Guilty By Dissociation

A fascinating occurrence.  I reported an incident that happened in another conference in an article entitled Guerilla Christianity, and I have had four separate responses from other United Methodist Churches believing that I was talking about them!  Obviously, what happened in the incident reported struck a chord with these other situations, but in each case people wanted to explain how their context was unique and justified.  I have no stake in arguing about who is right, wrong, justified or not, but isn’t it interesting how readily four churches identified themselves in the report of the fifth?  I have tried to explain to each person writing to me that there are two possible responses: 1) relief to know that they are not unique, or 2) sadness  to realize that they are not unique.  The fact that uncivil and hurtful behavior is so common is a fact that should cause us to pause.

It reinforces my point excellently:  we do not treat one another very well in the church when we disagree.  We ought to be learning a better way — a more holy and generous way — but it seems we do not.  We have a wonderful opportunity to witness grace, peace, compassion and justice to the world at large, but we fail to do so.  I am calling for a way of offering a more civil, more respectful, and more affirming discourse.  I don’t think we shouldn’t disagree — I merely think we should disagree in the most healthy and holy way possible.  I am reprinting here my ten personal rules for engaging others in discourse from an earlier post as a conversation-starter on how we might begin to do a better job agreeing to disagree.  I repeat: these are personal guidelines I employ when I meet people who view things differently than I.

  1. Everyone is right… to some degree — no one intentionally holds a wrong, evil, or stupid opinion.  We defend that which we believe to be true.  There is always a kernel of validity to any opinion.  If we assume everyone is at least 1% right, then we need to seek to understand where they are coming from in order to truly communicate.
  2. Everyone is wrong… to some degree (including myself) — no one holds a total and absolute 100% true opinion.  Human thinking, feeling, logic, intuition, and belief is incomplete and deeply flawed.  None of us know everything.  To allow that we might be a little wrong, or that we are at least not totally right, opens up some significant grace-space for dialogue and connection.
  3. Everyone has the right to be wrong — having a minority opinion doesn’t make me stupid, evil, an enemy, or a clown.  Each person has a right to their opinion, no matter how irrational it may be.  And by extension, every person has a right to disagree and to refuse to accept another’s opinion.  None of this gives anyone the right to be mean-spirited, spiteful, hateful, or violent.  Disagreeing is a normal part of life, and if we claim to value diversity, it must include diversity of opinion as well.
  4. Honesty is more important than political correctness — if we make it unsafe for people to be honest, we make it impossible to form real, lasting community.  Just hiding feelings, censoring unpleasant speech, or adopting less volatile labels doesn’t change anything… except to make things worse.  Hypocrisy is no solution to a system where people feel they cannot speak honestly.
  5. Truth is not defined by majority rule (see Jesus of Nazareth, New Testament, early 1st century church)
  6. Opinion is nothing more (or less) than subjective truth — learning to say, “I feel…,” or “this is true for me…,” or “in my opinion…,” is a huge step toward speaking the truth in love.  We believe what we believe because we think it is true.  While it would be nice for us to discover and agree on absolute truth, the best we have to work with is a collective assemblage of personal and subjective truths.
  7. Disagreement is only threatening to the uncertain — when I hold deep convictions about my beliefs, I find it very easy to disagree with others.  It is only when I feel fear, lack of conviction, or doubt that I have to get defensive, loud, angry, and unpleasant.  A dissenting opinion or alternative worldview has little power to undermine the faith or beliefs of those truly believe.  Assurance can indeed be blessed, and leads to peace, calmness, and compassion not argument, battle and debate.
  8. Information is a terrible approach to change someone else’s mind — if we actually thought with our heads instead of feeling passionately with our hearts and guts, information would be the sensible course.  Talking people out of their opinions is a loser’s game.  People need experiences and encounters that contradict and challenge their limiting opinions.  Conflict over race, gender, nation, lifestyle, and myriad other issues ends not by “proving” it is wrong, but by allowing people to experience for themselves all the flaws in their feelings and thinking.  Winning a person’s heart is a lot easier than winning an argument based in facts, figures, and reason.
  9. No single answer is the answer — there are always exceptions.  What works for one person, may not work for others.  What makes sense in one context, loses all meaning in another.  Looking for “the right” answer is seldom as valuable as seeking a “good” answer.  We tend to polarize people into making “either/or” decisions.  An old, reliable planning tool used to help resolve conflict is to make people work together until they discover six workable solutions to any single problem.  Once they do this a few times, it helps move people from thinking in rigid and narrow terms, to thinking in terms of many “right” possibilities.
  10. People who won’t stay in the conversation are a bigger problem than those with whom we disagree — there is no hope of transformation for those who withdraw and refuse to “stay at the table.”  Shutting the door on further conversation means that the person is giving up on not only finding a solution, but on the relationship as well.  People who withdraw want to be right — to win — more than they want reconciliation and community.

We will always have disagreements so long as three things are true: 1) we are human, 2) we are breathing, and 3) we have to relate to other people.  It is impossible and irrational to think that we can come to a time and place where we all agree.  So, given this fact, let us learn to disagree in a way that pleases God, honors each other, and witnesses to the world that there are options other than insult, aggression, and violence.

