The House Democrats are teaching how (not) to talk
Though Trump’s denial of last Tuesday’s election results, and Kamala Harris and Joe Biden’s historic win, makes the headlines, another story in this election cycle caught my attention. It was about some of the in-fighting of House Democrats. You can see well-known progressive icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and newcomer Conor Lamb dispute the specifics in these series of interviews from the New York Times’ political correspondent Astead Herndon. The key to the discussion surrounds the contrast between Joe Biden’s win and the comparatively worse performance of Congressional Democrats (they lost seats in the House, and failed to win the Senate). AOC suggests that they lost seats because they failed to run good, diverse campaigns with strong online strategies. Lamb suggests the issue is that progressives like AOC spooked moderates from supporting Democrats downballot, even if they voted for Joe Biden in the presidential election. I think Lamb is right that sometimes the progressives’ message turns people off; and I think AOC is also correct that a failure to message at all, or run thorough campaigns is a problem. Furthermore, I would suggest that the tension these two hold is important to maintain, and not overcome. Diversity within a body, ideologically but also in other terms, is essential for health. The ability for the diverse members to dialogue is also important.
Now, I don’t plan on writing a political strategy for the Democrats here, and I’ll stop with the explicit political discourse in a moment, but I do think this dispute can teach us something about how to talk, how to be on a mission, and how to build a movement. I think these things are essential for church leaders to understanding, including those in Circle of Hope. My contention, and what I want to focus on today, is that the issue at hand is messaging and framing. I want to be a part of a body that is both diverse and dialogical. In Circle of Hope, we say dialogue keeps us connected and keeps our gravity. We also say that our body is held together by a dialogue of love. Finally, engaging in healthy dialogue is what keeps us real. We want everyone among us to experience respect and understanding as they explore what they think and feel. I love these ideas and I think House Democrats could use them in their own dialogue.
Diversity in the body is essential for its health
In my opinion, what made the campaign against Donald Trump successful was the rather singular view of Trump needed to go. At the Democratic National Convention, there was quite a large coalition of opposition against Trump, from the Republican former governor of Ohio, John Kasich, all the way to Independent, and symbol of the progressive left in the Senate, Bernie Sanders. All of them had a singular mission: defeat Donald Trump and elect Joe Biden. It’s easy, in my opinion, to overcome our differences when we have a common cause. For Circle of Hope, that’s why we invest so much time every year in coming up with a mutually-discerned and agreed-upon Map. It focuses on a mission together, so that we aren’t constantly talking about what to do or how to do it. Additionally, if we are focused on what we are for, we don’t waste our time on what we’re against. The GOP stands to learn this lesson, because for years, during the Obama administration, they were mostly concerned with obstruction and opposition to their Black president, and as a result, they let conspiracies about his birth and his faith run wild. In my opinion, not checking this rhetoric helped result in Trump’s candidacy and presidency.
But in general, when things are going swimmingly, dialogue is fun and easy. We can even debate our differences if we are on a common mission together. But the challenge is holding a diverse group of people together on a common mission, even when the going gets tough. How do we talk to each other? And where do we go?
For Circle of Hope, we have made our mission and vision rather plain and they are encapsulated on our website. We also receive our command and commission from Jesus. We say: We receive the “Great Commission” (Matt 28:18-20). Any believer, who is not doing their part in the “family business” of redeeming the world, is missing the point of their ongoing existence. Furthermore: We abide by the “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-5). Self-giving love loosens the truth locked in our desires. Put rather plainly, our commission is to make disciples, and our command is to love one another. Those are rather broad missions, but they hold us together. And our dialogue of love allows us to express that.
Frame to include and build up; not to be right and tear down
How we frame our mission, then, has all to do with who we are talking to and who we are trying to include. We might think that there are some ideas for making disciples and loving one another that are too radical. On the other hand, we may think that all that needs to occur to make those ideas palatable is communicate about them more broadly. But I think the key is in how we talk about them. It’s tempting to talk about our mission in a way that appeals to the people who already agree with us. The colloquialism for this is preaching to the choir. I believe there is a time for that, especially when the people who are close to us are often not listened to and not cared for; that’s where some “loud” messaging can work. It can galvanize support and help people feel safe. Sometimes, though, our signaling isn’t meant to help people feel safe, but rather to make ourselves feel better or right. I think some self-confidence is good, but let’s not mistake self-confidence for self-righteousness. Let’s not mistake morality for moral superiority.
So while it is important that we speak in a clear and assertive way, so that no one is confused about our meeting, I think we also need to talk in an inclusive way. Is it possible to make sure everyone knows what you mean, while also framing your language in a way that is not hostile, but invitational? In other words, in a way that doesn’t presume agreement. I think we need to speak clearly, and also with hospitality in mind. This is pretty tricky work and involves a lot of understanding and listening to one another. Some people will definitely interpret efforts at using inclusive language as being complicit in evil, but I think that’s fairly hyperbolic. Most people want to do the right thing, and it’s good to organize to be inclusive, instead of signaling to be self-righteous. If we aren’t careful, we’ll turn our allies and comrades into opponents, our natural opponents into enemies, and evil is left unchallenged. To go back to the House Democrats, if they wasted all of their energy on in-fighting direction, they may have lost more seats and perhaps been less successful at ousting Trump!
So, I think we need to frame our dialogue in a way that’s clear but also inclusive. At the same time, it can lose all of its clarity and fail to include anyone if we fail to come up with a common consensus or try to include people that fundamentally oppose that consensus or in fact want to sow division. The discernment we have in our Map this year is largely focused on antiracism. Our church largely has a consensus about both the need to fight racism and also, we’ve come to an agreement about how to do that, according to our Map. But if we tried to include white nationalists or people who thought racism was a myth, for example, I think our tent would be too large and we would fail to accomplish our goals. Similarly, if we try to speak to people hostile toward Jesus and faith, in general, I think we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot. And so we need to have an idea for how big our tent can be, and not stretch it to the point of tearing. Those this is a legitimate warning, I fear that we think that we will tear up the movement too quickly because we’ve been taught (and the former Presidential Administration taught us to do this—and in fact continue to do so as they sow seeds of doubt into America’s institutions) to treat those who disagree with us as enemies, when they may not be. Even people who are not yet allies can be with the right organization and messaging. I think we need to seek that. This isn’t about debating what is right and wrong (though some of that may be necessary); it’s about speaking in a way that helps someone, who doesn’t quite align with us, come along.
Sometimes this will mean we can’t accomplish the things we want to right away, so it will require patience. The urgency that some of my friends speak about banning fracking or abolishing the police may be good for a protest march, but it’s not great for building a diverse coalition to combat the forces that make even incremental change possible. But more than just social action, we can’t shame people into following Jesus. We can’t shame people into evangelism. There are no forgone conclusions we should make, and even if our core team agrees, we should assume that we need to use convincing language to help initiate others. This is what movement-building and organization is about, and the church itself, is a movement that’s participating in God’s world redemption project. We are recruiting people for this cause, so let’s not learn from the failed Evangelicals, who are known for how they induce guilt and shower the people with judgment. Let’s use love and grace, and truth, to create partners in our cause. Jesus is leading the most radical mutiny in the world, let’s not waste our rebellion on one another. It will require deep imagination and creativity to bring heaven to earth, to live into the New Creation, to be all one in Christ, so let’s not expend our imagination fighting one another. Let’s include, consider, and listen. Don’t lose your passion, but hone in a way that it can multiply and grow into others.