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Ep 3 – “Melodies of Reconciliation” with John Wood Jr.
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This episode of the Reconciliation Roundtable podcast was edited, mixed, and produced by Luke Overstreet.
[00:00:00] Mark: Welcome to Reconciliation Roundtable, a new podcast where we discuss building bridges of understanding across religious and political difference. I’m your host, Mark Beckwith, retired bishop of the Diocese of Newark in the Episcopal Church. There are forces and voices in our increasingly polarized world that want us to view each other and the issues of the day in a binary way: this or that, good or bad. I want to invite you on a journey beyond the safety of our silos and our egos, to the soul: where we have the opportunity to see things differently. If you enjoy this podcast and would like to find more content like this, please visit my website at www.markbeckwith.net where you can listen to more episodes, read my weekly blog, and sign up to get weekly reflections in your inbox. I also explore the themes of this podcast further in my book, Seeing the Unseen: Beyond Prejudices, Paradigms, and Party Lines.
[00:01:15] Mark: And with me today is John R. Wood Jr., who is the ambassador for Braver Angels. John and I have been working together for a couple of years now, we’ve gotten to know each other, and he has graciously accepted the invitation to be part of this podcast.
His commitment to reconciliation and depolarization is becoming more and more widely known: John ran for Congress in 2014 against Maxine Waters, who was a longstanding and powerful incumbent. And he received a greater percentage than any other opponent she had. He is a former Vice Chair of the Republican party in Los Angeles. He is a writer and a musician, he writes opinion pieces for USA Today, he’s been featured in a lot of other publications as well and on podcasts and on TV. What an honor, John, to have you here to talk about the work that we share, yes, but also to probe how it is you came to this work and the passion you bring to it, the commitment you have for it, and what frames your commitment and your trajectory of working in this area.
So, an honor to have you, John.
[00:02:27] John: Absolutely, Mark. It’s a pleasure to be with you. I feel like this is the sort of deep conversation that you and I have not really had the chance to go all the way into. And so I’m glad you’ve given us the opportunity.
[00:02:40] Mark: So, John, I understand you are descended from a long line of musicians. Your father’s a jazz pianist. Your mother was an R&B singer and your grandfather was a founder of record label. And so music has been part of your life. What did music kindle in you? And what does music kindle in you?
[00:03:02] John: Well, that’s a great question. And it’s actually a fairly complicated answer, because music impacts the way I see and interact with the world and my mission in the world and in the country on a number of different levels. You know, I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household, but in a sense, I did have religion in my home.
My mother was sort of a mystic and a spiritualist generally, and that’s one topic of conversation. But for my father, music is very nearly sort of religion. Yes, and I mean that almost literally. I mean, my dad raised me with an understanding of American life which said that American popular culture was great in the 1950s and the 1960s for all of the problems we had with McCarthyism and Jim Crow and these other things, because beneath that, Americans had the deep currents of music grounded in artistry and high values that were able to bind us in levels that were more fundamental even than politics and more powerful than the problems that we faced. And so, for all the things that were going on in American life, you know, Americans had Duke Ellington in common. We had Frank Sinatra. We had Sam Cooke. We had Patsy Cline. We had incredible artists and musicians who were singing about love and giving us a window into the better parts of the human spirit.
And so there’s a way in which I was raised with an appreciation of the social value of music as something that can help bind us together in a deeper connection to one another. But I also had and have a relationship to faith and spirituality that in some sense passes through an understanding of music, particularly as a player and as a musician.
[00:04:49] Mark: Sure, and you just described in some ways what religion is: the root of the word religion is religio, Latin for “that which binds people together.” The symbols, narratives, practices that we use to bind people together. Yes, we do know that there are a lot of religious practices that pull people apart. But what I’m hearing you say is that music was the vehicle that you felt brought people together, brought you to yourself. Is that a fair way of describing it?
[00:05:21] John: Well, yeah, I think that is a fair way of encapsulating it. and so, you know, the second part of that is, there’s kind of the social value of music is something that brings people together en masse, but then I think it also greatly impacted my own personality and the way I sort of understood how we ought to be communicating with and ministering to each other in life simply because music is something that has power in the way it makes us feel, the way it impacts our mood and our ability to relate to each other and the world around us.
[00:05:53] And I think that what I understood and took from music, and apply to politics and discourse, is this understanding that you can play notes on a page and they can be technically correct. But there has to be a certain feeling that you tap into if you’re going to move people. I can have a technical argument that maybe reflects something that’s true about an issue, but if I’m not actually speaking to somebody’s heart and their deeper concerns, if I’m not speaking in a way that invites connection, if there’s not some musicality in the way I communicate, right? – that opens the window for us to truly see and relate to each other, then for everything I say that may or may not be technically or materially true, I’m not establishing a bond.
