Civil Discourse

Reflection given by Dave Baad, Head of School


When I open a newspaper or my favorite news websites, when I flip on the television to catch up on politics and other public policy debate, I have often read or heard in the last two years some version of this statement:

“We are living the most divisive and polarized time in our country’s history.”

I would hope that all the history teachers in the room would have the same reaction that I do to this statement. I usually raise my eyebrows and then wonder how anyone with such a limited knowledge of the story of our country can have a public megaphone. What underlies this statement is a limited appreciation for how volatile and oppressive certain periods of history have been – from slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Right movement to the Know Nothings, anti-Catholicism and the Chinese Exclusion Acts, to the need for a Seneca Falls Convention and the women’s suffrage movement to the Stonewall Riots and the Marriage Equality Act.

We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I this week – a conflict that killed 10 million people. The Great War’s finish also unleashed a flu epidemic that killed another 50-100 million people worldwide in the two years after and caused life expectancy in the United States to drop by twelve years. These convulsive events in turn helped create an anti-immigrant backlash, this time against Italians, Greeks, and other Southern Europeans. It fostered the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan – the infamous and violent white nationalist group, members of whom were elected to the US Senate and House of Representatives and who in 1925 marched in the tens of thousands down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC.

If you do not know what some of these events are and terms mean, make sure you do before you graduate from the Episcopal School of Dallas. Our story continues, and you must know its previous chapters to participate properly. And to be clear my chapter list is neither exhaustive nor meant to suggest any of these periods was more or less volatile, nor that the issues addressed have been solved completely. I raise them only to remind us that the story of our republic has been one of oppression, divisiveness, and violence. But, it has also been one of great progress. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice.” Or perhaps as the Jesuits say in my faith tradition, “Trust in the slow work of God.” I am confident we will get there.

So, how do we get there? Let’s wonder about that.

First, let’s move from the general to the particular. I find it interesting that our virtue of the month verse from Sirach – “Put yourself in your companion’s place, and be considerate in everything” –  is actually part of an Old Testament passage in which the author is giving us advice about how to eat. In fact the verse just before ours for the month is, “Don’t reach out for everything you see, and don’t elbow people out of the way to get at the food.” Sound counsel, certainly.

Eating is one of our most sacred acts. It is a time for us to be thankful for the gift our own lives and that we have food to sustain it. It is also time for us to be thankful for all life since our food comes from living organisms that are part of God’s creation. When performed in a group as we do at lunch, eating is a time to be thankful for community and fellowship. It is no accident that Episcopalians’ most sacred act – communion – is a commemoration of a meal – the Last Supper. We find value and sanctity in celebrating together because we are naturally social beings. At its base, we come together on Wednesday to worship God in this space through a meal. So, let’s think about what Sirach had to say in that context.

Imagine….. you are at lunch later today and maybe you arrive a little late. Sage is running out of your favorite dessert; you are rushing to grab one of the final bits. Out of nowhere, one of your classmates elbows past you and grabs the last three cookies. Nothing for you today, my friend. I know my reaction would probably be, “What a jerk!!!” An understandable response, right?

Now what if I told you that the reason your classmate took those three cookies was that later in the day he was going to visit his sick grandmother; he knew that these cookies were her favorites. Well then, maybe he’s less of a jerk. A second scenario – what if I told you the reason that your classmate blew by you to grab those cookies was that she knew that when she got home there would be no dinner for her to eat? Her family could not provide it. Hmmmm… Now maybe I am the jerk.

What Sirach was trying to get at with his wisdom on eating and  consideration is that there is no way for us to really know the place of our companion. When we put ourselves in his or her place at the table, we should have the grace to assume the best possible motives because we just cannot really ever know why someone acts the way they do.

So how about our political climate? How about our discussions here at ESD? Do you think the Sirachian mindset would apply?

Let’s examine another piece of ancient wisdom, this time from Aristotle – a passage from his treatise entitled Politics. In it he says:

“Although nature brings us together – we are by nature political animals – nature alone does not give us all of what we need to live together: There is in everyone by nature an impulse toward this sort of partnership. And yet the one who first constituted a city is responsible for the greatest of goods. We must figure out how to live together for ourselves through the use of reason and speech, discovering justice and creating laws that make it possible for human community to survive and for the individuals in it to live virtuous lives.”

Aristotle’s point here is that it is only through group discussion and thought that we can lead virtuous lives. I ask you to consider for a moment how something as simple as a community meal is a metaphor for the attitude we can take as we approach political discourse at this school. When someone is symbolically grabbing the last three cookies – that is seemingly being dismissive of you, seemingly being selfish, seemingly having motivations for their thoughts and words that just seem so wrong headed – let’s always first stop to consider whether there might be an underlying fear or ignorance that is driving their actions. Let us be graceful by trying to “put ourselves in our companion’s place” – understanding that were we they, with their experiences, their fears, that we might say or believe the same things. In that moment, we can then hopefully have the patience for the productive reason and speech of Aristotle, not the emotion and vitriol of unproductive divisiveness.

As Paul said in our our reading today to the Ephesians: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

I close by circling back again (and I hope to do this in every homily I give this year, I warn you) to my favorite word – “love” – and its best definition – “to will the good of another as other.” The grace that Sirach, Paul, and even the pagan Aristotle want from us is to live with the thought that we want to create good – to will good – for our neighbors, no matter what they believe –  exhausting every bit of energy in finding common ground that we can stand on together.

May we all have the grace to heed the charge we have received from these three wise people.


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