We don’t have an anger problem in American politics.
We have a contempt problem.
LOVE YOUR ENEMIES
“How can I love my enemies if they are immoral?” Arthur Brooks poses this question in chapter four of his book, Love Your Enemies.
He was the keynote speaker this past November before a crowd of 250 leaders from around San Antonio and central Texas. All of them gathered at the Oblate School of Theology for a luncheon sponsored by the H. E. Butt Foundation and entitled “Bridging Our Differences.” Brooks is an acclaimed author and professor at both the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School.
Last year, David Rogers, president of the H. E. Butt Foundation, read Brooks’ book Love Your Enemies and saw in it a chance to engage people in civil dialogue around hard issues. The subtitle of the book especially captured David’s imagination: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. Inspired by the book’s practical advice, he sent copies to dozens of leaders and friends in the area, then reached out to Arthur Brooks about a possible event in San Antonio.
“The H. E. Butt Foundation has a long tradition of bridging people together,” David said before introducing Brooks. “We are bridge builders. We are conveners… We take time for reflection seriously.”
“We are bridge builders. We are conveners… We take time for reflection seriously.”
Brooks’ answer to the opening question is that “almost everyone—conservative or liberal, young or old, religious or nonreligious—believes in fairness and compassion to others.” Americans of different political persuasions are not the enemies we’re continually told we are.
He recalled a time he spoke to a group of conservative voters before the 2016 election. He was the only speaker there who wasn’t running for the Republican presidential nomination in the upcoming 2016 election.
Those other speakers engaged in typical political mud-slinging, vilifying liberals as “stupid and evil,” and Brooks considered what he could say that they could not. He thought of his parents, an artist and college professor who lived in Seattle and whose politics weren’t his own. They were good and smart people—not the people these candidates portrayed.
So he challenged his audience of fellow conservatives to lead from a posture of love. No one is stupid or evil for disagreeing on policy ideas.
Brooks found himself defending people he disagreed with because they weren’t there to defend themselves. Confident and passionate debate are fair and productive, but dehumanizing each other makes our problems worse. Instead, we need the courage to defend each other as Americans and neighbors, especially those with whom we disagree.
The event challenged us to seek out the uncomfortable spaces and the uncomfortable conversations. “Really listen and reflect together on what we all are learning,” David Rogers challenged the audience. He didn’t pretend to be an expert, merely a convener. “We are fellow learners in this,” he said. “How do we work together in every relationship of our lives?”
In short, how do we know our neighbors, disagree with our neighbors, and still love our neighbors?
Brooks argues that each side believes its own tribe is made up of the good guys, and we have been misled to believe the other side or any opposing perspectives must therefore be the bad guys. We may assume that our own motivations are pure and loving, but all of us are liable to be motivated by fear or even hate.
But, Brooks says, we can overcome this culture of contempt by simply taking a chance on knowing our neighbor—seeing them and loving them. “Connection destroys discrimination,” he says.
“Connection destroys discrimination.”
Elizabeth Le’anani Coffee, the Foundation’s director of storytelling, was the emcee for the event. She facilitates hard discussions on a regular basis in the learning cohorts she runs focused on San Antonio’s economic and social gaps. Making space for people to hear each other safely is part of her job.
At Oblate, that meant carefully planning where people sat. “We hoped people wouldn’t merely connect with who they already knew in the room,” she said, “but have the opportunity to sit across from unfamiliar faces and find commonality in what Brooks had to say.”
Former Foundation staff sat with local nonprofit leaders. A professor with a book about #BlackLivesMatter sat next to a member of Governor Greg Abbott’s 1836 committee to establish new Texas history curriculum in our public schools. After Brooks spoke, each of these diverse groups talked together about how to fix America’s culture of contempt.
Speakers Frances Gonzalez and Bria Woods modeled the process as they each responded to Brooks from their own perspective. Gonzalez is the senior director for the Asset Funders Network with years of experience working to advance local policies. Woods is a multimedia journalist for the San Antonio Report and participant in one of the Foundation’s storytelling cohorts.
Gonzalez shared her story of tough civic work over the last year, when she served on boards for redistricting and water utilities. Inspired by Love Your Enemies, she shifted how she approached this work and was able to build consensus for changing how San Antonio’s water utility bills its most vulnerable customers.
Woods shared similar stories of learning to love those who could have seemed like enemies. She described a tough conversation about race in her cohort with the Foundation where she is one of only two Black people. Her cohort leader paused the conversation so each person could choose whether to continue to engage. As hard as it was, each of them came back, ready to lean into the difficulty.
“It takes self-awareness,” Woods said, to examine our own biases and preconceived notions when we’re trying to make real connections. “I’m a firm believer that this is a model for real change.”
Brooks reminded the audience that he didn’t coin the phrase, “Love your enemies.” That admonition comes from Jesus in Matthew 5:44, but it applies far beyond Christian communities. “It’s a message to all of us who want to make America and the world better,” he said.
Less contempt and more love. Less division and more connection.
“My measure of success walking in was whether we created the conditions for people who didn’t already know each other to connect,” Coffee said. “And I think we did that.”
Less contempt and more love. Less division and more connection.
“So proud to have the Foundation working in our community. Faith [plus] action in any community is powerful.”
“May God bless your efforts to bridge across differences in our community!”
“If this is a beginning, I want to be informed of the next steps.”
“These are the ideas that must be shared and conversations that must happen in order for us to reach our potential to care for one another as neighbors. Thank you for providing the path.”
“The event was uplifting and brought hope! It encouraged me in moving forward with loving my neighbor and making the changes I can make around me.”
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