Over the last few months, I've spent a lot of time attempting introspection. This isn't something that comes naturally, but with help from sites like Slate Star Codex, I'm getting a little bit better. Today I want to talk about two ideas that Quakers talk about a lot: loving our enemies, and the light within each person.
Enemy love is a foundational component of Christianity, but it should also be a foundational component of humanism. Insofar as love means an honest attempt to empathize with, respect, and treat well, we should do these things for people with whom we disagree, our who may think poorly of us. I'm going to treat these as presuppositions, and hope you share them.
Treating those we disagree with well is really hard. Like, really really hard, you guys. Have you tried NOT rolling your eyes when relative X says something about how the polar ice caps have never been bigger? Super hard. But of all the areas of self-improvement I've tried to implement, respecting the person I disagree with has been the most rewarding.
Respecting the opposite-minded is crucial if we really believe our mantra of light being present within each person. I'm using light as a vague metaphor - feel free to substitute whatever makes sense for you. Acknowledging the light in each person requires us to admit that on some basic level, we're all equally important, valuable, and worthy of respect. When I mock your ideas, or assign motives to you unfairly, I'm lessening your standing in my eyes, so that my own standing can improve. It seems so impossible to us that an equally intelligent/smart/wise/valuable person could disagree with us on such important issues as religion, politics, or music that to eliminate that cognitive dissonance, first we must correct the hierarchy. You're down, I'm up. I ensure that you're down via sarcasm, allegation of impure motives, or casual dismissal. From there, I clobber you with whatever nugget of infallible wisdom I'm disseminating that day, then assume you'll roll over and play dead. Rinse, repeat, viva the in-group!
And this all makes a ton of sense! It really does. If there's anything that comes natural to us, it's finding new and creative ways to solidify the line around our in-groups, and cast apostates into the out-group. But the result of following this natural tendency is that nobody gets convinced to change their mind.
If the goal of important conversations is to reach the point that action can be taken towards our desired outcomes, shouldn't the efficacy of our persuasion methods be under constant scrutiny? It's here that the Quaker ideals of enemy love and the light within each person come in so handy. If I want to change your mind, I have to be the kind of person you're willing to allow to influence you. And maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think a picket sign or a Facebook post is how that kind of trust is built. If I'm going to persuade you, I have to first respect you, and listen to you, and give you an equal chance to persuade me.
So let's talk about the light within each person. A variation of this is that we should look to protect and love those who are commonly called "the least of these." In the Bible the inference is usually that "the least of these" are children, or immigrants, or the poor, or the sick and dying. More recently, this has grown to include the LGBT community and racial and gender minorities. We usually don't think these people are "less," rather that they have a more difficult ladder to climb to reach the playing field the rest of us are already using. And this is true, of course. These groups have a tougher road.
But this is where I want to challenge us to think differently. For us - those of us who consider ourselves liberal, or humanists, or progressive Christians - in our worldview, these are not "the least of these." For us, our natural sympathies extend to these people. A lot of the time, it's EASY for us to love them. We've probably already been involved in causes related to them, and we did it because it's obvious we should. We recognize their humanity, see that their road is tougher, and do our best to improve their situations. And these are things we should be doing!
My thesis is that if we want to improve our communities, countries, and planet, we have to go beyond what's natural or easy for us. We have to recognize our natural biases, and fight against them. We have to fight the urge to scream into our echo chambers. We have to fight the urge to re-blog a bumper-sticker meme on Facebook and think we've contributed something meaningful. I submit that what's meaningful is listening to someone we disagree with so long that we can finally understand why they think what they think, and then be able to say, "I acknowledge that you're a decent human being, and your opinion stems from a worldview that make sense given your experiences, even if I disagree with it with every fiber of my being."
For us, loving the least of these should mean more than believing in rights for immigrants or LGBT people. For us, loving the least of these should mean seeking out and LOVING the Ted Cruz in our family. It should mean finding a way to RESPECT the local equivalent of Ann Coulter or Fred Phelps. This is how minds are changed. If we can't love, or at least respect, the equality, humanity, and capacity to reason possessed by those we disagree with, I don't think we can claim to be after social change. We're after social affirmation. Social affirmation is easy. Social change is hard. And because it's impossibly, maddeningly hard, it deserves our most serious consideration.
I want to change the world. And I want the world to change me. First goal - make friends with, respect, and love, my own personal Ted Cruz.