By Joshua Ritter | Contributor
As co-creator of the Public Deliberation Initiative (PDI) here at Baylor, I get this question a lot these days: “How can we have good conversations when everything is so political and politicized?” I must admit that I feel sadness when hearing this question because “politics” should mean accomplishing important work and decisions together as a society and as a community.
Being political should mean we are engaged as active citizens in our communities. I am reminded here of when Jesus is asked if he should pay taxes to Caesar, and Jesus replies that he should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This is a strikingly political statement because it looks squarely into the eyes of the Empire and tells the head of that empire that nothing actually belongs to him because everything truly belongs to God. Being political, then, does not seem to be all bad; however, what I think people mean today when they bemoan and dismiss “the political” is actually the partisan.
Everyone is exhausted by “the partisan,” and even more specifically, everyone is tired of polarization. This makes sense because polarization deals exclusively in extremities, which are always exhausting. When something that is partisan becomes polarized and polarizing, then it makes political discourse and engagement quite challenging and tiring because of the extremity involved in the discussion. People are desperate for a different way to do democracy and politics. I think this is due to the reality that we all want a better way to do things together. We want to communicate more clearly, charitably and compassionately.
The principles of public deliberation help people to communicate in this way, and I think that is why people are contacting Baylor PDI now more than ever. People deeply value affirming that disagreement does not necessitate demonizing the individual with whom they disagree. Without going in-depth into these principles, I think one main idea that is most appealing to people is the focus on shared values. We often believe we do not share values with people if we disagree with them, but this is not true. We all have shared values that interconnect us and allow us to explore shared meaning together. We certainly all have differences and different convictions as well, and everyone appreciates the insight that highlighting both our differences and our shared values makes a better conversation in search of common ground possible.
I practice public deliberation from a Christian orientation, which simply means that I view the principles of public deliberation through a Christian lens. For me, practicing public deliberation is a way to practice loving my neighbor because listening charitably and respecting other viewpoints is one way to do the hard work of loving my neighbor by exchanging myself for my neighbor – putting myself into my neighbor’s shoes. It is a way for me to stop turning my neighbors into enemies and to start turning my enemies into neighbors. Practicing loving my neighbor by practicing public deliberation helps me to find common ground with my neighbor even as I continue to strongly value our differences.
Loving your neighbor is a practice, not a belief, and it is not an escape from politics, conflict or difficult conversations. Jesus clearly identifies some tangible ways to practice being a good neighbor in the Beatitudes.
I will not list them all here, but the gist of the Beatitudes is that to follow Jesus on the Way – the path towards the Kingdom of God (the movement of God’s Spirit) – we should become highly attuned to the suffering of our neighbor and then respond with a selflessness that is nurtured by an attitude of mercy, humility, forgiveness, unconditional compassion, nonaggression and justice.
Here, we see that the Beatitudes actually propel Christians into the center of public life, but it is always with the clear intent to bring healing, love, kindness and peace, never polarization, divisiveness, hatred or aggressive speech and action.
Indeed, the primary focus of the Beatitudes is thoughtfulness and understanding. They are about understanding yourself and your neighbor – on a deep level of love and compassion, humility and kindness. We must try to understand why neighbors and enemies make the choices they make – what fear and suffering is driving them, what life experiences are shaping them. This understanding is what brings transformation and healing to ourselves and to our world.
Being political does not have to mean being partisan or polarizing. We can practice being political in positive, thoughtful, kind, healing ways. Loving our neighbor is one of those ways that encourages us to be gentled and humbled by God so the Living Christ who is the Christ of Love can manifest in our lives through our thoughts, speech and actions, which brings a compassionate love for everyone around us.