We are growing less and less intelligible to each other. Republicans and Democrats. “Liberals” and “conservatives.”
That’s hard for me.
My first brush with politics came in 1976. I was four and the Democratic National Convention was on TV. I remember seeing a large group of men in dark suits moving through a huge crowd. At the center of that group was a warm, smiling face I immediately liked. My mother told me it was Jimmy Carter.
It wasn’t just that his was the only smiling face (it was), but it was the quality of that smile. Warm and and gentle and personal and welcoming – something a four-year-old instinctively recognizes. I knew he was a loving man, and I think forty years has only proven that intuition true.
At the same time, a beloved great aunt was a long-time volunteer for Jesse Helms, and for years my favorite sleepwear was a yellow, extra-large t-shirt that dragged the ground and read “Student Leaders for Jesse Helms” on the front and “Give ‘Em Helms!” on the back.
Before I started school, I’d spent hours at a travelling Lincoln exhibit that came to our mall – I remember his glasses, and a plaster cast of his huge, gnarled hands. I asked endless questions. FDR and Eleanor fascinated me as well, after I watched a miniseries about their life together (and apart). We visited his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia when I was in first or second grade, and I soaked in the paradoxes of his life.
I wasn’t fascinated by these men as presidents, but as people. As history that I could somehow reach back and touch. My earliest encounters with politics weren’t about division.
But I also grew up alongside the Moral Majority, and in my family, as the 70s became the 80s and 90s, it was increasingly a given that there was only one right position on anything political.
In college, I worked for a Republican candidate for Congress. He was a warm, genuine man of integrity and conviction, and while I’ve come to reconsider many of the positions we fought for, I do not regret our friendship or my support of him.
I remember spending one long Election Day holding a sign outside a polling place. The older gentleman doing the same for the opposition and I struck up a collegial conversation and eventually came around to the topic of abortion. As we talked, I realized we were really talking about two different things. That one act – a woman walking into a clinic to get an abortion – had totally different meanings to each of us. Both of us were motivated by love for people we didn’t even know, and the conversation undid something in me. I listened, and he made me think about things more broadly. Love began to have more complicated implications.
Twenty years later, the lesson I learned that day has only held and deepened. My own politics have changed, not because I found out most of the things I believed then weren’t true, but because as I’ve continued to listen to an ever broader diversity of people (love always begins with listening), I found out lots of other things were also true.
The thing that changed most for me wasn’t truth; it was priority. What has shifted most for me is what I believe is most important. What I love.
Caring for and protecting the vulnerable – those on the social or economic margins. The orphan, the fatherless, and the widow. The stranger and immigrant. The refugee. The person treated with suspicion because of the color of their skin. The prisoner. The poor. The worker being taken advantage of. Those who’ve been ostracized because of who they love, or mocked because of their gender expression. Those whose voices are dismissed.
Giving love, creating beauty, and finding peace for all of them.
And I don’t know one conservative who would disagree that any of that is important.
What we have come to see differently is what comes first. How to go about it. What the necessary foundations are that will result in the care and protection of the vulnerable. That will bring more goodness into the world. What it is that gets in the way.
Some of that difference stems from a theological and political commitment to the principle of either individual responsibility or communal responsibility, and which takes precedence – a tension rooted in the founding of this nation.
But we no longer see those who hold the other position as equally committed to the common good, as equally committed to love.
As I sit writing this in my favorite neighborhood sidewalk café, an apparently homeless man called to a waiter and asked if he could order a cup of chili, some cornbread, and a slice of onion to go, which he had the cash to pay for. (The slice of onion is a detail that sounded like home to me.) The young waiter started to say yes, when another employee told him no, he couldn’t.
I was upset, wondering why this man, however unconventional, couldn’t be allowed to order his meal.
Then I saw someone else from the restaurant, not the wait staff, come out and sit down beside the man. He spoke to him respectfully and with kindness for several minutes, and when he got up to come back inside the restaurant, it was clear the order was coming.
And I am ashamed of how quick I am to doubt another’s commitment to the common good, to loving the uncomfortable other.
It seems it’s who we’ve become: so ready to believe the worst – of those we disagree with, in particular. So afraid of what our world might become (or maybe of really seeing what it was all along). So slow to love and quick to reject.
Our differences are real. Our fears are real (even the ones that don’t turn out to be so rational).
Love is stronger, if we can let it undo us.