You know, there’s something that’s transcendent about music. And that sort of helped me to get a bit of a frame on what the Holy Spirit is a way.
[00:06:53] Mark: You indicated you didn’t grow up in an overtly religious household. You mentioned that your mother had a spiritual component to her, but my experience of you and the conversations that we’ve had, you are deeply religious and faithful. And how did that come about from being sort of free spirited in in your family to a specific or a concrete religious practice?
[00:07:18] John: Sure. And it probably would be fair to describe my religious practice and identity as… maybe in some respects being a little bit idiosyncratic. I’ll leave it to others to judge. But I’ll tell you the story and I’ll try and move through it economically here. As I said, I didn’t have a formal sort of religious upbringing.
Both of my parents were kind of roughly culturally Christian. My dad kind of grew up a little bit in the Methodist church and my mom had sort of a Black Baptist background to her upbringing, but neither of them were deeply “churched” people. We would say grace at the dinner table and recite the Lord’s prayer at night, but I could count on one hand the number of times I actually set foot in a church when I was young. But yeah, there were spiritual conversation with my mother who had a deep interest in signs and psychic phenomena and, sort of, astrology and gemstones and things like this.
[00:08:15] And for my dad, everything was about music. I was kind of a hyper rational sort of personality as a kid in some ways, but I also had a deep sense of kind of the intuitive experience and the inner experience. And you know, these things are somewhat hard to reconcile. At a certain point, I was 19 years old, I took a class in philosophy and started studying the whole cannon of Western philosophy but was particularly interested in classical morality and metaphysics. And so I got pretty deep into Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and I was impacted by the Socratic idea that there is an absolute morality, even if morality shifts in its expression according to cultural context.
[00:09:02] So I’m sure you know, of course, Mark, but Socrates had this dispute with a group of people called the Sophists back in ancient Greece and the Sophists argued that there was no absolute morality because values change depending on where you are. And Socrates’ basic response was, well, it may be true that our idea of courage or fairness or justice might vary depending on where we are, but what tends to be universal is that there is a conception of fairness and justice and so forth.
And I thought that was an interesting thing. It made me think that, well, maybe there’s something like a natural order. And then I started to think about it in terms of music. And that brought me to a different place. You see, faith had always confused me. The idea of faith. Because I always thought, how can you believe something without there being any clear empirical evidence for it, or at least a clear logical pathway towards understanding that something is true. Like, how can you ask me to believe something before I see it? Before it presents itself as evident?
[00:10:01] But then I thought about it in terms of my musical experience and came away with a very different way of understanding things, because I was raised a jazz musician.
My father, of course, is a jazz pianist, as you said, I’m a trumpet player, pretty rusty now, but I was raised on bandstands, you know? I was performing with my dad’s band back when I was 12 years old or so and played all through middle and high school. And I did a lot of improvising. And so the thing about that is when I was getting ready to improvise, when I was getting ready to solo in front of an audience, I’m listening to my dad play the changes,
I’m listening to the bass player. I’m feeling the rhythm, you know, I know the melody before it’s my turn to play. I’m thinking and feeling within myself, “what do I want to play?” And I’m not sort of rationally calculating out a linear sort of sequence of notes. I’m feeling emotionally both what moves me inside of me and, what do I intuitively feel is going to move the people around me?
What’s going to move the people in the audience? And a reality sort of emerged within me, and tends to emerge, where I would sort of experience the music before I played it. And then when I got up to play, it would just come out and people almost invariably were moved in the way I felt them being moved within myself before I even played anything on the horn. I didn’t think in terms of, “well, is it rational for me to believe that this sequence of notes is going to impact people in this way?” I just sort of felt it within and I believed in it, you know, and then it came out. So, thinking about faith through that prism, it made me think, “well, maybe that’s the way faith operates and somehow maybe when you feel it within, you’re actually sensing some greater spiritual presence and that’s what that actually is.” And so, you know, I had a lot of study and reflection. I thought about this idea, you know, “does music suggest that there’s a greater natural order to things?” And I thought about it, sort of thinking about Socrates and all of that.
People have different tastes in music, and you might say that means that musical experience itself is random. [00:12:08] But if you are listening to the Moonlight Sonata – you may or may not prefer it, classical music may or may not be your thing. But when you hear it, it’s going to invariably produce sort of a calm and reflective feeling in you.
