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Posts Tagged ‘progressive’

Singing the Lord’s Song to the “Other Side”

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song on alien soil?”  —Psalm 137:4

This haunting question—asked by the psalmist after the people of Israel had been swept into captivity, hundreds of miles from home—formed the theme of an address by the Bishop of Central New York, Gladstone (Skip) Adams, to the annual meeting of Albany Via Media (AVM) this past Saturday.

But it was a different question, asked immediately after the address, that revealed another potential way into dialogue across divides.

Alas, there are divides aplenty around these parts. AVM describes itself as “Episcopalians striving for a middle way of diversity and tolerance in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.” I think of AVM as the loyal but progressive opposition in a conservative diocese. This, as you might expect, carries with it a great deal of tension and occasional rancor on every side.

On Saturday, Bishop Skip addressed the psalmist’s quote on several levels in a talk that was remarkable for its depth of thought and spirit. Then, during the Q&A, one priest noted that the “other (conservative) side” uses the exact same verse from the Psalms to mean something entirely different: how to be faithful to God in a rapidly secularizing society—of which many conservatives consider AVM to be a part.

That would seem to be a conversation stopper right there. How can we talk with one another when we can’t even agree on language?

But maybe it can be a conversation opener—if we use the language difference to probe gently for specific meanings.

Let’s say I fall into a dialogue with a conservative in the diocese, and she quotes that verse. What happens if I say something like “I love that verse, and I’m curious: when you refer to ‘alien soil,’ what are you thinking of? What does that phrase mean to you?”

I may not like what I hear in return, but the question opens an opportunity for me to understand my dialogue partner on a deeper level. Moreover, asking the question can prompt a dialogic question in return: “Why, what do you think of when you read ‘alien soil’?” This gives me the encouragement to share my thoughts in a nonthreatening way.

Several good things can happen from there. We might, for instance, discover how much common ground we share. We might also see how our respective viewpoints can inform and even change each other. For instance, I share my conservative colleagues’ concern about the secularizing of society, but I know very well that AVM members are not part of that problem. This kind of mutual questioning enables me to share that. Perhaps it helps my dialogue partner dispense with stereotypes about the “other side.”

And maybe, because we now see each other more clearly, the next conversation becomes easier, we go deeper, and our bond across divides grows stronger.

What about you? Have you noticed a word or phrase that means something different on the “other side”? What happens if you ask someone who uses it to explain its meaning?

Of Dreamers, Realists, and Dialogue

A few years ago, my wife and I had the privilege of visiting a monastery in South Africa. Like many monasteries, Mariya uMama weThemba observed the Great Silence from roughly 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. I relish this extended time of silence and was dismayed, when I awoke early one morning, to hear my wife (quietly) chatting at me.

I reminded her that we were in silence. Her response, with that impish twinkle I know so well: “I don’t care. I’m your wife. I’m going to talk at you anyway.” I couldn’t help but crack up (quietly).

Next story: From time to time, I have joined organizations that think big thoughts and do great things. They are actively seeking ways to make a profound difference in the world. And their contribution to the world is well worth the effort. Many times, however, these groups include a realist or two—someone whose role is to say, “I’d like that too, but here’s how this really works….”

I love these people. And here’s why.

On the dreamer-realist scale, I fall squarely on the dreamer side: the people who push for what could be. The realists remind me of what is. I consider silence a higher good; my wife reminds me that other people have other priorities. I love spinning lofty ideas out of not a whole lot; realists remind me that I have to start with the raw material of right here, right now.

What we miss sometimes, I think, is that we need each other.

Too often, dreamers and realists disparage those on the “other side.” Yet without the realists, the dreamers would, most likely, not make as much progress as they could. Without the dreamers, the realists would, most likely, not reach beyond current realities to envision, and therefore create, breakthrough change.

If they come together with a heart for dialogue, however—a heart oriented toward suspending preconceptions, hearing the other, welcoming a deep interplay of ideas—watch out. They could be a force for serious change.

This need for each other extends well beyond realists and dreamers. I see this in my faith tradition. Many Christians, traditionally identified as progressives, stress God’s concern for the dispossessed and for justice—God’s action in the world. Many others, traditionally identified as conservatives, stress the importance of sanctity and the joy of a personal relationship with the Divine—God’s action in each person.

These emphases often come into conflict. Progressives, for instance, see LGBTQ equality as a justice issue for a dispossessed group of people; conservatives see it as an erosion of godly personal behavior. What if they came together with a heart for dialogue—not tussling over the issue at hand, but listening and probing more deeply to understand, and appreciate, the other’s deeper beliefs? Both sets of beliefs (if the Christian scriptures are any guide) are close to the heart of God, after all.

