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Friday
May272005

Civility

[Dallas Morning News, May 22, 2005]

For most of the 90’s I was involved in an organization with a highly improbable name: The Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. Yes, in the days when "pro-life" (pardon, I mean hateful anti-choice fanatics) and "pro-choice (that is, hateful baby-killing fanatics) were about as opposite as they could be, in some dozen cities across the country they were sitting down, knee to knee, and trying to understand each other.

It was terrific. Now I have to admit that this was a self-selected group, and anyone who participated was the kind of pro-lifer or pro-choicer who would *want* to talk to someone on the other side. But we saw some surprising positive results. For example, we produced a paper on our agreement that adoption is a good alternative to abortion. A pro-life rescue activist and an abortion clinic administrator jointly wrote a paper on the acceptable limits of demonstrations outside clinics. But most important, we were able to put a face on a faceless "enemy," and find that we could talk. For those expecting insults, fury, and rejection, just being heard out was enough to bring tears to the eyes.

A new group would begin with a dialogue session in which there were an equal number of pro-choice and pro-life participants. These would sit in groups of four, and take turns answering the question, "What experience in your life led you to hold your opinion on abortion?" That question was carefully chosen. Nobody can tell you that you have not had an experience.

If a pro-life person told their story, then one of the pro-choicers would respond. He would summarize and repeat what the pro-lifer had said, showing that it had been accurately understood. If it wasn’t accurate, the pro-lifer could correct and fine-tune. When the "listenee" was satisfied that she had been thoroughly heard, it was the turn of someone on the other side to tell his story.

"Common ground" did not mean compromise. It meant "safe ground," a safe space where we could talk about our deepest beliefs and not be ridiculed or insulted. The ground was kept safe by some basic rules:

1. No attempts at persuasion. The goal was just to be accurately understood. Too often, all we knew about each other was what we picked up in the media, and stereotypes, confusion, and misrepresentation abounded. We were trying to get past misunderstanding, and arrive at genuine disagreement.

2. Call a person by the label they prefer, rather than a politically loaded epithet.

3. Only "sincere questions" are allowed. A sincere question was defined as "a question you don’t know the answer to." Rhetorical questions, designed to trip up the other guy, were off the table.

After the initial day of dialogue we would continue to meet and talk, and friendships grew between the most unlikely people. In one city, a very young girl showed up at an abortion clinic, too far along to have an abortion. She would have to finish the pregnancy on complete bed rest, and needed volunteers to sit with her. The clinic administrator knew a pro-lifer from the local Common Ground group, and phoned to ask for help. The pro-life community gathered volunteers to sit with her, and the girl finished her pregnancy safely. But if the two communities had been locked in the kind of armed warfare that usually exists, the side that had resources would not have even known that the other side had a need.

In the late 90’s the movement started hitting financial roadbumps; the foundations that had been so generous were turning to other interests and issues. The abortion debate seemed to be receding from the headlines. And, frankly, it’s never news when people are being nice to each other. The national office lost its funding, and could no longer support the local groups.

But what I learned from those meetings will always stay with me. As a Christian, it became a significant learning experience. My Lord Jesus had told me to go love my enemies, and in order to do that, I had to at least go and look at them from time to time. I looked at them and talked to them and listened to them. In the end, I found they weren’t that hard to love.

 

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