This September I read an article about the cancellation of the annual White House picnic for members of congress and their families. It was a rather matter-of-fact accounting of the non-event. President Obama was simply too over-scheduled, the weather and the congressional recess made the scheduling far too complicated. While this story barely registered for most people, a few took notice wondering whether this was evidence of further erosion of civility in public life.
Our technology and media sources have made it possible to surround ourselves with like minded individuals who rarely challenge our preconceived notions. The moment that the notions are questioned we have the ability to change the channel, to pick a more agreeable news source, and buoy our own perspectives. But nowhere is that phenomenon more evident than in our own U.S legislature throughout the recent government shutdown. Congressmen walk into the chamber ready to speak and unwilling to listen then they go back home and are touted as heroes (at least to the vocal group who is supporting the agenda that they care about.)
Stalemates like this don’t get resolved by sticking our heads in the sand and declaring ourselves kings of our own little universe. To get to the point of stalemate means that we probably haven’t been tending to a vital aspect of our lives together. And that is namely that we recognize that we have a shared life together. We are interconnected regardless of whether we actually like each other or not.
Feeding and fueling this disconnectedness actually erodes the voice of moderation. By giving stage to those who speak loudest and longest we don’t actually win anything. Its just proven that you can speak loud and long. It drowns out the voice of moderation and the voice where most of us live.
In a previous post I wrote about the Pugwash Conference here:
What struck me was the ability that this conference has to create professional friendships. These scientists from these major superpowers all over the world gather together for a very specific task. Their goal is to rid the world of the threat of weapons of mass destruction. These conferences had a huge impact on the ending of the Cold War. These professional friendships influenced the diplomacy that brought the stalemate to an end. It has often been noted that it is the time between meetings and presentations at this conference that are the most important. It allows for individuals to get to know each other. They get to see life from the other’s perspective. This is a huge change of perspective to be sitting across from someone you know and respect rather than sitting across from a mere enemy.
If this informal time of sharing of each other’s lives can have an impact on the ending of the Cold War I’m guessing that it could help with our blockage on Capital Hill. But it can also help us in closer to home and in our homes as well. I guess what I am saying is that in whatever arena in your life that you are in charge of the “Congressional White House Picnic” don’t cancel it. In fact, schedule another one. Make a point to talk to the people that you don’t really want to talk to. But more importantly, listen. You will never know what you have in common with someone unless you take the time to find out. You just may end up respecting them in the end or at least understanding them a little more.
I have been surprised in the last few years of church leadership how this mode of operation has made a huge difference. Council and board members who have lived and worshiped next to each other for years never really knew each other. When we took the time to share the story of our lives things started to change. We understood each others challenges, joys, and priorities and tending to the life that we share together as congregations became more purposeful. We were no longer looking at numbers on a spreadsheet but we were looking at ministry that walked alongside each one of us at different points in our lives. While we have disagreed on exactly what should be on that spreadsheet we have a firm understanding of what each other’s motives are for making that argument.
I know that this isn’t the silver bullet that people are looking for in the congressional debate or in our own little polarizations. Making friends with your enemy seems like something your grandma would tell you if you had a tiff with the neighbor kid. But you know what? My grandma was a pretty smart lady.