(This is the first in a series about civil discourse, respectful dialogue across difference, and nonviolence. Look for more posts from Marie in the weeks to come. And join in the conversation by posting comments on the website below this post and future ones, as well as participating in the dialogue on our Facebook page and Twitter.)
Last week Cardinal Dolan responded to those who criticized him for inviting both President Obama and Governor Romney to the Al Smith dinner in New York in October. Although I have been disheartened by a lot of the partisan commentary from – and campaigning by – Catholic Church hierarchy in this election year, I found the Cardinal’s remarks important and encouraging.
The Al Smith Dinner, the Cardinal said, has been an acclaimed example of “civility in political life.” Furthermore, “the teaching of the Church, so radiant in the Second Vatican Council, is that the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of engagement and dialogue. In other words, it’s better to invite than to ignore, more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one.”
“In the end,” he said, “I’m encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, if I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone.”
With the possible exception of the hermits among us, we have all been on the receiving end of an avalanche of political rhetoric this year and the next few months will be worse. In that context, genuine dialogue across difference is extremely difficult, but it seems to me that it is an essential dimension of a genuine commitment to the Gospel and nonviolence.
In the coming weeks, a conversation about what that means and what it doesn’t mean might be helpful, so I invite your comments!
Let me begin by saying that, in my mind, civil discourse and respectful dialogue do NOT imply neutrality on social, economic, environmental or other critical issues – or on the fundamental direction in which our country will move in the coming years. Jesus, it seems to me, was fully engaged in the public debate about the laws and systems of first century Palestine. His harsh critique of exclusionary purity and debt codes is a case in point.
The public dialogue in which we as a country are engaged is a very high stakes conversation – about the common good and human dignity; about what kind of a theological message we will give by our federal budget priorities and whether the people of Afghanistan or Pakistan – or U.S. soldiers – will live or die; about health insurance for 30 million people, the rights and safety of 15 million immigrants, and the survival of our planet.
In addition to the seriousness of the issues we are discussing, we also know that the playing field onto which we will venture for any dialogue is dangerous and already toxic. Dangerous due, for example, to the anonymity, facility and speed of electronic communications – or the “spin” that can distort any word out of a public figure’s mouth or off a politician’s pen. Anyone can say anything on the internet with almost complete impunity. Too many media personalities are more interested in fame and fortune than in truth or dialogue – more interested in partisan ideology than in a serious pursuit of accurate information or careful analysis. Too many politicians are more concerned about being elected than about finding the best answers to extremely difficult public questions.
Perhaps too many of us are more interested in verbal victory than accuracy – ideological purity than honesty – political correctness than truth.
Jesus was very clear:
- Do to others what you would have them do to you … (Mt 7:12; Luke 6:30)
- Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:44)
To infuse our nation and our world with this approach to the “other” seems almost impossible, but, without a doubt, would go a long way toward promoting civil discourse, and – perhaps even more importantly, a world that is peaceful, socially just and more sustainable.
The challenge is huge: to promote a compassionate society, just structures and systems, peace and respect for the integrity of creation and to recognize that no one has the corner on truth; see God’s presence in every person; and listen with an open mind and heart – never demonizing another person, but at the same time, being honest and able to disagree with their actions or positions.
We who would be disciples must “choose sides.” How we do that in the current political context is the challenge.
Marie Dennis is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the Co-President of Pax Christi International.