Sunday, September 18, 2016

Let's Talk

Last week we had old friends for dinner and the conversation turned to my work on redistricting reform. I gave a quick overview then smiled and said “I can go on for hours, but that’s the summary.”

"No, wait," one friend exclaimed. "I have some questions."

Others nodded.

I listened to the questions, then, before answering, waved some universal “stop!” motions toward them. “Please feel free to stop me. If I go too far into the weeds let me know.”

I’ve been thinking about how we speak with each other, not just over dinner, but on Facebook, on Twitter, meetings, debates.

I’ve had some great conversations lately.

At a forum on redistricting, I spoke for forty minutes, then for over an hour listened to and answered tough, very thoughtful questions from an engaged group of citizens working together to strengthen our democracy.

Earlier in the week I had a long lunch with some seasoned advocacy leaders thinking carefully about how to encourage our state politicians to adopt changes not in their own self-interest. We came from very different experiences and backgronds, but listened carefully, shared thoughtfully and came away challenged and enriched.

On-line I’ve benefited greatly from friends who offer thoughtful articles, respectfully explain their own views, gently probe areas of dissent.

Real conversation on topics of importance is essential, difficult, rewarding work.

Too often it goes badly.

I’ve been thinking about the incident at Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint, Michigan last Wednesday.

Not a big event, but instructive.

The church has been involved since last winter in a mobile food pantry focusing on foods rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C to offset the harm from lead-infested water.

Apparently Donald Trump’s campaign staff, planning a visit to Flint, contacted Bethel’s pastor, Reverend Faith Green Timmons, to ask if he could visit the church to find out more about the problems in Flint and how he could help or thank the volunteers.

Reverend Timmons agreed.

The candidate was offered the platform to bring greetings and a word of thanks. When he veered into negative remarks about his opponent, the pastor politely intervened, asking him to respect the terms of the invitation: 
“Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us for what we’ve done for Flint, not make a political speech.” 
To his credit, Mr. Trump said “Oh, ok,” and steered back to more general discussion. Seconds later, several attendees called out questions about the Trump family’s history of housing discrimination and the candidate's description of Black people as “lazy.”

Reverend Timmons again intervened, asking the audience to let Mr. Trump speak: “I brought him here as a guest of my church and you will respect him.”

When asked about the exchange afterward, Trump accused Reverend Timmons of ulterior motives, saying “everybody plays their games” and describing her as “a nervous mess.” Since then, she’s been attacked and ridiculed for trying to "trap" Trump with her own antagonistic agenda.

She offered one short statement then let the matter rest.

They had plans to make it a little more than they originally said, and I said, 'No, you're going to stick to the original plan. And so when he asked to come in to make a statement and the statement began to go beyond what he originally said, I asked him to stick to what he said. You came here to welcome our workers and thank them for what they have done and that's what he stuck to.

When I heard from the Trump camp that they wanted to come by and see that we give out water, we give out foods that help mitigate lead and asked if he could come — all are welcome, It's a public event.
I wanted him to see the best of Flint in the sense that we're an educated congregation.
Some of the statements that I've heard him make about African-Americans, Mexicans and others were degrading. I wanted him to see intelligent people, loving people, caring people, who have done well with the resources that they had. 
I’ve added Reverend Timmons to my list of heroes: a gracious, very well-educated woman attempting to build bridges of understanding in a highly divisive context, calmly holding both powerful and less powerful to the same standard of respect.

We need a continent of courageous voices like hers.

A recent New Yorker article about presidential debates announced: 
Political argument has been having a terrible century. Instead of arguing, everyone from next-door neighbors to members of Congress has got used to doing the I.R.L. equivalent of posting to the comments section: serially fulminating. . . . At campaign events, and even at the nominating Conventions, protesters have tried to silence other people’s speech in the name of the First Amendment. On college campuses, administrators, faculty, and students who express unwelcome political views have been fired and expelled. Even high-school debate has come under sustained attack from students who, refusing to argue the assigned political topic, contest the rules. One in three Americans declines to discuss politics except in private; fewer than one in four ever talk with someone with whom they disagree politically; fewer than one in five have ever attended a problem-solving meeting, even online, with people holding views different from their own. What kind of democracy is that? 
I understand why people shy away from political discussion. We’ve all been trapped in conversations we can’t escape. We express a view; we’re told we’re wrong. We attempt to explain; we're interrupted. We question the other’s logic, or assumptions, or conclusions, and are told, again, we’re wrong. We try to change the subject and find the other person won’t let go.

