Across the Aisle, Across the Kitchen Table – Rev. Kristin G. Schmidt

Edwin Friedman was a rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant who is best-known for his work with religious communities. His book called Friedman’s Fables is a collection of stories he wrote to help explain family systems. I’m going to tell you one of those stories. It’s called “The Power of Belief” and it begins with a man who came home one day and announced that he was dead. 

Right away, his neighbors tried to show him how silly this was. He was thinking, his brain was functioning, he was breathing; and dead people can’t do any of those things. But for whatever reason, no argument would change his mind.

No matter what evidence people brought up to convince him, no matter how sensible the persuasion, the man insisted that he was dead. He never seemed to lose the zest for debate, but sometimes would shrug his shoulders and say, “If I am dead, you don’t exist either, since surely the living don’t hang out with the dead.” 

Eventually most people gave up trying to convince him he was wrong, and the few left became increasingly afraid. They assumed he’d lost his grip on reality or was ill somehow. Maybe it was a brain tumor? Maybe he was exhausted or overworked? His family finally decided to call a professional. 

But the man just laughed. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you all. It’s absurd to think of a dead man as tired, let alone sick.” 

Still, they made him an appointment with a psychiatrist. At the end of the appointment the doctor shook his head. “This man has lost all awareness of reality. I recommend intense therapy immediately.”

But the man just laughed. “What kind of therapy would you prescribe for a dead man?” the man replied. “If word got out that you, a respected doctor, had prescribed treatment to a dead man, surely the medical board might worry you’ve begun losing your grip on reality.” 

Then, the man’s wife had an idea. “Let’s ask the family doctor to see him. The doctor isn’t a specialist, but she’s known him his whole life. If he won’t listen to her, he won’t listen to anybody.”

So they took him to the family doctor who greeted him with a hug, and after learning about the situation, she asked him a simple question. “Do dead men bleed?” 

“Of course not,” the man replied. Then the doctor asked permission to make a tiny cut in his arm. That way, they could put the whole question of whether he was dead to rest.

The man agreed, and the doctor quickly cut a small incision in the man’s arm. They all watched as a drop of blood trickled out. Everyone was hopeful this would be the thing that would finally bring him back to his senses. 

But as the doctor put a band-aid on his arm, the man smiled and said “I can’t believe it! I was completely wrong. Dead men can bleed.” 

I imagine most of us have had conversations with people like the main character. Maybe they didn’t believe they were dead, but they had some sort of illogical belief they nevertheless stuck to for whatever reason. This is a funny story because even though he was wrong in believing he was dead, the man wasn’t really hurting anybody by believing it. But there are beliefs that can cause great harm to others, and engaging with people who believe them can be anything but funny. 

Several weeks ago I was part of a conversation that took a turn to the situation in Gaza. A woman I know, but not too well, had just gotten back from volunteering in Israel. Many of her family members live there, so I know the terrorist attack and war that’s followed are especially emotional for her. Even still, I was pretty shocked by some of the things she said. She dismissed reports of Gazan civilians starving and children dying as Hamas lies. So, I pointed out that those are verifiable facts,  reported by reputable organizations whose reporting has been widely trusted for years. Then she said “Well, 90% of everyone in Gaza is a terrorist anyway. So, we don’t need to feel bad for them.” I won’t ever forget it.

Her words completely caught me off guard. Babies in arms cannot be terrorists. Families fleeing from one supposedly-safe zone to the next while trying to keep their children from starving are not terrorists. To justify their deaths by labeling all Gazans terrorists is not only Islamophobic, it’s empirically untrue. I was dismayed. I was not interested in building a bridge. I did not, as President Obama used to say, “go high when she went low.” I did not speak out of a centered place, so it was not my finest moment. And frankly, I thought to myself later, it’s not that important to me to stay in a relationship with this person. 

But then it occurred to me; if everyone with beliefs like mine cuts everyone with beliefs like hers out of our lives, the polarization just gets worse. If everyone like me stops engaging with everyone like her, the walls of our echo chambers just get thicker, and nothing will ever get better.

In the case of the man who believed he was dead, his family and friends could have just decided to stop engaging with him about it. But what if his belief had been something harmful? There are times in life and in relationships when agreeing to disagree just won’t cut it. I love my trans nephew too much to agree to disagree with people who don’t believe he should have the same rights I do. I love my father too much to agree to disagree with people who believe immigrants are hurting this country. 

With some people, we may have to set very firm boundaries and limit contact to take care of ourselves, especially if a person’s beliefs harm us directly. Sometimes we may even need to find a therapist to help us figure out how to set better boundaries or help us decide to cut contact. 

But what if we’ve done that work already? What if we aren’t harmed directly by this person’s beliefs? Or, what if we just aren’t willing to cut contact with Aunt Bertha who has loved us since before we were born but who somehow fell down the political conspiracy theory rabbit hole? How do we navigate a relationship with respect for Aunt Bertha’s capacity to change, but also with integrity to the truth, to those harmed by her beliefs? 

