Respecting the Despicable

Must I respect everyone, even the contemptible?  “Respect” is a confusing term as it mixes the ideas of earned worth and inherent worth.  The first applies to some quality that is admirable, worthy of emulation.  The second applies to how we value and treat everyone, including the most reprobate, and has no reference to their character, actions, or abilities, but is their worth based solely on their humanity.  A better term might be treating with dignity (or more profoundly, cherishing).

Respecting a person’s ideas also reflects this distinction.  The more closely a person identifies with or values an idea, the more carefully we must be in treating that idea with dignity, not because it is estimable, but because the person (including his/her ideas) deserves to be treated humanely.  This is true even if the idea is patently false (1+1=3).

Clearly, then, treating an idea with dignity has no correlation with agreeing with that idea.  We have sadly confused these two notions, thinking that the more morally outrageous or factually inaccurate an idea, the more our response should reflect this in how strongly we reject it.  If we engage with the idea in a calm and non-judgmental way, it seems that we are legitimating it in some way.

There is some validity to this idea, since the less internally reactive we are to an idea, the more likely we are to put up with it and eventually welcome it.    As Pope said so famously:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien.
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Or as a wiser one said, “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (though I suspect he meant to hate the evil in ourselves rather than the evil in others)

It is true that the more destructive or dangerous an idea, the more reactive we should feel towards it, but we cannot reverse this correlation: my feelings of repulsion towards an idea never prove that idea to be bad.  Our fears (sense of danger) can keep us safe, but only if our fears reflect reality or truth.  Unfortunately, our fears rarely come from a deep analysis of truth, but are usually our reaction to life experiences, cultural and family indoctrination, personality, and other such formative events.  Generally speaking, the greater our emotional reaction, the less accurate our analysis and measured our response.  Fear clouds insight and crashes dialogue.

Humility and faith call us to a better way of being and interacting in which we listen and seek to understand those with whom we disagree because we may be the one who is wrong or because they have some powerful and key insight hidden in their otherwise mistaken view or simply because we need to learn to love better than we do now.  We have nothing to fear from a greater understanding and empathy of one another.

However, if the discussion circles around an area of our own wounding, we must take care of ourselves, often by simply avoiding such interactions or people.  We are like sick patients in a hospital that must gain strength before being exposed to the germs that are safe for the healthy.  And we must keep in mind that others with whom we interact may also have deep wounds around a topic that can be inflamed by slight touches.  We are all broken people whether we recognize it or not, so walk gently.

And walk humbly.  Sometimes 1+1=3 as any couple with a newborn can tell you.

Why Are You Upset with Me?

A week ago a friend dumped me on Facebook because I was “too abrasive and divisive.”  He didn’t unfriend me, just dropped me from his newsfeed, assuring me of his love as he waved goodbye.  He blocked me after I wrote a post admitting my own ungracious thoughts and encouraging us all to be careful with our words.  Why would that be the final straw?  Wasn’t I promoting his point?  I searched my last month of entries for sharp edges, but was left clueless since he refused to discuss it further.

I know I can be hurtful, so I felt only sadness about his accusation, but his refusal to discuss it felt like rejection, and it made me defensive and a bit angry at first.  Perhaps his withdrawal was best, however, because it pushed me into deeper reflection than just sorting it out inter-personally.

I have mulled often over this issue of how to reconcile prophetic challenge with grace and gentleness in my words.  For instance, how does one express outrage over injustice while showing understanding towards the unjust (and those who support them)? Or how does one sound the alarm to wake the sleeping without frightening the timid?  I marvel when I see it done, but can’t pull it off myself—I still have a learner’s permit. Preferring frankness, I lack both the inclination and the insight to speak as the gentle do, though I strive for it.

