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

The worth of all people…

My faith tradition has what we call Enduring Principles–ideals that we try to live up to. There are a number of them

  • Grace and Generosity
  • Sacredness of Creation
  • Continuing Revelation
  • Worth of All Persons
  • All Are Called
  • Responsible Choices
  • Pursuit of Peace (Shalom)
  • Unity in Diversity
  • Blessings of Community

The one that has been on my mind a lot recently is the one that talks about the worth of all persons. Each principle has some short statements related to the overall principle; the worth of all persons says this:

  • God views all people as having inestimable and equal worth.
  • God wants all people to experience wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
  • We seek to uphold and restore the worth of all people individually and in community, challenging unjust systems that diminish human worth.
  • We join with Jesus Christ in bringing good news to the poor, sick, captive, and oppressed.

So what does that principle mean in our current time in history?

For me, it speaks directly to the challenges we in the United States (as well as in other countries) are facing as we deal with issues of immigration.

If I say that I believe all people have worth, then that means all people, no matter their ethnicity, origin, gender, skin color, sexual identity or orientation…or any other the other ways we separate ourselves.

It means all people, regardless of whether they are citizens of my country, legal residents, or undocumented individuals.

If I truly believe that, then I must become more understanding of those who are fleeing situations of violence…and trying to find places of healing.

If I believe that…if I believe that is part of my calling as a minister who follows Christ, then I have no choice but to challenge systems, policies, and actions that say that some are “less than” others.

If I believe that all people are of worth, that includes those I might disagree with. I still see them as beloved children of the One who created us all.

There are no exceptions. None.

I wonder what would happen if we based our lives on that belief…if we had leaders in governments who believed that. How would we interact with each other? How much different would our world be?

Some might say that’s impossible…I don’t. Difficult? Oh yes. But until (and unless) we believe that all people have worth, we will continue to struggle. Not just with issues of immigration but with all of our relationships.

I’m tired…

I am tired…emotionally and spiritually. And it’s not the kind of tiredness that can be resolved by a good night’s sleep.

It’s a tiredness that is deep in my soul.

I’m tired of our refusal to acknowledge our part in creating the hostile and violent environments that many people are fleeing, hoping to find a better future for themselves and their children…only to be met here with violence and separation.

I’m tired of all the gun violence. I’m tired of the news opening up with how many murders have taken place overnight…

I’m tired of wondering when the next mass shooting is going to take place…how many people will die…how many families will be destroyed.

I’m tired of “thoughts and prayers” that aren’t linked to a willingness to have the hard discussions about ways of making weapons less available…of common sense ways of decreasing the violence, even if it doesn’t stop it.

I’m tired of the anti-intellectualism that says that people who have studied areas of science for years somehow really don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m tired of the refusal to make changes that will help our earth heal.

I’m tired of the hatred of “the other”…of anyone who doesn’t look like us…doesn’t speak the same language we do…doesn’t worship the way we do…doesn’t love the way we do.

I’m tired of the ideologies that place one race on a pedestal built on the backs of another race…that says that only one color of people have rights.

I’m tired of women’s health concerns being negated…of others making decisions for them who have no ideas of the struggles they are going through.

I’m tired of the domination of those who call themselves pro-life…but who are comfortable cutting the programs that would help support women during pregnancy…and babies and families after birth.

I’m tired of hearing the God I worship being used to attack others…a God of love who created all of us in God’s image. I’m tired of having my faith misused by those who would claim that “God hates…” (insert any one of a number of groups there).

I’m tired…and sometimes I want to just give up. It seems so difficult to open up any kind of dialogue, because we seem to live in completely contradictory world views that don’t have anything in common.

But I can’t give up. If I give up, then I’m letting the hatred…the division…win. And because I believe in a God who gave us minds to use…a God who wants us to work together to heal the world’s wounds…a God who calls us to be good stewards of what God created…a God who has given me the choice to be a divider or a healer…I have to continue trying to build bridges.

I don’t know if I will succeed. I may never know that. But all I can do is keep trying…because I follow a Carpenter who builds bridges.

Once upon a time two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch.

Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work,” he said.

“Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?”

“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a fence – an 8-foot fence – so I won’t need to see his place anymore. Cool him down, anyhow.”

The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day.

The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing.

About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped.

There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge… a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work handrails and all – and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched.

“You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.”

The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother.

“I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but, I have many more bridges to build.”

Called to accountability

One of the most challenging lessons we as parents try to teach our children is the lesson of accountability…to help them understand that words and actions have consequences–and that if they are going to use certain words or take certain actions, they have to take responsibility for what happens.

It’s not an easy lesson, and some never learn it. Sometimes because the parents never learned it themselves. Sometimes because the parents think they are loving their children by shielding them from taking responsibility–or because they want to “fix” everything for their children. Sometimes there are mental or physical health issues that play into the whole situation.

But most of us understand–at least partially–what it means to be accountable.

If we have a job, there are certain things expected of us. If we choose not to meet those expectations, then there are consequences. We are accountable for our decisions.

It’s not easy to hold each other accountable. It’s especially difficult when we deal with that in the political realm. We each have strong feelings about the party and individuals we choose to support–and when someone else raises questions about their actions / policies / words, we tend to jump to the defense of the party and/or individual and believe that those we support are under attack.

But what if we were all able to stop and take a deep breath before responding? What if we were able to recognize that we all have the responsibility of being accountable for our actions and words–and appreciate someone else challenging us to consider the results of those actions and words?

What if we believed that it really does take a village? because each of us has a different perspective on life issues and we need all those perspectives to be able to discern the best way forward?

Accountability doesn’t mean that we ignore things we disagree with. It sometimes means making difficult decisions to challenge what someone else is saying or doing. Not the individual themselves, but their actions and words…hopefully helping them (and all of us) understand the cost of those words and actions.

Calling someone to accountability isn’t a personal attack. It isn’t hatred. It isn’t a knee jerk reaction to something someone disagrees with. It’s a responsibility all of us have–especially in our democracy.

If we become afraid to challenge…afraid to hold our political leaders (and ourselves!) accountable for words and actions…believing that those challenges are always attacks…then we are traveling down a road that may very well lead to the end of democracy.

Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation.-  Atifete Jahjaga

 

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?

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!”