This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on November 18th, 2016.
St. Paul’s Greek word for “reconciliation,” (katallage), means “changing enemies into friends.” The core of the witness of the life of Jesus, St. Paul affirmed, was the demonstration that God has a bond and friendship with human beings, and that we are to express this bond in our relations with one another. The ministry of reconciliation is the central theme of Christian spirituality. Reconciliation is not unique to Christians, and its general embrace seems a wise step for a riven civic polity following a divisive national election.
An embrace of the discipline of reconciliation entails, in the first instance, a commitment to the reformation of one’s own way of being in the world. “True humility is not thinking less of yourself,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “it is thinking of yourself less.” That sort of genuine humility is a good beginning stance for meeting our neighbors wherever they may be on the spiritual or political spectrum…and since many of us are in flux, thinking of ourselves less and another first allows us to meet our fellow travelers with authentic care and openness. It lets us listen for perspectives tucked in behind words, and for motivating anxieties and principles. Many are swift to speak, but deep listening is a cultivated art that could benefit from a general social revival.
Families, parishes, civic communities and nations develop patterns of interaction, and one of the few ways to really change those systems is to break negative patterns and refuse to participate in reflexive conduct. Rabbi Edwin Friedman has written helpfully on how individuals might conduct themselves once they come to understand that they are actors enmeshed in a web of personalities and patterns. Some people generate anxiety, Friedman writes, and some people amplify that anxiety. When anxiety amplifies, families and communities behave in neurotic and unhealthy ways. One of the best things that can happen at such junctures is to dampen anxiety, and the best way to dampen anxiety is to become a non-anxious presence; to refuse to be reactive even if your blood is boiling in your ears. Break the negative pattern and chose to be a health-giving presence.
People of conviction can become such bores when they assume they have a lock on the truth and run rough-shod over those of divergent opinion. The task for all of us, it seems to me, is to hold our convictions with an equal and perhaps prior commitment to courtesy, civility, deference, and humility. However “right” we may think ourselves, our obligation is the ministry of reconciliation, the making of friends for the common good.
As war raged in 1861, Abraham Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address by saying: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The pursuit of friendship does not entail an abdication of our struggle for political, social or religious principle. The struggle for the right and the good of which we have become convinced is core to being a person of character in an often unjust world. Boorishness need not be part of that equation, and friendship among persons with differing perspectives is a sign of character, graciousness, civility, goodness and hope. Let’s be those sorts of people, practicing the disciplines and virtues that strengthen our polity and mark us as noble folk.