Communication without bias?

A few days ago, a friend of mine made a comment that went something like this: It’s very difficult to communicate today…there doesn’t seem to be any communication without bias.

I think he’s right.

Sometimes the bias is very intentional and obvious. But sometimes we think we’re posting from a “neutral” position–but someone else may read (or hear) what we’re saying and feel that we’re communicating from a specific perspective and attacking a particular statement/policy/belief/person. I’ve experienced that myself–from both sides.

I think it is possible to work at avoiding intentional biases if we really want to communicate with someone else.

But I’m not sure that we can ever avoid all bias when we are sharing. After all, we are each speaking from what we’ve experienced…what we’ve grown up “knowing”…what we’ve learned from our parents or our faith traditions or our political understandings… And all of that has impacted us and made us into who we are.

So how do we get past that? How can we learn to truly communicate with each other?

It’s not going to be easy.

It’s going to require each of us to take an honest look at ourselves…our language…our word choices. It means sometimes taking a deep breath…looking beyond the words to what someone is trying to share…asking for clarification. It means trying to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Too often we don’t want to do that. We are convinced that what we have said is clear–if someone else just listens. We don’t want to take another look…and consider that we may be part of the communication problem.

I know. I’ve been there.

Taking an honest look at oneself is uncomfortable. It’s much easier to blame someone else for not understanding what we think is so very clear.

I don’t think communication without bias is ever completely possible. But if we’re aware not just of someone else’s biases but also our own, we might find ourselves being able to communicate in spite of our biases. I sincerely hope so.

Not called to “Christianity nice”

I think many of us grew up in a time when a popular statement was “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything.” That applied in all of our relationships–including our spiritual ones.

I don’t disagree with that statement. I think it is important to look for the positives.

But…

Sometimes that statement is used to shut down dialogue–dialogue that it is important to have. And I find that happening in too many of our faith traditions. We want to have “Christianity nice”–to not have to grapple with the kind of real-world issues and challenges that I believe we are called to face.

M. Scott Peck, in his book The Different Drum says that organizations have to deal with those challenges. Otherwise they get stuck in “pseudo-community”–where everyone plays nice…where issues get swept under the rug and never dealt with. He says that getting to true community requires organizations to go through chaos and emptiness on the way–and that’s not an easy process.

My faith tradition believes in prophetic leadership given to the church pretty regularly. In 2007, this was the counsel given:

Jesus Christ, the embodiment of God’s shalom, invites all people to come and receive divine peace in the midst of the difficult questions and struggles of life. Follow Christ in the way that leads to God’s peace and discover the blessings of all of the dimensions of salvation….

The restoring of persons to healthy or righteous relationships with God, others, themselves, and the earth is at the heart of the purpose of your journey as a people of faith.

You are called to create pathways in the world for peace in Christ to be relationally and culturally incarnate. The hope of Zion is realized when the vision of Christ is embodied in communities of generosity, justice, and peacefulness.

Above all else, strive to be faithful to Christ’s vision of the peaceable Kingdom of God on earth. Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace.

There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God. Be especially alert to these influences, lest they divide you or divert you from the mission to which you are called.

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

Jesus did not shy away from confronting injustice. And neither should we…even if that means being uncomfortable

Words matter!

There was a book by the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein that I loved to read. Methuselah’s Children was originally a story which was expanded into a novel. It was the story of an incredibly long-lived family and the struggles between them and the “normal” people who believed that the Howards had discovered a secret of long life and were keeping it from them.

Ultimately the Howards were forced to leave earth…partially driven out by the subtle use of words. The words in and of themselves were not problematic, but when they were put together in specific ways, they were weighted in a way against the Howards that built walls and created separation between members of communities.

We have found out again tonight that words matter. Twenty people have lost their lives–and more may yet die.

Why?

We don’t have all the information yet, but it seems that the young man was angry about what he saw as a Hispanic “invasion” of Texas and hated the thought of “race mixing.” Where did he get those ideas?

When the president of the United States calls people with non-white skin rapists, vermin, criminals…when he separates children with non-white skin from their parents and puts them in cages…when he calls the countries occupied by people with non-white skin “shithole countries”…when he tweets concerns about people with non-white skin “breeding”…he is setting a mood and establishing a perspective that says that people with non-white skin are somehow “less than.”

When he refuses to specifically disavow ideology that raises people with white skin to a superior position over everyone else…when he says that there were “good people on both sides” at a rally where people were killed protesting that ideology…when he refuses to shut down a chant of “send them back” towards women with non-white skin who are American citizens…he is signaling that white Americans are more important than anyone else.

He–and we–cannot have it both ways. The words that we use matter, and when individuals use our words as a reason to harass, assault, or kill any other person simply because of their ethnicity or race, gender or sexual orientation, or religious belief, it is hypocritical to then send thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims and the survivors.

Our words matter…and we have to take responsibility for them. That responsibility starts at the top, but it also includes us. If we do not speak out against those words that build walls, that raise one group of people to a superior position over another, then we are also culpable when someone takes those words to heart and decides that those who are “less than” should be killed.

In the words of a leading Jewish rabbi of the 20th century:

Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.

We can choose to make our words end in good deeds…or they can end in tragedies. Which will it be?

The plain truth…

I have to admit, I always get a little worried when someone starts out a conversation with words similar to “The plain truth is…”. I wonder if we will agree on what that plain truth is.

But I’m going to try it. Please realize that this is “the plain truth” from my perspective only–but I hope it might spark some thinking and much-needed dialogue.

The plain truth is that most of us live where we live and how much clothing, shelter, food, and safety we have through no initial effort of our own. We were born into specific places–with the blessings and/or challenges that surround us in those places and cultures and we have grown up to think that what we experience is normal.

