Do we have to run our politics with daggers drawn? Is confrontation simply part of the game?
Based on the past few years, it’s hard to think otherwise. In the U.S., the climate of hostility, polarization, and refusal to compromise has dominated Washington. Powerful forces conspire to reinforce this climate: the demands of party loyalty, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, the loud fringe groups from left and right, the fear among elected officials of losing their jobs to someone ideologically “purer.” Even those who want to work with the other side find frustrations at every turn—while those who equate dialogue with “selling out” rise to power.
It is tempting to dismiss the whole political arena as hopelessly confrontational—and the notion of dialogue in the halls of power as a pipe dream.
But then there is Nguyen Ngoc Huy, and others like him.
Professor Huy has been called “the Gandhi of Vietnam.” From the waning of French colonial rule through the tumultuous war in the 1960s and well beyond, he devoted his life to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law with a distinctly Vietnamese character. With his law degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the Sorbonne, he taught, conducted research, wrote numerous treatises, spoke frequently, and campaigned tirelessly for his ideas and the welfare of his country. Far from giving up after the Communist takeover of 1975, he spent the last 15 years of his life traveling the globe to draw attention to Vietnam and continue the struggle for his homeland’s freedom.
He also had a penetrating insight into how not to conduct politics.
“He had to deal with all sorts of attacks for his policy,” noted Tran Minh Xuan of the Nguyen Ngoc Huy Foundation in the documentary Nguyen Ngoc Huy: A Fighter for Democracy in Vietnam. “Some people, who could not take it any longer, once encouraged me to attack back. But then Professor Huy said to me, ‘Do not do it. There is no benefit in it.… In the future, there will be times when we will need them, or they will need us. But if we have attacked one another, how then will we be able to sit down together to discuss matters? In this huge struggle, one cannot do it alone. We need many people working together.’”
The professor’s words call to mind another arena that involves both power and confrontation: the Anglican Communion and its U.S. version, The Episcopal Church. Over the past few decades, the Communion has seen more than its share of angry words over such issues as human sexuality and the historic truths of the faith. At one point, it threatened to break the Communion apart.
During that time, as I wrote in my book, “Dialogue does not always resolve differences; some are simply irreconcilable. Yet even when they are, authentic dialogue can help us develop respect for one another while still (amicably) disagreeing. In the process, the connections we foster enable us to continue our work together as our institutions fracture.” To paraphrase Professor Huy, if we keep the dialogue going—if we refrain from attacking one another—we might still be able to work together.
If Professor Huy—who sat across the table from his enemies at the Paris Peace Talks, who promoted bold ideas and continually engaged in the rough and tumble of Vietnam’s political arena—could uphold the value of reaching across divides, why can’t our elected officials, and our church leaders, do the same?