It’s going to produce a certain sort of feeling of introspection. That’s just the nature of that composition. And that’s, whether you like it or not, invariably different from the effect that’s going to take place in you if you’re listening to some heavy metal bumping your head to, like, Limp Bizkit. If you’re listening to that, you’re going to feel adrenaline. You’re going to feel, you know, you’re going to feel like this kind of energy.
[00:12:45] Mark: John, I have a sense that the life of the mind and the life of the heart were coming together as you’re preparing to play music, as you’re playing music, as you’re experiencing music, that some energy was emerging in you. I would call that the Holy Spirit, but I don’t know what you would call it, but something that was generative for you and for others. Is that right?
[00:13:10] John: Yeah, that’s kind of the way I began to understand it retrospectively. And so the way that story continues is that I suddenly embraced meditation and I sort of gave myself permission to internally imagine and believe in this universal spirit of a creator and that became real to me. But what’s interesting is that I maintained an antagonism towards organized religion in this time of my life because I was sort of raised with that, not from my parents, but sort of from my school district, from the kind of secular, liberal-progressive environment that I grew up around, where, for the most part, people had a bit of disdain for organized religion, and for Christianity in particular. You sort of looked at it as a backwards force in history and in our own lives and politics.
But then I met a woman from a traditional black Baptist background when I was working as a political fundraiser – at a call center for the Democratic Party, actually, because I grew up a Democrat and a liberal activist. And so this was in about 2007. And She and I had this sort of classic “philosophy versus theology” confrontation.
[00:14:22] And at some point I said something fairly condescending to her. I said something along the lines of, you know, “You’re so smart. How can you believe in this book of fairy tales and superstitions? If God is real, he can’t be about all these laws and restrictions and he can’t be racist and misogynistic,” and so forth.
[00:14:37] “If God is real, he has to be about love and positive energy and higher vibrations. You know, God really has to be about love,” and she listened to that and she responded and she said, “That’s right. For though I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, if I have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging symbol. If I have faith to move all mountains and knowledge to understand all mysteries, if I have not love, it profits me nothing. If I give my goods to feed the poor and my body to be burned, if I have not love, I am nothing.” And I listened to her say that and I nodded my head and I said to her, I said, “Wow,” I said, “that’s beautiful. Did you write that?” And she said, “No fool, that’s First Corinthians!”
So I was like, okay. Well, I guess I should read this book. If anything, just to be able to debate people more effectively. I was an avid reader, but I had not read the Bible in any deep way. I tried to when I was like 12 years old. I cracked open this Bible that was always laying around. This King James Bible.
And I read like the first 10 chapters of Genesis, and it was just utterly inaccessible to me. The language was so sort of slow and plodding. The old English was something I had trouble with. So I flipped to the middle of the book, just to see if I could find something that I could sort of sink my teeth into a little more.
[00:16:25] And I landed right on the opening page of Job. And I read the first, you know, two or three chapters and it basically was something like, “Job was a good and noble man who was faithful and followed God in all of his ways. And for that, God allowed Satan to kill his wife, kill his children, destroy his land, and smote him with boils.”
And I just sort of slammed the book shut and it was just like, okay, this is clearly not the God for me. And didn’t really look at it again for all of those years and yet, after my experiences and after this conversation with the woman who would become my wife, I went and I read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, first chapter and verse to the last.
Across the course of I think about eight months or so, and this would have been, 2007-2008, maybe. Over the course of that experience, I came out the other end of it considering myself a Christian. Although with some different interpretations of things than I was used to thinking of most Christians as holding. Nevertheless, we got married.
[00:17:17] We moved to Colorado Springs. She had joined the army. We joined a faith-based community. It was actually a Messianic Jewish synagogue, Mark. Yeah, because Triana was interested in the Jewish roots of Jesus. And so that was my unorthodox path to Christianity in a nutshell.
[00:17:35] Mark: And does that continue to frame and guide you as you do this important work of depolarization?
[00:17:43] John: Well, it does. There are a couple of aspects to that. I guess that part of what gives me faith and confidence in the work that we do, it’s a couple of things, you know, one thing at the very heart of my confidence is this idea that ultimately, that which truly satisfies the human heart and the human soul is love, is connection, and the peace that comes with being in full harmony with your neighbors and with the world around you and the people in your life. And you can only really get to that, I think, through a path of understanding; through a path of empathy.
