Today, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 10:30 am to 12 noon Eastern Time zone, you are invited to watch the webcast of a panel moderated by Chris Glaser on “Religion in the Public Square” at Yale Divinity School.
“Because church people tend to think they should not fight, most of them are really bad at it,” Barbara Brown Taylor rightly observes in her book, Leaving Church.
I think this applies not only to congregations. Couples, families, colleagues, coworkers, communities, citizens, elected officials, liberals and conservatives (the latter two for different reasons) do not know how to fight in a way that is mutually beneficial. Winning is more important than compromise, scoring points is worth more than mutual growth, attacking individuals has more traction than evaluating and even understanding another’s positions.
Many of us liberals and progressives fear conflict, and thus bend over backwards to accommodate opposing views, sometimes to the detriment of what is right. Many conservatives and neoconservatives enjoy the fray, as if going to holy war, sometimes to the detriment of what is just. Liberals by definition are to be open to all viewpoints; conservatives by definition are resistant to progressive views.
In high school, one of my least favorite extracurricular activities was debate club. The research involved, the requirement to argue each side of an issue, the inherent public speaking as well as the evaluation of the judges all made it undeniably challenging. And the topic that year was “socialized medicine,” hard to believe less controversial then than it is now but difficult nonetheless.
What I learned, though, was that attacking an individual rather than his or her facts lost points. Attacking an opinion rather than its underlying bases lost points. Attacking an idea rather than cogently presenting an alternative idea lost points. Lack of humility and lack of an ability to “see” the justifiability of the other side’s position lost points, as well as the understanding required to refute those justifications. Winning the debate was as much about remaining agreeable as it was about being right. (Presidential debates are closer in form to raucous wrestling matches than debate formats we were taught!)
That’s why I both loved and was challenged by the television series The West Wing. Though fictionally based on the administration of a liberal president, it nonetheless tried to show divergent opinions on a wide variety of subjects, and the bases of those opinions. I remember one episode in particular that felt like a slap in the face, when a conservative staff member said to a liberal staff member, “It’s not that you just want to regulate gun safety. It’s that you don’t like the people who like guns.” And I had to admit, that at least for me, this was somewhat true. The gun aficionado to me was of a different class—my classism revealed.
Today I moderate a panel for my Yale Divinity School reunion on the subject, “Religion in the Public Square.” Fittingly, it will be held in Niebuhr Hall on the campus, named for famed YDS theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, who taught and wrote of the need for “the prophetic strain” in Christianity. Two more recent books come to mind. One is Yale professor Stephen L. Carter’s book, a favorite of then President Bill Clinton, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, about how religious values have a place in the public square. The second is University of Massachusetts professor Glenn Tinder’s The Political Meaning of Christianity: The Prophetic Stance, about the role of Christianity standing over against popular culture as loving critic. I recommend both of these books as guides to fighting for what is right and just.
Many of our parents encouraged us to stand up to bullies when we were kids. Jesus stood up to the religious and political bullies of his day, unwilling to kill but unwilling to yield in the fight for what was right and just. While more humbly asserting what is right and just (given that we are not Jesus!), I believe we need to do this as well, “armed” with truth, passion, understanding, and compassion, just as Jesus was. As our YDS liberation theology professor Letty Russell once wrote, “We join in God’s work of liberation by reflecting on the meaning of that liberation in the lives of those who find themselves dehumanized.”
Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal devotions, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. Please click here to learn more about this ministry and/or make a donation!