This post has been contributed by Susan Strouse, a retired Lutheran minister who is author of The INTRAfaith Conversation and an organizer of an initiative called Hearts Across the Divide: Reclaiming Civil Discourse. She hopes to submit a second post about this initiative in Spring 2020, after the final stage of their program.
Is it possible to have a civil conversation with your political polar opposite? From personal experience I know that it is. I feel so strongly about this that I, along with another organizer, began an initiative called Hearts Across the Divide: Reclaiming Civil Discourse. Our goal is to bring together two groups from the San Francisco Bay Area — one on the political left and one on the right — for training, facilitated dialogue, relationship-building, and hopefully restoration of civil discourse, at least in our little part of the world.
Now you might think that living in one of the bluest parts of a blue state would mean we do not have a political divide. While it is true that this is a liberal bubble, it is not solid blue. In fact, I, a Democratic Clinton voter, knew that one of my good friends, a Republican, voted for Donald Trump. After the election, I confess I wondered if that friendship would survive. And for about six months, it did go silent.
The sad thing is that we are both clergy. We met while serving on an interfaith council. We participated in many interfaith dialogues, where respectful listening is an integral part of the process, where differences are acknowledged but not disparaged. You’d think that we would be in the perfect position to model a way through political differences. Eventually we would. But not at first. I don’t remember who finally called whom, but we scheduled a lunch date, where we stayed away from politics completely and spent the time checking in on each other’s life. I came away feeling that we might be able to maintain a relationship solely on this basis.
Next time though, at dinner in a restaurant where we could linger over coffee — we finally went there. We didn’t talk much about politics, though; we know where each other stands on the issues. What we did have was more of a theological conversation about how a person of faith might think about the president, other politicians, and all those who hold opinions different from our own. What I took away from that night (I think it was about a four-hour conversation!) was the reminder that I claim to believe that each and every person is a beloved child of God. And if I really do believe that, then I need to honor that fact, while at the same time remain committed to confronting words, actions, and policies antithetical to what I believe are God's intentions for us.
After that night, I noticed a shift in my thinking. I became less tolerant of language that vilified any person’s being. I was aware of how, even among church members, derogatory words were being used to describe those of a different political persuasion. I wondered if our banner declaring "All Are Welcome" was really true. I caught myself time and again slipping back into disparaging speech. I wrestled with how to separate a person’s innate belovedness from their actions. This has not been easy by any means; I suspect it will be an ongoing challenge. But I believe this is the spiritual work we are called to do in order to heal our families, congregations, and communities. When a few months ago, at an interfaith gathering, Judy Gussmanm, a former Israeli/ Palestinian dialogue facilitator, mentioned her desire to organize a group to address the political divide in the Bay Area, I immediately said "Sign me up." And we met over coffee to begin planning Hearts Across the Divide.
One of our primary inspirations has been an organization called Hands Across the Hills, which is dedicated to bridging partisan divides through structured dialogue. Their original project featured successful extended dialogues and cultural exchanges between progressives from Leverett, Massachusetts and conservatives from Letcher County, Kentucky. The program was designed and facilitated by Dr. Paula Green, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dr. Green has 30 years facilitation experience in conflict zones around the world, and she has agreed to work with us and facilitate a similar program here in the Bay Area in 2020.
So far, our project has been slow going. Some, especially on the left, are critical of any attempt at dialogue. Many, especially on the right, are skeptical of our intentions and fear an ambush. But slowly we are building our two groups, which are meeting separately at first in order to give time for relationship-building among the more like-minded. This also provides opportunity for training in listening skills, learning the differences between debate and dialogue, and practicing ways to handle hot-button topics. The final stage will be a weekend of facilitated dialogue with both groups together.
There are other groups doing this work all over the country. There seems to be a growing movement of people weary of our fractured state. The good news we are hoping to convey is that there does not have to be a choice between having political opinions and being in relationship with others of differing opinions. In answer to the question "Is it possible to bridge the political divide?" I say, "Yes! And I ask God to help and guide us."