I just can’t. The Planned Parenthood sting operation videos. The GOP debates earlier in the month. I can’t bring myself to watch them. I used to jump without hesitation into the thick of the most vitriolic political exchanges and stand my self-righteous ground with the best of them, but I just can’t anymore.
I can’t. And I won’t. I do recognize that when I choose to tune out the noise of public debate, I am opting out of the conversation, at least in part. I shouldn’t be commenting directly on events of which I am not aware and informed. Nor should anyone else for that matter. I do end up relying on a community of commentators to fill in what I’ve missed by not watching.
This is in part an act of personal self-preservation, but it also an attempt to redirect my energy toward a more compassionate response. I know how riled up I get when I consume inflammatory media, even the kind that supports my point of view. More often than not it leads me to bring something to the public conversation that is not from my highest sense of self. The adrenaline of “fight-or-flight” kicks in, and I start acting from a place of fear. I dehumanize people who don’t agree with me by lashing out in unkind, below-the-belt ways.
In other words, I am part of the problem. I’m prone to the defensiveness that leads to the dismantling of civility we all encounter online and beyond.
For nearly ten years I’ve been working with faith communities and religious leaders on why it is so important for us to care about reproductive health. When I first began researching disparities in maternal and child health outcomes among communities of color and those living in poverty, I was outraged that more wasn’t being done in faith communities to name these injustices and advocate for the sacred worth of those living at the margins. It’s a classic story of asking the Creator, “Where are all the people to do ____?” and realizing the answer is, “That would be you, my child.”
As I would later learn, though, the call to be an advocate isn’t just about the content. The call is equally about the approach. When I get on my egocentric high-horse about my views, as theologically grounded as I believe them to be, or when I get so caught up in drawing lines in the sand, I do nothing to bring about a more just, compassionate world for the people I’m called to love. In order for me to embody the spirit of understanding in my work, I have to remove myself from situations that play into my argumentative, competitive nature.
I get that people can make a theological case for taking a much different approach from what I am advocating here, and argue that by not watching myself, I am simply dodging instances when my deeply held beliefs would be challenged. Some might accuse of me of acting cowardly.
The truth is that I have grown weary of asserting my call to the work of reproductive justice as morally justifiable to those who oppose me. I’ve spent more time and energy getting caught up in this distraction than I’d like to admit, but I’m slowly learning to let go of this need to be understood by everyone. In so doing I’m also able to release my certainty that I’m right and regain my focus on the call to love.
Taking this stance of disengagement will probably bother folks on all sides of the issues about which I care deeply. Maybe it will be seen as a sign of weakness, or that I’m losing my conviction. But my hope is that by distancing myself from debate, I will open up space within myself for more thoughtful conversations with those who desire to create a more just, compassionate world, even if we disagree about how to accomplish that. I dare to dream that it’s possible.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer, and educator who inspires intentional communities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good. In 2010 Zeh launched the first and only denominationally-sponsored advocacy campaign focused on improving global reproductive health for The United Methodist Church. She has written extensively about global maternal health, family planning, and women’s sacred worth for outlets including the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, Mothering Matters, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Find her on Twitter at @ktzeh or on her website www.kateyzeh.com.