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.

Charlotte’s Letter to Sen. Cruz on Church and State

Dear Senator Cruz,

I have written numerous letters to you pondering our shared Christianity and how faith intersects politics in this nation of ours. Unknown+copy Although you and I see faith quite differently, still as a pastor, it is important for me to share my thoughts with you because you are my senator, but also because you are a candidate seeking to be President of the United States.

I have to say: the way you use your faith in the public arena disturbs me. What I see is more a profound and dangerous misuse of faith.

As a Christian, I believe fervently in America’s promise to keep faith and politics separate in our official policies. State legislatures and local municipalities struggle to balance the importance of both religious freedoms and civil rights. However, in too many actual and proposed public policies, a particular fundamentalist version of Christianity has unbalanced the discussion and demanded that this way of being religious should be inordinately privileged.

Many different people have written about appropriate applications of religious liberty within our secular society.  I am no expert on constitutional law but it is clear to me that the faith I love is being severely misrepresented and misused in this public debate. When some Christians claim victim status and demand special protection, I am disappointed and offended. 2dbb9186aaf3996a953dd8e78a9c1e3eIn spite of our Constitution’s explicit call for government to avoid “the establishment of religion,” Christianity still does and always has had immense privilege in this nation. And now you want to assert that it is Christians who are being persecuted? (“Jihad” !?!? Really now, Senator Cruz.)

Too often your words are divisive and accusing. Too often you fuel the fires of fear and disrespect. This may be the standard practice of politicians but a president must strive to unite the nation’s citizens while honoring the wide range of diversity inherent among Americans.

That said, as much as I am concerned that the rights of everyone should be protected, as a pastor I am even more concerned about the rampant misuse of faith and how that damages Christian witness.

When a Christian baker or florist or pizza parlor owner claim it is their “right”—because of their faith—not to serve someone, I will claim they do not understand how authentic Christian faith is to behave.

It was Jesus who taught his disciples:

“…love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

“Love your enemies …” (Matthew 5:43-45)

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7:12)

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

Christians who claim that their own rights are more important than Jesus’ call to love and serve others demonstrate a sadly inadequate faith. Christians who claim they are entitled to wield corporate power in order to avoid serving those of whom they disapprove show they have no real understanding of the Christ who loved and welcomed “sinners.” Self-serving self-righteous self-centeredness has no place in either faith or politics—no matter how pious or fervent it may sound.


When you conflate faith and politics and encourage followers of the Christ to elevate their own rights over the rights and needs of their neighbors, you pervert the faith of these who have put their trust in you.

When you conflate faith and politics and applaud the misuse of corporate power in the name of Christ, you betray both third-party citizens and Christ.

When you conflate faith and politics for your own presidential ambitions, you damage the witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ (a word of good news for the truly oppressed but a severe word of warning for religious hypocrites.)

 This fusion and confusion of faith and politics disturbs many of us.

Religion inappropriately wed to political power has been a bane throughout human history and so I urge you: please do a better job of maintaining a wall of separation between your Christianity and your politics. Any one version of religion with its particular doctrines and dogmas has no place determining broad public policy in a diverse nation such as ours. Make your arguments as a public servant and leave your dogma out of it.

data-1Or—if you would really be true to authentic faith within the public conversation, then let your words be grounded in these core tenets: “Love your neighbor” and “Do to Others as you would have them do to you.”

If you would be President, then show us an active concern for the rights of ALL Americans, not just some.

Respectfully yours,

Rev. Charlotte Vaughan Coyle


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.

Guest Blog: Civility and tolerance when absolutes clash

Read the full article at


David P. Gushee is senior columnist for faith, politics and culture for Baptist News Global. He is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.

Guest Blog: Why I Think My Church Is Upset About Indiana’s RFRA


Continue reading Guest Blog: Why I Think My Church Is Upset About Indiana’s RFRA

Feminism is Not the F-Word

Some time ago, as part of my volunteer work with Coffee Party USA, I posted a meme to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page. It’s a quote that made me smile; wise words from a passionate current day feminist, Dale Spender.

Feminism has fought no wars.  It has killed no opponents.  It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties.

Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions…for safety on the streets…for child care, for social welfare…for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law.

If someone says, “Oh, I’m not a feminist,”

I ask, “Why, what’s your problem?”

Feminism advocating for equity and justice for women and children and men.

Feminism working with everyone for everyone.

Feminism as a force for good in society.

A grand ideal, I thought when I posted it. But some commenters didn’t think it was grand at all.

This little meme got lots of attention. A large number of people made positive comments and shared it to their own Facebook pages. But then there were plenty who took offense and complained: “feminism is divisive;” “feminism isn’t necessary anymore because women have it so good now;” “feminists are nothing but angry, men-haters.” I was prepared for the differences of opinion; I was not prepared for the vitriol.

