Friday, June 27, 2008

“The Discipline of Healthy Discourse: A Possible Gift of the Presidential Races”

June 26, 2008

Within the last few months I’ve had a slow steady stream of classmates from high school pop up with “friend requests” on my Facebook page. This is all rather surreal. On the newsfeed section I can see the Facebook activities of students from Hope College, students from Casady School in Oklahoma where I taught middle division, students from OCS where I first taught high school, friends from grad school who now live in the UK, Colorado, California and some who remain in Canada, friends from church back at Bridgeway in OKC...all these people lumped together with people who sat next to me in Speech class and Algebra, competed with me in PE, football and basketball and played in band and sang in Chorus. It is not that I don’t want to connect with these long-lost friends, it is that in trying to come to terms with who they are now almost fifteen years later, I find myself pondering who I am now fifteen years later. If anything, these people pop up in our lives in a way that brings continuity to our stories. They help us bracket ourselves, to step outside ourselves and see ourselves better as if from their perspective. Isn’t this why so many of us are afraid of school reunions? In some way the gathering of people from long ago acts as a kind of milestone or bench mark and we find ourselves wondering if our stories are getting more interesting and heading in a bright and shiny direction or if we are digressing and falling into a slump.

They were good people, for the most part. I don’t want to sound bitter about high school. It is not so much who those classmates were that I’m concerned about. It is who I thought they were, how I interpreted them in light of who I was at that point in my own growth, and how that reflects back on me. “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” (Hamlet). And we can follow this reasoning with, “to the pure in heart everything seems pure,” (The Apostle Paul). If that is true, then the antithesis must be true as well: to the dark in heart everything seems dark or to the shy and insecure everything seems intimidating. The lens through which we view the world often says more about us than it does about the world.

Memories of these classmates invoke memories of the 14-18 year old version of myself. I am now three or four stages removed from that young idealistic, teenaged Joshua Banner. I am sure that he would be both encouraged and discouraged by who I am today. I don’t want to be too hard on myself though. Memories are strange. We have very little control of them. We unconsciously edit our memory and we tend to hang on to the best and the worst. The ordinary humdrum of our past fades away; thus memory is mostly an exaggeration. If history is written by kings, perhaps we might say that the extremes of our past—the best and the worst—are our own personal tyrants.

There is one main capacity that I hope I’ve grown in: love, of course. Specifically, my hope is to have grown in an ability to love others in healthy dialogue. One of these high school friends has been sparring with me on the 2008 elections. He began with a question about my support for Senator Barack Obama. “What are you thinking?” he asked me in a wall post on my facebook page. And thus we were off to the races. I confess a bit of a hesitation about some of the strong language I used in confronting his frustration with my preferred candidate. In the course of a couple exchanges, it seems that very little of our ideas and convictions translated. At this point in our dialogue I feel a bit lost and confused in our own little gridlock.

So here we have two people, estranged from each other by close to fifteen years who are also further estranged from each other by their own political biases. I guess it is too much to expect that we might actually have a healthy dialogue. There is too much water still left to go under the bridge.

As I continue to ponder this failing exchange with an old high school friend, I continue to experience a deep sense of bewilderment and I continue to wonder why? Why am I surprised at my bewilderment? What is at stake here? I didn’t make it to my last high school reunion. I’m not sure if I’ll make my next one either. Will I ever see this guy again? Does it matter? Something seems to matter to me here, but what?

During the last presidential race I wrote and e-published an essay I titled, “Teaching Sixth Graders in a Time of War.” Something I heard on my way to school one morning on NPR set me off into the swill of despair. I wanted to do something tangible. I wanted to talk with others. I wanted participate in our democracy prior to the voting booths. I wanted healthy dialogue. So, during my prep periods I wrote out my thoughts on why my vote for John Kerry was a protest vote against the handling of the war in Iraq. I felt so strongly about the use of my time that I showed it to my boss at the end of the day.

The reaction to my essay from others: one friend told me I was “full of shit;” another questioned my faith. I ended up writing three more essays in response to these and other responses. That whole experience was bewildering too, but it was good for me. I learned more about my own positions. I was able to listen to others. Our exchanges got heated at times, but overall the discussions leant themselves to more trust and more understanding. Democracy worked.

