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When disasters strike, people tend to put aside their differences and commit to work together to resolve the problem. These moments of crisis are instructive – they reveal our willingness to make “loose connections” with people we otherwise find disagreeable. Tim and Rick discuss times when they have seen parties across lines come together, draw out features that make “loose connections” possible, and highlight the difference between identifying and cultivating common ground.


Tim Muehlhoff: Those kind of moments are precisely the moments where we say, look, I don't care if you're a Democrat, Republican, Buddhist, Christian, gay straight, thank you for helping with my kids and I will help you with your kids. Those are the moments I think we need to take a look at, right, and see if we can't keep our antennas up to notice when those moments can present themselves.

Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winston conviction podcast. My name's Rick Langer, and I'm a professor here at Biola as well as the Director of the Office of Faith and Learning. And, one of the co-directors of the Winsome Conviction Project.

Tim Muehlhoff: My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of communication here at Biola University, as well as the co-author with Dr. Rick Langer of two books, Winsome Persuasion, and Winsome Conviction. Please check it out on Amazon, buy a thousand copies each, we would appreciate it. And, I'm also the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project.

Rick Langer: We have had a great time doing this over many... actually, I think we've had, I don't know how many episodes by now.

Tim Muehlhoff: We should find out.

Rick Langer: We should find out a lot. One of the things you want to pick up on today was kind of some things that are related to current events and some of the impact that, that has on us. So Tim, let me turn over to you.

Tim Muehlhoff: So let me set up to today's podcast with a totally true story. We moved to North Carolina. I was doing my grad work at UNC, Chapel Hill, which let me just say right now-

Rick Langer: Don't bother.

Tim Muehlhoff: Just beat Mike Krzyzewski. His last game. He's retiring from Duke and it was in Cameron Indoor Arena. 98 former Duke players were there. It was going to be the perfect night of celebration. And, UNC, Chapel Hill walked in and beat him by 13 points. The look on Krzyzewski's face was priceless. It is now on my screen saver on my computer and a tattoo on my chest.

Rick Langer: We just wanted to know how Tim reconciles this with being the co-director of the Windsome Conviction Project.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's called the old Testament. Okay. So we digress. We digress. So we just moved to North Carolina and Rick would get warning that a hurricane's coming in. Have you ever experienced a hurricane?

Rick Langer: I have. A typhoon.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, a typhoon. I was in Guam for typhoon tip.

Rick Langer: I was in Guam for Typhoon Tip.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, we did not know what a hurricane would feel like. It was Hurricane Fran. And, I remember Rick actually putting on a rain coat when it was hitting us and going to stand outside. Maureen's like, my wife, "What are you doing?" I said, "I've never stood in a hurricane. I would like to do it." So Rick, I literally stood there and weighed in like a Michael Jackson video. I weighed in as far as I could. And, that wind, it was amazing. That force of that wind. And, it did a number to our community. Trees were down absolutely everywhere. We were without power for 10 days. The kids were off of school for an entire month.

Rick Langer: Wow.

Tim Muehlhoff: Fran did a huge number. We had a lot of elderly within our neighborhood and no electricity so food's going bad. And, the cool thing was we all came together. I remember a guy knocking on my door, he had a chainsaw and he said, "Hey man, I noticed you got some trees. Need them cut down?" I had never met the guy before. And I said, "Yeah, absolutely." By the way, got a chance to use a chainsaw, Rick.

Rick Langer: Oh, that sounds dangerous.

Tim Muehlhoff: It was dangerous.

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: We had a cookout because we had stuff in freezers and it was all fine. So we didn't have any electricity, but we all had charcoal. Rick, it brought our community together and people still refer back to it, clear up until the time that we moved. We lived overseas for a year. But, it was a time when a neighbor became your friend and the elderly really needed our help. And, it was so cool to meet people. And, as we're doing work, people would bring stuff out for us to drink. It was an amazing time. And, that got us thinking, could it be possible with all the division in the United States today, both inside and outside the church, is it possible that things like Fran come along, that we can set aside our differences long enough to focus on this pressing issue and it actually could have a unifying feature?

