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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Healing Our Fractured Civil Spaces on Abortion

by Krista Tippett, host

BoundaryI know that this will be heard, by some at least, as a show about abortion. Frances Kissling, after all, is a name synonymous with “pro-choice.” And of course this show touches on the ins and outs of the issue of abortion, for this is the sphere in which she has distinguished herself for over a quarter century. But the revelation of this conversation is how much Frances Kissling has learned, precisely in one of the most entrenched and contested moral values spaces in our public life, about grappling with difference.

Hers is a story of holding passionate convictions and of being open to change — a both/and, not an either/or. It is a story of unfolding wisdom about human and social change, wrested from inside the abortion debate.

Practical tools emerge from this conversation that could calm and enrich our public life on all kinds of fronts if we began to cultivate them right now. Like my former guest Richard Mouw — who grapples with difference on the conservative side of same-sex marriage and abortion, Frances Kissling is eloquent about the value of the “simple” act of listening to different others and gaining some sense of why they believe the way they do, how they came to that, where their hopes and fears lie, what they mean when they use the words they do. Echoing Richard Mouw, Frances Kissling insists that doing this is not an act of giving up the ground on which we stand. But, she insists, when we genuinely listen, “good things come of that.” New possibilities emerge that we couldn’t imagine or meet before.

And though Frances Kissling is more a politician and philosopher than a poet, she reminds me of Elizabeth Alexander when she describes the ground of these possibilities largely in terms of the questions she and others begin to be able to ask of themselves: What can I see that is good in the position of the other? What troubles me in my own position? She speaks of the courage to be vulnerable in front of those with whom we passionately disagree.

As she and I discuss, being vulnerable before others holding different opinions than ourselves is exacting for human beings in the best of times. In the atmosphere of fear that pervades our political and social divides now, it can seem impossible — literally asking too much of us humans who are biologically hard-wired to find the open questions and conflict of a moment like this almost unbearably stressful. Frances Kissling and those she has encountered on the opposite “side” of this excruciatingly charged debate show us that there are ways out. They begin with human relationship, with new conversations that lead to new visions of life graciously shared and difference peaceably navigated even while we continue to disagree.

Before we finished producing this show, we reached out to David Gushee, a Christian ethicist on the “pro-life” end of the abortion debate whom Frances Kissling mentions in terms of this new relationship. Within two days, he wrote an essay for us titled "Sacred Conversations," which we’ve posted online and offer as an immensely rich addition to the experience of this particular show.

As always, we welcome your perspectives, reactions, and your stories as we continue to widen and deepen our Civil Conversations project — mining fresh vocabulary, animating questions, and practical virtues towards edifying and healing our fractured civic spaces.

(photo: Joisey Showa/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)


Sacred Conversations

by David Gushee, special contributor

Crucifix on the Klein MatterhornAt the heart of my Christian faith is the belief that each and every person I encounter is absolutely cherished by God. I believe every human being is ineffably sacred in God’s sight. This implies a moral responsibility on my part to do my very best to treat them accordingly. If God loves each person, followers of God’s way must love each person too.

This is a mystical vision. It is a mountaintop perspective. It is very hard to sustain it, especially in the vicious street fights of politics. And it is often very hard to see any evidence for it. But this belief is not really evidence-based. It is faith-based.

I am a Christian, born and raised in the Catholic Church before a teenage conversion to Protestant Evangelical faith. By now I find that both strands of my religious history are deeply interwoven and help to define who I am. I think that both of these strands, at their best, teach this vision of the equal and immeasurable worth of each human being. Catholic tradition, especially as articulated by the Vatican II documents and by Pope John Paul II, taught me a “consistent pro-life ethic.” Protestant evangelicalism, as exemplified in men such as Billy Graham, taught me that God so loved the world (each and every person in the world) that he gave his only son on the cross for our salvation. For my salvation!

I am also a Christian ethicist, a moral teacher, and writer. So inevitably my work brings me into occasions in which it is my responsibility and my opportunity to address hot-button issues like abortion, health care, war, torture, or gay rights.