For those of us who have never needed to worry about where we are going to sleep, what we are going to eat, whether we will survive this day without being shot–or raped–or assaulted in some other way, we often find ourselves thinking that people in those situations “deserve” what they are experiencing–or that they just need to pull themselves up…to work harder, to save more. Then they could live like we do.

But what if we could think–just for a few minutes–what life might be like for us if we were born into a different family…a different culture? What if we were the ones who were afraid for ourselves…our children? What if we were the ones wanting desperately to find some way for our children and grandchildren to have a better future? What if we knew that if we stayed where we were, we were facing assault or death each and every day?

Would something–anything–sound better?

The plain truth is that any of us could find ourselves in those situations.

The plain truth is that yes, there are policies that need fixing–but we are called to work together to try to find ways to make our policies work for everyone.

The plain truth is that every person–even those who look or worship differently from us…who speak different languages from us…and yes, even those who might hate us–are brothers and sisters.

The plain truth is that until we see ourselves in “the other”…until we are able to see the Divine in “the other”…until we are willing to give up some of our abundance that others might have enough…we are living in darkness.

 

 

Dissent and criticism

Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo is not un-American. In fact, one could make a case for the fact that they are very American values, since the United States was forged out of dissent and criticism. We were birthed in dissent and criticism of the status quo of being an English colony…and it was not an easy birth. Harsh words were thrown at those who did not agree with a particular viewpoint…and some were literally forced from their homes because they did not agree with actions that were being taken.

We tend to forget that. Our history in some ways has whitewashed the whole process, making it seem inevitable. But it wasn’t. And the founding fathers of the United States were not always nice or polite with each other. In fact, if you read some of the letters and newspapers, they were downright brutal!

And dissent and criticism of the status quo have been a significant part of who we are ever since. Opposition to slavery…those who fought for religious freedom…individuals who fought against the treatment of Native Americans…those who supported the rights of individuals to come to the United States to find freedom and new hope…pacifists…women who fought for the right to vote (and to control their own bodies)… The list could go on and on.

Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo are woven into the very fabric of who we are.

And for those who claim to be inheritors and followers of the Judeo-Christian heritage, dissent and criticism are also part of that heritage. The Hebrew scriptures are full of sermons and challenges from prophets who challenged the status quo…who called both the leadership and individuals to be better than they were…to live up to what they said they believed.

Jesus himself challenged the status quo. We have often tended to forget just how radical his teachings and actions were. He challenged not only the leadership of Rome but also the religious (and political) leaders of his own people. He didn’t hold back either:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! (Matthew 23:23-24)

Scribes knew the law and could draw up legal documents. Pharisees were religious leaders (and were also legal experts). Jesus didn’t seem to have much use for their focusing on the letter of the law while ignoring the things that mattered more.

So when we accuse critics of the status quo as somehow being un-American or un-Christian, we’re just plain wrong. We need to hear those voices that challenge us to be our better selves…to live up to what we claim to believe.

We can disagree with how to get there–but we need to be reminded that at one point in our history, people in other countries saw the United States as a place of hope…a place of new beginnings. We took pride in what Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883–and what is mounted on the Statue of Liberty. Those who dissent and offer criticism of what we have become do so because they want us to live up to these words of hope:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Keeping promises

Quotes About Keeping Promises

What is a promise? The dictionary says it’s “a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing or that a particular thing will happen.”

We all can remember when someone promised us something and followed through with it. It made us feel loved…made us happy…made us feel that we could really trust that person.

By the same token, we can probably all remember when someone promised us something and didn’t follow through. Those experiences made us less likely to trust that individual and–sadly–sometimes made us wonder if we could trust anyone.

Promises aren’t just made by individuals, though. They’re made by corporations–although those are sometimes implied promises. And they’re also made by governments.

When those promises are broken, there can be serious consequences…both for the corporation or government and for the people who believed the promises. We begin to wonder if we can trust them…begin to doubt…begin to become cynical about everything. And sometimes there are even more significant consequences that impact the very lives of individuals.

Promises aren’t just words. They’re commitments.

We are facing a plethora of broken promises today…from promises made between individuals to promises made by governments to individuals. And we’re paying the price of those broken promises–disbelief…cynicism…and possible torture and death for individuals.

Is that really who we are? I hope not. I think we are better than that…and we must be, to make a positive future for everyone.

Quotes About Keeping Promises

I can’t fix it…

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that I’m a “fixer.” I don’t like it when people are hurting–whether it’s as a result of their own actions or something else. I don’t like to see people in conflict. I want everything to go well for everyone.

But I’ve also come to realize that I can’t fix everything or everyone.

Sometimes it’s just not possible. The situation may be so complex that it takes more than simply my efforts to untangle it. Or death may have made it impossible for there to be reconciliation. Or…sometimes…people don’t want to be fixed. They’re comfortable in their victimhood.

I do understand that. I went through a time in which I felt un-listened to…felt devalued…and felt that my legitimate concerns were not listened to. And in a rather perverse way, it felt comfortable to complain loudly about all the ways in which that was happening.

I eventually changed–not because anyone “fixed” me, but because I got hit over the head with a metaphorical 2×4 and realized that if I didn’t change, I would not longer be able to provide a ministry that I wanted to.

But during that time, there was someone who was “there.” She didn’t try to fix me; she was just present. She let me know that she cared–and she gently probed behind the quick and facile answers I gave others who asked about me.

And so I’ve come to realize that instead of trying to be a “fixer,” my responsibility is to be a companion…to be present with those who are hurting. That’s not easy–I still sometimes find myself wanting to fix situations that aren’t working for people I care about. But I can’t.

All I can do is walk with them…