I’m always open to suggestions and insights, but my friend was himself unclear: “A healthy or unhealthy debate is like pornography,” he said.  “Hard to describe the elements in a clear way… but I know it when I see it.”  That doesn’t really help me. In my straightforward perspective, I have always seen harshness in speech as easily identifiable: belittling, name-calling, pigeon-holing, shaming, distorting, being dismissive or arrogant or skewed. When I ask for more grace in a discussion, I can point out specific faults: “When you say, ‘that is stupid!’ or ‘grow up!’ you belittle the other person’s perspective or person.” If we can’t name it, I’m not sure how we can fix it… or even discern if there is something to fix.

Just as I see clear guidelines for speaking graciously, I see clear guidelines for listening graciously: don’t assume or jump to conclusions; disagree with a viewpoint rather than condemn a person; stick to the actual words instead of projecting motive, reasoning, or conclusions; don’t affix guilt by association. The responsibilities of speaker and listener seem clear and distinct to me, and boundaries between the two seem especially important, so that if you break the rules of respect (say, by jumping to conclusions) it is on you, not on me (and vice versa). What I state plainly should be taken plainly, and if you’re in doubt, ask for clarification.

All neat and tidy, clear and fair. This would work if everyone followed the rules of engagement, but add emotion to the mix and everyone’s perspective goes screwy. In practice I’ve tried to show and invite mutual respect by focusing on the rules, but that doesn’t work anymore because the whole atmosphere is negatively charged. The last few times they heard that position it was conveyed with words that were arrogant, antagonistic, and spiteful, so that tone will be overlaid onto everything I say. The default reading voice in our heads is now Oscar the Grouch.

This is a fresh insight for me. Until now I have divided writers into those who are clearly rude and those who are not, and carefully kept myself in the last group. When I failed, I would apologize and try to do better. With all this effort to follow gentlemen’s rules, to be thoughtful and careful, I was offended when others attributed to me attitudes that were not mine, lumping me in with the snarky. When I respectfully disagreed, I was called mean; when I asked for clarification, I was accused of making false assumptions. Wait! This is not fair! I didn’t belittle your ideas or judge your intelligence. Why am I the bad one?

I asked Kimberly to read over my posts and look for what might offend.  She pointed out a post where I linked to a first-person account of gun violence in school.  My only comment was, “Wow, just wow!”   Aren’t we all shocked and troubled by gun violence in school?  Is that somehow controversial?  But these three words could apparently be read in all sorts of negative ways.  I am truly flummoxed.

I see now that I have to come up with new rules that take into account our social fracturing and assumed antagonism—perhaps start out each statement with an assurance of good faith or denial of bad faith. I now realize that simple frankness is the new rude, that I must deliberately set a tone or it will be set for me. In other words, being gracious—which was already a struggle for me—just got harder still.

Being Right Is a Dead-end Road

As a point of reference, a vantage point from which to see, I have myself.  I cannot see Wards Road unless I am on Wards Road (and still I only see the part where I sit and from the direction I am looking).  The same is true psychologically, spiritually, relationally, and in every other way that I am conscious to the world.  I am the default center of my universe.  I certainly can gain perspective from others, but the more different their view from mine, the more difficult it is for me to truly understand them clearly and acknowledge the validity of their views, so that (as a second-level default) I tend to hear and agree with those who are closer to my perspective.  When I connect with others in my group, instead of my viewpoint being stretched, it becomes more certain and inflexible and gives me less reason to hear sympathetically the viewpoint of those who disagree with me.

The problem is not simply that I disagree with others, but that I fail to even understand them because I cannot see things from their perspective.  I see the accident on Wards Rd from the backside and they from the front, and though we are looking at the same crash, we see a very different scene.  It is true that either of us could be misunderstanding what we see (confusing onlookers with victims or blaming the wrong driver), and when our views are very different, we suspect the other of simply being wrong, of misunderstanding the situation, but we are actually each factoring in completely different elements of the scene based on our vantage point.

I tend to assume that I see and know everything that they do, and so I can dismiss their view, but until I am deeply and sympathetically invested in seeing things from their perspective, I am choking off the truth, even if they are totally mistaken (a rare situation indeed), because an important part of the truth is knowing how and why they see things as they do (including how they see me).  And I want to know this not so as to refute them more precisely, but so that I can know them and love them as they are… well I want this to be my goal even though it’s often not.  I also want to gain insight into myself and a fuller perspective of the whole.

