The title of this entry, as most Episcopalians know, is from the Baptismal Covenant of The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. It is one of the promises we commit ourselves to as followers of Jesus in an Episcopal mode: to respect the dignity of every human being (a promise that is coupled with another promise, to strive for justice and peace among all people). I have often said that this is the most radical phrase in our Prayer Book, built on the radical life and teaching of Jesus. It demands a lot of us to respect the dignity of every human being — it isn’t easy to do, especially when we are called to respect the dignity of those with whom we have profound disagreements.
This was driven home to me this week, when an unanticipated political debate on my Facebook page suddenly took a downward spiral when one person weighed in on the subject with unexpected vitriol. Other participants were rather shocked, one or two responded a little harshly, perhaps, and in the end, the person causing the shock and awe accused the rest of us of being intolerant of other points of view, and then unfriended me (and, indeed, seems to have disappeared from Facebook all together).
All of this has led me to reflect on the poor quality of our public discourse, and the inability of Americans to cross divides (as a Canadian I know recently observed). The American political landscape for a number of years now has resembled the geography of California, with fault lines running every which way. No matter what one’s political persuasion, most of our politicians — and most of our citizenry — seem to have forgotten what politics is really about: compromise. A generation or two ago, politicians understood this. Ronald Reagan, for example, knew that he needed Tip O’Neil if anything were going to get done. Those two men couldn’t have disagreed more politically, yet they were able to engage one another without sacrificing a fundamental mutual respect. Ted Kennedy partnered with a number of Republican politicians over his long career in order to accomplish some of his goals. And he and his opposite numbers were able to maintain respect for one another despite their disagreements. They all understood that in a democracy, one cannot expect to get everything one wants. Politics demands that two sides meet each other somewhere in the middle, with the hope that somehow that compromise will serve the common good.
It seems to me that, from my particular perspective as an Episcopalian Christian who has promised to respect the dignity of every human being, I might suggest two principles that somehow need to return to our public life:
First, we need to stop identifying people so completely with their points of view. In other words, we need to recognize that there is more to a person’s personhood than his or her opinion on any particular issue. I guess I’m talking about a political version of that rather hackneyed theological epithet, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It is possible to love and respect one another, even while we disagree profoundly. Politics and our public discourse needs to be de-personalized in this sense, so that we stop demonizing one another and begin truly to engage the issues.
Second, we need to recover the understanding I outlined above, that politics in a democracy necessarily requires compromise. Just as we tell our young children that they can’t have everything that they want and about the importance of taking into consideration the needs and wants of others, we adults must relearn this when it comes to our public life. We cannot have everything we want on our own terms. The world does not revolve around us. We must share it with others, and take their wants and needs into account.
It seems to me that this really is quite basic stuff. My son’s kindergarten class works on it every day. Yet, our public conversation has drifted very far from it. And when our public figures can’t engage in civil debate, attacking one another’s arguments without attacking one another, they send a message to the rest of the country that it’s okay to be strident, disrespectful, accusatory and just downright nasty. It is a way of being in the world that is inconsistent with the way Jesus teaches us to be in the world. And, recognizing that we are a nation of many different religions, it is a way of being that is inconsistent with the teachings of all of the world’s great spiritual traditions.
I’m not sure how we get to this new level in public life — it may require an act of divine intervention. Yet, if we never try, we will never get there. If our political leaders can’t show us the way, perhaps we voters must begin to show the way and start telling those we elect that they need to find a better way. We all need to find a better way.