Most conversations about these kinds of issues are profoundly unsatisfactory to me. Academic conversations tend to be highly technical, theoretical, and irrelevant to everyday life. Popular conversations tend to be angry and polemical, partisan and politicized. Neither type of conversation ever really feels very sacred to me. Academics are often scoring their tenure points while politicos are scoring their partisan points.

Over the years, I have tried to do something a little different when I engage difficult issues such as abortion. I try to play neither academic nor political games. I instead try to discern what it might mean to deal with the substance of the issue as if every person involved is sacred in God’s sight, and I likewise try to deal with my dialogue partners as if the same were true.

Frances Kissling Listens to David GusheeWhen I met Frances Kissling and dialogued publicly with her at the Princeton "Open Hearts, Open Minds" conference, I hope that this is the spirit that I brought to that conversation.

I saw in Frances and most of the pro-choice activists and thinkers at that meeting a serious concern for women in general, and women facing unwanted pregnancies in particular. I could tell that they were drawn into this issue because they had caught a vision of the suffering of women whose pregnancies create a crisis for them, and the even more intense crisis that this would be for them if they had no legal recourse to an abortion. Their fixed gaze on the needs and the suffering of women impressed me, and I respected it. Anyone who cares deeply about the suffering of other people is on the right track — because that is one of the ways we demonstrate our love for the sacred persons around us.

I do continue to think that our gaze on this issue must be at least bi-focal — on the suffering pregnant woman, and on the developing human life that she is carrying. I do sense that decades of defending the rights and needs of the pregnant woman have trained many in the pro-choice side to avert their eyes from the child. But I also recognize on the part of many pro-lifers the parallel averting of gaze away from the woman and her situation as she experiences it. Decades of advocacy in a polarized debate have caused both sides to miss the intertwined sacredness of woman and child. And it is certainly clear to me that the only way those whose gaze is fixed on the child will succeed in saving more of them is if they learn not only to look at the woman, but to love her.

This vision goes with me to other issues. I have been an advocate for the apparently astonishing view that no matter how much we want to prevent another terrorist attack that would destroy sacred human lives; this does not mean we are free to create a system that abuses suspected terrorists — because those swept up as suspected terrorists are also sacred human beings whom God loves. This view shapes my thinking about the right of all our nation’s children to have a good education, quality health care, and parents who love them. And it means that I refuse to go along with the contemptuous demonization of particular groups that sometimes sweeps us away — most recently exhibited in very disturbing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.

I find allies anywhere I encounter someone whose words and deeds show that they are operating on the basis of something like this vision. Often, sadly, these allies are not my fellow Christians, for sometimes the passionate commitment of my co-religionists to the positions they advocate causes them to forget their obligation to love even strangers and enemies. No, in public life, my favorites are those who surprise me with the tender and respectful way they encounter the sacred humanity of those around them. They give me hope.

About the images: (top) Atop the Klein Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland stands a giant wooden representation of Christ on the cross. A metal placard beneath is engraved with the same phrase in four languages: “Mehr Mensch sein.” “L’homme d’abord.” “Uomo prima di tutto.” “Be more human.” (photo: mightymightymatze/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

(second) Frances Kissling listens to the author at the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words” conference at Princeton University in 2010.

David P. GusheeDavid P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the co-founder and board chair of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a columnist for the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Associated Baptist Press, and a contributing editor for Christianity Today. Dr. Gushee also currently serves on the Church Relations Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has published 12 books, including Kingdom Ethics, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Getting Marriage Right, and Only Human.


Creating Civility: A Live Public Conversation with Krista Tippett!

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Creating Civility: A Public Conversation with Krista Tippett
photo: Arne Halvorsen/Flickr

what: Creating Civility: A Public Forum
when: Wednesday, January 19th, 2011
time: 7:00 p.m. CST
where: Being LIVE

We’d like to invite you to join us tonight online for a somewhat impromptu event in Minnesota Public Radio’s UBS Forum. We’re approaching the evening as a kind of experiment, an occasion to learn and to plant some seeds for new vision and new ways of living together with our confusions, our strengths, and our differences. Tragic events in Tucson created a window for concern about the fabric of our common life, but that concern predated those events and has relevance and urgency far beyond them.

