The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.


Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

mlk jr

And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Orientalism–Some First Thoughts

Orientalism_CoverAs a side-track to my main research (on collective identity) I’ve found myself reading, and enjoying, Edward Said’s Orientalism. The book is both challenging and illuminating, and I thought that I might take advantage of a few blog posts to highlight things I am being driven to think about. Today I want to reflect on the power that questions have to shape a discourse.

One of Said’s central claims in Orientalism is that the concept of the “Oriental” is created by the West, then deployed in discourse with the Orient as a means, often enough, of political, moral, social, and economic change. To put this differently, in the historic dialogue between “east” and “west,” the west has traditionally held the power (for example, European domination), defined all the terms (for example, “oriental”), policed the discussion (e.g., by means of language and dialectic control), and even granted the right to speak—or proscribed it, as the case may be. In short, there has been an unequal relationship between East and West, and this inequality has been woven warp and weft into the Western conceptualization of what it means to be “oriental.” Untangling this weave is Said’s intended goal.

The very nature of discourse between Orient and Occident is, fundamentally, shaped by Occidental conceptions of discourse, and these forces are in turn shaped significantly by the West’s exposure to the Enlightenment with all the attendant clarities and ambiguities freighted by that watershed. Concepts like ‘rationality,’ the self, what constitutes a good, and the human relationship to the natural world, are not neutral givens in such a discourse. All the same, they are deeply held convictions which stand tacitly behind the Western identity—they don’t merely shape questions, they shape the shaping of our questions. Western identity not only generates a certain set of questions which it brings to something ‘outside’ the west, it shapes the how by which such questions are formed in the first place. A key difference between the west and the non-west is in this how by which questions themselves are formed.

What I am getting at is that these features in the western mind that shape the very shaping of questions in turn shape the shaping of answers. When the west, rich in power and self-possessed of its privileged position, queries an outsider culture, the query itself becomes a shaping power in that culture. First, because of the imbalance of power, the weaker culture is forced to provide an answer—and it must be an answer that satisfies the west’s terms. Second, if the weaker culture is incapable of providing such an answer, then the west (traditionally) provides its own answer. Either way, the answer is then retroactively projected on the weaker culture. Together, the answers given—or provided—come to shape the weaker culture’s sense of itself. This, broadly, is what has happened with the concept of “Orientalism”—it is a construct of the West, by the West, and for the West, which has in turn come to shape the self-perception of the East, often with unjust, flattening, distorting, and even violent effects.

Orientalism_Giulio Rosati The Dance

What I am wrestling with, then, is the concept that the type and manner of a given question can come to form and even alter the subject with which it is engaged. This, to me, raises a question about the etiquette of questions. And yet, perhaps such shaping is inevitable. At the quantum level, we are told, the fact that you have looked at and isolated a quantum element itself changes the quantum element. This means that at the most rudimentary level of relationships, our attention always has changing, shaping power over a given subject. If this is the case, and if I can justifiably extend this to bigger discourses, then there are no situations where I might ask a question which will not in some sense shape the answer. In the interplay between knowledge and power, the quest for knowledge will always, in some form, shape and be shaped by the dynamic of power—whether I am a scientist observing butterflies, a policeman querying a prisoner, or a social scientist examining a cultural phenomenon.

If no question can avoid shaping, then the only shaping that remains is the shaping of our etiquette when it comes to questions. How do we query in such a way that invites, opens, expands our mutual understanding, but doesn’t do violence, flatten, distort, or dehumanize? I’ve not reflected on this much, but I have a few intuitions. First among them is one that says listening will be a key component. Am I attending to the cues offered me by the subject I am questioning? Am I striving to really hear the answer offered—or not offered? Am I attentive to text and subtext alike? And am I shaping my own questions relative to the subject?

Another intuition says that I’ll have to think about the kinds of answers I will accept. Have I considered what qualities will constitute a satisfactory answer? Do I hold all the power in terms of granting whether or not an answer qualifies for a satisfactory rating? Am I in possession of sufficient wisdom to know the difference? Thinking about questions and answers in this way makes me think further about situations of public calamity and cries for ‘answers.’ Those who demand answers hold the power of satisfaction for a given answer, and the one who gives an answer, aware of this, is often afraid lest blame be assigned to them in the process. The questioner is not asking for information, but to assign your answer to a category. In such an ethics there are, without doubt, many more categories to examine and nuances to explicate.

Serpent_Le Peche Originel 2

Fascinatingly, the first recorded questions in the Bible exhibit this shaping power of questions. Following the narrative of creation Eve converses with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The serpent asks a question: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The question shapes Eve’s perception—in this case, diabolically—from benevolence to distrust, from contentment to discontentment, from understanding to confusion. The data of Eve’s life to that point is now muddled by a foreign and dangerously imperious invasion, and in her newfound doubt she is susceptible to its argument.

