Risky Dialogue - by Jennifer Herdt

Jennifer A. Herdt

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven …”(Matthew 5:43-45).

“Attribution biases,” social psychologists call them. These are, unhappily, rather common forms of the political distortions that plague us – common forms of systematic cognitive bias.

One is called “self-serving attribution bias,” the tendency to attribute our successes to ourselves, and our failures to others and to situational factors.1

Its collective form, “group-serving bias,” is the inclination to credit internal factors for the successes of our in-group and external factors for the failures of our in-group, while reversing the pattern of attribution where out-groups are concerned.2 When my team wins, it is because we deserve to win; when our rivals win, it is because the referee favored them or because we had so many injured players.

Then there is “group attribution error,” whereby the in-group makes broad generalizations about out-groups based on very few observations, even as no such generalizations are made where the ingroup is concerned.3 Group attribution error seems to play a large role in patterns of prejudice and discrimination, as for instance when recent immigrant groups are viewed as dirty or violent. This should be discomfiting. It should pull us up short, lead us to question the confidence with which we issue judgments of ourselves and others.

Puzzling Over Hard Sayings

It is not for nothing that “love your enemies” has been termed a “hard saying.” I recall puzzling over it as a child: “An enemy is someone you hate,” I reasoned. “So if we are supposed to love our enemies, then we aren’t supposed to have any enemies.” But surely this was wrong: Enemies exist no matter how deeply I might think we shouldn’t have them. An enemy is someone who is actively opposed or hostile to what I hold dear, and sometimes we are called to stand up for what we love. And yet we are also to love our enemy. So what does it mean to love our enemies, even as we name them as enemies and stand up for what our enemies despise and attack? And how might awareness of attribution biases transform this task?

Yankees vs. Red Sox

My in-groups are simply those social groups with which I identify. What counts as an in-group is as variable and malleable as personal identity. One person’s in-groups might be Yankee fans, Irish Catholics, and environmentalists. Another’s might be women, academics, and Starbucks aficionados. Chances are, the groups I identify as enemies I will also regard as out-groups. This means that my assessments of my enemies are likely to be systematically deformed by attribution errors.

Naming and repenting these biases must become, I venture, part of the discipline of loving our enemies. The challenge of loving those who are hostile to what we hold dear is the challenge of seeing them not simply as out-groups but always also as a part of a potentially larger in-group with which we identify.

This is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant, I think, in urging us always to keep in view the end of building the Beloved Community. “It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends,” said King, following the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. “It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”4

We are called into the fellowship of the divine life, called to be – together with our enemies – friends of God. And this means that our opponents should be addressed as potential allies and eventually even friends: Our engagements with them should not simply be for the purposes of scoring points, of seeing to it that we win and they lose, but toward the end, however unfathomably distant, of friendship.5

What is This Prayer?

This goal, this hope, ought to discipline the means we employ in its pursuit. Above all, we are to pray for our enemies. What is this prayer? It is an opening up of ourselves to see our enemies as God sees them, to love them as God’s beloved children, rebellious and imperfect as we ourselves. It is to open ourselves up to grasping what our enemies most love and what they most fear, to grasping our common humanity, our shared finitude and fallibility and tainted goodness, our shared attribution biases.

There are times, to be sure, when dialogue is not an option, and we must fight, or run, or loudly lament. Even then, we must pray for our enemies, and we must act with a view to opening lines of dialogue, however remote this may seem in that moment. Our target is injustice and enmity, not our enemy.

Dialogue with enemies can of course be risky, which is one reason we shy away from it. It can seem pointless to listen to those who themselves are unwilling to listen, who only seek to control and overwhelm us – particularly when power lies in their hands. It can feel, indeed, like giving away the only remaining power I have – that of shutting my ears to their lies, of refusing to engage.

Making Allies

But displaying a commitment to dialogue is powerful, not weak. Even when it does not transform enemies into friends, it attracts allies, who perceive your commitment to treating others as worthy of respect, who see your willingness to take risks and make sacrifices for the sake of something higher than self-interest and lust for power, and who therefore trust you as a person of integrity, as someone who stands for her commitments.6

Precisely because any such effort oriented to building trust and community is powerful, it sometimes becomes a target of the powerful. They rightly see it as a threat to their continued amassing of power. So they deliberately sow lies, or denounce and belittle those who speak the truth.

How, in beleaguered conditions, do we continue loving our enemies? How do we go on working to expand the Beloved Community, to build networks of trust? We take the risk – the risk of exposing our own attribution errors, of being as ready to confess distortion in our own judgments as to diagnose theirs. And we continue to display ourselves as trustworthy friends, who by refusing to abandon the weak show themselves to be strong. For we remind ourselves that we follow Christ crucified, the foolishness and weakness revealed as God’s own wisdom and strength (1 Cor. 1:23-25).

Jennifer A. Herdt is Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics and Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Yale Divinity School. Her research interests include early-modern and modern moral thought, classical and contemporary virtue ethics, and contemporary Protestant social ethics and political theology. She is the author of Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Her new book, Forming Humanity, will be published next year by Chicago.


1 E. Pronin, D.Y. Lin, and L. Ross, “The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28.3 (2002), pp. 369-381.

2 D. M. Taylor and J.R. Doria, “Self-Serving and Group- Serving Bias in Attribution,” The Journal of Social Psychology 113.2 (1981), pp. 201-211.

3 S. T. Allison and D. M. Messick, “The Group Attribution Error,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 21.6 (1985), pp. 563-579. 

4 Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches (HarperOne, 2003), p. 140.

5 Jeffrey Stout, “Dialogical Democracy: King, Michnik, and the American Culture Wars,” forthcoming in a volume edited by Piotr H. Kosicki and Kyrill Kunakhovich, and published by Central European University Press.

6 Danielle Allen has analyzed the ways in which risk and sacrifice can build trust in Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 154-155.