So obviously this makes us think of something that all of us are thinking about, and that is the crisis we're seeing in Ukraine right now. There is 1.5 million refugees have left Ukraine in 10 days. One person commented, that's the most refugee since World War II. Doctors Without Borders have described the event in Ukraine as nothing short of catastrophic. We like to watch Meet The Press and they showed this story of a mother and father rushing their 18-month old son into a Ukrainian hospital where he died. And the mother, father and doctors were just weeping in the hallway.

And so Rick, here's what our topic is today. Is it possible to set aside political differences, theological differences, social differences, and focus on a crisis that not only addresses the needs of the crisis, but also brings us together for a short period of time that we work on this issue despite our differences?

Rick Langer: Yeah. So I think this would be a great topic for us to investigate a little bit. And, Tim, when you first mentioned this to me as an idea, I had mixed feelings. Let me tell you why. I'm, Tim, there's a big difference between a snowstorm or a hurricane and a war in Ukraine. Now, that was my first reaction, I thought, okay, let me unpack that a little bit just to myself. And I go, why do I feel that viscerally different? And, one of the things is obviously, with a hurricane or snow, we literally like an insurance policy, we'll call that an act of God, whether you happen to be a believer or not, the insurance policy doesn't care. They're just saying, look, this is one of those things that just happens.

A war in Ukraine is not a thing that just happens, but rather a thing that is a product of a bunch of decisions that human beings make that may very well be evil and need to be called out as evil or whatever else that might come along. So I had that sort of attention about it. So I guess maybe because of that, the tragedies that happen feel a little different. It isn't God you get to blame for them or whatever your sense of higher power might be for those who aren't believers. But rather you feel like there's an individual or a country or another group that you can just pin the blame on because of this episode.

Now, I don't want to take the time to turn that into our conversation topic. Let me just make that officially duly noted. What you mentioned, Tim, was actually the part of it that I do think works fine is to say, look, however you feel in whatever needs to be said about a war in Ukraine, the bottom line is what has come out of that is 1.5 million refugees. And, the question is, is there anything that we can do? And, are there things that we can do together? And I think that is not only a legitimate question, but an important one.

Tim Muehlhoff: And then, later we can talk about how to muck up the whole thing.

Rick Langer: All the ways it goes bad?

Tim Muehlhoff: All the ways it goes bad because you just feel this incredible urge to say something that you want to unload as you're helping the refugees that could stop the participation. Because that's what we're focusing on is, not two different groups helping the refugee crisis. It's two groups coming together that have very different political, social-

Rick Langer: Yeah. Groups that might not have come together otherwise who are coming together because of this need.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. And, that's what I think is fascinating. And, that's what we need to take a look at. And by the way, we're seeing it. So on the same Meet The Press that Maureen and I were watching, Adam Schiff, a Democrat who's also the chair of the Intelligence Committee said there is strong bipartisan support to give aid to the refugees. And, he is very encouraged by that. And, he's also encouraged that while most Americans agree, we're not going to get into a ground war with Russia, that there are strong support for these sanctions. And so, here's Adam Schiff who's a pretty controversial figure with Democrats and Republicans, but he's really encouraged that we're coming together and this issue is bringing us together.

Rick, I just wonder if we couldn't look for those kind of opportunities. We get it here, right? We get not hurricanes, but we get wildfires. I remember, we were the next neighborhood ready to be evacuated and we're all caring for each other's kids. We were at a family like marriage conference speaking, and a friend of ours called and said, "Hey, I got your kids, don't worry. I got your kids and I'm taking them to my house." And we're like, wait, what? Because, there were flames, you could see flames by the high school.

So those kind of moments are precisely the moments where we say, look, I don't care if you're a Democrat, Republican, Buddhist, Christian, gay straight, thank you for helping me with my kids and I will help you with your kids. Those are the moments I think we need to take a look at, Rick, and see if we can't keep our antennas up to notice when those moments can present themselves.

