Van Ens: Don’t duel with your adversaries, dine with them
If you can’t stomach your opponents’ religious or political arguments, dine with them.
Digest this folk wisdom: It’s difficult barfing at an opponent whose story you know. Once you hear an adversary’s story during a shared meal, you begin to understand why this person sees the world differently.
Manhattan song writer Gabriel Kahane traveled our nation by railroad shortly after the 2016 presidential campaign, “a rupture in the body politic,” he called it. Each night on several train trips Kahane intentionally had dinner with all sorts of travelers, some whose opinions he had railed against as wacko and weird.
The result? Munching together, he heard their stories. Kahane’s meals by rail didn’t cause an intellectual food fight in which he resorted to railing; that is, scolding adversaries.
Kahane reports how telling stories while eating took the bite out of wrangling. “Where much of the digital world finds us sorting ourselves neatly in cultural and ideological silos,” he laments, “the train, in my experience, does precisely the opposite. It also acts, by some numinous, unseen force, as a kind of industrial-strength social lubricant.
“To be sure, I encountered people whose politics I found abhorrent, dangerous, and destructive, but in just about every instance, there was something about the person’s relationship to family, and loyalty to family, that I found deeply moving.”
What did Kahane learn from dining by rail? “That ability to connect across an ideological divide seemed predicated on the fact that we were quite literally breaking bread together”
How does this folk wisdom of munching on an opponent’s story work to tone down arguing over religion and politics? What does dining together do that rips the guts out from railing against adversaries? Instead of shoving down an opponent’s throat how right we are, we simmer by opening ourselves and spot from where our adversary is coming.
The familiar fifth verse in Psalm 23 pictures God as a shepherd in the desert who hosts travelers and protects them from enemies. “You [God] prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
This Middle East Bedouin hosts anxious travelers. He doesn’t post a “No Vacancy” sign when surly characters show up, intent on robbing travelers. These adversaries are invited to dine with other guests. When they share heartfelt stories, anger dips. Blood pressure goes down. Appreciating personal differences rise.
Winston Churchill devoured this folk wisdom of dining with adversaries. Afterward, his political advantage increased. Churchill fostered collegial connections across the political aisle, honing a life-long trait of not letting “the rancor and asperity of politics” to rupture personal relationships.
Biographer Andrew Roberts tells how Churchill detested Bolshevik communism, throwing insults at its proponents as if he were a superhero hurling lightning bolts. Political divides do “not in my mind prejudice personal relations,” Churchill stated.
Roberts recalls how Churchill was “privately affable” at a table with foes whose politics he abhorred. For instance, Britain’s leading socialist thinker Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary on July 8, 1908, about the chemistry that emerged with this young English politician after she “went in to dinner with Winston Churchill.”
At first, Churchill sounding like his own greatest fan turned off Webb. Eating together softened this initial impression. “But I dare say, he has a better side, which the ordinary cheap cynicism of his position and career covers up to a casual dinner acquaintance,” confessed Webb. After dining, she came away impressed, writing that Churchill’s “pluck, courage, resourcefulness and great traditions may carry him far…” (Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Viking 2018, p. 84).
Nancy Gibbs, former Time magazine editor, rightly complains, “What were once unifying institutions are declining — Rotary Clubs, churches, even malls. Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness, are shredded by tribal furies. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy but a skill. And we face enemies who are intent on dividing us further, weaponizing information and markets and new technologies in ways that strengthen authoritarian systems and weaken democratic ones.”
Let’s belly up to a table. Talk face-to-face with opponents. Chew on divisive topics. Couple together a train of personal stories and opinions as we dine, rather than duel, with opponents.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt CREATIVE CROWTH MINISTRIES, (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.