We Need to Talk: About National Conversations
Joseph Schattauer Paillé

We must begin with a candid conversation on the state of race relations today and the implications of Americans of so many different races living and working together as we approach a new century. We must be honest with each other. We have talked at each other and about each other for a long time. It’s high time we all began talking with each other.

President Bill Clinton
June 14, 1997


We need to talk. Or so we have been told. These words, spoken during a commencement speech given by our nation’s forty-second president, are now nearly twenty years old. At the time, the words felt bold and inspirational. Today, they feel played-out, mundane, maybe even trite. Spend ten minutes watching cable news and you will surely see an endless cycle of “Breaking News” graphics followed by a Republican or Democratic strategist calling for a new national conversation. In 2014, we not only continued our national conversation on race but also began new chapters in our conversations about women’s rights, Islam, free speech, gun control, health care, and poverty, just to name a few. We have even been asked to open up a national conversation on the state of political discourse, as if the way to address the failures of our national conversations is to have a national conversation about them.

One windy spring day in 2013, I joined the students and faculty of Princeton Seminary for prayer and reflection after the killing of Trayvon Martin. One professor read a list of slain unarmed black men and women, pausing after the name of each to say, “We’ve been here before.” The phrase had a haunting subtext: “We’ll be here again.” Surely enough, 2014 ended with more black bodies left in the streets and more calls for a national conversation on race.

Too often, the church has responded to these issues of national concern by echoing the call for national conversations. To be sure, calling for a national conversation is never a bad choice. (Who would say that we do not need to talk about gun violence?) Yet nearly two decades after President Clinton’s appeal for a national conversation on race, the church must ask if such appeals are still effective. Words that were once hopeful and challenging have lost their prophetic edge. Calling for a national conversation seems to be the new equivalent of calling something “interesting.” It rings hollow, nothing more than a way to stall for time or to try to run out the clock on the news cycle. If the church is to play a role in shaping public discourse, it must both identify the shortcomings of our current discourse while also offering new alternatives. There is a future for national conversations and a place for the church in guiding them, but they will ask us all to think creatively, locally, and humbly.


Life Together

Emmaus Dialogue Center looks out on a leafy urban park in Oslo’s hip Grünerløkka neighborhood. Though often seen as a pioneer of secularism and tolerance, Norway has struggled with skepticism and even outright hostility toward immigrants’ religious beliefs. In 1991, Emmaus undertook an unorthodox approach to bridge the divide between immigrants and native Norwegians. Instead of beginning with structured dialogue, Emmaus hosted meditation sessions for Christians and non-Christians alike. Instead of conversation, Emmaus began with silence. Underlying that approach was the idea that people cannot come together in conversation until they have shared a common experience. Honest and vulnerable dialogue is a byproduct of personal engagement.

While meditation sessions may not work in every community, Emmaus’s approach highlights a key consideration missing from our calls for national conversations. Our conversations are always enriched by a history of meaningful engagement. It is helpful to remember here that the word “conversation” comes from the Latin conversor, meaning to abide or live with. Trust in communities is built not by structured dialogue but by the myriad of small and seemingly insignificant interactions we have every day. We cannot begin the hard work of intentional conversation until we build a foundation of common experience.

Churches come together for meaningful conversation, yet too often these conversations occur without a meaningful base of common experience. For example, many churches come together around Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend to discuss issues of race and class in America. At their best, these events can cross the racial and class divides that too often divide our churches. Similarly, pulpit exchanges are often lifted up as a way to make up for the lack of diversity among clergy. Yet these singular efforts cannot reach their full potential as long as they only allow engagement built around a particular issue. Before we can have gainful conversations, we need meaningful engagement. Churches in neighborhoods of shifting demographics are well-positioned for this kind of engagement. Partnerships with secular or non-religious groups, such as youth programs and outreach centers, have the potential to give rise to fruitful conversation. It is often when we are not talking at all that we lay the groundwork for insightful conversations.


Opting In, Tuning Out

Part of the problem with national conversations is that they are, by their nature, national. How to have a conversation with over three hundred million people? One answer should come to mind: the Internet. To be sure, the Internet has opened up new possibilities for dialogue and social change. Any questions about whether the Internet and social media play a significant role in public discourse should have been settled by the Arab Spring. Yet it remains unclear whether social media can improve the quality of our discourse, particularly around issues of national concern. As Chris Anderson noted in The Long Tail (Hyperion, 2006), the Internet has given us a new wealth of information, but that new information is exchanged among smaller groups of people. Mass media has been replaced by niche interests. Previously unheard voices now have a platform thanks to countless blogs, podcasts, and self-published books. Yet organizing this information is a challenge. Given access to hundreds of newspapers, thousands of podcasts, and millions of blogs, how is one to choose what to read, what to listen to, and what to watch? Enter social media.

Social media has given us the ability to organize that wealth of information, but it has simultaneously pushed us toward an “opt-in” discourse. Served with an array of voices from around the country and the world, we choose who to “follow” and who to ignore. We have no choice; no one can read five hundred million tweets every day. But in organizing that information, something is lost. It is possible to have a conversation with people from around the world, and never hear an opinion you disagree with.

A better alternative would be to leave behind the hope of national conversations and start thinking smaller. Where calls for national conversation have become stale, our calls for conversation in our neighborhoods and communities may still bear fruit. Working in our communities offers a way past the “opt-in” dialogue that has come to define our national conversations. Instead of selecting voices from around the country to engage with, we may find greater reward in engaging everyone in our community. No doubt, such conversations will challenge us, forcing us to be vulnerable and honest. Yet it is these smaller interactions that have the potential to make a larger impact.

It is true that our communities are still too often divided on the basis of race, class, and political ideology. Too often, we “opt-in” when choosing to live and worship with people who think like us, talk like us, and vote like us. Yet faith leaders can play a role in bridging the gaps, bringing communities together for honest conversation. Likewise, while denominational structures are often criticized for being excessively bureaucratic, they are well placed to bring different communities together. Bringing those groups together will not be easy; it will mean willingness from faith leaders to open up conversations with communities they have not engaged in the past. But it is these smaller conversations that have the potential to lead to bigger change.


Prophetic and Pragmatic

Too often in the wake of national tragedies, the voice of the church echoes that of our broader culture. Yet the shortcomings of our calls for national conversation are an opportunity for the church to reclaim its prophetic voice by showing another way forward. Faith leaders can help build the groundwork for intentional conversation by providing space for diverse groups to come together for community service or informal banter. We can take the focus off of national conversation and deepen our engagement in our neighborhoods, especially neighbors with whom we disagree. Moving past calls for national conversation will not be easy, but it will lead us toward a more just and peaceful world.

We have been here before. The church can help make sure we do not come back here again.


Joseph Schattauer Paillé is Vicar at St. Peter's Church in New York.

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