On Reconciliation and Unity

After the recent election, dozens of people asked me how they could help reconcile the country, to heal divisions. They seemed overwhelmed by the task. You can help, of course, but you can’t do it by yourself, whether you’re in public office or not. And God doesn’t expect you to do so. As a wise Jesuit I know likes to say, “There is Good News and there is Better News. The Good News is: There is a Messiah. The Better News is: It’s not you.” You can’t do it all, because you’re not God. So just do your best.

Fr. James Martin, author of the best-selling books My Life with the Saints, and Jesus: A Pilgrimage, has some interesting thoughts worth sharing.

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Our country is divided most painfully. And the more we are divided, the less room there is for true progress and the more room there is for hatred and violence. Thus, even if some are angry, we must seek to lessen the divisions. What can be done to increase unity?

  1. Reconcile by giving people the benefit of the doubt. At the beginning of his classic text, The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit order, offers important advice: “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it.” In Jesuit circles, we call this giving someone the “plus sign.” In common parlance, it means giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

    In other words, as we seek to draw the country together it should be “presupposed,” hard as it may be, that both Trump supporters and Clinton supporters were seeking the good of the country. Giving someone the “plus sign” is a prerequisite for listening. Because how can you possibly listen to someone if you think they have bad intentions? It’s hard, but necessary.

    It’s also important because we tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. Remember that the other person probably believes themselves to have good intentions, like you. Besides, trying to reconcile is impossible if you think the other person is up to no good. Try to give them, as far as possible, the plus sign.
  2. Reconcile by listening. Many Americans seem increasingly incapable of listening. Perhaps it’s because we are more informed of news through “narrowcasting” – TV stations catering to our own interests and social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, where we follow only those who agree with us and only people who share our opinions. Consequently, we tend to think we already know what to think. So why listen? Sometimes when you’re speaking to a person you feel that all they’re doing is waiting for you to stop talking, so that they can speak. This causes further division, as fewer and fewer people can even understand one another.

    To reconcile, try listening. I mean really listening. If you want a surefire tip on how to do so, try what we used to call in spiritual counseling, “reflective listening.” See if you can summarize or “reflect back” what a person has just said. It will force you to listen. For example, “It sounds like you’re worried about what immigration will do to this country, is that right?” Or “It sounds like you feel the poor are being neglected by the government. Am I getting you?” You’ll be surprised how much this not only helps the other person feel heard but increases your capacity to listen, and to understand.
  3. Reconcile by avoiding name calling, ad hominem arguments, and hate speech. This campaign season was filled with name calling at every level. Ad hominem arguments – that is, “against the person,” rather than about a particular topic – were rampant. “Nasty woman” was the least of these comments. Yet a little known, and less observed, saying of Jesus puts this kind of speech in focus.

    “If you call your brother raca [idiot],” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “you will be liable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says ‘fool’ will be liable to the fires of Gehenna” (5:22).

    New Testament scholars say that when the Gospels preserve Aramaic words, like raca, we can be almost 100 percent sure they came directly from the lips of Jesus and were not added in the later editing of the Gospels. The words themselves made such an impression on the original hearers that they remembered the precise Aramaic phrase and passed it along in oral retellings.

    In other words, the preservation of this Aramaic word for “idiot” means that it is one of the most historically authentic of Jesus’s sayings. Yet it may also be the most overlooked. Quite literally, Jesus says that if you call someone a bad name, you’ll be liable to either the Jewish council or, worse, the “fires of Gehenna.” Gehenna, the site outside Jerusalem’s city walls, where garbage burned incessantly, was the image Jesus often used for hell.

    So if you call someone a name, or engage in hate speech, you’re not only coarsening our discourse, you’re not only being uncharitable, you’re also going to hell. Says Jesus. Remember this if you’re a Trump supporter and you’re tempted to call a Clinton supporter a “baby killer.” Remember this if you’re a Clinton supporter and tempted to call someone a Trump supporter a “fascist.” Name calling does nothing to advance reconciliation, whether in person, or in social media. It simply perpetuates, and usually intensifies, hate.
  4. Reconcile by forgiving. The Gospel reading the day before the election (Lk 17:1-6) recounted Jesus’s saying that if someone offends you seven times in one day, you should forgive him or her. Yes, it’s difficult, probably the most difficult of all Christian teachings. And it runs against the grain of revenge, bitterness, and score-settling that seems to dominate American culture and our political world. Particularly unsettling were cries from Democrats and Republicans during the election about how they could never, and would never, work with “that man” or “that woman.”
  5. Forgiveness is more essential than ever. And it’s a double gift. It is a gift to the one forgiven, because it enables healing to take place between them and yourself. And it is a gift to you, because it frees you from the burden of resentment that can sour a soul, and a country. Forgiveness must be a part of our reconciliation.
  6. Reconcile by praying. You have to pray. Why? First, to ask for God’s help. Most of what I’ve just suggested requires grace. God needs to help you to give someone the benefit of the doubt, to listen, to avoid name calling and forgive. It’s hard. Prayer is a reminder that we are reliant on God. We need help.

So we need to pray – for grace, wisdom and courage. Reconciliation and unity are hard work. And while you’re at it, pray for those Americans you used to consider your enemies, but who are really your brothers and sisters.