[00:18:25] Now truth and justice are also important things, but part of what a Christian understanding of the world reveals to me is the fact that we are all naturally flawed and fallen. We all have to be redeemed because we are all imperfect, and bitterly so. And so, we all have not just room for improvement, but an imperative to sort of improve in some sense, because even if you’re just looking at it from an evolutionary context, I mean, we tend to be selfish.
We tend to be concerned with our own appetites, our own lusts, our own self-interest. But that’s just one part of the human soul. That’s just one part of the human being. There’s this other part of us that’s available, you know, to seeking the good of others. And that’s what needs to be cultivated.
[00:19:15] I think that there’s actually a natural momentum towards that sort of goodness and connection that I think we’re just trying to focus on somewhat explicitly regardless of the particular tradition we’re coming at it from in the work of Braver Angels. And so I believe that human nature is ultimately available to and wanting to move towards the beloved community to move towards the kingdom of God. And in essence, and I do think that. I guess, in my own work, I do pursue it against the backdrop of this sort of greater horizon of the coming of God’s kingdom with the fulfillment of that. And what is that? What does that mean? There are different ways to look at it. I don’t necessarily mean that I’m going to see Elijah coming back down on the fiery chariot or Christ rising, at least in my lifetime. And what all that means is a conversation that could take us a long time.
[00:20:18] But in a general sense, I do believe that we have sort of a shared, collective, often subconscious understanding of the fact that a greater and nobler agape experience of shared human life is something that is emergent in the greater human story. And I think it does express itself iteratively.
I think we see it in the triumphs of the civil rights movement. I think that we see it in the progress towards greater shared rights that have come through the liberal tradition and the democratic tradition. I think that we see it in the rise of the Christian church to the degree to which that rise has also brought with it a greater human dignity and shared communal experience than may have been the case in ancient Rome and in different parts of human history. I don’t think it’s just one thing, but I think that there’s this greater story, which many individual human stories feed into, where we are progressing towards holiness,
[00:21:18] we are progressing towards righteousness, we are progressing towards Christliness, Christlikeness, and the kingdom of God. You know, and so I have this confidence that derives from that.
[00:21:30] Mark: And Braver Angels is committed to depolarization. In the Christian world, we could describe that as reconciliation. And Braver Angels is largely about bringing red and blue leaning people, not to pull one side to the other, but to find common ground, to be reconciled to one another. How does that live out for you? What’s the energy that moves you toward being so committed to reconciliation?
[00:22:03] John: So in the way I grew up, I often talk about the fact that I’m sort of the product of a multicultural and biracial family and household and bipartisan pair of parents and other relatives. My mother is a liberal black Democrat from inner city LA. My father’s a conservative white Republican from Tennessee originally. My dad’s older than my mom. He was a baby boomer. My mom is sort of, I think early Gen X. Dad was born in 1950. Mom was born in 1963. Dad came from great wealth, you know, mom came from a more modest background. And I think I grew up seeing the fact that people from different cultural origins oftentimes had a very difficult time understanding and empathizing with each other.
And sometimes they would feel that their perspectives and values were more or less just a waste because they didn’t line up with their own. But for me, being the product of these different currents in American life, in my own family, I think I was always able to see redeeming value in the perspectives that different family members had and other people in my life who were more or less like them.
[00:23:17] And so, for some folks, Democrats and Republicans are, you know, depending on who you are, are the enemy. But for me, Democrats and Republicans are essentially just mom and dad, in some fundamental sense. And I think that the way I grew up, sort of being in the middle of the tension that existed between these different individuals and the larger groups that I might identify with,
[00:23:40] I always acted as something of an interpreter and a translator, but again, with a sort of confidence that the tense difference in our politics is reflective of legitimate and human experiences derived from things that people have been through. Concealing wisdom that sometimes one side has that the other side doesn’t have that each side ought to be sharing. If we could get to the place of a basic level of trust and enough humility for us to be able to hear each other.
[00:24:07] So, I have a confidence that people on each side… and really there’s more than two sides, there’s so many sides in American political and social life, but I have some confidence that each side has redeeming human value. The different sides of our politics have lessons and wisdom that could be of benefit to the larger body politic if we can harness them, and that the goodness that I see and people can see in people, if we just set the stage for that to be clear and evident, and if we can see what’s good in one another, regardless of where we agree or disagree, suddenly we can have a greater shared confidence in our ability to understand together, to reason together and to move forward on the things that matter.
[00:24:48] Mark: And you have just described you were born literally in that tension of difference: white father, black mother, conservative father, more progressive mother, and you have continued, it sounds like even positioned yourself in the middle of all that, in that tension. And in my tradition, the Episcopal tradition, which has its roots in the Anglican tradition, we were created in tension 500 years ago.
