It’s tempting to think that things have never been this bad.
For months, we have seen a national political discourse characterized by incivility and contempt—on prominent display at the first presidential debate held earlier this week. The widespread distrust of media and politicians, the bitter divisions of partisan politics, and the toxic mixture of violence and apathy that characterizes public discourse and popular culture have taken on distinctive forms in an age when inaccuracies and insults seem to travel faster than the speed of light, spreading virally through our social networks. In much the same way that it a gun makes it easier to kill other human beings by lessening the intimate physical brutality of the act, it is easier to demean another person when our interaction with them is removed from the context of a face to face encounter. Though even there—in personal conversation with friends or relatives whose politics differ from our own—interactions are often tense and volatile.
It can feel like there is little hope of recovering a sense of the common good, a sense that we are bound together—as Americans, as Christians, as humans—by more than what divides us. Or even hope of a civil conversation.
But ours is not the first age to deal with deep and hostile divisions and political uncertainty. At the time of the founding of the Society of Jesus, Europe was facing the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, which not only called into question many established religious and cultural institutions and practices, but also led to political turmoil, persecution, and war. When the Council of Trent was called to offer a Catholic response to the Protestants in 1545, Pope Paul III requested that several Jesuits serve as theological consultants and advisors to the council. In a letter written in early 1546 to the Jesuits attending Trent, Ignatius of Loyola offered wise advice for dealing with others, much of which remains as insightful and relevant to our own political context as it was to his.
- “Be slow to speak” and “be slow to speak.” Ignatius actually repeats this phrase three times in the body of his instruction, underscoring its significance. He emphasizes that one should only respond to an argument after having listened carefully and quietly in order to understand where the other party is coming from, so as to “better know when to speak and when to be silent.” Ignatius also stresses the importance of patiently giving a difficult conversation the time that is necessary to hear out different viewpoints and opinions, and to listen to others with empathy and consideration of the “whole person.”
- Even when it is necessary to offer a response, one should do so with kindness, consideration, humility, and sincerity, always “with due respect for a better opinion” (salvo meliori iudicio) and assuming the most charitable interpretation of the other person. As one might expect, Ignatius instructs the Jesuits in attendance to consider the reasons on both sides of an issue, without particular attachment to their own opinions.
- In sermons and lectures, Ignatius instructs the Jesuits to avoid divisive topics, encouraging them rather to exhort their audience to virtue and “awaken in souls a thorough knowledge of themselves and a love of their Creator.” In the context of political discussion, this doesn’t mean avoiding difficult issues, but rather seeking common ground rather than points of division. He also recommends that they conclude their discussions with prayers for the council, and instruct their hearers likewise to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who take part in it.
Ignatius has more to say to the Jesuits who attended the Council of Trent, but imagine the difference in our political culture if we were to apply even these few principles—being slow to speak and careful in listening, responding with humility and openness to others, and leading with common values rather than points of division—to our conversations about politics, both during this election season and into whatever the next four years may bring (God, have mercy!). Many of the issues we face as a political community are enormously complex and allow for differences of judgment among people of good will, making it all the more important that we resist demonizing those with whom we disagree—even, perhaps, when they try to demonize and discredit us. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus told his followers (Matthew 5:44). Ignatius’ instructions for dealing with others offer some specific guidance for how we might put that command into practice this fall.*
For while it’s hard to say whether or how Jesus would vote in this election, we can be sure that attempting to understand, empathize, and engage our “enemies” in genuine dialogue is essential to loving them as Jesus taught his followers to do.
*Keep an eye out for the January 2017 issue of Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education, which addresses the theme of “Difficult Conversations” and features articles on how Jesuit institutions are dealing with issues of race, sexuality, and multicultural identity on campus.