“Poisonous language doesn’t soften anybody’s heart, it doesn’t change anybody’s mind.” This was Mitt Romney’s response to the verbal attack on his faith.  So what does soften someone’s heart or change someone’s mind?

I was one of four people being interviewed on a radio program a few years ago.  The topic was homosexuality and the church.  It was not a debate but rather an exploration of why churches had such difficulty being accepting of homosexuality.

We each talked about difficulties of our own denominations in making policy and doctrinal decisions about homosexuality.  I talked about the deep rift in my denomination, Presbyterian.

We also talked about personal histories related to the topic.  I talked of growing up Southern Baptist in East Texas at a time when homosexuality was rarely talked about.  If it was mentioned at all it was in pitying terms.  In high school and college, being called a “queer” was the consummate insult.  We never considered that anyone among us was actually gay, so making jokes about it was easy and impersonal.

The radio host then asked me, “What makes this personal for you?”

What did make this personal for me?  My views had changed considerably over the years.  How had that change come about?  I took a few seconds to formulate a careful rationale, but then realized there was nothing particularly rational about the changes.  They were more emotional and personal than rational.

“I got to know someone.  I grew to respect her as a professional and grew to love her as a person.  She is lesbian, and that’s a big part of what makes her the person I love and respect.”

There it was.  My change of mind and heart was the result of a relationship.  Of course, this realization was many years in the making.  One of my closest friends in college was gay, though I did not know it at the time.  He talked of his struggles and personal anguish years later.  Some of the people I worked with in therapy had come out as gay or lesbian during our work together, and I admired their courage and wisdom in moving from scared and closeted to out, open, and at peace.  They struggled with the same life issues I struggle with, but they often had to do it in secret, without the support of friends, family, or their church.

Every one of us knows and respects someone who is gay or lesbian.  If you have more than a handful of acquaintances, coworkers, or extended family, you know someone who is gay or lesbian.  If you think you don’t know any homosexuals, that’s because those friends, coworkers, and family members haven’t felt sufficiently safe to tell you.

But this principle of relational change is not confined to sexual orientation.  This is a universal principle.  The turning point in so many issues today has to be relational.  As long as we can put someone in a category, associate them with a single issue, or lump them into a group, we can then judge them by whatever stereotypes we wish, and then dismiss them.

“Oh, he’s a Mormon, she’s a Republican, he’s gay, she’s Pro-Choice, he’s an illegal…” Labeling allows me to see someone as less than a full person.  It narrows my perspective and reduces my capacity to think, understand, and grow.  It makes my world smaller.

We will not become “a more prefect union” through debates, research, rational arguments, or yelling.  Our political intolerance and gridlock as well as our cultural, racial, and religious conflicts will continue until we make it relational.  This does not mean we have to agree with those who hold opposing views, but it does mean we must see “the other” as a person who has a great deal to teach us simply by being who they are.

A friend of mine on occasions calls people who have written letters to the editor that he profoundly disagrees with.  He invites them for coffee just to talk and try to understand their point of view.

When I asked why he did that, he simply replied, “It’s just so interesting. I always learn something.”  Now that’s a relational approach.

Printed in the Abilene Reporter News, October 15, 2011  http://www.reporternews.com/news/2011/oct/15/changing-hearts-and-minds/