The Quakers have an elegant turn of phrase for humanity's common link to the divine: There is that of God in everyone.
The belief is at the core of many of the testimonies of the Society of Friends: honesty, equality, simplicity, peace, integrity, stewardship. All are one in the spirit. With that connection in mind, you treat all, and even the very environment around you, with dignity and respect. Do unto others, in other words.
It's an ideal, something to aspire to, like all core religious philosophies. Being human, on any given day people will fall short. And blessed are the transgressions that occur in private, for they allow you to kick your own butt. Err publicly, though, or just be perceived as doing so, and you get to experience another common link among humans: That of the judge in everyone.
In the eyes of some, Craig Sellers has lately fallen short. Quite publicly.
Sellers is head of Friends' Central, a 172-year-old Quaker school in Wynnewood. Its vision: To awaken courage and intellect - and peacefully transform the world.
But what the school community was recently awakened to was news that a speaking invitation to a Swarthmore College professor had been rescinded.
Sa'ed Atshan is a professor of peace and conflict resolution studies. An advocate of LGBT rights in the Middle East. A Palestinian Quaker. And - most critical to the canceled talk - someone with ties to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. BDS bills itself as a Palestinian rights movement but is considered by many as both anti-Semitic and committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. The movement is also famous for shutting down anything resembling pro-Israel speech on college campuses.
With members of the Friends' Central community raising concerns, Sellers has called for a "pause" on speakers coming in to discuss the Mideast.
Don't judge him too harshly. He's caught between the highest of religious, education, and civic ideals and an issue involving a decades-long life and death struggle on which there is no discernible compromise. And maybe the wrong step here means the annual fund drive is a little less flush.
Somewhere in that cauldron, Sellers now must help his community discern the way forward, while setting the example, with each step, that there is that of God in everyone. Even within those who might, in the most heated of moments, effectively mask their claim on the divinity.
If this school were an anomaly, there might be more room to single it out and bewail this affront to free speech. But it's hardly alone in struggling with how best to discuss, debate, or flat-out fight over, seemingly intractable issues. And it's certainly not the only place where who gets to speak is every bit as contested as what gets said.
Look at higher education, where, every spring, proud parents receive their invitations to the college commencements of their graduates. And just as reliably come disinvitations to speakers whose views upset some constituency on campus. In addition, as Conor Friedersdorf described it in the Atlantic last year, "free speech on campus is threatened from a dozen directions. It is threatened by police spies, overzealous administrators, and students who are intolerant of dissent. It is threatened by activists agitating for speech codes and sanctions for professors or classmates who disagree with them. It is threatened by people . . . who shut down events to prevent people from speaking."
Newsrooms are not immune to these struggles. The unconventional candidate who often brought out the worst in his primary and general election rivals is having a similar effect on those who cover him. During the campaign, some in the journalism community called for abandoning objectivity to thwart what they saw as a threat to decency and democracy. And - despite much excellent work - no doubt some readers and viewers chuckled and thought: What objectivity? Plenty of those same people are now taking their business elsewhere over what they consider unfair coverage of the new administration and its supporters.
Such tensions prompted a recent town-hall meeting at the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times reported that the Journal editor defended his paper's coverage to the staff, some of whom worried about being too pro-administration; suggested other newsrooms had discarded objectivity; and invited those who wanted a more confrontational approach on President Trump to seek employment elsewhere. Also there, an editor on the newspaper's opinion pages has been forced out, with the Atlantic calling the move "a victory for the pro-Trump faction on the editorial staff." He is not the industry's only such casualty.
In the frenzied political moment, some see in these battles the stirrings of fascism. Nonsense. Americans disagree, they challenge each other, constantly. Even, one would hope, on campuses and in newsrooms. But they needn't despise each other, or show disdain for other viewpoints. And they don't have to blow every complaint - or tweet - out of proportion. Follow Sellers' example and take a pause. Commit to treating others with dignity and respect. Recommit to the values of the institution being served.
These are ideals. No one expects perfection. But without a solid foundation to stand on, it's tough to weather the inevitable storms of criticism or judgment.
Kevin Ferris is the Inquirer commentary editor. email@example.com @ferrisk3