When I read a book on a topic that I am revisiting, I appreciate it when it offers me something new. The fresher the ideas, the more I feel that I got my money’s worth. The usual scenario, however, is that revisiting a topic offers nuances of the old ideas rather than eureka ideas.
When I started out reading Parker Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, I was hoping for something newer than a nuance. One such eureka came this morning. After spending most of his fourth chapter announcing that Democracy is forever messy and we should never expect to arrive at our goal of bliss and harmony, I was ready to trash the book. But in his last little section, which he calls “Democracy and Self-Transcendence”, I found a new nugget. He’d been showing how people often approach politics with a flight or fight reaction. He also demonstrated how various factions know this and use it to their advantage, thus we have news reports wrapped in fear or an effort to “gather the troops” to act out anger. Neither, by themselves, is very constructive.
Parker adds a third response to political tensions. He calls it the “tend and befriend” response. As soon as I read it, I knew that this is hardly a new idea but I’ve never seen it as a 3rd alternative alongside “fight” and “flight”. The “tension- holding structure…is a political process for creating a common life that builds on millennia of human attempts to transcend our fight and flight reflex.
Some of the best of our leaders have spoken meaningfully against reflex decisions, he said. Abraham Lincoln did so in his first inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War: My countrymen…think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it.”
Again, Parker says, “democracy does not propose to bring life’s tensions to an end. Instead, it offers us a process for using them creatively, providing political structures that promise to turn energy of tension toward constructive ends.” What comes to my mind is the idea that the quality of legislative action is improved by calm, respectful discussion, something we citizens have been begging for in the last few years. Seasoned legislators tell us that, in the past, building relationships among their peers in social settings affected positively the way things go in the Senate and House. It is hard to disregard or abuse someone you have befriended. I don’t know about you, but my words are far more measured when I disagree with someone I care about. I want to express my disagreement while preserving the friendship. Perhaps this is why Jesus told us to love our enemies. He understood that we would not want to harm one we loved and would try to come up with some other way to deal with differences.
As for “tend” I think that Palmer is meaning “to tend to” things rather than run away from them. Isn’t flight what we do when we are afraid to even deal with an issue, often because we are afraid to confront someone we love? I know this has been true in my relationships. Palmer is pushing us to not use the friendships we have established as an excuse to let problems go unattended to. I believe that the most creative solutions rise up when all participants are committed to working respectfully toward them. It may make finding solutions more complicated and more time-consuming, but less harmful. In today’s political climate, legislators get so bitter they can’t move on to other issues. Or they demand the opponents do something their way or threaten some kind of retribution in some later, unrelated issue. It is getting pretty ugly.
Jesus addresses this issue also. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be with you.” I am thinking he is talking about people gathering together in love and assuring them that they can depend on divine guidance. He also says, “Be not afraid.” In my mind, it is fear that keeps us from attending to those things that need our attention. One could list all kinds of fears that might bind a legislator. Jesus encourages us to not fear those things that are difficult. “I am with you.”