On Political Dialogue among Christians

a talk by Jim Forest given 7 November 2004 at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis; organized and sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and the Fellowship of St George, with help from several local parishes

To talk about political discourse among Christians while the dust is still settling after an intensely fought presidential election is quite a challenge, and all the more so when war in going on. It’s also a topic I’ve never been asked to speak about in the past. I am far more accustomed to speaking about such subjects as praying with icons or a Christian approach to peacemaking. Please regard what I’m saying as a first draft.

Let’s begin by looking at the three key words: political, discourse and Christian.

Politics

The word is bigger than we think, much more than the world of party versus party, politician versus politician. The word comes from the Latin word polis, referring to the people collectively. Politics has to do with matters of public life. It is what we do in attempting to answer the questions: How do we live together? What sort of structures do we create to protect and further the common good? We might even say that politics is how we answer Cain’s question to God: Am I my brother’s keeper? It has to do with those areas of our life that link us to others, and not only those with whom we have a great deal on common but to people whose situation in life is very different than my own. There are people in my community who are atheists and regard my religious views as wishful thinking, but even so we can work together in improving the quality of the water that comes from the tap or the public transportation system. God is present among us even if unrecognized. The St Justin the Martyr wrote in the 2nd century: “The Word has never ceased and will never cease to be present to all humanity in all cultures, to all religious and all irreligious… All who have lived in accordance with the Logos [the Word] are Christian even if they have been renowned atheists, as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus and the like.”

Dialogue

Dialogue is our English version of the Greek word, dialogos, which means two people meeting in the word, or simply meeting through words. Logos, word. Dia, two. Since Christianity came to Greece, Logos also means Word with a capital W, Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. At its deepest and purest level, dialogue is rooted in Christ. It has a Eucharistic dimension. But even where there is no conscious recognition of Christ, dialogue is an act of communion. Human beings are creatures to whom words have given, The Word, our Creator, has made us in his image and part of this gift is the use of words. Thus people become linked to each other through the exchange of words in dialogue. Dialogue is the way to talk and listen to each other. It means that neither of us puts his fingers in his ears, literally or figuratively, while the other is talking. To put it positively, we take turns listening, not just preparing a rebuttal. Nor do people in dialogue simply read from a script that remains the same no matter what the other person says. We avoid seeing the other simply in terms of labels — so-and-so in a liberal, so-and-so is a conservative. His views may well be far more complex than we imagine. We may not agree but we seek to understand each other. We look for ways to demonstrate that we were listening by responses which bear witness to attentiveness. It may surprise our partner in dialogue to discover he or she was actually heard and that you can repeat back what was said and do so without caustic remarks. Nothing is more deadly to dialogue than contempt or sarcasm. However profound the disagreements may appear to be, we make an effort to identify areas of common ground. We don’t assume the other person is permanently welded to his opinions. Just as we ourselves have changed and are likely to continue changing our minds and attitudes, we assume that those with whom we are in dialogue are also capable of changing or revising their views. People in dialogue do not shout. We don’t care to be shouted at ourselves and assume the other person will not be improved by being shouted at.

Christian

Let’s not take the word “Christian” for granted. It is not so much who we are as who we hope to become. We need to keep in mind that Christian is not merely a tribal label or sociological term for people whose ancestors were Christians or who attend church from time to time. They are people for whom the Gospel is of primary importance. Christians attempt to understand the meaning of the Cross, seeing it as a sign of self-giving love. A Christian is a follower of Christ, someone for whom Christ’s words and example have priority over anything else, including national or political or racial or economic identity. “Christian” is a word of primary identity. I am not first American and then a member the Orthodox Church and finally — if there is still room left over — a Christian, with the last word being in small type. It’s the other way round. The main thing, the banner headline, is that I am trying to follow Christ and to live according to the Gospel.

These are very brief reflections on three familiar words. I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial. I hope not. And it sounds simple. Indeed it is simple. But we all know how hard it is in actual practice for Christians or anyone else to attempt engaging in political discourse without the discourse quickly evaporating and people finding that all they have done is create a new wall or re-enforce an old one. Probably most of us can all to easily think of people we no longer talk to or who don’t talk to us anymore because of some past explosion that occurred when we argued politics.

