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Archive for the ‘Dialogue and Current Events’ Category

How Not to Conduct Civic Engagement

I’m so disillusioned with my Town Board right now.

The story starts late last year. One of the newest amendments to the New York Constitution, approved by voters this past November, has paved the way for construction of up to four casinos upstate, including (probably) one in my region. Predictably, some high-powered private partnerships, together with their “host” municipalities, jumped into the competition. One of those municipalities is my town.

Now I have always thought of casinos as a terrible idea, for the usual reasons cited: gambling addiction, crime, property value decline, etc. So, during a morning with Google Scholar, I was surprised to find that the research paints a very mixed picture. Casinos can deliver economic benefits, but intensifying competition is limiting their ability to do so. Addiction is serious business, but the percentage of problem gamblers is around 1-3%. Etc.

So I was more open to the idea of a casino in my town. And I looked forward to our town leaders doing similar web searches, engaging in similar thinking, listening to constituents, and making a reasoned decision.

Apparently, it didn’t turn out that way.

First came an unannounced Town Board meeting during which the members voted unanimously to endorse a casino in the town. In the face of vocal opposition, the Board scheduled a developer presentation and one public hearing with the typical “three minutes at the mike” format. Days later, the Board took a revote, required for technical reasons, and again endorsed the casino unanimously.

Except for the first meeting, this might sound innocuous. The real fly in the ointment, though, was the lack of response to residents’ concerns exhibited throughout the process. During the public hearing, Board members said barely a word. Many of us sent detailed emails asking the Board to conduct due diligence; I (and presumably others) received a form email in return. Most communication about the casino has come from the developers, not the Board. And meeting notes, made public via a Freedom of Information request, seem to indicate that the Board served as marketing partner for the developers from the very beginning—no hint of due diligence or objective analysis whatever.

What can we learn from this?

One Board member complained about the impossible time frame for the whole bid process, let alone any attempts at dialogue or civic engagement, and she has a point. Her objection led me to the handy Engagement Streams Framework, published by the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (where I’m a board member), to see what dialogue processes might have accommodated the compressed schedule. At first glance, the pickings are somewhat slim: a scaled-up version of Conversation Café might have worked, or maybe a variant of the Wisdom Council.

In some ways, though, that’s beside the point. Even if many dialogue processes can’t happen in crunch time, basic communication can: that’s why we have the Internet.  More fundamentally, even the best and most efficient dialogue process assumes a personal orientation to listen. That was what our Board members have, from what I’ve seen, failed to demonstrate.

As a caveat: I attended most of the public meetings but not all of them. I do not know the Board members personally. They might have a compelling backstory that would make sense of their actions in a way residents could respect. Communicating that backstory might have mollified a lot of the hostility—or at least indicated the Board’s sincerity in serving its constituents.

As it is, there are a lot of questions and, in response, an unfortunate silence.

(As always, your comments are welcome. In this case, comments from Board members are most welcome. I would love to hear your take on the situation.)

Dialogue, Our Deepest Convictions, and a Knock on the Head

Lately I’ve been drawing lines in the sand.

This is not like me. Being a dialogue guy, I tend to hear news reports and imagine the complexity of an issue, the not-unreasonableness of all sides, the way in which my view could be wrong.

But suddenly, when yet another sexual assault charge goes south, I think, “This has got to stop.” When NPR reports the Department of Defense’s research into robots that can wage war, all I can think is “No, no, NO.” Damn the subtleties of the individual case. It’s time to take a stand.

Part of this, I think, is the concussion. Last month, I went headfirst into the snow while cross-country skiing and sustained what, in the grand scheme of things, is probably a mild concussion. Whatever mild means. As is typical of concussions, symptoms seem to come and go at random, you go two steps forward and one step back, it can take weeks to make progress.

I know what this sounds like. It sounds like the concussion made me unable to handle nuance—clear evidence that drawing lines in the sand is the domain of stupid people.

But obviously that’s wrong. Some of our brilliant thinkers have written about the power of convictions and not giving ground. (Shameless plug: I wrote about two of these thought leaders recently, both theologians, and how their thinking about “convicted civility” doesn’t go quite far enough.)

