Recently I shared an article on my personal Facebook page that touched a few political heartstrings. Some it made harmony with, others experienced a bit of discord with the contents of the article. Those who experienced discord with the article commented and pushed back a bit. I responded to them, and we wrote back and forth a bit. This experience caused me to reflect upon the ways we, as Christians, speak to one another.
On TV there are a number of shows where the whole premise is that people of divergent opinions speak to one another. Most of the time those shows make entertainment by yelling, fighting, interrupting, and generally engaging in “bad” conversational behaviors. My wife (the smartest and wisest person I know) pointed out to me that this may contribute to the difficulties we (Americans) have when it comes to conversations about difficult topics. The example most of us have is these television shows where actors (let’s be honest) engage in “meaningful dialogue” by disrespecting one another, engaging in fallacious arguments (look up “Straw Man” as a popular example), and generally talking past one another instead of to one another. This form of conversation doesn’t help anyone, and generally doesn’t do any good because it doesn’t have a point. It is two people talking past one another (at best) simply to speak their point. There is no desire to see the other’s opinion as valid. There is no attempt at humble reflection upon their own point as possibly being erroneous. There is only mind-numbing rhetorical warfare, and I’m being generous in calling it rhetoric.
Jesus’ whole ministry, Paul’s experiences recorded in Acts, Peter’s behavior in prison (also in Acts), and the letters we have (which make up most of the New Testament) give many examples of how we relate to one another in places of disagreement. One of the most important examples of this is called the First Council at Jerusalem. It is found in Acts 15. The early church (which was a branch of Judaism originally) heard of Gentile converts and wanted to figure out how best to incorporate these brothers and sisters into the Kingdom of God. They talked, they debated, they shared stories, and in the end they made a decision (Acts 15:22-35). Time and time again the example from scripture points to listening, asking questions, praying, and being at peace with one another.
This is not the way Christians seem to be talking to one another today, and that has to change. I think it starts with the recognition that none of us understands 100% of what we are talking about. We must be humble enough to know that there are people who see and understand different pieces of the puzzle than we do, and that in bringing us all together can we get a better understanding of the whole picture.
A second recognition we must have is that it is ok to be wrong in our thinking. Much of our rhetorical warfare comes because we are afraid. We are afraid of being incorrect, afraid that the structures of understanding which we have built up over years will simply fall apart if one card is moved. This pattern makes us defensive. When we are being defensive we don’t’ think clearly. When we are defensive we tend to attack more than we listen. This sets us up for failure and prevents us from being truly present with the other person. As followers of Jesus, citizens of God’s kingdom, brothers and sisters in Christ we must find a better way to love one another while recognizing and respecting our differences. We cannot continue to behave as they do in the TV shows, because that is not how children of God speak to one another.
Instead of fighting, we must learn to listen to one another. We must learn to “walk a mile in their shoes”. We must learn to ask questions to gain understanding, rather than to point out fallacies and falsehoods. We must begin to work toward communicating words of encouragement. We must learn to disagree with one another without demonizing the other. To do this, we must humble ourselves. Without humility we will never learn to disagree agreeably. Without love (for the person with whom we disagree) we will be nothing but a clanging gong. When we let go of the fear and embrace the humility we will begin to learn to speak to one another in love despite disagreements.
When the church can learn to disagree agreeably we will be on the road to being a true witness in the world to the Kingdom of God. We will be like a family that loves each other more than we love our opinions. Where it isn’t so much about being right with our ideas, as it is more about being right in our relationships. How we disagree reveals a lot about us, and even more about our relationship with the God who has united us all in the Messiah Jesus.