Reflections on Snyder’s “20 Lessons”

By Bentley Stewart

On November 15, Timothy Snyder, a Yale Historian, posted to his Facebook page “twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.”

I’m going to highlight just four of the pieces of advice and what they mean to me: numbers 3, 4, 6, and 8. I’d love to hear which pieces of advice have resonance for you and how you interpret their meaning for your own life and practice.  

3. Recall professional ethics

This one might be my favorite, because this roots us in our callings. Our professional codes hold us accountable to our roles in participating in advancing the human project. We are not obligated to do all of the work. We are not free from doing any work. 

While I’m no historian, I will make the bold assertion that it is the codes of ethics of the professional guilds that helped Europe transition from the feudalism of the Medieval Ages into the emergence of a (for lack of a better term) “middle-class” during the Renaissance. 

One of the most famous codes comes from antiquity. While the Hippocratic Oath does NOT include the maxim “do no harm,” it has many of the markers of modern codes. It does include instruction for caring for those who cannot pay for services. It has a moral division of labor; they were physicians not surgeons. It also forbids taking sexual advantage of the power imbalance inherent in serving vulnerable populations. 

I am a clergy person, which is a sacred trust between the communities I serve, and by whom I am held accountable, and our shared mission to serve the world. For me to remain in good standing within my ordaining body, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I must adhere to our code of ethics. Additionally, I'm endorsed as a hospital chaplain, meaning there's heightened awareness of and concern for serving vulnerable populations. In addition to the professional codes of ethics for chaplains, I took on additional commitments as an educator of spiritual care providers.

All of these commitments demand that I listen deeply to the suffering of others and amplify the voices of the oppressed and the vulnerable. My profession demands that I speak to powers that are being abused in ways that diminishes the dignity and sacred worth of any of us.

4. When listening to politician, distinguish certain words.

“…the first violence is committed against language itself....“ 

A friend recently visited the Holocaust Museum in DC. He posted this sign to Facebook. He asked for help with translation. Here’s the translation offered:

“The headings of the columns across the top, ‘Political prisoners, career criminals, emigrants, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, a-socials.’

“The title of the sign reads: ‘Identifying Markers for Those in Protective Custody.’ The Nazi word ‘Schutzhaft’ demonstrates that under fascism, the first violence is committed against language itself. The Nazis claimed they were placing inmates into the camps to ‘protect’ them from the German people who were angry for the very existence of Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, etc. Compare the term ‘Alt-right.’"

For a contemporary example, I turn to the euphemistic “new-speak” of the eviction order of Standing Rock by the Army Corps.:

“In his letter to Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, Colonel John Henderson of the Army Corps stated, “This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protestors and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area.” Let’s be clear about what this means. Our people have been attacked again and again by people I can attest from experience do not look at Natives as human beings. While our people have converged in peace, police from around the Midwest have also converged, to play their role in this moment of colonial and anti-colonial struggle. Morton County police and the police who have travelled from afar to join them have done everything short of killing our Water Protectors, and the only solution to this aggression that officials can produce is to further repress us.

The Army Corps letter also states that officials are worried about “death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.” Such pretense would be laughable if this situation weren’t so tragic and enraging. The government has proven at every turn — including its approval of this pipeline route — that it has no concern for our well-being or survival. Any claim to the contrary is a spineless PR maneuver, though some will surely latch onto it, so as not to see this shameful moment in US history as President Obama’s swan song.”

6. Be kind to our language.

Micah 6:8 describes the duties of being human as “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” 

We are called to be kind. We are not called to be nice. My colleague, Ruth Schulenberg, recently informed me that the etymology of nice is the French for “naïve.” 

Now more than ever, we need the principles of non-violent communication. Assume good intentions until there is good reason to know that is no longer true. Use “I” statements. Avoid starting with “you” statements that often feel accusative and can trigger defensiveness. Rather, distinguish between intent and impact. For example, make observations first before stating your feelings. “I heard you say ‘x.’ Is that a correct summary?” Once you have clarified the speech, “When I hear you say ‘x,’ I feel ‘y.’” 

