The value of compromise

Rev. John Zehring

September 25, 2019

I went back to visit Independence Hall in my hometown of Philadelphia, making another pilgrimage to the birthplace of the United States of America. As we waited in the anteroom preparing to enter the hall, the docent pointed out a painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He asked, “What one word do you think best describes this painting?”

It was fascinating to me that in the room of fifty or sixty tourists, there were more nationalities, colors, languages, and ethnic backgrounds than I had ever seen gathered in one place. Such is the magnetic attraction of the birthplace of our nation. It felt like a representation of the world gathered to discover what made the United States tick. In that room, coming from every corner of the planet, answers were called out: Freedom. Courage. Unity. Sacrifice. “Those are all good words,” said the docent.  “However, the one word which best describes this painting is ‘compromise’.” He went on to explain that words of the Declaration of Independence – drafted by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman – did not represent their views. The docent told how the drafters of the Declaration of Independence did not agree with everything in it. Each had their own interests, priorities, constituents to satisfy, values and beliefs. That was also true, he said, for everyone in the painting – all of the signers. It was not a matter of unity of thought, but the spirit of unity that compelled them to compromise. This is compromise in the best sense, where people are willing to yield their position for the good of the whole. The signers of the Declaration were willing to give up some of what they valued for the good of the country. We would not enjoy the freedoms we cherish had it not been for compromise.

It would be a breath of fresh spring air if we had statesmen and stateswomen today in leadership roles who were willing to compromise for the good of the whole.

The word compromise is a loaded term with multiple and even opposite interpretations. To call a person compromising sounds like an indictment of their character. They would compromise their values for the means to an end. It is like a little devil on the shoulder whispering “compromise, so you can grab something for yourself.” A coworker whispers secretes about how to steal from the company. A supervisor asks you to fudge some figures so he or she can look good. A woman told about her hairdresser explaining how she cheats on her taxes. “Everybody does it,” she justified. “Look how the president and Congress cheat and rake in millions. Why shouldn’t I get my fair share?” That is compromising at its worst.

The word compromise is a loaded term with multiple and even opposite interpretations. Yet compromise in the best sense—in society or in the church—occurs when people are willing to yield their position for the good of the whole.”

To say a person is uncompromising sounds like they are so strict about principles that they are hard to get along with and not much fun either. In “The Rainmaker,” a 1956 Katharine Hepburn movie, the father says to his self-righteous son: “Noah, you’re so full of what’s right that you can’t see what’s good!” Fortunately, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were able to see beyond their strict adherence to moral or religious principles and choose to see what was good for the whole.

Compromising for the good of the whole is a precept in sports. For example, consider a basketball team of five players. An average team, playing together as a team, can beat a superstar team which does not play as a team, because their individual players are out for themselves, hog the ball, shoot instead of pass, and seem more interested in their own glory than in what is best for the team. The average but winning team recognizes that each player has a particular function but that they must collaborate, cooperate, join forces, and play as partners rather than as egocentric individualists concerned more for themselves than for the whole. 

Compromising for the good of the whole is a precept in music. Great musicians know to shine when it is their turn in the spotlight, but then to mix back in and participate in the harmony and rhythm of the group, for the good of the whole. A trumpeter or drummer who grabs more than his or her fair share of attention is not a good team player. The greatest bands, orchestras or musical groups play together as a team, for the good of the whole.

Compromise is necessary for most purchases. I enjoy watching TV shows about house-hunting. Usually, the purchasers begin with a long list of “must haves” to make the purchase.  Inevitably, they either do not have enough money to purchase their dream home, or they must compromise on some items on their list. The word compromise appears on every show, when the real estate agent informs the purchaser, “you are going to have to compromise on some things on your list.” This is the ubiquitous principle for decision-making: For everything you get, you give up something else. Compromise.

Compromise for the good of the whole is a precept of the life of the church. It always was. In the Epistle of James, the author writes “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”  (James 3:17). Emphasize the phrase “willing to yield.” Healthy congregations educate members about the value of being willing to yield some of what they want – compromise – for the good of the whole. The Quakers, which use a principle of consensus rather than Robert’s Rules of Order, enjoy being able to achieve a sense of unity even when there is disagreement. For example, if a Quaker Meeting was deciding whether or not to purchase a rug, a person opposed to the decision might sense that that he or she was holding up the decision. In that case, the person opposed might declare “I yield to consensus.” That is a living-out of the best spiritual practice of James’ phrase “willing to yield.” Yield, for the good of the whole. When we in the churches educate our members to yield for the good of the whole, we achieve a health and vitality that can encompass the widest range of opinions and values.

It is easy to criticize our national leaders for failing to compromise in the best sense as the founders of our nation did. Perhaps we are best served to begin with ourselves: Are there times we should compromise for the good of the whole, realizing that we never get everything we want, but that neither do we want to stand in the way of the good of the whole moving forward?  “Wisdom from above,” reflected James, is found in the attitude and spirit of being “gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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