Building Creative Coalitions in a Polarized Culture

I gave this talk this past summer to a group of Catholic writers gathered for the Catholic Writer’ GuildLive Conference in August of 2018. To find out more about the Catholic Writers' Guild, click here.

I’m by nature an agreeable person. As the oldest of ten strong-minded children, I’ve had to learn to be even more agreeable to get anything done. Even though I have strong ideas of my own, Catholic family life taught me how to get along with those with whom I strongly disagreed. Even after we each, by the grace of God, had our respective conversions, this didn’t mean that we suddenly saw eye-to-eye on everything. Even today, we dearly love each other but we disagree. I am saying this to eliminate the wishful thinking of, “If my sister would just convert, then surely she would agree with me!” “If my brother would just follow Church teaching I’d find it so much easier to get along with him!” I have news for you: it just might not work that way. Having Church teaching on your side no longer becomes the personal deal breaker that it once was. Disagreements will still happen, and might get worse!

This should not surprise us, although it often does, because we forget that good and evil are very different. Goodness is creative and can take many different forms. Evil is the same old, same old, pathetic nonsense rebaked and resugared for another round of rot. Goodness ultimately comes from God. And it is God Who makes saints. He rarely makes them agree. If you compare the saints – not the one-paragraph summaries in the Liturgy of the Hours or their same-height-same-weight statues in a religious goods store – you will find that they vary vastly. And often when they lived at the same time, and even were attacking the same problems, they didn’t agree. The correspondence between contemporary saints is educational in this respect: and often hilarious! The flame wars of Sts. Augustine and Jerome. Philip Neri chiding St. Ignatius. The followers of Dominic and Francis bickering. If you give a problem to ten holy people, you are likely to get ten different solutions. This is not because of sinful human nature or pride: it’s just the beautiful variety of goodness that God creates. Because all goodness comes from God, the source of all goodness, and in every age and in every culture, the Holy Spirit raises up new ways of being good and of doing good.

As creative professionals in the Catholic world, we have to remember this, especially when working with other Catholics. You’ve come to this conference because you want to help build the culture of life: good! You want to network and learn and work with other Catholics to work towards the same goal: good! Let the disagreements begin!

As we all know, so much of work in Catholic community is “sandpaper ministry.” We get our rough edges rubbed off, our pet peeves polished, our OCD and personal preferences and the hills-we-thought-we’d-die-on smashed into a glimmering sheen of pearl. And this is how it should be. I just read the most brilliant article ever on Christian community by the virtually-unknown Thomas D. Dewey. It’s so good that, with your lenient patience, I’d like to quote from the article at length. The article, just so you know, is “10 ½ Rules for Christian Community” posted at The Catholic Thing.

God did not place us alone in this world but in the presence of others, starting with our families, working outwards, then – as He commanded us – loving our neighbors as ourselves.
We’ve all heard that commandment innumerable times, but has it ever occurred to you to ask why it is so essential to our salvation to love our neighbor? After all, God could have ordered the world in other ways, including solitude for billions of souls.
St. Catherine of Siena wondered about that too, and asked God, who told Catherine that what He most desires is for us to love Him as He loves us. That may sound straightforward, but it is impossible for us to love God as He desires to be loved without the presence of other human souls.
Because for us to love God back is mere justice. We did absolutely nothing to deserve a single day of life, much less an immortal soul and the possibility of Heaven. When we love God directly, we are acting justly, but also in our own interest because of the promise of greater happiness on Earth and the mega-prize of eternal happiness after death. But, there was nothing in it for God when he loved us into creation. His Divine love is gratuitous and disinterested, whereas our love for Him is fitting and self-interested.
So, in order to give us the opportunity to love divinely, He placed us among other souls whom we could love without any prospect of reward. We can only love God the way He wants us to by loving other people who cannot benefit us.
And that is the reason why Christian Community is so important: communities are a target-rich environment for us to love selflessly. Forming Christian Community – communities of fellowship, brotherhood, and Christian charity – isn’t a nice optional thing to do after work. It’s why we are here.
Thomas D. Dewey, “10 ½ Rules for Forming Christian Community,” posted at THE CATHOLIC THING.ORG on July 28, 2018

Community is necessary even for us independent minded solitary writer and artist types. Of course we know we have to make *some* community if we want to get published or get read. But if you’re one of those who struggle to connect faith, life, and work, this realization that we can’t truly love God and fulfill our purpose on this earth without loving others – and that working as creatives gives us opportunity to love others – can be a remarkable simplification and harmonization. I’ve said before that to be a great writer, you have to love lots of people: not just observe and study them, but love them, love them with that ‘tough love,’ ‘if not for the grace of God there go I’ identification. Nothing else really creates great writing like that grappling in love with the human condition. So in the end, there is no contradiction between becoming a great writer and becoming a great saint. We just often lose the forest for the trees.