[00:25:16] One source of truth was the Catholic Church. The other source of truth was the Protestant Reformation. Two competing sources of truth. And when you stand in the middle of two competing or different places, that tension can yield something new, something creative, something life giving. And it sounds like that’s been the case for you?
[00:25:41] John: Yeah, I would say so. I mean, some people might balk at the comparison, but there’s something Hegelian, I think, in the process by which humanity moves forward. We have these currents that collide, but I do feel that God moves them into collision for a reason. It’s because there’s something important and maybe even sacred that can only be harvested through the collision of our differences, but in that we come to reckon with the things that are more deeply harmonious, more deeply the same.
You mentioned the Anglican church. You know, I’ve been studying, more recently I’ve started studying maybe at the behest of my friend Lexi Hudson, the life and work of Desiderius Erasmus. He tried mightily to preserve the greater unity of the church in his time. And he was an in between sort of figure because for the most part, he tended to actually sympathize with Luther’s criticisms of the church.
[00:26:38] They had their differences on substance, but he was not generally opposed to the sort of Lutheran program of a form, but what he was opposed to was the delegitimizing of the papacy and of the larger sort of, you know, authority and the foundational significance of the church itself. And so he was sort of an institutional defender of the church, even while he sympathized with much in the way of the reforms that were being called for.
And in that position, he tried to keep both sides together in a greater Christian unity. Which in his own time, of course, ultimately failed and you have the Protestant Reformation and history took its course, but a big part of what Erasmus emphasized was the need to remember the moral imperative with respect to true Christian character in the way we treat each other, the way we speak to each other, you know, that our speech be seasoned with grace. That we not take ideological contentions as utterly invalidating our identity as Christians, even if we’re far apart on certain issues, but so long as we have the love of Christ within us.
[00:27:58] The basic sort of, you know, belief and idea of the resurrected Christ. With deeper fundamentals in common, we should be able to sustain disagreement on a whole host of things and still remain one Church, you know. There’s something inspiring, I think, about that position. Lessons to be learned from Erasmus’ failure, but there’s plenty that I take from that and sort of analogize to the moment of time that we’re at in American life.
[00:28:24] I do believe that our disagreements in many cases are vast and significant. And yet, I do also believe that most Americans, the greater part of Americans, left and right, want to live in a society that is just where prosperity and opportunity is shared across American society. Where we can be free to be who we are in conscience and our identity to hold to our cultural identities, where they’re important, but also to share a greater sort of fraternity across lines of race and religion and politics.
[00:28:58] I think that these things are American fundamentals, and I think that they are American fundamentals in part, because that sort of liberty, facilitated by social trust and friendship are themselves, I think, ingredients that are conducive to peace and human happiness and flourishing and the sort of love shared between human beings. That ultimately leads towards the greater peace and contentment of the soul in the place.
[00:29:27] Mark: And to my mind, what you’re describing is the Mandorla. It’s an Italian word for almond. It’s the shape that’s created when two circles intersect. We live in a culture now where forces and voices want us to be on one end or the other of those circles. The mandorla is this place of intersection. Think Venn diagram of sixth grade math. And in the spiritual life, it’s a place where one has to engage in some form of surrender to let go of some of the things that lock us in. and, shut us down. It’s a place of transformation, a place of openness. And I hear you and as I know you, you’re someone who is inviting people into that space where flourishing can happen. But it requires a little bit of sacrifice of surrender to be able to be in that place.
[00:30:24] And I hear that desire in you and certainly see evidence of it in all of our conversations, all that I’ve read and heard of you. John, what gets in the way? What inhibits you from this really lovely vision of civility, of harmony, of flourishing? What gets in the way?
[00:30:45] John: Well, you know, the problems are always right next to the solutions and vice versa. I mean, human nature fundamentally is the problem. Now, we could talk on the level of bad incentives and the way our institutions and larger social and political structures tend to operate. But you know, on the most fundamental level there’s a great deal of fear and confusion that takes hold in human beings when we are confronted with change and people who seem to be radically different from ourselves in whatever ways.
[00:31:22] Now, differences don’t always have to be threatening, of course, but we do, I think, have a bit of a disposition towards seeing them that way. There is simply this reality where we are coming from dramatically different traditions in American life.
More so now than before. Yeah, you go back in time a bit Democratic and the Republican parties, you know, tended not to represent such starkly different cultural identities as they do now. You had a lot more bipartisan cooperation and, you know, in the 50s and the 60s you had liberal Republicans, conservative Democrats and so forth.