And the more I write, the more appreciation I have for the value of convictions. They represent, in many cases, a lifetime of wrestling with ideas. They form an important part of what we bring to the world. At the same time, I’m all too aware of the destructive power of holding one’s convictions with an iron grip, impervious to other ideas or even hard data.

Maybe what I’m saying is this:

Maybe my line in the sand is not conviction so much as it is impulse: not impulse as in impulse buying, but impulse as an involuntary reflex of the soul. Such an impulse would come from an unutterably deep place within us—a place common to all of us. We respond from this place when we think of children abused by sexual predators, or Syrian civilians caught in a barbaric crossfire, or frail people with no support system and nowhere to go.

The impulse says: Something is wrong here, and must be made right.

This impulse does not remove the importance of hearing all sides, of considering the nuances of each individual case. But it is a cry for universal values among us: a cry for justice, a cry for compassion, a cry for community.

In fact, sometimes the impulse shapes the dialogue. Example: Many state pension funds are losing the ability to fulfill their obligations to retired employees. On one level, this issue comes down to math: if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money, and retirees will have to find another way. But I hear the impulse saying: dammit, Government, you made a promise to these people, and promises must be kept. Suddenly we have two powerful, countervailing forces—one a function of cold hard realities, the other a function of moral imperative—and thus a place to start a robust dialogue.

This is new to me, and yet a very, very old idea in general. (Look at how zealous the God of the Bible is about making things right.) What do you think? How does all this fit together?

More to the News Story than Meets the Eye

It doesn’t feel good to criticize The PBS NewsHour. The program is one of my favorite sources of news and insight; the producers take extraordinary care in selecting guests for each segment, bringing together experts that together present a careful, balanced, in-depth analysis.

This past Friday, though, one segment disturbed me—and, in the process, served to remind me of the need for a “balanced media diet.”

The story concerned the recent violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, and the role of al-Qaeda therein. I was delighted with their choice of guests: former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a great deal time in Anbar and has written extensively on the war.

The longer they talked, though, the less I could escape the nagging sense that a huge part of the story was missing.

This nagging sense didn’t come in a vacuum. Last September, at a conference on communication and conflict, I heard a penetrating analysis by Ahmed Hassin, a researcher at Australia’s Deakin University, on the role of traditional clans in supporting the nascent democracy in Iraq. Ahmed’s presentation astounded me with a level of nuance that is almost impossible to find in American reporting on the Middle East.

That nuance haunted me as I listened to the NewsHour guests. So I decided to take a look at Iraqi news sources to see what they had to say.

Sure enough, there was a lot more to this story than met the eye.

Crocker and West spoke confidently about al-Qaeda overplaying its hand, the clans united against al-Qaeda, and even “good guys” and “bad guys.” Aswat al Iraq and Iraq Daily described Sunni-Shiite tensions over the lack of Sunni representation in government, security forces’ breakup of a Sunni protest site, the resignation of 44 Members of Parliament over said breakup, etc.

Were Crocker and West wrong? Not necessarily. It’s hard to dispute calling al-Qaeda “the bad guys,” of course. Widespread clan resistance to al-Qaeda may still be in place. Still, the Iraqi news media made it clear that the situation is more nuanced—and perhaps less boldly optimistic—than the NewsHour guests described it.

The point here is not so much to sort out the “real story” in this specific situation as it is to point out the value of the “balanced media diet”: news from sources diverse in terms of geography, nationality, political orientation, culture, even ethnicity and gender. When we absorb this diversity of news, we see that few stories are as simple as one news segment from a single source will make them appear. Certainly few stories are as simple as partisans make them out to be.

Once we see the depth and nuance behind an issue, we realize what we know and, more important, how much we don’t know. This realization, in turn, can fuel our curiosity—and our willingness to hear others whose views may not be the same as ours. Over time, we start looking for depth and nuance in other issues, which gives rise to nagging discomfort like the type I felt during the NewsHour segment.

Have you ever noticed this? Did a news story leave you with the feeling that something was wrong, or at least incomplete? Feel free to share your story here.

When the Givens Aren’t Given

Think of something you accept as a given: a universal truth, “just the way it is.”

Now ask yourself this: is there any chance that your given is not universal? What would it take to make you see it differently? What might happen if you did?