Many of the hardest political and social chasms right now will not be resolved quickly. So the question we’re asking is:

How do we find new ways to speak and listen to each other, to live forward together, even as we hold passionate disagreements?

This has been the animating question that has emerged in the Civil Conversations project we started on the radio and online back in the fall. What happens among us tonight will inform that project moving forward.

Bring your questions for and about our common life, and submit them through our Facebook chat box next to the video window or using this form. Krista will bring her questions too. And she’ll share some of what she’s learned in her conversations of recent weeks. We’re looking forward to the adventure!

We’ll be streaming live video of the forum and also giving you the chance to bring your questions and your intention in the UBS Forum (7pm). For those of you who can’t make it, not to worry. We’re recording the event, and video will be immediately available for playback afterward. And, we’ll continue to send real-time updates when the stream goes live on our Facebook page and through our Twitter stream. Keep an eye out!


Interview with Terry Tempest Williams: A Twitterscript

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Terry Tempest WilliamsThis past Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Krista interviewed Terry Tempest Williams for an upcoming show slotted for release on February 3rd. An author and environmentalist, Tempest Williams’ writing and storytelling is imbued with her experience growing up in the American West.

As a wilderness activist who grew up in Utah and teaches at the University of Utah, she bridges the worlds of the oil industry she questions and the members of her family who have made oil their livelihood. We are especially interested in how Tempest Williams navigates these two realms with civil language and an effort to stay at the dinner table, as she puts it.

We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those of us who weren’t able to follow along. Krista’s comments follow “KT” and Terry’s follow “TTW, TTWilliams, and @ttwillet.” Follow us next time at @BeingTweets.