I found myself rehearsing the words of the prayer attributed to St. Francis after the election—especially in light of the election’s results:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

I worked this notion of giving and receiving into my graduate studies. I worked it into my curriculum with the sixth graders. It changed the way I think about the creative process especially when writing music or recording; It has come to affect my understanding of prayer, friendship and sex, how to be a neighbor and a citizen. Dialogue is a deep practice of listening that forces one to surrender her agenda, to allow for awkwardness in a conversation rather than rushing in with the next, most insightful adage. We give up the fight for the last word. We defer; we consider others better than ourselves; we serve by listening. If we all joined together with the intent to give rather than to receive, there would always be abundance. No one would be needy. This all fits nicely with the Sermon on the Mount. It gives us a better grasp of what Jesus meant by “meekness.”

However, there are many times when the Apostle Paul and even Jesus himself do not come off as wilting lilies. “You brood of vipers!” (Jesus) and “I will not spare one of you!” (Paul).  Jesus rarely defended his authority, and when he did, his defense was cloaked in difficult allusions to the Father. Much of what he presented about his authority was difficult to understand. Paul, on the other hand, was traipsing around Asia Minor visiting churches, getting himself imprisoned and writing numerous letters working to maintain his authority. He lost many of his key leaders during his ministry. It all must have been exhausting and the result is some stern language in his epistles that reveals his frustration. Yet, Jesus was still very firm. He was unflinchingly firm in the face of Pontius Pilate’s interrogation and in the face of angry mobs trying to trick him into blaspheming. These two men are at the core of the New Testament writings and they continually tell their followers to obey the first command, to love your neighbor, and yet that love is not passive or weak. It is the definition of a more true kind of masculinity, a kind of strength that our chauvinist society can’t understand. So, how does that kind of strength play itself out through the practice of healthy dialogue? How do we love by listening well and do this with strong convictions?

In the context of our post 9/11 public discourse, “fundamentalist” seems to be synonymous with “terrorist.” We are quick to disregard any religious fervor if it smacks of dogmatism or rigid idealism. This is a label that progressive Evangelicals are trying to shake like the plague. At one recent faculty meeting I heard a professor rant, “Fundamentalism is wrong!” Later he admitted that by making such blanket statements he is susceptible to his own brand of fundamentalism, but nevertheless his call was for us to stop being too nice and for us to speak out our convictions--what we believe to be right and wrong.

So, we find ourselves in the same kind of gridlock I’m now in with my old friend from high school. How can any of us believe an idea and offer it in dialogue in a way that does not alienate the others who disagree? In short, we seem to have cornered ourselves into believing that any conviction equals fundamentalism. This is definitely the reason why there is such a push to remove religion from public policy and discourse, but isn’t such a sweeping elimination of religious language and thought its own kind of secular fundamentalism then?

Dialogue can only be nurtured in the context of love. Love is the only way that we can avoid the gridlock of our respective ideologies. Love is the difference between the tyrant and the prophet. Love shows us how to lower our guard and to look past our fears of each other. Love restrains us from bombast. Love is heuristic. Without it we will be left with strife, jealousy, backbiting, gossip, slander, dissention, hate…all those things that keep a democracy from working.

Much of what is postured as rhetoric and wit in our society mostly amounts to scoffing. It doesn’t even amount to good, healthy satire. Satire at its best enables the foolish to see themselves as they are. At its best, satire intends to see the righting of what is wrong. Scoffing, instead, is a cutting off--a death wish. G.K. Chesterton was an expert at this. “How can angels fly?” He asked. “Because they don’t take themselves too seriously.” We all need to laugh at ourselves from time to time, but we Americans have trouble with this. God bless John Stewart and Stephen Colbert and even perhaps Al Franken (maybe Al Franken).

In his book God Laughs and Plays, David James Duncan defines fundamentalism as a closed conversation. Fundamentalism is white knuckled and it can’t get outside of itself. It doesn’t look into mirrors; it doesn’t engage in the revision process. It is not that we revise the Scriptures or our creedal confessions; it is that we revise our understandings of them. All of us hold fundamental beliefs even if we aren’t fundamentalists. We live and breathe and exist because each of us holds to certain fundamental presuppositions about the universe. With out these fundamental beliefs we would not be able to wake up in the morning and attend to our work nor would we be able to sleep at the end of the day. We assume that the sun will rise and that it will provide us with sufficient warmth, that gravity will never fail, that we will always have access to water and that people will understand us when we use language. All of these are faith assumptions that neither of us can completely explain, but we still function according to their truths. These assumptions help us get on with our lives and work.