The reason I picked this topic is because we live in time of polarization. I’m not naming names or political parties, but this has been a very confusing and frustrating time for Catholics. This past political season saw the splintering of many traditional coalitions that left some of us spinning and friendless, both on and offline. And the amplification of the Internet hasn’t helped things, to speak with very mild sarcasm.

Polarization is dangerous. I believe this strongly. It may happen accidentally, but it’s also a power tactic used deliberately in fomenting political revolution and agitation, and in seeking to arouse public partisanship and anger. The idea behind polarization is that you identify, freeze, and personalize a target, painting the person(s) in the blackest of hue, in order to isolate them and create polarization. This is done with the understanding that, when conflict happens, the great mass of people will fall back and stand silent, leaving the field clear. Then the fight can begin. The goal of the fight is to produce an extreme reaction: in military terms, to generate an atrocity: in personal terms, to get the person so mad that they do or say something “unforgivable,” to turn the masses against them – and hence towards the side of the instigator of the fight. 

During this stage, one tactic that is deliberately used is to “kill the moderates.” This means to neutralize or ridicule anyone who is capable of making peace, of bringing the two sides together, of preventing the polarization which is the goal. This is why moderate Muslims and Hindus get assassinated in troubled countries. This is why political organizers recommend to “GET RID OF THE DO-GOODERS IN YOUR ORGANIZATION”—those with moral sense to question means. It’s a deliberate technique. Once revolution is underway and a grab for power is within your reach, why not bump off those who are capable of maintaining the peace?

Peace is perilous and must be renewed daily. Confronting evil while maintaining peace requires wisdom. Since all wisdom is seldom found within one person, I suspect Our Lord splits up the charism among several different people, seeing to it that some do just the right amount of bold confrontation while others do just the right amount of merciful forgiveness.  Then the barque of Peter stays upright in the end.

So where do creatives come into this?

Most of us, I suspect, are fairly open-minded: that’s what makes us creatives. I believe it is also what specially equips us to be peacemakers and moderates in the culture wars.

1.)    We tell stories. We make art. If we are doing it right, we are creating stories and art that everyone can enjoy, not just those of our party. Everyone loves a good story. Use that to bring people to the table together.

2.)    We can empathize. If we are really telling our stories right, we are getting inside the villains and understanding not just how they think but realizing that we too are villains, or could be – except for the grace of God, as Chesterton’s Father Brown explains in The Secret of Father Brown (another Google). If we can understand and identify with a sociopathic villain, surely we should be able to understand and identify with an annoying sister-in-law or a infuriating parish council member. Next time you’re stuck with a blank page, try making that sister-in-law or parish council member or whoever else is irritating – excuse me, is sanctifying you – these days the hero or heroine of your novel and who knows? They might just smash through your writer’s block and you might just come to appreciate them more for their hidden talents. 

3.)    We have to get along with a lot of very different people in order to succeed. This includes editors, marketers, book reviewers, and of course, readers. We have to be a bridge. Use that bridge to help some of those others to get along with one another.

So what does this mean? Being a bridge, bringing people together, and so on?

It means that at your book signings, online enemies may come face to face.  Use the opportunity to make peace. Technology makes polarization more inevitable because it inhibits shame. The physical experience of shame, as my friend Dr. Mary Stanford points out (in her article on Technology and the Language of Bodily Presence – google it) inhibits us from saying the angry or lustful things that we might say in someone’s presence. Technology erases those inhibitions, making us more vulnerable to sinning when there’s a screen between us. Be aware of that, and double down on the politeness and etiquette as a counterbalance. Use phrasing from Downton Abbey if it helps. “May I kindly ask you – and I know you would normally agree with me – to not swear on my page. Please delete that comment. Oh, thank you so much. You are too kind.”