It wasn’t necessarily the case that your religious and ethnic identity was so closely coupled with your political affiliation. America has become culturally and ethnically more diverse in a way to where you don’t necessarily have the broadly shared liberal framework that can kind of somewhat encompass where mid-century Republicans and conservatives tended to be and mid-century liberals, there was sort of, you know, this shared agreement on freedom of speech and the 1st amendment and…
[00:32:37] Yeah, it’s all more complicated than I’m making it sound, but, you know, in a society that was largely led by white folks there was also sort of a sort of an anglo background, sort of shared inheritance and a lot of traditions and ways of looking at the world. And all of that is somewhat challenged now in an era that is downstream of greater integration of the winning of civil rights and a status in American society by people of color, and certainly African Americans, that has seen them more prominently seeded in America’s institutions, but also bringing with them an understanding of the American experience.
[00:33:20] You could take, for example, the 1619 project that is very much at odds with the sort of valorizing idealistic sort of narrative of American exceptionalism, or even liberal progress that was more mainstream in our understanding of history and our identity. Not too many years ago, technology, we had that component and the tensions that are present in our differences become artificially intensified and magnified in ways that present really a sort of a new order of challenge.
Back in the years that my father would sort of consider to be the glory days, you know, my dad talks about American popular music and how we had the heavyweight champion in common and so on and so forth. And other people will talk about Walter Cronkite and the three broadcast networks and how that gave us a shared well of information and narrative to pull from.
[00:34:13] Many conservatives always felt a little bit isolated even from that consensus, but that’s a lot different though from the 80s, when you get CNN and the 24 hour news network, the rise of Rush Limbaugh, you know, going into the 90s the explosion of cable news, then you get the internet and social media, and now we’ve got TikTok and all the rest.
[00:34:33] And so, we are artificially divided. The business model of the media is based not on speaking to a broad audience, but capturing, you know, a specific ideological audience. Parties become polarized. Every complicated macro thing grows out of some elemental micro thing, you know,
[00:34:51] Mark: Yeah, well, speaking to that, you were a canvasser for Barack Obama when he ran for president. And then some years later, you ran as a Republican in the in the congressional district in Los Angeles. Describe that transition? What was going on inside of you as you moved from one side to the other?
[00:35:14] John: I was deeply inspired by Barack Obama. If it wasn’t for Obama, I’m not sure I ever would have got back into politics. So the story there was that I was a liberal activist in high school. I was very interested in politics, passionate about it. I was really passionate about, you know, Al Gore in 2000.
I think I was a freshman in high school, maybe during that race after 9/11, I gave my first public speech opposing the Iraq war at the Culver City Council meeting where we passed a resolution opposing it. I was, I think, 15 years old, maybe at the time. But when John Kerry failed to win the race in 2004 you know, I didn’t get to vote. I think I was five days too young to vote, but I was a passionate advocate for Senator Kerry and, when George W. Bush was reelected, I just felt like that was hard evidence of the fact that the system did not work. I literally became cynical and jaded at the age of 17, you know, and so I – like the spoiled kid that I think I was – I just kind of washed my hands and was just like “well, I don’t want to play anymore” because I didn’t win, you know, and so I sort of stopped paying attention to politics for a little while until Barack Obama came squarely to my attention.
[00:36:33] Biographically, there are a lot of things that I related to in who Obama was, of course. Obviously, you know, his mixed-race experience and so forth, but really the sort of similar values and worldview that he derived from that family background, you know, similar to my own. I mean, Obama seemed to be somebody who genuinely was trying to create understanding between black and white and left and right.
[00:36:58] His family was generally left leaning, but, you know, his white grandparents were more conservative and so forth. And I felt that Obama was ultimately trying to sort of continue in the ethos of the beloved community and the nonviolent compassion and goodwill that characterized Martin Luther King Junior’s philosophy. You know, King was basically, sort of a saintly figure in my mind. He was sort of the supreme moral role model in American life for me, even as a very young person. And so the Obama campaign was so much more than just an ordinary political campaign.
[00:37:36] It was a transformational sort of experience, the degree to which myself and other young people were hopeful about what that could bring was just unprecedented, certainly in my life. And so, after Obama was elected I set about going further than I had gone before and studying Republican thought and conservatism, because I wanted to for me, hope and change meant realizing this post racial and post partisan sort of America, where we can reunite on the things that mattered most in spite of our differences.
[00:38:08] And so I set about really trying to educate myself on conservatism, so as to better bring conservatives into the Obama movement, so to speak. And, you know, long story short there, a lot of things sort of happened that conspired to maybe make me more conservative, just in my environment. As I mentioned, this was at the exact same time I was undergoing something of a religious conversion.