…. now, PAUSE and breathe. Wait for them to engage. Perhaps they will take ownership of this impact. Perhaps, when confronted with this impact on me, they will revise their initial statement. Important note, when someone confronts me with the impact of my language on them, I need to remember that impact is always more important than intent. If they are not interested in my intent, I have no right to force my explanation of my intent on them. I need to apologize for the impact and commit to doing better next time.  This process is laboriously slow and the advantage of that is it gives us time to breathe, which helps us activate our prefrontal cortex rather than our amygdala’s fight or flight response. 

Another helpful tool is the first mantra of Improv: “yes, and.” Whenever possible, “build” on the offering of your conversation partner, rather than “block” the emerging dialogue.

“Yes, I agree with you about this aspect of ‘x,’ and I’m wondering what you think about this aspect of ‘y.’ Do you think that adds any nuance to the discussion about ‘x?’” 

Another version of this comes from Systems Centered Therapy. “I join you about ‘x’ and I have a difference with you in regards to ‘y.’”

For me, the problem with being “nice” is that I might sacrifice my voice in order to accommodate someone else’s understandings which violate principles I hold dear. 

Theologically, I draw from Martin Buber’s concept “I-Thou.” We long for communication where we are both seen and heard and in return we see and hear the other person. We long for the meeting of two subjects, each honoring the dignity and sacred worth of the other. 

Violent communication is characterized by an “I-it” dynamic. Our conversation partner is dehumanized and becomes a label: a racist, a communist, and on and on. 

“Nice” communication is the sacrifice of my own human dignity and is characterized by an “it-Thou” dynamic. Making you feel comfortable and liking me is more important than risking real relationship by voicing my truth.

The “I-Thou” encounter is messy and fluid; and at its best, can be life-giving and transformative. 

8. Believe in truth.

The author speaks of “facts.” I’m going to differ from Professor Snyder (see point above) and refocus on “truth.” Following Quaker educator and activist, Parker Palmer, I distinguish facts from truth. Again, etymology is useful here. Facts comes from the French “to make.” We make facts based on observations of reality. We are a multi-cultural, pluralistic society. One culture, rooted in the Enlightenment Project, places a premium on objectivity over subjectivity. Many wonderful things have emerged from the Enlightenment project, such as modern medicine which strives for evidenced-based strategies for health and wellness.

In this age of “fake news,” we are learning that the strategy of propagandists is to fabricate facts. Remember, we make facts. Therefore, they are suspect to the biases of the person claiming objectivity. At their best, facts always fall short of objectivity. At their worst and most manipulative, they are fabrications. And yet, always remember to assume good intentions. And, check out assumptions and suspicions.  

“Hey that sounds strange to me. Can you cite the sources from where you learned that?”

Truth is related to the Anglo-Saxon word “troth,” from which we get the word “betrothal.” Truth is about commitments. Truth is about shared reality. Truth is discovered through the inter-subjectivity of “I-Thou” encounters (see above). 

Here are my guiding principles around truth (not an exhaustive list):

  • I am called to honor and respect the dignity and sacred worth of every human.
  • I am called to awaken in your humanity a respect for the humanity of others.
  • No one is beyond redemption.
  • Reconciliation requires both truth-telling and repentance. 
  • Evil is real and pernicious.
  • In every moment, we are given opportunities to collude with, accommodate, or resist evil. 
  • Our fundamental calling is the goodness of collaborating as care-takers of the living interdependent web of creation.

Rev. J. Bentley Stewart is the Director of Student Life for Disciples Seminary Foundation in Northern California. He is an ordained minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and has standing in the Northern California/Nevada Region, for whom he serves as one of the anti-racism trainers. He is endorsed as a hospital chaplain by Disciples Home Mission. In his decade of hospital ministry, he specialized in pediatrics, palliative care, clinical ethics, interprofessional communication, and cultural bridging. He holds a B.A. degree from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL, and a M.Div. degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is organizing the core team to begin a new Disciples worshiping community in Marin County, gathering-desire, where he resides with his wife, their two sons, and their beloved 95 lb. lapdog, Norman.