I’m a big advocate of getting people to the table. Until we are intentional about inviting others to join us in civil, respectful, and rational dialogue about things that matter, those conversations will simply not happen. We need to have conversations about race, immigration, gun control, women’s rights, border security, health care, and a whole host of other topics. Social media, talk radio, and television news panels are not the best places for constructive, peaceful, and sensible words about important matters. Sometimes we need to simply create the space and talk to people with whom we may not always agree… face to face and heart to heart. Perspective is a wonderful gift and when we learn to build relationships, the hostility and anger tend to seep away and honest dialogue occurs.
But let’s talk about our “place” at the table. There is a difference between being seated at the table as a participant and standing at the table as an observer. Most of us tend to think that we belong… that we should be seated at every table. We think that our opinions, our values, our knowledge, and our experiences put us in a place of intellectual and maybe even moral superiority. In other words, we tend to think that we are the source of all wisdom and knowledge and that others long to hear what we think. And for some issues, maybe that’s true. There are areas of expertise that might get us a seat at the table. But those areas are not as many as we would like to imagine.
For example, if the topic swirled around preaching or pastoring or starting a new program, then pull me up a chair. I’ve been there and have experience from which to draw. Or, want to talk about raising kids? Been there and done that. Or consider this… I’m a fairly competent student of the Bible and can probably hold my own in terms of applying Scripture and faith to current events and cultural issues. I can talk with a fair amount of confidence about leadership and how to inspire others. I can even talk about developing concepts and ideas into curriculum. Or, if you ever want to talk about knee replacement surgery, I’m your guy. Again, those are the kinds of topics with which I have had experience. And although I do not claim to be an expert at any of them, there is enough personal knowledge and experience about those topics that might get me a seat at the table.
And then there are those topics that interest me, but don’t necessarily put me at the table. I need to sometimes be an observer… a listener… a learner. The older I get, the more I understand how limited any one person’s perspective can be, even my own. For example, I can’t speak about what it feels like to be discriminated against, or what it is like to feel oppression because of gender, or denied access to education, goods and services because of my race. That’s not my life, nor my story. I can’t begin to tell you what it’s like to be an immigrant. I can’t talk about how it feels to be denied healthcare. I can’t tell you what it is like to live with perpetual hunger. I can’t describe homelessness. I can’t tell you about the emotional and physical pain that can erupt with an unplanned pregnancy. I can’t tell you what it is like to be abused by a parent. I can’t tell you what it’s like to fear the escalation of a routine traffic stop. I haven’t earned a place at those tables of debate and dialogue because I can only learn of those things from a distance.
But learn I must. Like many of you, I need to at least be present in the room when such topics are discussed. I need to learn. I need to listen. I need to gain perspective that I don’t have. I need to discover that moral, intellectual, or spiritual superiority is never a goal to be envied, but a false notion to be shunned. There are far more tables around which I should stand as an observer, than those around which I should sit as a participant. May God help me to know my place.
Dr. Jon Roebuck, Executive Director – Curb Center for Faith Leadership