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Communion of Saints I disagree with

| Friday, February 3, 2023

There is only one torture device that should be used in the 10th circle of hell: middle seats on airplanes. The cramped quarters, jiggling the person next to you to take a leak and you descend into the next circle of hell when you come back to both of the armrests taken.

I was flying back from Connecticut a couple months ago when I found myself in between a woman bopping out to her tunes and an older man wearing a University of Oklahoma hat. 

Wanting a controversial flight, I asked the man to my right what his thoughts were on the Texas vs. Oklahoma game (a 49-0 shellacking), accidentally engaging in a conversation much grander than expected. 

From football, we quickly ascended to learning everything about each others lives. He is retired Navy officer, who enlisted and served as part of the 41 submarines for freedom during Vietnam and dedicated his life to serving our country.

John is a Baptist and an instinctual connector of people. He’s retired, but his big role now is to set up the reunions for his submarine crew every two years. He glowed when discussing his grandkids, one of whom is following in his steps to serve, and the big family reunions he holds (there are taco trucks)! He’s someone authentically devoted to his faith in a transformative way.

We were on a three-hour plane ride and there was barely a moment of silence — cracking jokes, discussing world events and talking about how much we hate Alabama football.

When we got to talking about the midterms, he reminded me a lot of my family. A complicated hodgepodge of beliefs — a fierce believer in the dangers of climate change, but alarmist about critical race theory. He was cautious about COVID, but believed that abortion was a murder that should be charged with capital punishment.

During the 2020 presidential election, I left my family group chat. 

My Uncle Jim, a red-neck, fishing fanatic, righter than right, bass pro shop collector and proud Texan had blown up the group chat about one of the recent election developments. I was an outlier as most of my family had decided to cast their vote for Donald Trump. 

One of my favorite messages from Uncle Jim before I left was, “believe it or not Dane, I’m trying to prevent you from becoming a radical crusader that everyone runs from.”

In my application to Notre Dame, I stated that “I want to be pushed by an environment where my beliefs are constantly challenged.” I haven’t always done that in the most authentic and full way.

In many ways, I’ve fallen into being the radical crusader that my uncle talked about, most people don’t run from me (I hope), but over my first two years of college I haven’t always fully engaged with certain parts of campus life choosing my circles of social justice warrior Catholics to surround myself with.

Coming from a mostly right-leaning family, I enjoy the hustle and bustle of dissent and disagreement. However, at some points, it becomes tiring having to fight for every inch of your existence which is why I have somewhat retreated into my own little mouseholes.

In the fall semester, I set out on an odyssey to have 20 discussions with people I disagree with for no other reason than to talk with them, hear their stories and join in our collective humanity. No agenda, listening and friendship.

I talked with priests, professors, Republicans, “Kneeler” Catholics and everyone from everywhere. I went to events by Students for Child Oriented Policy (SCOP) — the anti-LGBTQ+ club on-campus events, to Latin mass, to talks by priests about what political life as Catholics should look like.

In the many meals and laps around the lake, I found people more complex than the images they project of themselves. On social media, in written work, and even in the classroom.  

It made me think about my family or complicated beliefs like John’s — my uncle Bill in Cincinnati usually votes nationally for Republicans, but locally votes mostly for Democrats. Uncle Jim hasn’t voted Democrat in a half century but agrees with my uncle Bill that abortion should be legal till a certain point. People are not certain or simple in any box we try to put them into. With work on mental health care and racial justice, I have found myself working with conservative Catholics and Mormons who disagree with me on 95% of the things I believe but are willing to work with me on one or two issues.

In his book “Trust”, Pete Buttigieg harkens back to our founding stating, “we live in a country whose most radical founding premise was that people could be trusted to govern themselves” — that we weren’t going to have some monarch dictate life, but that each person would have a stone in setting the course of our collective fate.

However, he warns that if we don’t talk to one another those systems break down, that radical premise no longer works.

Anand Giridharadas recently released book “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy”, he discusses how the culture of write-off by progressives is deadly. It’s not an argument for watered-down centrism, but for an understanding of the complex nature of humanity, a permission structure for people to practice the art of persuasion.

There should be tension and anger in democracy. It’s tensions around we have $100 left and then decide whether we give it to Amy’s aging parents or Carl’s young kids. There can and should be frustration there because it’s questions of life and death. 

However, anger and frustration can’t mount to a culture of write-offs that certain folks are irredeemable and impossible to work with. It also doesn’t mean we can’t be frustrated with or even call people’s political beliefs inhumane, harmful, or cruel. Because fundamentally that tension and anger is part of the democratic process.

John is a good person, John has racist beliefs that are foundationally harmful, John most likely won’t change a ton. However, I would argue, nothing gets better without talking with folks like John, without believing in the goodness that he possesses, that change might happen, and that he can be worked with on certain things. 

Some will argue there is most likely a flaw in my methodology, many of the saints that I disagree with: John, my Uncle Jim, the dozens of people I have talked with on campus or any of that 10% who is as entrenched in their beliefs as I am in mine will not change their opinions no matter what I do.

Even if they’re right on that front, lumping any segment of the 80% in the middle, who is not so calcified, into an irredeemable pot of enemies is a losing battle. A purified tidal wave of 10% is not going to overcome the 80% cast out.  Hopefully, I have turned at least somewhat into a radical that people walk with, not run from. I’m back in my family group chat and continuing to have conversations with people like John and the many traditional Catholics on campus that think I’m crazy.

Being a white man obviously provides some positionality that makes this easier, especially for communities where engaging in such dialogue is not at all positive for them at any moment in time that’s ok too. You’re not required to save democracy, again. However, for those for whom positionality provides cover, I believe those conversations are part of our democratic duty.

If at any point you decide this radical premise is too hard, that talking with folks we disagree with is too intense, and its a cross not worth bearing we can always return to a monarchy or authoritarian, where that responsibility no longer ours, the stones of our fate belong to someone else and that burden is lifted from our shoulders. 

Until that point, the number 2 bus, the middle seats on airplanes and communing with other saints we disagree with gives me hope. Hope in the form of a system built on persuasion where hearts and minds can be won.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Dane Sherman

Dane Sherman is a first year Philosophy major from Seattle, Washington.

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