It means choosing your battles very wisely. Let the political battles go, but not the doctrinal ones (how often we switch that!). If you do disagree, bring up what you have in common. Ask favors of those who hate your political stances. “Could I ask your advice on a good tagline?” Ben Franklin, no Catholic or moral example but a wise student of human nature, noted that those whom we ask for help are more inclined to think of us agreeably than those whom we ourselves help: they may resent our generosity.

I already mentioned social media fans. One thing that must characterize us as Catholics – and I say MUST – is relationship repair. I mean: forgiveness. If we can’t forgive and repair relationships, why the heck are we doing any of this? I mean, the whole point of our faith is that God forgave us in the person of Christ Jesus, who was crucified by us and for us and who forgave us. If we can’t forgive, we are failing at being Catholic on the most basic level possible. What that means is that you forgive them. You don’t have to trust them again – you’ve been forewarned and forearmed – but despite what psychology says, you and Christ can give them a second chance. Christ gave second chances.  Forgiveness also means that you don’t gossip and backbite, but that you look them in the eye and you work with them again. It means you pick up the phone when you get an email you’d rather screenshot. It means you meet face to face and work it out if you have to. Maybe you can’t work it out, maybe you can’t ever work together again, but you can at least part ways in Christ. Don’t neglect that bit. In my mind, that’s what separates the real Catholics from those of us who just came for the party and stayed for the wine. So yes, forgive those who cheat you, who don’t return phone calls, who break contracts, who gossip about you, who screenshot you, who vent about you online. And recommend to others that they do the same when others hurt them. We want to be smart and protect our hearts – but we can’t forget to be Catholic in the midst of this. It’s who we are. It’s who we should be.

A word on gossip. It kills community faster than anything else I know. Don’t let it grow in your heart. Don’t let it grow in your garden. Shut it down when your friends start it. Say, “Let’s bring Sally into this conversation instead of talking about her.” “Oh, no? Then why are we talking about this?” Gossip destroys trust, especially among women, and we women are so much of the glue that holds communities together. Don’t do it. Vent alone to God or to a handwritten journal you can burn afterwards. And don’t commit anything to the Internet that you wouldn’t want published in the New York Times. We’re professionals: we should know that online communication is legally PUBLISHING.

I believe in the power of the Theology of Bodily Presence – or as I termed in, the Theology of Locality. That when Christ said the second part of the Greatest Commandment was to love your neighbor, He meant it. Who is my neighbor? Christ made it clear in one of His most famous stories: the scumbag in front of you on the side of the road is your neighbor. In other words, you are called by God to love the people who are physically present around you. And being in the physical presence of those people often helps you love them. Which is why in this world of virtual everything, we Catholic writers have a live conference, because bodily presence is essential to true Catholic community. Think about it: Christ set up the Church so that there never could be an online sacrament. There cannot be. The sacraments themselves require bodily presence. There is grace and power in that.
So come to these conferences and take the opportunity to meet those you disagree with online. Get to know them, for real. Have a beer with them. If you’ve fallen out, use this conference as a moment to ask forgiveness and put that relationship repair Christ died for into practice. There’s grace unlocked by that. And yes, forgive the publisher who didn’t give you a book deal. Forgive the fellow writer who got that book deal that you wanted.  Go up and shake hands and wish them well, and try to mean it. I know well how we writers are so prone to envy: ours is a lonely profession at times. But the grace is offered, if we will take it.

Enter the creative coalition. If you sense polarization and tribalism taking hold, the way to counter it is to build a creative coalition. A coalition is made of people who have one goal – and not much else – in common. Our old ones are splintering. The pro-life movement was a political coalition among people who began with very little else in common but who all agreed that babies shouldn’t be murdered in the womb. It has been a quarreling, bickering coalition from the start, and far from perfect, as members often don’t have anything else in common – religion, political affiliation, or temperament – which is one reason why the pro-life movement convulses when anyone suggests that another issue be added to the coalition. The goal of the pro-life movement was to build a generational movement that would survive long enough to fight abortion after the original founders were dead. It’s going to need to be a fight for the centuries. We often forget that the abolitionist movement was similarly chaotic and fractious and members had almost no agreement on politics or religion or even tactics. But it did succeed in keeping a movement alive from the missed opportunity of 1776 to 1865. I’m not saying the pro-life movement can’t change and widen to include, say, the death penalty – it did widen to include euthanasia and assisted suicide and help for crisis pregnancy. But it was always a coalition of very different individuals and you don’t change millions of minds in a heartbeat. And we would be foolish to suppose that the internal bickering will come to an end: but we can be more patient if we get a better sense of the animal that we are looking at and just how intractable it might be.

