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Lawyers, Professors and Citizens

When I first read Adam’s piece I planned to engage in the argument—we disagree on so many things. But, at this point I do not think that would be helpful, especially given the exchange between Adam and Mikhael. Instead I’d like to write to the readers about where I think we should go from here.

Long ago when I practiced law I spent a lot of time in the courtroom. This was a good place for me because I am by nature argumentative and competitive. I like to win. It was also a bad place for me because by nature I am argumentative and competitive. Winning is too important to me. Being a litigator brought out aspects of my personality that on my best days I work to suppress.

When I left the practice of law to become a college professor I thought I was leaving competition behind me; I was wrong. While lawyers might manipulate facts and the law to win, academics often use jargon to dismiss others. I struggle with this every day because I can be really good at it. I struggle with it in my writing and I struggle with it in the classroom. When I teach, I can be tempted to see the classroom like I saw the courtroom—a place to instruct and to win. If you see things differently than I do, you are wrong. Let me tell you all the ways in which you are wrong.

But, teaching is different than litigating. Though I often instruct, my main job is different. When I am at my best I spend my time helping students to understand what they believe about the world, who they are in the world, and how they are to engage a world that is fallen but has been redeemed. This takes a gentleness that does not come to me by nature. It takes willingness to stand in the shoes of another and it takes humility and delight in learning from those who differ from me. My students are gay, straight, conservative, liberal, undocumented, African American, Caucasian, Asian, Native American, Christian, atheist, wealthy, poor, middle- class, male, female, transgender and so much more. I have taught for over twenty years and I still learn more from students than I give them. This staggers me.

Mikhael, Adam and I are all Christians, all trained similarly in the field of politics and law. But, we see the world differently. We interpret history differently, and we value early theorists and church leaders differently. So, is the primary issue who is right? Or, is the primary issue how we will live together despite our differences?

As I said in my original piece, I do not think the key issue is the nature of marriage. I think the key issue is the role of government. Is the role of government to elevate the right way of doing things? Or, is the role of government to accommodate and organize, so far as possible, different ways of being in the world?

If the job of government is to get it right, and have us all live according to the right, then I see no hope in this world for peace and respect. Here we have three white, upper-middle class highly educated Christian academics, similar in our orientations, teaching at similar schools –who nonetheless disagree about something so foundational to human life. If we can’t agree, who can? If government is going to be about one of our perspectives winning, then government will never be more than majority and minority perspectives trying to gain ground.

I think that Christian citizens need to focus more on accommodating differences than on winning the argument. The real challenge is in figuring out what the accommodation should look like. Under what circumstances might accommodation of different perspectives be a matter of justice? And, under what circumstances might accommodation of different perspectives lead to harm?

Public opinion and law are beginning to reflect what I think of as a just way of treating LGBT citizens. For me this is cause for rejoicing. But people who think like I do must challenge ourselves to also think about those who differ from us. What does it mean to do justice to those who view the world as Adam does? What room should they have in society to organize their families, places of worship or places of business according to their deepest beliefs?

This is a really hard task. Sometimes it is easier to just try and win the argument.

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Reader Comments (1)

Thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

November 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJon Carl Lewis

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