I came to think of myself a Christian. We moved from LA to Fort. Carson in Colorado Springs, where my wife was stationed. So now I’m living in a military town. We’re a military family. Suddenly, people around me are people of faith. And in addition to the Bible I was reading other books I hadn’t read before: Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith, Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand, sort of got deep into the libertarian sort of perspective.
And I also started studying African American history from a more conservative vantage point. And I looked up one day and just went down a list of like a hundred issues or so and asked myself where I stood on them and I looked up and I was like, holy cow, I was like, right of center on like 62 or 65 out of 100 things.
[00:39:12] And I was like, shit, I’m kind of a Republican, you know, and it was actually a very uncomfortable realization. I did not want that to be true because my self-identity as a liberal and a Democrat was important to me. At the same time, I still felt very much committed to my own understanding of what hope and change was really about.
[00:39:32] I was starting to become a little bit pessimistic about the Obama presidency at a number of levels. But I still loved Barack Obama and admired him and you know, continued to root for him. And I also remained very sort of critical and a bit of a distaste for partisan political talk on cable news and talk radio, and I didn’t much care for the way talk radio hosts and Fox News hosts tended to talk about politics even though I was starting to agree more and more with some of their positions, at least.
And so I made the decision to run for Congress basically as a hope and change Republican, basically as a means of humanizing both sides of the aisle. I ran to humanize left and right, black and white, and also religious and secular, because these are all journeys/bridges that I had crossed in my life experience and in my recent experience.
And I felt that all sides had something to offer this American experiment if we could just get to the point of seeing the humanity in each other. And so that’s really the story there.
[00:40:31] Mark: So a journey from one to the other, but still holding on to all the things that you have thought to be important, that have been life giving, that have framed your soul, your mind, and your life. Indeed.
John: Yeah that’s right.
[00:40:50] Mark: And talk a little bit about, you mentioned Martin Luther King, and you just referred to it a few moments ago about nonviolence. Talk about your commitment to nonviolence or how that concept grabbed a hold of you.
[00:41:00] John: Yeah. Thank you. Well, you know, I’ve had two different chapters, I suppose, in my walk with Dr. King. The first chapter was the King I was presented with as a student in elementary and middle and high school – this lionized, but somewhat perhaps, innocent and superficial and secularized vision of King as, you know, this figure who more or less kind of swooped in with a great deal of eloquence and courage and more or less just defeated racism in America.
[00:41:33] And you know, we had some sense of King’s disposition and ideals, and we knew he was nonviolent, but I don’t think that I was given an understanding of what nonviolence philosophically was. I had to sort of get that for myself later in life, and that wound up tying into other things I was learning in scripture and elsewhere. The philosophy of nonviolence that King believed in, that he taught, that he modeled, in his social activism, but also in his internal being, is one that derives from the conviction that love is a spiritual force that can affect social change.
And in order to truly practice philosophical nonviolence, it’s not actually enough to just be tactically nonviolent. So it’s not just a matter of refusing to pick up arms. So that you can gain popular sympathy and ultimately win a political and social victory over the opponent, et cetera. It is literally a matter of holding a deep reserve of goodwill for all human beings, seeing the dignity in all human beings. Even for those who disagree with you. Even for those who would hate you and oppress you and persecute you, you had to actually love those people, and that love had to proceed from a place that was deep within, deeply internal, because that love had to then animate every other aspect of your being, right?
[00:42:56] It is an incredibly high standard. And it’s one that King felt was developed in the methods and teaching of Mahatma Gandhi, but that ultimately proceeded from the spirit of Christ and the Gospels.
And so in the early days, Dr. King referred to not philosophical nonviolence, but merely Christian love in galvanizing his early cohort of followers in the black church.
But that way of understanding the world basically gave a further and sort of modern dimension to the application of essentially the comportment and disposition of Christ and those who would seek to be Christ like in the context of our modern sort of liberal society, and certainly our modern 21st century liberal society, I think still calls for that disposition, still calls for that charity and generosity and willingness to forgive so as to be reconciled, even when we have been wounded and oppressed by the folks who opposed us in the past.
[00:43:59] Mark: I’m hearing, as you talk about the beloved community and the element of love, really – that it’s an act of the will. We receive it so often in our culture as this tingly feeling, which it can be. But what you’re describing and what King demonstrated is this commitment to love everyone, including your enemies, which of course hearkens back to Jesus’s admonition in the Gospels.