Now note, especially, that when God appears on the scene He also asks a question. The Lord calls to Adam and says, “Where are you?” I like to remind people that God does not ask because He needs the information. He most certainly knows where Adam is, and yet in asking such a question is it possible that God is presenting a different kind of opportunity? That God does not ask for information, but asks so that Adam can reframe himself? Does God’s question shape the situation as well, offering Adam the opportunity to resituate himself relative to this new situation of disobedience? If so, then the right answer might have been, “I am standing outside of Your commandment.” We’ll never know, but the situation certainly bears thinking about.

Stop Quoting Matthew 7:1. No, Seriously, Stop It.

Tied HandsIf you’ve heard it once you’ve heard it a hundred times. Somewhere in public discourse a Christian is speaking about some principle of the Christian faith—the exclusivity of Christ, Biblical sexual ethics, abortion. In response a person arguing against the Christian perspective (and wishing to silence his or her interlocutor) quotes Jesus back. The quote is Matthew 7:1, and typically comes off a little like this: “Jesus said ‘Do not judge.’”

Ha ha. Case closed. Time to shut up, O Christian. Your leader tells you not to judge. So there.

I’ve had it with people quoting Matthew 7:1. I’m sick of the casual smugness with which people misuse Jesus. I’m frustrated on behalf of my fellow Christians who seem to be genuinely stymied by this tactic, reduced sometimes to sputtering incoherence or muted in a well-intentioned but misapplied obedience. It’s time to clear the ground around Matthew 7:1 and set the record straight about just what we Christians have been commanded to do by our Master and King.

Sawing the Branch You're Sitting OnLet’s begin with what’s obvious. The person who says to you, “Don’t judge” has just judged you. Think about this for a moment. To say, “You shouldn’t judge” is itself a judgment, and this fact is quite conveniently overlooked in these public discourses. What is more, I find that the person who tells you not to judge is quick to make other, more culturally acceptable judgments—he or she will be more than happy to pronounce that people shouldn’t drink or drive, or that we should cut carbon emissions to save the planet. These are judgments as well—they just happen to be socially acceptable ones. And so the real reason why such a person quotes Jesus in response to you is because he or she doesn’t like what you’re saying, “I have judged your judgment,” he says, “and I don’t like it!”

That is the first irony about this passage, and the primary reason why pretty much nobody should ever quote those three words to anyone else during a dialogue—to utter the phrase “Do not judge” is to pass judgment. It is fundamentally self-defeating and hypocritical.

This leads us to wonder what on earth Jesus is actually saying, and to understand that we’ll have to quote the whole passage and not just those three convenient words. The paragraph starts in verse 1 and ends in verse 6. Look at the whole thing now:

1“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”

If you read that carefully, you’ll be aware that there is a subtle irony here—namely, that as soon as Jesus tells us not to judge, he then goes on to give advice on how to judge. Let that soak in for a moment. Jesus, after saying “do not judge” teaches us how to judge. This means, at the least, that whatever Jesus means by the words “do not judge,” he can’t mean never to speak in public discourse—to accomplish that would mean, essentially, ceasing to speak at all (which is quite possibly what our non-Christian and ill-informed Christian interlocutors desire).

When we look at these verses carefully, I think we discover four principles of Christian judgment—or, rather, four principles for making judgments as a Christian and in Christian community. We must remember that this teaching is situated within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ magnum opus for Christian living. These are words for the people of God living as the people of God alongside one another.

So, what are these four principles? I call them the principles of Disposition, of Standards, of Priority, and of Propriety.

#1 The Principle of Disposition

Our job is to be impartial and alongside.

Our job is to be impartial and alongside.

This first principle deals with our posture in community, and is drawn directly from verses 1-2—that we are not to judge and that we are to be cautious with the standard we use. Why should this be? Well, the second verse informs the first. To judge someone justly requires that I have the following characteristics: I must have authority to judge that person, I must have full knowledge of that person’s life and situation, I must have a perfect grasp of the standards of right and wrong, and I must myself be in a position of perfect rightness relative to that standard. Obviously I lack all four of those characteristics and am disqualified as a judge. So do you, and so does everyone on earth. Nobody on earth is equipped to make perfectly just judgments. And that means that my disposition must change relative to others. I, by virtue of my lack of omniscience and sin must never place myself in a position superior to another person. I am not a judge.

This is a first principle of preserving Christian community—that we are, in a Divine sense, all equal under the law, equally damned, equally recipients of grace, and that there is only one Judge, and we dare not attempt to usurp His place. The best we can do is come alongside one another. This will mean speaking with humility, rather than power.

#2 The Principle of Standards
This second principle is inseparably bound to the first—they are arguably the same sentence. In this second verse we are given the means by which we are to judge one another—that is, by means of a measuring rod. In essence, if we are going to make judgments we must ensure that we are appealing to the correct standard. That standard, for the Christian, is the life and teachings of Jesus our Lord. He is the perfect, omniscient, authorized judge of all humanity. His is the perfect life against which all our lives will be judged, and his words to us are the instructions against which our conduct, choices, and obedience will be measured on the Last Day. Christ is the measuring rod for human life.

