A Revolution in Reconciliation - by John Wood Jr.

John Wood Jr.

The 1960s were years of acute moral struggle, challenging the conscience of a nation that professed to be founded on liberty and churches that claimed to be rooted in righteousness.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. famously wrote from the city jail of Birmingham: “‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’… Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. … We must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”1

Fifty-four years later a subtler drama plays out in a century-old farmhouse in Brentwood, Ohio, in a civic center in Eagan, MN, and in an office building in San Diego where I happened to be in attendance.

Tension in the Room

There, seven reds (conservatives) and five blues (liberals) gather under the calm supervision of a foremost family therapist, Bill Doherty. A gadfly of nonviolence in his own right, the bespectacled and congenial professor walks the two sides through a gently controlled process of expression, observation, and conversation. Participants on both sides are invited to express the ways they feel misunderstood by their political opposites. Each side observes attentively as members of the other side are asked to converse among themselves about how they would criticize their own party. Only after completing these and other exercises are both red and blue brought together for an earnest and sincere dialogue.

There is tension in the room. Strong emotions simmer in the breast of each committed partisan. Yet the stage has already been set for reconciliation.

My own existence implies the success of the Rev. King’s conciliatory work. I was born in the mid-80s into a biracial household to parents of starkly different socio-economic backgrounds. And I suspect that without America’s change of heart owing to King’s legacy, the prospect of my parents’ union would not have been favorable. Now as an adult I have seen the divisiveness of politics once again threaten our society. That has led me to the work of Better Angels.

The Better Angels workshop described above goes to the heart of its mission. Founded in 2016 as a bipartisan organization, Better Angels is spearheading a new framework for political depolarization in a growing number of cities and states. Better Angels and other groups are pursuing their own brands of direct action in hopes of helping Republicans and Democrats reach for, as King tells us, “the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

The current moment is perilous. As Better Angels declares: “The United States is disuniting. … This degree of civic rancor threatens our democracy.”

Better Angels’ goal, through its signature Red/ Blue Workshops and other initiatives, is to bring liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, form red/blue community alliances, train participants to be workshop moderators themselves, teach practical skills for communicating across political divides, pledge to use social media in positive political ways, and make a strong public argument for depolarization.

A Civil Rebellion

It is a different era from King’s. The mission to improve Democrat-Republican relations in the second decade of the 21st century is different from the struggle against segregationist racism in the 20th. Yet both are comprehensible as civil rebellions against the decline of brotherhood/sisterhood. Both defy the pull of hatred in our society. King’s was a revolution of reconciliation in American culture. This is what groups like Better Angels are striving for now.

Such projects are in truth Christian work. The gospel spirit creates space for mutual understanding by bringing us into intimate contact with our moral opponents and transforming the moment with acts of concern for the partisan opposition. It is easy to judge a political opponent from afar, or to maintain emotional distance from a neighbor or coworker or loved one by ignoring or discrediting their viewpoints, shouting them down in argument, or demonizing them on account of party affiliation. This has become a pattern, not just on cable news, but at offices and holiday tables, in congregations and classrooms, across America for far too long.

We habitually describe such fraught encounters as awkward and uneasy. Yet many of us have become accustomed to them, even comfortable with them. In our political culture we now treat such willful miscommunication as normal. This should be unacceptable to all of us. We should invite and not fear the constructive tension that comes with loving our enemy, praying for those who hate you and reserving judgment long enough to remove the plank from our own eyes in order to see clearly the speck in another’s.

There are ways small and large to carry this effort forward. But the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., of Jesus of Nazareth, and makers of peace across the expanse of time shows us that this is possible now. In an age of radicals and reactionaries, true revolution lies in reconciliation. Let us take direct action to see it done.

John Wood Jr., of Los Angeles, is a media spokesman for Better Angels. He was a Republican candidate in California’s 43rd congressional district election in 2014. He is completing a book called Transcending Politics: Perspectives for a Divided Nation.

Note 1 Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches (HarperOne, 2003), p. 291.

Getting Started

Better Angels is a citizens’ movement devoted to reducing political polarization. Its website offers advice for having a productive conversation across ideological lines. Here are excerpts:

Core Principles

  • Respect, curiosity, and openness tend to elicit the same from the other person.
  • Everyone needs to save face – no one should be portrayed as stupid, blind, narrowly self-serving, or bigoted.
  • Most people have some common values that conversation can unearth.

Expectations to Abandon

  • That you can persuade the other person to change core attitudes and beliefs.
  • That facts will be agreed on and logic followed consistently.
  • That your conversation partner will match your openness.

Tone-Setting Skills

  • Letting the other person know that you want to understand other perspectives better. Asking permission to pose questions.
  • Acknowledging your general political stance – liberal, conservative, etc.
  • Offering something critical of your own side and crediting something positive about the other side. (Blue example: “I think that Democrats have been out of touch with a lot of people in rural communities and Rust Belt towns. Trump picked up on that.” Red example: “I think that conservatives can sometimes come across like they don’t care about minorities. Liberals have done a better job of connecting with minority groups.”)

Listening Skills

  • Paraphrasing what the other says – to make sure that you understand and the other person feels heard.
  • Asking real questions of understanding (versus loaded questions).
  • Listening for underlying values and aspirations, and acknowledging them.

Skills for Difficult Moments

  • Staying focused on a topic when the other person jumps around from issue to issue.
  • Not returning provocative statements in kind.
  • Not answering baiting questions – instead, just restating your viewpoint on the topic.
  • Instead of beating entrenched differences into the ground, agreeing to disagree.
  • If the other person is upset and no longer listening, exiting the conversation in a low-key way.

Source: better-angels.org. See the feature called “Talking Across the Political Divide.”