Negotiator in Chief?

Explaining Donald Trump’s provocative rhetoric, a long-time Republican operative was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “[Trump has] always said privately that he’s learned from negotiations that you start from the far end. If you start in the middle you lose.” This positional bargaining tactic is hardly surprising. It might even be quaint if it wasn’t so destructive or deeply entrenched in the riggings of a win-lose binary that keeps broad swaths of humanity mired in a sycophantic devotion to self-interest.

One has to wonder where Trump has been in our post Getting to Yes world. The work of Roger Fisher and William Uri, among so many since, highlights the promise and effectiveness of principled negotiating – negotiating that rests on mutuality without compromising the need for favorable results. In its most articulate expression, it gets beyond the language of winning and losing (forsaking even the coveted win-win) in favor of creative alternatives that assure mutual benefit and lasting, productive relationships.

The world of winning and losing, winners and losers is by nature unkind and violent. It is unproductive. It leads to power grabs and arms races and pushes the planet ever closer to destruction. So much energy is expended on climbing the ladder – corporate, political, social – that the weakening of the rungs is overlooked. At stake is not just the self, but the soul; not just the individual, but the gossamer web that binds society.

Thomas Paine wrote in his influential The Rights of Man,

The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government.

Mutual dependence and reciprocal interest are the antidote to anarchy and lawlessness. Win-lose modalities support the latter and undermine the former, all the while eroding any semblance of a great chain of connection.

It’s little surprise that Trump’s populist campaign, which follows the path of least resistance with its win-at-all-costs posture, has been so effective in attracting the support of especially white males whose sense of entitlement is rooted in historical privilege. This sense of entitlement comes at great cost to society, which remains fragmented in terms of race, gender, and class (among a host of other prefabricated divisions).

In all fairness, Trump is not alone. Despite varying political agendas and approaches, it is clear that each of the candidates has bought into the dominant narrative of the win-lose dichotomy. It seems a necessity of the current practice of democracy. The Sanders campaign, for all that it claims to present an alternative narrative, does not reflect the level of rhetorical or policy awareness that would bind society more closely together. Across the spectrum of candidates in this awfully long election season, there’s an almost complete dearth of talk about working with opponents or negotiating compromises that would serve the best interests of all the people.

The angry, often bitter rhetoric sown recklessly by the candidates and exploited by the media’s self-interest in ratings that drive advertising revenues is a significant threat to the fabric of society. It belies an arrogance that conquers by dividing rather than painstakingly sowing together the tears and tatters of the great American tapestry envisioned by the Founders.

With the balance of power carefully distributed between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches – and given the specific powers granted the president – the Constitution calls forth not just a commander in chief, but a negotiator in chief. It envisions a reasonable president, Congress, and judiciary working together in service of the more perfect union called for in the Preamble, where justice is established, domestic tranquility ensured, common defense provided, general welfare promoted, and in which the blessings of liberty are secured in the present and for posterity.

This may sound naïve in light of deepening political divisions, but I believe the vision of the Founders may yet become the renewed vision of the nation. It will take principled leaders to guide the nation and principled negotiations to reframe political discourse and shift the status quo toward a more productive footing. The language of mutuality and reciprocity needs to be regained. Common interest, as Payne suggests, needs to regulate concerns and form laws so that society as a whole may be sewn together through good governance and a revived sense of common identity.

A Wildly Inclusive Welcome

Ever since I first visited Hope Church Boston in the summer of 2003 I’ve nurtured a dream for the church: a dream of extravagant welcome and non-judgmental inclusivity. The seeds of this dream were planted at the Sunday evening Jazz service at First Church in Cambridge where I first encountered a truly open Communion table. I found it expressed at Hope in the welcome statement read each Sunday at the beginning of the service. It’s a welcome message I’ve adapted and continue to proclaim at the beginning of worship each week, both as a tip of the hat to the community that ordained me and as a statement of my belief that no one should be excluded from meaningful experiences of the Divine. I recently had the chance to sit down and record it with the help of Nick DiLullo, who is a member of First Church in Farmington and a fabulous videographer.

Overcoming Mental Short-cuts

In recent days I’ve been taken with FBI director James Comey’s statement about lazy mental short-cuts that law enforcement officers sometimes make. Don’t we all just with less-lethal consequences? It gave me a great springboard for a program at the church to challenge assumptions of race, xenophobia, homophobia, and suspicion of people of other religions – especially in our tumultuous world. So here’s my March newsletter article. Feel free to join in, if you are able to.

Beloved friends,

One of the greatest strengths of our congregation is our ability to maintain diverse perspectives while working toward a common goal. This goal is nothing short of mirroring the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by living ever more deeply into the extravagant love of God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

Living into this love comes with great joys and, admittedly, great costs.

In recent months, given events at home and abroad, I have been prayerfully mulling how First Church can respond to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious violence that characterize so much of life today. In our own beautiful country we have to face what FBI director James Comey recently called “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to the killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men. The chokehold and shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown respectively are two high-profile examples.

We need to acknowledge that these lazy mental short-cuts are made all the time by many, if not all, of us when it comes to race. The same is true of our encounters with people of different religions, economic brackets, national origins or immigration status, and people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations.

The primary question we face is how we can combat these lazy mental short-cuts and the attitudes and actions that flow from them?

Our task in combatting these mental short-cuts is compounded by the horrendous killings of Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa by supporters of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. I believe they have raised the specter of the greatest evil the world has faced since the holocaust. It’s awfully tempting, as a result, to make lazy mental short-cuts.

We need to be on guard. We can’t afford to remain mentally lazy and lump all Muslims or brown skinned Middle Easterners in the same camp. We can’t lump all of Africa in the same basket. We have to break the cycle of superiority that keeps us from valuing people who are different from us.

I therefore invite you to join me in the following activities:
1.) A reading of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree this Lent.
2.) A series of sacred conversations on race this Eastertide through Pentecost.
3.) A panel discussion by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths on the questions: i) what is the character of your God and ii) what is the highest religious end you wish to achieve.
4.) Participating in the Moral Monday movement being started in Hartford by our friend Bishop John Selders.
5.) Honest and earnest prayerful searching about diversity and how God is calling us to respond to violence.
(Dates for discussions will be determined.)

This is not always going to be easy. We may come into conflict. The mere suggestion of this course of action may well be distressing you. But it’s something we need to do in a spirit of living more fully into God’s extravagant love. How else will we and the world be transformed? How else will First Church truly live into our great mission of mirroring the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I believe we can do this and invite you to participate with me.

Grace and Peace,

Steven