Many of us have relationships with family members or neighbors, co-workers or friends that are hard to navigate in this way. Whether those beliefs are religious, political, or ideological, part of what makes this so frustrating in many cases is how easily debunked they are. Conspiracy theories, cults, or political manipulation can all lead people to believe the outrageous, and then dig their heels in when confronted with facts that challenge their ideas. 

And that’s because facts don’t convince people. In a 2021 article in Live Science by Stephanie Pappas, psychologist Kurt Gray said that “In moral disagreements, experiences seem truer than facts.” The Center for the Science of Moral Understanding at the University of North Carolina, which Gray directs, did a study about this very thing. The results showed that “people doubted political facts presented by their opponents far more than facts presented by someone they agreed with.” 

But the study also showed that stories of personal experiences were more likely to change people’s minds. “Ultimately,” Pappas wrote “people can always come up with a way to doubt or discount facts… but personal experiences are harder to argue away. [Gray said] “It’s just so hard to doubt when someone tells you, ‘Look, this terrible thing happened to me.’” 

There’s another field with help for navigating these kinds of tricky relationships. It’s cult intervention. There’s a lot of good stuff out there on this, but I think the work of Rachel Bernstein is the most accessible. Bernstein is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has specialized in cult intervention and reacclimation for 30 years. She identifies Q Anon and the MAGA movement and many fundamentalist religious groups as having cult-like qualities.

In an episode of the podcast called A Little Bit Culty, Bernstein offers some practical guidance. The Lay Ministers here this morning or listening to this service later online may recognize some of these ideas from their pastoral listening training. 

  1. First, Bernstein encourages us to be intentional about any conversation we have with this person. If we find ourselves in a conversation that surprises us, don’t take the bait. It’s better to take the time we need to center ourselves and prepare for a future conversation. Because to be effective, we need to be able to stay calm and respond to the other person’s anxiety with non-anxious presence. 
  1. Second, Bernstein advises that we listen more than we speak. By centering the other person’s experience rather than our own, we’re showing that we care about them and creating conditions for trust to grow. 
  1. Third, she encourages us to let go of expectations for the conversation. Beliefs are much more about identity and belonging than they are about reason. When a person begins to question something they’ve believed for a long time, they are vulnerable. It may take many conversations over years to talk about the hard stuff.
  1. Fourth, if the person uses what Bernstein calls “cult talk” or propaganda talking points, interrupt them respectfully and say something like this. “I’m sorry, I know how important this conversation is and I just don’t understand the language you’re using. Can you put it in your own words?” By challenging people to put things in their own words it removes the scripts they’ve been given, and begins to put them back in touch with their own voice. Bernstein says this can have a big impact.
  1. Finally, Bernstein urges people to end conversations like these with what she calls “forever statements.” Say things like “I know we have very different beliefs about XYZ, but I will always be here for you.” Or “I will never agree with you about XYZ, but I will always love you.” In order to leave the influence of a community or set of beliefs, a person needs to feel like they will have a safe place to land, a new community to belong to, that there is at least one bridge to the rest of the world left in their lives.

These kinds of conversations, these relationships, are hard. They take a lot of energy and a deep faith in the capacity for people to grow and change. Through scientific study and decades of therapeutic experience, Kurt Gray and Rachel Bernstein offer us skills for engaging over emotionally-charged difference. And I can think of no better place for us to put such skills into practice than church. Unitarian Universalists by definition don’t believe the same thing. And if we can practice staying in relationship even when we don’t agree, even when things get tense, even when we are held accountable, it will help prepare us for the harder conversations and trickier relationships in other parts of our lives. 

This is important, now more than ever. In a world where politicizing the things that divide us has practically become an olympic sport, we need people skilled in staying connected, staying at the table. Of course there will be people we can’t and shouldn’t try to stay connected to. Sometimes cutting contact is the only healthy choice. None of us owes anyone anything who doesn’t think we should exist or who doesn’t think we have worth or dignity. But there might be one or two people in our lives who have been led down a troublesome path for whom a connection with us can make the difference, could lead to a change of heart. It was people appealing to her humanity who helped Megan Phelps Roper to leave the Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful beliefs. It’s how Daryl Davis, an African American man, has helped over 200 KKK members give up their racism and their robes. 

And it’s people with privilege and power, people who aren’t directly hurt by harmful beliefs who need to stick with these relationships. Now, I haven’t decided whether I’m going to try and stay connected to the woman I told you about earlier. I obviously do not live in Gaza. I am neither Palestinian nor Muslim. She does not hate me, even if she disagrees with me, and her beliefs do not directly harm me. All I’d be risking by staying in contact with her is my comfort. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not much. 

When I think about how much time, how much effort, such slow and individual change takes, it can feel hopeless at times. But in her book The Gift of Faith, Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar writes, “In the lore of ancient China, there is a story of a philosopher who was asked, ‘Where is the road called hope?’ He replied, ‘It does not exist, but as people walk upon it, it comes into being.’”

May each of us find strength, skills, and companionship to navigate hard relationships with integrity and grace. And may the road called hope come into being within and beneath us. Amen.