Embracing the Person, if Not the Ideas


This being an election year, many of us have found ourselves in conflict with others. We want to be good Christians (or citizens, even) and reach out to those poor, deluded souls, and see their faces as the face of Jesus standing over there on the other side of the chasm of disagreement looming before us. The trouble is, they don't look like Jesus. They look like one of them, one of those horrible people ruining our church or our country. How can you possibly reach out when every instinct tells you to fight? Here are some practical tips to help you build bridges of connection in moments of conflict.

1. Diplomacy. Practicing diplomacy does not necessarily end conflict, but it moves all sides move forward in a way that helps everyone. Some people are natural diplomats: curious, wanting to get to know people who are different, etc. But there are many other qualities you might have that could make you an everyday diplomat, even if you haven't before thought of yourself as such. Diplomats are good listeners. They are good at nurturing relationships and forming networks around them. They are good at creating environments of hospitality and safety. They take the long view and don't get discouraged by temporary setbacks. And they have patience, both with themselves and with the shortcomings of others. It takes many different kinds of diplomats working together to build those bridges between our hearts we so desperately need.

2. Dialogue. Note that the word is "dialogue" not "monologue..." In almost any group, meeting or class, there always seems to be at least one person (surely not you, dear reader) who seizes the opportunity to stand in the spotlight and go on and on about all their wonderful achievements or show off how smart they are. Dialogue, conversely, requires you to listen at least as much as, ideally more than, you speak. The purpose is not to justify yourself or boast or try to elicit sympathy, it is to share stories and ideas openly among equals. Neither is dialogue a debate. Don't try to convince the other person that you are right, just share your experiences and ideas in a non-judgmental manner. The goal is not to arrive at agreement; the process of dialogue is itself the goal. It's human nature to want to win, but that is antithetical to dialogue. You should also learn communication skills. (Here's a resource for learning how to communicate more effectively. I also highly recommend Celeste Headlee's excellent TED talk on the topic.) A good dialogue focuses on people, not issues. Someone may say something you profoundly disagree with, but try to focus more on the person standing in front of you and not on their opinion dangling in the air between you. Stay committed even through the hard moments. In fact, if you don't feel at least mildly confused or questioning at some point during the discussion, then you are probably not bringing enough to the table. Ask yourself: are you willing to learn from this experience? Probably none of your deeply-held beliefs will be changed by engaging in this process, but if you challenge yourself, your heart will be changed, and that's what we are about as people of faith, softening and opening our hearts.

3. Risk Taking. Building physical bridges is full of risk. During the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, between 20-30 men lost their lives, including the chief engineer. Bridge building between hearts contains risk as well because you can never be confident that the other side will play by your same rules and risk as much as you are willing to risk. At the current site of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, you can view the "Door of Reconciliation," an ancient door with a hole cut through the middle. That hole is there because of a war between two Irish families in 1492. At one point, one of the rivals, James Butler, found himself besieged inside the church. The other, Gerald Fitzgerald, seeing his enemy trapped in a church had the epiphany that they both worshipped the same God, and decided to declare a truce. Although he kept trying to persuade Butler to leave the church, promising no harm would come to him or his soldiers, Butler did not trust him and remained inside. Finally, Fitzgerald cut a hole in the door and thrust his open hand through in a gesture of peace. Butler could have chosen to take his sword and cut off Fitzgerald's arm then and there, but instead he grasped and shook the outstretched hand of his enemy, and the siege was ended. The lesson for all of us engaged in arguments is that if one of us would dare to "chance the arm", as the Irish say, perhaps that would be the first crucial step to the reconciliation we all seek.

One of my own moments of "chancing the arm" came when, as one of the leaders for a seminar tasked with reconciling parishes with differing views on same sex marriage, two other members of our leadership team who were Evangelical conservatives offered to lay hands on and pray for me before I was to deliver my scheduled talk. I wanted to turn them down because I knew there was very little that I agreed with those two men about politically or theologically, but I assented and ended up feeling a profound experience of Christ's love as they prayed for me because I knew that we were bound together by our common faith and our mutual commitment to be voices of healing for all those gathered with us that weekend, dreaming of reconciliation. We who are Episcopalians, and probably many of the rest of you, exist in the shadow of partisan forces, sometimes in our own parishes and certainly in the wider church, who try repeatedly to spark fights and sever the bonds between us, and so it helps to hold firm to the truth found in moments like these where we are able to cross the divide, that whatever our differences, we are one bread, one body.

Which leads me to a final thought: many of us hear some version every week of the invitation to communion that says, "Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, you are welcome at this table," but how far are we willing to go to make the words true, not just at the table but in the rest of our lives? Would you extend that invitation even to those whose views you may find disdainful? Jesus has promised us that we are united in him through the breaking of the bread. In order to experience this truth and integrate it into our lives we have to come to the table and do the sometimes uncomfortable work of breaking bread together, gay and straight, black and white, liberal and conservative alike. The test of the health of our community lies in how we treat the most marginalized among us, whether their marginalization is social, economic, or ideological. We may not be able to embrace someone's ideas, but we must always, always embrace the person.