Let’s try some word association. I’ll give you three words, and you say the first word that comes to mind. Here we go:




Did you read these words and instantly think fundamentalist, or conservative, or something like that? I have, for many years.

To those of us who think along such lines, let me tell a story.

A friend recently wrote me about two of his old classmates, buddies since high school, who have had a falling out. One is a mainstream Protestant minister, seminary-trained, with 20 years’ experience. The other just became born again and is sharing her newfound (fundamentalist) faith with the minister. My friend perceives that it’s the minister, “liberal” as she is, who’s become defensive.

I can imagine that, because I see it in some of the progressives I know. They’ll embrace anyone of any stripe—except conservatives. They view fundamentalists through stereotypes and have little interest in hearing traditional perspectives.

So what does this show us? Certainly that intolerance is not confined to one specific worldview. If we go deeper, though, we might just find that (to borrow from Pogo) we have met the intolerant and they is us.

I know this is true of me. I am delighted to enter into dialogue with Hindus, Baha’is, New Agers, gays, you name it. But Baptists? Health insurance executives? Do I have to?

Yes. Dialogue calls me to encounter everyone. No exceptions.

But how? This is what makes authentic dialogue far more than just a series of techniques for use once we’re at the table. To talk with those who set our teeth on edge and our blood pressure soaring, we have to prepare our inner selves—to till the soil of our souls, as it were—long before we start the dialogue itself. By cultivating such virtues as humility, openness, an ability to risk, and a commitment to love, we gradually become people of clear mind and open heart, which empowers us to share with anyone.

Goodness knows we need this. What might happen if, say, single-payer advocates and health insurance executives were to prepare their inner selves and then come back to the table? No, they probably wouldn’t agree on a strategy for health care reform. But at least they could conduct a civil conversation, a give-and-take that might clarify the issues for the rest of us—including our elected leaders—and thus clear a path to a better solution.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But given the current state of the health care discussion—or the debate over abortion, or gay marriage, or any other issue—surely it is a place to start.