One day before the American Health Care Act was pulled off the table theologian Gregory Hillis gave an insightful lecture at St. Ambrose University in Davenport that underscored the need for honest, patient and respectful dialogue in our country. Some of his insights are shared here to inspire our way forward.
Hillis, an associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Kentucky, delivered this year’s Wilber Symposium on the Christian Tradition and Non-Violence, with an exploration of dialogue as an underpinning of his topic. He quoted the late Father Thomas Merton — a Trappist monk, prolific writer and advocate of nonviolence — who observed that nonviolence isn’t about prevailing over our adversaries or proving that our adversaries are wrong and we are right.
The practice of nonviolence, Merton believed, requires listening to our adversaries and being open to the possibility of being transformed by what they have to say. Merton was writing in the mid-20th century, but his observations about nonviolence are germane in the current, toxic political environment where mistrust and suspicion prevent us from loving our neighbor, and our enemies (adversaries), as ourselves.
Think about the recent town hall meetings across the nation where citizens lashed out at their elected members of Congress considering a health care bill detrimental to working class citizens, the poor and older Americans. These legislators seemed bewildered by the outrage, but they shouldn’t have been. The process for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act left out important constituencies from the dialogue. Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of Catholic Health Association, notes in a story in this week’s issue that she and other health care leaders were not even consulted as the American Health Care Act was being drafted. There was no opportunity for hospital groups or the American Medical Association to give any advice. Sr. Keehan leads an organization of more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in the United States. What a huge oversight in neglecting to consult with her and others intimately familiar with health care and the existing Affordable Care Act!
So, the American Health Care Act went down in defeat; its supporters are chastened, but predict that the Affordable Care Act will implode. Opponents of the American Health Care Act are reveling in their victory, but that jubilation may be short-lived. How are we going to work together to ensure that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t implode? How are we going to work together to ensure the flourishing of all Americans, with particular emphasis on the poor among us, as we are called to do in the Sermon on the Mount?
Other pressing issues — immigration, deportation, “the wall,” refugees, nuclear weapons, international relations and crises — demand a collaborative approach, and willingness to dialogue with our adversaries in order to serve the common good, a principle of Catholic Social Teaching. The major stumbling block isn’t one political party or another. It is us. Hillis says Merton believed that each of us is shadowed by a “false self” that alienates us from God and from others as we seek to assert our desires, our ambitions and appetites against others and appropriate for ourselves a private share of the common good. We divide, as a means of elevating ourselves at the expense of others.
We’ve got to follow Merton’s advice, by approaching others from an orientation that they have great capacity for good. Yes, we have to acknowledge that evil exists and that people do evil things. But our task is to tap into that potential for good. Some demanding, yet realistic advice:
• Be open to learn from and be transformed by your adversary.
• Be interested in the truth, more so than the need to be right.
• Listen. If we aren’t willing to listen to our adversaries they will assume we are not sincere in our attempts at dialogue.
• Avoid demonization of adversaries; refrain from responding in the lowest common denominator of discourse, one of the deficits of social media. Hillis describes discourse on social media as “drive-by arguments.”
• Begin by practicing respectful, honest dialogue at home.
Hollis noted that Pope Francis, in his 2015 address to Congress, singled out Thomas Merton as a man of dialogue who provides a model for us as to how to exist in the world. Dialogue, the Holy Father said, is at the heart of transformation of the church and the world.
As we continue our Lenten journey, it behooves us to embrace dialogue, honestly and respectfully — at home and in the public square.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor