For the past year I have regularly (and maybe even annoyingly) said that as communities and as a country we must get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. My immediate audience for this sentiment, and for most of my writing and commentary for that matter, is myself. Over the years I have often been uncomfortable with uncomfortable conversations — which prevented real progress in many areas of my life.
It is so easy to avoid or ignore what author and philanthropist Joseph Grenny defined as the crucial conversations. Sometimes we even create convenient diversions to keep us busy and at a safe distance from deeper dialogue and more rigorous thinking. Whether the issue is homelessness, race relations, the opioid epidemic, a struggling neighbor, personal debt or failing family relationships — convenient, even pleasant, distractions cannot and must not become the substitute for crucial conversations.
Erwin Lutzer once described a quaint German town during World War II that had a picturesque little church that sat near the railroad tracks. It became the embodiment of pleasant distractions preventing crucial conversations.
Lutzer shared an eyewitness account from the town: “We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews, but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because we felt, what could anyone do to stop it?
“Each Sunday morning, we would hear the train whistle blowing in the distance, then the wheels coming over the tracks. We became disturbed when we heard cries coming from the train as it passed by. We realized that it was carrying Jews like cattle in the cars!
“Week after week the whistle would blow. We dreaded to hear the sounds of those wheels because we knew that we would hear the cries of the Jews en route to a death camp. Their screams tormented us.
“We knew the time the train was coming and when we heard the whistle blow we began singing hymns. By the time the train came past our church, we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.”
Author Andy Andrews, in referencing Lutzer’s account, asked the penetrating question, “How loudly are you singing?”
Nothing compares to the senseless slaughter of innocent individuals. However, the metaphor of local citizens singing louder in order to avoid dealing with difficult issues is applicable to so many situations today.
John F. Kennedy popularized a quote attributed to Dante: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality." We simply cannot whistle past the graveyard or sing our way past the issues of our day.
Are we singing loudly as we pass by the homeless? Are we whistling our way around refugees and neighbors in need? Are we humming sweet melodies while ignoring the tragedy of teen and veteran suicide? Are we joining the chorus of “all is well” while hoping the inconvenient issues of religious liberty, LGBT rights, our national debt or the breakdown of families are conveniently swept under the rug? And are we joining a type of community karaoke rather than holding elected officials accountable for doing their jobs, keeping their promises and solving the nation’s problems instead of their own political problems?
Truly the greatest threat to America has little to do with the occupant of the White House or those elected to Congress. The greatest threat to our future is that we the people will be increasingly content to sing our own siren songs of pleasant distraction instead of engaging in the crucial conversations of our day.
Boyd C. Matheson is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.