The Common Good
June 2009

Catholic Benedictine sister Adrienne Kaufmann

by Julie Polter | June 2009

on the nitty-gritty work of seeking common ground on abortion

From 1993 through 1996, Adrienne Kaufmann, OSB, was co-director of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which until 1999 was a project of the international conflict resolution organization Search for Common Ground. Building on a dialogue process designed by Kaufmann, the network helped bring together groups of pro-life and pro-choice people in 20 cities nationwide for constructive conversation and work on issues such as reducing teen pregnancy. Kaufman is now the vocation director at Mother of God Monastery in Watertown, South Dakota. Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter spoke with Kaufmann on May 18.

What was your reaction to President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame?

I am very pleased that he did not skirt the issue and that he did not inflate the issue to be the be-all and end-all of his relationship with Catholics or the Catholic Church. I believe he sincerely wants to work from the space of common ground and start where there are things they can work on together, not start with the contentious stuff. Those are the main things I heard and I thought that’s great.

Do you have any hope that we’re coming into a different moment in our political scene where dialogue could begin to happen, even within political settings?

I have some hope. My deepest hope is because I truly believe President Barack Obama is a man of integrity who can be taken at his word when he says we need to work on things we agree on. And when he says, as he did yesterday, that we need not to demonize each other. That was a very important piece of what he said. At the heart of the common ground experience is respectful speech and behavior and not demonizing. And being willing to open communication and explore areas of cooperation. He [President Obama] has certainly set a climate for that.

I think the legislative branch of the federal government has a ways to go.

It takes time to work cooperatively. I think if that’s really going to happen, the people of this country have to rise up and say as a majority, “Enough adversarial politics. We’ve had it. We won’t vote for you if you don’t stop that game and start a cooperative process.” The country is suffering because of that.

The people in Congress, both senators and members of the House, they get by in this country because most people don’t have politics at the top of their agendas. … We’ve given so much power to the people who are in Washington, even though we complain about them all the time.

My understanding is that you did some common ground work related to the Minnesota legislature in the 1990s. What worked, what didn’t and why?

We didn’t work with the Minnesota legislature as such. Rather we had one pro-choice Democrat and one pro-life Republican who were a part of the Minnesota state legislature, who came to our Common Ground Network for Life and Choice day of dialogue in the Twin Cities. It was a daylong dialogue. The reason they came was that they wanted to explore this project as a possible way to bring pro-choice and pro-life legislators together to work on things pro-choice and pro-life people could agree on, and actually make some progress on addressing the abortion issue out of the common ground space when they went back to the Minnesota state legislature.

They participated in the day of dialogue, experienced it as a positive and possible thing to do at the level of the state legislature. So they went back to their respective Republican and Democrat constituencies and shared their experience and said “We think there’s a possibility here. We’d like to get a group engaged in that type of dialogue at the state legislative level.”

They could not garner support for it. What they reported back to me is that the state legislators really believed they’d get more mileage politically out of keeping the conflict accentuated and accentuating the differences rather than working together on what they might discover as common agreement.

They [the two original legislators] participated some in ongoing dialogue in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, because a spinoff group formed from the day of dialogue. And they themselves personally benefitted. But they could not influence other legislators to engage seriously in the process.

Demonizing opponents is considered an effective and appropriate tactic by many in our political sphere. From your insight facilitating common ground dialogues, what do people gain from NOT demonizing others?

I think what they gain is a more nuanced perspective on truth. A more complete perspective on truth. I am convinced everybody carries a piece of the truth. The big gain from not demonizing is realizing that they’re talking to a person who has thought through their ideas, a person who has had life experiences different from theirs, and a person who is sincerely trying to live well in this world. When we can get past the stripped-down stereotype and see that real person, then we’re open to learning their piece of truth without compromising. We’re not saying “oh we’re going to force you to see things my way.” That’s not what it’s about. Just “can you understand my perspective?” Agreement or disagreement are beside the point. But when we demonize we don’t do that, we already KNOW the perspective, we got it figured out, and we don’t want anything to do with anything else.

My assumption would be that you would call yourself pro-life…

No, I do not.

How would you describe your position?

I hold a pro-nonviolence position. I will not accept the pro-life label, nor will I accept the pro-choice label. The reason is because those labels have been stripped of nuances. When I accept a “pro-life” label, I accept all the stereotypes of both pro-life people and pro-choice people about pro-life people. The same with “pro-choice.” I absolutely believe these are moral issues, these are ethical issues, these are societal issues. And “pro-life” and “pro-choice” now are political labels. People can say “oh it’s a philosophy.” I won’t believe that in the practical living out of life in the United States. Those are political terms. It’s not a political issue for me. It’s an issue of, as a community of human beings, trying to live responsibly in this world, responsible to one another, can we find nonviolent ways of addressing differences? Can we find nonviolent ways of solving problems? That’s what it is for me.

Why is common ground work so important to you?

The reason I got into it is because I don’t believe in violence. When we step up adversarial politics, it’s win-lose. I just don’t believe the world’s going to survive if we continue, with the kind of power we have, playing the win-lose game. The purpose of my life, first of all, is to insert my energy in a way that this world becomes a bit more like the kingdom that Jesus was referring to. It’s just not about setting up enemies. Jesus said love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, pray for those who persecute you. I think the message is pretty clear. I don’t live it perfectly, by far. I’m as flawed and goofy as anybody else. But I try. And I try to insert my energy in places where life becomes better, more cooperative, more peaceful, more like the kingdom we’re supposed to be about building.

That’s why it matters to me. Because I was so torn in those years of fighting so bitterly. I have walked in big circles. So I have many pro-life friends, many pro-choice friends. I frankly got fed up with trying to be a bridge helping one side understand the other. “No that’s not what they’re saying! No, that’s not it. That’s not who they are!” IT ended up, trying to be a bridge just meant I got walked all over. I hated it. And I said to myself as I was entering the Conflict Analysis and Resolution Program at George Mason University, “I’m going to take as my dissertation work trying to figure out a way to address widespread social conflicts in a better way.”

That’s how I got engaged in developing a common ground dialogue process. There’s got to be a better way to bring people together than say let’s stand in these separate camps and throw guns or stones or darts or words back and forth at each other violently. And then we’re knocking at each other and expending all our energy on each other and the problems aren’t even being addressed. That is what gnawed at me. I told myself, that if I could make any contribution to that, that’s going to be my effort.

Julie Polter is an associate editor at Sojourners.

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