Galatians 5:1, 13-14; I John 4:19-21
The Rev. Tom Herbek
July 2, 2017
In Galatians, Paul clearly says that we have been set free in Christ. He urges us to stand firm in this freedom, and not allow ourselves to become slaves again to those things that keep us from becoming the unique person we have been created to be. He urges us not to use our freedom as an opportunity to become self-indulgent, self-centered. But, instead, we should use our freedom to care for one another, to love our neighbor as ourself.
Our society talks about freedom a lot, especially on this 4th of July weekend, but it seems that, especially today, the focus is so much more on the freedom to be self-indulgent and self-centered. The enormous polarization in our society today is continually reinforced by media sources, whose sole purpose seems to be to reinforce stereotypes and inflame prejudices, so that reasonableness and willingness to talk about differences has become obsolete.
Perhaps we need to learn to approach our differences in a way that allows us to find the places of agreement, no matter how small or narrow they might be. James Ryan says that one of life’s essential questions is “couldn’t we at least…?” He and his wife already had three young boys, but his wife made the observation that it would be nice to have another child. Ryan writes:
A year later, as she continued making this observation, I finally realized she wasn’t joking. I asked if it was because we only had boys, and she wanted a girl.
That wasn’t it, Katie said. She was indifferent to gender, and in some ways she thought a boy would be preferable given that we already had all the clothes and gear. She just felt like our family could use one more child.
I still thought she was crazy, in part because Ben, our youngest, was our easiest child, and it seemed to me we should quit while we were ahead. To put off a real conversation about the topic, I made a point of waiting until the absolute height of chaos in our house-say, for example, a Saturday morning at seven o’clock when all three boys were up, two were melting down, and a third was nowhere to be found. And then I would say, “You know what would really round out this picture? A newborn!”
That bought me another year. Katie, however, remained undeterred. But we were clearly stuck, as Katie had made up her mind, and so had I. And then she pulled out the perfect question. “Couldn’t we at least talk it through, and talk about what it would mean for our family?” So we talked it through, and then talked some more. And just two short years later, I finally came around. A bit more than nine months after that, Phebe came around as well. Katie was right. I couldn’t imagine our family without Phebe. It was indeed incomplete without her.
“Couldn’t we at least …?” forms the core of a series of questions rather than one specific and complete question. Regardless of the variety of ways this question can be posed, at its core, asking “Couldn’t we at least …?” is a good way to get unstuck. It is a way to get past disagreement to form some consensus, as in, “Couldn’t we at least agree?” It’s also a way to get started even when you’re not entirely sure where you will finish, as in: “Couldn’t we at least begin?” No matter its specific form, asking questions that begin with “Couldn’t we at least…” is the way to make progress.
To begin, asking “Couldn’t we at least agree?” is a way to find common ground. Seeking common ground is especially important today. The explosion of information fueled by the internet and social media should in theory help bring us into contact and engagement with ideas, facts, and beliefs that challenge our own, which in turn should help us moderate our views and keep an open mind. In reality, the opposite is happening.
Studies of social media show that we are creating virtual gated communities, where those with like-minded views only share information that confirms their beliefs.
On this fourth of July weekend, I am saddened by the fact that it seems that our society- at least on a national level- seems much more inclined to emphasize those things that divide us than those things that unite us. I know this is not the norm on our local level, so that gives me hope. It just seems that we must guard against this national trend infecting our local norm of looking for common ground in trying to solve problems in ways that respect our differences rather than demonizing them.
James Ryan teaches at Harvard, so he is, of course, a Red Sox fan, and has not yet realized the error of his ways. He goes on to say:
Asking “Couldn’t we at least agree?” is a way to push back against polarization and extremism, because it is an invitation to find some areas of consensus. If you can find some common ground with others, especially those with different views, you are likely to see the world as a more nuanced place. At the very least, you are less likely to demonize those with whom you disagree. Take the Red Sox and Yankees. Derek Jeter recently retired from the Yankees; he was an outstanding player and an admirable person on and off the field. David Ortiz retired from the Red Sox at the end of the 2016 season. Big Papi, as he is called, was also a great player and rightly beloved. To find common ground among Yankees and Red Sox fans, bringing up Jeter and Big Papi is usually all you need, as fans on both sides of the divide usually admire Jeter and Big Papi. Once those two are part of the conversation, it lowers the temperature of any disagreement.
Asking “Couldn’t we at least agree?” will not resolve all disagreements, of course, but it can at least reduce their scope. Finding some common ground, in other words, can help isolate true areas of disagreement.
I find it sad that our society is giving up our freedom, the freedom to learn and grow and respect each other, even when we don’t agree on everything. This church family is an example that shows that- when we use our freedom to treat each other with respect, to listen to each other and try to understand each other, even though we have great diversity in this church family in terms of faith journeys, politics, and so many other things- it is possible to find points of agreement, to work together to find common ground, and to agree to disagree without rancor. It is possible in this church family. And it gives me hope for our society.
So let us use our freedom, as Paul says, to love our neighbor as ourself. And when we realize that there is disagreement among us, let us consider asking each other, “Couldn’t we at least…?”
And may we all have a happy and safe 4th of July, as we celebrate our freedom as a society once more.