Sep  2016 21
Let’s Stop Souring the Well

When the presidential candidates “debate” very soon, what do we expect to hear? Do we expect a passionate yet civil, reasonable, data-rich search for the best arguments based on the evidences? Of course we don’t, because we are justifiably cynical regarding the ability of either candidate, and perhaps the debate process itself, to produce more light than heat.

We should not be too quick to point fingers, however. If the candidates did not find a receptive public, they would have to change their approaches. But, they are speaking to receptive publics who speak dismissively to one another frequently.

Up until the past year and a half, I paid scant attention to Facebook. I was not posting, I was not blogging regularly for the seminary, I was not reading much of what friends and their friends were doing, or how people were commenting. Well, all that has changed. Mostly because of my role as a seminary president, I am more active on social media than I was previously. I am blogging regularly, and I am paying attention to posts that get attention, and how attention is being paid.

To be fair to Facebook, I don’t expect that platform to be great for conversations; Facebook was never meant to be a school for civil discourse. But, despite my personal belief in systemic sin (the distortion and brokenness of life in which we all participate to some extent), I am constantly amazed at how many times a commenter is unfair, mean-spirited, or simply using someone else’s words as a soapbox for intoning unrelated thoughts.

On the seminary’s Facebook page, if we post anything regarding the Bible, the nation, or sexuality that does not square with a literalist, unquestioningly patriotic, patriarchal and heterosexual point of view, we can be assured that someone will need to testify against us.

It is also clear that the Right is not the only side with a purity code. I see liberal persons who vary in a post from a liberal orthodoxy who are corrected, scolded, shamed, or thumped.

We “people of faith” can be just as sectarian as the non-religious public, if not more so, in our discourse.

When Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin sought to end collective bargaining rights for public employees, church folk in the state were so divided in their opinions that some congregations had to set up two coffee tables in fellowship hall: one where pro-Walker congregants gathered for their coffee and donuts and one for anti-Walker critics. (This story was told by the Wisconsin Conference of Churches director at a Phillips ReMind & ReNew conference a few years ago.)

Civil discourse is respectful, dignified conversation and argument about matters on which persons deeply disagree but on which they must find some working resolution. It requires kindness, truth-telling, and humility. “Niceness” and violence are enemies of civil discourse.

Here’s a challenge: what if we who claim membership in the body of Christ act like it in terms of our discourse, on Facebook and elsewhere, through—say—the election season? What if we spoke with one another, face-to-face and via e-media, while observing something akin to the following “Theological Reasons for Christians to Develop a Practice of Civil Discourse”?

  • Each person is created in image of God. (Genesis 1:27)
  • Every person’s and every group’s perspective is limited and distorted by finitude and sin. (Romans 3:23; I Corinthians 13:12)
  • One of the Ten Commandments is “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). When we misrepresent what someone else says, we bear false witness.
  • Within the church, we are joined to Christ in baptism and at the table. I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 develop Paul’s understanding of the church as the body of Christ.
  • William Adams Brown (early 20th century professor at Union Seminary, NYC): One of the religious bases for democracy is that God may have said something differently to you than God did to me. Therefore, we need to listen to each other.
  • Humility and self-criticism are virtues in the Christian life.
  • I Corinthians 13:1: If I speak without love, I am just making noise.
  • Ephesians 4: Speak the truth in love. Be angry, “but don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (which I think means don’t stoke and brood your anger, rather than meaning that all situations that arouse anger can be resolved in a day).
  • (My favorite “rules” for conversation)--“Be attentive. Be intelligent. Be reasonable. Be responsible. If necessary, change.”  Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J.

If those of us who call themselves Christian sought to speak at home and in public using these perspectives, we could change the tone and the content of national discourse, more or less.

It may feel good in the moment to pour vinegar in the water, but it would be better if we Christians stopped souring the well.

Other resources for conducting civil conversations:

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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