Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly on February 14, leaving a vacancy on the Supreme Court that could tip the balance. Of course, the usual suspects could not wait until he was buried to bandy about the political significance of his death. Digging through the noise, though, was something both more interesting and more poignant: it turns out Justice Scalia had an unexpected friendship on the highest court in the land.
Obama courtesan David Axelrod shares a personal story about how, in a private moment, Scalia all but asked him to put a bug in President Obama’s ear about Elaine Kagan. Axelrod was, of course, surprised at the boldness of the request, but only after the fact did he learn the reasoning behind it:
Later, I learned that Scalia and Kagan were friends, though I suspect she would have been as surprised as I was at the brazenness of Scalia’s suggestion.
Each was a graduate of Harvard Law School and had taught at the University of Chicago Law School, though in different eras. They were of different generations, he the son of an Italian immigrant, she a Jew from New York City’s left-leaning West Side. But they shared an intellectual rigor and a robust sense of humor. And if Scalia could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.
Kagan didn’t get the nod that time, but did get the the next open seat after that. Scalia’s pal was now next to him. Their friendship continued:
During her confirmation meetings with senators, Kagan had vowed to go hunting to allay their concerns about her cultural awareness on the issue of guns. When she joined the court, she asked her friend, Scalia, to take her. The two, who occasionally shot intellectual darts at each other on paper, became regular, if unlikely, hunting partners.
If you had told me about Kagan and Scalia hunting together just a few days ago, I would assumed you were describing an Onion headline or Saturday Night Live sketch. During a time in which partisan bickering is so common we are practically numb to it, it’s refreshing to hear of this unexpected friendship from two people who had vastly different approaches to jurisprudence but still respected each other on an intellectual level enough to be friends.
With Portland approaching, a fitting prayer might just be, “Lord, grant that the Spirit would so move our hearts and minds that hundreds of unexpected friendships are made which transform the tenor of General Conference.”
Idealistic, perhaps. But impossible? If Christ is for us – and Justices Scalia and Kagan can become hunting pals – who can be against us?
In the coming weeks, I’ll be participating in a couple of events aiming to equip the clergy and laity of the Western North Carolina Conference for better conversations about the things that divide us. I hope that some unexpected friendships emerge.
I also resonate with the late Justice Scalia’s desire for skilled sparring partners. As Axelrod put it, “He had hoped for [a new Justice] with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.”
I share that hope, also. I am blessed to have some excellent interlocutors on all sides. My co-curators Stephen and Evan challenge, correct, and cajole me like few others. I am grateful for folks like Dave Nuckols (Reconciling Ministries Network Board Member) and Good News’ Tom Lambrecht. At various times I have critiqued their organizations, sometimes quite harshly, and yet I find them both to be consistently generous dialogue partners. They are the type who give a good, honest fight.
What scares me is that I know too many Methodist folks, lay and clergy, who are almost exclusively locked into circles of common conviction. I have friends who are progressive clergy serving progressive churches in progressive cities. Likewise, I have friends who are evangelical and only read evangelical outlets and live and worship in very conservative communities. From whence does a “good, honest fight” then come?
We need more unexpected friendships, not echo chambers that only serve to confirm our bias.
We need good, honest fights, not tightly monitored conversations designed to smooth every rough edge and make sure no one could possibly be offended. (This all the more problematic when done under the guise of holy conferencing.)
All of us would benefit from unexpected friendships that stretch us, challenge us, and provide occasions for a good tussle. Such connections might even act as such a powerful leavening agent that we would no longer have to snicker at the irony of the word ‘United’ in UMC. The alternative is the reality to which we’ve become accustomed: the stunted ecosystems of the ubiquitously like-minded.
The church is that place where baptism creates a new family where the world’s ways of dividing us (see Gal. 3:28) are no longer primary. Our shared need and love for Christ can create unexpected friendships that would not only benefit our denomination, but might show a polarized and divided world that there is One above and beyond all of this who has the power to bring folks together that the culture wars would rather keep apart. If the law can do that for Kagan and Scalia, surely Christ can bring United Methodists together across our petty lines and partisan fences.
In that sense, unexpected friendships are not only heathy for us as disciples of Christ in the Church of Christ, but a powerful witness to a fractured, tribalistic world.
May God bless you – may God bless all of us – with unexpected friendships and honest fights.