What's Tony Thinking

Thinking Out Loud Together


One of the great saints of Plymouth Church in Seattle, Janet Steputis Perry, died recently, at age 97. Janet was on the Search Committee that called me to be Plymouth’s senior minister in 1989.

At the time the congregation was deeply divided over the issue of divestment of the church’s endowment fund from companies that did business in South Africa. I remember Janet saying that she longed for the church to be a place where people felt they were able to “think out loud together.” A church, that is, where people were able to voice doubts, questions, test out thoughts, say things that weren’t popular and so on, without self-righteousness or villification.

I don’t know that we ever realized that hope, but it was a worthy aspiration and remains an appropriate one for a community of grace.

It meant that you would be likely to hear from people whose views were different than your own, who saw the world from a different perspective than you did. That seems to have become harder — and rarer — these days.

Recently, the linguist John McWhorter wrote in a NYT column about his experience of being in grad school with people who were saw things differently than he did — a.k.a. Republicans. That experience shaped his response to the current abortion debate.

A pro-choice Democrat himself, McWhorter did not believe people who were pro-life were, simply by virtue of their views, necessarily either ignorant nor evil — which is a common way of thinking about people on the other side — that they are either idiots or malevolent, or both. Not true, said McWhorter, who disagreed but did not demonize.

How many of us sit, talk, eat or otherwise hang out with people who see the world differently than we do, whose politics aren’t our own, who’ve traveled a different path?

When I became a minister, not quite five decades ago now, it seemed that churches were more diverse. There were people of different political and ideological persuasions all in the same congregation. These days, not so much. Churches today, in my experience, tend to be more mono-cultural, like forests with only one kind of tree. By definition an unhealthy forest, ugly too.

Of late many have remarked that one of the liabilities of autocratic forms of government, laid bare by Russia’s mess in Ukraine, is the person at the top never hears from people who disagree with him. This is one of the most common explanations for why it has gone so badly for Putin and Russia in the Ukraine. Everyone told Putin what he wanted to hear. No one disagreed. No one questioned. He/ they believed their own propaganda, including that the Ukrainians would welcome them with flowers and open arms.

While it might be reassuring to think this is only an autocrat’s problem, it appears to me that it is problem for many of us today. We tend to live in enclaves and silos. We get our information from sources that confirm what we think we know. We don’t interact much with folks whose experience and view of the world is different than our own or if we do we avoid superficial interactions. We may not be invading neighboring countries, but we all suffer — in these polarized and tribal times — from hearing only from those who agree with us, who share our biases.

Thinking “out loud together” doesn’t happen much, not even in families — a place where you might think some measure of grace could be extended or where politics would be transcended by other bonds and connections. Think again.

I live in one of the country’s great blue bubbles, Seattle. Here Republicans are about as common as Spotted Owls. We used to have one statewide elected official who was Republican, our Secretary of State. But she got hired away, by the Biden administration. Good for them, maybe not for us.

I tend liberal on most, not all, issues. Nevertheless, I have a couple of Republican friends, even a Libertarian or two. I try to nurture those relationships, to ask how they are thinking about things. I also try to be in conversation, when I have the chance, with folks not of my generation or who are not Americans. I try to keep my lines open to the evangelical Christians I know. But none of that is easy and I don’t do it very well.

But quite apart from whether our circles include those of different political views or life experience, there’s a deeper question: do we have people in our lives who will challenge us? People who can and will tell us when we are wrong? If you do have those people in your life, you are not only fortunate, you are probably wise. It is the wise person who can handle a challenge, even an occasional loving rebuke.

Putin lives in an autocrat’s bubble surrounded by yes-men and syncopants, one that was further shrunken by COVID. The results have been disastrous.

But he’s not the only one.



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