The Necessity of Difference

I have a ritual on Sunday mornings as I’m stumbling about the house with a cup of coffee in one hand, trying to gather myself for the day. If there’s no one else at home, my iPhone is in the pocket of my bathrobe, streaming the latest “On Being” podcast at the highest volume it can muster. If people are home and sleeping, I try to remember my headphones …

For a minister, finding “church” is an elusive thing. Sunday mornings in the sanctuary are no longer what they once were, so I seek connection in other ways, other places. My church has become jogging past the blackberry thrush bursting with sweetness, a yoga mat on Friday mornings in a quiet studio, and … Krista Tippett in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Yesterday, the podcast was a re-broadcast from 2011 with Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British-born Ghahian-American whose parent’s marriage inspired the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Appiah was speaking of the necessity of difference – how thriving communities cannot be homogeneous monoliths. He was speaking of a wide variety of communities – large communities like social republics and religious affiliations and small communities like neighborhoods and local places of worship.

In partnership with this idea of the necessity of difference, he made a differentiation between conversation and dialogue. I’m certain I don’t have this verbatim (I was stumbling around with my coffee, feeding the cats and trying to brush my teeth while listening) but what I heard him say was that dialogue is something we engage in when there’s something to argue about or when we’re in a situation where there is divisive difference between conversation partners. You don’t think climate change is a real thing? Let’s dialogue about that. You think homosexuality is a sin? I’d love to dialogue about that with you. When we “dialogue” with someone, we have an agenda. Conversation is a different thing. Conversation is located in the seams of knowing someone, of being in relationship. When we have a conversation we ask about the kids, we talk about the weather, how our gardens look this summer. We ask about the health problem we know the neighbor is dealing with, we offer to feed the cats while they’re on vacation. When we engage in conversation – we create relationship and then, maybe, we have dialogue. But because the conversation is our bedrock – we know who Jack and Margot are. They’re not the neighbors with the green lawn in the middle of a dry summer and the SUV with the WWJD bumper sticker. They’re not the people who don’t bother putting out their recycle bin because they’ve thrown everything into the garbage can, they’re Jack and Margot. They’re the couple who had a miscarriage last year. Margot’s 50-something father lives just around the corner and he’s dying of colon cancer. Jack’s daughter Reese is with them every other weekend – she’s 6 and very into skateboarding. Their cat, Carbon, is often my morning companion as I sit on the back porch and he prowls around for the cream I’ve brought out in a little saucer for my coffee.

To be honest, I’m not so interested in dialogue with Jack and Margot. I’m interested in conversation. Maybe someday they’ll ask me what church I’m a minister at or why I compost in my backyard or why my front yard lacks any sign of green. And maybe then (but only maybe) we’ll have a dialogue.

I wonder what would happen if we created relationships through conversation that made civility a real, tangible thing. What would change in our public discourse if the people on the other side of the party line (or at that other church) were no longer “those people” but if they were known. If we cared more about relationship than debate. If we honored our differences as vital and necessary to a thriving republic.

What would happen if you stopped having dialogue and started having conversations?

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