drawing the line, part 4 (and done, for now!)

Amid conflict with others where do I draw the line between compassion, recognizing and respecting their right to their views, and challenging their positions, confronting them?

The more I reflect on my question, an essential, perhaps the most important word is “I”. Desiring to live faithfully, responsibly, I am accountable and answerable for my intentions and my actions to my Creator, all creation, and all with whom I am in relation, which, for me, means everyone – however alike or dissimilar, whether at peace or in conflict. This realization (or re-realization) leads me to review and revise (for brevity’s sake) Principles of Engagement of “The Other”, which I composed following my sabbatical some years ago.[1] These principles are the bedrock of my practice of living as I seek to do, to be the love and justice of Jesus in my relations with others.

Personal Encounter – meeting and being with another, seeking mutual understanding via sharing our individual stories that reflect our life experiences, revealing who we are and how we perceive reality.

Empathy – feeling, being in (in addition to sympathy’s feeling with) another.

Suspension of Judgment – empathy’s fruit; listening intently “outside my box” of my worldview, the framework of my history and memory, native instinct and attained insights, and established patterns of discernment.

Commonality – another fruit of empathy; seeking, listening for common elements of our human experience.

Inevitability of Conflict – as it is impossible for me to step completely outside of my self, any encounter with another always reveals differences and the potential for disagreement.[2]

Self-Examination – being able and willing to be self-critical in the awareness that I do not possess all (or the) truth, but rather only my truth.


[1] During my August 2006-January 2007 sabbatical (Twenty-First Century Evangelism: Conversation, Not Conversion), I went out into a pluralistic world of competing, at times, conflicting peoples and perspectives seeking to discern whether the Christian church (a) could re-imagine or re-envision evangelism, the primary aim no longer, as traditionally understood, being the conversion of “the other” to Christianity, but rather, conversing with “the other” for purposes of mutual understanding, (b) without sacrificing the integrity of Christian identity, and (c) whilst remaining attuned to the voice, which in the midst of the conversation may say, “Please tell me more about your Jesus,” thereby signaling the possibility of a transition from an engagement in conversation to an experience of conversion.

[2] In this awareness, I can choose to engage conflict creatively: (a) recognizing conflict as unremarkable, indeed, normal, (b) responding with calm acceptance, and (c) using conflict as a lens to see myself more clearly, that is, through the eyes of another.

drawing the line, part 3

I appeal to my namesake, the Apostle Paul: Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions…We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.[1]

Amid conflict with others, Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, seems to advocate choosing the compassion of the acceptance of different views rather than challenging or confronting them.

I think the terms “weak” and “strong”, falling on the post-modern ear, bear a distinctly judgmental ring; the former and the latter, less and more favorably, respectively. Doubtless, I also think, Paul would see himself and encourage others to be “strong” in their faith, thus, able to tolerate differences in attitude and perspective. Still, the thrust of his admonition is to urge folk, whatever their personal views, to put others first and to welcome one another across the dividing lines of their opinions and practices.

That said, whatever the issues in dispute, Paul addressed his exhortation, again, to the Christians in Rome; a community of people bonded by their shared faith in Jesus. He well could have written, to paraphrase a now standard and overused phrase: “That which (verily, the One who) unites us is greater than anything that divides us.”

In this, my appeal to Paul finds its flaw. For when I am in conflict with another and our objects of belief, our foundational understandings of life and existence, or our worldviews are wholly other,[2] then we have no common ground on which to stand, save being human, which, throughout history, has not seemed to be enough to stem the tide of hatred and hostility.

So, now what?



[1] Romans 14.1, 15.1-2

[2] Thinking of myself, who and what I am, I would characterize as wholly other to me one who espouses views of white supremacy (thus, considering me, an African American, inherently inferior), xenophobic nationalism (thus, viewing one country, say, America and Americans, innately superior to all other nations and peoples), or theological/philosophical nihilism (thus, rejecting all moral principles as meaningless, literally, nothingness).

drawing the line, part 2

Yesterday, I asked, in the midst of conflict with others where do I draw the line between offering  my compassion that recognizes and respects their right to their views and challenging their positions, indeed, confronting them?

On reflection, I can make a case that these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. I can do both. When in conflict with others, I can be compassionate in understanding their life’s circumstances and appreciating how they arrived at and adhere to their beliefs and challenge their views.

However, to do the latter always, I think, infers a degree of judgment. When I contest another’s opinion or point of view, whether or not using the words “right” or “wrong”, I am (and, as important, I may be perceived to be) implying that I consider that person’s position flawed in some way – deficient in knowledge, faulty in logic and reasoning (indeed, irrational[1]), narrow in scope, short in vision, even “missing the mark” (which, derived from the Greek ‘amartia, means sinful).

