It is natural to ponder what lessons might be learned from our national drama for use on the local stages of family, church and community life where most of us live.
We sit in the stands for the “big events,” watching as spectators. But we also act out the same drama in our smaller venues – and some of the same dynamics apply.
We see how easy it is for a passionate, vocal minority, with a criticism of the direction of things, to sidetrack or obstruct a larger group’s mission.
We see it in family deliberations, church business and other settings where diversity of perspective is part of the context.
As valid as a criticism might be, there is a manner of inserting it into the process that is like throwing gasoline on the coals of a cooking fire.
The burst of flames that results from such action both distracts the cooking process and often destroys the meal.
Sometimes the response comes out of frustration from not being heard, and deliberate and disruptive action is seen as a necessity.
But many times, it seems, such responses are an expression of displeasure at not getting one’s way, and the larger mission of a focused and committed majority can be sabotaged by the distraction.
It is part of our collective DNA to honor the right of every voice to be heard in our quest for responsible and faithful living.
Yet, there seems to be a line between that commitment and the need to protect the collective wisdom of experience, maturity and respect from the attitude of the one who “takes his ball and bat and goes home” if he can’t play shortstop.
A former Mercer University Atlanta dean, James Yerkes, taught an important lesson on this issue to our academic community 30 years ago.
He brought to his administrative task a principle from his previous experience in a Quaker school, where consensus was an important goal of deliberative work.
We learned from him that consensus does not mean the elimination of disagreement or the abandonment of principle.
Rather, it means working through differing perspectives with a clear commitment to the larger purpose of a community’s mission, and a willingness to subordinate one’s particular position on an issue to the collective vision of one’s colleagues.
This necessitated humility on the part of all to see the whole process as a work in progress that would benefit from ongoing discovery.
On good days, we would leave discussions, sometime heated ones, with a sense that all voices had been heard and respected, and that our direction had been refined by the careful attention to various points of view.
Not all would be pleased, of course, but our better selves would then shoulder the wheel of our shared goal of creating contexts where learning and discovery could take place for our students (and for us).
If there were those who left those discussions saying to themselves, “We lost that round, but we will return to fight another day,” they showed that they didn’t get it.
I couldn’t help thinking, as I have watched the “big stage” of our recent and current national drama, how helpful it would be in all our cooperative work – from the simplest personal engagements to larger collectives like church life – if we could worry less about our more limited personal agendas and worry more about the larger context of needs that afflict the human family.
In the journey of faith, passion of principle seems to be a poor and debilitating substitute for humility of mind and heart.
Perhaps it is good to hear this message as we face the daily decision of choosing the path of divisiveness or the path of community.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.