At the beginning of this month, I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd Global Conference on Communication and Conflict, sponsored by Inter-Disciplinary.Net. About 25 scholars came and presented from all over the world. We heard about topics from media in Brazil to terrorism in Indonesia, from active listening techniques to the role of the human heart in communication. It was brilliant, warm, and collegial.

And it challenged some of my universals in ways I never could have anticipated. Consider these tidbits:

  • Remember the flap over Somali pirates a few years back? (If you don’t, you soon will, given the upcoming movie.) If ever there were a clear case of good vs. evil, this was it, right? Not so fast: according to Sarah Craze of the University of Melbourne (Australia), the pirates see themselves not as raiding on the high seas, but rather as safeguarding the marine rights and economic security of their clans in a stateless society. Most telling is the Somali word for these “pirates,” which translates to something like “coast guard.”
  • For those of us in the U.S., it is easy to hear “Arab tribes” and immediately add the word warring—as if warring is all Arab tribes did. But Ahmed Hassin, who teaches at Deakin University, detailed the essential role of Iraqi tribes in managing conflict and preserving what stability there is in the country after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
  • Richard Harris of Japan’s Chukyo University spoke about the spaces—physical, cultural, geographic, etc.—in which communication takes place. In the process, he discussed profound variations among regional understandings of what we might think of as givens. Take, for instance, the concept of home: for billions of people, it’s not a single-nuclear-family dwelling with a dog and a yard.

It is tempting to read these papers and wonder whether the whole notion of universals is obsolete. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. The overwhelming majority of the world, for instance, has come to the point of asserting that murder, human sacrifice, and slavery are wrong. Monastics and mystics across many traditions seem to agree that compassion, self-giving, and a concern with equity lie at the heart of the divine essence. Neither of these examples is ironclad, but they are enough, I think, to render “everything is relative” overly simplistic.

The point here, though, is that there are fewer universals than we think. And few things open our eyes to this more convincingly than dialogue across boundaries of culture, geography, ethnicity, and faith. The encounter with something radically different from our own world, when heard open-heartedly, can dislodge us from our certainties. We realize that “even where I am sure, I could be wrong.”

Once that door to uncertainty cracks open, we can suddenly hear our dialogue partner’s radically different viewpoint clearly. More than that, we want to hear it clearly. We are poised to hear her explanation, what she might have to say, what ramifications may arise, how it might affect or expand our own wisdom. It is an exhilarating moment if we let it be.

It is not easy to react this way. But it is tremendously rewarding. And the connections it creates can lead to mutual understanding, a slightly better understanding of the truth, and one extra brick in the foundation of peacemaking across divides.

A Starting Point on Race for White People, Maybe

Maybe it’s that I’m reading Alice Walker’s incredible The Color Purple just as the commentary around Trayvon Martin has taken center stage again. Whatever the reason, the loud, angry cacophony about race in America has cut me to the heart—and rattled my cage.

Like many white people, I first grew aware of this cacophony because of the O. J. Simpson verdict, with the stark difference in interpretation of the evidence along racial lines. Since then I’ve read some, listened to wisdom from some great thinkers (like Judith Katz, a pioneer of the idea of white awareness), and have some grasp of what I should do and how I should think around this issue.

The shoulds can be useful guides. Ultimately, though, whatever I do and think has to come from me—from my deepest self. I am just starting to glimpse what that is. And one part of it may be helpful to white Americans like me who are struggling to understand, on a heart and gut level, the dimensions of the conversation on race.

So, white Americans, here’s an idea to chew on:

Each of us grows up with a story. It tells us who we are, who our family is, and particularly what our society is and how it works. For those of us with things in common, our stories hold some things in common—especially about society.

This is true of us as white people. We’ve learned that the policeman is our friend. We know that there are no limits to how far you can go or what you can do. We’ve heard that we live in a post-racial society.

That is our story.

Over the years, we have heard it a lot. So often, in fact, that for us it becomes a given. It is no longer a story about reality; we think it is reality—“the way things are.”

Then we get the O. J. trial. And Trayvon Martin. And suddenly we see that at least one other group of people—African Americans—has a different story. On many points, their story contradicts our story.

All this is indisputable.

The question is what we do with it. And for people of dialogue, the answer is surprisingly clear.

