Black Lives AND Cops’ Lives

Last year my local newspaper published an op-ed criticizing Black Lives Matter. Normally I’m fine with critique as long as it is fair and helpful. This was not.

Writing a response to the columnist, to the publisher and the editor seemed like a proper way to express my opinion and present an alternative viewpoint. I worked hard to be respectful even though I felt her words were reckless and inflammatory. Continue reading Black Lives AND Cops’ Lives

How to Talk to “Those People”

Civil conversation is hard.

Whenever people in a multifaceted, multicultural civilization try to have a civil discussion, things can get complicated very quickly. Our past experiences, our societal conditioning, our moral assumptions can place us in very different worlds when it comes to communicating. We talk to each other—sometimes using identical vocabulary—but we discover that words don’t necessarily mean the same things for people whose very lives function with an entirely different complex of meaning than our own. This happens in every day normal dialogue, so consider how challenging it is to carry on a meaningful conversation when deeply held values are at stake.

Civility is hard. These days, some people think it hardly matters. But it does.

As a pastor, I have done my share of marriage counseling, family counseling, congregational conflict counseling. Two things are particularly important when I help people find a peaceful way through painful differences: one is honesty and the other is respect.

Honesty demands that we speak clearly about the issues that spark our own passion.

Respect demands that we listen deeply in order to understand the issues that spark the passion of another.

Honestly does not mean saying whatever we think and feel and believe in a disrespectful manner. Respect does not mean hiding the truth of what we think or feel or believe just because we may offend. In a civil conversation, we say what we think with words that invite ongoing discussion and we respect the humanity of the other person enough to hear them out no matter how much we may disagree with what they say. ( I repeat: we respect the humanity of the person even when we disagree with their words and ideas.)

I found some helpful suggestions for civil conversation recently. David Gushee, an ethicist at Mercer University writing for the Baptist News Global, reflected on a recent lecture by Professor Alan Brownstein, a constitutional law and church-state expert—and a practicing Jew. That may sound like a joke (an ethicist, a Baptist and a Jew walk into a bar…) but Gushee loves to write (as I do) about intersections between faith, culture and politics and he thought Brownstein’s speech on Civility and Tolerance When Absolutes Clash was “riveting” and “brilliant.”

(David Gushee went on to reflect on the recent clashes concerning “religious freedom” laws using Brownstein’s guidelines of civility and tolerance. I think his essay is quite helpful. Read more here.)

How does one engage in civil conversation with honesty and respect when our core values seem to be dishonored by someone else’s deeply held beliefs? It’s hard. But Brownstein offers these guidelines:

Neither side may trivialize or dismiss the concerns of the other.

Neither side should define the “other” according to one single characteristic or identity marker.

Both sides should aim to help each other understand their own experience and perspective using a type of speech that can be heard by the other.

Both sides should accept the fundamental ground rule of life in a free society: the essence of liberty is the right to be different and to act wrongly in the eyes of others.

That statement made me stop and read it again: the essence of liberty is the right to be different and to act wrongly in the eyes of others.

Professor Brownstein went on to highlight the fundamental role of fear in situations of public conflict that we end up facing in our culture, politics, and law:

The fear of being excluded from full participation in public discourse or public life;

The fear that the other side is trying to coerce change of my side’s core identity;

The fear that the other side will use the power of law to force my side’s conformity with beliefs and practices that we find abhorrent.

The fear of losing or betraying deeply valued relationships of love, either with the Divine or with people, or both.

I find Brownstein’s guidelines helpful on several levels. His first suggestions are practical and workable. I’ve said for years that “communication is a skill to be learned.” Talk-To-Me-Image-300x233From the time we were babies, learning to speak, learning how to discern language, learning that some behaviors communicated an invitation to relationship while other behaviors alienated—from our earliest years, we have been learning how to communicate with others.

And we’re not done yet; we will never be done with learning and improving. Brownstein reminds us that there are many down-to-earth kinds of things we can do (and refrain from doing) that can help us speak and help us listen.

The other thing I like is Professor Brownstein’s insight about the covert power of fear. This rings true for me. When I think I am in danger in some way—my reputation, my ideas, my “truth,” my deeply held beliefs—then I am tempted to respond to another with defensiveness and attack. But whenever I step back and consider that the other person is struggling with their own fears—even if from a very different perspective than mine—then I am more inclined to work from the “honesty-respect” paradigm. Whenever I consider the very real possibility that I could be wrong (or at least partly wrong and only partly right) then I am more able to give others the liberty to be different and to act wrongly in my eyes. (I’ve written about this before in my blog: Sincere Differences Discussed Sincerely.)

My volunteer work with the Coffee Party USA has reminded me how uncivil our communication patterns have become in America in this 21st century. Maybe it’s the political climate. Maybe it’s the anonymity of cyberspace. Maybe it’s a devaluing of common courtesy across the broad spectrum of our society. Maybe it’s our culture’s dualism that tends to categorize people and ideas into boxes marked: black or white, right or wrong. Maybe we all are living with too much fear. Whatever is going on, incivility is damaging us in deep ways and it’s time to turn this around.

