the Numerical Solution of Hyperbolic Partial Differential Equations in Three Independent Variables.”

Just kidding! That was actually the title of my doctoral dissertation.

Seriously, Kim was a “conversation partner” for the project I will tell you about this morning. She made a marvelous contribution and thought that attendees at attendees at this conference might find my project to be interesting. Time will tell!

So, I am honored and pleased to be here.

And I must say that I have enjoyed hearing excellent reports on how attendees are bringing Christian perspectives to bear on their scholarship and teaching as Christian political scientists. You are to be commended.

My real topic this morning is “Respectful Conversations in Politics and Beyond.”

A FEW WORDS TO REMEMBER

I used to have an elevated view of how long people remembered anything I said at a conference, church, classroom, anywhere.

My friend Bob cured me of that about 45 years ago. Bob and I were teaching at The King’s College, just north of New York City. We were on line for lunch one day and I told Bob that I had been asked to speak in chapel in about a week and I was thinking about speaking on a particular topic. But I was concerned that I had spoken in chapel about a year ago on a related topic and I didn’t want to repeat myself.

Bob looked at me, wide-eyed in disbelief, and said: “Harold, if conceit were consumption, you’d be consumed.”

But Bob wasn’t finished with me yet. He was just getting warmed up. He went on to say: “Harold, what makes you think anyone remembers anything you say 15 minutes after you say it”

So, since I don’t want to give you too much to forget, here are 8 words I hope you will remember long after this conference: You don’t love someone who you have silenced.

The seed for those few words were planted in the summer of 2011 when I decided I had enough of the appalling state of public discourse. Persons who disagreed with each other in public too easily resorted to name-calling and demonization of the other. They typically lived in echo chambers, listening only to persons who already agreed with them. They typically held to fixed positions, without openness to learning anything from those who disagreed with them.

There had to be a better way to engage those with whom you disagree, possibly even a “Christian way,” whatever that might mean.

I did a little research on how people communicate with each other electronically, with deplorable results. Blog postings were typically followed by numerous cryptic comments from readers that either praised the author, or, more often than not, vilified the author. Seldom did I find comments that continued or advanced a genuine conversation. What a wasteland!

Despite these disappointing findings, I decided I would give an online forum a shot, possibly because I didn’t have the financial means to gather folks together from far and wide for face-to-face conversations (which is the mode of engagement I prefer). So, with the help of a tech-savvy friend (since I am somewhat of a techno-bozo), I launched my own web site, www.respectfulconversation.net, dedicated to the goal of “Modeling respectful conversations among those who disagree about contentious contemporary issues.”

I decided to pursue this goal by hosting electronic conversations (eCircles) on selected topics. My first eCircle, on the topic “The Elusive Quest for Christian Unity,” went poorly, primarily because

after I announced the eCircle to about 100 friends via email, most of whom expressed keen interest, only 8 persons took the time to post pieces. As we used to say in the aerospace industry, I had to make a “mid-course correction” for subsequent eCircles (more about that in a few minutes)

If you now fast-forward to 2018, I have hosted eCircles on the following three topics: An Alternative Political Conversation, A Future for American Evangelicalism, and Human Sexuality. After each of these eCircles, I have published a book that attempts to capture the highlights of the eCircle (with the most recent book titled Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity). And I am now in the ninth month of a ten-month eCircle on the topic “Reforming Political Discourse,” on which I will focus for the remainder of this presentation.

I will start by laying bare the premise that informs all my eCircles.

The context for my premise is the universal agreement among Christians, as far as I can tell, that a follower of Jesus is called to love his/her neighbor. So far so, good. But there is significant disagreement as to how that neighbor love should be expressed.

My respectful conversation projects focus on one oft-neglected expression of such neighbor love. The premise behind my eCircles is very uncomplicated and easy to state (it isn’t rocket science, at least to state; it is much harder than rocket science to do).

Providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreements is a deep expression of love

A variation on this theme is: You don’t love someone who you have silenced.

I will now report on the broad contours of my present eCircle on “Reforming Political Discourse” (hereafter called RPD) in three sections: The structure of this conversation; Pre-conditions for a respectful conversation in politics (also applicable to all other areas of public discourse); and some preliminary findings, to date, from my present eCircle. 

The Structure of the RPD eCircle

My RPD eCircle consists of ten successive month-long conversations on pre-announced subtopics, with two or more pre-selected conversation partners posting 3000 word essays three times (on the 1st, 10th and 20th of the month) using an agreed upon protocol that focuses on Leading Questions that I have posed.

For each month, the conversation partners have been recruited based on my understanding that they likely have significant disagreements in their responses to my questions. As an aside, I should note that to recruit the 22 conversation partners for my RPD eCircle, I had to extend about100 invitations If you wonder about that, we can talk about that in our Q&A session.

For example, here is the pertinent information for the February 2018 conversation on the subtopic “The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics.” 

 

            Subtopic 5: The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics (February 2018)

Leading Questions: How have money and special interests influenced politics, for good or for ill? What is your position on the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court? Should the role of lobbyists for special interests be restricted? Should there be stricter conflict of interest rules? What are the implications of your position for President Trump’s “negotiating a deal” approach to politics?