As people of dialogue, we know that each of us is exactly one person among billions, with one person’s perspective among billions. Our knowledge is fantastically limited, our ability to be certain even more so. Those simple facts drive me into dialogue with you—because if I know so little, I want to hear what you know, so together we may get closer: to the truth of the situation, to a way forward, to mutual understanding.

In this case, as white people of dialogue, what we do next is listen. Long, intently, without interrupting.

This is particularly important in the U.S., where the dominant story—the white story—so often drowns out the other stories. Where for large swaths of our history as a nation, those other stories were seen as nearly sacrilegious, and their storytellers threats.

How do we start to listen? As my friend Paige Baker has pointed out to me, volumes have been written about these other stories. It behooves me to read them. I need giant portions of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and others like them.

I think dialogue as a habit of the heart can play an important role here. As white Americans, we have heard our story for many years. It will take years for us to absorb the other stories. That calls for an inner orientation toward listening that enables a continual readiness. Whenever the conversation comes up—with a friend, in the media, wherever—we are ready to listen because our whole selves are tuned that way.

So. Can we listen for a while? A long while? Do you see the value?

The White House, a Dialogue on Mental Health…and You

You may have seen this on the news. Would you like to join me in an online dialogue about it?

Yesterday, in hosting the day-long National Conference on Mental Health, the White House advanced its multi-pronged initiative to raise awareness of—and remove the stigma from—mental illness. The initiative includes, among other elements, a new website ( that points to resources for people with mental illness and shares success stories.

There’s also a dialogue going on. That’s where you and I come in.

Creating Community Solutions is a series of events around the U.S. that will allow people to engage in discussion and action on mental health issues. Part of this dialogue is taking place online now. I’m helping to moderate the conversation in which people share their experiences with mental health.

Already we’ve had people share some powerful stories about mental illness. We’ve heard one woman’s lessons learned from wrestling with bipolar disorder, the challenges for students facing their first days of college, and the tale of an RN that showed an eighth-grade class the link between mental illness and homelessness.

Getting Started

You may have something to say about mental health. If you do, I would love to hear your voice in these conversations. Start by registering for The Civic Commons website (the host for this and many other conversations) and then come on over to

For me, this is personal: I’ve wrestled with mental health issues all my adult life, so the chance to move this dialogue forward is near and dear to my heart. Do feel free to join me there.

The Boston Bombers and Preconceived Ideas

Amid the news reports from Boston last week, a few outlying comments and impressions stood out for me. They didn’t sound like the themes that became dominant as the story unfolded: the evil of terrorism, the fear that it incites, the awe-inspiring heroism of everyday people, the “we are all Boston” solidarity with those who suffer.

A lot has been said and written about those themes, and they deserve the attention. But I don’t want to miss the wisdom in the outliers. Here are some thoughts on one of them:

There is still much we don’t know about the Tsarnaev brothers. But what struck me in these early days was the stubborn refusal of their narrative to fit our usual categories. They committed an act of terrorism but were not Saudi nationals. Their birthplace has spawned terrorism in the past, but they had not lived there for many years. They were fairly well integrated into U.S. society, but their motivations did not match those of other American terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh. They are Muslims, visited jihadist websites, but do not appear connected to al-Qaeda.

As their story unfolds, we might see how they fit into some larger narrative. For now, however, it reminds me of what I do not want to do. I do not want to try stuffing a unique story with unique characters into a prepackaged narrative—like “they’re from Chechnya, so they must be al-Qaeda” or “they practice Islam, so of course they’re violent” or “they’re white, so it must be domestic terrorism.”

This is a crucial lesson for dialogue as well. Our partner in dialogue makes a statement, and it’s tempting to put her in a category. If we hear her out, we might discover that she fits none of our categories, so our categories need an adjustment, if not an overhaul. In the process of adjusting or overhauling them, we get closer to grasping the reality—and the complexity—of the person before us and the issue she raises.

If we don’t hear her out, though, we cut ourselves off from all that. Our categories may even harden, so we are less prepared for the next dialogue.

