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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Cooperation and Consensus

I drove past a sign yesterday outside a middle school in my suburban Atlanta neighborhood. “The Word For This Week,” it informed me, is “COOPERATION.” Good word. Important word. I saw myself at twelve putting pencil to paper, scratching out what for me would have certainly been boilerplate drivel that I had written so much of in the first seven or eight years of my formally-delivered-casually-received education. The titles would be simple, like What Honesty Means to Me or Why Friends are Important. I wrote those early essays as if I were Dudley Do-right with a pen: self-righteous and saccharinely virtuous. Strictly Sally, Dick and Jane stuff.

I figured there would be similar titles written this week by the kids at the local middle school. There’s little Brandon, tongue hugging his upper lip, as he comes up with his not-too-original What Cooperation Means to Me. He’s twelve, an idealist, with all so perfect notions of what cooperation is and why it’s important. Maybe he’s going to talk about cooperation in his scout troop or his football team. Kid stuff.

Like Brandon, I was ready to deliver an upbeat message about cooperation, from the adult perspective of course, which meant it was not going to be kid stuff. Right here in the open notebook by my left elbow I have a couple of paragraphs about consensus and cooperation and community. Pffft! It’s crap! Total naivete.

It helps to think positive, but I cannot shut out the inevitability of its absence in a divided America and a dangerous world. That makes it even more important, right? But when a judge’s family is killed by a hate group** in Chicago because they think she’s Jewish (which she is not, which doesn’t matter) and anti-gay marriage laws passed in all the states they were on the ballot last year, it’s hard to get my head around the notion of communities being willing to work together in some kind of cooperation.

The remains of attempts at commonality, too often manifested through fist, stick and sword, rot and turn to dust below our feet, held in place by the gravity of dogma, sadly forgotten through time. Dogma, it seems, not only informs us of who we are, but also blinds us from what we can be. As long as people feel chained to belief systems, how can there be cooperation?

Maybe the problem is that I see cooperation as being the fruit of consensus, where people come together and agree to a common goal. And there it is: a common goal. Two boxers in the ring have a mutual understanding that they will likely beat each other bloody and one of them will win, but their goals are mutually exclusive. They each want to win. There can be no consensus with divergent goals, but there can be consent to cooperate with the process.

Even the two great Western religions –Judaism and Christianity - have a basis for cooperation. As the great twentieth-century scholar, AJ Heschel , said in a collection of essays edited by his daughter Susannah (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1996):

“The purpose of religious communication among human beings of different commitments is mutual enrichment and enhancement of respect and appreciation…
“There is an unfortunate history of Christian-Jewish disputations…which eventually degenerated into enmity…
“We honestly and profoundly disagree in matters of creed and dogma. Indeed, there is a deep chasm between Christians and Jews concerning, e.g., the divinity and messiahship of Jesus. But across the chasm we can extend our hand to one another.
“Religion is a means, not an end... To equate religion and God is idolatry.”

In the same way, it can be said that politics is “a means, not an end,” for just as religion is the personal pathway to God, personal politics is the pathway to what we all want. We can disagree with each other on political and social principals, but ultimately, we have the same goals: good government, fair government, and a better America.

So what are the pathways to some of our common goals? When we go into the voting booth, we cooperate with the process, consent to having our choices counted. For me, the process is not a search for the status quo, the lowest common denominator, but a reach toward the highest common good, the one who I think is likely to embody the possibility of creating the best society. That is my commitment.

Another pathway is right outside your front door. I’d like to think that we all are likely to choose what is best for our children, our neighbors, ourselves. I’d like to think that is a basis for cooperation. That’s why instead of waiting for our government representatives to reach across the proverbial aisle, we can start by reaching across the street. Be active. Create consensus. Maybe next election, your block can vote as a block.

So I guess that’s what cooperation looks like when you’re an adult. At least, that’s what it looks like to me.

** as it turns out, someone not associated with Matt Hale committed this crime, but the point is the same. Hale, btw, got a pretty hefty sentence for threatening the judge.