Some people won’t care; they are in this to “win” by using speech as a weapon that destroys its opponents (as Dr. Brownstein points out.) 6a00d8341c500653ef012877186c7e970c-800wi

But lots of us do care; we want to find ways to employ honest, respectful civil dialogue as a tool for breaking down walls and building bridges. We who share this commitment are the ones who carry the greater responsibility to model civility and to persevere in actually acting like civilized people.

We’re not so far-gone that we can’t improve our skills of speaking and listening.

We’re not so hardened that we have lost our ability to respect our shared humanity—even for an adversary.

We’re not so inept that we can’t express our honest differences of opinion with courtesy and civility.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”


Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She frequentlyIntersections logo shares her thoughts with Coffee Party USA as a regular volunteer.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.

Rachel Weeping for Her Children

Already – a horrendous year of violence. Just seven weeks into 2018 and there have already been eight school shootings in the US.

Violence begets violence. Our center is not holding and the world implodes around us with the sickening weight of hatred, anger and fear.

How can this keep happening? I ask myself. How far can this spiral take us down into the darkness?

Then I look at the story of the human family over the ages and I remember that cycles of violence have taken us into this abyss over and over again.

Instead of recognizing that we are one human family, we imagine each other as “other.” Instead of acknowledging our deep human connection, we see our differences as divides so we create and perpetuate the fragmentation of our human community.

This is madness.

Sometimes I wonder if some people actually fear a future where everyone is equally accepted and equally valued. It seems incomprehensible to me that such a vision might be motivating humanity’s violence. But I can’t help but wonder.

In the ancient biblical story, the Pharaoh of Egypt proclaimed that all the male children of the Israelite people should be murdered at the moment they were born; Pharaoh didn’t want anymore of “those kinds” of people in his kingdom. The Gospel of Matthew tells another story about King Herod sending soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the male children of the Israelite villagers; Herod feared a competitor.

Throughout the human story, this violence is repeated again and again. Within the American story, once again it is our young people, our children who bear the consequences of our national sins. They die on foreign battlefields. They die on neighborhood streets. They die in school classrooms. They die while dancing.

When reflecting on some of these horrors, the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and the New Testament theologian Matthew both borrowed the image of their ancestor Rachel: “wailing with loud lamentation, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.” 6a00d8341c22ce53ef00e54f67d4918834-800wi

How can this keep happening? I ask myself.

Losing our children is much worse than even the heart breaking, gut wrenching loss of any one of these unique and precious individuals; it is also the loss of a future. For most of us, our children give us hope for the future. But for others – I wonder – is their vision of the future so clouded with fear that they may see the Michael Browns and the Tamir Rices and the Philando Castiles and the dancers at the Pulse as some sort of threat?

In the collective consciousness of our society, do these conjure fear because they represent too many of those kind of people in this American “kingdom”? In the collective consciousness of too many angry young white men, does the emerging empowerment of others feel like dis-empowerment for themselves?

As a Christian minister, I see both fear and hope everywhere I turn and I recognize this as nothing new. Herod sent the soldiers to Bethlehem because he feared the child Jesus was a threat to his power. And he was right: his power was at risk. The “kingdom” God is bringing into being does threaten the power of all the kings and pharoahs among us.

When the reign of peace, justice and respect gains more ground in the attitudes and actions of more and more people, then the status quo of oppression, intimidation and inequity must lose ground.

The status quo IS changing. And I say “Thank God.”

I firmly believe that God is birthing into our midst a new multivalent rainbow community that will finally end the power of white, male, straight privilege. I believe God’s upside down power of grace and love will finally bring about a future of hope where every life matters, where each one is valued for who they are, where all our children are able to grow up to become the people God created them to be. This kind of vision for the future gives many of us great hope.

But for others this vision of equity and inclusion fosters fear.

When fear and prejudice have easy access to a gun, it’s not just our children who are in danger; it’s all of us. When fear and prejudice are given both a gun and a badge then – yes – it is high time for prophetic challenge and peaceful protest. Each of us individually and all of us together must raise our voice and stand with our hands in the air – open, vulnerable and powerful in the upside down way of God’s life-changing power.

And so in the meantime, while we watch and wait for the vision to become reality, things continue to be painful, messy and chaotic. Maybe one reason why is because the oil and water of fear and hope continue to keep us fragmented – both within our society and within each of us. Maybe because we are all at the same time good and bad, light and dark, hopeful and fearful.

We are Rachel, weeping for our children.

And let us remember that all these children are all our children.

4986607878_aa21af8fe8_zWe are Rachel in labor, yearning in travail for a future with hope.

Maybe as we seek Rachel’s comfort even in the midst of this chaos, we can find ways to let go of the fear, lean into the vision, and help our nation hold onto the hope.