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John Buttrick: In these divided times, we should invite discussion



For the Monitor
Saturday, September 15, 2018

The only advice I was given before my first Thanksgiving meal on the family farm with three generations of my future wife’s family was, “Do not introduce into the conversation anything concerning religion or politics.” It was an unspoken understanding that the family and I were on the opposite ends of the spectrum from conservative to liberal approaches to life. The most important value was to keep the peace.

This advice persists in 2018 as we experience increasing polarization in our country. There is so much risk that disagreements will turn ugly with the hatefulness of bullies, racists and the self-righteous powerful. There is a movement to keep the peace at all cost by inhibiting the free exchange of ideas in exchange for spurious harmony. However, silence contributes to suspicion and distrust. It distorts truthfulness among those who would aspire to more meaningful relationships. It leads to imagining the worst in the motivations of other people.

Recently I have experienced two situations of obstructing the free exchange of ideas in exchange for tenuous peace and harmony.

One of the establishments on Main Street in downtown Concord refused to display a poster advertising an event at the Capitol Center for the Arts: “We have a policy of no posters for religious events.” The event is “Keeping the Faith: Sisters of the Story,” by Rohina Malik, to be held Sunday at 2 p.m. It is a dramatic presentation by three women: a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian sharing their journeys of faith. This presentation is being sponsored by 21 New Hampshire organizations and businesses, including Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities. The goal is to bring people together around our commonalities and decide who we are going to be as a community and as a nation. Art is a venue that can present controversial subjects in a safe environment and encourage open discussion and enhance understanding. However, explaining this did not ease the caution of the manager of the establishment. She would not agree to put up the poster among others they had on display.

The second situation involves a sign we displayed on the front yard of our home. It reads in Spanish, English and Arabic: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” The sign stayed up for three days before we received a phone call from the administrator of our housing community. She said we could not display the sign because there was a policy banning political lawn signs. In further conversation she explained that keeping good relationships among the people living in the community was a primary consideration: “There might be someone here that would disapprove of the sign.” I could not convince her that the goal of creating a sense of community is defeated when the free and open expression of ideas and commitments are restricted. Silence only contributes to remaining strangers and relating in superficial ways, whereas encouraging respectful dialogue is a platform for a healthy and intellectually stimulating environment.

However, there is an incongruity exposed in this silent compact to stifle exchanges of opinion, information and intellectual debate. The rules change when we move from interaction among neighbors and people at the farmers market to the general, impersonal wider population. We absorb news reports from different perspectives, political views, debates on the forum pages of newspapers and opinions on radio talk shows. We listen to our political leaders argue among themselves and, at their convenience, take sides with particular segments of the American public. Many people feed on opinions, information and misinformation found on email, Facebook and Twitter. Many give credence to bullying, labeling, bad language or insensitivity as signs of brutal honesty.

It may be this prevalence of insensitivity and brutality in the wider world that drives us to consider an uneasy silence for the sake of shallow harmony and diminished peace in our local communities. However, there are alternatives at large among us.

Years ago I learned a lesson from a man with whom I debated through letters to the editor about the Vietnam War. He was a member of the church I was serving as the ordained minister. He thought I was supporting communism. I though he was insensitive to the horrors of war. I felt we were completely polarized – until the day he was in crisis and called on me as his pastor. He taught me that risking disagreement is the foundation for trust and caring at important times in our lives.

Finally, following the recent phone call asking for the removal of our yard sign, I was sure that the residents of our housing community included many people who would disapprove of my neighbor-friendly sign facing across the street. However, at the weekly social gathering around a picnic table, the more than a dozen residents expressed enthusiastic support. Also, at the next gathering I attended, one of the residents introduced us to a game that invited political commentary enhanced with humor. It seems friendships and trust can be built upon civil free expression of dearly held opinions and beliefs.

Therefore, there is no need to be pressured into silence. One way to try out freedom of expression is to attend “Keeping the Faith: Sisters of the Story” at the Capitol Center for the Arts on Sunday. Another way is to put up your political yard signs and invite discussion leading up to the November elections. Our community and our country will benefit from our open involvement and trust in our neighbors.

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord.)