I was on the receiving end of this dynamic the other day. On Facebook, a friend posted a message that I thought depicted Islam inaccurately. When I raised this, someone else jumped in to ask whether I was apologizing for terrorism. His prepackaged story was clear—Islam = terrorism—a belief he made all too clear with his subsequent comments. If he had lived into the uncertainty, the knowledge that he needed more data to truly understand me, he might have uncovered a much more complex picture of who I am. He might have had to change his thinking: not just about me, but about what I wrote.

Have you had this happen to you? Conversely, have you run across a person or situation that shook up your preconceived notions? What happened? Feel free to share here.

When Schoolchildren Are Required to Think Like Nazis

Yes, this really happened. And yes, there’s a lesson in here about dialogue.

According to reporter Scott Waldman of The Times Union, a number of Albany High School students recently went to English class and received a disturbing assignment: imagine that you are a Nazi, and use Nazi propaganda to develop a persuasive essay on why Jews are evil.

If that chilled you to the bone, you’re in good company. It chilled me too. But let’s unpack this a bit more.

For me, a secondary problem is that this type of assignment—the basic structure, not the content—could have been an outstanding exercise in dialogue.

Here’s why. Authentic dialogue calls on us to suspend our own preconceptions, however temporarily, so we can hear the other person unfiltered (or, rather, as unfiltered as we can get). It is a key to approaching others with a clear mind and an open heart.

This assignment takes the clear mind/open heart paradigm one big step further—by asking students to think from within the other’s perspective. In most cases, this is a noble and extraordinary thing. By thinking from within, we honor those who hold that perspective. Often we discover that the other perspective has some validity; we can at least see how a reasonable person might believe it. This can drive us into dialogue with, and open us to compassion for, the people who hold that belief.

That’s in most cases. Thinking from within Nazism is a different beast.

Over the course of human history, certain beliefs and events—the word evil applies here—have scarred our consciousness. Their potential to do further damage persists for many years, often for centuries. As a result, speaking of them with anything but the utmost gravity, without painstaking consideration of their horror and historical context, is delicate at best (as in the case of satire or parody to skewer the belief) and destructive at worst.

This is what made George W. Bush’s error in 2001—using the word crusade to describe the stand against terrorism—so grievous. It’s why I’m trying to expunge the phrase drink the Kool-Aid from my vocabulary: because I spent time studying the tragedy at Jonestown in my college days, and the phrase carries too many evil connotations to be used lightly. It’s what makes this Nazi assignment so problematic and offensive.

I wish the teacher had thought to focus on a different scenario: not skirting controversy, by any means, but giving our collective scars their due. Using a difficult issue on which good-hearted people disagree—like abortion or hydrofracking—could have been thunderously powerful if students had to write in favor of the stance they personally oppose.

Compassion and connection to all people are virtues.  We are not required, however, to seriously consider their paradigms if those paradigms have wrought evil on our planet.

What do you think? Where would you draw the line on this assignment? What topics are beyond acceptable, and which within bounds?

Can Dialogue Pick Up Where Negotiation Leaves Off?

I was doing a live radio interview two Saturdays ago (Silver City Meetinghouse on WVBF AM1530 in southeastern Massachusetts; great hosts, fun show) when one of the co-hosts mentioned her work in labor-management relations. She consults with school districts using nontraditional methods of negotiation—specifically, methods that invite these traditional adversaries to work in tandem for a solution that benefits a whole, rather than against each other to get the most possible for their side.

As she described her work, I thought about the difficult position these negotiators must face. I suspect it’s a position many of us have faced, in other contexts.

When negotiators sit across from one another, at least two powerful forces conspire to draw them toward conflict and away from dialogue. First is the long history of adversarial relationship between the two sides: a great deal of hostility has flowed under the bridge over the decades, and mistrust has become instinct.

Even so, a negotiator deeply committed to dialogue might be able to overcome this personal animosity if not for the second force: she is beholden to someone else. Dialogue is not written into her job description; getting the very best agreement for her constituents is. If she dares to try understanding the other side, she risks facing hundreds of people who would accuse her of “selling out our interests.”

Could dialogue have any role in this? Is there any value in a negotiator’s stepping out into a virtual no man’s land to explore the issues together with the other side?

