Moving From Self-Centered to Other-Centered: Reflections from a “Wandering Jew and a Very Confused Christian”

In his insightful and provocative book The Second Mountain, David Brooks proposes that in searching for a “moral life,” one should move from climbing a “first mountain,” characterized by the phrase “I’m Free to be Myself,” to climbing a “second mountain” where life moves from self-centered to other-centered, as captured by the phrase “Where All in This Together.” He explores the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose on the second mountain: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. Particularly provocative is his description of his own religious pilgrimage, ending with his assertion that he is a “wandering Jew and a very confused Christian.”

A Just and Fair Society

As every reader of my website knows by now, since I never tire of saying it, in one way or another, the premise that underlies my Respectful Conversation project since its inception about eight years ago is that providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then talking respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love.

I generally add that this is much easier said than done. I recently read the following words of truth, which are also easy to say but extremely difficult to live by.

In a just and fair society, the healthy should care for the sick; the rich should care for the poor; the mighty should care for the weak; and the prosecutor should care about the prisoner.

How the Christian Value of Truthfulness Could Inform The Aftermath to the Mueller Report

In my forthcoming book Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation, I propose that one “Way Forward” for Christians to work toward such reformation is to eschew the hyper-partisanship that is evident when the first question that is asked about any public policy issue is “What does my political party say?”.

Rather, Christians should substitute their “Christian lenses” for their “partisan political lenses,” by “digging deep down” to uncover the “Christian values” that should inform their position on the particular issue, values such as love, humility, courage, truth, justice, patience and hope.

Healing and Bridging Divisions by Getting to Know One Another

In her insightful book Political Tribes, Amy Chua points out the truth that all human beings have a need to “belong,” which causes us to value our associations with one or more “groups.” 

But, as professor Chua then goes on to elaborate, many of our group identities too easily morph into an “us-versus-them” tribal mentality that demonizes other groups that disagree with our group. Relative to political issues, this conflict often emerges from a belief that “me and my group” have the “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” relative to the public policy being discussed and those in “that other group” are “all wrong.” This tribal mentality becomes particularly pernicious when an unwarranted extrapolation is then made from “they are wrong” to “they are evil” and not to be trusted.

Disagreement is Easy; Agreement Takes Time

In his book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Protestant Christianity, Kevin Vanhoozer shares the following insightful reflection on why “disagreement is easy” for Christians while uncovering agreements is much more challenging.

“[I]t is easier to disagree than to agree. Agreement requires patient listening, and time. It is more convenient simply to categorize others as “wrong’ Christians. Such mental shortcuts enable able us to make snap judgments, but labeling fails to do justice to others” (207-208).

This reflection adds another important dimension to a primary obstacle to hosting “respectful conversations” about contentious issues that I noted in my last Musing (“My Books May Make Most Readers Mad”). In that musing, I pointed to the primary obstacle of the difficulty in our culture that is plagued by tribalism of finding persons who embrace the rare combination of holding to their beliefs with deep conviction while remaining open to the possibility of learning something from someone who disagrees with them.

Will my Books Make Most Readers Mad?

I recently completed a seven-session small group face-to-face conversation, involving nine persons, in my local Orange City (IA) community about my book Respectful LGBT Conversations. Attendees fell into the following three categories regarding their beliefs about same-sex marriage: affirming; opposing; undecided. 

The reactions of attendees to my book depended on which of these three positions a given attendee embraced. I will briefly elaborate, hoping that my reflections will be of help to any of my website readers who may be contemplating hosting small face-to-face conversations about   human sexuality or any other contentious issue.

Starting with Foundational Christian Values

What follows is a response to an inaugural posting by Jim Skillen, founder and retired President of the Center for Public Justice, for an electronic conversation he is hosting on “Reformational Explorations.”

In his inaugural posting, Jim Skillen proposes three tasks for our collective consideration, the first of which is to “clarify the norms or standards by which we make judgments about what is positive or negative, constructive or destructive” relative to the “quality of public governance.” He asks specifically whether there are “criteria” for making such judgements.

I will share my initial reflections on this first task, starting with a painful story of what transpired in an Adult Discipleship class that I was facilitating at my home church in Orange City, Iowa.

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).

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

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

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

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


A Christian Perspective on the Political Divide in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Holding onto Power Lightly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nature of Respectful Conversations

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