Posts Tagged ‘abortion’

Reading Material for the Dialogue Journey

I will be away from the laptop for a few weeks, so instead of an original post I thought I’d link you to some other food for dialogical thought. Read one a week, and it’ll be as though I never left!

  • The Abortion Stalemate: Can “I Don’t Know” Break It? In this post, I suggest that starting over again on abortion—from a position other than drop-dead certainty—might help us make some progress in dialogue where little has existed before. The comments are particularly interesting: many of them show a serious and genuine struggle to grapple with an extraordinarily difficult issue. Hearing the wisdom of others is one of the best things about writing.
  • Can Humility Change the World?  From what I can see, this misunderstood virtue is one of the indispensable “habits of the heart” that can reorient us toward dialogue. See what you think of my perspective on the term.
  • Beyond Stereotypes of “Conservative” and “Liberal” Christianity. Dialogue starts from a better place when we view our dialogue partners as individuals rather than through predetermined filters. In that spirit, I share what I’ve learned about the “liberals” and “conservatives” in my faith tradition. Again, the comments are most valuable.

As you may have picked up, I so appreciate those who take the time to read, reflect, and comment on what I write. That goes for you too. I learn a great deal from hearing your voice, and I am encouraged by your support. Thank you. I’ll be back on the blog before you know it.

Who Gets to Come to the Dialogue?

A while back, an old friend upbraided me for imagining a dialogue on immigration. As she saw it, I was ruminating on an issue for which, in her words, I “had no dog in this hunt.”

At the time, I thought she made a good point, but now I’m not so sure. Do we need a personal stake in an issue to reflect on it openly? How much of a stake do we need?

First, to state the obvious: Those who have an intensely personal stake in an issue deserve a privileged place at the dialogue table. They live the issue, after all. The rest of us are under obligation to listen, and listen intently, to their stories. Sorting through Arizona’s immigration law without Arizonans at the table, for example, would be as arrogant as it is ridiculous.

But if we take that as the whole truth—“all those with no dog in this hunt, stay out”—we run into problems. Here’s an example: My daughter is an adult. I have no direct connection with the local school system anymore. Does that mean I should stay away from Board of Education budget meetings? What if my personal stake lies in the importance of educational excellence for the future of our (pick one: town/ nation/planet)? Is that really a personal stake?

Matters of war and peace are even stickier. The U.S. government pays little, if any, attention to the voices of those who would be combatants—let alone their families—when deciding whether to go to war. That is a travesty, and peace advocates rightly raise the issue in times of conflict. But what about the foreign policy expert, with no loved one eligible for combat, who can articulate the (possibly legitimate) geopolitical reasons for a particular war? OK, perhaps that’s self-evident. But what about the ordinary Joe whose religion proscribes the use of force in any situation? Should anyone care what he or his religion thinks?

Yes, I think they should. Wisdom can come from anywhere. We don’t know who carries the wisdom that a dialogue needs until we have that dialogue. If we apply “no dog in this hunt” rigidly—excluding those without a stake, or even including them but treating their views lightly—we risk missing the perspective that could make all the difference.

Logistically, of course, we can’t include everyone in every dialogue. And circumstances will define the number of people we can or should include in every situation. When the Public Conversations Project convened a long-running dialogue on abortion, it was important to keep the group small and the proceedings quiet; that provided a safe space for people to build trust and sort through the immensely complex passions around this topic.

For me, the lessons here are twofold. First, it is essential to honor those with a personal stake in an issue—and listen to them very, very carefully—while also inviting as many people as makes sense to the table. Second, it is valuable to reflect on the catchphrases we throw around every day: to evaluate their truth for this situation, in this context. By doing so, we force ourselves to think about the issue at hand more clearly. In thinking with clarity, we communicate that way too—and thus enhance our chances of connecting effectively in dialogue.

Does this make sense to you? Have you heard catchphrases that don’t quite stand up to scrutiny? Feel free to raise them here.

A Good Thought Spoiled

For this week’s post, I was all set to rant against a news story coming out of Ohio. Now I can’t. What happened between then and now may hold a few lessons for us.

My little tale starts with a headline in my RSS feed. How can you not react to

Fetus Set To Testify In Favor Of Ohio Anti-Abortion Bill

First reaction: sigh. More weird antics in the abortion debate—the very antics that do as much to harden the battle lines as to clarify the issue.

Second reaction: media skepticism. Why did the reporter use the word testify? Surely he knew the connotations it would carry. I thought it inflammatory and irresponsible.  So I decided to blast it here to illustrate the need for precise language when discussing difficult issues.

Then I dug a little deeper and came to my third reaction: uh-oh. The article appeared in The Huffington Post. I’ve just started writing for The Huffington Post. Do I really want to criticize a story on a website that might prove critical to my writing venture?

Fortunately, the article’s author linked his story to a release from Faith2Action, an organization supporting the legislation. Fourth reaction: whoops. The word testify came not from the author, but from the source itself.

So. What did I learn from this exercise?

First, vested interests die hard—very hard. I write a lot about the danger they present to authentic dialogue, and the value of spirituality in clearing them away. None of that means I’m completely free of the damned things. Like our basic human instinct for self-preservation, vested interests appear to be always with us. Hence the need to strive against them in our internal preparation for dialogue.