  1. Happy MLK day. Having a day off? Join a live tweet of Krista’s interview at 11 am CT w/Terry Tempest Williams. http://bit.ly/2m3aak 10:44 AM Jan 17th
  2. Pre-interview chat as we check for levels focuses on science and religion. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:02:13 AM
  3. TTWilliams: In the American west we see vitriol more than elsewhere, perhaps. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:04:11 AM
  4. TTW: when Brigham Young said this is the place, my family was right there with him. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:05:31 AM
  5. TTWilliams: I come from generations of pipeline workers. They built the infrastructure of the west. The land is spiritual and practical. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:07:07 AM
  6. @TMahady Let’s use #civility. Her name is too long. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:15:27 AM in response to TMahady
  7. TTW: Sense of community is not just human, also rocks, plants, animals. This reflects mystic roots of Mormonism. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:08:52 AM
  8. TTW: the word I play over & over is vitriol. What is it really? It is produced by sulphur dioxide, used to refine petroleum. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:14:07 AM
  9. TTW: I taught writing in Wyoming. Students wanted to create public readings about oil & gas, a big part of the economy. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:18:24 AM
  10. TTW: Drill rigs look like Eiffel towers. Movers & shakers in the coal industry came. We stayed up at these readings till 1 am. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:20:56 AM
  11. @TMahady Thanks for that handle. Monday, January 17, 2011 11:21:46 AM in response to TMahady
  12. @ttwillet: When we tell a story it tells us what it means to human. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:23:33 AM
  13. @ttwillet: how do we build trust in our communities? Often small gestures. Tell a different story. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:25:13 AM
  14. @ttwillet: I understand my neighbor Ray because I grew up with my brothers, held a rifle at 16. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:27:14 AM
  15. @ttwillet: If we can speak of what we are afraid of, we can create a different kind of communion. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:28:22 AM
  16. @ttwillet: 24th anniversary of mother’s death. We are ‘down-winders.’ Nuclear fall- out caused this. Turn anger into sacred rage. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:31:00 AM
  17. @ttwillet: How can I take anger and not become a polemic? How can I heal rather than wound? #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:32:50 AM
  18. KT: You have written about finding comfort in change. Often, change creates fear. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:34:43 AM
  19. @ttwillet: Civil discourse is not enough. It’s not enough to get a smile from your enemy. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:35:45 AM
  20. @ttwillet: I want to know what you really think. We need more than opinion, we need ideas. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:37:46 AM
  21. KT: Where we start again is as neighbors, if our institutions, as you have written, have failed us. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:39:13 AM
  22. @ttwillet: The boundaries we have counted on are dissolving. It is frightening. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:40:49 AM
  23. @ttwillet: When we talk about 9 mill. acres of wilderness, my e. coast friends don’t track. Issues are same. Scale is different. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:48:49 AM
  24. @ttwillet: Writing is solitary. But I write to create community. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:51:16 AM
  25. KT: Your book Finding Beauty In a Broken World : a mosaic is a conversation about what is broken. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:53:08 AM
  26. KT: Maybe in wake of Arizona, mosaic is a good metaphor for what we can be. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:54:04 AM
  27. @ttwillet : A mosaic is a collaborative process. Collaboration creates community. In community anything is possible. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:55:22 AM
  28. Beauty is not optional. It is a strategy for survival. - @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:57:07 AM
  29. KT : In American life where are you looking for beauty? #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 11:58:45 AM
  30. @ttwillet : It begins and ends in the land. The sky as I drove to the studio. After looking at the Gulf oil spill, we saw dolphins mating. Monday, January 17, 2011 12:00:55 PM
  31. They survived. There is an inherent resilience. We can trust that. &mdash @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:01:57 PM
  32. In London I saw a Victorian artifact&mdash it collected the tears of mourners. How can we create a container for our sorrow? @ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:04:24 PM
  33. Krista asks if there is something else @ttwillet wishes to talk about. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:12:02 PM
  34. @ttwillet: What do we do? How can I be a better neighbor? The oil that I saw for miles is me, my family’s livelihood. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:13:25 PM
  35. I want to be present. And useful. -@twillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:14:42 PM
  36. I worry that we are losing literacy. Who knows the green winged Teal? So how will we know our losses? -@ttwillet #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:19:09 PM
  37. Empathy is rooted in action. When someone dies my father goes to that house the next day. He doesn’t call. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:20:30 PM
  38. @ttwillet : We need just enough light to shine on the next step, to show the way. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:22:06 PM
  39. My mother left me her journals when she died. -@ttwillet All of the journals were empty. What is ‘voice?’ #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:23:48 PM
  40. That concludes our live-tweet. @ttwillet tells Krista to take care, she recognizes there is a cost to Krista’s listening. #civility Monday, January 17, 2011 12:26:16 PM


This post has been revised to reflect the following correction on January 28, 2011: An earlier version of this article misstated that Terry Tempest Williams currently teaches at the University of Wyoming. It is the University of Utah.


Frances Kissling on the Limits of Common Ground: A Sneak Preview

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

 Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling, Charles Camosy of Fordham University, Jennifer Miller of Bioethics International, and Peter Singer of Princeton University at the Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words conference at Princeton University in October 2010. (photo: Ricardo Barros)

The audio above is an excerpt from our upcoming show with Frances Kissling, “Listening Beyond Life and Choice,” which we’re almost finished producing for a January 20th release. In the excerpt above, Kissling, a longtime voice in the public conversation about abortion and former president of Catholics for Choice, says she doesn’t believe there’s much promise in finding common ground with people whose views and ideology we fundamentally oppose: “the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.”

Cracking open our deepest divisions requires a willingness to be courageous and alsoto be vulnerable:

"…when people who disagree with each other come together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other believes what they do, good things come of that. … I have changed my views on some aspects of abortion over the last ten years based upon having a deeper understanding of the values and concerns of people who disagree with me. And I have an interest in trying to find a way that I can honor some of their values without giving up mine."


Jon Stewart’s Introduction: A True Moment of Civility

by Krista Tippett, host

Jon Stewart, The Daily ShowIn all I’ve read and pondered these past days, nothing has galvanized me more than Jon Stewart’s introductory remarks in his show on Monday night. If anyone could have used the powerful media space at his disposal to parody vitriol and point to it as a direct cause of last weekend’s violence, it was Stewart.