I know I shouldn’t have been surprised. I am, after all, “a woman in a man’s job” and I’ve experienced some of the contempt that comes to any of us who dare step “out of our place.” And as a woman in my particular field, I find it is often other women who are my harshest critics. Even so I admit I continue to be surprised that such strong negative reactions continue to be so widespread and public here in the second decade of the 21st century. We’ve been doing this male-female thing for a long time now; shouldn’t we be doing it better by now? Continue reading Feminism is Not the F-Word

Sincere Differences Discussed Sincerely

A long-time good friend and I are having an ongoing cyberspace discussion about a controversial social issue; our opinions are polar opposites. We both are Christians but he’s pretty conservative and I am not. We both are smart, articulate and thoughtful. And we both love each other. imagesI’m guessing neither one of us will change our mind, but – as he says – we are discussing our sincere differences sincerely. And we both are better for it.

I know where he’s coming from because I used to believe pretty much the same way. I’ve made similar arguments; I’ve had similar concerns. We’ve both grown and changed since we were so close, but we’ve grown and changed in different directions. Such is the human journey. Such is the way of relationships.

But for us, relationship is the key; being friends is more important to us than being right (but of course, we both think we are right!) I am grateful this friendship means as much to him as it does to me because I have other conservative friends who have broken off their relationships; they unfriended me on Facebook a long time ago. It’s like some people are so committed to a particular (peculiar) kind of integrity that agreeing to disagree somehow compromises their core ethics. They seem to believe their sworn duty is to fix me, to change me and if they can’t do that, then we can’t be friends. This belief system makes me immensely sad because it contributes to alienation and estrangement throughout the human community. Friends, families, governments… minds set in stone, conversation in talking points, assassinating character and impugning integrity, listening just enough to misunderstand…

I admit I don’t have these kinds of probing conversations with very many of my conservative friends; most of us agree to disagree and then agree not to talk about it. But this friend is precious. Authentic community between human beings is always precious, but when we make a real effort to build community, when it calls for an extra dose of patience and understanding and respect and compassion – that kind of relationship is rare and beautiful and precious.

Our current American civilization is not very civil these days. There are deep divides that separate us; strong differences of opinion that keep pushing us farther and farther apart. But I think it’s not the divides and the differences themselves that are the problem. We’ve always had our differences and when we’re smart, we recognize that our diversity is part of our strength. No, I don’t think it’s our differences that are the problem; I think it’s the fear.

In a recent interview, Stephen Colbert, a well known Roman Catholic, was asked which is his favorite Bible verse: “Do not worry about your life…” he quickly replied. And “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” In order to stay mindful, Stephen believes, one cannot live in fear. It’s a little like comedy, he explains: You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.

“You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.”

There are plenty of things in our lives, in our world that justifiably cause anxiety. Stephen Colbert knows that as well or better than must of us. But we’re not going to solve any of our problems if we can’t talk to each other, if we don’t participate in honest conversation and collaborate in creative dreaming. We can’t hope to find our common connections if we don’t discuss our sincere differences sincerely. bridge-buildingWe can’t build bridges of cooperation if we don’t come together across the deep divides. We can’t live if we don’t laugh and love.

I’m not sure this will ever happen on Facebook – even though I volunteer for Coffee Party USA and I have high hopes that more and more people will commit to civil public conversation around controversial issues. But I do believe we can build these bridges one relationship at a time. “Anthropology trumps ideology,” another friend likes to say. When I really get to know a person – who they are, where they come from, what they value; when I really grow to love a person – then my dogmas become less rigid and my boundaries become more porous. One friend, one family member, one co-worker who sees the world differently can be a great resource for expanding our understanding. One person’s effort to listen and learn from another (especially one who has been “the other”) can erode fear and cultivate love and laughter.

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.


Colbert Catechism: Stephen Colbert Professes His Faith to Fr. James Martin

Charlotte’s Letter to Sen. Cruz on Marriage Equality

Dear Senator Cruz,

In my first letter, I offered the paradigm “love of neighbor” as an appropriate and helpful framework for creating laws and policies for our American society. Since I am a Christian pastor and since you are my Senator and have acknowledged your Christianity publicly, I am writing these letters to reflect pastorally on the values of Jesus Christ and how those values might inform your work in Congress. data-1

I received the most recent letter that you sent to your constituents and I must respond to say that your efforts to re-establish the Defense of Marriage Act is wrong on so many levels. I say this as a straight, middle-class woman; as a voter in your state; and as a Christian. Continue reading Charlotte’s Letter to Sen. Cruz on Marriage Equality

Change of Mind, Change of Heart: Moving Away from Fundamentalism

“If I change my mind, then I’d have to admit I’ve been wrong.”

He was a good man: humble and kind. He had lived for more than 80 years and had a gentle wisdom about him. So when my friend made this statement, my jaw dropped. How on earth can anyone think that way? I marveled.

But then I remembered – that used to be me.

I used to believe that “Right” and “Wrong” were Black and White; that if I was right, and you disagreed with me, then you must be wrong.

Now I believe all of us are probably mostly a little bit right and a whole lot wrong – about a whole lot of things.

