As I listen to or view news reports and read newspaper articles, essays and books, I can often distinguish between those who are committed to respectful conversation from those with whom they disagree and those who will have none of that. From time to time, I will share some thoughts on what I hear and read. I welcome your comments on my musings.
It is a challenge for those who hold to their beliefs with deep conviction to acknowledge that they may be wrong about some things and could learn from someone who disagrees with them about the issue at hand.
The root problem is all-or-nothing thinking: I have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and everything the other person believes about the issue is false.
As recorded in Acts 15, the early Christian church modeled a way to get beyond such all-or-nothing thinking by means of conversation. Some Christian Jews believed that Gentiles who wished to embrace the Christian faith needed to be circumcised and keep all other aspects of the “law of Moses” (v. 5). But at the Jerusalem Conference, “all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done though them among the Gentiles” (v. 12).
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:7)
In the pietistic Lutheran Church in which I was nurtured as a teenager in Brooklyn, New York, we were called to evangelism: sharing the good news that people can be redeemed from the tyranny of selfish will and be restored to a proper relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That was good, as far as it went, because Christians are called to be agents for fostering redemption between persons and God.
But when I was exposed to the Reformed Christian tradition, first as a faculty member at Gordon College in Massachusetts, and then, in no uncertain terms, when I moved to northwest Iowa in 1980, I came to the conclusion that that my earlier view of God’s redemptive purposes was severely truncated: In addition to, not in place of, the “saving of individual persons,” God intends for all of the Created order to be redeemed through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1: 15-20). As beautifully expressed by Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch on the whole plain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord of all, does not proclaim ‘This is mine!’”
When is the last time you heard someone say the following about a controversial issue: “This is what I believe, but I may be wrong?
We are often quick to say “this is what I believe.” But the qualification “I may be wrong” is a rarity. Why is that? Rather than dealing in abstractions, I will set the stage for my answer by considering a concrete example with which I have had some direct experience.
Considering the goal of politics to be the search for common ground that promotes the common good, there are enormous disagreements as to the substance of that common ground. That is to be expected. But what is alarming is the inability of most politicians to respectfully engage each other about those disagreements. More often than not, politicians resort to shouting at rather than talking with those who whom they disagree.
It was like watching a food fight among 6th graders at my former public school in Brooklyn, P. S. 105. But I was actually watching the Republican debate among presidential candidates in South Carolina on February 13.
“Donald, come home.” As Liz Robbins reported in a recent online post in the New York Times, that was the message on the night of December 7 in Queens, New York “as two dozen men finished their prayers in a basement mosque beneath a discount store on Hillside Avenue in the Jamaica neighborhood, just a block from where Donald J. Trump grew up.”
Promoting public justice in a dysfunctional political system is not for the faint of heart. Systemic obstacles are enormous, such as closed primaries that minimize the number of moderate voters and candidates participating in the nominating process; gerrymandered voting districts that protect or harm the political interests of incumbents and parties; winner-take-all elections that militate against the diversity of voices within our pluralistic society, and the inordinate political influence of those with wealth since Citizens United (See Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. New York: Basic Books, 2012, 143-160).
These seemingly intractable obstacles are enough to tempt a Christian to give up hope, or succumb to a truncated view of God’s redemptive purposes that focuses exclusively on modeling Christian values within our Christian communities. To be sure, such modeling is important. But if we wash our hands of the messy business of political engagement, we ignore our calling as Christians to plant seeds of redemption in all areas of life, including the political realm (Colossians 1: 19-20; Matthew 13: 31-32).
It is not uncommon for leaders to allow little or no space for dissenters within their organizations; the result often being an erosion of any sense of community.
A radically different approach to effective leadership has been proposed by Parker Palmer in his book The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), in which he suggests that Jesus exemplifies such leadership.
The message in my title is not original with me. I have heard it stated a number of times by Mark Prosser, the Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police in Storm Lake (IA), based on the results of his tireless efforts to promote immigration reform and his experiences “in the trenches” of the enormous obstacles to accomplishing these goals (which the Advocacy Group at CASA has also experienced).
One such obstacle is the current brokenness of the political system, where the primary goal of too many politicians is to get elected, and then re-elected, rather than to govern well in a manner that promotes the well-being of their constituents.
Why are there strife and angry outbursts and dissension and schisms and conflict among you? Do we not have one God and one Christ and one spirit of grace which was poured out upon us? And is there not one calling in Christ? Why do we tear and rip apart the members of Christ, and rebel against our own body, and reach such a level of insanity that we forget that we are members of one another?
As my good friends have known for a long time and as readers of this web site are getting to know, I have a passionate commitment to facilitating respectful conversations among Christians who disagree about contentious issues. That commitment is based on my strong belief that to create a safe space for persons who disagree to talk respectfully about their disagreements is a deep expression of what it means to “love others,” to which Jesus calls all who aspire to be his followers
To get to know someone well enough to create a safe, welcoming space for that person to express their beliefs and their reasons for holding to those beliefs, and then having respectful conversations in an attempt to uncover our agreements and illuminate our disagreements is, for me, a deep expression of love for that person
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for a reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)
Over the last few years, I had the opportunity to engage other Christians in conversations regarding the following controversial contemporary issues: American politics; the evolutionary creationist/young-earth creationist debate; immigration reform; and same-sex marriage.
Christians hold widely divergent views on these “hot-button” issues. One of the most important results of my in-depth conversation with Christians who situate themselves at opposite poles on these issues was to dispel a very prevalent, pernicious myth.
The current legislative gridlock in Washington is devastating. Severe societal problems persist because D. C. politicians can’t find common ground to effect solutions that will promote the common good.
As I have argued in earlier musings and in my recent book Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation, the root problem is fixation on either/or solutions rather than the necessary both/and solutions.
A common theme emerged in the reflections of the political pundits on the three recent sources of political crisis: the administration’s talking points on the Benghazi attack; The IRS targeting of conservative organizations seeking 501 (C) 4 tax-exempt status; and the Justice Department’s subpoenas of the phone records of Associated Press reporters. In each case, there was a devastating effect on the level of trust in government.