Let me confess it openly: so many times in a discussion my primary goal is to get my view across, to convince the other person of my take on the issue.  I’m all on send so that even my listening is less receptive than tactical maneuvering, looking for weaknesses to exploit.  And from such a position, I can learn from no one.  I recognize this tendency and work hard against it because I know it harms me as well as my relationships.  I try to understand sympathetically from another’s perspective, I try to understand how they hear my words, I try to understand myself more with this new information, because in the end, being a better person is more important to me than being more accurate, and being a friend is more important than being a fixer.

When Sins Stop Being Sinful

I misspoke in my last post with too much meaning in too few words.  I said, “Let me begin by saying that if the Bible condemns something even once, that is sufficient for me to call it a sin.”  That simplifies the matter so grossly as to be obviously false on its face and suggests that mapping the Bible’s morals is easy and straightforward.  There are many, many actions the Bible condemns–eating pork, marrying a foreigner, refusing to give a loan–that I don’t consider a sin for me today, and an even greater number which are unclear.  Let me offer a list of reasons to hesitate condemning what the Bible condemns, especially in others.

1) The Bible’s condemnation (or affirmation) may not be directed at me, but someone else.  The Bible speaks to many different individuals and groups, and I may not be its intended audience.  A great deal of confusion and even harm comes from ignoring this dynamic–claiming promises that are not rightfully ours: “I will give you this land”; or assuming commands that are not directed at us: “sell all that you have and give to the poor”; or condemning actions not concerning us: “do no work on the Sabbath” (which, by the way, is Saturday).  The Bible directly addresses individuals (Moses, Peter), nations (Moab, Israel), groups of people (Gentiles, Pharisees) categories of people (priests, women).  Most of it is not directed at humankind generically, and it is not always clear who the intended audience is and whether that particular word applies wholly or in part to the rest of humanity.  I don’t quit and throw up my hands any more than I stop listening to my wife when I have trouble understanding her, but it does call us to humility, latitude, and a lessening of our dogmatism and certainty.

2) Deriving principles not directly stated in a Bible passage may be problematic.  Assuming why my wife Kimberly is upset with me is a dangerous game to play, especially when I go beyond what she specifically said.  I can pick up on a look or tone of voice or memory of similar events–those can raise questions, but should not answer questions.  For answers, I ask.  I need specific statements to validate my hunches because I can even misinterpret my own wife whom I know very well.  “Whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus says.  Does that mean no one ever has the right to punish law-breakers?  Or no one has the right to judge or hold others to account?  I must not “cast the first stone,” but what does that mean?  Let me suggest that I am much more responsible to decide what is wrong for me than to decide what is wrong for you in a given situation.

3) Applying truths from Scripture to specific situations can be very complex.  Even when the general truth is clear, deciding that it applies to this situation and these people at this time in this way is uncertain.  “Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth.”  Okay, but who decides what is wholesome or unwholesome?  Surely it is wrong if my words damage others… but who is to decide that the fault lies with my words–maybe she took it the wrong way?  And what constitutes “damage”–sometimes pain is the necessary precursor to healing.  And what if my words are true… are all true words automatically wholesome?  What if my motive was good even if the outcome was bad?  Life is a journey and many of our moral choices are not black and white, simple and straightforward.

4) “Proof texting” or finding one or two verses to back my position is problematic.  The less Scripture says about any one moral command or prohibition, the less confident I can be about my moral stance because the fewer the words, the more easily misunderstood.  It seems that those truths God considered most important he repeated often in many contexts with different illustrations and ideas to be sure we did not miss his point.  So many considerations can affect a message and lead to its misinterpretation.  A passage can be taken out of context so that its original meaning is distorted.  We can take it out of literal context (divorced from the wider text) or out of cultural or historical context (because their culture and history are different from ours).  We can wrongly translate words or their nuances–think about the slight but very significant moral differences in our English synonyms “brag” vs. “praise” and “praise” vs. “worship.”  Whenever there is widespread disagreement between folks who are equally committed to God and his Word, humility is the better part of wisdom.

