Q&A on Instrument of Peace with Alan Yarborough

Last week, The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations and its Department of Faith Formation—along with ChurchNext, a ministry of Forward Movement—released Make Me an Instrument of Peace: A Guide to Civil Discourse. This 5-week course was designed to help us bridge the divides that keep us from moving forward and offers effective strategies to bring people together. Today, we hear from Alan Yarborough, Church Relations Officer of the Office of Government Relations.

What inspired you to create this course?
The first inspiration is perhaps obvious: the U.S. has been experiencing growing divisiveness over political issues, and my faith calls me to work toward right relationship with others. Reflecting on my personal experience growing up in the Church, I remember multiple examples of how our Church has held people together in disagreement—from the tension over electing an openly gay bishop to maintaining a purple parish in a Southern college town. Generally, Episcopalians place great importance on both communion and intelligent reflection. So I asked myself, how can we leverage that to help our communities not just heal, but do better seeking justice.

The second source of inspiration comes from our work in the Office of Government Relations, where we are tasked with representing the Church’s policies. We carry out our work in a political reality in Washington, D.C. That reality has Republicans and Democrats, with members of Congress whose views span the political spectrum. Our own Church population has a range of political views as well, and many Episcopalians disagree passionately about political issues. Whenever we have very different views, we need to engage with people across political differences – to better understand them, to share our perspective, and to have an impact on shaping our country’s policy and legislation. We are at our best when we listen and respond to people who have a host of perspectives. In some ways, this curriculum is about sharing with the wider Church the gift that I’ve received being on staff in this office doing this work.

Why is it important?
Understanding different perspectives is healthy for the development of our own. Through civil discourse with one another, we can challenge our own understandings of what is and is not just, what is and is not right. We may change our views or we may not. We may learn how we have been blinded by privileges or we can share our own perspective to others who may not have heard it before. Civil discourse is a tool, or an instrument, that helps us build relationships with those who have different views than our own and helps us to avoid demonizing and de-humanizing them. Bringing our ideas together into a sacred space for discourse will give us the best chance to address the toughest problems in our communities.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about civil discourse?
The biggest misunderstanding about civil discourse is that it means nothing other than being polite or nice to people. However, we view it as the opposite in some ways! We think it means to care enough about someone to challenge them, but also to listen to them.

Civil discourse does not mean you must abandon your point of view. We also do not believe engaging in conversation to enhance understanding is about silencing others or is an excuse to water down or weaken one’s principles. The staff of the Office of Government Relations practice civil discourse all the time—we meet with lawmakers and policymakers who have different views than the positions of the Church. We are passionate and informed advocates about the issues we are speaking for the Church on, but we also do our best to listen, to understand opposing perspectives, and to bring that knowledge back to the Church. Also, civil discourse does not promise freedom from discomfort or protection from truth. Those who claim civil discourse as justification to silence voices are not practicing civil discourse—they’re just contributing to the further marginalization of others.

What is your hope for this course?
My hope for this course is to both raise the profile of civil discourse and help people become better equipped for it. It is not a media-worthy or glamorous way of sharing one’s views or seeking to understand others’ perspectives. Civil disobedience, public witnesses, marches, and protests—legitimate means of political engagement—often get more media coverage and attention, because that is the goal. Civil discourse is quieter. It is harder to help others understand the transformative impact it can have on our relationships. It is daily work – rooted in listening and understanding, humility and openness. We must reinforce our ability to have difficult conversations, expressing gratitude for the diversity of perspectives we can bring together if we try.

What was your favorite part of developing this course?
Bringing something positive into a climate that is so negatively charged. Again, it is not that civil conversations are happy and comfortable and always feel good. But I do believe that through more intentional interactions, with deeper listening, with more honest sharing, we will have a much better chance at reversing the trend of division. We may not come to more agreement, but we will be able to see those who disagree with us as our neighbors, fellow parishioners, and fellow humans.

What else would you like readers and participants to know?
In approaching this work, I want readers and participants to take a step back and challenge themselves to think in a more expansive way. This work is not something new, and division and disagreement are not something new. I understand how people are discouraged, and I understand how in one year people view this work as anti-Democrat while the next year others view it as anti-Republican. But the practice of civil discourse work is far deeper and long-standing than this. Work on the original version of this curriculum began before the 2016 election, and two years before that, Presiding Bishop Katharine Schori led an event on civil discourse. You can go way back to the Protestant Reformation and Anglican via media to find roots for our institution’s engagement with civil discourse. We must think more expansively about the humanity of those with whom we disagree. We must recognize the complexity of counter-arguments and opposing views, and move beyond simplified arguments and demonization.

Make Me an Instrument of Peace: A Guide to Civil Discourse is available for individuals and groups