Caricatures. Those often funny drawings that take someone’s most prominent physical features and/or flaws, and accentuate them to the point of absurdity – though the person is still recognizable.
We create caricatures with words, too, when we stick labels on people to stereotype their supposed traits – physical, moral, social, political. But these are generally not so nice, and the people behind the profiles may become unrecognizable.
The 2016 political season has been awash in caricatures and stereotypes that show no nuance. They’ve often been used to demean “the opposition,” and replace human faces with plastic masks. In this uncivil war of words, what can we do to reverse this trend and heal the damage already done?
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What Can Crack Through Caricatures?
“Interested in religion?” the local newspaper blurb read. “A group of Marin citizens wants to expand its discussions on religion and is forming a new group to explore various paths to faith.” Whoever posted it promised serious and stimulating conversation in a respectful environment.
The moment I read it, I knew I’d be going. After all, why shouldn’t Christians be represented in this spiritual smorgasbord?
I was also intrigued with the idea of daring to dialogue with spiritually-inclined people who might hold stereotypes of conservative Christians – well, not mere stereotypes, but caricatures: taking some of our most noticeable points, and blowing them out of proportion to the point of being negative or even nasty.
Maybe my being there can help break through, if they have false stereotypes, I thought. But it would turn out that some Quakers would accomplish that for me.
Doorway to Dialogue
I contacted the point person, found out more, and committed to being there to check it out.
About 15 people showed up at the initial meeting. The first thing the facilitator did was ask everyone to share a few sentences about who they were, their faith or philosophical background, and why they were interested in this inter-religion dialogue group. That made sense, but I didn’t know that was on the agenda, but at that point I was more intent on listening than in figuring out the perfect response.
The facilitator went first, sharing that he was a Seventh Day Adventist church pastor who’d been in a previous group that had just finished their series of discussions, and he’d liked the people and process in it so much that he was interested in continuing. Then he turned to person next to him: “How about you?”
Unfortunately, I was second in the circle – so I had to decide on the fly what to say! Labeling myself “fundamentalist” or “evangelical” could unnecessarily raised hackles. After all, Marin County, California, is well known for being one of the least evangelical in the entire U.S.! So, sending a quick silent prayer heavenward, I took a leap of faith about my faith. I simply billed myself as “a theologically conservative Christian.” I tried to meet everyone’s gaze as I continued. “To me that means I believe in the Bible as truth, but I wrestle with living it out consistently. I was interested in the group because I want to understand people from other worldviews better.”
Whew! No one balked at that, and it moved right along to person #3 in the circle. Backgrounds of others included Jewish, Buddhist, eclectic metaphysical, some current and former Christians, and a Christian Scientist who’d turned to Eastern mysticism.
Doorways Opening – or Slamming Shut?
Then the facilitator suggested we discuss what authority we relied upon for our beliefs. And, since he had some kind of technical training in apologetics or something, he started it off with some philosophical reasonings about why he relied on the Bible. A few people made comments to interact calmly with the pastor’s thoughts.
But then the meeting turned into a fiasco. One man became obviously agitated at the thought of having to deal with this topic, and potentially other questions of sources for where truth comes from. “Just too much of a detour – too remedial!” he blustered. “I’ve been there and done that in my days of dalliance with Christian ideas. But that’s far below my current consciousness!”
Sadly, this man’s anger took over the group as he lobbed addition barbs, both implicit and explicit. Finally, he screeched, “I’ve had enough!” and he and his equally verbally abusive wife stormed out of their seats and out of the house. So much for the “respectful dialogue” part of the pledge!
As a sidenote, his contemptuous words and hostile tone stuck with me. Bookstores were big in Marin in the 1990s, and I once estimated the number of author presentations and book signings at 12 to 15 per week, and often with 20 to 50 people attending! Anyway, a few years later, at a presentation by June Singer on Jungian psychology theory, that same man made similar acidic comments about “those born-again Christians” being responsible for the current environmental crisis.