He did not. He suspended humor and spoke from the heart about the seriousness of the moment. He admitted that it would be easier to point the finger and find blame, but one can’t do that with integrity in this case. And still, he noted, It would “be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t at all resemble the way people talk to each other on TV.”

Amen to that.


Poetry Is a Conveyor of Truths

by Krista Tippett, host

A man at a coffeehouse in downtown Long Beach reads aloud to himself.
(photo: John Williams/Flickr)

When I listened to our Rumi show back in December, I was struck with new force by Rumi’s notion of “the value of perplexity.” Perplexity is a great word I’d like to use more often. It’s something more nuanced than confusion, more substantive than anxiety. It describes the way many of us feel at this moment in time in the life of the world, I think, and also on a more intimate level at this time of year.

We’re making sense of what’s been, reckoning with that, and also feeling perplexed (which is not the same as hopeless) as we look forward. I was tired at the end of last year and I’m aware of that in many around me too. And the cold and snow in the place I inhabit encourage an animal urge to get under the covers and close one’s eyes.

My interview with Elizabeth Alexander (audio above, mp3) encourages this slowing down and peering inside, as well as seriousness and playfulness with words, and a different kind of reflection than all the popular “end of year” analyses and lists. I’ve become more and more aware, in my years of doing this program, of poetry as a conveyor of truths that cannot be captured in mere fact. Poetry, Elizabeth Alexander also reminds us, is one of the great ways we have to tell our stories, the stories of life. It is a carrier of questions to sit with. There is this question, for example, that ends her poem titled "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe": “Are we not of interest to each other?”

A question like this could be as powerful a tool as any we possess for reorienting our approach to each other in our private and public spaces. So was the question she invoked in a political moment at the presidential inauguration in 2009: “What if the mightiest word is love?”

Elizabeth Alexander reads her poem "Praise Song for the Day" at President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009. (photo: Kim Ellison/Flickr)

As Elizabeth Alexander and I frankly discuss, these have been hard months since that historic and exhilarating day on the Washington Mall. But this, for her, makes that question more pointed, more necessary — not less so. During one exchange, I wonder if a discussion about poetry might be a luxury when the crises of our time for many are about basic matters of safety and survival — a job to go to, food to eat, medicine to buy, a roof over one’s head. She comes back at my question with a poem Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in a crucible of poverty and insecurity: “(C)ould a dream sent up through onion fumes/And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall/Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms?”

I have the feeling that we need poetry but sometimes without even knowing it. I’ve noticed how distinctively magnetic it is for us and our listeners when we draw out a Joanna Macy, or hear Wendell Berry, or now sit with Elizabeth Alexander. Poetic language is magnetic and humanizing in a class of its own. But I’m aware too that poetry also demands a quality of attention and vulnerability that other forms of language don’t, which may be why we don’t reach for it as often as we might.

I’ve been reaching for it lately. And I’d like to share a few of the poems that have spoken to me at this turn of year.

To begin, two poems by Elizabeth Alexander. The first I asked her to read is actually the end of a long poem called "Neonatology," about the birth of her oldest son. She paired it with a second, "Autumn Passage," which is about the death of her mother-in-law. This loss unfolded in that same period as she was becoming a mother. “Autumn Passage” is on my mind today, as I have news of the impending death of the mother of one of my dearest friends. (The full poems and her readings can be heard by clicking the links above.)

Crave Radiance by Elizabeth AlexanderI’ve also been pondering Rainier Maria Rilke’s "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower," which Joanna Macy translated and read for us back in September. And, finally, a classic, Mary Oliver’s "Wild Geese." This is poetry, as my beloved producer Kate Moos (a poet herself) has pointed out, that has saved lives.

And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to pick up a copy of Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. This book of poems collects the work of this major American poet, and brings us new poems as well. From the seminal work of The Venus Hottentot through "Praise Song for the Day," her poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander celebrates the deep moments poetry can illumine.