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#388 Is Dialgoue Possible? The Next Challenge for the Philanthropy Sector

July 8th, 2020

Richard Marker

A fellow member of the National Speakers Association publicly posed a sincere question? An Ausssie expat now living in the USA, he asked how it was that so many of us had no difficulty at all dialoguing with adherents of other religions than our own but seemingly had no ability or interest in dialogue with political adherents with whom we disagree. After all, he suggested, even if we have no intention or expectation of proselytization, our religious worldviews and beliefs are surely quite divergent. Why is that different than political discourse?

As one who has devoted a very substantial amount of volunteer time over several decades to inter-religious dialogue on local, national, and international levels, this question is not a trivial one. I am probably as guilty of my colleague’s characterization as anyone so let me respond – first to the easy part and then in a bit more depth.

The easy answer is that interreligious dialogue has become well developed. Not everyone in any religion believes in it which means that, almost all the time, our dialogue is with those who, on some level, accept “the other”. None of us is so naïve to think that we can fully change hearts, minds, beliefs, and experiences of all of our own co-religionists, even if we have learned to model a different approach and accept that there are “Truths” in every Tradition, while not compromising on the “Truth” of our own. And it is successful because enough religious leaders around the world now affirm the legitimacy of dialogue so that no one needs to apologize for participating in such settings.

The easy answer in the political arena of 2020 is that the divide is so large that vast swaths of those on either side of the political divide deeply reject the “Truths” that others believe. This divide has been underscored by the Pew Research Center that has demonstrated that the vocabulary, the world view, and the perceived role of government are more divided than at any time since they began their work. Until there is leadership that models that the work of inter-political dialogue can and should happen, there is little public space for or acceptance of the kind of successful dialogue that has characterized the interreligious space for several decades.

That was the easy answer, but hardly sufficient. About the challenge of interreligious discourse: Those of us with a long history of this never take for granted that new participants know the ground rules. Dialogue is not disputation. It is not a debating society. It is not a competition for whose history is more credible, or more worthy of sympathy or condemnation. It is not a quick fix. And it is not for those whose knowledge of their own tradition is inadequate for an informed exchange.

The purpose of dialogue is to advance a common agenda, when it might exist; to make sure that participants have a keen empathy for their counterparts and their religion; to understand their respective vulnerabilities; to understand normative behaviors and authoritative positions even as they may have evolved over time; and to create a level of mutual trust so that when inevitable challenges emerge, there is a context for deciding what to do about them.

None of this is easy; not every interreligious dialogue survives those periodic challenges or the inclusion of new participants with no institutional memory. Differing adjudicatory and authority systems often lead to limits of how far a conversation can proceed. But many dialogues do thrive. [I am happy to share real transformative experiences with leaders of many religions to any of you who ask – but those stories are not the subject of this piece.]

The reason I articulate both the challenges and ground rules is precisely because almost none of those ground rules is present in the current political climate. It is not that such dialogue is impossible in theory – only that the deterioration of civility and trust has made it fully elusive.

It is also important to state again what was implied earlier: one cannot or should not dialogue with everyone. Dialogue means that we assume the best intentions of the other, the integrity of the other, and the conviction that something better can come of it. Under the current national leadership by one who behaves in a treasonous manner, who violates the oath of office to uphold the Constitution, who behaves as a race baiter, and whose personal animus to any opposing view can only be understood as beneath contempt, one cannot assume that there is much opportunity for dialogue at that level prior to the November election.

My own place along the political spectrum is thus clearly not very hidden, but I am old enough to know that American political history has a long tradition of talking across the aisle, of political leaders who disagreed but didn’t demonize, of genuine struggles with endemic challenges even if informed by different conceptual perspectives. This is not to romanticize or idealize the past as much as to say that there is a basis for affirming that authentic political dialogue has existed – and can again.

One of the key challenges in dialogue that transforms is that it must find resonance among leaders at the top and also a sufficient number of adherents on the grass roots level. There can be very meaningful and sincere dialogues at either level, but unless both exist, the impact will end when the door of discourse opens to the outside. I imagine that somewhere in America, in safe and secluded places, some people are talking to each other with a modicum of calm and reason even though their political stances are diametrically opposed. I am not sure where these places are even though we regularly hear pleas for that to happen. Most – not all – of those pleas, I regret to say, seem to be from people who have chosen to act and say “a plague on both your houses” rather than willingness to genuinely engage. Nevertheless, I would like to think that somewhere those discussions are happening by some people who are the right ones to be in the room.

