I used to be pretty decent at community-building. It was back in the early aughts, when I was a newspaper reporter given the privilege of being my publication’s first blogger — and I used the platform to celebrate everything that was wonderful about my community.
It was easy — necessary — for me to take that approach. As an “objective” journalist, my professional mission was to avoid at all costs seeming as though I had an opinion on the issues of the day. That’s not really an approach made for blogging, so becoming a cheerleader seemed like the right move. No, that’s not necessarily “objective,” but when you work for a Kansas newspaper, only a few people will object to seeing the stuff of their daily lives lauded by a journalist. Not coincidentally, I built up a nice group of fans and friends who also loved our town.
When I left the paper, I went into opinion journalism, and was freed from the old constraints. There were new ones, though. As part of my duties, I co-wrote a weekly column — which survives to this day — arguing issues with a conservative writer, who eventually became one of my best friends. The format was popular, but imposed new constraints. I had just 300-some-odd words to make a case. And the me-versus-Ben format for the most part discouraged the seeking of common ground or bipartisan solutions: Both of us became busy trying to win an argument.
Winning an argument, I’ve always hoped, involves some degree of being right. And being right has become very, very important to me. To the exclusion, perhaps, of other important values.
Here’s where I mention that my return to Kansas has brought my return to regular worship at the Mennonite church. I’m not a good Mennonite; I don’t really know that I believe in God, and certainly I don’t believe in any kind of orthodox idea of God. But I love a church community, and in my life I’ve particularly come to love Mennonite church communities. Which means, in recent days, I’ve wondered what the Mennonite response to the election of Donald Trump should be.
Granted, this is the viewpoint of a particular kind of Mennonite. My congregation, like the college town I live in, is full of white liberals who see themselves on the side of the underdog. The town can get more than a little bit self-congratulatory in its liberalism; Mennonite earnestness and modesty quiets down that tendency in the church … for the most part. But there’s not much question about how most folks in the congregation voted; if anybody did cast a ballot for Trump, they are in hiding.
The reason for the question — how should Mennonites respond — came from an unease about how many of my friends have reacted to Trump’s election: With declarations of something like total war. “If you voted for Trump, you’re not my friend,” I see folks writing. The passion is understandable — particularly if you’re a minority or person of color who has been made to feel, by Trump’s rhetoric, that your life is about to get much, much more difficult.
It also seems to me to be incorrect.
I wrote this earlier about the topic (with some small revisions):
“To cut ourselves off from people who have made what we think was a grievous error in their vote is to give up on persuading them, to give up on understanding why they voted, to give up on understanding them in any but the most cartoonish stereotypes.
“As a matter of ideology, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on democracy. As a matter of tactics, cutting off your pro-Trump friends is to give up on ever again winning in a democratic process.
“And as a long-term issues, confining ourselves to echo chambers is part of our national problem.”
That still seems right to me. Democracy requires persuasion, not isolation. It requires engagement, and it’s tiring and it takes a lot of work and it requires us to spend a lot of time hearing opinions we don’t like from (in many cases) people we don’t like.
OK. But what about the Mennonites?
Mennonites have a rich history of shunning politics. In fact, they have a rich history of fleeing uncomfortable political situations. They’re pacifists — which they believe comes directly from the example of Jesus. The Mennonites I know today are the literal and spiritual heirs to people who fled Germany for Russia, then Russia for the United States, to avoid compulsory military service. In World War II, many declared themselves conscientious objectors and suffered scorn from their fellow Americans as a result. There’s a lot that’s noble about that history.
So I asked myself this:
Would the most "Mennonite" response to this election would be Is it to bury ourselves in communities of like-mindedness, walled off from a world we don't like? Or is it to work for peace and justice where we find its absence?
And then I realized: Historically the answer is “yes.”
And then I realized: That’s OK.
Which is to say this: Mennonites preserved their faith community by raising up those walls, hard, and by largely confining themselves to communities of like-minded believers. In my hometown of Hillsboro, churches continued to worship in a German dialect through the late 1950s. (My boss in high school, the owner of a local grocery store, could still converse and — more memorably — sing in that dialect.) When my family moved to the town in the mid-1980s, we were gobsmacked by its insularity. We made jokes about it, but we also, for a very long time, felt very alone.
That’s been both a strength and a weakness for Mennonites, clearly. They preserved their identity, but they made relatively few converts. Mennonites are still, today, often a gathering of white people with German surnames. There are charms to this. There are also problems.
What’s all this have to do with politics? Are we called to isolating ourselves to preserve our moral goodness, or to engage a world we see as fallen?
I think the answer is yes.
Which is to say: We are right to build communities of people who believe more or less as we do. That’s how churches exist. And if one looks to the Bible, it would seem that there are limits to the engagement that might be required of us. “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy and stay at his house until you move on.As you enter the house, greet its occupants. If the home is worthy, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” That’s not a call to keep engaging past the point of all understanding.
But those words came from Jesus.
The Jesus who called Zaccheus down from the tree.
The Jesus who forgave the woman at the well.
The Jesus who fed the hungry because they followed him and wanted to hear more from him.
The Jesus who cured the child of a Roman centurion.
Mennonites have another tradition. One that works at the creation of peace and justice where those features are absent. They are drawn to places of conflict, and work for resolution. This means bringing together antagonists. It means finding a way to end the conflict that is mutually acceptable. It’s hard work, driven more by hope than success. It is noble and worthy.
So. Where does that leave me?
If you’re not Christian — or not Mennonite, perhaps — you probably left this piece awhile back. I don’t blame you.
But here is where I am arriving:
I want to keep writing about politics. I want my values represented in the debate, and expressing them is the best way I know how.
But I need to focus a bit less on being right. I need to work harder to abandon arguments that appeal to people who think like I do. I need to work on persuasion, instead.
Ah, but persuasion is just another tool of being right. So what I need to do more actively is listen. To consider and process the opinions of people who think differently than I do. To care about them. *To show my work* at doing that processing, so people know that I’m hearing and listening to them, instead of just trying to win the argument with them. I need to be open to the possibility that my mind will be changed once in awhile while still holding firm to some essential values.
There’s tension in all this. A balance that might be difficult to achieve. To try to be right, and yet to realize that “rightness” perhaps carries you only so far. To try to be right and recognize you’re occasionally wrong. To try to be right, yet modest enough to truly hear people who also try to be right - and come to different conclusions.
I know some folks will point out I’m showing my privilege. As a straight white guy, I have less to lose in a Trump Administration than many people of color. That’s entirely correct. And I can’t let the mission of engagement override the moral requirement of aiding, defending, and being on the side of the oppressed. But I must try to do both.
I must be more about the building of community than the winning of arguments. There are plenty of people who do the latter; not enough of the former.