Rick Langer: And it's probably good to think as well that it doesn't always take a crisis event. Sometimes all it takes is a consciousness of a crisis that your community has, is maybe an ongoing situation. We've had some of that happening here in Orange County, recently with crisis with the homeless and people's overall political orientation to the homeless can vary. But, I am struck by the fact that for at least for the people I travel with and I do have contact with people kind of across the political spectrum, the idea of caring for the basic needs of a homeless person really does resonate with most people. And, it's one of those places you will find people converging to do particular things. And, I do just want to say, that's wonderful. Let's fan the flames of that because those sorts of legitimate needs, we can all say, look, whatever else we disagree on, here's something we agree on.

Tim Muehlhoff: This isn't a totally foreign thought to us. In our book, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian world, we actually had a chapter on loose connections. Now, loose connections is a term by Robert Wuthnow, where he says communities can come together and form a loose connection, which means this isn't going to be forever and ever, Amen. I know we have differences, but can we come together and address the refugee crisis, homelessness, climate control, wildfires. That's a concept by Wuthnow.

Now, in the book, Rick, if you remember this, we use as a test case, Focus on the Family with their new president, Jim Daley, who is a product of the foster care system. He's actually come and spoken here at Biola University. Well, he was very concerned about how Colorado's foster system had really broken down. And then, he read an article in The Independent, which is one of the most liberal newspapers in Colorado. Can I just say one parenthetical comment real quick? How cool that he's reading The Independent.

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: You know what I mean?

Rick Langer: To at least hear the voices of those on the other side of so many issues. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: And, we've talked about that a ton that we probably need to expand our reading and exposing us. So, I love the fact that he's looking at The Independent and they talk about foster care. So he calls them. He talks to the editor and said, "Let's have lunch." The editor goes, "Yeah, let's do it at your place. I've always wanted to see what Focus on the Family is like." Because they had attacked Focus on the Family, relentlessly, Dr. James Dobson.

So they do have lunch and they say, "Okay, let's do it. Let's do a one day event focusing on foster care." Now, what's interesting is, both had to go back and sell it to their constituents. Jim Daley, when he was here, I actually got a chance to have lunch with him. And, he said they lost a lot of financial support because Focus on the Family co-sponsored this with The Independent on foster care. And, a great part of the art article in The Independent is that editor had to speak to his constituents, that they're going to do a partnership with Focus on the Family. And, it started this way, Rick, no, hell hasn't frozen over.

But, I love that, a one day event. Jim Daley has a great quote that says, "Listen, we're big boys and girls, we understand we have very deep disagreements, but we agree in one thing, the foster care system is broken and maybe we can help." I love that.

Rick Langer: Yeah. Now, let's go back to the Ukraine thing just to take it back into kind of our contemporary situation and think a little bit about what might make that go bad and how might we avoid-

Tim Muehlhoff: Bringing up Duke?

Rick Langer: Yeah. Things like that.

Tim Muehlhoff: Okay.

Rick Langer: Whatever it might be. Yes.

Tim Muehlhoff: Well said.

Rick Langer: So what do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff: Well, let me share one with you that I hear regularly when it comes to Ukraine, people will say this, if president Trump was in office, this would not have happened. He would not have invaded and we wouldn't be oil dependent because of this liberal agenda, protecting the climate. And, now we're oil, gas dependent on places like Russia. And if we had a strong leader in office, he never would've gone into Ukraine. Now, whether that's true or not, that will kill the partnership. If you say that on the first meeting, I don't think we're progressing. If The Independent and Jim Daley, their first meeting, they start to hash out differing views on abortion, same sex marriage, I don't think we ever get to foster care.

Rick Langer: So that's an interesting thing, is that in a sense, for a thing like this, if you're going to pick up this issue you have in common, you have to be willing to set down the issues that you don't.

Tim Muehlhoff: Temporarily.

Rick Langer: For that moment, for that situation, for that occasion. And, there's nothing wrong with acknowledging the fact that we haven't changed our opinion about these areas of difference. But to say that we are choosing not to focus on that at this moment with these resources, because there's another thing that we have to do that we can do together.

