The Death of Respectful Debate

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I rarely write on current events, preferring to devote my efforts to ministry concerns that are more timeless. But for some time now, a number of years really, our nation has been plunging into an abyss of vitriol and disdain toward those of opposing political and cultural viewpoints. The divisions are bone deep, and the hostility bubbles so near the surface that respectful debate seems dead. The worst of motives are assumed for every misspoken word and inarticulate phrase. Harsh labels are pasted onto people. Forgiveness, empathy and love are actions absent from public discourse, and, increasingly, in much private discourse.

Two events prompted me to write about this. First, two older Baptist pastors whom I respect, one black and the other white, got into an argument via social media, prompted by the terrible events in Charlottesville, VA. I was struck by how quickly bad motives were ascribed and things were taken the worst possible way. I expect professional political hacks and biased media propagandists to destroy people for political purposes, but not Jesus-loving, Baptist preacher friends. I know this is just one example, but it is not an isolated one. Destroyed friendships and divorces have happened, and are happening, as people sink into the toxic demands that others conform to personal points of view.

Second, some Christian leaders have weighed into recent political matters in ways that were less than helpful. Whether “our side” is in or out of power, will we ever learn that there is no clear correlation between Kingdom advance and which political party holds the reigns of governmental power? Will we learn that you cannot engage in “reasoned debate” via twitter or Facebook or any other form of social media. Too much of the public discourse is done through sound-bites and 140-character responses, which, when used to speak on matters of life and death, racism and riots, heaven and hell, is beyond dangerous. It is reckless and potentially ruinous to relationships and Christian witness and career. I could pine for the era when Lincoln and Douglass would debate for hours, holding the attention of a large audience as they used reason and humor and the tools of rhetoric to persuade others of their viewpoint, but those days will never return.

With that said, let me offer a couple of suggestions as we seek to navigate the minefield, and avoid the abyss, that has emerged in contemporary American life. First, when speaking to another who has a different viewpoint, seek first to understand, then to be understood. Stephen Covey taught this principle in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but we see this in every conversation Jesus ever had, from Nicodemus to the Woman at the Well to His conversations with Pharisees and Sadducees and the high priest. Jesus never, ever spoke in such a way that revealed He misunderstood the other person.

Now, you say, “But He’s God and I’m not.” Yes, but we can learn how to speak with others from the way Jesus spoke. The primary way we gain understanding of the viewpoint of another is to “listen first.” Listen, and ask clarifying questions as needed. Try to understand not only what the other person believes, but why they believe that way. The “why” is vital when seeking to understand another person’s viewpoint. “Why” we believe the way we do is influenced by our family life, particular experiences, our own sin and weaknesses, and a host of other things.

“Seeking first to understand” is not something we see modeled in our political leaders, nor in much of the media. I enjoy history, not simply learning the outcomes of history, but learning about the process that produced them. The more you know about the process, the better you understand “why” the particular outcome. This is true of how people develop their opinions and their worldview. The opinions we hold are the result of a process, perhaps a very long process, a personal process of learning and experiencing. If we are ever to recapture “respectful debate,” it will happen as we seek to understand “why” the other believes the way they do. It may not lead to achieving agreement, but it might keep us from hating the other person, or them hating us.

Second, knowledge puffs up with pride, but love builds up the other person (1 Cor. 8:1). Love for our neighbor and for our enemy will cause us to want the best for them. In the current climate in America, the goal in public discourse seems to be destruction of the other person. “Destroy them. Ruin their career. Wreck their reputation. Seize their power and take it for yourself.” We see this every day, but destroying the other must never be the aim of a follower of Jesus. Love expressed toward the other, seeking their betterment, is far more powerful than winning the argument, if our goal is to help them see Jesus. Speak the truth, yes, but speak it in love. Without love, I am nothing. Without love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:2-3).

People more knowledgeable on the subject than me are saying that the divisions in our nation are deeper than they have ever been, perhaps since the Civil War. I don’t know whether that is literally true, but no one can dispute the divisions are deep. But that’s not what most concerns me. What most concerns me is there is too little evidence that Christian leaders are making things better, at least on the national level. Maybe that’s because too few Christians are in positions of leadership. Maybe it’s because some who do have access to the media are saying the wrong things and contributing to the division.

Whatever be true in that regard, what is unarguably true for the believer is that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the sinful, rebellious people of the world (John 3:17). Whether our nation will be saved from vitriol dominating the public discourse, no one can be certain. But every believer can commit daily to love God more, to love our neighbors more, and to strive to build others up in ways we speak to them and act toward them.

The Newspaper’s Role in Your Leadership

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It was once said a preacher ought to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, meaning that the sermon needs to connect biblical truth to life today, life in this world, and life in a particular place. That image of the pastor-preacher with the Bible and the newspaper made sense when I first heard it many years ago. It still resonates with me. I suspect, however, it lacks the impact it once had. That’s a shame.

I know I’m fighting an uphill battle on this one. Newspapers are in decline. Most young adults don’t read them anymore. News is found in other places and with personal “filters.” Uphill battle or not, it’s one that deserves a fight. Ministry leaders need to read their local newspaper. Thumbing through the paper with your hands, your eye catches things it won’t if you read the paper on your smartphone or computer.

First, your local newspaper helps you to know your community. Your city has issues involving economic, political, legal, educational and moral aspects of life. These are issues particular to your community. The churches, residents, schoolchildren, businesses, homeowners, homeless, everyone in the community is affected by decisions of community leaders and the particular issues the city is facing. And certain hot-button issues change daily. No person should know more about the city than ministry leaders. You might pick up bits and pieces down at the coffee shop or through the internet, but the local newspaper will give you the broadest coverage of life in your community. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t relate something from the newspaper to my sermon text on Sunday.

Second, who’s being born and who is dying in your town? Most local papers will inform you daily or weekly about these matters. If someone is killed in a tragic accident, or a young person’s life is cut short in some way, the church needs to know about it and maybe you can minister to the family. At the very least you can pray for them. Churches have been built by ministering to families of newborns. Who is filing a marriage license or divorce papers? Who was arrested for a DUI or other criminal behavior? The paper will tell you. Maybe you can reach out to them. Maybe you host substance abuse classes, or Divorce Care classes, or parenting classes and they can be invited to attend.

Third, what’s going on at the schools in your town? Which students had a great game, excelled in a sporting event, suffered an injury, have a part in the school play, or won the spelling bee? Every week young people in your town are featured in the local newspaper. How encouraging it is for them to receive an extra copy of the article, with a note written by a pastor, Sunday school teacher or other ministry leader!

Fourth, ministry leaders can use the paper to influence others. You can write letters to the editor. I’ve written articles for local papers and established relationships with reporters. Sometimes the local paper will publish articles about something the church is doing as a by-product of these relationships.
Fifth, the local newspaper will help you to pray for your city and its leaders. Every city has people and situations that need prayer. The newspaper will provide you matters for which to pray each and every day.

These principles are not for people who don’t care about their city or have no desire to impact their city. This is about ministry leaders, sent by God to a particular place, for a particular time. No one should know more about the city, and care more about its people, than the ministry leaders called there. The newspaper is indispensable in connecting you to the city in a holistic way.