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The following is excerpted from Ally Isom’s talk for the 2016 FAIRMormon Conference. Explore their website at FAIRMormon.org
Ally Isom, has a job she describes as sometimes “risky and rough.” As the director of the Division of Family and Community Relations in the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she is often negotiating those roiling waters that include both LGBT and women’s issues.
In a world where across the public arena, Latter-day Saints are finding more challenges to their viewpoint than in decades, Isom has some solid advice which she gives not because she is a Pollyanna in the public arena, but because it is what Christ teaches.
She admits, “The arena is no place for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned or faith-impoverished…There are times you will doubt your capacity or qualifications to engage in the arena, or, moreover, make any meaningful difference.”
Yet, she says, since we today find ourselves there so often, we have to cling to four core principles.
1. Words Matter
Isom said, “There’s a saying about the public arena: ‘control the vocabulary and you control the debate.’ Words frame the issue; they are the vehicle for meaning and emotion. Some words are incendiary. Some words are empathic. Some words marginalize. Other words are inclusive. But all words have meaning and that meaning is uniquely individual, for both the sender and the receiver of a message.
“Until you know another’s heart, until you know their context—who they really are, where they’ve been, what they’ve experienced, how they are hurting, what they love— until you know their context, until you know their heart, you will not know what words mean to them. Paul warned, ‘Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but [only] that which is good [and] edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers’ (Ephesians 4:29). Isn’t that beautiful? ‘[T]hat it may minister grace.’ Grace— hopeful grace, the divine assistance or strength made possible by our Lord and Savior. Our words can be a vehicle for grace.
If you are to engage in any public arena, I urge you to understand the meaning of words for all key players and then choose your words well.
2. People Matter
Isom noted, “So often, when we engage in the public arena, it’s us versus them, good versus evil, right versus wrong. We are the defender of truth and righteousness. We must stand. We must fight. But in the public arena, isn’t it often a little more complicated than that?
“Consider how often issues are framed with that polarized framework, an over- simplified model that positions people at extremes. It makes for great reality TV or ratings-grabbing journalism, but real life, real people and real solutions are more nuanced. And because we understand the concept of progression, I think this is something that people of an LDS faith can intuit. “
She continued, “We all know from our own experience that, while framing issues as good versus bad may be helpful, it may also oversimplify life’s decisions.
“It is incumbent upon us, as a higher use of our moral agency, to understand a situation in its entirety, or at least as much as we can, to resist oversimplification, to accurately assess the good and the evil. As Lehi points out, some binary frameworks are indeed helpful: Good and evil. Life and death. Charity and selfishness. Virtue and debauchery. But note, Lehi’s binary frameworks refer to attributes. They refer to behavior. But they do not refer to people. Indeed, in the public arena, in the greater conversation about what is good and what is not, dualities that refer to people, binaries that polarize people, are not only counterproductive; they can be destructive. “
Isom said, “So today, I invite you to resist placing people in a polarized duality. Instead, consider a faith-centered framework of complementarity, where each component is part of a greater whole, as interdependent entities: Female and male. Democrat and Republican. LGBTQ and Christian. Active and less active. Black and white. Israeli and Palestinian. Batman and Superman.
“The tension in these overgeneralizations is that often, in the public arena and in everyday conversation, these dualities are framed as polar, as oppositional. Of course, there are those who benefit from that oppositional positioning, those who profit financially or politically by perpetuating tension and misunderstanding.
“Moreover, descriptions of dialogue between and about oppositional dualities are frequently reduced to stereotypes or caricatures, because after all, isn’t it so much easier to dislike a caricature, or an avatar, or a pseudonym? Instead, what might happen if those oppositional dualities were framed as complementary or interdependent—each a unique part of a greater whole, each part of the total, ultimate solution?
“In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported Americans are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the past two decades, and partisan hostility runs deeper than ever. One in four Americans have un-friended someone on Facebook for having different politics.
“I’m asking an earnest question: Are we hyper-polarized in our rhetoric, not only as a nation, but as people of faith? Are human beings routinely divided along some line? Do we allow a victim vocabulary to frame a situation? Do we recognize battlefield vernacular in the way we talk about issues? Do we label people as evil who simply see things differently? Have we inadvertently turned every issue and every conversation into a zero-sum game where we all lose? Is it always us versus them? Are we asking ourselves who the real enemy is? After all, is it not the Father of Lies who benefits most from contention between God’s children, the same children for whom Jesus Christ paid the ultimate debt? Can we not see the people and resist the poles?”