5) Offsetting truths in the Bible make for difficult conclusions.  Sometimes Scriptures place competing ideas right next to each other.  Proverbs 26:4 & 5 say “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,” and then “Answer a fool according to his folly.”  Jesus says, “Judge not” and “Judge with righteous judgment.”  When we take the whole sweep of Scripture into consideration, it adds so much color and contrast and complexity that we would do well not to insist on our view as being the right view in condemnation of those who fight for an alternative perspective.  Among those of us who love God and want to know and follow his ways, we must be especially cautious about condemning those with whom we disagree.

6) Theology is Progressive in Scripture and Christologically Centered, so certain morals have become obsolete.  There are many Old Testament laws that have been set aside by Christ and the New Testament.  This is quite natural since the context has so dramatically changed.  The Old Testament was written in the context of a political theocracy, so that there was no distinction between religious, moral, and civil laws. Clearly, when Israel is no longer a nation and the whole world is invited into a covenant relationship with God, everything drastically changes.  This is especially true regarding Jesus who not only became the supreme interpreter of the Old Testament, but its successor, setting much of it aside by his teaching (such as the food laws) and much of it by his sacrifice (the ceremonial aspects of the law).  It is hotly debated among conservative scholars as to how much of the Old Testament “laws” are directly relevant to us after Christ has come, but all agree that the New Testament overrules the Old Testament.  Christ is now the glasses of truth through which we understand the whole.  Any moral teaching which appears only in the Old Testament carries less weight, after all, it is the Christ of the New Testament that separates Christianity from Judaism.

I have personally discovered that starting with the fundamentals of the faith–Christ and the gospel–and working out from there gives me the grounding I need to flow more naturally into living the life of the Spirit.  To be honest, I often still assume that I am right and the other person is wrong, so I still have a long way to go on this road to humility, gentleness, and respect.  None of us has arrived, so we will all need to be patient with one another.

A Gentle Critique of Christian Presence in a Secular Society

Here is a good word from a conservative NY Times op ed writer, David Brooks:

Now I spend a lot of time in the Christian world, and I am going to try to describe things I have observed, both walls and ramps. The first part, I‘m going to try and describe some walls that I think the Christian culture has erected for the secular culture. This part is going to be a little harsh. I’m trying to live up to Susan’s words this morning in trying to be a “holy friend,’ which involves some criticism.

I want you to know I am for you and I love you.

So the first wall is the wall of withdrawal. Many of my Christian friends perceive a growing difference between the secular world and the Christian world, the difference between Jay-Z and Hillsong and the Jesus culture. The difference between Quentin Tarantino and Eugene Peterson, Richard Dawkins and Henri Nouwen, Columbia College and Calvin College. Many of my friends fear they are being written out of polite society because they believe in the Gospel. With that comes a psychology of an embattled minority. With that comes a defensiveness and a withdrawal, a fear, and a withdrawal into sub-culture. I certainly have friends how live in a sub-culture, work in a sub-culture, Christian in the sub-culture, socialize in the sub-culture, and if you live in a broader society, that is governed by the spiritual longing that doesn’t know how to express itself, is withdrawing into your own separate sub-culture really the right thing to do.

I think that’s being governed by fear and not love.

The second wall is the wall of condescension.  In a lot of the walls come from a unique psychology which I have observed. Which is a weird mixture of – this is going to sound a little rude – in the Christian culture a mixture of wanton intellectual inferiority complex combined with a spiritual superiority complex.
And the second wall is the wall of condescension. There is sometimes a belief among some people that those who have been with Christ a long time can adopt a paternal attitude toward those who have not been with Christ, or who have come to Christ recently. And this is a caring condescension. It’s people wanting to help. But it’s also a form of pride to know the route God has chosen for each of us. It’s a form of closed-mindedness. It’s off-putting. People who have come to Christ recently may not at all, may not have lived in the church for very long. But they have lived, and read and thought and they haven’t come back from these experiences with empty hands and they have as much to teach as to learn.

