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.

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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.

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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.

Tragedy and Opportunity

The American phenomenon of the “school shooting” has begun to take on the aspect of a recurring tragedy. It plays with astonishing regularity across our screens and is beginning to manifest itself with an increasingly scripted set of responses: outrage, the appeal for change, gun-control lobbying, blame, witch-hunting, and so forth.

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Photo by Alan Alvarez, the Independent Florida Alligator

In recent months, amid these almost trope-like responses, one in particular has stood out to me. In the face of a surge of (justifiably) outraged people—calling for reform and real change—certain voices chastise, claiming that “Now is not the time for politics, but for grief.” A tragedy occurs, frustrated people call for change, and in response others call for silence, reserve. This chastisement begs an enormous question—if now is not the “right time,” then when is? When is the right time to get outraged over tragedy? When is the right moment to mobilize people to make a difference? Is a day enough? Two days? How about a week? What is an “acceptable” timeline for calling people to action in the face of public tragedy?

Controlling-Puppet-MasterIn a moment I’m going to argue that the best time to speak is when tragedy is fresh, but before I do that I want to be clear that there are good reasons to apply brakes to our cultural outrage machine. I suspect, for many of the people I know who called for “grieving” over against mobilization, that there was a fear of undue, or even nefarious, politicization. There is real wisdom in discerning who is operating the machinery of our collective outrage, and it is true that politically motivated entities are fully aware that public outrage is a powerful tool for political leverage. Caution in the face of such a potential circumstance is surely a course of wisdom. And yet, being over cautious can perpetuate injustice. The only solution is to ensure that, before giving vent to our outrage, we have surveyed sufficient data about the situation. Outrage on the basis of snap judgments is a recipe for stupidity. We ought to read multiple sources, try to gain a bigger perspective, and refrain from blaming ideologies (for example, Islam) until we’ve got a fuller picture.

But is fear of being used the only fear at play when individuals reject a call to political action? Is there not also an anxiety at work? In my experience, people don’t deal well with tragedy, and one of the ways that people don’t deal well with tragedy is by telling other people how they ought to respond to a tragedy. Humans habitually become controlling in the face of our own loss of control. Could it not be that the language of a “period of grief” is a projection of personal anxiety upon the situation? Could it be that anxiety motivates a host of other responses to public tragedies—for example, the desire for a complete explanation (how did he/she get the gun? where were the security services?), the impulse to scapegoat (laws are inadequate, if only we had more guns in schools, etc.), and the satisfaction of blame (he/she was mentally ill, a Muslim, etc.)? Each of these, and the satisfaction they potentially give to the thinker, arguably answers his or her own personal anxiety more than giving a reflective response to the situation.

Outrage is powerful. Public outrage, inasmuch as it unifies diverse people around a common cause, is always politically powerful. The truth of the matter is that if we don’t speak into it and seek to shape it, someone else always will. The appeal to caution, to silence, to anti-politicization, will fall not only on deaf ears, but will result in the judgment that we who call for it are inept and out of touch, that we have nothing constructive to offer, and that, summarily, we can be ignored.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses crowd

Library of Congress. Dr. King addresses crowd at the state courthouse, Montgomery, AL (March 17, 1965)

Speaking as clergy, the moment of collective outrage is not to be missed as a moment for speech. It is precisely at such times that we must speak, and speak powerfully, and speak without projecting our own anxieties on other people. This is, fundamentally, a function of the prophetic office of the Church, where Godly speech shapes and gives meaning to difficult circumstances. Here, inspired calls to action seek to shape, and not suppress, the emotions of the masses. After all, if we in the Church do not strive to speak a Christian voice into our public discourse other voices surely will. If we do not offer a real meaning to the suffering, they will seek their meanings elsewhere. And together this means, as far as I can see, that the right moment to call Christians to action is exactly at the moment of tragedy. Is this opportunistic? Of course, in the same way that a harvest is opportunistic—in both cases it is a matter of not neglecting a clear and self-evident opportunity. Can it be abused? Of course it can, but abuse does not nullify proper use. The challenge is to use our speech rightly. To neglect such speech is to bury our talent in the ground.

So be outraged, and do not sin. Be awakened from complacency. Seek to embody a uniquely Christian solution to the tragedies of public gun violence. But for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t do nothing.

Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life

Portraiture, as an art form, seeks to encapsulate the character, rather than merely the likeness, of the subject in question. For some subjects this is more difficult than others—in some cases the public charisma of the individual hangs like a cloud between the artist and the subject. In other cases, the subject shiftingly squirms in the chair. Such a subject, on both counts, is Martin Luther King Jr., but Marshall Frady presses through these difficulties in his admirable 2005 biography of King, succeeding in painting a difficult, compelling, literary portrait of one of the best recognized figures of the 20th century.

