The following is an excerpt written by Shane Claiborne, speaker for Vote Common Good, for the forthcoming book How to Heal Our Divides.
I met a man in Texas once who came up after a speaking event. He confessed to me, “I am a redneck. A gun-toting, whiskey drinking, pick-up-truck-driving redneck.” Then he continued, “But I’ve been reading your books, and they have messed me up. I wanted to ask you to pray for me. I’m a recovering redneck now.” We hugged. And we prayed together.
Any attempt to heal the divides among us requires humility and grace… from all of us. I’ve always liked that Scripture that says we are “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Spiritual conversion is not about a moment, but it is about a movement within us. A continual shaping that God is doing over time.
One of the things that can help us have a bit of grace with others is to think of the grace that has been extended to us. Few of us would agree with our own selves if we met up 10 years ago. I think of who I was 30 years ago, and sometimes wonder how much patience I would have if I met my old self and started having a substantial conversation about politics or justice. After all, I am a bit of a recovering redneck myself. That gives me a little patience with others who are also a work in progress.
One of my favorite quotations from Henri Nouwen is this one: “In the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face, and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands.” He goes on to say when we see another person’s ability to torture we know that we are capable of that same evil, and when we see someone’s capacity to forgive and heal, we know we have that same capacity inside of us.
For this reason, we can celebrate the fact that God’s love is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free. God is healing the victims and the victimizers.
I can remember an event overseas many years ago where I was, perhaps too pretentiously, winsomely joking about televangelists… only to find out that one of the women in the audience had a powerful conversion experience from watching a TV preacher. Experiences like that make you step back and think twice about limiting God or judging others. As I once heard a preacher say, referring to the biblical story of the donkey that speaks to Balaam: “God spoke to Balaam through his ass… and God’s been speaking through asses ever since.” So if God uses us, we shouldn’t get too proud of ourselves. And if we meet someone we think God could never use, we better think twice.
Self-righteousness is toxic. And it takes on many different forms. There are self-righteous fundamentalists that pride themselves on their own piety. Growing up, I became very familiar with Christians who “don’t smoke, drink or chew… or go out with girls that do.” The purity culture frowned upon the secular world. But that is only one manifestation of it.
There is another version of self-righteousness I’ve become all too familiar with – in progressive circles. Many activist friends, and myself included, are prone to a self-righteousness that frowns upon people who drive SUVs or use Styrofoam cups or wear brand names from corporations that use sweatshop labor.
We must take our moral convictions seriously, but we also have to beware of the danger of building our righteousness in contrast to another person’s wrongness.
I’d rather hang out with a humble conservative than a self-righteous liberal. And I’d rather hang out with a humble liberal than a self-righteous conservative. Humility is life-giving. And self-righteousness is always toxic.
It has become clear to me that we can build community, and movements, by isolating ourselves from those we disagree with. And we can also build movements that are open and inviting, seasoned with grace, even for those with whom we disagree.
It begins with humility. GK Chesterton was once asked what is the biggest problem in the world, the biggest obstacle to progress. And he answered with his characteristic wit, “I am.”
The word humility shares the same root as human. They come from the word “humus” which means earth… which incidentally is where we also get hummus which some folks think tastes like dirt. It refers back to the fact that HUMans are made from the humus, the dirt… which God breathed life into. God makes beautiful things out of dirt. Always has.
That’s the posture that invites others to the table.