This is a response to some very good questions raised by Dave Werner and others pressing me for a little more “how” and a little less “what” concerning civil conversation and navigating the current cultural context of conflict, polarization, and division. There is wide agreement that we should be able to work through our differences in respectful, civil, and non-aggressive ways, but there is deep frustration in figuring out how to do it. While this explanation my not be overly satisfactory, I do believe it is a way forward to build bridges. That said, we can only control that which we possess; we cannot make others deal with us the way we choose to deal with them.
And this is the key: we must make the decision, the concrete choice, to cross the divide. This is a matter of maturity; the more mature must maintain a standard of engagement with no expectation that the less mature can manage it. A thirty-two-year-old parent can get into an argument with an eight-year-old child, but it is unrealistic for the thirty-two-year-old to expect the eight-year-old to argue at the thirty-two-year-old’s level. The real problem arises when the thirty-two-year-old argues like an eight-year-old! So, what are the tools a thirty-two-year-old needs to engage in healthy disagreement with an eight-year-old?
First, let me say what won’t be overly effective: reason and information. You can talk until you are blue in the face with an immature mind, and it simply won’t make a difference. Not that reason and information aren’t important, but the information and reason that makes sense to an eight-year-old is not the same as that of a thirty-two-year-old. Hopefully, the thirty-two-year-old has developed some coping mechanisms and social skills still unknown to the eight-year-old that allow them to translate reason and information at an appropriate level.
Paul offers some really sublime and elegant insight in Galatians when he speaks of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. I believe the key to civil engagement, respectful reconciliation, and beloved community is contained in intentional spiritual disciplines aimed at cultivating fruit; in particular the fruit of self-control (egkrateia), patience (makrothumia), and gentleness, which includes what we might call humility and empathy (praotita/tapeinotita/ensynaisthisi). In each case, the Greek basis is much richer, fuller, and broader than the English “equivalent” translations. I will use the English words, but try to define them in the Greek spirit.
Our modern Western culture is not big on self-control, which was for the early Greeks a form of self-discipline aimed at learning, continuous improvement, and completion. Abstinence and delayed gratification were ways to make one stronger. Not giving in to every earthly passion and desire were signs of maturity and integrity. Considering the needs of others as more important than one’s own was a badge of honor and respect. Denying selfishness was a clear sign of growing up. It was a total embrace of the Golden Rule, treating others as one would want to be treated. Not losing one’s temper, not getting defensive, not attacking or resorting to violence, not using insult or sarcasm, were all indications (fruit) of a maturing individual.
Another manifestation of maturing fruit is patience, understood by the Greeks as “far feeling” or deep understanding. Patience was the ability to put oneself in another’s position, fully apprehending completely different perspectives and points of view. Some philosophers believed that a truly patient person could not get upset. Patience indicated complete balance, poise, confidence, and security. Other people’s opinions or ideas can have no negative impact on a patient person. This means that patience allows us to converse about anything without anger, animosity, or hostility. It does not mean we agree with another, simply that we understand them.
Beyond that is the concept of gentleness/meekness that simply does not translate well from Greek to English. The significant missing element between Greek and English is the sense of connection and responsibility. Authentic gentleness connotes familial (fraternal/filial) love. As a parent comforts and regards a beloved child, that is how gentle people treat one another. We often hear gentleness or meekness equated to weakness and vulnerability, but for the Greeks these concepts contained the strength and force of a mother’s love for a child (perhaps the most powerful force in the world). To be gentle means to treat those less mature as if they were your beloved family. There is a firmness and a stability to real gentleness.
Reflected in these three aspects of Holy Spirit fruit are common elements of humility and empathy, again words much weaker in English than in their Greek ancestors. The self-emptying love of Jesus has been raised by theologians for a good long time (kenosis), but to truly consider all other people as “better” strikes a troubling chord for many Christians, especially if we are supposed to consider opponents/adversaries/enemies as “better.” This is what makes humility SO challenging, but also why it is so powerful and necessary. The burden to understand, to communicate, to relate, and to heal rests with the more mature members of any conflict or disagreement.
Empathy for the Greeks was more supernatural than natural. Paul and other leaders of the early Christian movement believed in actual spiritual possession. To be “in Christ,” or to have “Christ in us,” was not flowery metaphor, but a belief that the very Spirit of God in Christ took control of our lives. Empathy implied an affective union (think Jesus saying “I and the Father are One”) where the former individuals ceased to exist in favor of a new creation, a hybrid of physical and spiritual. The ideas of patience and gentleness and self-control, seemingly next to impossible for mere human beings, became normative for those who humbled themselves, gave themselves to Christ, and empathized with those less further along in their walk of faith.
A not-so-positive metaphor comes to mind, but I am not always in control of these things. I noted on the kitchen counter a bowl of apples and nectarines and floating above in a small cloud flitted fruit flies. This time of year, they seem to come out of nowhere, and they are insistent. Their lives revolve around the sweet, fragrant fruit. We need to become fruit flies of the Spirit, constantly hovering around the forces and practices that can come to define us (and yes, I know the lifespan of a fruit fly is very short, but work with me here. All metaphors have limits.) We need to make the fruit of the Spirit our world, our governing values, our driving force. If we consciously commit to being patient, empathetic, humble, gentle, and in complete control of our reactions, responses, and emotions, we create a solid foundation upon which to engage people we don’t fully understand, relate to, or agree with.
What good is a faith that results in anger, violence, division, and contempt? If our Christianity affords us no relief and release from hostility, arrogance, anxiety, animosity, and aggression, why bother? The fruit of God’s Holy Spirit is the produce of intentional, conscious, mindful, and persistent cultivation. We should be practicing it together with the family we love most, and the faith communion we love best, to train and prepare us for meeting our beloved human siblings out in the world. This opens us and immerses us in the remaining fruit that Paul describes, “love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness,” uniting us into true kin*dom based in mercy, compassion, and justice for all God’s children together.