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#CRClistens: The Problem with All or Nothing

Writing on dialogue and respect for the "other side" has its challenges. As much as I’d like to think I’m adaptable, I bring biases to a task like this. Like any biases, mine are formed by experience – my professional interest and personal passion is to offer a Christian vision of hope and justice in the diverse and complex world of public policy and citizenship. Long experience and hard lessons in that game have formed these basic bents:
• we peer through a glass darkly;
• we are called to faithfulness and not necessarily success; and
• dialogue is preferable to polarization.

So, that’s out of the way, here are some thoughts on dialogue, polarization, and seeking justice with passion and integrity.

Enlightenment-influenced culture in the West has assumed that rigorous intellect brings us verifiable truth and certainty. This has brought us passionate, sometimes nasty fights about truth. These fights can degenerate into polarization in theology and politics that sound like school yard fights: “I’m right, you’re wrong and totally against truth and justice.” Sure, this is a caricature but it tells some of the story of the culture we live in. 24-hour media digital saturation means that heat, controversy, and volume cut through, and thoughtful public discussion is lost in the noise. One can get airplay if they call a climate change denier a Neanderthal or a pro-choice person an evil baby killer, but does language like that do anything to open up the conversation towards protecting life or the climate? The answer is no – and yes, that’s my biases shining through unabashedly.

The answer is no because polarization tends to be counterproductive – past abortion debates in Canada are a case in point. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were passionate debates about abortion in Parliament and in public. Members of Parliament (MPs) of that time reported huge volumes of correspondence during consideration of new legislation that would restrict abortion but not ban it outright. I’ve heard from some MPs at that time that nasty correspondence came in from Christians saying that a vote for even minimal access to abortion would send an MP to hell. This strident language was contrasted with the language of women’s rights of choice under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Strangely enough both of these sides – on polar opposites of the debate – worked to defeat the legislation in the Senate. And the result today? No law on abortion in Canada at all. With the 20-20 vision of hindsight we can say that the all-or-nothing stance by many in the pro-life movement was deeply counterproductive to the cause. Would have a position of legal, safe and rare abortion been a more proximate strategy to protect at least some life? Perhaps.

I started off with a confession of bias – that I think we all peer through a glass darkly. Put another way, our sinful nature makes us less-than-perfect and wrong for much of the time. The adversarial (modernist) approaches of I’m right you’re wrong and all or nothing often lack the humility to recognize that other people’s experiences and perspectives are worth considering. As I’ve learned from my spouse who is a therapist, and as I’ve learned from the testimony of residential school survivors, there is always more to the story than meets the eye. Humble listening is an important disposition in dialogue of any kind.

As a passionate social justice advocate I’ve sometimes expressed frustration with those who “just don’t get it.” This activist’s arrogance is not sanctified by passion or the justice of a cause. Neither is the cause furthered by writing off those who are indifferent to – or suspicious of – justice passion. I try to remind myself that patient and humble persistence are good tools to build support for the cause. That reminder comes in the memory of a mentor now past who said something like this of the call to justice: “You are not called to success, you are called to faithfulness. Change may not come next week or next year or even in your lifetime. But seeds of justice sown in faithfulness will be tended by the next generation and perfected by our faithful God. Change is not YOUR job.”

All-or-nothing polarizations and arrogant justice passions can shut down discussions before they even start. Because Creator God moves the change that is necessary with Divine timing, we can enter dialogue with curiosity about what can be learned from others. In polarization and its smack down debates we really don’t hear each other well. Surely, since we are all image bearers of a creative God, we can learn from others – including those with whom we disagree. #CRClistens

[Image: Pexels]

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