Tim Muehlhoff: And, let me add one proverb that we've talked about a bunch on this podcast, a wise man overlooks an insult. So I remember going to a family function and there was somebody invited to the family function that was the black sheep kind of a person like this. And, I remember my mom grabbing me and saying this to me, Rick, she looked at me, she said, "Make this work." Right? Which was really good. So sure enough, we're sitting there halfway through dinner and this person just says something. And, I was, "Oh, are you kidding me?" And I literally thought of that proverb, a wise man overlooks an insult.

And so I said, Lord, help me overlook this. Because my mom said, make this work. I think that's a great thing to have at the back of your head, for the sake of the refugees, make this work. So even if the other person brings up something that you're like, man, those are fighting words, right? That's a shot across the bow. I'm not going to take the bait because, you know what, the refugees really do need help and I think we really can do good. So let's partner on this and I'm going overlook that. Maybe later we can talk about it, but, right now, the focus is foster care or refugees.

Rick Langer: That is a great point, Tim, when there's a part of this where you're setting that aside to begin the process, but there's also pretty high likelihood in groups like this that you'll have to remind yourself and repeat to yourself, wait a minute, I'm not going to take this piece of bait, I'm not going to dive into that because we've joined together. And yeah, this person may have just violated that rule, but, you know what? I wonder if I've already violated it too. Because, we say a lot of these things without even knowing... we don't even know what triggers a person on the other side. And so, it's very easy to step on toes.

And, this is one of those moments where you need an awful lot of grace that you're willing to give grace to the other person to say things and to say, you know what, I'm not going to pick that up or I'm not going to demand that this person apologize for this. We're just going to move on with a task that we've agreed to work on together. And, there may come a time when it's been so long and so much, you feel like, wait a minute, could we just pause for a second here and have a conversation, because this is beginning to hurt? And, it's going to make it harder for us to work together. But by and large, if you don't pick up the bait, the other person finally let's go of the fishing line.

Tim Muehlhoff: Do you remember World War I, the Christmas truce?

Rick Langer: Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff: Do you remember that great story where it's Christmas Eve, they're all freezing, Germans and the British.

Rick Langer: Yep.

Tim Muehlhoff: And, one German soldier just gets up, a commander, and walks across No Man's Land and everybody's thinking this guy's, what is he doing? He's an idiot. Well, a British commander met him and they agreed for a Christmas truce. Originally, it was just supposed to be a day. But, during that day of playing soccer, cooking together, even giving gifts, every once in a while, a nervous soldier sent out a shot and it didn't break the truce because they overlooked it.

Rick Langer: Huh.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. And, I thought that's really good for the sake of, let's celebrate Christmas, I'm going to overlook that errant shot and trust that you're not setting me up for an ambush. And so, I love what you were saying, Rick, and I just immediately thought of that Christmas truce.

Rick Langer: And, that story is also an interesting one because I think the way they actually came together, the very first thing that happened is, a German soldier began singing, O Holy Night in German.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, no way.

Rick Langer: And, the people on the other side heard it and began singing the same carol. They shared in common, a Christmas carol. And, that was sufficient for a brief moment at least to create the truce and stop the fighting,

Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, you had a comment. We had breakfast this morning. You made a comment... and I want you to flesh this out, the difference between identifying and cultivating common ground. I thought this was really insightful this morning.

Rick Langer: Yeah. Actually, the story that you just told about the situation in World War I, where you have this weird moment of truce, so to speak, but it didn't last. And, I think when we suggest a thing like this, people will commonly say something like, well, all you're really doing with that is papering over the fundamental disagreements for just a day or two days or whatever the event is. And then, it all goes back to what's the big value in this. There's a real and fundamental underlying disagreement that this sort of an exchange doesn't even touch honestly.

And, I would like to say maybe yes and maybe no. So let me acknowledge sometimes that maybe all that you get out of it is a temporary truce. Okay, fair enough. But, one of the things that I find we end up talking a lot and as I meet with people from other groups or doing similar things to what we are in terms of trying to facilitate conversation across divides of conviction, people talk about one of the reasons we do this is to identify common ground. And, we do. I think it is a great insight sometimes when you're sitting there talking to a person, then you suddenly find out, oh, they actually feel the same way I do about this issue. And, sometimes in really startling fashion.

