We Need To Talk

In the current divided state of our nation and churches, it’s more important than ever to have meaningful conversation. Written the weekend after the testimonies of Dr. Blasey-Ford and Kavanaugh, prior to his vote on to the Supreme Court.

The past few weeks have been emotionally exhausting. Like many, my thoughts were consumed with the events in our nation’s capital, my eyes glued to the screen as live updates rolled in, my heart filled with heaviness at how I feared everything would play out.

It was a terrible situation in its own right, that had its own stakes. But of course, it was also about so much more.

The past two years. The wider-than-ever chasm in our nation. The division within our churches, communities, and families. The seeming impasse within our government – but also within our country, as it relates to our postures toward those who shared a different view. And then there’s the backdrop of the #metoo movement. The greater narrative of an oppression that had gone on for all too long. Not to mention so many other issues of injustice that have yet to see their day of reckoning. People are tired. There is a larger sense of exhaustion, one that has given up on discussion, dialogue, and diplomacy – replaced instead by one of having had enough, being finished, just done. A talking at each other that has naturally led to a refusal to engage on either side. The closing up and digging in. And all the vitriol and anger.

For me, personally, it has been a heartbreaking season. Whether perceived or true, the stakes seemed to be higher than ever in our last election cycle (and I daresay have proven to be as such). Because of some of the things being said by the candidates running for office and the policies at stake, it felt more personal than ever. Which made it all the harder to come to terms with the differences among our communities.

It’s hard to say if social media was the cause or merely the medium, but it certainly contributed to a devolution in productive conversation. It was devastating to see such definitive posts or articles written by friends and even leaders whom I had looked up to, that could be so strong in opinion (often expressed in a negative tonality), dismissive of other perspectives, and even lacking respect for others. Seeing comments written, as stranger after stranger would chime in and build on with their attacks of the other. Or even just seeing the types of articles that friends were liking, which seemingly revealed their inner thoughts even if they weren’t expressing them. There was shock; there was disappointment; and there was no room for discussion.

It didn’t help that this seemed exacerbated in the church. Perhaps out of fear for alienating various groups, it seemed that when leaders were not keeping their opinions to themselves, they were only broaching key topics only superficially in politically correct ways, leaving little room for the can of worms to be opened. The loudest voices in the larger church came from more right-wing camps, but for the many that disagreed, there was no space to process their concerns and thoughts. Many felt lost. Most felt isolated. And in that loneliness, there was so much hurt and anger.

With the developments late last week, it felt like deja vu again. And again. Partisanship. Power over process. Politics over people. I wasn’t even angry anymore; just so utterly tired, discouraged, and defeated.

It seemed strangely apropros then, when some old friends of almost a decade long came to town to visit and stay with us. From our young adult days to our lives today married with kids, we’ve shared countless meals, traveled together, shared life events together, shared our hearts together.

We also share very different opinions.

We have had very different upbringings, different experiences, and hold very different views. Yet since the early days of our friendship, we have always have very rich dialogue across the full range of topics, including current events, policies, and politics. Each election cycle, we would gather to discuss each candidate and proposition one by one, exchanging our differing perspectives (in fact, some of you may even have used copies of our notes from those sessions). I took it for granted back then. These days, I realize just how special that may have been.

When the kids went to bed, we initially danced around conversationally, discussing lighter-hearted topics instead of what was on all our minds. Did we really want to go there, when we could just be having fun? But soon, we cut to the issues. Over the course of the weekend, we must’ve spent at least 8 hours across two late nights discussing, dialoguing, and at moments debating. It was hard – there were moments we couldn’t believe how the other could possibly think the way they thought, to the brink of tears. But the desire to understand was there, and we pressed on, leaning in toward engagement. And though we landed in the same “place” we began – none of us necessarily changed where we stood on the issues – it was, in effect, also a totally different place, one of much greater understanding on both sides.

Perhaps most interesting was how close, together, and connected we felt in the aftermath. That though we may be different, we are also more similar than we think. And in further reflection, the most profound effect may in fact be the impact on my heart. How my heart has softened to those around me. How it feels more hopeful. How aware, appreciative, and reconnected to a larger sense of our shared humanity once again. In processing how this was different from other forms of exchange, the conversation itself was key. What I believe made it effective were a few key attributes:

1. Relationship. We weren’t the faceless enemy behind a screen or the latest news. We had a human connection. In absence of that relational context, words can so easily be misconstrued. There are always gaps. In a more public sphere, we often speak not in conversation but in statement. It’s difficult to explore together. To process together. And it’s extremely hard to see the other as a fellow brother, sister, citizen, and human.

2. A desire to listen. The goal of the discussion from the start had never been to convince and change minds, but to learn why the other thought the way they did. There was a willingness to suspend our own judgment and perspective to listen and learn.

3. Staying informed while acknowledging where data ended. Both sides were able to come with an informed perspective, and where data points seemed contradictory or insufficient, there was an openness to acknowledging our gaps and a willingness to do more due diligence and learn more. There was also an openness to challenge our own accepted truths, to consider the limits of hard facts and acknowledge where value systems began. Which helped us consider other peoples’ truths.

4. And most important of all, love and respect. I’m reminded of the verse that kicks off the famous Biblical passage of 1 Corinthians 13 on love: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. In the absence of love which begets respect, our words become noise. It’s impossible to hear and in turn, impossible to receive. This was perhaps the most critical factor. Our space was safe. There has never been one instance of disrespecting the other over their views; rather, we trusted that the other must have their reasons, which we wanted to better understand. On what would otherwise have been one of the most discouraging weekends, I came away with greater hope. It was a needed reminder that though our world is so divided, we each individually still hold the power to reach out and make those connections. That we actually have much in common. That we are not alone. That we are each greater than our vote. That it is possible to engage productively. That perhaps there are ways to move beyond the “either/or” to the “yes/and”. That at the end of the day, we are all human, and we ultimately have the power and agency to choose to value and treat each other accordingly.

And it all begins with conversation.

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