5 Practices for Rediscovering Civil Discourse

civil discourse v3 2016

It has been a challenging season for me. Every time I write something it seems keyboard warriors are out in force, criticizing, abusing and telling me why I am wrong and they are right. Our Christian society is becoming more polarized, not just around political issues, but over issues of race, immigration, gender and homelessness to name just a few. I suspect that in the next few months civil discourse will get even more egregious.

Argue, for Heaven’s Sake!

Respectful debate amongst scholars with divergent views has always been a hallmark of Judaism. The Talmud belief that divergent views can both express the words of the living God is encompassed in the great Jewish idea of “mahloket l’shem shamayim” – “dispute for the sake of heaven,” in which disagreement is conducted constructively, with respect and caring for the other, and with a desire to seek greater truth than any one person can reach alone. Such an attitude should be a part of our Christian heritage too.

Jesus invited us to love one another, not to agree with each other, and calls us to unity not uniformity. If we set agreement as the highest standard we have drifted from that call.

It is time for us to address these issues in our churches and learn to accept and love others even if we do not agree with their viewpoints.

In Order to Form a More Perfect Disunion

I propose five practices for us to teach our congregations to help us all move beyond the polarization that currently dominates our public discourse.

1. Humility. None of us have a corner on truth. We are flawed. Our understanding of scripture is prone to misinterpretation and mistakes, often reflecting our culture rather than our faith. As 1 Corinthians 13:12 tells us, we all see things imperfectly like reflections in a mirror. This should be at the front of our minds as we enter into discussions and arguments. This would enable us to not only feel comfortable with someone challenging our viewpoints, but also allow us to change our minds when we recognize the flaws in them.

2. Active listening with respect for the image of God within each person. Believing we have something to learn from someone with a different perspective is incomprehensible to many of us. We listen with our minds focused mainly on the argument forming in our own minds. We devalue others based on their gender, sexual orientation, race, social status, education, political, and even religious affiliation unless we see them as image bearers of the living God. Learning to give others the courtesy of carefully responding to the actual idea or argument that they offer for our consideration as we would like them to do for us, is an art that must be taught.

3. Avoiding inflammatory, derogatory or dismissive words. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love is kind, and does not get angry. Yet often we deliberately heat up the debate with words that are unkind and come from anger rather than love. Words like racist, feminist, tree-hugger, socialist, and papist, build fences not bridges. If instead we can learn to use soft and loving words that engage and draw others into a fruitful engagement of ideas, I think we will be surprised at what can emerge.

4. Focus on places of agreement not disagreement. Beginning a discussion by allowing each person to express what they want to see happen, often reveals that we are actually after very similar things. We want economic security, harmonious relationships, peaceful neighborhoods, unpolluted environments. Recognizing this opens up the possibility of talking in a measured and coherent way about the best solutions.

5. Seek unity not agreement.  Civil disagreement within a diverse community strengthens our faith and lives. Again the apostle Paul offers good advice: Just as a body is one whole made up of many different parts, and all the different parts comprise the one body, so it is with the Anointed One. We were all ceremonially washed through baptism together into one body by one Spirit. No matter our heritage—Jew or Greek, insider or outsider—no matter our status—oppressed or free—we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Here’s what I mean: the body is not made of one large part but of many different parts. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14 The Voice) Different parts, different appearance, viewpoints and functions. We are not all meant to look or think the same. Only as we recognize and live into that diversity will we learn the richness of who God intends us to be.

Love is Displayed in Civil Discourse

At his last meal with his disciples Jesus says, “I give you a new command: Love each other deeply and fully (John 13:34 The Voice).” I believe that part of the way we demonstrate this is through civil discourse and acceptance of our differences. Let us take the need for civil discourse seriously in our churches and teach our congregations to truly love in the ways that Jesus intended us to.

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Christine Sine
Christine Sine is the executive director of Mustard Seed Associates, a small community based organization with a passion for sustainability, simplicity, spirituality and hospitality. She is a keen gardener, and an author who loves to help people connect their spiritual practices to their everyday life. Her latest books are Return to Our Senses: Reimagining How We Pray and To Garden With God. She blogs at Godspace.
Christine Sine

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