She notes, “It seems like every possible communication channel is jammed with a cacophony of cutting, conflicting voices screaming at increasing and indecipherable decibels. And all that chaos causes my sleep-deprived head to spin. With so much information flying at us, are we really getting any smarter? Sometimes it feels like confusion, rather than clarity, is pervasive. No wonder everyone is so angry—which is right where the adversary wants us. In one of my favorite scriptural passages, Jesus says, ‘For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me… Behold this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away”’(3 Nephi 11:29-30).
“So how do you do away with contention? Is it not even more incumbent on us, as disciples and civil residents of this glorious planet, to decipher the good, to seek truth, to share light? We can have an animated—even passionate—discussion about ideas and issues and solutions, without being unkind to the people who support or reject those ideas or issues or solutions. There are many thought leaders calling for a depolarization of the American mind. The cynic in me first thought, ‘If only it were that easy.’
“It’s only possible if we elevate the very nature of the dialogue, as well as the conditions for that dialogur. It could be possible if we acknowledge the complexities of reality and stop overgeneralizing nuanced and complicated dynamics, and stop overgeneralizing layered and complicated people. That’s a pretty tall order. This isn’t a matter of simply meeting each other in the middle or of splitting up shares. This is a matter of synthesis and integration. This is a matter of mutual understanding. It’s a matter of love. When we truly see another, we come to realize we have more in common than we thought; there is often more that unites us than divides us.
3. You Matter
Isom advises, “Be you. Be the disciple you have covenanted to be.
“If we are to be the leaven in the loaf as prescribed by the One who offers the Bread of Life, we must not only proclaim to be disciples, we must sound and act like disciples. We cannot privately pray in our chapels and homes for the healing of divisions and unity in our hearts, and then publicly berate those whose ideas or practices differ from ours. In other words, how we talk about issues, and how we talk about and to each other, matters.
“Now I’m not saying this is easy. It is not. I have listened to Elder Maxwell’s classic companion talks at BYU on patience and meekness hundreds of times. I am still learning. I have spent time on my knees pleading for my heart to be softened toward someone I felt was repeatedly attacking me. I have fasted and prayed, and fasted and prayed, for ideas and ways to work with people who seem devoid of principle or mutual respect. It is not easy to sit quietly and take it. It is not easy to patiently await the right timing. It is not easy to suffer ignorance and insults from those driven by ambition and agenda. The high road is quite often the hard road, even a lonely road, but it offers the most Light.
“I am not talking about glossing over differences. I am not saying we compromise principles. But I do know from experience, when we tackle a really tough policy challenge, there are viable solutions that honor the principles of all sides. Sometimes it demands patience, time and multiple iterations, but there are ways to get there. It is not going to be easy. It is going to require work. It is going to require active listening and seeking to understand what is truth—not just eternal truth, but truth about a process, truth about people, truth about solutions, and mechanisms and ideals. In Jacob’s words, it is to see things “as they really are” and “as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).
“Often, when you launch a process with partners to find a solution, the optimal solution—the final solution— isn’t even one of the possibilities on the table at first. The optimal solution is often revealed or built, layer by layer, as ideas leapfrog one another, in a wonderful evolutionary and progressive dialog. I love that process! It’s the product of all partners, where each partner has given some, given up some and gained some.
“But that progressive, iterative process means laying down our swords. That progressive process means swallowing our pride and seeking truth. That process of progression means setting aside the accusatory, incendiary rhetoric, and focusing on listening, on understanding, on patience, honoring agency, even empathizing with all sides. It means seeing them as an immortal creation of the same immortal God, on their eternally progressive path, doing the best they know to become the creation God intended them to be.
4. We Matter
Isom says, “In our home hangs a saying, sometimes attributed to Gandhi. He didn’t say exactly this, but I don’t really care who said it. It is a profound concept I want my children to understand. It reads: Be the change you wish to see in the world.
But, she asks “Where do we start? How do we create change and allow ourselves to be changed? We are all familiar with the passage from Matthew: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22:37–40).
Isom says, “Love begins in how we communicate with and about one another. Christlike communication does not mock or ridicule; it celebrates the good in others. Christlike communication does not demean or belittle; it enlarges and opens. Christlike communication does not coerce or manipulate; it invites and guides. For the purposes of communicating in the public arena, consider how that communication is not only an exchange of information between two mortals, but that communication is a partnership between heaven and earth.