Conversation Partners:

Kimberly Conger, Assistant Professor of Political Science & Public Administration, University of Cincinnati

Frank Hill, Director, The Institute for the Public Trust, Raleigh, NC

The agreed upon protocol for most of the month-long conversation called for the first posting to focus on the answers to my Leading Questions from each conversation partner; with the second posting calling for each partner to seek to identify the agreements and disagreements expressed in the first postings; and the third posting asking each partner to identify the issues that beg for ongoing conversation.

I found out the hard way a few eCircles ago that if I pose too many Leading Questions that were not closely inter-related, the CPs may address differing questions in their first postings, thereby nullifying the possibility of uncovering agreements and disagreements in their second postings (since they were talking about different things). You will notice that for the example before you, I do pose numerous questions. But that did not present a problem since at least the first four questions are closely inter-related] 

A crucial aspect of the structure for these conversations consisted of my expectations for how the conversation partners should “talk to one another in cyberspace; What I call my Guidelines for Respectful Conversation.”

 

         Guidelines for Respectful Conversation      

·      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 “for now we agree to disagree”; yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and keeps open the possibility of future conversations.
·      In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love.
 
It is extremely important for me to note that in extending invitations to join my eCircle as a conversation partner, I made it clear that to be accepted as a conversation partner, you had to agree up-front to abide by these “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation.”
 
One would like to think that you shouldn’t have to be so prescriptive up-front about how people should talk to one another. Shouldn’t that “go without saying?” No! I have found out the hard way that if you don’t stipulate before a conversation starts your expectations for how the conversation should be conducted, the conversation can quickly deteriorate because of the tendency these day to quickly resort to name-calling and demonization of a person who disagrees with you.
 
Since the goal of my eCircles is to “model respectful conversations among those who disagree about contentious contemporary issues,” I am pleased to report that for all my eCircles, my conversation partners have honored these guidelines for conversation to an admirable degree; thereby effectively modeling respectful conversation (You can confirm that conclusion by going to my web site).
 
A final word as to structure is about the book that I hope eventually emerges after completion of my RPD eCircle, on which I have been working all during my eCircle, writing a draft chapter during the month following each month of electronic conversation. The tentative Table of Context for this book is as follows. 
 

REFORMING AMERICAN POLITICS: A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

 

PART ONE: POLITICAL DISCOURSE

1. Talking Past Each Other or Worse

2. What Does Christian Love Demand?

PART TWO: THE NATURE OF POLITICS

3. A Comprehensive View of Political Activism

4. Party Politics and Beyond

5. The Role of Money and Special Interests in Politics

PART THREE: PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES

6. Immigration

7. Wealth and Poverty in America

8. Healthcare in America

PART FOUR: CASE STUDIES

9. Case Study Conversations Regarding Political Discourse and Political Action Within Churches and Christian Para-Church Organizations

PART FIVE: CONCLUSIONS

10. Are There Limits to Free Speech and Civil Discourse?

11. A Proposed Way Forward for Christians (And Others)

To give credit where credit is due, I note that during the stages of designing the agendas for all of my eCircles, I drew heavily on the expertise of “consultants” who have far more expertise in the subject matter than I do. So, for my current RPD eCircle, I was assisted immensely by input from Luke Bretherton from Duke Divinity School. The late Steve Monsma was an invaluable consultant for my “Alternative Political Conversation” eCircle, as was Julia Stronks, professor of political science at Whitworth university, for my eCircle on human sexuality. And The Colossian Forum, for whom I serve as a Senior Fellow, provided the financial support needed for the Five Espressos Firm to manage web site during this eCircle.

Pre-Conditions for a Respectful Conversation in Politics and Beyond

A conversation among persons who have strong disagreements will be fruitful only if the conversation partners exhibit commitment to the Christian virtues of love, humility and courage, and have an uncompromising commitment to seeking after “truth.”

As already noted, the pre-condition of love is to absolutely essential if a respectful conversation about disagreements is to take place; especially that oft-neglected expression of love that provides someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to first express and then talk about that disagreement

But the conversation partners must also give evidence of a significant measure of “humility.”

Ask yourself when the last time was that you heard a politician or staunch supporter of a particular public policy position say “I may be wrong.” As scripture teaches, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

As human beings, the particularities of our social locations inform our views on public policy. The position taken by someone who disagrees with me may be deeply informed by her particularities, such as her gender, socio-economic status, race, and elements of her personal biography, which may enable her to see things that I miss. Likewise, my particularities may enable me to see things that she misses. And since we are both finite and fallible human beings, we cannot claim that either of our partial glimpses captures the full truth on the matter, as only fully understood by God. In addition, I can be blinded when I succumb to the temptation to sin by thinking “it’s all about me and those who agree with me.” 

It is hubris; a gross failure to exemplify an appropriate attitude of humility for me to assume that I have a God’s eye view of the truth about a given policy issue. It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that “I may be wrong.” The ideal of “humility” that I aspire to for can be summarized as my acknowledgement that however strongly I hold to my beliefs and express them with deep conviction (and, yes, even with deep emotion and passion), I may be wrong.