The error of our ways is when we apply our selves as the standard of judgment against others. With the measuring rod you measure, Jesus states clearly, you yourself will be measured. If the standard you use to judge others is your self, then you will find yourself judged as well. Consequently the judgments will be self-defeating. Judge the wealth of others, and you will be judged by your own abuse of wealth. Judge the beauty of others, and you will be revealed for the shallow, image-conscious person you are. Judge the economic life-situation of a person, and you will be judged for the ignorance you have of your own economics.

All this to say that making judgments as a Christian means always appealing to absolute standards—the life of Christ, the teachings of the Scriptures, the Doctrines of the Church. “Absolute” in that previous sentence is synonymous with “objective”—the standard has to be outside of your self. We do not judge based on opinion, or preference, or personal discomfort, but on what we believe to be the revealed will of God. Will we be perfect? Of course not, but that may be precisely why we have the next principle.

#3 The Principle of Priority
Log in the EyeThis principle comes from verses 3-5 where Jesus describes the procedure for log surgery. In short, we are commanded to judge ourselves first. Quite simple, really: before you go barging into someone else’s life in the community (especially that of faith), ensure that you have applied the perfect standard of Jesus to your self. If you discover that you have a log in your eye—some glaring omission of obedience—get that sorted first. Then, Jesus says, “you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Nobody wants a speck of sawdust in his or her eye—it is profoundly uncomfortable. Of course, the only thing worse than a speck of sawdust is an unhelpful idiot trying to help me remove it.

The point is not to never make judgments, but rather to make judgments that are at the same time clear and empathetic. Judgments must be clear because blundering about with logs in our eyes only hurts other people and renders us hypocrites. Removing the log removes the hypocrisy and increases clarity. Then, once we’ve performed our log surgery, we’ll be more empathetic with judging others. We’ll know what it feels like and be far more tender, gently assisting the brother or sister with the speck. Much of Christian discourse would improve with a little more empathy—that is, remembering, as we pronounce judgments, however true they may be, that hearing them can be painful and difficult for others. We must imaginatively consider the impact that Christian teaching will have on the world both before and as we pronounce it. Then we’ll be effective speck-helpers for others.

#4 The Principle of Propriety
This final principle comes from the somewhat confusing final verse (7:6) where Jesus says that bit about throwing pearls before swine, or giving holy things to dogs. To state this simply, we are being taught to use propriety when executing our judgments. In other words, only apply your judgments to people who will listen to you. Only judge the willing. Make good decisions about when and to whom we speak Christian truth. Not every situation requires us to speak. Not every person will be receptive to our faith. Not every believer in the Church will be amenable to Godly correction. So make an initial judgment. After all, the knowledge you have of God, Jesus, and the Kingdom is holy and sacred, it is like fine and precious jewels. Offer these jewels of Godly wisdom to people who are profane, and not only will they not know what to do with them, but very likely they might turn on you because of it.

You must make a judgment, then, about who you will judge. Is this a person who will listen to me? Is this a person who will honor the teachings of Jesus? If the answer is no, then you don’t need to worry about correcting them. Your disposition, your right standard, and your log surgery will be meaningless. You can still love the person, and maybe you can plant some seeds of God’s truth in his or her life, but by the words of Jesus you have permission to keep your judgments to yourself. In other words, don’t lose sleep over people who ignore God’s word.

Final Thoughts
PearlDisposition, Standards, Priority, and Propriety: these are the four principles of judgment that Jesus gives us in this passage. With these four principles in place, we will use the knowledge we have been given by God’s grace in a way that accords with God’s plan. We will employ our power in a way that honors God and builds up community. After all, when we come alongside one another, when we come looking at Jesus together, and when we come tenderly, those are the conditions under which a person will feel not reprimanded, but loved. Under those conditions a person will feel grateful that you loved them enough to bring the word of God into their lives. It is under those conditions that the Church acts like the Church for one another.

But outside the Church, what should you do the next time someone quotes Matthew 7:1 to you? You have a number of options. First, you can determine whether you are offering “pearls to swine” (don’t call your conversation partner a pig, please). If you don’t have cause to believe that this person will hear you, then I think you have permission to walk away from the conversation. Second—and if you have permission to speak—you might remind the person helpfully that he or she has just made a judgment, and ask them by which standard they are judging you. That could lead to an informative conversation about authority and sources of knowledge. Third, you can point to the remainder of the passage (Matthew 7) and apply principles two and three—point out that you are appealing to an absolute standard (the words of Jesus), and describe how you yourself are subject to whatever Christian principle you are expositing.

But above and beyond these, a safe bet for faithful Christians in any discourse is to have a ready grasp of Scripture. If your conversation partner quotes Scripture to you, take advantage of the quotation to talk more about Scripture. If they are claiming to hold Jesus as an authority (even in trying to dismiss you), use the door they have opened to speak more about the authority of Jesus—talk about his Divinity, or his claims of exclusivity, or his absolute power. But do this with gentleness and respect, having sanctified Christ in your heart before you even speak. Which is something you should have done before you got involved in that Facebook dialogue anyways.

[Note: I’m thinking about writing on other commonly misused passages. If you have one you’d like me to write about, send me a note or drop it off in the comment section.]