Second, it is so easy to miss the full story. Remember death panels? I wonder how much of that drama could have been averted if more people had simply dug deeper into the facts. Surely, with the testifying fetus story, I could have stopped with the notice in my RSS feed and come to some conclusion about irresponsible journalism. And I would have been wrong.

Third—and I’ve said this ad nauseam—getting the full story and clearing away vested interests require reflection, time, and work. In today’s culture, these are hard to come by. And yet, as the death panels brouhaha illustrates, our national conversations could be more productive, and move more efficiently toward resolving our national issues, if we took the time and did the work.

True, we all have lives. We cannot possibly research every news story that comes our way. What we can do, perhaps, is suspend our judgment on those issues we cannot research.

The ingredients of dialogue—depth of thought, precision of language, the work of the soul—are difficult and elusive. Clearly, none of us gets them completely right. But our attempts to do so can make the world better. That alone is reason to pursue them.

Dialogue in Private, the Non-WikiLeaks Way

The news from WikiLeaks has me thinking about the value of privacy—and how it can make or break certain dialogues.

Here’s what I mean. Dialogue, almost by definition, requires a certain amount of mess. As we “think together,” we will toss out half-formed thoughts and imprecise language in an effort to build something together, whether that “something” is a new bond across bitter divides or a new approach to a difficult issue.

The process can be wildly circuitous. My first half-baked idea may have no value in itself yet spark something good in your mind. We might pursue a long line of thinking only to find it’s a dead end, only to find that a single glimmer of a shard of an idea from that pursuit gets us exactly where we need to go. We could pile good idea on good idea and find they build into a great idea—but not the one we would have imagined.

Clearly this process takes time and focused thought. It also takes a safe place where people feel free to toss out these embryonic idea shards without fear of judgment.

It takes privacy. It takes confidentiality.

If one of those shards gets broadcast—exposing the speaker to possible ridicule and hostility—the whole dialogue may be threatened.

One of the most eye-opening leaks from WikiLeaks concerns the backchannel conversation among Chinese and U.S. diplomats over North Korea. Judging from media portrayals of Chinese leaders—not to mention the tension in U.S.-China relations—I find it remarkable that they have spoken so openly with their American counterparts about so substantial a change in their thinking. Clearly, the two sides are making space for new ideas toward a different approach.

But with diplomatic flare-ups in that part of the world often just one careless remark away, the only way to talk about the issue was in strict confidentiality. The leak may well have damaged the effort.

Similarly, when the Public Conversations Project convened a groundbreaking dialogue between pro-choice and pro-life leaders, several of the participants expressed a need for confidentiality to avoid the potential reactions from, among others, their own constituencies. Privacy was essential if the dialogue was to flourish.

Time. Focused thought. Privacy. American culture doesn’t exactly promote any of these necessities for dialogue. So in our own attempts at dialogue, we must be intentional in carving out space for these necessities, as appropriate for the situation, to reach across divides and fulfill our goals.

The More Things Change…

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before—and who was one of the Pharisees—asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” The Pharisees replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” (John 7:50-52)

If you think the state of civil discourse has reached an all-time low, this story may surprise you.

Allow me to introduce the cast. Jesus was from Galilee (hence the reference in the passage above). The Pharisees, a Jewish sect, emphasized rigorous adherence to the law that God had given to Moses, as well as to the traditions that sprang from it. Nicodemus, a Pharisee himself, had visited Jesus early in the gospel of John to hear what he had to say.

Previously, the Pharisees—who were offended by Jesus and worried about civil unrest among his followers—had sent guards to arrest him. It backfired: the guards came back awestruck, saying, “Never has anyone spoken like this!”

From here the story could go one of two ways. Hearing the guards’ new perspective could inspire curiosity. Maybe, the Pharisees could think, it’s worthwhile to talk with Jesus. They could see if his ideas shed a new light on their beliefs. Perhaps, through dialogue, an exchange of views might draw them both closer to God.

That’s one way. The other, alas, is all too familiar to us: dig in, protect our position by insulting the other side, reduce thoughtful positions to bromides that obscure more than they clarify. This is what happens, for instance, when pro-life adherents call their adversaries “baby killers,” or when pro-choice advocates incessantly trumpet “a woman’s right to choose.”

That’s the way the Pharisees go in the gospel account. To the guards, they say, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?…the crowd [of believers in Jesus], who do not know the law—they are accursed.” When Nicodemus tries to put the idea of a fair hearing before them, they insult him too, dismissing him with a one-liner.

As always, let me offer a caveat. Any of these positions may hold truth. “A woman’s right to choose” is a factor worth considering in the abortion debate. Maybe the fetus is a baby. Perhaps there is no mention of a Galilean prophet in the Hebrew scriptures.

The problem is that the advocates of these positions assert their position and stop there. That cuts off the possibility of exploring for a deeper truth. If the fetus is a baby, does it too have a right to choose? If we can’t determine when babyhood begins, what then? If the scriptures are silent about a prophet from Galilee, does that mean it can’t happen?

Questions like these—when we ask them of each other—help us probe deeper, uncover more truth, and become more empathic with those who disagree. Insults and repetition block our way.

Even two millennia ago, the dynamics of dialogue and polarization were at work. Ultimately, I think, this is encouraging news. It means our divides never go away—but neither does our desire to reach across them.