Note that such humility does not mean being “wishy-washy” about your beliefs. Rather, it involves you holding in tension that very rare combination of holding to and expressing your beliefs with clarity and great conviction at the same time that you publicly acknowledge that you may be wrong.

Both Ian Barbour and Rischard Mouw have given eloquent expression to the nature of this rare combination. In his book Myths, Models and Paradigms, Barbour proposes the following definition of “religious maturity.”

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

In his splendid book Uncommon Decency, Richard Mouw draws on Martin Marty in highlighting the importance of “civility” in living out this rare combination of commitment and inquiry, calling for a “convicted civility.” 

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

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

A third pre-condition for actualizing a respectful conversation about significant disagreements is the virtue of “courage” – the willingness to “speak out” my understanding of the “truth” relative to the issue at hand, even if negative consequences result from my doing so.

One of my invitees to be a conversation partner for my eCircle on human sexuality declined my invitation, explaining that if he went public with his views on same-sex marriage, he would be “painting a bulls-eye on his back.” Sometimes we need the courage to paint bulls-eyes on our backs.

A fourth pre-condition for engaging in a respectful conversation with someone who disagrees with you is an uncompromising commitment to seek after “truth” about the issue at hand.

When you dig all the way down, it is my “quest for truth” that is the foundational reason for my passion for seeking to orchestrate respectful conversations among people who have strong disagreements, in the political realm and elsewhere.

This passion has emerged from a continuous integrative thread in my life since my early teaching days: my insatiable “quest for truth” at the cognitive level and my aspiration to live out that truth one day at a time.

The ultimate authority to which I am committed is not to be found in the pronouncements of church leaders, the Pope or anyone else, or to the interpretations of Scripture and doctrines of any particular Christian tradition or denomination, for no person or Christian tradition/denomination has a corner on God’s truth.

Rather, my ultimate authority is the truth as God fully knows it. The fact that I am not God presents a considerable challenge. Since I only have a partial glimpse of the truth, at best, it is important for me to engage with love, humility and courage in respectful conversations with those whose glimpses differ from mine, so that, together in conversation, we can gain better approximations to that truth.

I have received some push-back along the way because of my unswerving commitment to seeking after the “truth.” When I announced my eCircle on human sexuality, I became suspect in the eyes of some Christians in high places. The fact that I would give a voice to those who questioned the traditional view of marriage was a cause for suspicion.

I remember one phone conversation with the leader of a prominent Christian institution who said he would encourage such conversations at his institution, but these conversations would NOT lead to a change in the institution’s affirmation of the traditional view on marriage. That is a mockery! To set pre-conditions for the results of a respectful conversation is ludicrous because, as I never tire of saying, you cannot predict beforehand the results of a genuine conversation. During our telephone conversation, it soon became apparent that wed were motivated by different values.  Although he did not use these exact words, it seemed to me that he was driven by values like “acceptance” and “affirmation” by other institutions in his area of work and by concern over what the supporters of his institution would think, or do, if they found out that “we were even talking about such things.” Not once did I hear the word “truth” spoken. Nor do I recall any mention of the Christian values of love, humility and courage.

I will conclude by reporting on some of the preliminary findings for my RDP eCircle, which will be finished at the end of July.

Some Preliminary Findings

Since my formal education was completely devoid of any study of political science (not even one course), I may now be walking into the lion’s den in this room filled with political scientists. But I have often had more nerve than brains, so here goes. I will just share with you a brief glimpse at four tidbits that have emerged from the conversations to date. The eventual concluding chapter for my projected book will elaborate and, hopefully, improve upon what I will now briefly share. 

Political Equality Means That Everyone’s Voice Gets Heard (No one is Silenced)

In their robust exchange regarding the role of money and special interests in politics, Frank Hill and Kim Conger, one of your CPS leaders, start with divergent views as to the meaning of “political equality.” Frank equates “political equality” with an “equal right to vote.” Kim argues, very persuasively, for a much broader view of “political equality” as meaning that everyone “has a voice” and the problem with the inordinate influence of money in politics is that money “buys access and attention” that eludes those ordinary citizens who lack such resources. Frank and Kim do eventually find some common ground, which I hope you can read about some day.

In the Immigration Debate, Respect for the Rule of Law and a Pathway to Citizenship are Not Mutually Exclusive

The conversation about immigration between Matthew Soerens of World Relief and Robert McFarland, a law professor at Faulkner University, was of special interest to me because of my own  “on-the-ground” advocacy work on behalf of my Latino neighbors in northwest Iowa.

In face-to-to face conversations I have had with Congressman Steve King, Senator Chuck Grassley and a few Iowa State legislators, the omnipresent “conversation stopper” when talking about undocumented immigrants has been “They have broken the law, so they should be punished.”

Although these exact words were not used in the initial postings from Matthew and Robert, that general idea caused their conversation to get off to a bumpy start. Matthew wanted to jump right into a conversation about how current immigration laws could be made “more just.” Robert rightly pointed out that this assumes that there is agreement as to the meaning of “justice,” which he asserts, correctly I believe, is not the case: “justice is a contested concept” (as an important aside, disagreements as to the meaning of “justice” arose a number of times during this eCircle, which I am still trying to sort through).

