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The Crucial Step Often Missing from True Compromise

When it comes down to actually doing it, the devil is in the details.

This seems to be the central challenge amid a lot of talk in Washington, D.C., these days about the importance of compromise as well as assurances on many sides that it is necessary and possible.

Admittedly, compromise is difficult. It involves one party giving up something wanted or needed in exchange for getting something the party wants or needs more.

However, there is a basic step to compromise that I rarely hear in political, and much religious, rhetoric. That is the acknowledgement of possible shortcomings or misconceptions on all sides.

I recall a heated conversation with my one of my favorite persons in the world years ago when we were at loggerheads. They suggested that, since we could not come to a point of giving in to one another, a compromise was in order.

My retort was, “I am not interested in a compromise. That just means that everybody loses.”

I am glad that this notion did not stick in our relationship. However, it seems to be the operational mantra in much political rhetoric.

I recall with pain the Southern Baptist wars of the ’80s and ’90s.

From my perspective, they were not about choices between one bad set of values and one good set of values. There were some good and admirable values on both sides although lots of people did not think so.

Additionally, although there were good values on both sides, some most closely held values were mutually exclusive.

For example, a commitment to Scriptural inerrancy cannot exist in tandem with an insistence on the importance of scholarly biblical criticism.

Commitment to the primacy of “saving souls” struggles to understand the idea that salvation involves ministry to the whole person.

A commitment to “complementarianism” with regard to gender on the part of one group and a determination to teach and practice “egalitarianism” by the other group did not mix.

I really think most people in the latter groups could have worked with those in the former, supporting each in moving forward with their agendas.

However, most in the former groups and some in the latter groups thought such was simply unworkable, even heretical.

In the “Peace Committee” process, the loudest and most influential voices could be heard saying such things as, “I can compromise, but not on issues crucial to the faith.”

Of course, the rub was that, for most of them, most everything was “crucial to the faith.”

In the end, there wasn’t any compromise. One group won, the other lost, and just a few on both sides acknowledged any measure of culpability on the part of them and their kind.

“Mutual culpability,” or whatever other phrase one might use to designate the fact that no one perspective is perfect, has fallen on hard times these days.

Acknowledging “mutual culpability” is hardly the same as declaring “equal culpability.”

To me, “mutuality of at least some fault” is a given in that innocence went out the window in the Garden of Eden. “Equality in fault” is both rare and a matter of debate.

My point is this: Progress in debate is impossible until all parties at least acknowledge their fallible humanity and resultant partially fallible perspective.

As long as both or all parties are convinced of their complete “rightness” and of the other’s complete “wrongness,” there is no room to negotiate.

There is nothing with which to negotiate since, given the presumptions, every piece of the agenda is key and rendered non-negotiable in the process of decision-making.

I have done lots of marriage counseling over the last 40 years. In the vast majority of cases, the couple will have already given up on the marriage when they come to me.

They sometimes admit that they simply want to tell themselves and others during and after the divorce that they went to a counselor and it didn’t work.

If I think I can help them rather than referring them, and they seem to really want to save and grow the relationship, the following two steps are crucial.

1. Get them to acknowledge their possible role and even partial (not necessarily equal) culpability.

2. Help them let down their guards and talk to one another with as much honesty, openness, trust and vulnerability that they can muster.

If they take these steps, some of the hardest and most important work is often done. Negotiating things to help the relationship will work only after these steps are taken.

I don’t know how to fix the political and social mess in the U.S. any more than I knew how to fix the mess of the Baptist wars.

However, what bothers me most about the rhetoric coming from all sides is the dearth of voices saying, “Maybe I (or we) are partially or completely wrong.”

That doesn’t fix anything, but it has proven to be a starting place in some of my ministry and life.

Maybe it is too simple to work, but I would like to see more of our leaders at least try.

Reggie Warren is pastor of Union Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal, Virginia, and a former member of the board of directors of the Baptist Center for Ethics.