Such a circumstance can make continuing in civil conversation, perhaps continuing in relationship difficult.

So, now what?



[1] In using the word “irrational”, I hasten to add that I consider some circumstances and occasions when being irrational (or operating beyond the realm or aside from the field of reason) to be sensible (my irony intended). When I listen to a piece of music (say, Gustav Holst’s The Planets, especially the 4th movement, Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity, which always reminds me of my beloved brother Wayne) that touches the heart of my soul and I am moved to tears, my response is beyond the grasp of my reason. If one were to see me crying and ask, “Paul, why the tears, for what you are hearing is but a series of musical notes arranged in an orderly mathematically discernible sequence”, I would understand that to be a reasonable view, but one without the depth of an impossible to articulate irrational comprehension.

drawing the line

Where do I draw the line? This question keeps coming to my conscious awareness, calling, clamoring for my response. In this blog post, I share my struggle. Before clarifying what I mean, let me state how and why this question presents itself and matters to me.

drawing the line

Our world, as I perceive it, is ever-increasingly disharmonious. Where personal and political, theological and philosophical ideologies rage, sometimes with death-dealing violence. Where proponents of ideas competing for space in the public square of debate come into conflict, and then resort, often enough, to mischaracterization and demonization of “the other” point of view and person(s). Where (and this ever hath been true of life in this world) none of us, even the most conflict-averse, is immune to (sometimes extended and extensive) moments of disagreement and dispute with others.

I am a Christian. I believe Jesus is the embodiment of love and justice, active unconditional benevolence and fairness that seeks to do good for all at all times. I believe the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus empowers me so that I am able (I can) and willing (as able, I can choose) to act with love and justice in thought and intention, word and deed. (As human, I am characteriologically self-interested and consistent in my inconsistency, thus I fail at my labor to live the life of Jesus as I understand it. Nevertheless, the same Spirit continually strengthens me to strive again and again to fulfill my calling.)

Now, when (for it is inevitable) others with whom I am related[1] profess their beliefs and I adhere to differing, opposing perspectives,[2] where do I draw the line between offering my compassion, whether spoken or in silence, that (seeking to understand others, to see others from their point of view, indeed, to stand in their life’s shoes) recognizes and respects their right to their views and challenging their positions, indeed, no matter how kindly my approach, confronting them?

Where do you draw the line?



[1] Regarding relationships, I define myself as a theistic existential universalist, which is to say, I believe God created all of us, hence, I am related to all now and eternally whether my family by blood, my friends (my family by choice), acquaintances and associates of whatever cause and for whatever reason, strangers I encounter in the daily course of living, and those who have died, are living, and are yet to be born.

[2] I am thinking here about significant issues of this or any day, e.g., climate change, gender work-pay parity, genetic engineering, gun rights, health care, human sexuality, immigration law, just war, marriage equality, pro-choice/pro-life, race.

a privileged position

Recently a friend shared a web post on privilege, pointing to the reality that humans, by virtue of qualities of birth beyond individual command or control, e.g., gender (read: male), race (read: white), affluence (read: rich and educated), nationality (read: American), and combinations thereof, possess unspoken, often unconscious economic, environmental, political, and social advantages.

As I read the article, I was reminded of a passage addressing this issue from my June 2008 novella, The Makings of a Memorable Life. (Since 2006, I’ve been writing these works of fictional prose for personal pleasure and the exercise of my imagination.) I share the episode.

The characters: Madeleine Katharine Fitzgerald, 26, only child of a prominent Atlanta family of attorneys, a graduate of Cornell University and law school. Carl Antony Thomas, “Cat”, 21, born to a farming family on the outskirts of the fictional small town of Robardsville, SC, recently completing his sophomore college year, his matriculation having been delayed by family struggles and personal strife.

The scene: Washington, DC, 1971 (not long after the end of the formal Civil Rights Era and the emergence of the Black Power movement and the April 1968 rioting in DC and 110 American cities, the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that made unmistakably visible and palpable the all-consuming rage in many a heart and soul). Cat is visiting Madeleine, who works in DC. They return to her apartment following dinner with one of Madeleine’s clients and friends, Dorothea Jackson, who, meeting Cat for the first time, hardly veiled her skepticism about mixed raced couples.


Entering the apartment, swiftly Madeleine turned, closing the door; leaning against the wall, sighing, trying to release the terrible discomfort she had harbored all evening. “I’m sorry, Cat. I just don’t understand.”

I do. The idea that people need to stay with ‘their own kind’ isn’t held only by white folk. Black folk, some of us, believe it, too.” His sadness suddenly was eclipsed by an explosion of energy and anger. “And if I’m a ‘good man,’ a ‘good black man,’ why do I want a white woman? Am I rejecting women of my own race?” Gesturing madly, speaking to some unseen audience of inquisitors, he paced about the room, seeking without success a comfortable place to stand, without and within. “Do I think black women are inferior? No! Less beautiful? No! Less attractive than white women? No! Have I bought into the white culture’s definition of what is beautiful? No, I have not!”

