A better way to discern in community

Lately civic and religious discourse in America has taken on a certain road-rage quality according to Katherine Marshall. Recently she was able to observe an ethics consult at the Chicago Medical School. She came away believing that perhaps there is a more excellent way for us to engage one another:

“What struck me most forcibly was that this discourse was serious, engaged and respectful. People listened to each other. They were asking for help and listening to a wide range of suggestions, not shyly or cagily advanced, but put forth in clear and opinionated terms. People asked questions to understand the cases better. These were tough issues that can be seen in different ways, but these doctors had to make a choice. They had no way to duck the matter; the responsibility lay on their shoulders. They listened to others’ advice but made their decisions alone after they left the room.

[…]I came away with two thoughts.

The first is that the ethics consult formula could and should have much wider application. I can readily imagine it at the World Bank or the United Nations Security Council or Judge Goldstone’s commission on Gaza. People who are grappling with complex ethical choices need a safe, demanding, and respectful space to thrash out the issues and options.

And second, the kind of discourse I was privileged to witness among deeply engaged and committed doctors is what we need in the public policy sphere. It’s about facts first, about curiosity and a readiness to listen. It’s about hearing different views. It’s about a willingness to change opinion and then take responsibility. It’s an idealistic pragmatism that is surely as much part of the American tradition as mud-slinging invective.

And it’s about realizing that ethics, whether inspired by the theological principles of love, or by a physician’s determination to help people, is about real choices nuanced by daily realities, more than absolutes and unbending principles.”

Read the full essay here.

Seems to me that all theological discourse must ultimately be grounded in the reality of its practical application. But do you think the suggestions above would be sufficient to change our national and ecclesiological discourse? Or are people too addicted to the fight?

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2 Comments
  1. Paul Martin

    I had a similar eureka moment when the parties to the disputed 2000 election entered the Florida Supreme Court for arguments. A number of specious arguments were never mentioned, and the discussion was civil for the first time on record. The campaigns had finally entered a venue which they did not control. I suddenly wished the entire election campaign had occurred in that courtroom.

    So much of public “discussion” has nothing to do with discussion at all. It is public posturing, people talking past each other to get a sound bite onto TV and more donations for their base. Theological “discussions’ are taking their cues from politics, and turning into politics by other means. I think one of the keys to a solution is to enter a venue we do not control. It should probably also be in private, to eliminate the posturing. Doing this stuff in public (which the public really needs) raises the level of difficulty by at least an order of magnitude. Perhaps we need to work up to that one.

    A long time ago, I read a book about the defeat of the equal rights amendment. The author spent some time talking about the dynamics of the political process. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires volunteers to stuff envelopes, donate money, write letters and show up at rallies for the benefit of the cameras. For those of us with jobs and families, that is a hard sell, so the candidate has to make it seem important by raising the stakes. So, they tell us that if the other side wins, it will be the end of democracy, or of Christendom, or whatever. That’s how the radical fringe gets created, and how it remains a critical part of the political fabric. I know I am describing the political realm, but the same thing happened in Pittsburgh, Fort Worth and San Joaquin. And of course, it happens on both sides of the spectrum. It is difficult to imagine how a participatory democracy can happen without these people as long as moderates sit on their hands and don’t get involved.

  2. John B. Chilton

    I’m intrigued by her emphasis on nontransparency:

    “The details are confidential but I have his agreement that I can share my impressions. ”

    “People who are grappling with complex ethical choices need a safe, demanding, and respectful space to thrash out the issues and options.”

    And she does recognize the bipolarity of debate (civil/uncivil) is as old as the republic.

    I would only add that kooks, cranks, crackpots and the uncivil can be found at both ends of the spectrum — and in basically equal measure. Bush was the subject of plenty of highly distasteful rhetoric and imaging.

    And, in terms of true violence, people seem to selectively forget or dismiss examples like Squeaky Fromm, the Weathermen, Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of Malcolm X, the Symbionese Liberation Army…..

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