Living in a fractious world is as old as humankind, Rabbi Uri Barnea said Friday during a talk at Rocky Mountain College.
Still, it’s possible for people to come together, Barnea said during the last of a trio of talks from clergy members Thursday and Friday at the Billings college.
It all depends on respect, acknowledging the other person’s humanity, entering into dialogue and promoting civility, Barnea said.
"We simply cannot hope to create community if we do not treat each other with respect,” he said.
The presentations comprised the Wheatley Lectures sponsored by Rocky Mountain College and the United Methodist Church. Included were the Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, bishop of the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area of the UMC and the Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, director of Rethinking Conflict, a conflict transformation organization in Northern Ireland.
All three addressed “Creating Community in Fracturing Times: Returning Civility to Civil Dialogue.” Barnea began by briefly summarizing key points made by the other two speakers.
“From Gary’s point of view, the idea of engagement is not endorsement,” he said. “That’s a very powerful idea that we should not hesitate to approach.”
Oliveto, Barnea said, focused on breaking the cycle of violence and creating circles of community. All three lent their unique perspectives to the topic at hand.
Barnea, the son of Holocaust survivors, said the worst thing to do to others is rob them of their humanity. The Nazi regime likened Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and the disabled to bugs.
“It’s easier to smash an insect on the sole of your shoe if you’re not a human being but an insect that should be destroyed,” he said.
When Barnea spoke some time ago to a class at Montana State University and showed them horrifying photos of what was done to Jews, one student called the Nazis animals. Barnea quickly corrected the student’s assumption.
Since an animal has no sense of morality, they can’t be blamed for their actions, he said.
“The Nazis were human beings who should have known and most probably knew what they were doing was an atrocity,” Barnea said. “Only if and when we recognize the humanity of people, even the worst offenders, can we charge them with taking both the blame and responsibility for their actions.”
To think that the kind of evil the Nazis perpetrated is a modern phenomenon is faulty. Barnea took his audience back to Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, where humans “broke the perfection” called Eden by their actions.
Getting back to that perfection is impossible, but the ancient words of the Mishnah, Jewish teachings from the third century, said it’s every human’s responsibility to put some effort toward that goal while on earth, Barnea said.
“For example, you see a crying child, console the child,” he said. “If you see an old lady trying to cross the street, help her.”
Pick up a discarded can off the street. Turn off a dripping faucet. Each small action shows we care, Barnea said.
In a world where God offered humans free will, "people can always choose to move away from darkness and toward the light," he said.
In a divided America, Barnea asked if it's possible to replace division with unity, disrespect with respect, hatred with love, conspiracy with trust, selfishness with altruism, lies with facts and truth.
“I believe realistically if we can’t change the world 100 percent, we can improve many things if we are determined to do so and invest time, thought, resources and energy that are required to accomplish them,” he said.
It begins with acknowledging others’ humanity. Since humans are made in the image of God, the worth and dignity of every human being “should be our guide,” Barnea said.
“Acknowledge the humanity of your opponent,” he said. “Look in their eyes and see yourself in them. That may slow your heartbeat, reduce the resistance and hate.”
For the second step, instead of shutting out the other person, engage them in dialogue, speaking politely, shedding threatening dialogue, listening the way you’d like to be listened to, Barnea said.
Nothing good will come from a shouting match, he said. But, two people in a dialogue don’t have to agree.
“I enter into a dialogue so I could plant a tiny seed, to sway them into listening to another opinion,” he said. “And maybe, just maybe, to influence them to coexist with me in peace.”
In promoting civility, Barnea said, “maybe you can find truth in each other.”