ISSUES OF FAITH: The tectonic plates underneath apparent gridlock

WHAT CAN WE do — is there anything we can do — to shift the gridlock in our society related to seemingly intractable positions?

On Feb. 12, I attended a program of the Pacific Northwest Interfaith Amigos from Seattle — Rabbi Ted Falcon, Imam Jamal Rahman and the Rev. Dave Brown — in the Port Townsend High School auditorium, a program aimed at finding a way through the stubborn social, political and religious oppositions of our time.

At the end of their prepared presentation, there was an invitation for questions from the audience, one of which went like this: “What do you say to someone who is totally opposed to the position you represent?”

In reply, Rabbi Falcon recalled a time at another presentation where his approach had been strongly disputed.

Considering this stiff opposition, he asked his challenger: “Is there anything I could say that would change your mind on this matter?”

His challenger, after hesitating a bit, had to honestly say, “No, I don’t think there is anything you could say that would change my mind on this subject.”

Then, it was Rabbi Falcon’s turn to say, “And, you know, I don’t think there’s anything you could say that would change my position on this matter either.”

Rabbi Falcon then suggested that this is where a potential meeting on entrenched and diametrically opposed positions begins, namely with no expectations — no expectation of changing the other person’s mind, no expectation of a solution.

Rather, the place to start is to enter the arena of conflict in the spirit of:

“This is the way things are, and the only thing to do in terms of meeting the opponent is to try to get to know the opponent better — attempt to see what makes the other tick, try to ascertain how your opponent arrived at his/her present position and approach your opponent with the sincere attitude of, ‘I want to find out about you.’ ”

I was struck by Rabbi Falcon’s answer, and later, reflecting upon his recommendation, the image of “tectonic plates” popped into my mind.

The rigid, outermost shell of our Earth, the crust and upper mantle upon which our continents and oceans ride, is broken up into what are called tectonic plates. Depending on how they are defined, there are seven or eight major tectonic plates, along with many minor plates.

These tectonic plates do move, but very slowly — 4 inches a year at most — and they don’t move because of anything we’re doing; they move independently, at their own pace and on their own scale.

So, I thought: “Imagine that the person with a position diametrically opposed to your own is standing on (or actually is) a tectonic plate. Do you think anything you can say or do is going to move or shift that tectonic plate?”

If anything, the reverse is probably true: That is, the more you attempt to directly push, argue and cajole, the greater will be the tendency of the opponent on the other plate to dig in, resist, retrench and defend his/her position — the greater will be the rigidity and immobility of the opponent.

And yet, as I said, there is some tectonic plate movement. But it’s underground movement. And it’s movement not apparent to those riding the tectonic plates, particularly for those stationed in the middle of those plates.

However, at the edges of the tectonic plates where they meet other tectonic plates or pull away from other tectonic plates, huge changes take place — sudden, shocking and explosive movements related to earthquakes, volcanoes and mountain-building.

What was previously subterranean suddenly and dramatically bursts forth: Unexpectedly, the Berlin Wall crumbles. Remarkably, the Soviet Union falls apart. And, in our country, we elect who is to some the most unlikely president imaginable.

This explosive action is welcomed by many, others not so much.

The value, for me, of this image of tectonic plates is, first of all, that it helps to explain what is going on in terms of the subterranean forces that have been at work and are now surfacing in our society.

And, more important, it’s an image that can give us a starting point in dealing with the intractable conflict currently present in our society.

The image of persons and parties in strong opposition to each other riding on separate tectonic plates may free us from believing we possess the power to control the movement of others or to bend them through force of argument to the “sweet reasonableness” of the beliefs belonging to our tectonic plate.

By holding in our minds the image of riding different tectonic plates, we may, instead of focusing on our radically opposed surface differences, explore and discover the similarities of these plates — their similar structures, processes and movements.

Such a focus provides the possibility of arousing our sense of compassion, strengthening our sense of connection and helping us to live out our nation’s original motto, “E pluribus unum” — “Out of many, one.”


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]

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