It doesn’t have to be presidential politics. It can be parish or diocesan politics. The Church too has a political life. Dialogue is often argument. There are factions and bitter disputes. Not many months ago an Orthodox priest in the Midwest pulled a gun on a member of the parish council. In the tussle that followed, the priest pulled a gun and managed to shoot himself in the foot — painful and humiliating for the priest, but thank God it was only himself he injured with the deadly weapon he was had drawn, not the person he had meant to harm. One doesn’t find in this explosive encounter much evidence of dialogue and still less of the Christian Gospel. I wonder how it is now going in that wounded parish? My guess is that it will probably take them a long time to recover. The pistol shot may even have fatally wounded an entire parish.

In principle Christianity is not about power games, it’s about a community held together by mutual love, but in what some call “the real world” — the world we live in with all its disconnections, fears and enmities, we are used to power games and from time to time even bring them into the Church. While thank God we very rarely experience physical violence, we are not unused to exchanges of threats, furious glances, people who no longer speak to each other, withdrawn contributions, volcanic debates, with the parish so deeply divided it can hardly be called a Christian community any longer. There is no longer a dimension of mutual love. We are no longer a people about who it can be said: “And by this men shall know you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.” Far from loving our enemy — enemy in the sense of a hostile outsider — we fail to love our neighbor, even the neighbor with whom I share the Eucharist.

I often think of a parish I got too know in Galilee. It’s in the village Ibillin, a hilltop town, partly Moslem, partly Christian, roughly halfway between Haifa and Nazareth. The priest is Father Elias Chacour. There are olive trees growing on the hillsides of Ibillin that are older than the Gospel. They call such trees “Roman trees,” that is trees that were growing even in the time of Roman occupation. It may be that Jesus and some of his disciples sat in the shade of these trees and ate some of their olives.

Small though it is, in recent years Ibillin has become well known. The parish of St Elias have built a regional high school and then a college for Palestinian students. It opened a community center, and a day-care center. It has organized many summer camps. The parish has been involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue. One of its other achievements is the creation of a large library. In the library is a sign in Arabic with this text: God is the creator of all human beings, with their differences, their colors, their races, their religions. Be attentive: Every time you draw nearer to your neighbor, you draw nearer to God. Be attentive: Every time you go further from your neighbor, you go further from God. These words come from the Desert Father, Saint Dorothea, who many centuries ago lived in Gaza.

When Fr. Elias was first sent to that town many years ago, there was no community center or library. The Christians in the village were deeply divided, incapable of any such achievements. The church was falling down and the small congregation that worshiped inside was in no better condition than the building. The divisions that ran through the parish could be seen in the way that people arranged themselves in the church on Sunday: four distinct groups each keeping a distance from the others, and everyone with grim faces. The fundamental division in the church was between four brothers; even the death of their mother had not provided the occasion for the brothers to be in the same room together.

On Palm Sunday of his first year as pastor of Ibillin, Fr. Elias looked from the front of the church at the stony faces before him. One of the brothers, a policeman, sat in the front row with his wife and children. Hymns were sung, but without any spirit. There were readings from the Bible, and then a sermon. “The congregation endured me indifferently,” Fr. Elias recalls, “fulfilling their holiday obligation to warm the benches.” But before the service ended, he did something no one, perhaps not even he himself, had anticipated. He walked to the back of the church and padlocked the door.

Returning to the front of the church, he told his parishioners, “Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian. You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other. You gossip and spread lies. Your religion is a lie. If you can’t love your brother whom you see, how can you say that you love God who is invisible? You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced. I have tried for months to unite you. I have failed. I am only a man. But there is someone else who can bring you together in true unity. His name is Jesus Christ. He has the power to forgive you. So now I will be quiet and allow him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, then we stay locked in here. If you want, you can kill each other, and I’ll provide your funeral gratis.”

Ten minutes passed, but for Fr. Elias they seemed like hours. At last the policeman stood up, faced the congregation, bowed his head and said, “I am sorry. I am the worst of all. I have hated my own brothers. I have hated them so much that I wanted to kill them. More than any of you, I need forgiveness.”

