Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Pattern for Christian Activism

I hope that I am not stretching the limits of "fair use" with this posting. I am re-printing a commentary that was posted to me from Frederica Mathewes-Green, to whose musings I subscribe. In this commentary, which was published in the Dallas Morning News this past Sunday. In it she describes an effort in which she was involved to help bring opposing sides in the abortion "wars" to a less war-like stance. (For what it's worth, Frederica is an Episcopalian-turned-Orthodox, who is married to an Episcopalian-turned-Orthodox priest. She is active in speaking and writing to promote both rather conservative causes -- religious and political -- and to promote Orthodoxy.)

Frederica describes a process that should be adopted by congregations and councils of Churches throughout the land -- and not just for the issue of abortion, but for all the other battlefield-issues that polarize the members of the Body of Christ. "Come, let us sit and reason together" is a summons that Christians should not ignore -- whatever their theological, political, or emotional stripe. I think the first benefit of such projects will be to "undefine" our opponents as enemies. That we must love our enemies is a given for faith, although it is apparently a given that is all-too-easy to overlook. That we might even characterize fellow Christians as "enemies" is something that makes me cringe. (And I wish that Frederica had not used that term.) It seems clear that it's very difficult to remain "enemies" if one is engaged in good-faith conversation.

It would be very difficult for me to participate in such groups without a moderator: I am way too inclined to argue or try to convince or shoot down. The imposition of an "active listening" response is a good one. It's good to practice that in all spheres of life.

Do people have such projects going on? It would be good to hear of them.

By the way, you can get Frederica's mailings (a couple of times per week) by contacting her through Christianity Today's network here.

In any event, Mathewes-Green:

For most of the 90's I was involved in an organization with a highly improbable name: The Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. Yes, in the days when "pro-life" (pardon, I mean hateful anti-choice fanatics) and "pro-choice (that is, hateful baby-killing fanatics) were about as opposite as they could be, in some dozen cities across the country they were sitting down, knee to knee, and trying to understand each other.

It was terrific. Now I have to admit that this was a self-selected group, and anyone who participated was the kind of pro-lifer or pro-choicer who would *want* to talk to someone on the other side. But we saw some surprising positive results. For example, we produced a paper on our agreement that adoption is a good alternative to abortion. A pro-life rescue activist and an abortion clinic administrator jointly wrote a paper on the acceptable limits of demonstrations outside clinics. But most important, we were able to put a face on a faceless "enemy," and find that we could talk. For those expecting insults, fury, and rejection, just being heard out was enough to bring tears to the eyes.

A new group would begin with a dialogue session in which there were an equal number of pro-choice and pro-life participants. These would sit in groups of four, and take turns answering the question, "What experience in your life led you to hold your opinion on abortion?" That question was carefully chosen. Nobody can tell you that you have not had an experience.

If a pro-life person told their story, then one of the pro-choicers would respond. He would summarize and repeat what the pro-lifer had said, showing that it had been accurately understood. If it wasn't accurate, the pro-lifer could correct and fine-tune. When the "listenee" was satisfied that she had been thoroughly heard, it was the turn of someone on the other side to tell his story.

"Common ground" did not mean compromise. It meant "safe ground," a safe space where we could talk about our deepest beliefs and not be ridiculed or insulted. The ground was kept safe by some basic rules:

1. No attempts at persuasion. The goal was just to be accurately understood. Too often, all we knew about each other was what we picked up in the media, and stereotypes, confusion, and misrepresentation abounded. We were trying to get past misunderstanding, and arrive at genuine disagreement.

2. Call a person by the label they prefer, rather than a politically loaded epithet.

3. Only "sincere questions" are allowed. A sincere question was defined as "a question you don't know the answer to." Rhetorical questions, designed to trip up the other guy, were off the table.

After the initial day of dialogue we would continue to meet and talk, and friendships grew between the most unlikely people. In one city, a very young girl showed up at an abortion clinic, too far along to have an abortion. She would have to finish the pregnancy on complete bed rest, and needed volunteers to sit with her. The clinic administrator knew a pro-lifer from the local Common Ground group, and phoned to ask for help. The pro-life community gathered volunteers to sit with her, and the girl finished her pregnancy safely. But if the two communities had been locked in the kind of armed warfare that usually exists, the side that had resources would not have even known that the other side had a need.