In that context, Robert, the lawyer, focused on the retributive aspect of justice by emphasizing “respect for the rule of law”: Those who violate the law should be punished. 

In contrast, Matthew focused on the distributive aspect of justice, with a focus on the need to compassionately help the vulnerable and marginalized members of society, in accordance with the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25.

Matthew sought to bridge this divide by proposing a both/and position, calling for an appropriate form of punishment for those who entered our country illegally, in the form of fines, rather than the deportation that is tearing Latino families apart, combined with a pathway to citizenship (which you may recall was the essence of proposed legislation in 2013 which the Senate passed, but which died in the House). Robert eventually expressed sympathy for this both/and approach, although Matthew and Robert did not reach a meeting of minds as to what should be done about Dreamers.

It’s Not Just Politicians and Those Who Vote for Them Who do Politics

Whereas I started my eCircle thinking of politics as “seeking common ground for the common good,” a few of my conversation partners encouraged me to embrace a broader definition of politics as seeking to forge a common life together in the midst of a lack of agreement as to a common good.

If one accepts such a broader definition of doing politics, then it appears to me that politics is pervasive in all of life, including church activities and even living well together as a family.

In that context, Jim Skillen, the retired Founding President of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ) and Harry Boyte from Augsburg College had a provocative exchange about the proper scope of political activity.

Based on his direct experience with the Civil Rights movement on the 1960s, Harry argues that the “priority” for political action should lie with non-governmental entities, like churches and voluntary associations.

Jim argues for a both/and approach wherein “seeking to forge a common life together” should be the work of both governmental entities (the executive, legislative and judicial branches at the local, state and national levels) and non-governmental entities, such as families, schools, churches, businesses and voluntary associations, with a proper differentiation between the responsibilities of these various entities, as per Kuyperian thought. The possible role of churches in such broadly defined “political activity” is the June subtopic currently under discussion on my eCircle.

A common theme emerges from these first three tidbits: A both/and approach to public policy, rather than an either/or approach” Political equality means BOTH an equal right to vote AND giving everyone a voice in the political process. Political activism should include BOTH activity in the governmental realm AND activities carried out by non-governmental entities, like churches and voluntary associations, that are seeking to forge a flourishing common live together in the midst of disagreements. Immigration reform should include BOTH  a respect for the rule of law AND a pathway to citizenship. And to sneak in another example not included in mt three tidbits, reflecting the results of my May conversation on healthcare, improvement of our healthcare system will require BOTH private AND governmental initiatives.

But, therein lies the rub: politicians and their supporters typically gravitate toward “either/or” approaches to advocating for particular public policies, not “both/and” approaches. This leads me to my final tidbit from the results of my RPD eCircle; a possible first “fatal flaw” in my project.

A Possible Fatal Law: Political Tribalism

One of the most cogent observations made by my conversation partners was presented by Kevin den Dulk, which, as I will soon explain, could be viewed as pointing to a fatal flaw in my entire eCircle project. It has to do with what Kevin refers to as “affective polarization, which is the foundation for our current “political tribalism.” So, as not to lose anything in translation, here are Kevin’s exact words (posted on my web site).

… We often bemoan how ideology or policy preferences on hot-button issues push partisans apart, and indeed these are important concerns. But today’s most consequential divisions are more basic; they operate at the level of identity. Political scientists call this pattern affective polarization, a deep emotional resonance with a party – the “in-group” – and visceral reaction against the opposition – the out-group. Our partisan divide isn’t merely about liberals versus conservatives, pro-life versus pro-choice. Our lives as partisans have become downright tribal.

To paraphrase what Kevin goes on to say, the effect of such “tribalism” is that most political conversations don’t involve listening carefully to opposing viewpoints and deciding on the basis of the perceived merits of the reasons given (which are central features of my project). Rather, it is more common to resort to a “rationalization” for a given position that flows only from one’s tribal identity.

Kevin then adds the observation that what makes this tribalism so destructive is the unwarranted leap that is made from believing that the other person is “wrong” to asserting that he/she, therefore, is “evil,” citing some research that was done at Stanford University.” In Kevin’s exact words: 

If mere ideology or policy views were the bases of inter-group attitudes, partisans would simply describe the opposition as wrongheaded. But instead partisans overwhelmingly label their opponents as untrustworthy, immoral, and dangerously threatening.

Kevin’s legitimate concern could be ameliorated if there were more “moderates” on both sides of the political aisle who would be willing to listen to those on the other side of the aisle and seek for both/and public policy positions that reflect the best thinking on both sides of the aisle. But with the current “hollowing out of the middle” in legislative bodies, the political field is increasingly dominated by extremists who say it’s EITHER my way OR the highway”; extremists who thrive on political tribalism.

As we Norwegians say, “uff da” (A Norwegian expression of dismay).

I think Kevin has hit the nail right on the head as to the most fundamental pathology in current American politics. But I must then be open to the possibility that my whole project, which assumes that people will discuss political differences in a respectful manner based on the merits of reasons given for differing positions, will have little influence on how people do politics these days (a first possible fatal flaw in my project).

A second possible fatal flaw is the scary thought that no one will continue the conversations are barely begun during my eCircle. A total of six 3000 word postings on any of the complex subtopics is totally inadequate. My eCircle is meant only be the beginning of a conversation; not the end.