There may be, and it may have to do with what I see as a fundamental difference between negotiation and dialogue. Negotiation is all about compromise, giving up on certain points to get what you want. It is the natural choice for situations like labor-management relations, and of course it can be tremendously effective. The risk of negotiation, however, is that in the process of compromise the parties may never explore the deeper issues that underlie the points of disagreement. In the end, they may hammer out a mutually acceptable pact that addresses the details but none of the underlying issues. This is where dialogue—and its tendency toward exploration, toward mutual understanding—can have value.

And yes, there is no doubt that “rising above the fray” like this can bring a negotiator a lot of flak. It requires a great deal of internal fortitude (and/or external support) to face down the forces of conflict. Yet we desperately need people with that kind of fortitude—not only in the labor-management arena, but in the political sphere, interfaith dialogue, and many other places in the public square.

I think people of faith can play a significant role here, particularly those who have cultivated a deep connection with the Divine. These folks do not have to face the fray alone, because their hearts are full of the conviction that they are not alone. Their radical openness to God—an openness that, I have found, empowers them to let go of vested interests and “us vs. them” thinking—sets them free to initiate dialogue even in ultra-sensitive situations, heedless of the cost.

That’s the internal fortitude part of it. The external support is essential as well: finding allies who can nurture us even as we nurture them. It is much easier to let go of one’s position and deeply engage the other side when we know that people have our back. From a faith perspective, it is that same divine support expressed through the people around us.

So maybe dialogue does have a role to play in negotiating settlements. It certainly has a role to play when longtime adversaries meet to resolve issues in the public square. And the more our hearts and minds can be reoriented toward dialogue, the more readily we can enter the fray.

A Vietnamese Hero on Politics and Dialogue

Do we have to run our politics with daggers drawn? Is confrontation simply part of the game?

Based on the past few years, it’s hard to think otherwise. In the U.S., the climate of hostility, polarization, and refusal to compromise has dominated Washington. Powerful forces conspire to reinforce this climate: the demands of party loyalty, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, the loud fringe groups from left and right, the fear among elected officials of losing their jobs to someone ideologically “purer.” Even those who want to work with the other side find frustrations at every turn—while those who equate dialogue with “selling out” rise to power.

It is tempting to dismiss the whole political arena as hopelessly confrontational—and the notion of dialogue in the halls of power as a pipe dream.

But then there is Nguyen Ngoc Huy, and others like him.

Professor Huy has been called “the Gandhi of Vietnam.” From the waning of French colonial rule through the tumultuous war in the 1960s and well beyond, he devoted his life to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law with a distinctly Vietnamese character. With his law degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the Sorbonne, he taught, conducted research, wrote numerous treatises, spoke frequently, and campaigned tirelessly for his ideas and the welfare of his country. Far from giving up after the Communist takeover of 1975, he spent the last 15 years of his life traveling the globe to draw attention to Vietnam and continue the struggle for his homeland’s freedom.

He also had a penetrating insight into how not to conduct politics.

“He had to deal with all sorts of attacks for his policy,” noted Tran Minh Xuan of the Nguyen Ngoc Huy Foundation in the documentary Nguyen Ngoc Huy: A Fighter for Democracy in Vietnam. “Some people, who could not take it any longer, once encouraged me to attack back. But then Professor Huy said to me, ‘Do not do it. There is no benefit in it.… In the future, there will be times when we will need them, or they will need us. But if we have attacked one another, how then will we be able to sit down together to discuss matters? In this huge struggle, one cannot do it alone. We need many people working together.’”

The professor’s words call to mind another arena that involves both power and confrontation: the Anglican Communion and its U.S. version, The Episcopal Church. Over the past few decades, the Communion has seen more than its share of angry words over such issues as human sexuality and the historic truths of the faith. At one point, it threatened to break the Communion apart.

During that time, as I wrote in my book, “Dialogue does not always resolve differences; some are simply irreconcilable. Yet even when they are, authentic dialogue can help us develop respect for one another while still (amicably) disagreeing. In the process, the connections we foster enable us to continue our work together as our institutions fracture.” To paraphrase Professor Huy, if we keep the dialogue going—if we refrain from attacking one another—we might still be able to work together.

If Professor Huy—who sat across the table from his enemies at the Paris Peace Talks, who promoted bold ideas and continually engaged in the rough and tumble of Vietnam’s political arena—could uphold the value of reaching across divides, why can’t our elected officials, and our church leaders, do the same?