Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Civil Discourse

Last spring I had a parishioner who had just finished reading Jim Wallis' book God's Politics ask me to consider leading a book study on it. I was, quite frankly, a bit nervous about doing that. While outsiders think of Massachusetts as the bluest of blue states, the truth is that in the middle of the Commonwealth where I live, in Worcester County, it's far more complex politically. The largest political "party" in Holden are "Independent" (un-enrolled) voters, with Republicans and Democrats roughly even. (Senator Scott Brown will almost certainly carry Holden next month, as he did in the last special election that got him elected to the Senate.) The parish I serve is pretty representative of this cultural context, as even a cursory view of the bumper stickers in our parking lot on a Sunday morning reveals.

Yet I became convinced to take this "risk:" especially as our nation has seemingly become even more polarized politically since Wallis wrote his book. If we are called to be instruments of God's peace, to be salt, and light, and yeast in this time and place, then perhaps the Church is one of the few places left that can model and witness to healthier ways of communicating with one another about our political differences. Perhaps it is a place where we can practice civility.

I believe that many of our disagreements are rooted in our stories - our spiritual autobiographies and the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are and what makes this nation great. And also in the sources we trust for our information. When I see political disagreements on Facebook, including those I am engaged in, very often underneath the disagreements it is about whether we watch Fox News or MSNBC, whether we read The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. Now I happen to believe that some news sources are simply better at reporting than others, but all information comes to us with some spin and the hard part here is in discerning where the truth lies.

So we will spend three weeks in this group focused on three areas that Wallis covers: spiritual values and (1) international affairs; (2) the economy; and (3) social issues. We'll use Wallis more as a springboard for conversation, rather than reviewing his book. We'll avoid debating about the two presidential candidates and focus in on these areas - on the places where we find consensus and where our differences lie. My thesis is that almost none of us will be in lock-step with one party or the other, and that there are at least fifty shades of purple worth exploring.

But before we get there, we will share something of our stories with one another. Below is the outline for our introductions tonight, which I pray will not only help others to know "where we are coming from" but help each of us to become more reflective of ourselves and be reminded that none of us stands in a place where we see without filters. Each of us stands someplace, shaped by our own particular context. We get closer to the truth, I believe, by becoming more aware of this fact and of intentionally encountering "the other" who sees from another angle. Here, then, are the questions we'll explore tonight; please keep us in your prayers:

We will divide into pairs: PLEASE find someone you don’t know so well, someone perhaps even whom you suspect whose views may be rather different than yours on these issues. We’ll spend about ten-fifteen minutes in conversation with each other and then YOUR JOB WILL BE TO INTRODUCE YOUR PARTNER TO THE LARGER GROUP, trying as best you can to capture them in their own words!

1. Your name and where you grew up. Do you think that PLACE has had a lasting impact on your religious and political views. If so, how?

2. Take a moment to think about your family of origin, especially your siblings, parents, grandparents. Now imagine that family gathered today (assume all are living even if they are not) at a family dinner table.

a. What messages have you received from family about religious values and politics? Does your family talk openly about these things or are these conversations verboten?

b. How does your body feel when these conversations happen? Do you get energized by debate or do you shut down? Are you the instigator or the peacemaker?
c. How well are “minority opinions” tolerated at this table?

d. What else do you want to add about how your family dealt with/deals with the topics we are going to explore, and the intersection between faith and religion?

3. What is your PRIMARY source of political information? Be as specific as you can. It’s ok to answer “I explore a lot of sources” but try to zero in on what you rely on most? On-line sources like Huffington Post? Print sources (even if you read them on-line) like The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times? The 6 o’clock news? (Which network?) Cable news? (Again, which one, and what time of day?) A reminder we are not judging one another: just trying to figure out where our information comes from as individuals and as a group. Who do you trust as a reliable source of information?

4. Reflect on how your faith informs your politics. While as a nation, we value the separation of church and state, this does not mean that our faith/values should not inform our own decision-making. How does preaching have an impact for you—or does it not? (Should it?) Do you have a guiding Biblical text or Christian virtue that shapes your political philosophy? (Let’s try to avoid “proof texts” for particular issues; what I’m looking for here is something that takes you to the core of your faith AS THAT FAITH INFLUENCES YOUR POLITICS. As examples, for some that might be an “ethic of life” – for others it might be Matthew 25, etc.)

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