In the late 90's the movement started hitting financial roadbumps; the foundations that had been so generous were turning to other interests and issues. The abortion debate seemed to be receding from the headlines. And, frankly, it's never news when people are being nice to each other. The national office lost its funding, and could no longer support the local groups.

But what I learned from those meetings will always stay with me. As a Christian, it became a significant learning experience. My Lord Jesus had told me to go love my enemies, and in order to do that, I had to at least go and look at them from time to time. I looked at them and talked to them and listened to them. In the end, I found they weren't that hard to love.

-- Frederica Mathewes-Green


Maurice Frontz said...

If only something like that existed for the discussion of homosexual practice. Eyes would be opened. On both sides.

I don't know whether that is a pattern for Christian activism (after all, activism is primarily an attempt to use power) or a pattern for dialogue between positions, religions, etc.

I would doubt that those in the Common Ground network would have abstained from activism in their time away from the meetings. Obviously they were committed enough to their beliefs to self-identify with them.


Eric Lee said...

This is great, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I love her writing - read it all the time! Thanks for this post.


Bag Lady said...

The process Mathewes-Green describes is very good (and I have participated in something like it, designed to work through conflict in my parish).

It is quite difficult, as you note, and does require strong leadership. A leader must be committed to the work and be able to construct a "holding tank" of sorts wherein participants feel safe enough to 1) talk about their own place and 2) listen to the others.

Questions also need to frame the conversation in a way that people don't resort to merely repeating their usual arguments (beautifully illustrated by the question in the example Mathewes-Green relates).

Good as it is, it is but the first step in a much deeper process. For some ideas on how to get past the surface discussion and start listening jointly for the Spirit's leading, I commend to you "Listening Hearts" by Farnham et al., and "Grounded in God" by Farnham, Hull and McLean.

Though I saw this particular process horribly hijacked by people who could not/would not be honest with themselves or the group, resulting in decisions that severely injured the community, I still hold out hope that the "Listening Hearts" model could enrich, strengthen, and transform a community beyond my wildest dreams.

Dwight said...

I'm on the fly, trying to juggle many responsibilities. Thank you, y'all for responding to this post.

I want to disagree with -- or at least continue to discuss -- Chip's question whether this is a "pattern for Christian activism (after all, activism is primarily an attempt to use power)... ."

I may or may not agree with that, depending on what you mean by "power." My friend Allan decries "dominative power" and I agree with him. To the extent that one attempts to force someone into something, I think, one is misusing his or her power. On the other hand, the Spirit gives us power. And if we use the Spirit's power, we are dcing the work of the Father, are we not? Thus, if we act in agreement with the will of the Father and renounce the use of violence (in any definition), I think we have ample justification for calling this a pattern for Christian activism.

Christians are at all times humble and dialogic. We are not, however, push-overs. We do not need to become partisan, defensive, or any of the other psychologically defined misfits, because we know that God will ultimately vindicate us. Thus, we are free to discuss, to make sure that each side hears each other, to engage in dialogue.

If people continue their "activism" outside the dialogue in ways that "offend" the other side -- so be it. The issue is the way we approach the people on the other side. I may be willing to picket a Planned Parenthood clinic, but if I have been in conversation with the workers therein, I will not be inclined to bomb the place. And I think both sides in this abortion -- et. al. ! -- have given short schrift to the power of the Spirit to work through just such eye-to-eye contact.

I think Frederica does not always practice this history in her analysis of viewpoints that are at odds with her. I think that if we were all to take her description as a description of the Christian practice of discernment, we might make large steps toward faithfulness.

I lament that original sin can infest all aspects of life in communion -- and can "highjack" (good word) even the efforts based in the best of good faith. But we are not captive to such failure; we are not deterred; we must fight on.

I have spent the past couple of weeks (when I have had a few minutes) working to try to get my friends on the left side of the sexuality debate to connect with those on the right side of that debate (and vice versa). Both parties speak exactly past each other. It is NOT EASY!

Now, I'm off to assist in Brother James' ordination. (This is a duty of such inexpressible joy to me that I can hardly even type that I'm going!) When I'm back, I hope to report a little on the conference about marriage sponsored by my beloved Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. I managed to meet and to engage some of the presenters, and they were wonderful and generous and open in exploring the issues that intersect in the notions of "marriage."

Until then, pardon my senseless musings. I have never learned to shut up when I am tired.

Let's keep this dialogue going: The approach posed by Sister Frederica are significant and of potential (almost) salvific import for the Church. We need to talk about this some more.

Salaam, brothers and sisters.

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