In our ‘crisis of contempt,’ how can Christians disagree with others—gracefully?

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In our ‘crisis of contempt,’ how can Christians disagree with others—gracefully?

February 20, 2020 -

In the midst of impeachment trials, election debates, and general political party divisions, the practice of the elementary principles of respect and kindness has seemed to vanish. An us-versus-them mentality has instead surfaced, overwhelming the political battlefield, creating an environment as hostile as the trenches of war. 

We have dehumanized those with whom we disagree, labeling them as an opponent with an unforgivable viewpoint. How have we come to such a vehement perspective? When did we forget that our opponents are simply neighbors, friends, and family members? At what point did disagreeing become unpardonable? How can we remedy our hatred? 

A cry for biblical love

Arthur Brooks, keynote speaker at the 68th National Prayer Breakfast held earlier this month, called our country to action with a cry for biblical love: he believes “the biggest crisis facing our nation and many other nations today . . . [is] the crisis of contempt and polarization that’s tearing our societies apart.”

Lack of respect does not adequately cover what we are combating. This derisive behavior is deeper than merely being rude. It is vicious and unkind, completely void of the love Christ commands us to offer. The conduct surrounding politics, and general disagreement across party lines, is disdainful, hurtful, and aggressive.

Mother Teresa once said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” Loving our opponents does not mean agreeing with them. Loving those with whom we disagree means that we acknowledge their opinion and choose to truly see them, seeking to understand whatever it is they bring to the table. 

We will oftentimes continue to disagree, whether based on principle of faith or otherwise. But a willingness to truly hear the viewpoint of others, without simply waiting our turn to berate their belief, is essential to forward progress.

What is civility anyway?

In response to Nancy Pelosi’s actions at President Trump’s State of the Union Address, Jonathan Turley, GOP witness in the House impeachment proceedings, tweeted, “Pelosi’s act dishonored the institution and destroyed even the pretense of civility and decorum in the House.” 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg received backlash for meeting with conservative journalists and commentators late last year, to which he replied, “Meeting new people and hearing from a wide range of viewpoints is part of learning, if you haven’t tried it, I suggest you do!”

If we cannot even uphold a pretense of civility, how might we begin to learn and grow together? 

In an interview with the New York Times’ Nellie Bowles, professor James Calvin Davis of Middlebury College, author of In Defense of Civility, stated: “There isn’t even agreement anymore on whether civility is a good thing.” Professor Davis suggests that the very concept of civility now paints images of weakness rather than respect. 

A recent article published in the Washington Post reported the findings of a survey conducted at the end of last year. The survey asked citizens several questions about the role of civility in public life. Their results suggest that, “while citizens generally think being civil is relatively important in a democracy, they don’t agree on what is uncivil.” 

A call to think differently

At the National Prayer Breakfast, Arthur Brooks called his audience to think differently. His simple model is not innovative. To the contrary, it focuses on the basics of Christianity and human decency:

  • Make the problem personal.
  • Have moral courage, “standing up to those with whom you agree on behalf of those with whom you disagree.”
  • View tolerance and civility as a low standard.
  • Make accountability a requirement.
  • Seek out contempt.

Brooks proposes: “When people treat you with hatred and you answer with love, you change the country. It’s like being a missionary. This is your opportunity to show people what leadership is all about. Run toward the darkness, bring your light.” 

Personal relationships across party divides are critical for our political growth as a nation. To spark true change, change that will seep into the crevices of every aspect of our lives, we must work toward unity. Growing, changing, and encouraging each other is where we start. 

By listening to different opinions, we are encouraged to stretch and grow and may sometimes discover someone else’s viewpoint is better than our own. Verbally accepting and acknowledging a viewpoint that is different and better than our ideas allows us to be stronger as a whole. 

Engage in kind discussion 

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37).

Intentions may be pure, but the way we handle disagreement might not reflect our devotion to Christ. It is essential that we consider our verbiage through a biblical lens, especially in the sensitive areas of debate and dialogue surrounding disagreement. We must take captive our words and ensure they are spoken with discernment, for by our words we will be justified and condemned

An article published by NBC News outlined these nine tips for disagreeing with grace:

  1. Consider your heart.
  2. Ask if you may discuss a controversial topic.
  3. Begin by communicating an understanding of your counterpart’s point of view.
  4. Find a point of agreement.
  5. Talk less.
  6. Avoid using the word but, instead choosing phrases like and at the same time.
  7. Stay on topic.
  8. Tell stories, i.e., use specifics.
  9. Resist the temptation to be provocative.

Ensuring we begin debate dialogue or disagreement with pure intentions can set the pace for a constructive conversation. Offering respect by allowing the person with whom you speak to grant you the privilege of discussing the issue further paves the conversational ground for success. Expressing empathy, truly listening, and choosing to avoid broader topics of dissection all lead to constructive conversation. 

Each of the listed tips are simple and timeless. There is not one novel principle or idea offered. And yet, they are profound in these days. They call us to pause and truly see our opponent as a person, to hear the words that they offer, to connect with them on a deeper level.

In their book, Good Disagreement?: Grace and Truth in a Divided Church, Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard speak to the manner in which we disagree as a witness to Christ: “Continuing to witness to God’s grace and truth in how we walk apart: in humility and sorrow, with blessing and not cursing, with gentleness not venom.” 

Brothers, sisters, and friends

It is difficult to navigate the delicate areas surrounding ideas of abortion, homosexuality, and varying notions that oppose biblical text. But, despite our inability to accept these ideas, it is critical that we recognize those with whom we disagree as brothers, sisters, and friends. 

Do we agree? No. 

Do we accept? Not necessarily. 

Do we love? Absolutely.

We embrace our opponents as children of God, no matter their opinion or stance on a political or cultural issue. It’s not us versus them. We are all in this worldly existence together. We are all trudging through this messy, mucky, at times confusing life experience as a team. 

Missional territory

To truly impact our culture, we must radically alter our perspectives. We need to grow and shift and seek discernment every single day, in our every interaction. Christ did not cast out the Samaritan woman at the well; he sought her out and loved her well. And it was through the woman’s testimony that many Samaritans came to believe.

It is our mission on this earth to spread his light and goodness. We cannot do that if we choose vehement rhetoric and stoic refusal to truly see our opponents as humans. If we cannot even meet the bare minimum of tolerance and civility, how can we go beyond that to unconditional love, support, encouragement, and growth?

Risen Motherhood, an online resource formed to encourage, equip, and challenge moms to apply the gospel to their everyday lives, recently spoke to the difficulty of love. Co-founder Emily Jensen stated, “The purest moments of love we express are often ones that feel the least lovely.”

Friends, disagreement is not lovely. It is not beautiful. But what can be birthed from disagreement, when practiced with an underlying biblical love and willingness to grow where growth can be achieved, that is beautiful. Forward progress, broken barriers between political parties, greater respect offered to opponents, all of these things are lovely.

I am immensely grateful for Arthur Brooks’ simplistic call to action at the 68th National Prayer Breakfast. He provided the encouragement we all need to seek a higher standard of kindness in disagreement and debate. 

May we go about our lives with Brooks’ ending remark in mind: “You are now entering mission territory.”

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