Monday, December 12, 2016

Civility in a New Day

It was, I think, 2011. I had been at least at a portion of every annual session of the Kansas East Annual Conference of the UMC except for the year my second daughter was born all the way back to 1988. More than 20 years altogether. We had argued about a handful of issues over the course of those years, agreed on many more, and through it all we always (publicly) stayed civil. Then we talked about...civility.

Two pastors brought the issue up. The idea was that we should have a simple set of guidelines to encourage us to engage in debate and discussion with a loving and respectful attitude. I was opposed to it. My opposition was not to civility. My opposition was to the idea that we needed to legislate civility. We're a church! An older (to me) gentleman spoke my thoughts in opposition in a way that helped me hear them from an entirely different perspective. Paraphrased, he said

"I don't understand why we need this. I don't understand why we would have trouble talking to each other civilly today. When I was younger people just knew how to talk with each other respectfully. Why can't we just do that today without having to pass a petition about it?"

I thought about when he was younger. What would Annual Conference have been like? Who would have been there? Who would be speaking? For starters, as white as we are today our demographics were even whiter when he was young. People of color did not have a voice. While we certainly have at least vestiges of patriarchy left, when he was young women's participation was seriously minimized. Clergy still have a powerful voice at Annual Conference today. It was much stronger years ago. A variety of sexual orientations and gender identities have always been a reality, but when this gentleman was younger certainly nobody would admit to it in a Kansas church conference. 

That's when I realized that we actually did need a civility covenant of some kind. Because people like the speaker, people like me, had always been heard. When he was younger people knew how to talk to each other because they were talking to other people just like them. That's easy. But in the 2000s our culture, our church, was changing. White, male pastors like me were realizing that we didn't always get to set the terms of the debate. In the past, even though there were "always" "other people" the "others" had to speak "our" language. The way that we thought, spoke, and wrote was the norm that everybody had to live by. Now "we" had to learn "their" language. We had to learn that complimenting a female colleague on her looks was more likely to be heard as an invalidation of her ministry than a compliment (no matter what the speaker meant!). We had to learn that asking about a woman's husband or a man's wife made assumptions about a person's sexual orientation that we shouldn't make no matter how awkward the word "spouse" was (at least for me. Is the plural spice?) We had to learn that asking an African-American to share what the "Black Experience" was like was as ridiculous as asking a white American to describe the white experience. There's only one way of experiencing life? In short, we had to learn that the words we speak are not always heard the way that we intend for them to be heard. And, both so that we can be heard more clearly and so that we can hear others more clearly, we need to be conscious of the words we use and the way we speak.

Today, in our churches and in our broader culture, we need to think about civility again. We need to be aware that when a white man talks about the importance of law and order in our inner cities a parent of African-American children may well hear an endorsement of police brutality - no matter what the speaker intended to communicate. AND we need to understand that when the word "racism" is used to describe a person a segment of society will discount the argument because they perceive the word is overused - regardless of whether or not it really is overused. We need to understand that there are some people who voted for Donald Trump because they genuinely believe that he will be a good president for ALL people. AND we need to understand that there are some who did not vote for Trump because they genuinely believe that he is a threat to ALL people. We need to understand that when some people hear the word "Christian" they don't hear "lover of God and humanity," they hear "anti-gay bigot." AND we need to understand that some who have been called "anti-gay bigots" are acting in ways that they truly believe are loving.

The words we use may sound the same, but we are not all speaking the same language.

It's not right or wrong, it just is. But it makes it so easy to misunderstand each other. Really, that's what I discovered in 2011. I heard this man's hurt at hearing that what had always seemed to work before wasn't going to work anymore. I shared his hurt. I am that man. If I'm honest, there's a part of me that still wants to believe that. I want communication to be that simple. I want our work to be more straightforward. But I realized that if I really want to be part of a church where there is no male or female I must listen carefully to those who are female. If I want to be part of a church where there is no slave or free I must listen carefully to those who have been or still are enslaved. If I want to be part of a church that is not defined by nationality I must listen carefully to all nationalities. And I can't do that unless I'm willing to hear some things I may not want to hear. I'm still working on it. Some of the relationships that I value most are those that help me continue to work on it.

Civility in this new day starts with reminding ourselves of an old idea - self responsibility. You are responsible for your own words. Let me say it differently - I am responsible for MY own words. I, WE, must speak them carefully, particularly when communicating with someone who may hear them differently. We are also responsible for working on understanding those we communicate with. Be prepared to say "That's not what I meant. Let me try saying it a different way" when someone doesn't seem to understand. Deescalate arguments by being the person to say "let's try again" when someone else says "you don't get it." If both parties engage in conversation taking responsibility for what is said and heard then at the end of the conversation even if they don't agree they can at least know in confidence what they disagree about. I must be that kind of person. You must be that kind of person. We must be part of the solution. Because we're not going back to when we were younger. We're all older now. We need to act like it.