This past week I was in a gathering of five seasoned pastors and five seminarians, each serving a full-time internship in a congregation. We spent nearly two hours of engaging conversation about important and meaningful things. Such conversations are life-giving for me.
At one point we turned to the matter of how we handle diverse, even contradictory positions among the members of our congregations. We agreed there are several issues currently raising controversy in the larger culture that also generate conversation, controversy, and tension in our churches – homosexuality and the place of gay and lesbian persons in the church, gay marriage, abortion, the growing anti-labor sentiment, even the place of ethics within the realm of economics. The members of our congregations represent a wide spectrum of opinion on these and many other issues. Then someone asked this question, “Do you talk about these things? I mean have real, meaningful dialogue? Or do you just peacefully co-exist, sort of tolerating each other without ever engaging each other?”
The question comes at a time when, in the larger culture, we have few if any role models for having reasoned, respectful conversation about things about which we disagree. In the presidential primary debates, and lest one party be unduly targeted, even in the larger political context, our so-called leaders engage in personal attack, hyperbole, and outright lying. It doesn’t seem to be necessary anymore to speak factually about the opponent’s position or record. The hoped-for kernel of truth lies buried somewhere in a concrete vault of demagoguery.
So, that makes it all the more important that we cultivate the church as a place of true community where we can have meaningful and respectful conversations about things about which we disagree.
I recall a particular conversation in our own congregation that became an iconic pattern for subsequent conversations. In the days after the second invasion of Iraq, there was not only anxiety in the larger community, but it was palpable in our building. All week long, the building was buzzing, people talking with concern in their voices about this new war. In our congregation, we have conservative hawks, avowed pacifists, and everything in between. So, one Sunday, we invited people to gather in our fellowship hall in the hour between our services just to talk and listen. I set some ground rules for our conversation and then the associate pastor and I each spent about 5 minutes talking about what we were thinking and feeling. Then we opened the floor. What happened was a remarkably open and respectful conversation. People talked, and more importantly, genuinely listened. Before long, speakers were acknowledging opposing viewpoints as they spoke their own opinions. There didn’t seem to be a drive to convince the other about the rightness of “my” opinion, nor any need to belittle “your” opinion as wrong. It was genuine dialogue.
This is the kind of thing we have to cultivate in the church. We have to give people the sense of the wonder and gift of true dialogue. And we have to give people the space and the opportunity to practice this skill so they can take it into the larger community where, at least as I observe, it rarely if ever happens.
Civil conversation has to begin with acknowledging that there are things we disagree about, and that disagreement doesn’t make the other person bad or necessarily wrong. We have to learn how to disagree well.
On the matter of disagreeing well, I recently ran across these guidelines from a short speech by John Roth, now bishop of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
1) Fairness. I am disagreeing well when I can state the position of the person I am disputing with accurately enough that that other person recognizes that position as genuinely his/her position.
2) Intellectual integrity. I am disagreeing well when I can state the strongest, most compelling argument against my position. In other words, I am disagreeing well when I can recognize and acknowledge where my own position is most vulnerable and where a contrasting position makes valid points.
3) Honest humility. I am disagreeing well when, after thinking through my position and expressing it with true conviction, I acknowledge that as a fallen, flawed human being I myself may be wrong.
Not a bad place to start.