Madeleine was overwhelmed by the vigor of his oration, the tenor of his voice. “I never would think those things about you!”

“Of course you wouldn’t. You’re white. It wouldn’t ever occur to you.” Standing still, he looked into her eyes. “It doesn’t have to occur to you.”

She hadn’t quite understood what he was saying, but felt he had misunderstood her expression of confidence in him. The conversation having turned in a perplexing way left her feeling lost, anxious, and defensive. “What do you mean, Cat?”

“It’s the privilege of being white in America, especially if you’re privileged. And you are, Madeleine! You don’t have to think about what you have or don’t have because you’ve always had whatever was considered valuable. In fact, you…not you, Madeleine, but you, white people, always have had the power to define what was valuable. So, you don’t have to think about whether you’re buying into someone else’s definitions. They’re all yours! Money. Opportunity. Society, you know, family and friendships that were given to you at birth. Even dreams! You’ve always been able to dream without having to pay a price for it. The price of having a dream, but not being able to fulfill it. You always could dream and make it come true!” Again Cat strode around the room, his arms flailing, his voice rising and falling in accord with the overflow of his anger and sorrow.

She never had seen him like this and it, he frightened her. What scared her most was her sense of the divide between them. One she hadn’t thought about, even given their experiences and encounters with those whose bigotry and racism was pronounced. One, given what he had said, she believed he must have thought about many times. “You’re right, Cat. I haven’t…I don’t think about these things. Definitions of value or beauty. Do you? Do they occur to you?”

“Of course they do! I’ve asked and answered myself many, many times, especially once I knew I had fallen in love with you.”

And?” Apprehensive, she bent forward, not sure of his reply and knowing she had to ask.

“No. I’ve already said that I don’t believe white is the standard of beauty. I don’t believe I’ve opted for the dominant culture’s description of what is good and fine or desirable. At least, not consciously.”

“I think I understand that. As hard as it is to hear.”

“Yeah. Like a fish in water breathing through its gills.” Coming to rest, his turn to lean against the wall, his hands stuffed in his pockets, he exhaled. “It’s hard to know at any moment how much of the environment is inside you or out.”

to bear or not to bear: that is the question, 4 of 4


Biblea personal and biblical reflection, based on Galatians 6.2-5

To bear and not to bear.

When do we do which and how?

What is the surely very fine line of demarcation between the two?

Moreover, even when the choice seems clear, how do we deal with our pride of self-sufficiency or our sense that others, barring the altered necessities of aging and infirmity, ought to be self-sufficient? How do we deal with our fear of being rejected either in offering or in asking for help? How do we deal with our hurt and anger, particularly in our most intimate relationships, when our wants and needs are deferred or denied? How do we deal with the pride, fear, hurt and anger; all of which can kill our desire to give or to receive help?

I don’t know. The way is uncertain. At least, for me. For I am not a casuist. I do not believe that there are universal and immutable rules that I can apply with unerring certainty and clarity to each and every situation.


To risk bearing another’s burdens and to risk having our burdens borne by others…

To risk holding out a helping hand to another and to risk taking a helping hand held out to us…

To risk touching the tender places of another’s need and to risk exposing the awkward, sometimes terrifying nakedness of our need…

To risk making mistakes, overstepping or understepping our bounds…

To do all this, I believe, is what it is to fulfill the law of Christ, thus, what it is to be fully human, living faithfully into the purpose of our creation.

to bear or not to bear: that is the question, 3 of 4


Bible a personal and biblical reflection, based on Galatians 6.2-5


To bear or not to bear? That is the question.

To bear and not to bear. This is an answer.[1]

To bear. To be present with others in the midst of life, ready to give and to receive one from another the gifts of who we are and what we have, helping others and being helped by others to bear up under the often withering weight of life in this world.

Not to bear. To allow others and ourselves the freedom to accept offers of help as they and as we will. To allow others and ourselves to assert responsibility for self, for they and we must live with the consequences of the choices they and we make.


[1] I write “an answer.” I believe knowledge, constantly unfolding, is infinite, impossible to measure or to limit. I also believe that knowledge is fluid; what is known capable of being interpreted differently at different times by different people and, indeed, succeeded, being supplanted by new, even ultimate discoveries. (In this latter regard, I think of the Apostle Paul’s proclamation in 1 Corinthians 13.8, “…as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” I also am reminded of that stanza in James Russell Lowell’s poem, The Present Crisis, “New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth…”). Hence, I never dare to declare that I have the answer.