8 replies

  1. Yeah, that’s been my problem. I think people who have been hurt very deeply, who have felt betrayed, cheated, robbed, abused, extorted, tricked, swindled, manipulated and such find it hard to endure opinions of others when those opinions seem to defend or sustain the danger experienced, or when the existence of such a danger or threat seems unreasonably questioned. And sometimes these painful experiences in life can roll up or snowball. A soldier is tired and happy to be free, happy to be going home, happy to see his family. Some things seemed a little unfair while he was in the military but he endured it faithfully, and how he’s going home to see his wife and children. But, his wife is in bed with another man. He’s hurt and the other man leaves. So does his wife with the children. He receives a restraining order. But, why? He wasn’t violent and anyone with an IQ over 30 and the integrity to admit the obvious would say he had a right to be angry. But the adulterous pair had been planning the divorce while he was away. He doesn’t want a divorce. He does not want his wife and children away with another man. But, the military calls him back. The divorce takes place against his will. The very nation he fought for raped him, deprived him of his marriage, his children, his home, his property, and then taxed him on the losses. All in the name of unilateral no-fault divorce. And he has to pay child support to that wife stealing jerk and pay attorney fees. Attorney fees. Extortion. Mafia thug money. Money given to one promising to abate the terror stricken into his heart by the very same pathetic organization operating under the guise of justice. And now that he has lost everything, Child Support Services are using him like a cash cow. He would rather commit suicide as so man people in this situation do. He thinks about it night and day. Thoughts come to him how he might accomplish it and he asks whether he would go to hell if he were to take that approach. Then he questions whether he would rather go to hell or spend eternity in heaven with a God would could allow all this terror and injustice to come upon his family. His wife and the other man are married in a church. A church. A church where the pastor would publicly call Jesus Christ a liar by calling Holy Matrimony what Jesus called adultery.

    And now someone thanks God that New York, the last state of the union has finally seen the wisdom of no-fault divorce and how important it is for couples to be free to divorce without having to endure a contentious court battle.

    To hell with the blithering idiots. Who are they do suggest such a thing? To shred the families of small children for profit? How dare they have a different opinion than mine? After all, what do they know? What have they experienced? Have they suffered the way I have? Do they know what it is like to get a call on the phone from your daughter crying and asking why they abandoned her only to want to explain that it was the restraining order and not abandonment? Do they know what it is like to be prohibited from telling your daughter you love her and would never abandon her but it was the restraining order from the court?

    It’s like telling a woman who was gang raped by a police department that there are others who do not share her opinion that the officers should be punished.

    It’s like telling a parent of a child killed by a drunk driver he or she has no right to judge and disapprove of drunk driving.

    It is not always easy to be civil and kind and understanding when it seems the terrorists of your life are winning and that you must do all you can, give all you have, and all you are to stop this reign of terror on the people who do not deserve to be hurt so deeply.

    Imagine being in poverty desperate for your child’s next meal while a rich jerk cries and whines about how the poor should be paying more taxes so he could afford to put another layer of gold plating on the roof of his French Riviera summer home. You may want to punch out the guy’s lights.

    It can incite people to violence. And crying out for civility does no good if we cannot become sensitive to the pain that others suffer. Sometimes you have to let them vent before they will even begin to believe you have listened, that you have heard them, that someone somewhere cares.

    It can be long and far between times when a suffering person feels that someone cares. And sometimes Christians can go on long feeling that God has done enough to evoke obligation for thanksgiving, but not enough to meet the need.

    It can shake a person’s faith, love, and hope, right down to their roots. It can challenge the Christian to ask whether God is testing them whether they will be faithful through a greater trial, a greater tribulation, whether this is needed as an expression of greater love–of praise in the midst of pain. I call it (PITMOP). But, then it can drive someone to ask whether God can make a wonderful heaven if He cannot make life on earth wonderful. Or is it that God intends to make things wonderful through or in the midst of trials and tribulations, starvation, rape, torture, robbery, loss, the death of loved ones, disease, starvation, war, famine, and such. And if those things are needed here on earth, should we expect they would be needed in heaven? If so, how becomes heaven heaven? Where is the joy of love? Faithfulness? Honor? Loyalty? Integrity? Honor? Courage? Or is it to make the best better and the worst less than the worst?

    Do we have the right to request civilty when we turn a deaf ear on the suffering of others?

  2. I always appreciate your wisdom and insight, but I really needed to hear this tonight. These are ten things that I need to remember, but all too often forget in the heat of a discussion. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. I agree with all but number 10. Sometimes the mist respectful and loving thing a person can do is walk away from an argument. Especially if they either don’t think what is being argued over really matters or see no chanc for any kind of agreement and think further discussion would just make things worse. As a semi open theist I walk away from predestination vs free will discussions with calvanists. It is the most loving relational thing I CAN do.

  4. For about the last year I’ve been talking about how conflict might be a blessing. Through conflict, we have the opportunity and incentive to explore. Through conflict, God might be leading us to a third place, and then a fifth, and so on. He didn’t lead Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land in one step. There’s no reason to believe He would lead us anywhere in one step either. For some reason, though, we fear practicing journey skills, so we never get good at them. “I need to conserve my strength; that’s why I don’t exercise.”

  5. Dan,

    Thank you for this. In a culture where polarization sells (see Fox News vs. MSNBC) these principles are hard to follow. I will strive to do so, though. It helps to know that we are never 100% right and never 100% wrong. I can find some common ground.

    If I’m not mistaken, Wesley advised us against schisms in the church by embracing conflict to learn from others (see #1 and #2). I’ll bet he had the same problems in the early Methodist churches and Paul has illustrated in his letters that conflict existed “way back when”.

    I have considered leaving the church because of people not embracing each other and not seeking to understand first. As frustrating as that is, if I keep your 10 personal rules in mind as much as possible, I will “stay at the table” and continue to build relationships within the Body of Christ. Thank you for that!

    Peace.

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