Marie DennisBy Marie Dennis
Pax Christi International Co-President

(This is the sixth and final post in a series about civil discourse, respectful dialogue across difference, and nonviolence. Read Marie’s first post here, second post here, third post here, fourth post here and fifth post here. And join in the conversation by posting comments on the website below this post and past ones, as well as participating in the dialogue on our Facebook page and Twitter. To download a PDF version of all 6 reflections in this series, plus an opening prayer, suitable for individual or small group use, click here.)

A helpful parish program on civil discourse this week provided a good opportunity to think through many different aspects of this topic. We began the conversation by viewing together a 10 minute segment of Jon Stewart’s recent interview of Senator Marco Rubio, with its good examples of civil (and occasionally not-so-civil) discourse. We also looked at the recent interaction between the Vatican and LCWR to see what we could learn there. A few observations:

  • Respect for the other person and a real desire to understand their point of view makes civil dialogue even across substantial differences of opinion possible; conversely, without respect, civil discourse is virtually impossible.
  • No one has the corner on truth; civil discourse is more possible when we are open to gaining new insights, information or understanding from the other.
  • Attentive listening is crucial; asking questions to make sure you understand what the other person is saying, and perhaps why they hold that opinion, can help.
  • So do being well-informed and truthful; owning personal opinion as opinion; speaking respectfully; shared humor; neutral body language; and avoiding rhetoric.
  • The “atmosphere” also can facilitate or preclude civil discourse;  print, broadcast and electronic media play an important role in setting the tone of our political discussions, as do our personal communications and conversations.
  • When any common ground exists, it helps to name it, but it can also be a gift to agree to disagree and still continue the dialogue, making the effort to understand another person’s perspective.

If we are truly informed by faith, it seems to me that we will not be neutral. Rather, we are called by the Gospel to be on the side of those who are impoverished and excluded; to speak out for an end to war and violence; to respect the integrity of creation; to work for the common good. To do so in the public arena – and often in private conversations as well – we will have to choose sides, to have an opinion. I think one of the greatest challenges of these complex times is to claim with vigor that Gospel bias and to be prophetic in response to the greed and violence of our culture, without losing the capacity for respectful listening or the humility that opens us to new ways of thinking, new information, new ideas, new answers.

In these long months of heated debate, we U.S. Americans have failed to identify the common values or goals that might repair the jagged tear in our national fabric. We have been richly blessed with a great diversity of culture, experience, religious and ethical belief, opinion. As the 2012 presidential election draws near, let us pray for national and local leadership that will help us reclaim a commitment to the common good, to just and sustainable peace, to social and ecological justice, and insist on the kind of civil discourse necessary to move our country in that direction.

Marie Dennis is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace and the Co-President of Pax Christi International. 

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