He turned to Fr. Elias. “Father, can you forgive me?”

“Come here,” Fr. Elias replied. They embraced each other with the kiss of peace. “Now go and greet your brothers.”

The four brothers rushed together, meeting halfway down the aisle, and in tears forgave each other.

“In an instant,” Fr. Elias recalls, “The church was a chaos of embracing and repentance.”

Fr. Elias had to shout to make his next words audible. “Dear friends, we are not going to wait until next week to celebrate the Resurrection. Let us begin it now. We were dead to each other. Now we are alive again.” He began to sing, “Christ is risen from the dead. By his death he has trampled down death and given life to those in the tomb.” The congregation joined the hymn. Unchaining the door, Fr. Elias led them into the streets.

“For the rest of the day and far into the evening, I joined groups of believers as they went from house to house. At every door, someone had to ask forgiveness for a certain wrong. Never was forgiveness withheld.” [author interview with Fr. Chacour; see Jim Forest’s Making Friends of Enemies, Crossroads, New York; in somewhat similar form it appears in Blood Brothers, Fr. Elias Chacour, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan]

It is a resurrection story, really. A dead church came back to life. From the miraculous healing of its divisions, many blessings have come not only for members of the parish but for the entire region, and not only for Christians but their Jewish and Moslem neighbors.

It is hard enough to achieve something like this within a small parish, even when we have so much in common. How much harder it is when the community involved is huge and so complex: rich and poor, the affluent and the homeless, the employed and the unemployed, those who carefully study world events and those who prefer soap operas, people of varying ethnic origins, people from different religions or no religion, people who only cross at the green light and people on the run from the law, people as sober as Woodrow Wilson and people who are often as drunk as a lord or intense users of drugs other than alcohol, people who grew up in coherent nuclear families and people whose life has been one long earthquake full of broken relationships, people who recycle and turn off the lights and people who think that people who live that way are nuts. We could spend all night describing how incredibly complex is the society we are part of. Can there be discourse amid such astonishing differences? Very often it is extremely hard to find common ground. Indeed it’s not always that easy to find people not interested in political discourse, Christian or otherwise.

Another factor that impedes dialogue is the fact that we are living in very tense times, a time of epidemic fear. While I cannot recall a time that wasn’t tense in my entire life — I was born a few weeks before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor — it’s probably true that social tension in the USA has reached an all-time high since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 three years ago. I recall talking with Bishop Dimitrios of the Greek Archdiocese at his office in Manhattan a week or two after 9-11. He said that use of Prozac and other medications for anxiety, stress and depression had doubled since 9-11. I’d like to find out what the use of such medications looks like today. It might give us a way of quantifying fear levels in the US today. It isn’t only that major targets have been attached in the US and thousands killed. Now we live in a society in which one cannot help but notice the orchestration of fear for political and economic ends.

Fear is fine if it gets you to take reasonable care while driving your car or crossing the street, but if you are in constant state of fear, so that fear is normal, fear is chronic, that’s a serious problem, and a danger. It can even be a condition which drags us into war. We’re now engaged in a war with a country we were afraid was poised to attack us with weapons of mass destruction, and couldn’t believe what the UN weapons inspectors, many of them American experts, kept telling us: Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction. Many thousands have died as a result, ten times that number are bearing wounds that will affect them the rest of their lives, countless lives are shattered, and we still no idea what the end result will be and what if any good will come from it. We can say that our current experience of war bears out Thomas Merton’s thesis that the root of war is fear.

There are many fears at work. It is not only fear of terrorists but much more. There is fear for our economic well-being, fear for our jobs, fears that we might not continue to have what we now have, fears of other races, fears of Moslems, fears of people who look Middle Eastern, fears of what’s happening to our culture, fears of the social currents that are shaping our children’s lives, fear of the poor, fear of the government, etc etc. Fear is a powerful force. Too often we don’t do with our lives what we wanted to do because we were afraid of the economic consequences.

All this shapes us and the political discourse we are a part of. Part of the task of Christian political discourse is to reveal and name the fears that impede us, the fears that distort our lives and keep us from becoming the ordinary saints God intends us to become.

