After my homily on the need for political dialogue and compromise, one of my parishioners e-mailed me the following:
I am not sure that people are always choosing politics over faith. I have family members who, I truly believe, confuse being open to dialogue with betraying their belief systems, and therefore, feel they are betraying Jesus and their faith. Others feel that if they know they can’t change someone else’s mind about these issues of faith, why throw the proverbial pearls before swine, and just get into fruitless arguments. Or, like me, why risk damaging otherwise good relationships by discussing painful controversial issues?
Could you provide an addendum to your homily to share/provide guidance for how to dialogue with others of radically different beliefs, in I assume, non-aggressive ways that don’t push others further away, and how/why dialogue and compromises don’t mean we have betrayed our faith/Jesus?
I cannot say I am perfect at this myself, but I have put a lot of time and effort into trying to have exactly these sorts of dialogues with my high school and college friends on Facebook, so I will offer what I can from these experiences.
Rule #1: Know Your Goal
Most people enter into religious or political dialogue with the idea that the other person is wrong and they must be convinced of their erroneous ways. But no one enjoys being on the receiving end of this “dialogue”. Instead, we have to adopt a goal that serves the needs and desires of both parties. While some people (e.g. myself) enjoy debate for the sake of debate, I have found that in most situations, the following goal is honest and appropriate.
The goal of dialogue is to (1) understand each other’s position as thoroughly as possible, (2) identify the nearest point of agreement, and (3) determine if there are any ways to move forward together.
Notice that no part of this goal involves convincing the other person. Instead, it is focused on understanding and commonality. It allows us to talk to each other without someone having to “win” and someone having to “lose”. Our discussions need to be collaborative, not adversarial.
Rule #2: Assume the Best
Most discussions about politics crash and burn because we start by assuming motives. “You oppose abortion because you think women are second-class citizens.” “You want to take away my guns because you hate the Constitution.”
Assuming motives never works. It immediately turns the discussion sour and adversarial. Instead, we have to intentionally assume the best of the other person. We have to assume that they are intelligent, that they have good reasons for believing what they do, and that they really do want all people to thrive and be happy. Assuming anything else at the beginning will immediately torpedo the discussion.
Rule #3: Give All Possible Ground
No matter how much we want to buy into a goal focused on understanding and commonality, we all secretly want the other person to hear our arguments and suddenly say “Oh, you are totally right! I’m not sure how I did not see that before.”
Well, the Golden Rule continues to be operative, especially in politics. If we want people to admit when we are right, we have to be quick to admit when our discussion partner is right, too.
On my best days, after one of my discussion partners has made their case, I try to start my response by listing every single thing they have said that I can and do agree with. I am also very happy to admit when they have given me an argument that I have not heard before, that makes me think, and that makes me re-evaluate some previously held assumptions. Hearing new arguments should be a joy for us, because we are learning something, and coming to a better understanding of the person in front of us.
Rule #4: Understand the Role of Experience and Emotion
As much as we human beings try to be the rational creatures God made us to be, we are also physical and emotional creatures, too, and these other factors influence our argumentation. It is not uncommon to believe something because of an experience, or because the alternative makes us very uncomfortable. It is essential that we admit this to ourselves and to others, instead of rationalizing arguments to justify our emotions.
For example, physical violation is a super horrifying idea and experience. We should pay attention to women who reference this when discussing abortion. Can you imagine having something that is not you, over which you have no control, growing inside of your body and changing your body chemistry? And, let’s say you did not want this thing inside of you. Wouldn’t the horror of this idea cause you to talk a lot about “my body, my choice”? Now we can talk about human rights and viability until we are blue in the face, but as long as the horror of that idea remains, the intellectual arguments will make very little headway. [NOTE: just because I am using a “liberal” issue in this example does not mean I am suggesting that one side is more rational than the other. This is just a very accessible example.]
All of this is to say, political discussions often descend into anger and shouting, and this is because many of our beliefs are emotional as well as rational. If we can discuss our fears as well as our thoughts, especially in private forums like families and circles of friends, our discussions will be a lot more honest and make a lot more progress.
Rule #5: Value People Over Positions
We should always dialogue for the sake of people, never for positions. When we enter into “dialogue” because we want to defend a position and do not care who gets hurt along the way, we have placed an abstract idea over the image of God in front of us. This is idolatry.
Instead, we need to realize that understanding a person is a goal worthy of itself, and that authentic dialogue serves to build up community. If a discussion is threatening to destroy a friendship or a family relationship, stop it IMMEDIATELY and agree to disagree for the moment. Try to return to dialogue with small steps over time, but never let a position be more important than a person.
Rule #6: Know How to End Amicably
Assuming you have a collaborative goal, you should be able to end the discussion before someone has “won” or “lost”. Instead, end for whatever reason at whatever time, and be content with that. Maybe one of the dialogue partners is tired. That is okay! It does not mean one person has won by default. Instead, the two parties have simply engaged in as much mutual exploration of ideas as is possible for the time being.
Practically, this means that one person should be allowed to say “I am tired” or “Let’s be done” with impunity, without being considered as giving up or losing. Personally, I often say “Okay, I am going to say <x>. Maybe after you respond, we can be done. Would that be okay?” It is common courtesy for the person ending the discussion to let their dialogue partner have the last word.
Again, NO ONE IS RIGHT AND NO ONE IS WRONG. We have just mutually agreed to be done for the moment.
Summary: Where is Jesus?
Jesus came to unite humanity in him. When we dialogue well, we do three things:
(1) We show others that we value their positions and are interested in their opinions and thoughts. We are showing them the same interest that we hope (and know in faith) that God shows us.
(2) We show people that we can love them even in difference. In Christianity, we say that God loves us even when we sin. Sin blocks our reception of God’s love, it does not change how much God loves us. Similarly, if we can enter into loving dialogue with people who disagree with us, we can model the same behavior that God shows toward us.
(3) We concretely repair the damage done to humanity by sin. When we work together on political issues and for political solutions, or even if we listen to each other in moments where working together seems impossible, we begin to repair the damage done by original sin.
I’m sure I could write thousands more words on this topic. I care a lot about it, and it is very important. However, the best way to expand on these thoughts is to jump in and try. That is how I learned, with a lot of mistakes and regrets along the way. Love the other person, treat them as Jesus would treat them, and then see where discussions might lead.
I also recommend this talk by Bishop Barron, even though it is only tangentially related to the topic at hand.
Also this comic.