A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from my cousin Daniel. He was on my campus attending a lecture, and thinking I might be nearby, he called to see if I might be free for coffee. When I moved past the stunned shock of hearing Daniel’s voice on the other end of the line, I told him that I couldn’t meet him for coffee that evening, but if he was going to be around the next day, I could meet him for lunch. After hanging up, I anxiously reconsidered the looming lunch plans.
I honestly don’t remember when I last saw Daniel in person, but I know that it was several years ago. I have heard updates through family members, so I know he’s married with two kids and a third on the way. We both think and write and work with religion, but we aren’t connected on any social media, and we don’t keep in touch. My cousin Daniel is incredibly smart, he’s talented and funny and genuinely cares about other people. I loved seeing him when we were growing up, and I have some great memories of Christmases at our grandparent’s house in Massachusetts and summers on a lake in Maine. I would have jumped at the chance to have lunch with that Daniel from the lake. Now, Daniel is the leader of a Christian evangelical network that advocates for women to stay out of the workplace and have no voice in any form of leadership, preaches that feminism is the downfall of society, and believes the the bible is literally true, specifically in this interpretation of its teachings on gender roles. He fights for every social and political stance that I oppose. Years passed with both of us kindly ignoring the other, and now we were going to have lunch.
I am not proud of how I handled myself after hanging up the phone. On the one hand, I was touched that Daniel had reached out to me after so long, and I was frankly impressed that he knew where I was working. I am certain that if I were to find myself in his neck of the woods, I would not call him up for coffee. I knew that my schedule the next day would be light, and that I could easily meet him, but part of me was wishing I had an excuse to decline. I was angry at myself for feeling that way, but after a pretty rough week I was not feeling up for any sort of confrontation. I didn’t want a debate over gender equality, politics, humanism, or any of the other numerous subjects on which we strongly disagree, and I figured that the best case scenario would be that we ate in awkward silence or chatted about something so trivial neither of us could possibly have a strong opinion. It wasn’t a particularly tempting offer.
I am not proud of my initial reaction because – as my partner gently pointed out – dialoguing across difference is my job. I put my time and energy into fostering environments where it is safe to engage partners with whom you know you disagree on fundamental issues of existence and values, and teaching the skills necessary to navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of (hopefully) fruitful discourse. Although it was fleeting, my initial response made me feel like a fraud. Daniel was giving me an opportunity to understand him better, to educate one another, and to just catch up like families do. I needed to accept his offer, and I needed to do it with joy and grace.
Even more important than realizing I shouldn’t be avoiding conflictual dialogue is the realization that I have the power to keep it from being a negative experience. One of the tools we keep in our metaphorical belt is being able to converse in a way that is respectful, even when both sides think the other is completely wrong. Finding the shared territory, uncovering the truths worth sharing, and framing dialogue as an experience to learn another’s perspective and to increase one’s understanding of the world – these are all practices that I teach and implement on a regular basis. Not only is it appropriate for me to engage, but it is my responsibility to do so well and with respect. In certain cases, this includes being able to tell when one should disengage, when to avoid moving forward, when to set up stricter guidelines or remove oneself from a situation, but it does not include avoiding the event altogether. We cannot approach dialogue – interfaith, intrafaith, or across other lines of difference – fearful that something will explode. We keep talking about this work, and we commit ourselves to it because it is worthwhile and it can be life-changing, but it’s not always appealing. What proves our dedication to interreligious education, greater religious literacy, increased understanding, world peace, and a host of other lofty goals is that we venture into this work even when we would rather just have lunch by ourselves.
Obviously I still have much to learn, as dialogue is a varied and ever-changing art form. No two events are the same, because human beings are incredibly complicated creatures, and the issues that we discuss are often ones of ultimate importance. For me, this particular experience felt more raw and dangerous because it was with a family member. There’s a vulnerability about our families, or our other micro-communities, that can make us feel as though the stakes are higher and there’s more to lose if the whole event goes sour. At the same time, if we cannot engage with those closest to us, how can we confidently approach a stranger? I am not proud of how I initially handled myself, but I am happy to have identified this shortcoming. Recognizing it, facing it, and finding the encouragement to do better next time makes me confident for a new year of continued growth.
I’d hate to leave you all hanging, so in closing I will just say that we had Indian lunch, and it was delicious.