A Methodist minister from a severely traumatized country warned here last week that America, too, is traumatized.
The Rev. Gary Mason of Belfast, Northern Ireland, said during the Wheatley Lectures at Rocky Mountain College that those who want to restore civility to public life may have to begin not with their opponents but with people of their own tribe.
Mason delivered one of three lectures in the series, which honors the memory of Melvin E. Wheatley Jr., who as bishop of the Denver Episcopacy Area from 1972 to 1984 took strong stands for gay rights. The lectures were on the theme “Creating Community in Fracturing Times: Returning Civility to Civil Dialogue.”
All three lecturers had solid grounding in the issue. The Rev. Karen Oliveto, bishop of 400 United Methodist Church congregations in five Western states, including Montana, is the first openly lesbian Methodist bishop.
“When I enter a church, I don’t know how I’ll be received,” she said during a panel discussion.
The third lecturer was Rabbi Uri Barnea, who was the conductor of the Billings Symphony Orchestra when a beer bottle was tossed through his doorway in 1993. The incident was one of the events that sparked the Not in Our Town movement, which gained Billings national recognition.
“No democracy can survive without the will of its members to sacrifice,” he said.
Mason was the minister of a Belfast church where two Northern Ireland paramilitary groups announced in 2009 that they were laying down their weapons. The announcements helped cool what Mason called an 800-year conflict in the region resulting from a toxic mix of a nationalistic religion and a nationalistic identity.
The conflict flared from 1969 to 1998, costing 4,000 lives. As a percentage of the population, that would have been equivalent to 800,000 deaths in the United States, more than were killed in the Civil War. In addition, Northern Ireland during that period had the U.S. equivalent of 6.4 million political prisoners, Mason said.
America has had its share of trauma, too, Mason said in a panel discussion, including its unresolved racial conflicts over America’s historical treatment of blacks and Indians.
“How do we move from being prisoners of history to being prisoners of hope?” he asked.
One way, he said, is to face differences squarely rather than trying to paper over them.
“Reconciliation presupposes confrontation,” he said. That includes confrontation with those who at least ostensibly share one’s own beliefs.
For example, the evils of Nazi Germany had their roots in centuries of contempt of Christians toward Jews, he said, including formation of the first ghettos.
“The Germans didn’t discard the past,” he said. “They built upon it.”
Most church members, he said, don’t have guns in their hands, but they may have guns in their hearts.
“It was words, not machines, that created Auschwitz,” he said.
Oliveto, whose lecture opened the two-day series, laid out the case for the decline in civil discourse. She said America has seen in recent years an increase in provincialism, a tightening of borders and boundaries and a sharp increase in bullying both online and in schools. Fifty-two percent of teenagers agree that a little violent behavior is OK to release tension, she said.
Increasingly, we see chasms instead of community in America, she said.
“There is an empathy deficit in our nation,” she said. That includes the criminalization of homelessness and a state of race relations in which whites pretend they live in a post-racial society and black men are caught in a “cradle to prison pipeline.”
“We’re living in a world where love is in short supply,” she said.
She repeated the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who said that poverty is the worst form of violence, and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who said that the most segregated hour in America is in church on Sunday morning. She updated King’s remark to say that the most segregated time in America may now be the lunch hour.
“We eat with people we love,” she said. “This is how community starts.” While she hoped we might all learn to stay at the table together, she warned against quick solutions. The older one gets, she said, the grayer the gray areas become.
“Spirituality encourages hard questions, not easy answers,” she said.
She lamented that evangelical churches in the United States have been co-opted by the presidency of Donald Trump, who got about 80 percent of the evangelical vote in the 2016 election despite a history of public insults, private misbehavior and contempt for other races and cultures. Evangelical Christians now support policies that demean us, she said.
In his lecture, Barnea emphasized ways to create community with those who may disagree with us. First, one must acknowledge the humanity of one’s opponents by staying calm and listening. Second, encourage dialogue rather than trying to shut up the other; and third, remain civil and respectful.
He ended his lecture by quoting a first-century rabbi who said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself. All the rest is commentary.”
One problem with events like the lecture series, Barnea said in a panel discussion, is that speakers talk mostly to the choir – to people who already are committed to civil discourse. He urged about 75 listeners to take an active role in overcoming the “precarious times” in which we live.
“America must not become a nation of onlookers,” he said.
Mason said that the peace process in Northern Ireland was spurred not by politicians but by political prisoners who wanted to make something useful of their lives. He related a story of three boys who grew up together in Belfast in the 1960s. One died of a bullet wound to the back; one spent 18 years in prison; the third became a Methodist minister – Mason himself.
He attributed his survival less to advanced spiritual development than to the “theology of luck.” The 30,000 people who went to prison during the unrest were victims of bad religion and bad politics, he said, estimating that 85 percent of them never would have gone to prison if they had grown up in another city.
Peace eventually came because of Christians who realized that “faith without risk is not faith at all” and were willing to step into the public arena.
“That’s where people of faith need to be – spilling into the messy public space,” he said.
Now the key is to permanently get past the divisions that led to the conflict in the first place, Mason said. He cited an Irish historian who said, “I think we should build a monument to amnesia in Ireland and then forget where we put it.”
He suggested a similar response to the current American debate over what to do with monuments to Confederate soldiers who waged war against the United States. His advice was to do nothing at all for two years, until there has been time for a serious and substantive debate. Otherwise, he said, the discussion will simply get lost in the “verbal hand grenades” of cable news.
All three lecturers saw a role for religion in restoring civil discourse in America.
“It is a Christian country whether you admit it or not,” Barnea said. He added, “Religion is part of our lives, and we have to deal with it.”
But Oliveto said that in the Western states many people do not have trust in religion.
“We have to earn it by showing up in places of conflict,” she said.
Mason said people have hated in the name of the God of love, citing a line from Jonathan Swift, who said we have enough religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love another.
He added a quotation from C.S. Lewis: “When Christianity doesn’t make man very much better, it makes man very much worse.”