This can happen in person, or on Facebook or on Twitter.

So we block and defriend and remind ourselves to stay silent.

Yet silence won’t bring us closer to solutions. In silence, the divisions grow sharper. 

The anger burrows deeper.

As citizens grow silent, unreason rules the day.

Last night, talking with an acquaintance I haven’t seen in awhile, I mentioned I’d become involved in politics. She seemed surprised, alarmed, then curious, and asked who I was planning to vote for. We talked a bit, then she said “I’m just – disheartened. Is that the right word? Disheartened.”

That’s the right word.

In 1999 Paul Loeb wrote a book called The Soul of a Citizen, which described the deep discouragement at the heart of our political disengagement: 
Most of us would like to see people treated more justly, the earth taken care of properly, and wise and creative solutions applied to the vast problems of our communities, our coungry, and our planet. But we find it hard to imagine playing a meaningful role in this process. We lack faith in our ability to make a difference. The magnitude of the issues at hand, coupled with this sense of powerlessness, have led far too many of us to conclude that social involvement isn’t worth the cost.
Two years later, Parker Palmer’s book “Healing the Heart of Democracy” spoke of  the broken heart of our democracy: 
If you have ever loved someone or something—a man, a woman, a child, a job, an idea, or an ideal —you probably know what it means to have your heart broken by failure, loss, betrayal, decline, or death. Like most Americans, I love democracy, and like many I know, it breaks my heart when democracy is threatened, from within or without. What else should I feel when “We the People” find our will trumped by corporate money, official corruption, and Orwellian lies? Or when we undermine ourselves by indulging in cheap animosities toward those who disagree with us instead of engaging our differences like grown-ups?
The heartbreak, discouragement and disheartenment Loeb and Parker described grows heavier by the day, as we contemplate a vote for the two most disliked candidates our major parties have ever offered us.

Both Parker and Loeb describe and sympathize with the desire to withdraw in resignation but remind us: this is the world we live in. There is no private sanctuary unaffected by the fruit of political dysfuntion.

Both Loeb and Parker suggest that an essential first step to engagement is reclaiming space for genuine conversation. Loeb offers “the politics of witness”: inviting stories from those whose experiences are different from ours, listening carefully across boundaries. 

Parker talks about opening space for the other, learning how to listen better, creating ongoing conversation with those very different from ourselves.

Our church recently started a series on spiritual disciplines: habits or practices that can help us grow in our faith and experience of God’s presence in our lives.

I find myself wondering if we also need political disciplines: habits or practices that will enable us to serve our country more effectively as citizens and stewards of the history and resources we’ve been given.

The discipline I’m most hungry for is genuine conversation: active interest in the experiences of others, empathetic listening to points of view unlike our own, sincere consideration of other ideas, other approaches, other ways of seeing the world.

And willingness to share our own experiences, our own points of view, without feeling the need to force them on others, to have others validate them, to have the final word.

I am looking for people, like Reverend Timmons, who can say, “wait, this isn’t about blaming someone else.” Who can say “let’s respect the person speaking.”  Who is willing to offer another point of view, even when that offering is stepped on by the one invited to listen and learn.

So, yes, I’m involved in politics.

I’m happy to share my views.

Happy to hear yours.

And praying that together we learn to listen and speak with courage, humility and grace.

This post is part of a series on What's Your Platform 
Beyond the Party Platform July 24, 2016
A Different Way July 31, 2016 
Election Fraud and Rigged Elections, August 10, 2016 
How Long Will the Land Lie Parched? August 21, 2016 
Walls, Welcome, Mercy, Law August 28, 2016
Workers and Their Wages, Sep 3, 2016 
Educating Ourselves On Education, Sep 10, 2016