I used to believe truth was a small fragile thing that needed to be defended.

Now I believe Truth is a rainbow with infinite colors and facets that takes a lifetime to explore. Truth doesn’t need to be defended; it needs to be discovered. Continue reading Change of Mind, Change of Heart: Moving Away from Fundamentalism

This is Outrageous: Loving our Muslim Neighbors

This past January, a community of Muslim Americans gathered to explore how they could foster more positive depictions of the faith they love. It was timely work for these practitioners of Islam given the terrorist actions just a week before – an extremist acting in the name of their religion at Charlie Hebdo.  

Muslim+Conference_41766895_927960 2 But their efforts for peace were interrupted by other extremists acting in the name of their religion: some “Christians” gathered to protest the presence of their neighbors, claiming Muslims had no right to gather at the local community center; claiming Islam is inherently violent. (These claims, by the way, were accompanied by Internet threats of guns and bombs.)

This happened next door to me. I lived in Garland Texas; I served a Christian church there; I sometimes worshiped at the mosque just down the street in the neighboring suburb. This is my community. This is my home. These are my neighbors. This is outrageous. Continue reading This is Outrageous: Loving our Muslim Neighbors

Charlotte’s Letter to Sen. Cruz on Love of Neighbor

Dear Senator Cruz, Since you are my Texas Senator, I often receive letters from you reporting on your work in the U.S. Senate; here is a letter to you in response. This is not so much a point-by-point political argument about specific ways you and I would approach our nation’s problems and solutions (you and I seem to have very different opinions on many of these matters). Rather, since you are a self-proclaimed Christian and I am a Christian minister, this will be more a reflection on the priorities of Jesus Christ and how his values might help you and your fellow senators better care for “the least of these” in America. (You probably recognize Jesus’ words in the parable from Matthew 25). Of course there are countless differences between Jesus’ time and ours, but there are also some timeless attitudes he demonstrated and some abiding charges he delivered that should challenge any of us who dare to wear his name: Christ-ian. data Since you are a man who speaks openly about your Christian faith, may I remind you of the fundamentals of this faith. Since you are a public servant, might I make some suggestions about how you could serve this nation more effectively… 1) Love you Neighbor as yourself Jesus was pretty clear about priorities – his and ours: we are called to love God with heart, soul, strength and mind and we are expected to love our neighbors as ourselves. He was also clear about who is a neighbor and how we are to be neighbor. In a nation such as America, our citizens are free to understand and worship God as they see fit. I am grateful for the bold vision of our Constitution and the way our First Amendment protects people from state and federal incursions into our religious practices. I am a minister who believes very strongly in the separation of church and state because I see how marrying religion and politics has deeply compromised both our government and the church of Jesus Christ. That said, Jesus’ call to be the neighbor and to love our neighbors might inform and improve how Americans could live together in our society for the common good. A Christian discipline for the love of neighbor demands an unselfish generosity and a willingness to sacrifice our own preferences and convenience for the good of the other. But I am deeply concerned about our neighbors here in Texas and across America; I am concerned that their own government is working against them instead of for them. Those who finally have access to affordable health care may lose it if you have your way; the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act sounds selfish. Your pledge to work against immigration reform instead of working with President Obama to find solutions sounds foolish. Your effort to undermine our public school systems sounds short sighted. Such actions would undo the progress we have made as a community of neighbors, a community that looks out for one another: for “the widows and the orphans,” for the “little ones,” for the “strangers” among us, for those who are trampled under the feet of the rich and powerful. Your programs and policies that increase the benefits of the privileged and compromise the possibilities of the underprivileged are not the way of the Christ. 2) More is Less and First is Last When you read your Bible, I hope you especially notice Jesus’ words that proclaim “the least among you is the greatest;” that the “last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Throughout the story of Scripture, God has always honored humility. One of my favorite biblical characters is Jesus’ own mother. Mary’s Magnificat celebrates God’s mysterious, upside-down-way in the world that honors the poor and lifts up the oppressed. When followers of the Christ acknowledge that same reality in our own day, then…

we too must do whatever we can to speak for those who have no voice, to stand for those who have no standing, to align ourselves with those who are maligned by the rich and the powerful.

I am deeply concerned about the gridlock in Congress that keeps you from cooperating together to work for the common good of ALL the people of America. These days – even more than most – you elected officials of Congress appear to be representing your own interests instead of the interests of those you are elected to represent. There is too much self-promotion and preening, too much self-righteousness and condemnation. ted-cruz-me-me-me-shutdown-10-17-13-webThere is too much hubris and not enough humility. Your inflammatory language is inexcusable. Your refusal to compromise with your colleagues is harmful. Your unwillingness to consider all sides of any issue is small minded. Your alignment with the rich and powerful is completely upside down from the way of the Christ. Sometimes I wonder who you think your “neighbors” are. If you continue to call yourself a Christian, then it would make sense to use the same definition your Christ used. If this has slipped your mind, then please read again the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10. Respectfully, Rev. Charlotte Vaughan Coyle