I am a decidedly left-wing thinker and actor. This has been true of me since my college days, over 50 years ago, when my earlier Goldwater/Reagan loving parents, were no longer the determinative influence in my political and social life, but rather became to me two persons who had been duped by the increasingly conservative Republican Party leading us into and continuing the tragic war in Viet Nam, into an unreasoned fear of African-American desires for equal rights and fuller access into the US American world, and into the desire to keep what they had earned and the demand for others to get their own stuff. In short, my parents became what we now term libertarians, those who do what they want, demand that all others do what they want as long as what “they” want does not infringe on my absolute freedom to be and do as I please. What my college experience taught me is that I was responsible for more than myself and my own future, that I was part of the larger community of humanity and the vast creation of earth, and could not merely “do my own thing.”
And of course my subsequent years in theological seminary, graduate school in Hebrew Bible, and pastoral and academic life reinforced these central notions over and again. I am clearly and unashamedly a leftward thinker. By that I mean that issues are inevitably viewed through the lenses of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus of Nazareth; we are not placed here on the planet to act on our own, driven by our personal desires, shaped by our individual plans. We are part of a community, and as such are responsible for our brothers and sisters, and our non-human fellow creatures. Such a stance has been labeled as “left-winged,” as opposed to “right-winged,” that is, judged to be the precise opposite of all that “lefty” stuff.
Obviously, that dichotomy is far too simplified; the lefties and righties do on occasion have things in common, but in our deeply polarized 2021 such commonalities are rarely emphasized. In fact, there appears to be a sort of unalloyed pleasure on both sides of this divide in pointing out just how deeply polarized we are! Whenever a Democrat, even of the so-called moderate stripe, proposes an idea for legislation concerning infrastructure, or gun control, or immigration reform, the first cries we hear are not, “that idea has merit,” but rather “so and so Senator or Representative will never in a thousand years support such left-wing blather!” And the dueling TV networks are soon pillorying one another, shouting that the “socialist Dems” are at it again, or the “neo-fascist GOP” have shot the idea down before it has a chance. Such is the quality of “dialogue” in our time; “parallel play” is far closer to what presents itself as rational discussion, a simultaneous howling at one another in the attempt to win the day through decibels rather than thought.
I have no easy response to what I see as a tragedy of our time, that is, our inability actually to hear one another. We now have given over our possible communication among ourselves to the pundits, the talking heads, who are paid vast sums to speak on our behalf , who have been named the spokespersons for us all. I, for one, am decidedly tired of allowing Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon, among others in my camp, to speak my thoughts to those on the other side, the Sean Hannitys and Tucker Carlsons. Do not misunderstand me; Maddow and Lemon are far better informed and far better skilled than I at the game of “talk,” but if they alone can represent what I think, then any nuance is lost, any notion of actual listening to ideas different than my own becomes impossible. Let Rachel get “them” with her rapier wit and razor sharp PhD mind. After all neither Hannity nor Carlsen even have college degrees; their intellectual acumen is thus suspect, and the game will inevitably be won by the demonstrably smarter person. Maddow is declared the winner! Then again, she usually agrees with me, and I with her, so of courses she is the winner. And we have advanced the pseudo conversation not one micron. Yes, Hannity and Carlsen are fear-mongers and conspiracy theorists and other odious half-truth speakers; that is easily proven from their own mouths. Still, are Maddow and Lemon free from all exaggeration, all narrow bias, every sort of subtle shading of truth? I think not. Every TV talker is plying the trade of talker, and that necessitates in our time a lack of nuance, since nuance does not sell product, does not move the Nielsen needle.
Those of us Christians who do see the world through the lenses of Jesus and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible must first, as Jesus was said to exclaim so trenchantly, “Remove the log from your own eye first before you work so hard to get that log out of the other person’s eye.” That is wisdom that all of us, on the left and on the right, need to have tattooed on our foreheads. When we forget that bit of classical wit, we readily and inevitably fall into the mire we now find ourselves in, all rolling around in the mud with one another. A muddy fight only accomplishes one certain thing; all the contestants end up smelling and looking the same.
I always remember a story I first read years ago in that delightful and worthy memoir from the pen of Will Campbell, a certain left-wing Baptist of the previous generation, who told the tale of a time he was asked to speak at a gathering of clearly left-wing people. (The story is found in Brother to a Dragonfly of 1977.) Before he got up to speak, the group was shown a brief movie taken of a KKK recruiting exercise. In the film, shot undercover by a person certainly not pro-Klan, the leader of a line of recruits to the organization shouted for all the young men to “turn left.” All did, save one, who turned right, bumping into his fellow future Klansman, and destroying the regimental beauty of the group. Those watching the film broke into laughter at seeing the poor man who could not apparently tell his right from his left. Campbell then rose to speak, and said, “My name is Will Campbell and I am pro-Klan. Y’all got any questions?” The room sat in stunned silence.
Later Campbell sought out the Grand Dragon of the KKK in his state and asked him what had led him to join the organization. From that initial conversation developed a long acquaintance and many chats. They hardly agreed on many things, but they talked with one another, human to human, attempting to find out why they had followed their respective paths. That story has stayed with me after all these years, and has challenged me, and yes shamed me, for my insulation and unwillingness to risk conversations with those “on the right.” It is far easier to categorize and label than it is to talk directly and honestly with those whose lenses do not match our own.
Finally, I see no alternative to person-to-person conversation, to the slow and painful process of actually listening without judgment to another human being whose ideas differ from my own. I admit that I have not done this nearly as often as I need to. My left-wing lenses have no monopoly on truth, and I have much to learn by listening rather than by incessant talking. I hope to pursue such conversations as I head into my 76th year on the planet, for without them there can be little hope of community in the midst of our furiously loquacious chatter and our constant cross-talk. I hereby send a postcard to my right-wing opponents: come and join me for genuine conversation. You may name the place and time, and I will buy the drinks and pastries. Any takers?
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)