May 15, 2016

Unity: A Pentecost Message from the Dean

“All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
Romans 8:14

“Were people to mingle only with those of like mind, every man would be an insulate being."
Thomas Jefferson

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
Desmond Tutu

Although few doubt its necessity, what makes compromise so elusive? In 2012 Amy Gutmann, the University of Pennsylvania’s eighth president and an award winning political theorist, co-authored a book titled The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It. Dr. Gutmann serves as Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Communication in the Annenberg School for Communication, with secondary faculty appointments in philosophy in the School of Arts and Sciences, and the Graduate School of Education. She has taught at Princeton and was founding director of its University Center for Human Values, one of the world’s best-endowed, university-wide, multi-disciplinary ethics centers. Judy Woodruff of the PBS Newshour called Gutmann’s book (her sixteenth), "a clear-eyed examination of the forces that bring warring political leaders together or keep them apart. I wish every policymaker would read it.” With co-author Dennis Thompson, the book explores the difficulty of political compromise in American democracy.

The authors argue that the issues go far beyond current political polarization and are best understood in the context of how the American political system – the political process as carried out in the United Sates – is itself the cause of such resistance to compromise. They argue that the system of "permanent campaign" creates an “uncompromising mindset” which encourages attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult. The result is that politicians make assertions and stand on principle and mistrust their opponents. And what may make sense during a campaign may never be transferable to governing, especially when change becomes necessary. The result is resistance that “biases the democratic process in favor of the status quo.” The remedy? They argue that the uncompromising mindset can be kept in check by an opposing set of attitudes and arguments—what they call “the compromising mindset”, which becomes the stance by which politicians can adapt principles and respect opponents. The case studies they use are the tax reform compromises of 1986 and healthcare reform in 2010.

The word compromise has come to carry lots of baggage. It can mean giving up something when you want simply to end a dispute or argument. It can mean bringing about change that makes a situation worse, or making a change for other than good reasons. But have we forgotten that compromise also can mean combining the qualities of different things with a superior result?

As we live into this Season of the Spirit, we recall the power of God to bestow a gift celebrated because of its uniting characteristics: people could understand each other, in their own language but also across cultures. The creative energy released as the Spirit breathed anew brought things together, lifted them up and strengthened them to become more fully their true selves. Of course, we need that Spirit during political seasons, particularly if they are fraught with vitriol and polarization. What we do not need is resistance to change making it too easy for us to accept our imperfect unions rather than boldly striving to improve them – in our personal and social-political lives. We need a “compromising mindset” opening us to the winds of change. And to the Divine opportunities to combine things that are different into new, superior opportunities. Come, Holy Spirit, come.