Listen: LifeWords Q&A Podcast, Episode 84
In a world of political, religious and ideological tensions, it’s not hard to get caught in a heated debate: especially on social media! How can we share our point of view, without burning bridges? In this episode of the LifeWords Q&A podcast, David Reay and Clare Bruce talk through some helpful pointers.
CB: …We need to know how to share our point of view without ruining our friendships. David, how can we be good examples of agreeing to disagree? How can we be more gracious in our dialogue?
DR: First of all, Clare, it’s very important that we are. Because as you said in your introduction, there’s so much bitterness and anger and ‘extreme’ in public dialogue at the moment. So it’s great if Christians can show an example of how to agree to disagree. And of course, if Christians can’t provide such a good model, it really does compromise their witnesses even more.
I just want to say a few key principles. One is, I see some Christians feeling it’s their mission in life to pick fights and to win them. As if to say, “I’m a defender of the faith, I’m sticking up for Jesus”. That’s sort of all right, but at the same time, we can pick too many fights.
For example, I’ve always sought in ministry life generally, sort out what battles you’re going to fight, or issues you’re going to tackle, publicly. Not all battles need to be fought. Some issues you can just simply let go. And so the first principle I’d say Clare, is that we’ve got to pick what battles to fight. “Is this a really important battle?”, number one. And number two, “Am I the one to fight it?” I might not be the one.
There’s some people who have very good public disputes, and other people who perhaps should stay out of them, really. And I think if we’re going to get involved in any disputation of any sort, whether it’s in a public sphere or privately, I think we’ve got to cultivate a very gentle and kind and humble heart. And part of that humility, and that gentleness, is recognising that we could be wrong, or we could be mistaken to some degree – and the person with whom we’re disagreeing may well have some very valid points that we need to learn from.
CB: Yeah, there seems to be a bit of aversion to being seen to be wavering in your opinion or your belief about something. It’s like, we don’t want to be seen changing our mind. Even if we don’t know the facts, we stick like glue to what we said in the first place.
DR: That’s right. We mistake faith for ‘certainty’. You see, Christians can have a lot of faith in God, but might not be certain about a whole lot of things. As I’ve grown older and I’m now in my 70s, I’ve grown a lot more uncertain about things. And yet my essential faith in the core truths of the Christian message have remained as solid as ever. So I think that’s part of the deal about what battles to fight. There’s some things we can just shrug our shoulders and say, “Well they don’t really matter”.
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“If we’re going to get involved in any disputation of any sort, whether it’s in a public sphere or privately, I think we’ve got to cultivate a very gentle and kind and humble heart. “
But I think some Christians who feel as though they’ve got to stick to absolutely every fine point of doctrine, will be picking fights all their lives, and losing a sense of proportion.
It is not weakness on the part of Christians to say, “I don’t know the answer to that”, or, “Look, I’d have to do a bit more work on that”, or “Really, that thought hasn’t occurred to me before”. In other words, we don’t have to be encyclopedias of knowledge. We don’t have to know everything – because that’s not faith. Faith is not the same as ‘exhaustive knowledge’.
So I think we do need to cultivate this humility, whereby we don’t feel as though “Oh, I’m a Christian, therefore, I’ve got to have all the answers. I’ve got to be right and everyone else has got to be wrong.” Sometimes Christians are wrong!
CB: Yeah. Do you think there’s a danger in pigeonholing what we think the Christian view should be? [Politically], there are conservatives who are more right of centre. And many of those people can make the mistake of believing that their view is ‘The Christian View’. And then you have those believers who are left of centre and very social justice focused. And they believe that the others on the other side of the spectrum aren’t Christian at all, because “they’re not really doing the work that Jesus asked us to do”.
DR: Well yes, exactly. There’s a lot of polarisation, and there’s what we call binary thinking there, and “If my view’s right, your view must be wrong”. When in fact – let’s use those labels, right wing, left wing, in a very loose sense – ‘right wing people’ can claim certain truths; ‘left wing people’ can explain certain truths. Left-wing [and] right-wing Christians need one another, because we counterbalance one another.
It’s more a case Clare, really, of Christians having a different emphasis. Some Christians will be absolutely passionate about putting an end to nuclear war. Some people will be passionate about issues such as abortion on demand and so on. We each have our own passions, and we need to listen to what the passions are of others, without saying, “Well, because you’ve got a different passion to me, therefore, you must be wrong and I must be right”.
I think we’ve got to listen carefully to those of whom we disagree, because you may have misunderstood them. If you’re going to disagree with a point of view, make sure you know what their point of view is.
CB: Yeah, that’s Good. Be knowledgeable before you critique.
I once heard a Christian leader in America. His name is Jim Wallace. And he leads Sojourners. And he said something really interesting: in a nutshell he put it, “Don’t go left. Don’t go right. Go deeper” – in terms of, just go deeper with Jesus. And let that be your guidepost. Not a set of ideals that are from a certain, you know, political tradition. And I loved that view.
DR: Oh I think that’s true. And Jim Wallace, in the sense comes from the ‘left’ of the Christian tradition, but I think he’s so right in saying, “Look, whether you belong to right or left is secondary to the fact that we belong to Jesus”.
