Respect for Each Other in a Polarized Community

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

We live today in a highly polarized world and within highly polarized churches. In this, we are not unique. A certain degree of polarization exists within every community and is normal and healthy. However the bitterness, mean-spirit, and lack of respect that characterizes much of our political, ecclesial, and moral discourse today is not normal and is far from healthy. And we shouldn’t delude ourselves in thinking that it is healthy or, worse yet, in the name of truth or justice or God, try to rationalize our lack of respect for those who think differently than we do. We aren’t holy warriors, just angry people with a highly selective compassion.

Perhaps labels like liberal and conservative don’t accurately name the various tribes we invariably divide into today, but, as an over-generalization, these names still work. We are bitterly divided, liberal from conservative, conservative from liberal, and instead of seeing ourselves as one community caught in a common struggle, we talk rather in terms of “we” and “them”, like warring tribes. There’s no longer a common plural.

More seriously, we are no longer capable of even having a respectful conversation with each other. It is rare today to have a discussion on any sensitive political, moral, or ecclesial issue that does not degenerate into name-calling and disrespect. Empathy, understanding, and compassion have become highly selective, ideological, and one-sided. We listen to and respect only our own kind. Moreover, neither side has a monopoly on this, liberal or conservative. What is sadly manifest too, on both sides, is a certain hypersensitivity, an over-seriousness, a paranoia about the other, an anger, a joylessness, and the lack of a sense of humor.

Conservatives tend to justify this by pointing to the gravity of the issues they are defending: abortion, family life, traditional marriage. These, they point out with all the proper gravity, are serious issues and liberals are so compromised that there really is no room for meaningful talk. The truth being defended is eternal and allows for no compromise, so what’s the purpose of dialogue?

Liberals return the favor: Why discuss something that is rationally self-evident, simply a question of human right, and has long since been enshrined in democratic principle? These issues need not even be discussed. Moreover, in liberal circles, there is all too frequently an intellectual disdain for what is judged to be narrow intolerance stemming from religious fundamentalism. Liberals, despite considerable rhetoric to the contrary, have little genuine desire to have a real conversation about issues like abortion, gay marriage, and family values. For them, just as for the conservatives, these issues already have a clear moral conclusion. Why talk?

Strong convictions are not a fault, but what is distressing is that this unwillingness to be open to respectful dialogue on sensitive issues is generally as prevalent within church circles as it is in political ones. In church circles we are meant to hold ourselves to a higher standard: to meet viciousness with graciousness, anger with compassion, opposition with understanding, slander with no retaliation, intolerance with patience, and everything and everybody with charity. For the most part, this isn’t happening. Sadly, inside of church circles, our conversation about sensitive issues basically mirrors the harsh and one-sided rhetoric we hear on the more strident talk shows. The results are the same: the converted preach to the converted, hearts harden rather than soften, positions become even more bitter and entrenched, and we drift further apart from each other in our churches and in our politics.

At a time when misunderstanding, anger, intolerance, impatience, lack of respect, and lack of charity are paralyzing our communities and dividing the sincere from the sincere, it is time for us, followers of Jesus called to imitate his wide compassion, to reground ourselves in some fundamentals: respect, charity, understanding, patience, and gentleness towards those who oppose us. It’s time to accept too that we are all in this together, one family within which everyone needs everyone else. There is no “we” and “them”, there’s only “us”.

Biblical scholar, Ernst Kaseman, once suggested that what’s wrong in both the world and the church is that the liberals aren’t pious and the pious aren’t liberal. How true. It’s rare to see the same person leading both the peace-march and the rosary. Liberals are better at one, conservatives at the other. Each has its own models, its Mel Gibsons and Michael Moores, patron saints of piety or justice. What’s needed is a patron saint for both.

Perhaps we might look for that in Dorothy Day, someone whom both sides, liberal and conservative, respect and recognize as a saint and who is soon to be canonized by the church. She was both pious and liberal, a woman equally comfortable leading a peace-march or leading the rosary. She was also able to stand up strongly for truth, for life, and for justice, without bracketing what has to be forever fundamental within all relationships and discourse - charity, respect, wide compassion, and a sense of humor!