It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood…And a Beautiful Day for a Civic Life Summit

By Josh Ritter

Here is the fundamental problem…most of us have no idea how to get to know our neighbors. The solution is both simple and far-reaching. We must learn to communicate well.

The biggest issue is that most people communicate through assumptions based on overly simplistic labels of identity. “Oh, you’re a Republican.” “Oh, you’re a liberal.” “Oh, you’re a Muslim.” “Oh, you’re a Christian.” Everyone thinks they know what these labels mean even though everyone’s identities are highly complex and vary from person to person. Not everyone who identifies as a Republican is only a Republican, and not everyone who is a Democrat is only a Democrat. We all have multiple identities that intersect and form who we are and who we become. Our identities shape how we interact with each other, and they inform the decisions that we make.

Part of the solution, then, is realizing that we are all complex, complicated people. The other part of the solution is realizing that living in community is messy, complicated, and difficult. We all want everyone to agree with us, but they often don’t. We all want everyone to believe the way that we do, but they often don’t. Should we just settle for agreeing to disagree? Or, is there more to communication and community than living within the compromises?

At work here is the root of communication and community – communion. Yes, communion…in the sense of “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.” Living within community is a sacred journey with our neighbors. Living within community is a sharing and exchanging of thoughts and feelings, even when we disagree, which requires a level of trust that most of us simply do not extend to our neighbors, but it is this trust, this sacred vulnerability, that is precisely the necessary piece of the civic puzzle that we must fill in order to live in community and to neighbor well.

So how do we develop trust among strangers (that are also our neighbors)?

Here is a key insight that took me a long, long time to learn: When we lack the content and foundation of a trusting relationship, then we must rely on a form (or structure) of engagement that we can all trust. Said another way, when a trusting friendship does not exist in order for a difficult conversation among peers and neighbors to occur, then a dependable process of engagement must fill that space of trust. If we can’t find a process that we trust – a way to have a conversation that we trust – and we get stuck in disagreement about a controversial issue, then we will not be able to make well-reasoned decisions together due to mistrust and fear.

Fear is the number one factor that divides us. We are afraid that getting to know someone who believes differently from us will put our own beliefs in question and at risk. We are afraid that differences are a threat to our own identity. We react out of fear. We get angry, which is really just fear. We engage in fight or flight responses to those we fear. We try to distance ourselves from what we fear. The problem is that these moments of fear are precisely the instances that call for trust, risk, understanding, and vulnerability, but we haven’t learned that skill yet…how to disagree without being afraid, angry, fighting, or running. What we need to ask ourselves is what form or process can we use that we trust to help us dialogue and deliberate about difficult choices and hard conversations?

So what are these processes that we can trust?

There are many different processes of engagement to choose from, and they all focus on reasoning together as peers who live within a community. They all involve tested and well-researched ways to have healthy dialogue and deliberation, and they all involve a democratic skill set that we have largely abandoned for sound bites and a culture of polarization. The easiest way for a politician (or anyone) to get someone on their side is to make a complex issue into a simple either/or choice that is both polarizing and false. “You’re either with us or against us. It’s that simple.” Except that it’s not that simple, and over simplifying a complex issue doesn’t get us very far. “If I’m right, then you’re wrong.” That’s simple…but it’s not helpful. It doesn’t tell me why you are choosing one thing over another thing. It doesn’t tell me what the consequences of your decision might mean to me, my neighbor, and your neighbor.

With all that being said, what Baylor’s Public Deliberation Initiative hopes to accomplish at the Civic Life Summit on June 1-2 is a way to introduce all of our neighbors to multiple, different ways of engaging in healthy dialogue and deliberation. We want to bring all different types of people with all different types of beliefs together (yes, even the ones who don’t trust each other) to develop and to learn processes that we can trust to help us make decisions well. We want to help our broken communities heal through healthy conversation that is really a sacred act of communion. We all need a voice, and our work of civic engagement is the work of dialogue, deliberation, learning to trust, ending polarization, and practicing the art of sacred communion, which is also the act of sacred community building.

We must learn to make good decisions together for the common good of our communities if we want to make a difference in this world, and the Civic Life Summit is one crucial step in the right direction to fight injustice and to take right action together. Join with us, and step out of the fear…journey with us onto the challenging path of civic engagement that requires charity, trust, communication, and communion.

Dr. Josh Ritter is Assistant Director and Chaplain in the Department of Formation, Office of Spiritual Life, at Baylor University. He is Co-Leader of Baylor’s Public Deliberation Initiative and supervises all Cross Cultural Engagement programs in the Office of Spiritual Life. He is also Adjunct Faculty in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core where he teaches World of Rhetoric.

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