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Dialogue alone cannot overcome our polarization
When matters of dignity and livelihood are at stake, we need transformation of hearts and minds, not just the ability to dialogue, to overcome what divides us.
“Respectful and honest conversation is one fundamental way we love one another. How can we have a healthy democracy without careful listening? How can we be a healthy body of Christ without acknowledging our differences? And even more immediately, how might we engage with one another—when we seem to live in different realities—without trying to represent our tribe instead of just being ourselves, questions and ambivalence included?” – Paul Hopkins writing for Christian Century
I enjoyed reading the results of Paul Hopkins’ church’s study on dialogue between his church and their evangelical neighbors. With the right ground rules, the two groups seemed to achieve constructive conversations about their differences– and some even formed lasting relationships. They hit bumps along the way, but apparently managed to get somewhere, in terms of “respectful” dialogue.
It seemed like a good experience and perhaps an example of the ideal landscape some desire in churches: a place to listen across differences and still end up loving each other. I think when it comes to the vast majority of matters related to our spiritual and personal lives, such goals are good and appropriate. In the midst of conflict, we should remember that reasonable minds can differ. At times we can reach a compromise or even create a new path. I am hopeful that communicating at our best can help us overcome problems in interpersonal conflicts, in budget disputes, and in meetings about leases and mortgages.
I think this can happen even across denominations and across faith traditions. If we learn to listen to one another across differences, we will learn more about ourselves and about God. The matters at hand are very serious, and very personal. Our images of God, how we worship and pray, and our traditions and rituals are very important to us. They make us who we are. We benefit from both a deep, personal faith and also an awareness of others. It is possible, with sustained effort, to create an inclusive and loving environment. I don’t expect to leave behind my own Mennonite beliefs, but learning from other Christians and other faiths is both nourishing and necessary. It can decrease prejudice, increase pluralism, and create a more harmonious and loving environment across religious differences–something we need desperately. Antisemitic and Islamophobic violence is evidence enough that we need dialogue.
But are there matters where such dialogue is unproductive or even impossible? I don’t think there are many, but unfortunately, the issues that seem to polarize us the most are probably the ones that can’t be healed through dialogue alone. The issues that seem intractable are intractable for a reason. The irony is that the issues that polarize us cut across the differences that I mentioned above, as well. Dialogue just can’t heal divides when what’s at stake is personal dignity and bodily safety.
The issues that I’m referring to refer to our race, our sexuality, our gender, and our bodies. As important as theology and doctrinal matters like baptism and communion are, they don’t involve our physical safety or personal dignity. Some people would naturally disagree with me here—and that’s OK. You can consider them to be very serious matters and you can cut off communication with those who disagree. Your disagreement, in and of itself, won’t create oppression. But when it comes to matters of our physical selves, the issues at hand become much more serious, and they can’t be solved by agreeing to disagree. They can’t be solved by having a common communion table or interfaith worship. They are much too serious for that. It is untenable to ask a queer person to tolerate someone who thinks their mere existence is sinful. In fact, such tolerance can have deadly consequences. The same applies to trans people who are asked to tolerate misgendering and gaslighting. We could extend this to matters of race, immigration, reproductive rights, as well.
The key point here isn’t that dialogue is impossible, but that the end of dialogue cannot always be an agreement to disagree. Dignity must be understood to be quintessential. We don’t necessarily need to agree on specific policy solutions but there can be no compromise on the issue of dignity and well-being of all. It is this that must be cherished and valued. The goal needs to be safeguarding the most vulnerable. The purpose of dialogue can be to move the needle in the direction of that goal.
Unfortunately there are people who benefit from making sure that such movement is impossible. Our elected officials sometimes exploit our differences to increase their own political viability. They exaggerate or even invent existential threats that might result from granting dignity to BIPOC, disabled, and queer people. Such fear-mongering increases polarization and contributes to oppression.
Let us hope there is no need to debate the ethics of slavery or even racial integration. It is almost universally true—across political and religious differences—that we as a society now believe it is wrong to enslave people or even segregate them by race. In contrast, no such consensus exists about women’s ordination, LGBT-inclusion or anti-racism within Christianity. Nor are we anywhere near consensus on reproductive rights, climate change, or even epidemiology. We can, at best, use reason and imagination to understand the beliefs of others on these issues.
Hopkins’ belief in dialogue is noble and his experiments were fruitful. However, when it comes to matters of sexuality, gender, race, and ability, dialogue is not the answer. There simply aren’t two ethical sides when it comes to slavery–nor to any issue that threatens the most vulnerable among us.