In my own life, the struggle with these issues dates back to high school. I recall how stunned I to discover the pretty girl sitting one desk away from me in a social studies class in high school was a racist who opposed integrated schools and regarded black people as innately inferior. I had grown up in a mainly black neighborhood and knew quite well how smart black people — but how to communicate that to a pretty white girl who didn’t have any black friends? I don’t think I did very well. I think I treated her as if she had an invisible disease.

I did better while in the Navy. It was in that period of my life that Christianity really became the main issue. Reading the Gospel certainly changed my life and the direction I was going. I was especially challenged by Jesus’ word describing the Last Judgement, in which the main sentence is: “What you have done to the least person, you have done to me.” I started doing volunteer work at a church home for children’s whose parents weren’t able to take care of them, “functional orphans.” Then I began to visit and assist a community that was working with homeless people. It seemed to me that a career the military, which had seemed a possibly good option, was probably not the way to go but that instead the kinds of things I was doing as a volunteer ought to be the at center of my life. It also seemed to me that there were things the government was doing that ought to be met with peaceful but determined protest. I found myself in quite a lot of trouble for taking part in a silent vigil in front of the CIA office in Washington, DC, protesting the CIA’s role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Afterward there was a great many opportunities for dialogue withe the people I was serving with, from my commanding officer on down, not to mention people on the staff of the Naval Intelligence Service and a Navy officer at the Pentagon. The exchanges were in many cases very good. When I applied for an early discharge on the basis of conscientious objection, my executive officer, Commander Maribito, gave me his wholehearted support. It may well have cost him promotion to captain. Certainly both our lives took a turn. It had been an experience of profound dialogue, and if it had a political aspect, that was secondary to a common concern for what was central in both our lives, our Christain faith.

When I left the Navy, I joined a community involved with assisting street people in Manhattan, the Catholic Worker. The community was led by Dorothy Day. Among her correspondents was the monk Thomas Merton. In a letter Dorothy shared with us, Merton had written some very basic advice about the foundation of Christian dialogue, nothing less than love:

Persons are not known by intellect alone, not by principles alone, but only by love. It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action. To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the “impersonal law” and to abstract “nature.” That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, it demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him… and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who “saves himself” in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.

[to Dorothy Day, December 20, 1961;

Hidden Ground of Love: Letters of Thomas Merton, 140-43]

At Doroythy’s encouragement, I started cporresponding with Merton. In one of his letter to me he stressed what he called “the human dimension,” which he felt was sometimes overlooked both by governments and peace movements. As he put it:

It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things to is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]… This is the necessary first step along the long way… of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics.

[to Jim Forest, December 8, 1962; HGL, 272]

It is hardly surprising that, monk that he was, Merton stressed the role of prayer and the relationship of prayer — itself a kind of dialogue — with our attitude toward others:

We have to pray for a total and profound change in the mentality of the whole world. What we have known in the past as Christian penance is not a deep enough concept if it does not comprehend the special problems and dangers of the present age. Hair shirts will not do the trick, though there is no harm in mortifying the flesh. But vastly more important is the complete change of heart and the totally new outlook on the world of man… The great problem is this inner change… [Any peace action has] to be regarded… as an application of spiritual force and not the use of merely political pressure. We all have the great duty to realize the deep need for purity of soul, that is to say the deep need to possess in us the Holy Spirit, to be possessed by Him. This takes precedence over everything else.”

[to Jim Forest, January 29, 1962; HGL, 262]

Let me introduce an extract from only one more letter as it touched on an underlying attitude that shapes every effort at dialogue and social engagement. Merton was convinced that social engagement and efforts at dialogue are made stronger by detachment. Not to be confused with disinterest in achieving results, detachment meant knowing that no good action is wasted even if the immediate consequences are altogether different from what one hoped to achieve. As he wrote:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing… an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end… it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything…

It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic… As for the big results are not in your hands or mine, but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them: but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important… The great thing, after all, is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments… The real hope… is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

[to Jim Forest, February 21, 1966; HGL, 294-97.]