Presiding Bishop’s keynote at Civil Discourse in America forum

Posted Oct 22, 2014

Civil Discourse in America: Finding Common Ground for the Greater Good

Christ Church, Philadelphia

22 October 2014

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop and Primate

The Episcopal Church

The arts of politics and civic discourse are central to the ways in which human beings work to build societies of justice and peace. That goal is shared by many people of faith as well as ethical humanists – in the form of greater compassion, care for the weak, and ensuring that all human beings are treated with justice. In spite of what some people believe, our political systems, imperfect as they may be, are necessary to this work. The full involvement of community members is essential to building societies that care for all their members. The call to “love your neighbor as yourself” is foundational to this work, for justice is the form love takes at the level of communities and nations. When Jesus said, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”[1] he was talking about employing the world’s tools for this work.

The public conversations around us too often seem to be rolling in the dust along with the snakes, and seldom show great wisdom or enlightenment. We can elevate the discourse by continually asking, “does this political act or discourse give evidence of loving all our neighbors, or increasing the availability of justice for all?

The Abrahamic traditions share creation stories that tell of two ways of relationship. In the first one[2] God creates on each of six days, and at the end of the day announces, “it is good.” As the sixth day ends, God has created humanity and pronounces them “very good.” The second creation story[3] tells of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, and how their relationships with God and one another begin to go awry. There’s a snake in that story, slithering through the dust and offering promises of wisdom. The human beings keep trying to hide – from truth, God, and honest relationship with each other. We claim that both stories tell of eternal truths about human beings and their relationships: that we are created good, beloved, and blessed – and we continue to turn away from the source of life, preferring to look for wisdom in snakes.

All conversations partake of the truths of those two creation stories, whether they are intimate words between lovers, teaching children, searching for understanding with colleagues, or attempts to build systems of governance. They can be creative and life-giving encounters of blessing, and/or they can be life-denying, dissembling, and violent.[4]

Our conversations are always limited by human frailty, but they can also partake of divine and eternal possibility. The outcome has something to do with where we begin. What do we expect of our conversation partners? Do we see the image of God in those others? Do we expect to meet a gifted, blessed, and beloved human being who might have a gift to offer? Or do we look on an enemy, someone who is out to mislead or destroy us, like a snake in the grass? The intention at the beginning has a great deal to do with the outcome. Will this encounter produce more life and possibility – or will it devolve into verbal battle and destruction?

I remain convinced that face to face conversations have more possibility of being life-giving than the disembodied ones we engage so much by text, tweet, and blog. When we fail to see the very human beauty and blemishes of our conversation partners, it’s easy to inject venom rather than expect transformation. The hard conversations, and the tender ones, are better done in person. That’s why we expect our legislators to show up in the same place to do the work of governing our common life. The relationships built over months and years of seeking a shared way through thorns and thickets of difference can be life-giving, if we discover the creative possibility in those others.

We live in a deeply fractured age. This nation has been at war for half a generation, and we’ve spent the lives and potential of far too many in the process of reacting to large-blown fears. We are engaged in nasty verbal and positional wars in Congress and on the hustings. The people of this nation deserve better – the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness our forebears proclaimed. As human beings concerned with a more expansive vision of human flourishing that what we see around us, we have the responsibility to seek better and more life-giving ways of engagement for the common good.

Will we challenge the leaders of this nation to seek the good of all our people, and not only those with the greatest access to our political systems? Will we seek to be builders of cities to live in, as Isaiah challenged Israel[5]? Do we aspire to be a society which other nations seek to emulate and join, because we are a beacon of justice and peace for all[6]?

It is possible – if we commit to engagement with a beloved neighbor who bears the image of unfolding creativity, if we will seek out the gifts in those with different opinions and positions, if we search for creative possibility in the midst of diversity. Diversity of opinion, just as much as the diversity of creatures in a prairie ecosystem, is a prerequisite to health. Human communities without diversity are totalitarian states and concentration camps, where human beings become mere commodities, and any possibility of eternity or divinity is denied. They are violent, in the deepest sense of that word. Our search for health and wholeness, and indeed, holiness, depends on celebrating and engaging diversity. It may not be easy; it IS essential. Creative engagement with diversity is synergistic, it makes more than was present before, and it is ultimately life-giving. For people of faith, it is an affirmation that God is in the midst of the tension of diversity, continuing to create more life out of what may seem like chaos. Continuing the conversation is the only way toward conversion of heart.

Engage your neighbor in conversation, expecting to find a gift. Do that, and change the world toward that dream of peace!

[1] Matthew 10:16

[2] Genesis 1:1-2:4

[3] Genesis 2:4-3:24

[4] Violence is anything that denies or diminishes or takes away life

[5] Isaiah 58:12

[6] Isaiah 60: 1-3,11a,14c,18-19