Finding our better angels in divided times

Jul 10, 2018 by , and

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Who hasn’t known relationships torn apart over divisive politics? Churches, families and businesses all know the tension that can accompany political discussions, especially in recent years. Is it possible to bring together Republicans and Democrats to listen to each other and break down divisive stereotypes? Is it possible to clearly disagree without dismissing the other as stupid, uninformed, callous or even evil? Better Angels, a national nonprofit organization formed in 2016, is doing just that.

The name of the organization is a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address in which he called for Americans to invoke the “better angels” of our nature to overcome partisan rivalry. With that goal in mind, the leaders of Better Angels designed workshops for constructive political dialogues that don’t devolve into name-calling and bitter arguments. Some of the principles behind these workshops come from family therapy, and many of the techniques applied are familiar to those who practice conflict resolution. The results of these workshops have been downright astounding: reds and blues embracing each other as friends and comrades despite enormous differences in their political opinions. In these workshops — hundreds of which have happened across the country — folks who hold extraordinarily different positions are able to hold civil conversations over topics such as gun rights, gay marriage and immigration reform.

At Eastern Mennonite University this past June, 150 delegates attended the founding convention of Better Angels. Half were conservative “red” delegates and half were liberal “blue” delegates. The purpose of the convention was to talk about how to depolarize American politics and promote healthier disagreements. There were debates and tensions, but a common passion that there has to be a better way to be “We the people.”

As convention delegates, we were struck by how deeply within our political “bubbles” we truly are. In order to host a Better Angels “Red-Blue” workshop in your town, you need to have one conservative-leaning and one progressive-leaning organizer. The three of us have found that connecting and collaborating with people on the “other side” has been a real challenge, but also a real opportunity to see reconciliation in action.

The convention was filled with conversations that happen all too infrequently in our divided country: a liberal interfaith coalition leader talking with a former Republican State Representative about the future of democracy, the head of an LGBTQ Mormon organization talking with a Focus on the Family employee about how news media divides us.

Though Better Angels is a non-religious organization, we found it resonated deeply with our Mennonite faith. These discussions were evidence that dividing walls of hostility cannot keep people apart forever. Reconciliation, wherever and however it happens, is a miracle.

Through this organization, we have each met many folks who do not agree with us politically but who are both deeply sincere and incredible human beings. We are optimistic that we can have open conversations and maybe, just maybe, change the way we do politics in America.

Jeff Newcomer Miller is a conflict mediator and a member of Albuquerque (N.M.) Mennonite Church. Duane Beck served as pastor for 45 years in Mennonite churches in Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina. Russell Johnson is a PhD candidate in religion and a member of Chicago Community Mennonite Church.

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