Two things happened today that have me asking the question: how do we foster up healthy conversation about issues on which we differ greatly?
The first thing was a fairly frivolous issue. I’m at the PANAAWTM conference right now (Pacific and Asian North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry) and a fun and spry woman from Arizona brought some political/religious tee shirts. One tee shirt delighted me so much I posted a picture of it on facebook: “Patriarchy means never having to say you’re sorry!” A person from a local church in my region whom I like very much was really offended by the shirt, feeling that I was attacking all men. Most of you reading this post know that I’m actually quite fond of men and consider them (most of them) allies in the struggle to end oppression. But because our society doesn’t foster up clear distinctions about how to define terms, my valued colleague didn’t see the quote criticizing a system that robs both men and women of the fullness of their humanity; he saw me criticizing men. That may be because of a negative experience he’s had where he’s been unfairly attacked for not respecting women, or it may be that he is a big fan of Rush Limbaugh and really believes that feminists are trying to rob men of power that is rightfully theirs. Either way, he clearly experienced me as antagonistic rather than playful, and I may not be able to have a meaningful conversation with him now on that complex issue. But that’s largely about the dangers of facebook and its inability to foster complex conversation.
The other issue troubles me more. When the PANAAWTM conference came up, I was discouraged by some people in leadership within my denomination from inviting women from our first generation Asian American churches to attend, because those churches are historically fairly conservative politically and theologically, while PANAAWTM has served over the years as a haven for cutting edge progressive Asian American women studying religion, whether they are first generation or fifth. I argued back about why it might be lifegiving and that I would only invite women I thought were feminist in some fashion, but then I did nothing to follow up.
My mentor and friend JoAnne, did, however. And she invited wonderful, amazing women. But she invited exactly the type of women I had been discouraged from inviting: women from a church that had almost left the denomination because our denomination allowed churches to be inclusive of gay/lesbian leadership if those individual churches so chose.
I experience PANAAWTM to be a warm group of women who try to find commonalities with each other–during every break, someone chats with me about something we share in common, and I see them doing the same with others.
However, the panels are generally politically liberal, and they are sometimes a bit cerebral, and they are likely to include a reference to GLBT inclusion or questioning of atonement theology or supportive of a brown-skinned Mary, mother of Jesus.
At dinner tonight, a faculty member sat with the generous and kind and beautiful women JoAnne had invited. And after dinner she told JoAnne it sounded like they wanted to go home tonight because this was not the conference they thought it would be. It was not a church women’s conference, and it was very, very liberal.
JoAnne told them that she and I are on tomorrow’s panel as a way of subtly ordering them to stay, and my hope is that they’ll resonate in some way with the conversation we have tomorrow.
But if they don’t, and if this is the reason they don’t want to stay in conversation (or worse yet, my unity-loving denominational leader’s grave concern might be realized, that they decide this is the wrong denomination), I come back to the question: how do we talk across the divide? I’m in a denomination that says unity is its polar star, and the way we usually live that out is to celebrate our diversity but not talk with each other about where diversity means difference. TO me, that doesn’t feel like really being family. And it also means the only time we talk about differences is when they’re about to split us apart. (For example, churches are leaving our denomination because we won’t be explicitly anti-gay, while many of my GLBT friends feel abandoned by a denomination that won’t be explicitly pro-gay.) By avoiding the hard conversations, I’m not sure we buy ourselves much more than a little time. But clearly inviting wonderful women into a community of other wonderful women where they are exposed in non-dialogical ways to new and nontraditional ways of understanding Christ and the church is NOT the way to foster that conversation.
And so I find myself in a difference-averse denomination (or at least one that suffers from difference-discussion aversion), and I find myself worn out by the fights we have by waiting too long to discuss our differences. But I know no one shows up to the “let’s discuss our differences” theme parties. So I wonder how to create space for dialogue among people who collectively don’t want to discuss how they disagree and would simply rather walk away when they disagree too much.