With a heart for dialogue, we can dispense with our instinctive hostility and instead approach our adversaries with curiosity. We can be open to hear what they have to offer that we need, and vice versa. In most cases, I truly believe the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.

Dialogue by Being There

Can you start a dialogue just by showing up?

Miki Kashtan’s friend did. At a conference on reconciliation, this friend realized with despair that there was no exploration of gay issues on the agenda. On the third day of the conference, after praying and wrestling with the omission, she stepped to the microphone, announced to a conservative audience that she was gay, and simply made herself available. And people started coming. She didn’t try to change their mind; she just listened. (Miki puts this much more eloquently than I ever could; you’ve got to read the post.)

In short, Miki’s friend was present, in her attendance and her few words.

This past weekend, I attended the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Albany. Before us was a contentious resolution that touched tangentially on GLBT issues: the endorsement of a formal covenant for the worldwide Anglican Communion. For several weeks I had studied the issue, solicited opinions, reflected, and prayed; from that work emerged a position that could respect the covenant’s supporters while saying no to the covenant itself. On Saturday, I articulated these thoughts in 90 seconds from the floor of the convention.

In short, I was present, in my attendance and my few words.

And people started coming. One first-time delegate, who had no idea how conservative the diocesan leadership was, expressed relief at finding a kindred spirit. The head of a progressive organization in the diocese thanked me for speaking up. Yet so did the diocese’s conservative firebrand, who generally brooks no nonsense from “liberals.”

Experiences like these leave me with so much hope…and a few lessons. One involves the timeframe of dialogue. I have no illusions that one 90-second speech—or a boatload of 90-second speeches—will change the basic mindset of 400 convention delegates. Neither will they inspire all of us to listen respectfully and dialogue civilly all the time.

But each time we do something like this, we give people a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood on the “other side.” We reveal that we’re human, use logic, and come to our positions in good faith. Then, the next time we do it, our listeners might be a bit more accepting of us, a bit more willing to listen, whether they agree or not.

The other lesson is like unto it. It’s easy to think of dialogue as this intense, formal, sustained effort, with facilitators and flip charts and study circles and such. Those efforts are worthy of applause. But right in the midst of our daily lives, we can move dialogue in seemingly tiny ways, like presenting oneself at a convention.

When we do, people will come.

Have you ever started a dialogue just by showing up? Did simply expressing who you are draw people to you? What happened?  Please share your experiences by clicking on the Comments line below.

Intolerant? Me?

Let’s try some word association. I’ll give you three words, and you say the first word that comes to mind. Here we go:

Intolerant.

Rigid.

Confrontational.

Did you read these words and instantly think fundamentalist, or conservative, or something like that? I have, for many years.

To those of us who think along such lines, let me tell a story.

A friend recently wrote me about two of his old classmates, buddies since high school, who have had a falling out. One is a mainstream Protestant minister, seminary-trained, with 20 years’ experience. The other just became born again and is sharing her newfound (fundamentalist) faith with the minister. My friend perceives that it’s the minister, “liberal” as she is, who’s become defensive.

I can imagine that, because I see it in some of the progressives I know. They’ll embrace anyone of any stripe—except conservatives. They view fundamentalists through stereotypes and have little interest in hearing traditional perspectives.

So what does this show us? Certainly that intolerance is not confined to one specific worldview. If we go deeper, though, we might just find that (to borrow from Pogo) we have met the intolerant and they is us.

I know this is true of me. I am delighted to enter into dialogue with Hindus, Baha’is, New Agers, gays, you name it. But Baptists? Health insurance executives? Do I have to?

Yes. Dialogue calls me to encounter everyone. No exceptions.

But how? This is what makes authentic dialogue far more than just a series of techniques for use once we’re at the table. To talk with those who set our teeth on edge and our blood pressure soaring, we have to prepare our inner selves—to till the soil of our souls, as it were—long before we start the dialogue itself. By cultivating such virtues as humility, openness, an ability to risk, and a commitment to love, we gradually become people of clear mind and open heart, which empowers us to share with anyone.

Goodness knows we need this. What might happen if, say, single-payer advocates and health insurance executives were to prepare their inner selves and then come back to the table? No, they probably wouldn’t agree on a strategy for health care reform. But at least they could conduct a civil conversation, a give-and-take that might clarify the issues for the rest of us—including our elected leaders—and thus clear a path to a better solution.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But given the current state of the health care discussion—or the debate over abortion, or gay marriage, or any other issue—surely it is a place to start.