Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Re-Framing the Debate (Dialogue Column 9.16.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

On September 7, I preached a sermon entitled “Can Republicans and Democrats Worship Together?” After two weeks of political conventions, it would seem that our country is hopelessly divided into red and blue. Each side maintains that the other is leading this nation to hell and that those who espouse such views are either idiots or evil or both. Yet, as Christians, we are called to find ways to be together as a community of faith in spite of our political differences. As I mentioned in my sermon, I believe this is done not by ignoring the pressing political concerns of our day but by open and honest dialogue about them. The church should be the place for just such a dialogue—after all; we do espouse the belief that we should love one another.

A first step towards such dialogue is humility. I’ve been learning recently the hard truth of my own reactionary and limited political beliefs. I wouldn’t say that I’ve changed my mind on particular issues or candidates, but I have learned that more often than I would like to admit, my reasons for holding certain views or backing certain candidates has to do with emotion rather than reason. These emotions stem in part from the ways I view the world—ways I am not always conscious of—therefore, I am capable of reacting emotionally and even harshly to viewpoints other than my own. Such an admission is hard for me to make, since I consider myself to be a reasonable person, but I think admissions of our own limitations and strong feelings are the necessary first steps towards open discussion of important issues. In order to love our neighbors with different political beliefs than our own, we must digest a big dose of humility.

A writer that has helped me in the humility area is George Lakoff. He is a liberal linguistics professor at Berkeley. I mentioned some of his ideas in the Sept. 7 sermon but lacked the time to go very deep. Lakoff is a linguistics scholar who studies the words and concepts used in political discourse. His scholarly work on the subject is Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, but the more accessible (and far shorter) version is Don’t Think of an Elephant! As I mentioned, Lakoff is a liberal and he wrote the latter title as a sort of field manual for liberals to understand why conservatives are so much better at setting the terms of political debates.

I am less interested in Lakoff’s political strategy (there are conservative writers who do the same kind of work) than I am his larger point which is each of us—conservative, liberal, independent, etc.—has a “frame” that helps us to make sense of the world around us. For example, he writes that as Americans we use the “frame” of family to speak about ourselves: we have founding fathers; we send our sons into battle; etc. He argues that a chief difference between conservatives and liberals is their different frames which chiefly use the language of parenting. Conservatives order the world around the idea of a strict father figure who offers discipline and punishment, demands obedience from children and helps children to become moral adults, because morality leads to prosperity. Liberals order the world around the idea of a nurturing parent who empathizes with and guide his/her children to find fulfillment and become nurturers of others. From these understandings of the smallest units of society, Lakoff argues, each side extrapolates their understanding of government.

Whether you buy Lakoff’s specific arguments or not, I think the larger argument by him and other scholars regarding the conceptual frames that guide us has merit. What I would offer is, that as Christians, our frames should center on Jesus Christ whose self-sacrificial love points us towards true morality, fulfillment and spiritual prosperity. We must work to understand our own preconceptions that lead us to judge, exclude and react harshly towards people who do not share them. We must replace these inadequate frames with the frame of a loving savior who chose to serve rather than to rule and to love rather than to dominate. Here’s hoping that we as a church can love each other enough to listen to one another this election year.

Grace and Peace,


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