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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Truth is not defined by majority rule (see Jesus of Nazareth, New Testament, early 1st century church)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.