[00:44:23] John: Yeah, I’m glad that you said that. You know, I think that the difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Erasmus, here of Martin Luther, I think that part of what Erasmus was lacking was that very will that you’re identifying.
King was always, you know, as we do today, struggling to get people to understand the fact that love is not mere sentimentality, not mere emotional bosh, right?
[00:44:50] But a powerful and assertive force that is willing to straightforwardly stare down evil and speak truth to power, but to do so in a way that does not sacrifice the goodwill that is at the heart of it. I can tell you that you are wrong. I could tell you that you are doing things that are having an evil effect on humanity.
[00:45:11] And I can tell you I’m going to stand up to you and be a barrier to what it is you’re seeking to do while also saying in full conviction “And by the way, I love you and I want what is best for you. I am looking forward to the day when you and I can stand together and shake hands as friends. And in the meantime we’re going to go at it in the sphere of public debate and discourse.”
[00:45:32] Mark: As you describe that, of engaging with somebody, “I love you.” Is there, are there times when that takes a lot of work to bring yourself to be able to say that and to feel that?
[00:45:43] John: Well, yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, it is a difficult thing for people. And yeah, there are times when it’s difficult for me too. It’s most difficult for me when I’m not thinking about it. You know, if I’m like on social media and I just read something that’s annoying or whatnot, I’m just like “this guy!” you know, and, yeah, being fully grounded in your spirit requires conscious kind of awareness on some level. You’ve got to sort of train yourself in it. I think that meditation is important. Prayer is important. Study is important. because you just go where the water flows. You get defensive, you get agitated, you get angry.
So, you know, the practitioners of nonviolent resistance in the nonviolent movement – King’s movement – spent a lot of time rehearsing and practicing getting shouted at getting spit at, getting abused and so forth before they walked into those lunch counters to integrate them because they knew they’d have to keep within their spirit to be able to embody that way of being under moments of duress.
[00:46:40] But ultimately, I think I tend to snap back to that way of looking at the world just because my identity, that which was forged in me, and the way I grew up always made it to where I could never just easily choose one side or the other. I was always having to see what was good and redeemable in one side and the other because I was always very sensitive to the idea that all of these sides are a part of me, you know, and so I think I was habituated early on to the idea that whatever I am [00:47:20] as an individual, I am in some way reflected in every face of humanity that I see. I have some connection to everyone and everyone in some way is a reflection of me, no matter how good or bad or beautiful or ugly they may on the surface appear. And so I think I do have something of an instinct towards always trying to find that place of empathy, see that place of good and to be confident that it’s there because.
[00:47:30] If it’s not there for them, it may be the case that in some respect there’s something that cannot be salvaged in me. But I hope that’s not the case. You know, I think that in Christ, we can all be redeemed.
[00:47:43] Mark: Well, I, hear your desire and that is matched with your commitment and your accomplishments of seeing the face of Christ in someone else that calls to mind to me, Saint Benedict of the 7th Century. But you talk about the deep reserve of goodwill. I hear you and see you and know you as a bridge builder.
[00:48:09] The discipline that you’ve had developed through music, through your family, through your meditation, through your religious faith and This wonderful interplay that come across in our conversation today, John, between your acute intelligence and your deep heart and both of those things sort of come together.
And it’s been just an honor to have this time with you. And we will cut it off now. But John, I know you and I are going to keep talking about these things.
[00:48:42] John: Well, that’s right.
Mark: Because we have a deep commitment and learn from each other of this journey toward reconciliation, toward depolarization, of lifting up the best of who we all are, honoring that, insisting on that, and everyone else.
John, if people want to find you and what you’ve written and what your commitments are, where would they go?
[00:49:07] John: Well, you can see my pieces at USA Today in the opinion section. I’m an opinion columnist, and so, you know, if you go to USA Today look up John Wood Jr., you’ll find some of my stuff there. I’ve written for lot of publications. Feel free to Google me, but if you want to follow me on social media you can find me at John R. Wood Jr. on Twitter. Facebook and Instagram. And of course, you can find me at Braver Angels. And I should say you can subscribe to hear me on the Uniting America podcast, Uniting America with John Wood, Jr. You can find that on YouTube and wherever you get your podcasts.
[00:49:41] Mark: I want to give thanks to John Wood Jr., who is the ambassador for Braver Angels and is a growing voice in the arena of reconciliation, not just with Braver Angels, but across the country. So, John, thank you so much for being together.
[00:49:59] John: Thank you very much, Mark. I appreciate you.
[00:50:01] Mark: Thank you for listening to this episode of Reconciliation Roundtable.
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