Back to the Inter-religion Discussion Group: Most of us survived that man’s outbursts just fine. Actually, he showed us why respectful dialogue is needed, not debates and diatribes.
The group added a few people who weren’t able to be at the first session, and we eventually settled out at six to eight regular attenders, and two or three who participated sporadically. Our band included the Seventh Day Adventist pastor, a Jewish couple who also practiced Buddhism (apparently a common combination around Marin), a secular humanist social scientist, several people from more philosophical than spiritual bents, and me. We agreed to the following ground rules:
- We’ll meet every other week for 10 sessions, then re-evaluate what to do.
- Everyone will suggest at least one topic for discussion.
- Everyone will facilitate at least one topic, and it doesn’t have to be the one they suggest.
- We’ll rotate where we meet, so the group isn’t associated with one person or place.
These were all wise ways of encouraging joint participation, and demonstrating that nobody “owned” the group.
What Can “Dialogue” Do?
And so, our discussion group began. At our next meeting, we talked about proselytizing. The general consensus was that none of us appreciated being probed about very personal spiritual beliefs by people we had no relationship with. (Yes, even I – who then considered myself an evangelical Christian – don’t exactly appreciate door-to-door salespeople for religions. But I will talk about my beliefs with acquaintances whose faith conflicts with mine, if the opportunity arises and/or they ask questions. And I will listen to their views, and ask questions to find out more.)
After that, early topics tended to focus on abstract concepts:
- What is the meaning of life?
- Where and how do you find it?
- Now that we’re here, how do we best live?
When discussions got convolutedly philosophical – at least, when I thought they did – I wondered why I even attended. Philosophy is not my forte. I can certainly process abstract thought, but I am just a lot more concrete about things. I care about lived-out values more than thought-about beliefs, cultures more than concepts, teamwork-in-the-world collaborations more than isolated-individual cogitations.
But still, there were things I needed to learn that could only happen in person, in relationship. Reading a book that presents, say, Buddhist beliefs, is far different from talking with a Buddhist face to face. A book goes more systematically; the Buddhist may jump all over the systematic religious analysis roadmap.
I had to learn to listen carefully as possible, and keep up with the conversation. It was a challenge … but a good one, because a book cannot answer all my questions, or listen for emotional tone, or dig deeper into my nuances. Because of our mutual commitment to really hear one another, these new friends did all of those things. There was mutual trust enough to withhold conclusions and keep asking questions of one another.
I gradually got increasingly comfortable with other group members. That helped, because a sort of turning point came for me about three months into the group, at our last couple of sessions before breaking for the summer. And that’s when knowing something about Quakers made a difference in the dialogue.
Worldview and “World Do”
Our topic was veganism, otherwise known as “ethical vegetarianism.” I was relieved – at last, someone’s concrete life-style, not their abstract belief-styles!
“I got into it for health reasons,” one woman explained. “Then I did a lot of study. Now I’m in it for ethical reasons.” From research, she concluded the food industry mistreated animals. Because she believed in respect for all life, she determined it was therefore unethical to eat any animal-based products – or even to use any related by-products. (So, for instance, no leather in shoes, no commercial beeswax, no otherwise acceptable food products that were processed with animal bones.)
Later on, she called herself a “pragmatic vegetarian” in how she related with other people. As she explained, “I know the standards I hold aren’t everyone else’s, and it takes time to practice them with integrity. So, I try to be pragmatic about it, and encourage people to build as they can. I tell them it’s better to have one vegetarian meal once in a while instead of none, and eating vegetarian one day a week is even better.” Steps like that made reaching ethical vegetarianism much more understandable and attainable.
I appreciated that she presented a radical demonstration of living consistent with her values and beliefs, yet also did not demean those who didn’t hold the same view. She made an important point about culture: “There are places where they’ll kill a sheep or a goat for a special occasion or celebration. I’m not against that if the animal has been treated respectfully in how it was raised and how it’s slaughtered.”