“When you honestly enter dialogue as an earnest disciple of the Savior Jesus Christ, ridding yourself of all ungodliness, and you practice faith, hope and charity, you will exit that dialogue a changed person, a better person. The process of discipleship will change you. The Savior’s Atonement will change you. The Savior’s grace will change you. It will enlarge you and allow you to progress. You will see God’s hand in your day-to-day efforts in the arena. You will see the power of the Holy Ghost as it conveys meaning and truth beyond mere words both for you and to you. Can you see that as a faithful, faith- centered, faith-directed disciple, how entering the arena and talking about solutions transforms?
Isom notes, “I fully acknowledge this sounds a little idyllic. Sometimes, it’s just plain rough out there. If it is your turn in the arena, at some time you will encounter spiritually blind hypocrisy, ego, pride, ambition or selfishness. Sometimes charity is a commodity hard to come by, especially when the shortfall or weakness is our own. When the dynamics are more about the personalities than possibilities, and it becomes us vs. them, it is exhausting. You can spend a great deal of time on distractions that lead nowhere or wounds that don’t heal.
“Those are the times you recall our Master withstood mockery, abuse, derision, injustice and torture, that he might bind our wounds and heal our souls. You recall the Savior spoke with a ‘voice of perfect mildness’ (Helaman 5:30). You also recall his compensatory promise for taking up his yoke in discipleship is “rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29). So, when voices are anything but mild and the process drains or overwhelms you, there is greater light and enhanced comprehension to be found in sacred space (D&C 88:67). And we have the promise that when we receive light, and ‘continueth in God,’ we will receive more and more light, ‘until the perfect day’ (D&C 50:24).
“True disciples of Christ see opportunity in the midst of opposition,” said Elder Robert D. Hales in reference to the arena. “As true disciples seek guidance from the Spirit, they receive inspiration tailored to each encounter. And in every encounter, true disciples respond in ways that invite the Spirit of the Lord.”
Isom created this reality check that is worth remembering.
A DISCIPLE’S REALITY CHECK
- Do my words hurt or strengthen?
- Do my words marginalize or divide or unify?
- Does the Spirit tell me to pause and reconsider better words?
- Do I see others through God’s eyes and regard them as part of the solution?
- Do I honor others’ agency?
- What does the Spirit tell me about their hearts?
- What words and tone would Jesus Christ use?
- Do I speak truth in love?
- Am I patient with the progressive understanding and path of others?
- Do I forgive others and myself?
- Do I love and pray for all in the arena?
- Do I trust God and submit to His will and timing?
- Do I recognize my spiritual gifts and accept my stewardship?
- Am I pressing forward, steadfast in Christ, feasting upon His words about this issue?
- Do I allow the Holy Ghost to tell me what to do and how to do it?
WHAT IF THE POINT IS THE PROCESS?
Isom concluded with a startling idea, “If we take the long view, we know how this ends. We know it is going to get worse before it gets better. But in the end, all will be well. So why engage at all? Why bother? Why put yourself through that?
“First of all, it is not the end, yet, and we are all still living together on this planet, and there is plenty of good we can do. We need not look far. But, as you consider where in the arena you engage, remember who is in charge and whose children they are and what covenants you make. He ‘hold[s] the destinies of all the armies of the nations of the earth’ (D&C 117:6) and all things in the heavens and earth are His (D&C 104:14). And He is counting on his covenant people, amid the culture wars and the mommy wars and rumors of war, to be both peace seekers and peace makers.
So let me ask you something: Whether it’s in our homes, or on the floor of the legislature, or on a local podcast, what if the point isn’t the outcome? What if the point is the process? Could it possibly be that the process is more important than the outcome? Could it possibly be that good works of discipleship are more important than good outcomes in the arena?
“What if, in the grander schemes of eternity, it’s not what we fought for, but how we contributed; it’s not the tangible deliverables, but whom we touched; it’s not the widgets produced or the book published or the bills passed or the size of your portfolio? What if it’s the understanding gained, the charity demonstrated, the patience refined, the relationships cherished, the friends kept, the people nurtured, the peace made, the hearts healed, the partnership with Heaven? What if the truest meaning in any arena is not in being right, but in becoming true? True disciples.“