Thursday, September 3, 2015

Never Break Relationship

Scott Schaeffer-Duffy knows a thing or two about talking to people about difficult topics. 

As co-founder of the of the Sts. Francis and Thérèse Catholic Worker in Worchester, MA, he publically promotes the consistent ethic of life--a moral framework which ties all issues of life and killing together.  As a result, he takes a stand against abortion, war, the death penalty, poverty and violence of all kinds. 

It is a very Christian idea with deep roots all the way back to Jesus and the Ancient Israelite prophets.  Nevertheless, it is an idea which faces no shortage of resistance.  The odds are high that something he says on some issue is going to be a hot button issue for someone.  It puts him on both sides of the culture wars but at home on neither side.  Emotions can get high, and many red faced people have shouted all manner of insults at him. 

He gave some advice at a Catholic Worker gathering many years ago that has left a profound impression on me:  Never break relationship; stay in dialogue.

This includes--perhaps especially so--the people who are rigidly entrenched and refusing to dialogue in a respectful manner.

The longer I continue in ministry, the more I see the wisdom in that.

I asked in an earlier post if it is okay to be intolerant of intolerance.  The first question to ask is:  Am I getting an accurate read on the other person?  If I sit back and say those people are just intolerant, how do I know whether or not that is actually true?   It could just be my perception of them or what I have been told (or manipulated) to believe about them.  I am never going to understand them well from a distance.  Never break relationship; stay in dialogue.

What is the best way to help facilitate a change?  Assuming I do believe they are mistaken, shunning them is not likely to have much of an impact.  After all, shunning is the first step on the path to dehumanizing and objectifying someone, opening the door to justify later abuse.  I need to see their humanity as God's image and never lose sight of that in my dealings with them--for my sake as well as theirs.  I hope they see my humanity as God's image, too.  Once that happens, we will be in a much better place to truly listen to each other and consider what each other is saying.  Never break relationship; stay in dialogue.
Language is important.  Let's not whitewash:  Intolerant of intolerance is exactly that--intolerance.  I may not like intolerance, but saying I am intolerant of it is a red flag on my own spiritual development.  Reacting to their intolerance with an equal and opposite display of intolerance on my part puts them in the driver's set--they end up setting the tone for my behavior.  Never break relationship, stay in dialogue.

I keep coming back to the importance of combining contemplation with action, a theme we have explored a lot in this blog lately.  Mystics have been saying this for centuries, including Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton.  Scott Schaeffer-Duffy's words resonate here greatly. 

It may be a very fine thing to take the action of protesting the behavior of some folks that I find to be intolerant.  My conscience and faith formed in the Gospel may drive me to that action.  However, I also have a duty to combine that with contemplation. In other words I have to be constantly meditating, praying, being in dialogue with others and reading about the subject to make abundantly sure I am not simply wrong or driven by my own agenda.  Knowing how well the ego can hide behind layers of pride, jealousy, fear, real wounds and false humility, I have to be on an ever-watchful vigil.  The exercise of self-reflection never ends.

I have to bring a prayerful, loving, humble stance to my social action because there is no other way to ensure I am not just replacing one prejudice or intolerance with another.  Even that is not foolproof, but it is the best way we have to check and balance our own runaway ego--it is a way to stay rooted in our own faith and values and not just mindlessly react.  Then our actions inform and influence our contemplation in an endless interplay.

Without contemplation, we become what we hate.

Case in point:  A man grows up in an excessively controlling family.  Boundaries are not respected and privacy is not a part of family culture, despite his discomfort and perhaps his protests.  He crawls into an emotional shell only to be regularly prodded, guilted and manipulated out of that.  After coming out of that environment, he declares--consciously or subconsciously--never to let anyone else control him ever again.  His instincts are on high alert to resist any hint at control.  He becomes so engrossed with resisting external control, however, that it becomes very difficult to be in relationship with him.  To be a guest in his house, you have to follow his all-too-rigid rules and endless protocol.  Walking on eggshells is an ever-present reality around him.

While I would never deny him his right to set his own boundaries and preferences for his home, he fails to see that he has actually become like his family of origin.  Like his parents who were not responsive to him as a child, his baggage is so all-engrossing that he cannot be responsive to the needs of his guests and friends--they have to bend to his wishes (even the point of compromising themselves), but he has little flexibility to do likewise.  There is a fine line between his right to protect his boundaries and his tendency to achieve that by imposing increasingly restrictive rules on the people around him.  People are in a compromising position around him, just like he was in a compromising position growing up.

The mechanism he used for breaking away from his family's control is . . . control.  It is the stuff of Greek tragedy, but it makes sense--control is what he knows.  In this way, we come to see our enemies like unto ourselves.  They trigger us because they are more like us than we ever care to imagine.  The seeds for compassion are sown.

This man is not an isolated example--he represents all of us.  We become what we hate, says my uncle.   It is not a question of "if" this may happen but "when" and "how."  Hindus call it karma.  Psychologists call it projection.  Ancient Greeks referred to it as tragedy.  Newtonian physicists talk of actions having equal and opposite reactions.  Jesus told us to love our enemies and hinted that we may find ourselves in them somehow. 

Action without contemplation puts us on due course to become just like our enemies, even when it may seem like we are working to be the complete opposite. 

All too often in history, a government is overthrown for its miscarriage of justice only to be replaced with another regime as evil as the previous one, despite the seemingly good intentions of those struggling for change.  The exceptions are those who are intentional about reconciliation and mature contemplation.  Otherwise, you hurt those who have hurt you, hate those who have hated you and limit those who have limited you.  The subsequent generation would not see justice but only oppression and then their resistance starts.

The Gospel offers an alternative:  Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 

In other words:  Stop the madness from continuing in a never-ending chain reaction of violence.

No matter how justifiable it may seem, I have got to always stay in relationship and dialogue with those with whom I disagree.  Through faith, I maintain my center despite the storms going on around me.  My dialogue with them--as well as my internal self-reflection--helps ensure that I am not creating a rigid fundamentalism of my own but rather a stance of being rooted in faith while also responsive to the world around me.

There is a depressingly endless array of injustices in this world.  We cannot sit paralyzed, unwilling to take action out of our own self-doubt or sense of humility.  All we can do is take action with a firm commitment to continual self-evaluation and education in prayer, discussion, study and personal growth--and always keep the doors of possibility open with those with whom we disagree so that their methods of exclusion do not become our methods of exclusion.  Never break relationship; stay in dialogue.

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