I’m not sure I have a cogent response to these two legitimate concerns. But I will leave you with one closing thought.

I have not hosted my current eCircle on politics, because I envision being “successful” in changing how Americans do politics. I embarked on this eCircle because I aspire to be faithful to my understanding of how followers of Jesus are called to lovingly and respectfully engage those who disagree with them in politics (and all other areas of public discourse).

But I do have this wild dream, that I can only envision through the eyes of faith, that if my eCircle models “respectful conversation” in an effective manner and readers will see that it can even lead to some good public policy positions, they will sit up and take notice and give it a try (continuing the conversation). But I say that knowing that there is a fine line between faith and stupidity and I am not always sure on which side of that line I am walking.

Throughout my life, I have been driven by dreams that seem impossible. What has sustained me is the parable of the mustard seed, recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32.

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

My calling as a follower of Jesus is to plant tiny “seeds of redemption.” I can entrust the harvest to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK CONTRACT SIGNED

I am very pleased to announce that I have just signed a contract with Cascade Books (Eugene, OR) for them to publish the manuscript that emerged from this eCircle on “Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality.” The title for this book will be Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity. George Marsden has written a Foreword for this book, which will be released in the summer or early fall of 2017.

Since my hope for this book is that it will be received as only the “beginning,” not the “end” of an important ongoing conversation, I hope that upon its release the contributors to this eCircle and the readers of this conversation will consider the possibility of using it, or promoting its use, in their various spheres of influence.

I want to once again thank my conversation partners for this eCircle, as well as George Marsden and the many readers who followed this conversation. This project would not have been possible without you. I am most appreciative.

Harold Heie
February 11, 2017

MUSLIMS IN DONALD TRUMP’S OLD NEIGHBORHOOD SAY, COME GET TO KNOW US

“Donald, come home.” As Liz Robbins reported in a recent online post in the New York Times, that was the message on the night of December 7 in Queens, New York “as two dozen men finished their prayers in a basement mosque beneath a discount store on Hillside Avenue in the Jamaica neighborhood, just a block from where Donald J. Trump grew up.”

As Ali Najmi said after prayers at the Arafa Islamic Center in response to the question “Where are the moderate Muslims”: “We’re right here; we’re right in Donald Trump’s neighborhood. He needs to come back home.” Mr. Najmi has extended a Twitter invitation to Donald Trump to come back for “some halal kebabs and a cup of chai tea in the old neighborhood.”

I never tire of saying that it is all too easy to marginalize and demonize persons who disagree with you when you don’t know them on a personal level, including a whole category of persons, like the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are deeply committed to peace and justice. The only antidote to that prevalent contemporary tendency is to take time to get know those who differ from you, listening to and understanding their expressions of joy and sorrow, and their aspirations for the future, which may be very similar to your hopes and dreams.

I know from personal experience that a profound change in perspective can occur when you get to personally know someone who differs from you. So, Donald Trump should accept Mr. Najmi’s gracious invitation, and all of us should take the necessary steps to get to know those who differ from us, especially those who strongly disagree with us. At this time for making resolutions for the New Year, that would be a good place to start.

 

 

POLITICS IN THE TRENCHES: LOCAL ADVOCACY FOR IMMIGRATION REFORM IN IOWA

Promoting public justice in a dysfunctional political system is not for the faint of heart. Systemic obstacles are enormous, such as closed primaries that minimize the number of moderate voters and candidates participating in the nominating process; gerrymandered voting districts that protect or harm the political interests of incumbents and parties; winner-take-all elections that militate against the diversity of voices within our pluralistic society, and the inordinate political influence of those with wealth since Citizens United (See Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. New York: Basic Books, 2012, 143-160).

These seemingly intractable obstacles are enough to tempt a Christian to give up hope, or succumb to a truncated view of God’s redemptive purposes that focuses exclusively on modeling Christian values within our Christian communities. To be sure, such modeling is important. But if we wash our hands of the messy business of political engagement, we ignore our calling as Christians to plant seeds of redemption in all areas of life, including the political realm (Colossians 1: 19-20; Matthew 13: 31-32).

So what then are we called to do in the political realm? While some of us may address these systemic problems head on, others will sense a calling to embark on local citizen initiatives that are seemingly more modest… at least until you try them.

What follows is an account of my local endeavors as an advocate for immigration reform in Sioux County, Iowa, arguably one of the most politically conservative counties in the United States. My report here does not reflect any formal education in political science (which, for me, is nil). Rather, it is a story “from the trenches,” focusing on my attempts to promote legislation in the Iowa Legislature that would grant Temporary Visitor Driver’s Licenses (TVDLs) for undocumented immigrants. This is an initiative of the Center for Assistance, Service and Advocacy (CASA) of Sioux County, where I serve as Chair of their Advocacy Group. The vision of CASA is to bring about transformed Northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower and celebrate people from all cultures.

