Civility Through Dialogue
By Brent, ED’70, and Diane, ED’70, Slay
The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, former commissioner of Major League Baseball and former president of Yale University, said, “Civility is the core of civilization.” Given the cynicism and polarization that appears all too common today, one wonders if we’ve collectively lost our core.
It seems that the dearth of civility in our society typically occurs in emotionally charged arenas such as politics, social issues, and religion. People feel so exceedingly passionate about these issues that they often lose any semblance of objectivity. Instead of being open to other points of view, they seek reinforcement of their own ideals and are intolerant of dissent. This resistance
to understanding maintains ignorance, heightens intolerance, and greatly contributes to incivility.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., where we live, the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University addresses incivility by facilitating interfaith understanding and acceptance through a variety of initiatives. The highlight of the institute’s programming is the triennial Jewish, Christian, Muslim Interfaith Dialogue. Held every three years, the one-day event features lectures by
prominent religious scholars who are then cross-examined by a moderator, each other, and the audience. After attending the conference in 2006, which featured Donniel Hartman, an Orthodox rabbi; Vincent Cornell, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Emory University; and James Carroll, a former Catholic priest and current columnist for The Boston Globe, we were motivated to address the declining state of civility surrounding interfaith issues in our own community. We began by inviting James Carroll into our home for a day of interfaith discussion and exploration with 50 guests of different faiths and backgrounds. This essay is a testament of our journey to promote civility in an area that easily lends itself to polarity.
Our daylong interfaith discussion group included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and agnostics from various socio-economic backgrounds. Although we had a civil, lively, and spirited discussion about the general tenets of our different faiths, we only scratched the surface. Our time constraints and unfamiliarity with each other prevented us from delving into more sensitive issues. Therefore, several of us decided to convene a smaller group for future discussions. Our smaller group of 12, which continues to meet six years later, includes four Jews, four Muslims and four Christians. There are four Democrats, four Republicans, and four independents. One of the Jews is a rabbi, one of the Christians is a retired Presbyterian minister, and one of the Muslims is a leader in a local mosque. Additionally, we number three physicians, a university professor, a social worker, two business people, and two retirees who are community volunteers. Our group meets every other month in one of our homes on an alternating basis. We share food for sustenance and food for thought.
When we started the group we all knew it could be a challenge to maintain our civility—particularly when we started digging deeper into the issues that divide us, such as faith and politics. Although we hold strong convictions about our own faiths, we yearn to learn more about others’. We understand that there are some issues where the differences in opinion are so severe that we must agree to disagree without much discussion. That is, in and of itself, a sort of civility.
Francis Wilhoit, the late, great professor of political science at Drake, used to pace back and forth across the front of the lecture hall in Meredith Hall, stopping at least once every minute to look at the room full of students and proclaim, “Where do you draw the line?” Civility demands that we find a place to “draw the line.” In our group we discuss and dissent without becoming divisive. We have pre-emptive rules of engagement that allow us to diffuse difficult discussions before they become hostile arguments. Being civil doesn’t mean we have to compromise our faith or our values. But it does mean we must treat each other with respect.
According to Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath, co-founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” But how does one maintain civility when confronted with crude incivility?
One gentle man in our group, Aly, is a renowned pediatric oncologist who performs bone marrow transplants. Not long after 9/11, he was confronted by a young patient’s parent with the proclamation that “We should rid ourselves of all Muslims in this country.”
Aly replied, “Would you like me to leave before or after I perform your child’s bone marrow transplant?”
The good doctor was able to forgive what he could not condone in the mother’s belligerence. He understood that ignorance and fear play major roles in incivility—even on the playground. Jews
in our group have recounted numerous instances where their children have been told by classmates that they are going to hell if they don’t convert to Christianity. Such inflammatory rhetoric promotes feelings of distrust and disgust.
Despite the well-known saying, familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt. The six couples in our group have come to develop a deep sense of trust with each other. This trust has been built over time as we’ve discussed our respective beliefs and rituals. And this trust has resulted in feelings of safety and acceptance.
Over the years we’ve visited each other’s places of worship. We’ve come to know each other’s families. We respect each other’s dietary restrictions and acknowledge religious holidays. We celebrate each other’s successes and lend support in troubling times. We share in each other’s grief. We have become close friends.
As our relationships have matured, we are now able to broach subjects that were taboo early on: inerrancy of sacred texts, Middle East politics, domestic politics, and social issues. We listen but don’t condemn. We question each other in an attempt to gain understanding but try not to become judgmental of the answers. We don’t proselytize. We’ve learned how hurtful inappropriate language can be because our Jewish and Muslim friends are subjected to such language on a daily basis—language that questions their patriotism and the authenticity of their religion.
All of us have the capacity to do more to promote civility in our society. As the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said, “No man makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he can only do a little.”
Our small interfaith group continues to celebrate our differences as well as acknowledge what we share in common. The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., former senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, was fond of saying, “As human beings, we have more in common than we do in conflict.” We collectively believe that.
Brent and Diane Slay recently established The Slay Fund for Social Justice at Drake University and were instrumental in bringing former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter to campus as the Bucksbaum lecturers in September.