So make a coalition. Even a specifically creative one: let’s get together and found a novel series. Can I tap you to work on an independent film with us? If a relationship is fraying, find what you do agree on and work together on that. It’s hard to shoot the cow that gives the milk. These are the sort of things that can hold a society under threat together.

We hear a lot about tribalism. Now, I’m a Gen Xer. We’re the ones who love our friends. I like tribes. We’re awash in this sea of isolating technologies including things that isolate us subtly like the automobile that allows family and parishes sprawl beyond proximity, or AC that keeps people inside in front of screens during heat waves instead of sitting in the shade of porches and trees.  So it’s natural that when we find those with whom we naturally mind-meld, we want to form a tribe. I get that. But tribes can become gangs, and gang warfare is never pretty. So we need to season tribalism with a generous amount of “both/and.” After all, the Israelites were twelve tribes, and the Lord God … never made an issue of it. But He did lay down that the moral law was to be extended to everyone, not just members of their own tribe. So I concur, let there be tribes. But charity is more important. And charity often means etiquette, a minor handmaid of charity, which allows us to communicate with non-tribe members in a respectful and coherent manner. You may be tired of saying, “Agree to disagree,” but you should keep on saying it.

A second way to build a coalition is to make peace and compromise on those issues that divide but which ultimately get in the way of unity. I’m looking at those of us who are barricaded in the ongoing Liturgical Wars and the even vaster battlefield of Liturgical Music. We Americans LOVE our music. We are the first generations with the ability to listen to our music whenever we want. The problem is that we all go to Church together. My solution: take the fight outside, guys.  Who made the rule that Catholic music has to be in the liturgy or else it’s not real? There are other places to make music outside the Mass. There are concerts. There are campfires. There is Eucharistic adoration. There are processions. There is music to listen to around the house and on earbuds. If you love traditional music but your liturgist just won’t agree, organize an event outside the Mass where you CAN play traditional music. Same if you love contemporary Catholic music and your liturgist loves the organ. Let’s bring more music into the lives of our fellow Catholics: but let’s quit making the sole battlefield of success the Mass. And remember that while we can personalize our playlist, none of us should try to personalize the liturgy. If you’re living with someone else’s personalized liturgy, might as well offer it up on the altar of Christ’s sacrifice. That, as I recall, is kind of the point. But my point is that your natural allies in another cause might just be that hippie wielding a guitar or that Traddie fitting a pipe organ into her catapult – put down the weapons down, guys … slowly.  There are bigger issues at stake just now.

Same on the matter of intentional communities versus “Catholic culture.” This is a broad war but breaks out periodically in frustration on many different fronts.  Some Catholics channel their spiritual energy into building apostolates or communities of various kinds while others channel their spiritual energy into their own souls and minding their own business. The two types tend to misunderstand each other, very much so, because their approach to what seems to them the basics of the faith manifests so differently. The latter group is often more articulate, and the first group is often too busy and maxed out actually building Catholic community to respond coherently.  I am a fan of both groups, but my sympathies are with the builders. So for example, I disagree with Ross Douthat, who recently opined in his latest book, “Conservative Catholics are better at building bunkers than evangelizing the culture.”

This is a common misperception. Building community isn’t building a bunker. Although I can see how the two things can be confused. So let me explain.

There are those who will attack or mock any attempt at intentionally creating a Catholic environment as striving for an unattainable perfection or cowardice in the face of a secular challenge.

I want to remind you that there is a difference between a hothouse and a greenhouse, however similar the structures themselves may look.

Both are “artificial environments” where malevolent or detrimental outside influences are consciously excluded. Both are run by gatekeepers who choose what can enter and what must stay outside. Both have walls that let in light and keep out the rest.

But one, the hothouse, is designed as a lifelong support system: the other is a training ground. One tries to cultivate dependency: the other to foster independence. But they look nearly the same, except for the intention.

