“I fell in love with Jesus and his church because of the way Christians could stand, weep, walk, and be gracious with me.” 1
We have all noticed how in the the past few years, the tone of conversation has changed. On social media, it’s as if people now sense the permission to state and post anything that describes how they feel. Frankly, the past few months I’ve taken a break from blogging because I wanted to scrutinize my own motives for writing but also because I’ve been shocked and disappointed with the level of discourse.
Miroslav Volf does an excellent job in his book, Exclusion and Embrace, summarizing the various ways we exclude others, some overt and some more subtle. In short, the ways we exclude others through social media posts that are less than charitable, verbal rants that denounce others declaring that our side is right, are actually power plays (you gotta love how Nietzsche is still relevant today). Power is used to demonize a certain group of people who “don’t get it” and prop up one’s sense of self-esteem. This is actually a heart issue that is rooted in either pride or fear with very little to do with truth.
How we disagree with others as followers of Christ is critical. It not only is the way forward, preserving unity but it also demonstrates to those watching us that we can actually listen and dialogue in a peaceable way. As a pastor, rather than use the Bible to undergird individual points let me simply offer the command found in Romans 12:18 – “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (notice it’s toward everyone and not just your own tribe). Just consider for a moment those disciples living under Roman rule and you’ll begin to see how counterintuitive this seems. Let me offer a few thoughts as I have struggled through this at times as someone who feels this need to be right:
Listen. Rather than entering into a conversation that seems like a ping pong game – back and forth from point to counterpoint – intentionally be quick to listen to someone else and not speak. You might not understand or agree what they believe and the deep feelings they have, but try. Elisabeth Elliot once said, “Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth closed.”2 That’s good advice when people are full of fear or even anger. Listening to others and their objections provides this window that can lead to understanding. I don’t know what it’s like to experience fear that some Muslims are feeling now but I want to listen.
Look for points of agreement. Nothing says that you are being heard more than having someone affirm, “Oh, I get it.” The key is this… just because we agree with certain parts doesn’t mean we agree with the whole! A simple example is the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill where he affirmed that his audience was very religious. This is true when studying philosophy, ethics, theology, and the list goes on. We look for ways to establish relational bridges. Then at points where we disagree we have some relational capital built up.
Don’t use bad arguments. I’ve heard Tim Keller say that if we are going to bring up counter-arguments that we understand the opposing position maybe even better than the people holding them. This will keep us away from bad arguments (ad hominem, straw man, name calling, red herring, etc) and help us get to the root issue. For instance, when I have a discussion with those who disagree with me about cohabitation, I want them to get to the core issues of why couples slide into it rather than telling them, “You know the Bible says…”
Don’t use loaded words that label people. This is for another blog post but let me give you a “for instance”. Honestly, I think the word racism is overused to the point where it shuts down the conversation. To call someone a racist not only deviates from the clear meaning it used to have but it often has the opposite effect of closing people off.3 People might have deeply held prejudicial beliefs or even unknown prejudicial beliefs but to label someone as a racist in most instances is not helpful to discussion. As my friend Josh Reasoner said recently, “let’s not push away from the table” by categorizing people in ways that condemn them as the “other”.
Treat people with charity. This is charity or love as commitment to friendship with another with their best interest in mind. When we disagree we want to think about how we can keep the conversation going and not just shut it down trying to be right. We want to be patient with people, treating them as we would want to be treated, even if it feels like you are on different pages. Insecure people have a hard time loving people because they need to be right to bolster their sense of self. When we treat people with charity we actually are willing to admit that we don’t have to “win” to preserve future friendship and dialogue.
Contrary to what others say, it is the gospel that gives us the power to embrace Truth in humility. If God initiated with you through Christ in the state that you were in, then there is no sense in which you are afforded the opportunity to look down on someone else. We not only have a confidence that comes through our unwavering acceptance through Christ as He is the Way, Truth and the Life. But we also have a humility to embrace others since the gospel reminds that we were once poor but have become spiritually rich in Him.
1 Rosaria Butterfield, former tenured professor of English at Syracuse University, author of Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ, on what surprised her the most about Christians when she actually became one.
2 Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity, p.63
3 See the Vox article by German Lopez, “Research Says There Are Ways to Reduce Racial Bias. Calling People Racist Isn’t One of Them.”. http://www.vox.com/identities/2016/11/15/13595508/racism-trump-research-study