A friend of mine who was a pro-life person, was in Washington for an FDA meeting where they were talking a bunch of things about abortion. And, he was struck by the fact that most of the people there actually didn't favor abortion. This was actually back in the 90s. I don't know if that would be true today, but at that point they're saying, look, we don't like abortion either, we think it should be legal. But, there was a shared dislike of abortion in a sincere desire to minimize the number of abortions.

Now, that's different than agreeing about legalizing it, but the point is, you realize, oh, there is even in this point of contention, some common ground. So, that can be valuable to identify. But here's the part that I think is actually most important is not to simply identify the common ground, but to actually choose to then cultivate it.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, okay.

Rick Langer: So you begin, so to speak, growing a garden together in that piece of common ground, you end up doing things. That's where you begin to rub shoulders of people to simply say, yeah, that's a thought we share in common, but not to sort of occupy that territory or better yet to actually become an activist in that territory. And this is, I think, the value of the thing, be it helping out Ukrainian refugees or be it helping out people who are homeless or whatever the shared task might be, is when you get together with other people across an ideological divide over an identified piece of common ground and then begin to work on it, it becomes not just identified common ground, but cultivated common ground. You become invested in a project that demands sometimes the best of both of you and you end up kind of relying on it and trusting each other, at least in a certain area. And, it's in the nature of people, as you begin to develop that trust, some of the other barriers go down, too.

Tim Muehlhoff: Hmm. Good.

Rick Langer: Is it the mad to cure all for everything? Of course not. But, can it make things a little bit better? Yes. And, sometimes it can make things a lot better.

Tim Muehlhoff: So let me go back to the wildfire thing that I mentioned that we deal with in California. So the same wildfire that this person, grabbed our kids, took them to safety because we were speaking at a marriage conference in another state. Well, Rick, that was a devastating fire. Our high school in [Brea 00:21:52] was shut down for almost two months. There was no shrubbery. Everything's gone, everything's burned.

So a bunch of churches came together and approached the school board and said, hey, we got an idea. For three consecutive weekends, we are going to plant shrubbery. Each church will pay for it. You don't have to pay for a dime and we'll provide all the manpower to do it. So we were week number two, my church, and every single week and the school board was there... so we're planting shrubbery right next to board members.

Now, think about that, Rick, if let's say a year from now a controversial, something happens within the school, let's say a sex education program, that there's parts of it that Christians feel very uncomfortable with, let's say. Now, you show up to the school board, first word out of that person's mouth school board is, hey, by the way, Mr. Langer, thank you so much, I still smile when I see all the shrubbery as we're heading into school. Now, listen, you could say, well, the only reason I did the shrubbery is I wanted to lower his defenses because there's something I want from that person. That's what we call the softest approach to rhetoric. That's what Aristotle was very opposed to, is, you're manipulating people through your kindness.

Again, we're were to love our neighbors. This is neighbor love. So I love that story about the shrubbery because we did it... Honestly, the school board had no money and we did it with them side by side and it really had a lasting impact on that school board and the churches.

Rick Langer: I remember being part of a group called building a generation. So, this is when I was a pastor in Redlands and the person who's a police chief was really interested in developing community policing and some of these kinds of things, working with parks rec kind of a global approach to community health, so as to reduce the need for policing kind of interventions. It's become a pretty well-known and popular... Popular isn't the right word, but often valued approach to building healthier communities. And, it was built off a batch of researchers, Catalano and Hawkins, I think are the guy's names up at the University of Washington.

But anyhow, they wanted to pull together a conference for kind of launching this with the community and they want to get every stakeholder they could. So it'd be like 150, 200 people from the community that might be there. And, they didn't have a budget. Building a generation didn't exist as an organization. There were just like six or seven of us who had kind of gotten together to talk about this. And so, they were trying to figure out how they could drum up the money. I'm kind of wondering, well, how much money is this really? I didn't really know what it costs to do a thing like this. I can't remember, let's just say it was like $10,000 to be able to do this.

