Friends and Political Strangers
It’s been two weeks since we hosted the political conversation between Peter Feaver and Ian Baucom over at Trinity. I’ve wanted to post an entry ever since, but the press of other duties have kept me quiet. It may be too late. The glory of the evening fades, like the glory of Moses’ face when he came down off the mountain. But there still might be a shine to it worth pointing out.
Someone said that it was the best thing that had happened at Trinity in a long time. Those kind of statements are easy to dismiss, but I might believe this one. I’ve heard from a lot of folks who found the evening to be important and even inspiring. Not everyone was pleased (more on that later), but ten to one the comments have been positive. And numerous. I heard another glowing remark about the Feaver-Baucom event the other night at the book club discussion of Blood Done Sign My Name. Glowing is the right word here—a little glimpse of God’s glory, I think. I’m reminded of John Ames’ remark, the elderly Congregationalist minister in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: “Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration.” Sometimes we only see dust-covered embers, but now and then the world glows extravagantly. Often we get a private glimpse of that glow—like the bright vista of autumn colors incandescent against the blue, blue sky, on a solitary hike. But sometimes we all see it together, and that’s part of the fun and the glory. I think we all saw it together two weeks ago. All 150 of us—or however many it would take to fill the Great Room to capacity and then line the walls and spill out into the halls. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Hopkins says. I was glad to be there to see it.
For those who weren’t there, here’s what happened. Ian and Peter are both Trinity parents, both Duke professors, both Christians. They are the best of friends, and yet they stand on opposite sides of many political questions. We wanted to bring them together to talk about politics in the context of their friendship, on the premise that friendship might just be a more important issue for Christian discipleship than politics. Not that politics is unimportant—we didn’t bring them together to talk about basketball. But that politics needs to find its place. Politics is too easily like the jerk in Jesus’ parable, the one who sits himself down at the head of the table. And then the host comes along and tells him to move on down to the other end. In a school, one wants to be able to talk about politics without idolizing it. Anyway, Peter and Ian talked for ninety minutes and I’m sure we could have gone another ninety and kept many people there. They did a marvelous job.
We murder to dissect, and I don’t want to dull the glow of the evening by trying to analyze it. But I will name three things that might account for some of the glory. First was the pre-eminence of Christ. Both men were quick to say that they were Christians first, and that everything else, including politics, needed to get in line behind that. It is their unity in Christ which binds them together across some pretty serious divides. Ian is downright radical in many of his views, and Peter worked for the Bush White House. They could easily be at one another’s throats. The second glory was their humility. These are knowledgeable guys, but they did not come across as proud or puffed up. They didn’t pontificate or posture. They laughed at themselves. With more learning than most of us can imagine, they are still learning. And then there was the level of discourse, which was exceedingly high. In a world of media shouting matches on TV and text messages from the candidates and Robo calls on our home voice mail, it was really refreshing to hear two intellectuals talk about issues. I know I learned a lot from the evening, and I expect most people did.
One of the reasons people liked the evening so much was that this kind of interaction (Christocentric, humble, intellectually engaging) embodies what we value at Trinity. Peter and Ian modeled for us some of the things we want most for our students, as well as for ourselves. If our classrooms can be places where discourse happens within the context of friendship, we will be a long way toward fulfilling our mission.
Credit where credit is due. I think the idea for this kind of evening was born, or at least was suckled, in a conversation Steve Larson and I had one day when we drove over to Duke to hear Jim Wallis speak (sorry, Peter). I’d been thinking since the last election, really since the Clinton scandal and the first Bush election, that we needed to do a better job of helping our students navigate these political waters. Kym Gardner, our Middle School teacher, was working on getting Ian and Peter to come to his class, and the idea seemed so good that we wanted to open it up to a wider Trinity audience. Finally, I want to thank Ian and Peter. They really put their friendship on the line. These issues are so divisive and potentially explosive that it could have gone badly. I’m deeply grateful to them and so glad we gave it a try.
Not everyone was thrilled with the evening. Some felt we kept the gloves on too much. I’m no Tim Russert (I moderated), and some of the more trenchant questions people had did not get asked. I may have made it too easy on them. They might have been harder on each other, but let’s remember that there was a pretty big audience.
Some have asked why we didn’t record the evening. It was Ian and Peter’s preference that we keep it a live performance. Not because these guys are afraid of publicity (though, of course, it’s easy to imagine a sound bite or a brief You-Tube scene which could be easily misinterpreted), but because friendship is one of those precious things that is best seen live, up close and personal. So, sorry if you missed the evening. Hope we can do something like this again. I’d love to hear people’s ideas for future events.