My neighbor George recently heard the story about a man who once asked newly elected president George Washington what was the best thing a person could do for his/her country. Washington responded "be willing to share your views beyond yourself."

I added that the other day while listening to a C-Span rebroadcast of the newly formed Federal Election Commission one of the Commissioners remarked that his father always believed in a "civil and spirited debate."


George said that a "spirited debate" that remains "civil" is not possible today. Our society, our culture, has become so nasty and at times so hateful in the way we treat one another — especially with those with whom we disagree. Sometimes we even move to the point of demonizing the other person.

He went on saying, let me tell you a "Jesus parable" (a story with a deeper meaning). Once upon a time there was a group of friends who shared a common faith. They also gathered together on a Saturday morning once a month at a local restaurant for informal fellowship. They talked joyfully about the weather, children, finances and related topics. One day, one of them suggested that they take their common friendship and fellowship a little deeper. Since we have a common bond let's talk about important things like how our faith relates to topics like immigration or abortion or health care or "fake news." With some trepidation they all agreed. After about four months dealing with these important issues the attendance among these friends (who believed they shared common values) got smaller and smaller until finally no one came. The group broke up. What happened? Jesus said "let anyone with ears to hear, listen."

William Falk, editor-in-chief of The Week magazine recently wrote, "I worry about where we are headed. Democrats and Republicans are self-segregating into geographic, cultural and media ghettos of like-minded souls, making it easier to demonize those who are outside the wall. Compromise is dead; giving an inch to Them, a form of treason."

If "demonizing" is a key concept, where did it come from? There is an interesting Biblical statement found in the Letter of James (in the Christian Scriptures – 4.1-2): "These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it so you engage in disputes and conflicts."

What can we do to change this? In an effort to "think globally and act locally" our annual Memorial Day might be a start. I love the parade and the flag waving and the closing service at the cemetery. But it occurs to me that Memorial Day is really about death and dying. Someone died because people couldn't get along. Many died because nations couldn't live with one another. "Living death" is another form of death. It occurs when people talk but don't listen to one another or when we shut our ears to another point of view. "Living death" occurs in communities, in businesses, in relationships, in religious groups, in homes, in families. Generally it occurs when there is another person present (because if I am alone "what a wonderful world this world would be if everyone was just like me). Our county commissioners would mandate (whatever that means) that when the parade is over and before we go to the cemetery we have some classes on living peacefully together. Like "How to tweet to build up rather than tear down." Or "How to listen to someone when you know that they are not only wrong but stupid wrong." Or "Learning to listen before you speak." George has a friend who once said, "I didn't hear a word you said because I was planning my response before you spoke."

Let's try this again. What can I (we) do to effect a positive change in growing destructive relationships. From varying resources come some suggestions.

First, we need to decide if we really want to see or experience destructive relationships changed for the better. I am convinced that some people today really want or even seem to enjoy living in destructive chaos. Maybe only God can change them.

Second, on the other hand in a more positive vein, we need to learn how to separate our feelings from the person and the topic. When the topic becomes the person then good communication often is lost because we attack both.

Third, we need to broaden our understanding of empathy beyond people or situations we like but not for those we don't like. One definition of empathy is "the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference." My Dad used to say it is "walking in another person's shoes."

Fourth, we need to reach out beyond our own comfort zones to have a relationship with a person(s) radically different from ourselves. For those who follow Jesus we are called to practice radical Christianity. In response to radical destructive relationships we are called to practice radical hospitality which is our benchmark in living our daily life. Some friends of ours took this advice. One engaged in a conversation with an African-American he worked with and was amazed to find that this "black person" had the same likes and dislikes he had. Another spent time with a lesbian (who she believed Biblically would end up in hell) only to find she had the same sexuality struggles she had gone through. A third person (a conservative evangelical) engaged quality time with a Muslim and for the first time found him to be human after all in spite of theological differences they still had with one another.

Let the dialogue continue. I only ask that you think on these things.

The Rev. Dr. Wm. Louis "Lou" Piel is pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Finksburg and can be reached at julo1@verizon.net.