Friday, September 15, 2017

Communication not Confrontation

We live in a time when people seem to have a lot to say and say it with great conviction.  This is good; we need to care about things.  We sometimes, however, confuse having a reaction to something with really caring about it, caring to the point where we are willing to make a sacrifice.  The resulting danger is we mistake confrontation for authentic communication; they are not the same thing. 

Confrontation begins with differences and disagreements; it does not begin with commonalities.  It quickly incites animosity and even violence.  Frederick Streets, a Baptist professor of theology at Yale, suggested that violent behavior is any action that intentionally or unintentionally demeans or destroys another human being or their property.  Violent behavior is best understood by its impact on others.

Thus, speech can be an act of violence if it demeans or destroys another.  The aim of “violent” speech is to silence, marginalize, or intimidate our adversary.  Simply because our cause is just does not mean we are free to engage in speech and acts that seek to demean or destroy others.  Such speech or action resolves nothing and leaves in its wake further alienation.  It is designed to suppress communication.

I am not suggesting that we deny differences and ignore outrages.  I am suggesting that we begin in a place that may lead to progress and even healing.

Redemptive Communication
Redemptive communication begins with seeking out what we have in common.  Martin Luther King believed that he had an ally in the heart of his adversary (Greenberg, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 15, 1988).  Thus, his strategy was not to silence or injure but to engage people--even those opposing him--in conversation.  This communication took the form of direct action, but still it was not designed to intimidate or silence or demean.  King respected the common humanity of his adversary.  As “identity politics” becomes a central paradigm of our thinking, we lose sight of the immediate issues and begin to question the intrinsic value of those whom we feel do not share our common interest.

We sometimes have to search hard to find some commonalities between us and those with whom we disagree.  A good beginning point is our common creator.  Within each of us, sometimes buried so deeply it is almost impossible to discern, is the image of God.  Jesus told us to love our enemy.  I think he was encouraging us to find some bridge between us and those with whom we disagree by seeing them as brothers and sisters in the common human family.

John Paul Lederbach writes about the difference between looking and seeing (The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, pp. 8-9).  To look is draw attention to or pay attention to something.  Lederbach writes: “To see, on the other hand, is to look beyond and deeper.  Seeing seeks insight and understanding.  In everyday language we say, ‘Do you see what I mean?’ Understanding is the process of creating meaning.  Meaning requires that we bring something into sharper focus.”  It is possible to understand positions and passions that we do not share.

Redemptive communication does not begin with a certainty of our own rectitude and possession of the truth.  Rather it begins with a humility that fosters trust, a humility born of an awareness of our own limitations.  Listening to others as if what they think matters builds trust that leads to better conversation.

This is hard to do when what we hear is threatening or offensive.  Nonetheless, we must steel ourselves for what we find objectionable, remembering that our conversation partner may be experiencing us in the same way.

Believers sometimes make common cause with others who are not operating out of the “love your enemy” ethic.  It is OK to join with people who are working toward similar goals.  We must not, however, uncritically adopt their methodologies.  They are free to act in ways that we, as Christians, are not.

When we look into the face of another, we strive to see the image of God in them. This is a labor of love, which means, sometimes, it is work to do so.  Even when we cannot see that resemblance, we believe by faith that it is there.

Jim Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, September 1, 2017

God Works in All Things

I believe that God works in all things, good things and bad things, to foster some good.  I do not causes all things that happen, that everything that happens is an indication of God’s preferences.  I do mean that God can use all things to accomplish good.
mean to suggest that God

That is one meaning of the wood redeem: to reclaim.  God reclaims God’s purpose in creation when something happens that seems to be derailing God’s intent for creation.

Each day we watch films of people in Texas and Louisiana who have had their lives turned upside down and lost most everything they have. We do not yet realize the scope of this loss.  It is just beginning to sink in.  I don’t believe it is God’s good intention that people’s houses be flooded, their pictures destroyed, and their neighbors drowned.

While dodging the question of theodicy (why does the creation that was handed over to us to nurture us sometimes seem to declare war on us?), I have noticed one encouraging thing.

Perhaps you have noticed that lately a lot of people have been yelling at one another in our country.  We seem to be divided these days in identity/interest groups and believe our group’s survival depends upon asserting our claims at the expense of others.

Yet in the aftermath of this hurricane, we have seen story after story of people helping one another without regard to race, religion, politics, gender, geography, or wealth.  Some people speaking out of the midst of the catastrophe have noted this.

I find this enormously encouraging.  I am not na├»ve about the ongoing divisions in our country; they existed before Hurricane Harvey and will persist after the waters recede.  But I am nonetheless encouraged.  In the face of devastating loss, many have responded out of their sense of the common humanity of others.

During my pastorate in Philadelphia, many of the theological issues dividing Christians at that time were not frequent topics among our urban congregations.  We had more immediate concerns: affordable decent housing, police/citizen relations, drug dealers on the corner, functioning public schools, poverty, removal of trash, and, of course, the repairing of potholes.  Out of our common challenges, God brought us together into a resourceful community of people who worked together for the common good.

Can God bring this type of thing out of this tragic hurricane? Could God use this catastrophe to strengthen our national character and guide us toward reconciliation leavened with justice and compassion?

Jesus once said:  For mortals this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matt 19:16).  May we seize upon the well of goodwill that tragedy has spawned.

Jim Kelsey--Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State