The reason we don’t hear about them, if they exist, is because it is not safe to go public. No one has created a safe, mediated space – and few adherents are willing to publicly honor those with opposing views with credibility. It is surely not happening on the overt political level. I may have strong opinions about whose fault that is, but, no matter, it isn’t happening on the leadership level – and without that it will never happen on the ground.

Is there hope or have we become a nation on the brink? History gives mixed messages. We should never forget what George Mitchell always would remind naysayers as he mediated an end to the hostilities in Ireland. “Everyday is a failure until the day that it isn’t.” And one day he succeeded. On the other hand, sadly, there are a lot of failed empires strewn along the highway of history, those who believed in their own uniqueness or invincibility or even divine selection.

Perhaps my colleague is correct in looking to the interreligious realm to provide a key. Can there be a more powerful statement of transcendent transformation than Vatican II’s famous Nostra Aetate? Written and affirmed in the mid-60’s, it reversed 1800 years of Church teaching toward and about “the other.” One day other religions were to be condemned, vilified, and proselytized; the next day they were authentic, legitimated, and respected. Sure, 50+ years later there are still too many who are unaware or skeptical, but acceptance of “the other” is Catholic Doctrine, and that has been affirmed vocally and forcefully by every Pope since. I have personally been present at three of those. [The influences that led to that statement have been the subject of many books and analyses, and there are significant nuances to how the Church got there and what it means for Roman Catholics. This is not the place to rehearse them; rather I refer to it as an example of how presumably irreconcilable ideologies can be bridged – even against all odds.]

This modest hopefulness should also lead to a mandate to our philanthropy world. Our work depends on the viability of civil society. Voluntarism, in any of the 3 W’s – work, wealth, or wisdom – requires that there are safe spaces for improving and influencing society. It means that there can be a decision to act for immediacy, or with a long-time perspective. It means that the organizations we fund can be free to implement the missions we support. It means that continued learning, genuine empowerment, and respect for equity, in all of its connotations, are allowed, possible, and encouraged. And it, therefore, means that we have a great deal at stake in becoming active advocates for the health and security of that sector and of civil society writ large.

It also means that our own behaviors matter. There is now an active discussion about whether there is legitimacy to our work since it is, no matter how one slices it, based on privilege and power. One can mediate and moderate them. One can share them. One can learn from them. But as long as private philanthropy exists one must acknowledge the endemic nature of privilege and power. And if that is the case, we must model how civil society can work even with that imbalance. It does not mean that we have to be perfect. As we know, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” If we hold out for the absolute or pure, we will become paralyzed by the disputes about what that must mean.

But model we must.

What many have learned in the last 4 months is that we as funders had typically been very slow to implement what it means to encourage and permit the trust that allows us to do what we want to do with our voluntary resources. If our systems, our affect, our expectations, and our decision making are, at the end of the day, patronizing, judgmental, restrictive, and self-serving, no matter how much lip service we give to respecting our grantee “partners”, they always know who has control.

Many [it isn’t yet clear what percentage of] funders have made modifications to significant elements of our funding processes in response to the Pandemic and to racial inequities. Many have eased reporting requirements, dropped project conditions, extended the length of grants, and more. Many have involved grantees and the directly impacted communities in decision making. It remains to be seen how many of these process changes will be lasting and how many funders will find it easy to revert to old ways of doing things whenever this period ends.

Some funders have chosen to give more and/or spend more of their endowments in the belief that, as some have said “this is the rainy day we have been saving for.” Here, too, it remains to be seen how sustained these spending and investment changes will be.

What does seem to be the most impenetrable barrier to change will be in the issue of governance. [I have written about this previously – please see #359, 26 Nov 2019] How many families will dilute their control of the family funded foundation with other stakeholders to the degree that it is no longer controlled by the family? How many will choose to surrender their multigenerational legacy to the existential problems of today? How many will admit that power can distort both one’s own perceptions and how others relate to us?

This last stage is hard, and as I said, perhaps impenetrable. But if our experience is to be a paradigm it is where we need to be model for a divided society. Being wealthy is not a divine right anymore than being part of the underclass should be a permanent destiny. Our sector is not singlehandedly able to erase systemic inequity and racism, but we must model how to redress and acknowledge them – even at some cost to our own extensive power and wealth.

Trust is what allowed centuries of interreligious disputation to become interreligious amity. Trust is what can allow decades of funders and grantees seeing one another as “the other” to be transformed into a trust based mutual commitment to change. And without trust, that only those with the wealth and power can foster, it will never be possible to rebuild our broken society, correct our rigged system, and redress our deep inequities.

No. Philanthropy cannot do it alone, but we can surely model how to begin.

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