from Emily Provance, Friend in Residence
In front of Quaker House, there are two trees. One has green leaves, and the other has red. I don’t know enough about horticulture to explain this. There’s also a squirrel—I call her Friend Squirrel—who delights in leaping between them. Sometimes, when I’m working on the balcony, she comes along to practice her acrobatics. I could never do what she does . . . but then, I’m not a squirrel.
The week’s theme at Chautauqua has been “Navigating Our Divides.” Funny how nobody’s defined what that means. First, “divides” could refer to a lot of things, and indeed, every speaker interpreted this differently. And second, what do we mean by “navigating” our divides? Do we mean working together? Repairing harm done? Co-existing without offending? Convincing the other party that they’re wrong? Do we hope that our side will win? Are we seeking a way forward for everyone equally?
Our divides go back a long, long time. Sunday night was “Christmas in July,” an old Chautauqua tradition. (There seem to be a great many Chautauqua traditions.) We read from the Christmas story and sang Christmas hymns, but beforehand, Bishop Gene Robinson explained a bit about the origins of the Christmas story. Why is it different in Matthew and in Luke?
Well, said Robinson, the book of Matthew was written for the Jews. It was important to show, in keeping with the sacred texts, that the Messiah had come and was a divine king, and so Matthew wrote about kings bowing down to Him. Matthew traced His genealogy back to King David. Matthew was invested in the story of Jesus as royal.
But the book of Luke was written for the Gentiles. It was important to show, because the Gentiles were often coming from poor backgrounds, that a great leader had come and was human and humble, and so Luke wrote about shepherds bowing down to him. Luke told about a stable and a manger. Luke was invested in the story of Jesus as relatable.
Today, we say that Jesus was both, and that very paradox is treasured. But if Jesus were born in 2021, I think the two stories would become conflicting narratives. One-or-the-other, and we’d be convinced of which was right based mostly on who we followed on Twitter. How much we would lose by not understanding that two opposing viewpoints can both be true and holy!
All week long, I’ve been frustrated, wanting one of our speakers, any speaker, to tell us what we are supposed to do to “navigate our divides.” But we never got any straightforward solutions. Speaker Amanda Ripley said that high conflict (in which we get stuck and entrenched in opposing viewpoints) is bad, but good conflict (in which we disagree in dialogue) is necessary. Katherine Cramer said we must listen intensely and patiently to understand those we oppose, but Eddie S. Glaude said that we must act aggressively to fight for what is right. Eboo Patel said Christianity is at the heart of our country, but so are Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam.
A highlight of my week came mid-morning Friday, when we gathered a small group here at Quaker House for coffee and tea. We had put out invitations to the staffs of all the other denominational houses. We want to make friends here. We want to be in community.
At the end of our hour together, one visitor suggested that we join hands, going around the circle to each offer a blessing for Quaker House. We did. The House was well and truly blessed, with prayers for peace and calm and comfort for all who enter here—but also for courage to do difficult things.
Royal-relatable. Listen-act. Christianity-Islam. Comfort-courage. At the end of this week, I don’t believe I have all the answers about navigating divides. But I do think I’ll take a cue from Friend Squirrel. There are two trees, one red and one green. Neither is leaving. Both have truth. Before I can do anything else, I have to learn how to leap between them.