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 myth is that Christians who line-up on a particular side of the issue are “inferior” Christians who are more committed to a social or political position than to biblical authority. That is simply not true as a generalization. In my conversations, I have found that there are equally committed Christians on both sides of these issues who aspire to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ and who hold a “high” view” of Scripture, with much of the disagreement emerging from differing interpretations as to the meaning of relevant biblical passages.
This erroneous myth is destructive because it precludes the possibility of having respectful conversation about disagreements. After all, if you decide up-front that “they are the bad guys,” there is no point in talking: “I have the Truth, you don’t, end of conversation.”
Once you realize that there are faithful, deeply committed Christians on both sides of these issues, you have taken the first foundational step toward having a respectful conversation about your disagreements. How should you then proceed? I will suggest three practical steps that you can take when engaging someone who disagrees with you (on any issue, in any setting).
The first step is applicable in those situations where you don’t know very well the person who disagrees with you. In such cases, take the time to really get to know the person who disagrees with you.
A Christian scholar friend of mine told me about an evolution in his response to his critics during Q& A sessions after making presentations at academic conferences. He moved from being defensive to personal engagement. After one presentation, he sought out his most vocal critic and invited him to dinner. Over a good meal, they got to know one another on a personal level, trading outlandish war stories about campus politics at their respective schools and even exchanging soccer coaching tips for their daughters.
By discovering that they had some of the same joys, fears and challenges in life, they started building a relationship of mutual trust, which opened the door for the second step of engagement: uncovering the reasons for your disagreements about certain issues.
Everyone has reasons for what they believe, which includes you and the person who disagrees with you. Therefore, it is important to get those reasons out on the table at the very beginning of a conversation. You can do this by simply asking, “Why do you believe that?”
In settings where you are engaging a person whose background differs widely from yours, her reasons may be revealing and helpful as you seek to understand her better. Her interpretations of relevant biblical passages and her other beliefs will be informed by the particular faith tradition in which she was raised. Her beliefs will also be informed by her personal biography, the experiences she has had in life. Her beliefs may also be informed by her gender and her socio-economic-status. These elements of what scholars call her “particularities” or her “social location” provide some of the reasons for her beliefs. And the same is true for you. And you need to uncover those reasons or your conversation will hit a dead end.
To uncover the reasons for the other person’s beliefs, you need to listen well; not being quick to talk. By your listening well, the other person will see that you are really interested in understanding their reasons for the position they are taking; you really want to understand their point of view; trying your best to empathetically “put yourself in their shoes.”
When the other person sees that you understand their reasons for the position they are taking, then it is time for you to start talking, sharing your beliefs and the reasons you have for your beliefs. When your respective reasons for your differing beliefs are out on the table, then you have laid the groundwork needed to navigate the third step of engagement: uncovering some common ground and illuminating remaining differences sufficient to be the basis for ongoing conversations.
My proposed strategy for respectfully engaging those who disagree with you flows from my Christian commitment. Jesus calls all who aspire to be followers of Jesus to “love our neighbor” (Mark 12:31). 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. So, the strategy I have suggested for engaging those who disagree with me is not peripheral to my Christian faith; it is a center-piece of my Christian faith; it is my understanding of how I should love those who disagree with me.
The obstacles to actually implementing the strategy for respectful conversation that I am proposing are enormous. I can only point to two of these obstacles in this limited space.
The first obstacle is lack of humility; my believing that I fully understand God’s Truth about the issue. Because we are all finite, fallible human beings, we all “see through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). None of us has a God’s eye view of the Truth about the issue at hand. Therefore, we can learn from those who disagree with us.
This does not mean that I should be wishy-washy about what I believe, or that I should succumb to a faulty relativism. As 1 Peter 3:15 suggests, I should be prepared to state my beliefs with clarity and deep conviction. But I may be wrong. So, I need to model that unusual combination of commitment and openness to correction that Ian Barbour points to as a sign of “religious maturity”: “It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and openness that constitutes religious maturity.”
Another obstacle is lack of patience. As far as I can tell, the conversations on controversial issues in which I have participated in recent years have not led to momentous changes in the beliefs of the participants. But an absolutely necessary strong foundation of mutual understanding and mutual trust had been laid that will enable participants to better grapple with the substance of their disagreements in ongoing conversations. As I am fond of saying, one cannot judge beforehand the results of a respectful conversation. We will all need to be patient and see what emerges from such conversations since that will take time.
But I have seen significant changes in how those involved in these initial conversations now view those who disagree with them. They have come to trust their integrity as brothers and sisters in Christ. They have come to understand and appreciate the ways in which the other person aspires to be a faithful follower of Jesus. They have embraced the opportunity to have Christian fellowship with one another in the midst of their disagreements.
In a world where Christians too often demonize other Christians who disagree with them on controversial issues, such changes in how we view those who disagree with us are no small accomplishment and they open the door for fruitful ongoing conversations based on mutual understanding and trust. They may also be significant steps in the direction of an answer to the prayer of Jesus that all Christians “may be one” (John 17:21) in the midst of their disagreements.
Closing on a personal note, I share with you the ideals to which I aspire whenever I engage someone who disagrees with me, confessing that I often fail to measure up to these ideals
• I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand
• I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective
• I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me
• In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
• In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love
It is my hope and prayer that all who read this reflection will also consider embracing these ideals because I believe they are a deep expression of what it means to love the persons with whom you disagree, to which Jesus calls all who profess to be his followers.
Read Neal De Roo’s article “We Need to Talk” on how Christians talk on social media and why we must have a conversation about what this means.