Frances Kissling and Asma Khader listen to Azar Nafisi deliver her introductory remarks at “Challenges of Change: Religion, Secularism & Rights” event in which women leaders from Africa, North and South America, Asia, and the Middle East discuss the challenges of accommodating diversity while striving for human rights. (photo courtesy of the Women’s Learning Partnership)
I know that this week’s interview will be heard, by some at least, as a show about abortion. Frances Kissling, after all, is a name synonymous with “pro-choice.” And of course this show touches on the ins and outs of the issue of abortion, for this is the sphere in which she has distinguished herself for over a quarter century. But the revelation of this conversation is how much Frances Kissling has learned, precisely in one of the most entrenched and contested moral values spaces in our public life, about grappling with difference.
Hers is a story of holding passionate convictions and of being open to change — a both/and, not an either/or. It is a story of unfolding wisdom about human and social change, wrested from inside the abortion debate.
Practical tools emerge from this conversation that could calm and enrich our public life on all kinds of fronts if we began to cultivate them right now. Like my former guest Richard Mouw who grapples with difference on the conservative side of same-sex marriage and abortion, Frances Kissling is eloquent about the value of the “simple” act of listening to different others and gaining some sense of why they believe the way they do, how they came to that, where their hopes and fears lie, and what they mean when they use the words they do. Echoing Richard Mouw, Frances Kissling insists that doing this is not an act of giving up the ground on which we stand. But, she insists, when we genuinely listen, “good things come of that.” New possibilities emerge that we couldn’t imagine or meet before.
And though Frances Kissling is more a politician and philosopher than a poet, she reminds me of Elizabeth Alexander when she describes the ground of these possibilities largely in terms of the questions she and others begin to be able to ask of themselves: What can I see that is good in the position of the other? What troubles me in my own position? She speaks of the courage to be vulnerable in front of those with whom we passionately disagree.
As she and I discuss, being vulnerable before others holding different opinions than ourselves is exacting for human beings in the best of times. In the atmosphere of fear that pervades our political and social divides now, it can seem impossible — literally asking too much of us humans who are biologically hard-wired to find the open questions and conflict of a moment like this almost unbearably stressful. Frances Kissling and those she has encountered on the opposite “side” of this excruciatingly charged debate show us that there are ways out. They begin with human relationship, with new conversations that lead to new visions of life graciously shared and difference peaceably navigated even while we continue to disagree.
Before we finished producing this show, we reached out to David Gushee, a Christian ethicist on the “pro-life” end of the abortion debate whom Frances Kissling mentions in terms of this new relationship. Within two days, he wrote an essay for us titled “Sacred Conversations,” which we offer as an immensely rich addition to the experience of this particular show.
As always, we welcome your perspectives, reactions, and your stories as we reach the midway point of our series on widening and deepening our Civil Conversations Project.