In the same way, a Catholic environment that shelters souls too weak or exotic to face the outside world and a Catholic environment whose rules and practices and criteria are designed to allow the young to grow strong and healthy, ready to go out into the world and preach the Good News, might have similar rules, criteria, and practices.  But the intention is entirely different. And being accused of sharing characteristics with a hothouse does not invalidate or do away with the necessity of creating Catholic greenhouses.  And we need those, more than ever: for the young, for the broken, for those resting after battle.

If you are a fan of “Catholic culture” but are down on “Catholic apostolates,” or “Catholic communities” or can’t stand “those puritans who start screaming if they read a Catholic book with sex and swear words and who won’t buy my novel,” take a hard look at those you oppose. Are they building a hothouse or a greenhouse? You may think you know, but perhaps your perception is determined by temperament. If you’re familiar with fantasy, perhaps that “puritan” who won’t buy your book isn’t representative of her group: perhaps she’s just a gatekeeper.  Gatekeepers, like police, need to make hundreds of micro-decisions as part of their job. They red-flag broadly to make their (very exhausting) job easier. Talk to the person behind the gatekeeper and they may be far more lenient and reasonable. Even gatekeepers can be brought to see context and reason. And a gatekeeper who comes on your side – especially if others in her group agree with you – can become your diehard fan.

So don’t write off an entire group or apostolate because of a bad experience with one or two of the members. Greenhouse building is absolutely crucial to building Catholic culture. A greenhouse may be turning into a hothouse – that’s always a possibility, but definitely not an inevitable one. Good healthy communities like good healthy families tend to be invisible.  They do their jobs, they get out of the way, they never make the news or go viral – they just do what they’re supposed to do. And as a writer, you should find a healthy greenhouse and join it: the Catholic Writers’ Guild is one.
So let’s not insist that all greenhouses are hothouses. The Catholic Church has been in the greenhouse business for millennia – religious communities being the flagship model, but there have always been smaller ones, from the first Christian commune in the Book of Acts to the women’s Bible study groups of the first century that became the first Catholic schools to the men gathered for prayer and silence in the desert who became monks to the charitable groups of women who founded the first hospitals – and the list goes on and on.

The easy days of living in a Catholic culture where you could go to Mass and just “be Catholic” are rapidly evaporating in the secularizing forces of today. We do need Christian community. We need more greenhouses: for the arts, for the professions, for Catholic education, for every section of Catholic work. If you want to just sit back and “breathe the Catholic air,” you’re going to need a greenhouse full of Catholic plants to do it. Go and see how you can help. We all need rest from the battle. We all need healing. We need sandpaper ministry. We need to be challenged to love the God who saved us by loving our neighbor, including our annoying Catholic co-patriots who “just don’t get culture.” And we all need to think about and care for the next generation of Catholics – both the young baptized and those outside the Church who need to be evangelized into Christ. The harvest is plentiful. Laborers are few. Where does Christ want you? Ask Him.

The Christian life resembles a vast dance around a central figure, the central figure being Christ. We all need to be connected to Him. The more of us are deeply converted – the stronger our connection to Him – the more people can join in the dance. Our job is to keep hurling our dance partners towards Christ and being hurled towards Him in turn. That’s Catholic culture.

And I’ll close with a word on hope. Polarization in our society is deeply troubling. We need to combat it intelligently by keeping civility, a sense of humor, wisely picking our battles, confronting evil wisely, but recognizing complexity and not rushing to demonize those who disagree. We need to model being a grownup for the young people in our lives. How can we criticize them for their screenslaving if we turn into uninhibited barbarians on Facebook? Sometimes the future can look bleak, and we are creatives, so when our dystopian imaginations get going, the future can look REALLY bleak. This can make us feel that any attempt at coalitions or creativity or charity is futile. This is what I’ve been asking myself lately.

Do I believe in the triumph of the Immaculate Heart? We don’t often think of Fatima as a hopeful vision. It’s often confused with apocalyptic thinking. But Our Lady’s message at Fatima was not about the end of the world. As she described the future conflicts that would engulf our centuries – and she totally nailed it, totally – she said, “But in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. Russia will be converted and an era of peace will be granted to mankind.” Notice this is not one of her “if” statements. “if you pray the Rosary, if you make reparation… then …”  It’s a “this is going to happen, regardless.”

So when I get discouraged, I ask myself, “Do I believe in the triumph of the Immaculate Heart? Can I work for that triumph? Can I work for that era of peace? Maybe I won’t see it, but maybe I can help others build something that will.”

Pray for it. Work for it. And write on.


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