As someone has said, “Ideas have legs.” Our worldview leads to actions, and actions say what our philosophy really is, despite talk that may say otherwise. Her conviction, passion, and consistent actions challenged me. As a Christian, did my practical “world do” match up with what I say is my biblical worldview? Could I match this woman’s integrity of beliefs and behaviors?
Quakers Build a Bridge
Providentially, just that day I’d heard the perfect story to follow-up my friend’s statements on vegetarianism and veganism. So, I decided to share it, to contribute to the conversation.
“You know how people picture Quakers as being kind of dull – eating oatmeal, wearing colorless clothes?” Everyone nodded. “Well, a Quaker friend of mine told me there was a reason for their drab clothing.
“In the 1700s and 1800s, you could almost only get colored cloth if it was dyed by slave labor. And since Quakers were abolitionists, they wore uncolored clothing as a personal statement against slavery.”
Everyone’s eyes got big. “Wow! I love that story!” my vegan friend exclaimed. I was on a roll, so I followed up with an anecdote from studies I’d done in Church history about ethical consistency.
“And then there was this Quaker guy in the 1700s named John Woolman. He gave passionate speeches against slavery and persuaded the Quaker communities to free their slaves. But not only that, he convinced them that if they were going to free their slaves, they should also pay them back wages for the years of service they had given the Quaker families. Isn’t that wild?”
My vegan friend leaned forward and she exclaimed, “Wow – I love that story, too!”
Then I even got to share a bit about friends of mine in a branch of contemporary Quakers who maintain their traditions of personal contemplation and social conscience, and also strongly identify with evangelical Christianity.
Personal Storying to Break Through Stereotypes
What an opportunity to marvel at God’s creativity in bringing unexpected sources of bridge-building into our dialogue! By taking actions that set themselves up to be seen as abolitionist crackpots in a slavery-oriented culture, these conscientious Quaker Christians who lived centuries earlier provided the perfect illustration of logic in ethical consistency that paralleled my vegan friend’s ethical conclusions about animal products and by-products. Perhaps some types of Christianity weren’t so far away as she and other group members may have imagined …
At the time, I felt more was accomplished in those three minutes of stereotype-breaking stories from old-time saints than in the previous three months of abstract discourse. But, in retrospect, I realize that each and every session contributed something important to each group member – whether from a philosophy or a faith perspective. We had committed to journey together for that period of time, to work intentionally in building deeper trust upon an initial foundation of good will, to listen and understand and challenge. Growing friendships reinforced group ownership of the process and its productivity. There was give and take in the best sense possible.
These are the same kinds of things our country needs now, more desperately than we did before, because our 2016 elections have shown us how divided we are from one another. Hopefully, perhaps now we’re more ready to engage in conversations that help replace unreliable caricatures with faces of our real-life neighbors. Cross-cultural dialogue can help us see our interdependence, so we can make a deeper difference for the common good of all.
Will you consider facilitating or participating in such a dialogue series?
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ABOUT THIS ARTICLE. I wrote this piece in 1995 as a sample for consideration to become a particular Christian magazine’s columnist on cultural issues. I didn’t get that role … oh well. I posted a longer version of it in 2008, in response to my friend Matt Stone’s article on “Is Interfaith Interfaith enough?” (And no, that’s not a typo.) He was exploring interfaith dialogue that went beyond the usual, limited forum of Christians and Atheists, and aimed at “pluralistic conversations that welcome MONO-theists, PAN-theists, POLY-theists and A-theists to the one round table.” In reposting this in 2016, I have edited a few things for clarity and also added back in some details about the emotional tone of these events that have stuck with, more than 20 years after I participated in the inter-religion discussion group.
ABOUT THIS SERIES. Our national election was Tuesday, November 8. I spent much of the next day following up on election analysis, messaging friends to be supportive as we processed the results, and thinking about what I could contribute that would be constructive in such a time as this. I decided to post a series of articles on experiences of peacemaking, and what it means to be a person of peace who welcomes others, stands against injustice, and challenges people and systems that cause harm. I do not know how many posts I will have in this series, but already have selected some pieces that I’ve not previously published.