Monday, October 03, 2011

Holding Contradictions - Open-Hearted Decision-Making

Last night as I re-read, for the millionth time it seems, an incredible essay entitled The Politics of the Brokenhearted, I was reminded that part of my diverse religious heritage is Quaker.

Author, Parker J. Palmer, tells the story of John Woolman, a Quaker-contemporary of Sarah Buzby, my great-great-great-great grandmother; they were actually separated by less than thirty miles, she on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and he on the New Jersey side.Cover - Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes

More than a hundred years before the Civil War, Woolman began explaining to Quaker groups throughout America that slavery was wrong. Quakers, as one self-satirist quipped, “came to this country to do good and ended up doing very well,” often by owning slaves.

Quakers at the time disagreed with Woolman and could have thrown him out of their society based on their version of majority-rule. Similarly, Woolman could have become unobservant of formal religion as I did nearly 40 years ago but this is where the “brokenhearted” in the title of the essay comes in. Brokenhearted also means “open-hearted” and Quakers told him to keep sharing his opinion with others.

Both the Quakers in general, and John Woolman specifically, spent the next twenty years “open-hearted to the tensions between practice and belief.” Just before he died but more than 80 years before the Civil War, the Quakers agreed with Woolman and they abolished slavery.

As Palmer notes in this essay, “open-heartedness,” or the ability to hold contradictions in creative tension, is deeply woven throughout each of the three traditions of American life: Judaism, Christianity and secular humanism.

Whenever we see impatient list-checkers preempting consensus by calling for the vote on governing boards or while politicians are dealing with issues such as immigration or prohibitions on the right to marriage or even refusing to compromise on debt reduction, we’re actually observing fear and arrogance prevail over true democracy.

Palmer clarifies that:

“Consensus does not mean that we can make a decision only when everyone involved is equally enthusiastic about a course of action; if it did, very few decisions would have been made this way! Consensus means that we can make a decision only when no one in the group feels a deep need to oppose it, usually on the grounds of conscience.”

Majority-rule often makes us into adversarial listeners, seeking only to find out who agrees with us and then to ridicule those who disagree with how wrong they are. The democratic alternative of consensus described by Parker suspends the premature resolution to the tension of ideas or seemingly conflicting viewpoints until solutions surface that were not predetermined at the outset.

Increasingly devoid of diverse opinion, the Republican Party of today is feverish in its attempt to codify extremist views for two reasons. Those dominating that party sense the huge demographic opinion-shifts from those who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s that may soon marginalize both them and that party.

Having been marginalized themselves, not just by Hippies but by the arrogance of the liberal Christianity of the “long-1960’s,” equally arrogant fundamentalists are defiantly falling into the trap of equating their idea of the holy with the holy itself when in fact as Palmer so eloquently articulates, our religious beliefs can only “point in the general direction of a truth that will always elude capture by concept or creeds.”

The challenge I find myself facing is how to keep my heart open and listening to what may be valid critiques while dissenting vehemently to remedies such as those that would deny the rights of marriage to everyone in society or pollute the Earth for which God has made us stewards or resurrect xenophobia.

As Parker summarizes “we know that when we step back, breathe, allow our agitation to settle, and simply start paying attention, we often see new possibilities in situations that once seemed intractable.”

Especially during campaign season, The Politics of the Brokenhearted is a must read for every true American.

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