“TED Talks” are short lectures on a wide variety of topics that you can watch online (TED.com). Recently, one title caught my eye, “Why I have coffee with people who send me hate mail.”
I am always eager to hear how people deal with conflict, for two reasons. First, I think it is probably the most important skill a pastor can have. Second, I hate conflict and almost make a religion out of avoiding it; success stories motivate me to be better. Maybe a third reason was also at play. It seems like a lot of problems in our society stem from the inability to be at ease with people who think differently from us. So, I clicked the link and listened attentively.
The speaker, Ozlem Cekic, is a Turkish Muslim woman who immigrated into Denmark and was eventually elected to the Danish parliament. After her election, hate emails full of racist language started flooding her inbox, most of them calling her a “raghead.”
She mentioned this at the dinner table once, and her young child asked why they wrote those things. “Oh, some people are just stupid,” she said, thinking that was a pretty good answer. Then a friend challenged her one day to have coffee meetings with the people who sent the offensive emails. She rose to the challenge, and to her surprise, the first man she called, one who had sent her over 100 hateful emails, agreed to have her over to his house for coffee — if it was OK with his wife. His name was Ingvald.
She was surprised he was married and further surprised when she arrived that he had a neat house in a pleasant neighborhood and a coffee maker just like the one in her parents’ kitchen. The coffee was good and went well with the cookies she brought. They talked for two and a half hours. She found that they shared some prejudices: when Ingvald had to wait a long time for the bus he assumed it was because of a “raghead driver,” and when she had to wait for a bus, she assumed it was due to a white racist driver. Despite herself, she really liked him, but she also hated having so much in common with someone who had such racist views.
Since that conversation eight years ago, Cekic has continued these meetings with many others who sent her hate mail. She is not sure she ever changed the views of any of them, but the simple act of building a bridge through conversation was humbling and instructive.
She quickly came to realize that she had been just as judgmental of the hate emailers as they had been of her. She said that the most important outcome from all these conversations was that she learned to distance herself from the hateful views these people expressed without distancing herself from the people themselves. She is telling us that we can love our enemies.
I remember hearing the liberal journalist Chris Matthews speak of his admiration for the conservative president, Ronald Reagan. While Reagan was president, Matthews worked for the speaker of the house, Tip O’Neill, so he witnessed a lot of what happened behind the scenes.
What happened was that the president, the speaker and their staffers argued often and intensely. Then, a surprising and lovely trend began when the president invited the speaker to the White House for drinks in the evening. Seeing O’Neill’s surprise, Reagan said, “Tip, we’re political enemies from nine to six; after six o’clock there are no enemies.”
Wow. It is now the season in the church year when we recall the prophetic voice of Isaiah who envisioned a peaceable kingdom where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and the cow and the bear shall be neighbors.
I yearn for that. But I know it won’t happen just by my yearning. I have to heed the final instruction of Cekic in her talk. “Find your own Ingvald.” It is only through the difficult work of reaching out and seeking to understand people who are different that we will become peacemakers.
Cekic concluded her talk by quoting a Danish man whose child was killed in a terrorist attack in 2016. “Evil can only be defeated by kindness between people. Kindness demands courage.” The sort of kindness that makes a difference certainly does.
The Rev. Tom Krieg is pastor at St. Jams the Greater Catholic Church, Eau Claire.