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Political Charity as an Element of Peaceful Political Discourse

God has made us to be social by nature (City of God XIX.27). God also gave us a desire for living in peace, for “even those who seek to inflict terror on others, among themselves try to live in peace.” (City of God XIX.12)

Being social creatures with individual preferences and interests lead us to associate toward like-minded people, and since we all share the limited resources of the earth, politics becomes necessary. However, the words inner peace and politics almost seem like oxymorons today. Perhaps they were never close; it was traditional not to speak of politics and religion in “polite company.” Sometimes even friendships stayed away from political discussion. Yet more and more people have shaped their identities around politics, so political discourse seems almost inescapable from table conversation on issues like gun safety or abortion and have entered the space between spouses, siblings, and friends. 

How do we maintain peace in such cherished spaces?

It helps to clarify what one means by peace. When peace is understood as the absence of opposition or disagreement, one could understand peace as “when others think like me.” Augustine writes, “it is a fact that everyone wants to live in peace with their own, even if they want to impose their own will.” (City of God XIX.12)

If one wants in some overt or covert, conscious or unconscious way to impose one’s will, then peace will occur when either my opponent or I win. In such a scenario, politics becomes inherently antagonistic. Pope Francis writes that “amid the fray of conflicting interests, where victory consists in eliminating one’s opponents, how is it possible to raise our sights to recognize our neighbors or to help those who have fallen along the way?” (Fratelli Tutti, 16)

In City of God Saint Augustine questions the conditions and means which gave rise to peace in Roman history. Generalizing that approach one could ask: Who was conquered so we could live in peace? At the cost of whom do we enjoy tranquility? One often hears among spouses “I prefer peace to being right,” and one can wonder if that kind of peace is founded in love, or rather in fear of conflict.   

Maybe there is another way of understanding peace in which different perspectives, opinions and interests are allowed expression. In healthy debate, one ought to charitably interpret one’s interlocutor so that one takes the best argument that can be construed by the premises rather than the less sound one. It takes a charity to do so. Along these lines, Pope Francis suggests we need “political charity” (Fratelli Tutti, 165). The elements of political charity in Fratelli Tutti include a long-term approach to arriving at solutions where we acknowledge that we all want to build a better world, even if we disagree in how to do so. It also calls for a commitment to the common good where the needs, especially of the most vulnerable are represented. Rather than focusing on divisive rhetoric, perhaps dialogue can lead to uncover the human needs underneath the impassioned, political positions, and to do the difficult work of examining all possible solutions once all needs have been identified. 

In order to grow in political charity, an interesting exercise would be for you to consider a political issue where you clearly stand, and then ask yourself if you can recognize the need which the opposing viewpoint is trying to solve. Would you be able to ask and listen with sincerity to the answers of questions like: Why is such a policy so important to you? How did you come to that position? Asking such questions not in order to persuade the other, but with a desire to know the other and appreciate the origin of her or his position. Perhaps only after truly listening with the heart then you can ask: Could we find another way to deal with the underlying issue where we both would agree?  

Being willing to listen out of genuine interest in others seems fundamental. Being charitable to see others in a positive light as caring people who arrive at a political position (albeit different from mine) because they see such a position as a way to protect others or help others in vulnerable situations might be a helpful step toward the possibility of finding common ground. 

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