In the 2015 session of the Iowa legislature, TVDL legislation received some discussion, but never came to a vote for lack of broad support. This legislation would have granted TVDLs to undocumented immigrants who met stipulated eligibility requirements and then passed a driving test and obtained auto insurance. Possible eligibility requirements could have included the submission of a valid foreign passport or consular identification and proof of legal residency. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have approved TVDLs with specific, yet somewhat differing requirements. A TVDL cannot be used to register to vote, to vote, to apply for public benefits, to apply for a Firearm Owner ID card, to board an airplane, or to enter a federal building.

 Benefits of TVDLs

Citizens like me who support and promote the granting of TVDLs see it as a win-win-win situation, reaping obvious benefits for public safety, for employers, and for immigrant families.

It appears that the main argument that has convinced legislators in twelve states and the District of Columbia to approve TVDL legislation focuses on its benefits for public safety. It insures that all immigrant drivers get tested on driving skills and know the rules of the road, it requires them to carry auto insurance, and it enables first responders to medical emergencies to use the license to identify the individual they are assisting.

TVDLs will also help local employers by insuring that their immigrant workers will have a dependable means to travel to work.

Finally, TVDLs will be of great benefit to immigrant families by enabling workers to drive to work and by legalizing family travel to schools, churches, medical facilities and shopping outlets.

Obstacles to TVDL Legislation and Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Given these benefits, what is not to like? I have heard a number of concerns and responses, one of which is the legitimate concern that TVDL legislation needs to be carefully crafted to avoid abuses, such as forging the required documentation to meet eligibility requirements.

But two other major obstacles to TVDL legislation reflect the widespread dysfunction and brokenness that I have found in the current political system. One sign of this pervasive brokenness is that the primary goal of too many politicians is to get elected, and then re-elected, rather than to govern well in a manner that promotes the well-being of their constituents.

I experienced this when talking face-to-face with elected law enforcement officers about the possibility of getting their support for TVDL legislation. While a handful of elected law enforcement officers in Iowa support such legislation, the majority of elected law enforcement officers, whose very job is to promote public safety, oppose it. Why? My paraphrase of an underlying reason I have discerned from my conversations is that even if an elected law enforcement officer acknowledges the many benefits for public safety, employers and our Latino neighbors, going public in support of such legislation could lead to being voted out of office since the majority of constituents are against any type of immigration reform.

A second, often unspoken, but extremely prevalent obstacle to TVDL legislation is captured in the words, “That would be rewarding those who have broken the law.” I have found that those who express this concern have usually succumbed to a second symptom of the current brokenness of politics– a hyper-partisanship that takes an either/or approach to solving societal problems rather than seeking the both/and solutions that could emerge if those on both sides of the political aisle genuinely engaged one another. 

The current debate about comprehensive immigration reform, which includes and goes beyond potential TVDL legislation, is a case in point. Those on one side of the political aisle focus on strengthening border enforcement and punishing those who have broken the law by entering our country illegally. Those on the other side of the aisle focus on providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Very few politicians say we need to do both, possibly because such both/and thinking typically gets punished on Election Day. In 2013, the U S Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that included both a pathway to citizenship and punishment for those who have broken the law by means of appropriate fines. But House leaders who embrace either/or thinking refused to even bring the bill up for a vote.

Such either/or thinking is also prevalent among Christians who are committed to promoting justice consistent with their understanding of the biblical record. Some Christians focus exclusively on those biblical teachings that call for a proper respect for the “rule of law” (e.g., Romans 13: 1-7 and 1 Peter 2: 13-14). They conclude, and rightfully so, that the restorative/retributive dimension of justice requires punishing those who have broken the law. Other Christians focus exclusively on the call for Christians to “welcome the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:18 and Matthew 25: 31-40). They conclude, and rightfully so, that the distributive dimension of justice calls for seeking the well-being of all people groups in society, with a special focus on those who are marginalized and disadvantaged.

When I listen to Christians talking about the possibility of immigration reform, I often perceive this disturbing either/or thinking that does not adequately address the tension between these two dimensions of justice in the biblical record. Christians committed to promoting justice should embrace both of these dimensions, which were duly included in the Senate attempt in 2013 to forge legislation for comprehensive immigration reform and which can be addressed in TVDL legislation.

Christian Responses to the Obstacles

To address the obstacles to TVDL legislation or any type of immigration reform, Christians should begin with “getting their own house in order” and think carefully about the biblical teachings about justice. The Center for Public Justice has numerous resources to inform that task, among them its Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.

The Guideline on Citizenship highlights the urgency of political advocacy for immigration reform by asserting that “Responsible citizenship includes … helping to shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice.” The Guideline on Government embraces the need to find a proper balance between restorative/retributive and distributive justice by asserting that “Upholding public justice for a political community must include responsiveness to a variety of interrelated principles, such as distributive justice, which holds for the way government allocates benefits, and retributive and restorative justice, which holds for the way government punishes offenses and seeks restitution and reconciliation.”

Finally, the Guideline on Family points to the need to address the devastating effect that our current broken immigration system has on the unity and stability of immigrant families. The Guideline asserts that “Government should aim to uphold the integrity and social viability of families.” 

However, as important as these educational efforts are, a more adequate understanding of  the biblical call for justice will have minimal impact on the ground if Christians do not directly address the two main political obstacles noted above: the current focus for politicians on just getting elected, and the hyper-partisanship that precludes both/and approaches to solving societal problems.