When we white knuckle our convictions, we close ourselves off and we become fundamentalists. We reduce ourselves to the mentally absurd by white knuckling ideas that we can neither explain or control. We confuse faith for empirical certainty. We then unnecessarily distance ourselves from our neighbors. We become suspicious. We expect the worst of others. We police their beliefs; we are quick to publicly censor and condemn. There is then no need for dialogue—only lecture or monologue. The Christian faith has survived two millennia because it is deeply rooted in its convictions yet is still able to endure scrutiny. Wherever it thrives, it does so by its dynamism not by its pogroms, inquisitions and witch hunts. Christianity is not static, dead doctrine. Ours is a living, breathing, life giving faith community that seems to flourish best not when it is linked to political powers but when it is instead suffering under persecution. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

If the lens that we see the world through can say more about ourselves than the world, then the same applies to the way we hold onto our convictions whether they are agnostic or Christian. In a dialogue the first order of business is how we hold our convictions and not just those convictions themselves. Dr. James Dobson is a case in point with his recent comments about Barack Obama. At one point in our not so distant past, such public fencing by a leader in the Moral Majority might have led to disaster for a democratic candidate. My optimistic hope is that most evangelicals can see Dobson’s comments for the caricature that they are. I’m not even concerned that evangelicals vote for Obama. Most won’t and Obama won’t need many of them in order to win the election either. I’m concerned about our public discourse; I’m concerned with healthy dialogue.

What disturbs me so much about my exchange with my friend from high school? I’m disturbed by the same thing that disturbs me about Dobson’s reduction of Obama’s faith: a lack of understanding, an inability to listen, a stand off, zero exchange, zero democracy. Dobson accuses Obama of distorting the bible in order to serve his own purposes and adds, “What [Obama is] trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.” Obama is not trying to make an argument from Scripture at all. That is the difference. He is saying that if we are to legislate policy informed by our faith, it needs to be translated into a context that the various constituents of our country can share. At the same time Obama adamantly defends the need to retain religious vocabulary in our public discourse. “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.” Obama is not reducing Christianity to universal appeal. He is calling Christians to fully be Christians and to carry their faith into the public discourse in way that extends itself to our neighbors. This is a very different public posture than Dobson's. Obama is calling us to open ourselves to dialogue and understanding. Dobson, instead, would rather strong arm government and have it surrender public discourse to his version of Judeo-Christian faith. One is charitable and open; the other is fundamentalist, closed and white knuckled. Fortunately, it seems that the latter is losing traction.

I’m not naive about the work ahead of Obama once he is elected—and I am pretty confident he will be. My Dad is pessimistic about Obama’s ability to affect the change that everyone is so enthusiastic about. I can understand this. In the wake of his “Yes We Can” campaign, I’m not optimistic about quick fixes to our economy, health care, social security, education or our dealings in Iraq and Iran for that matter (or North Korea or China….). Obama represents a shift in politics that I hope will be a watershed for public discourse and the political process. His speech in reaction to the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright demonstrates that he has a sophisticated and generous ability to enter into the complexities of our society. In such a bifurcated nation as ours with its many culture wars and with such poor international relations, we need this kind of leadership and mediation. We can’t function much longer without it. In Obama’s self-written speech that has been compared to both King and Lincoln, he put himself in the shoes of Rev. Wright and saw issues of racism from the Reverend’s generation. He put himself in the shoes of others who don’t understand Rev. Wright’s world. He explained for us the subtle nuances that make up the confusion about the Reverend’s words and he accurately described the limitations of our media coverage. These nuances can’t be appreciated or considered through the medium of sound bytes and the squabbles of talking heads paid to conjecture in a way that keeps television ratings high. We need more than 15 second blips and bleeps about what he said and what she said. We need healthy dialogue. We need political leaders who do not underestimate the American people, who respect our ability to listen and think well.

It is this kind of generous dialogue that I was hoping to engage with my high school friend. It’s the kind of dialogue I hope you and I are able to engage between now and November. Perhaps this is one of the great gifts that these awkward and agonizing presidential races offer us every four years: a chance to relearn the discipline of healthy dialogue that we can then carry into every other area of our lives after January 2009.

1 comment:

Christie said...

I arrived at your blog from Josh Bottomly's (I'm in his housechurch) and read a few posts.

Anyway, in this post you have perfectly summed up the tension I feel when trying to talk about politics, and sometimes theology, with those who disagree. This summer I am surrounded by people who don't share my views, so I've been keeping my mouth shut so that I can live peaceably with them. I would love to have a calm, rational, respectful conversation with someone who disagrees with me if I knew it wouldn't dissolve into a much messier situation.

In this political season the country is so polarized that it can be difficult to infuse love into the conversation and make it the prevailing arc of the exchange. But I guess no one ever said it would be easy!