After November 8th: What Is A Citizen To Do?

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull

There’s one reality that Americans of all political persuasions seem to forget about during an election season.

After we go to the polls. After the votes are counted. After concessions speeches are (hopefully) made, we all still have to live together, in one nation.

Sure, a tiny minority will threaten to move and maybe some even will. But the majority of us will continue to live where we’re living, with the job we have, and the friends we surround ourselves with.

Like it or not, we’re stuck together.

At the same time, even though we find ourselves in a nation, couched between spacious skies and purple mountain majesties, it doesn’t mean we have to agree or even like one another.

We will disagree. We need to disagree.

But I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Eboo Patel, who recently relayed some much needed words of wisdom during his interview on my favorite podcast, On Being.

Patel is an American Muslim, who founded Interfaith Youth Core, an interfaith organization that trains college student, centered on the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.

Patel said:

…healthy is a society in which people who orient around religion differently can disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things.

This can, of course, apply to people within any religion or outside.

Even though you may have a fundamental disagreement with someone on a specific issue, there is likely an issue that you both agree with, that you can work on together for the common good.

Patel also warned of a trend that is easy to spot on social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter:

…The most dangerous trend in our society right now is what Andrew Sullivan calls the “scalping” trend, which is if you disagree with me on one fundamental thing — and I’m going to recognize that these things are fundamental — matters of the Middle East, same sex marriage, abortion — they are fundamental — let’s not say that they’re marginal at all — but if you disagree with me on that, I will neutralize our entire relationship, and I will take your scalp and hang it on my wall as a trophy to make sure that everybody else who has that opinion knows that I’m coming for them.

These words honestly hit me at a gut level, because it raises the disgust and anger I have toward the conservative fringes of the Christian faith that I profess.

When I see Christians treat the LGBT community so poorly, my blood boils and the last thing I want to do is work with those people on any issue, because they fundamentally want to deny me and my friends our rights and even think we’re an abomination. And that pisses me off!

At the same time, I do believe those same Christians who I disagree with about LGBT rights also do good in their own communities. Whether it’s feeding the hungry, providing clean water for communities who don’t have it, or assisting the elderly in their time of need.

Heck, there are even churches in New York City whom I disagree with about LGBT rights. But would I refuse to work with them to alleviate hunger, combat homelessness, or any number of problems that face a city as large and diverse as NYC? The reactionary, ego-driven part of me says, “Yeah, I’ll pass.” But the compassionate, loving part of me says, where do I sign up?

The truth is that it is easy to create monsters of people whom I disagree with and who disagree with me. And it’s likely just as easy for them to see me as a monster, out to destroy their ideal of X, Y, or Z.

When I actually take a breath and step back, I’m able to see the complexity of the other. The same complexity and nuance that I want others to see in me. I’m not only a gay man. I’m not only a Christian. I’m not only a son and brother. I’m not only an American citizen. I also get angry and say things I regret. I pretend my opinions are untouchable, even though deep down I can see the other side. I have moments when I hate the person in front of me for walking so slow. I’m imperfect, wrong at times, and incredibly fallible.

Within me are so many contradictions and inconsistencies. When I really get to a place of honesty with myself, I begin to unearth my own prejudices and biases. I am able to see where I may be wrong about this or that. Or, at the very least, I’m able to see why someone has formed the opinion that they have.

Patel also raised a point I haven’t ever considered, revealing what he shares with college students across the nation:

Justice is another term that we assume everybody has the same definition of. My new line to 20-year-olds who look very chastised when I say this on campuses is, “If everybody in the room that you’re in has the same definition of ‘justice’ that you do — I don’t care how many colors, or genders, or sexual preferences, or religions are in that room — it’s not a diverse room.” Part of the definition of “diversity” is the recognition there are diverse understandings of justice.

I won’t dive into this idea about different ideas of justice, since that would require its own article!

But I agree with Patel that a civil society must include citizens who are willing to go toe to toe, in a fierce battle of ideas. To do everything possible to defeat the other person’s candidate at the ballot box.

All the while, we need citizens who are able to agree to disagree on some fundamental things, but then work together on other issues where there is agreement, in the interest of the common good.

This isn’t always easy to wrap my head around, especially in the heat of reading a Facebook post of a person who supports a candidate I can’t stand.

But it is our duty as citizens to get offline and work alongside people, even when we don’t see eye to eye. There is so much suffering and injustice in the world that requires all hands on deck. Hopefully we can keep this in mind after November 8th.

Be sure to listen to On Being’s latest episode, “How to Live Beyond This Election” with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and interfaith visionary Eboo Patel. Hosted by Krista Tippett.