Therefore, for those seeking to address these two obstacles, I’d like to offer a proposal, one that echoes a truth stated by Mark Prosser, the Director of Public Safety and Police Chief in Storm  Lake, Iowa, who has worked tirelessly for many years advocating for immigration reform: “Working for immigration reform is a marathon, not a sprint.” My proposal calls for a marathon run and not a sprint because it seeks to change hearts and minds by means of developing personal relationships, which won’t happen overnight. 

My experience in the trenches tells me that too many Anglos who are unsympathetic to the plight of their immigrant neighbors haven’t taken the time to get to know them. Too many legislators argue for bills that can have profound negative effects on immigrants that they don’t know. So, our immigrant neighbors too easily become faceless statistics, not real human beings who have the same aspirations and dreams as all other human beings.

I believe that a profound change in perspective happens when we get to know our immigrant neighbors on a personal level A few years ago, I led a series of seminars at my church in which we didn’t talk at or about our immigrant neighbors. Rather, we talked with our immigrant neighbors, listening to their painful stories about how the current broken immigration system was decimating the unity and stability of their families. We found out that many of those who were undocumented fled to our country to provide their families with food and other basic necessities that they couldn’t get in their homelands, and that we wouldn’t think of doing without. We admired their close-knit families and the ways in which they have made important contributions to local economies by working faithfully at low-paying jobs that Anglos would no longer take.

Since then, CASA has arranged for our Sioux County Sheriff to meet with small groups of our Latino neighbors to listen face-to-face to their expressions of concern about law enforcement issues. For the past four years, we have sponsored an annual Latino Festival that celebrates Latino culture and enables Anglos and Latinos to get to know one another better around good Latino food, entertainment, and children’s activities.

So, my proposed strategy for winning the marathon of immigration reform is this: Get to know your immigrant neighbors and take whatever steps are necessary to encourage and enable your political representatives to get to know their immigrant constituents on a personal level. That will have a profound effect on who you vote into office and the political initiatives your legislators decide to promote. Implementing this strategy will take a long time and will not be easy. But running a marathon has never been easy.

Questions for Reflection:

1- What is your experience with politicians who are preoccupied with just getting elected and practicing hyper-partisan either/or thinking? What have you tried to do to overcome such obstacles?

2- What would be the most appropriate balance in immigration reform legislation between the biblical calls to “welcome the stranger” and respect the “rule of law?”

3- What concrete steps can you take in your neighborhood to get to know your immigrant neighbors and to encourage your political representatives to get to know their immigrant constituents on a personal level?

-This essay was first published in the November 16, 2015 issue of the Capital Commentary of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ). Harold Heie has served as a Trustee of CPJ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interlude: Christian Values Underlying Respectful Conversations About LGBT Issues

I believe that every decision a person makes is informed by one or more value commitments. If you dig beneath the surface of any decision, you will uncover underlying commitment to something judged to be “important.”

Therefore, as the third round of my nine-round electronic conversation on Human Sexuality draws to a close, the reader may find it helpful if I lay bare my value commitments that underlie this eCircle; the value commitments that constitute my most fundamental reasons for embarking on this challenging and controversial project.

The Christian values that informed my decision to undertake this project are Truth, love, and Christian unity, the bare contours of which I will now briefly outline. 

Truth

As recorded in John 18:37, Jesus said “… for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to Timothy says: “God … desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2: 3-4).

Whatever the issue at hand, I have an unquenchable desire to get at the “truth of the matter,” which God fully knows (Truth with a capital T) and which may differ from my present understanding as a finite, fallible human being who “sees through a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Because my beliefs about a given issue may be wrong, it is important for me to listen to those who disagree with me; starting with an attempt to understand the reasons for our disagreement. As a Christian working out of a given Christian tradition and worshipping in a particular faith community, this means I must treat with utmost respect and seriousness the beliefs of those in my community and tradition, starting with what may be termed “traditional” beliefs that have stood the test of time for centuries.  But there is significant empirical evidence that sometimes a given Christian community or tradition “gets things wrong,” because all human beings and the communities they form are fallible. 

The views expressed above can be misinterpreted as my rejecting the “authority of the Church.” For example, a Christian in the Catholic tradition may wonder what authority, if any, I give to the pronouncements of the Catholic Magisterium. The same question can be asked of the pronouncements of the leaders of any Church denomination or tradition. As I have already suggested, such pronouncements must be treated with the utmost respect and seriousness. But, dare I say it: even the Pope or any other church leader(s) can be wrong. My ultimate authority is the “authority of Truth.” It is my commitment to the ultimate “authority of Truth” that prompts me to engage in “respectful conversation” with those whose understanding of the “Truth” differs from mine, with the hope and prayer that we may, together, gain a better approximation of that “Truth.”

Love

I find no disagreement among Christians regarding the clear biblical teaching that if you aspire to be a follower of Jesus, you are called to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 31). But disagreements abound as to appropriate expressions of such love for neighbors. I am not competent to sort out all those disagreements. But I will point to what I believe are two central aspects of such love for others; at least the first of which is too often neglected by Christians.