The third wall is the wall of bad listening. In my experience, I have had amazing diversity of quality of listening among my friends who are in the Christian community. Some are amazing. Ask great questions. Allow each individual experience to express itself and be known.

But I have certainly known others who have come to each conversation armed with a set of maxims, teaching and truths and may apply off-the-shelf truths and maxims without learning the uniqueness of each situation. Emerson said that souls are not saved in bundles and yet sometimes there is great haste to apply these ready-made  maxims regardless of circumstances.

The fourth wall is the wall of invasive care. The heart is a mysterious garden filled with delicate growths, privacy is always to be respected because trampling on that garden without permission destroys the growth. And again, out of care, I feel that sometimes no privacy, no boundaries can be respected.

And the final wall is this wall of intellectual insecurity.  I teach at Yale. We are not nice to each other. We brutally attack each other. We are not good Christians.

But out of that comes a hardened appreciation of truth. And sometimes we are brutal to each other because we are brutal in pursuit of the truth and we don’t take…we take our ideas very seriously and we’re sometimes willing to hurt each other because the ideas are so serious. Sometimes we veer on the side of just nastiness. Sometimes in my experience in Bible Study, the desire to be nice, the desire to be affirming, softens all discussion. So the jewel of truth is not hardened. Vague words and ethereal words are tolerated because nobody wants to be too offensive.

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“If I’m a Moron, You’re an Idiot!”

The political and cultural shift has become such a divide, I don’t know if it can be bridged. Not only has our historical context brought us to a polarizing of views, but these views have been deeply aggravated by partisan cable news (on both sides), talk radio, and internet bubbles. On the internet folks can gravitate towards like-minded groups, creating an echo chamber of “truth,” and with this support ignore (at best) or attack those with whom they disagree. This is especially exacerbated by the presence of “trolls” who, though a minority, tend to inflame every conversation, hijacking an otherwise civil and respectful discussion.  And all of this interaction is only made worse because we’ve traded face-to-face interaction for the written word, which is far easier to misinterpret.

One of the most disheartening effects for me to see is the apparent skewing of empathy, so that those who are inclined towards seeing the other’s point of view come from a position so buttressed and settled and so opposed to alternative views, that their very certainty fogs understanding and empathy. Our own arguments are reasonable, obvious, irrefutable, and conclusive and their arguments are irrational, biased, faulty and insupportable. In such a context, the best empathy can do is feel sorry for such benighted souls.  As a result, even our notions of “civil” and “respectful” have become so distorted that we only recognize when we ourselves are hurt, but are often blind to our own failures in speaking to or about others.

One especially troublesome habit is the outsourcing of our opinions. Instead of writing what we ourselves think about an issue, we share links to articles and posts that have our views. This is potentially helpful if someone else can state our position more eloquently or clearly than ourselves, but it becomes problematic when that article is ungracious. Since those words are not ours, we feel innocent, but if we link without a caveat, we identify ourselves with that ungracious spirit, and those who disagree will feel assaulted. Far better to restate that borrowed argument in your own gentle words. But it is so easy to simply hit the share button, and we do it without thinking. Respect towards those with whom we disagree always takes effort, time, and thought, especially in our current toxic environment.

That harsh context creates a constant spirit of defensiveness so that both sides of a debate are already expecting to face attack, or at the least prejudice, against their views. Given our histories, I think that is a fair expectation, but what that calls for is caution and care, not assumption and aggression. If we yield to our instinctive defensiveness, we will read their words in the worst way so that even neutral words are seen as mean-spirited, and the result will be heat, not light.  I’ve failed often enough in this to discover that nothing taints my assumptions about others so much as defensiveness.  Of course, nothing arouses my defensiveness so much as disrespect, real or perceived, so it is a vicious cycle.  More and more I am choosing to simply disengage from places where folks talk past one another.