When I was in seminary, one of the theologians we studied was the very orthodox Calvinist Karl Barth. Not being either very orthodox or Calvinist, I didn’t particularly like Karl Barth. One day in a small group discussion, our teaching assistant asked me what I could say about Barth that was positive. I thought for a moment, and finally I said, “He’s holding up the other end of my rope.”
As a female child metaphor, that rope might be a jump rope. As a male child metaphor, it’s a tug of war rope. Either way, there is a necessary tension in the rope in order to make the game work. Without someone who perceives the world differently than I do, I would not be forced to reconsider my position, to validate, substantiate, or revise after giving thoughtful attention to the other person, the one at the other end of the rope. I did my best with the two most tension filled ropes in seminary, Karl Barth and Augustine. I didn’t come around to their viewpoint but I did follow the maxim of my late friend and provost, David Maxwell, “There’s a difference between I hear, I understand, and I agree.’ That has become my mantra. First to hear. Then to try to understand, to figure out what this person is seeing or experiencing that I am not. And only then can I say, I agree, or I disagree. And also lay down the rope in a shared search for common ground.
That dialog from opposite ends of the rope has become a lost art in contemporary America, despite the best efforts of the surviving (but endangered) moderates in both politics and religion. I am blessed with multiple communities—family, friends, church, and others—where I tend to encounter people who share my moderate/progressive worldview. But we don’t learn and grow in an echo chamber. Where and how do I encounter the people holding up the other end of my rope? And how can we engage in civil dialogue?
Last year, I talked to friends and acquaintances who are involved in a group called Better Angels. and attended two of their workshops. The name draws on the phrase popularized at the death of Abraham Lincoln, who was a martyr to the cause of finding common ground. They bring reds and blues together to help them find common ground in shared values that they express differently. They examine stereotypes and search for the exaggeration or half-truths and the kernel of truth that may lie within the stereotypes such as Democrats are socialists who will take away our freedom, Republicans are heartless and greedy capitalists. It’s hard to get people who are on the extreme in both parties to participate. The groups they can assemble generally are moderate Republicans and Democrats who are anxious to explore ways to talk across boundaries, whether with family or friends or neighbors or co-workers.
That same year, I spent some time in Navajo nation. On the flight back, not long before the midterm elections, I sat next to a very nice man, a fellow South Carolinian. Somehow our conversation turned to politics, and he was a Trump supporter, I was not. But it didn’t seem to bother either of us as we talked about what we thought was good and bad about his presidency. Then I turned the conversation to Navajo nation and how they tended to cluster in family compounds. His face brightened, and he told me how his family had a similar situation with land in the Upstate that had been in the family for generations, with several homes built on it. I told him about the family farms of my aunt, my grandfather, my uncle and my great-grandparents in the hills all within a couple of miles of each other on the hills surrounding my home town of Torrington Connecticut. Attachment to the land and to the family was common ground for me, the Trump supporter, and the Navajo nation. Our common ground was literally ground, the spot on earth we call home and the people it connects us with.
The late Rushworth Kidder wrote a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices, in which he came up with a novel word, the tri-lemma. A di-lemma means that we have two choices and neither is satisfactory. They embody competing values, justice or mercy, truth or loyalty, individual or community. Is there a middle ground? We can’t find it by just tugging a rope until one side pulls the other over to their side. But the girl game of jump rope is very different from boys’ tug-of-war rope. It takes the cooperation of those holding both ends of the jump rope to provide an opportunity for someone in the middle to experience the game.
I still like my end of the rope, but I am always in search of common ground with the person on the other end of the rope. For Barth and Augustine, that other end of the rope is the reality of sin and evil that challenges my perhaps too sunny worldview, too much faith in the perfectibility of humanity and the good intentions of others. Barth and I, Augustine and I need each other as complements, not as people shouting disagreement over a wall or tugging a rope in hopes of forcing the other person to come over to our side.