King’s likeness is difficult to capture for both of the above reasons. In the first place, King has been elevated to the level of a cultural icon; he has been sanctified by culture, and now the clouds of devotional incense that mark his sanctification obscure the original man. Nothing, after all, serves to cover a man’s faults quite like his becoming a hero. Consequentially, his iconic face has been largely ripped from its historical moorings. As a cultural symbol King’s face now represents ‘hope’ in much the same fashion that Che Guevara’s represents ‘freedom’—both faces divorced from the men who lived behind them; both figures elevated to supra-human stature; both figures become masks that movements wear to ascribe to themselves meaning and significance, the original personalities remaining only in silhouette. Such stature, and the hopes and dreams that are attached to the man, cast an obscuring veil between him and his memory.

But the second reason why King’s likeness is difficult to capture is because the man himself, without any help from history or the culture that followed him, wore obscuring masks of his own making throughout his life. King’s public image was of a minister of the gospel, a moral figurehead, a family man, and a brilliant thinker and rhetorician. But King’s private life was vastly different—we discover, through Frady, concerns about King’s ministerial call; was it genuine, or merely inherited from his father? We discover that he drank and swore in private, committed serial infidelity, and even plagiarized portions of his dissertation. This duality in King’s life is so severe that one comes to feel that even his famed and exalted rhetoric was itself a veil obscuring the man. In the end, we discover that King’s public face was a projection of what he wanted us to see, an edited persona for public consumption. And these twin factors—King’s elevated status and his own self-editing—make the innerworkings of King’s heart almost inscrutable.

Nevertheless, Frady navigates these difficulties with skill, and succeeds in giving us a picture of a man who was both great and terrible; who led a nation through a time of crisis, and whose private life was a shambles. And yet the most rewarding outcome, perhaps, from reading Frady’s account was the manner in which the arc of King’s life becomes instructive, as a negative example, for any life of leadership, and especially of leadership in the Church. From that life I want to make the two following observations.

1) As a minister, your life is rhetoric. The simple principle here is that if your character does not accord with the content of your message, then your message is invalidated. One does not lead by position alone, but chiefly by example. King, while he was living, was mostly able to hide his indiscretions and infidelities, and yet discovery of these things would have meant the discrediting not, primarily, of King, but rather of the Civil Rights Movement itself. As a leader, King’s life was rhetoric. And so the discovery that the great preacher drank and swore in private, that he slept around and liked to talk about it with his inner circle, that discovery revealed would have been deadly to the man’s image and his goals, not to mention the people he represented. As it stood, King lived in genuine fear of these discoveries—FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (out of pure malice, I should add) spied upon and threatened both King and his family with the information he had gathered. The result for King was added fear—not only did he have enemies who hated him for his work in the Civil Rights Movement, but he needed also to fear the enemy of the double-life that he had created himself. This fear, sadly, was not enough to motivate King to change his ways.

The tensions and stresses of life as a minister/leader are manifold, and one of the key ways to manage these stresses is to commit oneself to a life that is harmonious—consonant between outer and inner personae. Such a life is not subject to the consequent fear of self, and as a result is better able to manage the stresses of the work of ministry.

2) Power does not create, but rather magnifies, temptation. This is also a simple, but often overlooked principle. You cannot wait until you are in a position of power to deal with the temptations in your life, because the position will only magnify your preexistent temptations. James 1:13-15 says that no one should lay temptation at the feet of God, but rather recognize that it is our own evil desire within us that is enflamed and leads us toward death. Temptations, then, are like fault lines in the human soul—they are there, and when the stresses increase we discover that we are tempted along those deeply embedded fractures in our personalities. The stress fractures are small enough when we are not leading, but become great rifts as we are drawn into the pressure of public life.

King was subject to the trebly intense pressures of leadership, public expectations, and the figurehead-ism that accompanied the civil rights movement. Additionally, he was under the added pressure of his own hidden life. It is also clear that King mismanaged the elation of success—the powerful, drug-like euphoria that accompanies public successes and adulation. Hence, as the pressure in King’s life increased, his recourse to sinful activities also increased, such that on the night before his assassination, after a successful evening meeting, he embarked on what Frady calls “a final, all-night release into carnal carousal,” directing the energy of success into sleeping with two, and possibly a third, of his mistresses consecutively until dawn (203).

There is an urge to lay these temptations, and King’s submission to them, at the feet of the pressures he was under, and yet no one is to blame for how King acted other than King. He himself had managed his inner life poorly. He himself had surrounded himself with people who accommodated, rather than challenged, his private choices. And the lesson for ministers and leaders today remains the same: if you do not learn to manage the small temptations, you will certainly be unable to manage them when the pressure of being a public figure mounts. And furthermore, if you do not establish channels of accountability in your life, no one will help to keep you accountable.

King’s life leaves us with a troubling rumination—is the so-called ‘great life’ that flashes on our television screens of real lasting value when the actual man, the private individual, is so inwardly tortured and personally destructive? There may never be a satisfactory answer, and yet, as it stands, King’s life is like the buoy that alerts a sailor to a hidden reef, a flashing light to the danger that lies below the surface of ministry, and especially of ministry with power.