By Cheryl Wittenauer
Pope Francis has said this about the Church’s marking the 50th World Day of Peace on New Year’s Day: His wish that we could see and respect each other as “sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity … and make active nonviolence our way of life.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it, especially when our hearts are brimming with holiday cheer and goodwill toward humankind.
But what happens when regular life resumes, when the New Year’s aspiration for nonviolence is spoiled by a snarky Facebook post, a rude motorist, or crimes and behavior that feed our stereotypes about race, class and nationality?
How can we adhere to our Jan. 1 pledges of nonviolence when the principles or practices of the Other Political Party leave us aching, angry, and clinging to our tribe?
We can be like Antoinette Tuff, who was working the front office of a school in suburban Atlanta in 2013, when a 20-year-old armed gunman stormed the building intending to do great harm.
Somehow, incredibly, she calmed him down by saying she loved him, by telling him that everyone has pain in their life, that she had lost her husband and income, and yet, here she was working, and everything turned out ok, and that his situation would too.
Antoinette Tuff found parts of herself in that gunman and didn’t demonize him.
In her TED Talk, author Elizabeth Lesser calls such persons the “new first responder.”
“One person has to take the lead, has to be bigger,” she said.
Healing a society doesn’t start with big sweeping movements that we associate with Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Lesser said. It starts with individuals changing the way they think about conflict.
A few years ago, Lesser launched an initiative aimed at counteracting the tendency to “otherize.”
She started inviting people she knew who held beliefs vastly different than her own to have lunch with her.
“A Republican might take a Democrat to lunch, or you might invite that brother-in-law who doesn’t believe in global warming,” she said.
For the most part, her lunches have gone pretty well, and even though she and her lunch partners still don’t agree on things, they grew more comfortable with each other, and felt grateful for the opportunity to be heard.
“I know that this is hard,” she said, “but I also know that if we allow ourselves to get into the gridlock of tribalism, we’re in trouble.
“This isn’t a nicey-nice idea. It’s the difference between societies falling apart, and societies getting something done.”
Maybe even getting peace done, finally.