Well, I was sitting there looking at our church budget. We were about two months before the end of the year and we actually were looking like we'd have a surplus in our church budget. And I came back, I talked to a guy who's our senior pastor in the elders and we chatted about this and said, yeah, we could donate that. So we volunteered as a church to donate, I think it was probably almost half the budget. Maybe a third to a half of the budget for this thing. And, the other people in the community were stunned, number one. And, number two, incredibly grateful.

And, that became the finish edge of the wedge of a long term collaboration where we ended up doing an after school tutoring program near some of the schools that were not as well endowed as some of the other schools in our community. And so, we had an afterschool tutoring program that was located there and we were working in one building and they said, oh, you can't work here anymore. And so we thought, oh no, we can't do this at all. And then, the city came back to us and said, well, hey, we want this program to get going. How about if we lease this building to you guys for $1 a year?

So we ended up with this building. For all I know, the church has still got that building actually 20 years later, but it began to cultivate an environment and this back to the cultivated common ground, not just the identified, oh, yeah, we both care about kids. Well, that's not good enough. You both need to be working with it. And so, we spent years and like I say, I think this is likely still going on in the community where we were doing this kind of collaborative effort that was jointly with the police department, parks and rec, our church and several others. And, it really began out of some very simple moves to cultivate the common ground.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's awesome, Rick. I love the idea of cultivating and I love your gardening metaphor that this takes time to plant the seed, water it carefully, and then see what the results could be. So let me alert our listeners on something that's going to happen and then maybe we kick around a hypothetical. So what's going to happen is, and we're going to do a bunch of podcasts on this, you're actually going to get a chance to meet some of the participants, we are partnering with group called Bridging the Gap. You may remember that name, Simon Greer was on our podcast. If you haven't listened to those episodes, please go back. He's amazingly articulate activist today that wants to bridge the gap, bring communities together that really don't talk much to each other.

And, he's focusing on universities. So, Biola University applied, we were accepted and we have been paired with Pomona College. Pomona is one of the top liberal arts schools in the entire nation. And so, we are going to have two days with students and admins from Pomona, which is a school that we really respect, but they would probably disagree right across the line, spiritually, maybe politically, socially on different issues. But, we're going to have a great two day conversation.

Then in the fall, we're going to do a full-blown conversation that's going to last roughly 10 days. But, this is exactly what you're talking about, Rick, we're going to come together and we're going to focus on an issue, maybe prison reform, immigration and put aside our differences, not ignore them, but temporarily put them aside, as we try to teach college students to focus on the common good, even as we set aside some of our differences. So, stay tuned. This is going to happen. We're going to have some of the Biola students beyond the podcast, get their perspective of how they felt about the whole process. We'll maybe have Simon Greer on again to talk about how he felt like it went, so stay tuned.

But, hypothetical, Rick. So could this work, regardless of your affinity to an institution, could we two camps recognize that Coach Krzyzewski was crushed that night. That his soul was obliterated in losing that game. And so, could even UNC and Duke students set aside their rivalry and just minister to a man who is utterly crushed on national television. I'm thinking out loud, Rick. I'm brainstorming.

Rick Langer: And, you've stopped thinking good thoughts.

Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, so this has been a great podcast. And, I just want to go back to what you said, let's have our antennas up not only to do good because that's neighbor love, but to cultivate common ground. In other words, we don't just do it by ourselves. Our church has resources, Biola has resources. We don't need to pair up with other people. But, let's do it to cultivate that common ground and spark some great civil religious conversations with people. I think that's a wonderful opportunity.

Rick Langer: So with that said, let me just thank all of you for joining us for this episode. And, we'd love to have you subscribe to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. You can do that on Spotify or Apple podcast or wherever it is that you get your podcast. And, you can also check out the website for articles, resources, things like that. We'd love to have you join in the process of being people who cross the divide of conflicting convictions without dividing the communities of which we're a part. Thanks again for joining us.