And you see, whenever you’re agreeing to disagree, just make sure the aim is not to win the argument. Make sure that the aim is to forge and sustain a good relationship. Because the point is, if you have a robust debate – nothing wrong with that – and end up still in disagreement, well, at least if you can walk away saying, “we’re still friends” or “we’re still on friendly terms”, then that’s okay. Even if you think the person’s way off track, and you want to point that out in the gracious sort of way, make sure that you don’t slam the door on relationship.
“Whenever you’re agreeing to disagree, just make sure the aim is not to win the argument. Make sure that the aim is to forge and sustain a good relationship.”
And just linked to that, I would plead with Christians to avoid social media in trying to dialogue on social media. Social media’s fine if it’s just a matter of saying, “Hey, look at this YouTube segment” or something. But I’m appalled when I see Christians trying to carry on significant dialogue about significant issues via Twitter or via Facebook, because we are oversimplifying the other’s point of view. So Christians end up being polarised. And it’s produced a lot of heat, but not much light.
CB: Yeah, that’s very true. I actually had an experience where I opened up Facebook, read a few discussions, and within about 10 minutes, I was horrified at the amount of sort of yelling and throwing darts at each other that was going on. And it was in the middle of Black Lives Matter protests, lots of COVID controversy, and lots of different issues that were very heated. And I almost got drawn into some of these discussions and then I thought, “No, I don’t think it’s going to help here”, and so instead, I did a post asking people, and urging others – and myself – to remember what Jesus asked us to do: which was to love one another.
And it brought to mind a scripture that I love, which is from one Corinthians 14, “make love your highest goal”. So I feel like those goals of truth telling and bringing justice and all those things are important. But love should be the higher goal above those.
DR: Oh, it should. And I think that that’s often what’s missing. I think it’s a matter of seeing people through the eyes of God, which is seeing through the eyes of love. You know, we agree to disagree with people; we see them as a fellow Christian; we’re going to spend eternity with them.
It’s good to be passionate about a point of view, but if we identify a particular perspective on a social or political issue with the Gospel, I think we then become very dogmatic – “Well, because I identify this particular cause with the gospel, anyone else who disagrees with me on this cause, must be in disagreement with the gospel.
And that’s why some Christian argumentation and dialogue can get so heated. It’s why religious wars in the past have been so savage and terrible. Because people believe they’re right and they’re defending biblical truth.
Half the time you’re not defending biblical truth, all you’re doing is defending your own prejudicial interpretation of biblical truth. So in other words, we haven’t got all the truth; the other side haven’t got all the truth; let’s talk with one another. Let’s learn from one another. Let’s see one another with the eyes of God, and hopefully model to the world a better way of disagreeing.
CB: I think I take a slightly different tack than you on the social media thing in that I’m, you know, I’m soaked in it through my work. So I have to engage there. But I think my approach is, I try to think, “Is what I’m about to type founded on love?” and try and pass it through the filters of, you know, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. For example, love, patience, joy, peace, kindness. Kindness! I mean, that’s a big one, let’s just be kind to each other! That’s a really good start.
And if I can successfully interact in those ways, then I feel like I’m doing my job in being a Christian in that space. But if I’m getting heated up, then that’s when I need to back away.
“I’m not going to engage in what I call really significant, indepth debate on social media, because we’re over simplifying extremely complex issues.”
DR: And Clare, I don’t think we even are disagreeing on this. When I advocate withdrawal, it’s two things. One is, if I feel “Whoa, this whole discussion, dialogue is just getting out of hand” and I feel my own emotions getting out of hand. And number two, I’m not going to engage in what I call really significant, indepth debate on social media, because we’re over simplifying extremely complex issues. And that can be a problem.
CB: Yeah, definitely. I just want to finish with a thought that the screen in particular, that that forum of social media, because we have a screen in between us and the other person, that that can really dehumanise the person we’re speaking to. The same with the phone when we’re calling, you know, a young student in a call centre at Telstra, or they might be offshore, you know, in an offshore call centre. The more distance, the more technological distance, the more we sometimes feel they are no longer human to us, and we can treat them rudely if we want to.
DR: Yes, I think you put the finger on a real problem there, Clare, that as soon as we divorce ourselves from person-to-person contact, there’s more incentive to be impolite and rude. And so I think you’re right: technology is a wonderful tool for allowing us to communicate to more and more people. But almost by definition, it offers not only opportunity for more and more good, but also more and more harm.
CB: Yeah, that’s right. And I think the way that we treat one another, it carries more of the gospel than any academic argument
DR: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s what Jesus says: “By this, all will know that you are my disciples: that you love one another”. We see people through the eyes, the ears, the heart of God. You know, “This person is a valued person. I might passionately disagree with them. But God is not looking at them the way I do.”
CB: Amazing. Well, thank you. This has been a great discussion. David. always appreciate your thoughts.
DR: Well, thank you. And I’m glad we didn’t have to agree to disagree, I think we were fairly polite and gracious!
CB: Yeah, I think we’ve fulfilled the embodiment of what we’re discussing! I’ll speak to you next week.
DR: Okay. Many thanks, Clare.