First, I believe that it is a deep expression of love for another person who disagrees with you about any issue when you provide that person with a “welcoming space” to express their disagreements and you then engage that person in “respectful conversation” about your agreements and disagreements, seeking first to find “common ground” and then seeking to illuminate remaining disagreements in a manner that will be the basis for ongoing conversation. This firm belief has driven many of my activities over the course of my Christian pilgrimage.

The call for followers of Jesus to love others also points to what I believe is a universal human need; the need for covenant relationships with other persons. Without attempting to parse the differences between love and friendship, a common element is the need for connectedness with other persons characterized by a commitment to foster the well-being of the other and expressions, however varied, of affection and intimacy.

The overarching message of the Bible points to the importance of such covenant relationships. My own personal experience reinforces its importance. Whatever the issue at hand, the centrality of covenant relationships needs to be fostered.

Christian Unity

Jesus once uttered a prayer that has yet to be answered.

I ask not only on behalf of these [the original disciples of Jesus], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17: 20-21, emphasis mine)

The disunity among those who profess to be followers of Jesus is and always has been a scandal. All too often, when we disagree, about issues great and small, we gravitate toward those who agree with us, excluding from our fellowship, or even calling into question the genuineness of the Christian commitment of those whose partial glimpse of the Truth differs from ours. 

The unity for which Jesus prayed is not “uniformity” of belief or ecclesiastical practice. Rather it involves covenanting to “stick together” around a common commitment to being followers of Jesus in the midst of our disagreements regarding many issues.

The most meddlesome aspect of the prayer of Jesus quoted above is the suggestion that the ultimate apologetic for the credibility of the Christian faith is unity among Christians. When those who do not follow Jesus witness the disunity among Christians, it is no wonder that they find our attempts to witness incredible. I believe that the greatest “witness” that we can give to those who do not share our Christian faith is to demonstrate unyielding commitment to Truth, love and Christian unity.

Reactions

I have received many expressions of appreciation for creating an electronic venue that enables Christians who have strong disagreements about LGBT issues to talk through their differences in a gracious and respectful manner.

But some other Christians, in good faith, have questioned the wisdom of having public conversations about LGBT issues that divide many Christian communities. One concern appears to be possible unintended consequences of baring our disagreements to the larger public. I understand that concern. But if we focus on “what others will think of us” if we dare to talk about these contentious issues, what is missing is consideration of the long-term gain of choosing to be faithful, come what may, to the foundational Christian values of Truth, love and Christian unity. As I have suggested, this compromises our “witness” to the larger public. I welcome hearing from those who lament our having these conversations as to the value commitments that underlie their lament. That could be the springboard for another important conversation at the foundational level of Christian value commitments.

To make this call for further conversation more concrete, I will report on one expression of a fundamental reason why these conversations should not take place that is indeed based on strong commitment to a Christian value. The president of a Christian college recently withdrew its membership from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) because two other CCCU members (Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University) had made policy changes that allow for the hiring of gay and lesbian faculty. This college president has been quoted as saying that in making these changes in hiring policy, Goshen and EMU have “abandoned fidelity to God’s Word.”

I certainly embrace “fidelity to God’s Word” as a fundamental Christian value. But an appeal to that value without further conversation begs the question as to how to proceed when biblical scholars who are equally committed to that value disagree about what the Bible teaches about LGBT issues. They should talk! And that is what Mark Strauss and Jim Brownson have done in such an admirable manner in our second conversation. I believe that it is an underlying commitment to the Christian value of “Truth” that should motivate all Christians to talk to each other about their differing interpretations of Biblical passages to which they wish to maintain fidelity. And such “talking” will also have the benefit of fostering the Christian values of love and Christian unity. I will welcome hearing from those who disagree with me about that.

Some Further Reflections on the Conversation to Date

I close with a few more bare-bones reflections on the three month-long conversations that are near completion.

Eve Tushnet & Justin Lee, Mark Strauss & Jim Brownson, and Chris Grace & Dave Myers far exceeded my expectations with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of their postings on our first three sub-topics. Working through the rich details of their postings is not for the faint of heart. Readers looking for 30 second sound bytes will be disappointed. I am encouraged that each pair of “conversation partners” was able to identify areas of agreement (common ground) and identify areas on disagreement in a careful manner that will be a good springboard for ongoing conversations.

But what pleases me most is the superb manner in which each set of conversation partners presented their positions in a gracious and kind manner that demonstrated great respect for the other even in the midst of some strong disagreements. I only have space here to quote one example, the concluding words of Justin Lee regarding his exchanges with Eve Tushnet in the first conversation (Voices from the Gay Community).  

So as I wrap up my part in this conversation, I find myself deeply moved. I am moved by Eve’s grace in disagreement and her friendship to me as we challenge one another. I am encouraged, too, by the depth of conversation we’ve been able to have in six simple articles. But I’m also reminded why these conversations are so important in the first place. Many hurting, lonely people’s lives hang in the balance.

My own position on this topic hasn’t changed, but my appreciation for Eve and understanding of her view has certainly increased, and I’d say that’s worth it. Respectful conversation of this sort is hugely undervalued in the church. It may not always change minds, but it is powerful and effective. Given the importance of this topic, we can’t afford not to listen to each other.

We are, after all, supposed to be known by our love.