“Comprehension begins with conversation.” This quote from my mentor, the renowned bridge-builder Dr. David Anderson, has been the guiding principle in everything I have tried to do as a young religious leader. Living in the pluralistic and diverse society, it is necessary that all of us, to one degree or another, become principled pluralists, able to engage intelligently and respectfully with the different perspectives and worldviews that surround us everywhere we go. And that engagement begins with education. Education, in this regard, begins with conversation. When we fail to converse with a person who has a different perspective than our own, we inevitably end up misunderstanding them, or worse, demonizing them. Conversely, nearly every time that we make the effort to have a conversation with our political, ideological, or theological “other”, we will walk away with a new friend or at least a broader perspective.
When we watch heated political banter on the evening news or read scolding articles on our favorite commentary blog, the chances are that we are not actually witnessing a meaningful conversation or engagement with another’s position, but a rhetorical show. That’s what gets clicks. That’s what lifts ratings. People who spout off sound bytes of extreme, polarized positions are the ones who catch our attention and get our blood boiling. This is what makes Donald Trump such a successful politician- he knows how to say the most rhetorically incising statements that play directly to the extreme views of his constituency. And when Trump gets on the debate stage, he’s not interested in engaging meaningfully with his opponents views, but rather insulting them and spouting off his campaigns party lines. And as he does it, millions of Americans stare into the television screen, vigorously nodding their heads in agreement, a deepening another of the ever-growing divides in our country.
America has never been more divided as she is right now. Our political parties are divided between competing factions and our religious institutions are filled with infighting over conflicts of doctrines and social views. Racial divides have risen to the forefront of our consciousness and disagreement about LGBTQ issues has divided thousands of families across our country. In the midst of all of this tension, we are faced with a choice. Either we will mindlessly align ourselves with our political party or religious denomination, choosing belonging and tribal identity over progress and understanding, or we will be willing to engage with our “other”, hearing not only their sound bytes but their stories and life experience, allowing their whole person to speak to us, allowing us to stand in their shoes and view the world the way that they do. If we chose the former, we will contribute to division and violence in our nation. If we chose the latter, we may face ridicule and even exclusion from our place of comfort, but we will also begin to see the world as it really is, instead of the way that our tribe says that it is.
Chasms are only mended when we are willing to sacrifice our right to be right and instead allow another to speak their truth into our life, walking in their shoes and seeing the world from their perspective. It wont always lead to a change of mind or even a solution to a problem, but it will always lead us into a deeper bond with one another, which is the chief end of all of life. The ability to empathize with each other is what is fundamentally missing in American public life today. It is the singular reason for our division. Until we are able to overcome our over-inflated tribal identities and see each other in our common humanity, feeling the weight of each others experiences, and seeing the world through another’s eyes, we will never see substantial progress in our country. We will continue to wage wars over ideas instead of the real lives of our fellow human beings. We will continue to chose to see the world in black and white, instead of the multicolored array that we were meant to experience.
So how do we overcome deafening prejudice? How do we vanquish ignorance and hate? The answer, I believe, is self-evident to us all. It is the ability not just to listen, but to hear. The ability not to just comprehend, but to relate. It’s the realization of the finitude of our perspective and the expansiveness of the world around us. The understanding that we have more to learn than to teach in every situation, the humility to learn from even from our staunchest opponents. This change wont come from Washington or from the offices of our denominational leaders. It will only come from each one of us making the conscious choice each day to hold our tongue, open our hearts, and step towards our “other”, beholding the world through their eyes.
Brandan Robertson is a progressive evangelical writer, activist, speaker. He is the founder and executive director of Nomad Partnerships and is working on his Masters of Theological Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Follow Brandan on Twitter: @BrandanJR