How do we humans deal with the major “disses” of life? I mean the disagreeable and disgruntled, discord, disagreement, disease, distortion, and on and on. I offer you my observations from 40 years in ministry and 66 years of life. They are particularly important in our world and most urgently for me, the Presbyterian Church (USA). If we do not get a handle on this, disaster awaits us.
The most basic way to deal with difference and disagreement is through hostility. We must resist it, if not eradicate it. We approach the opposition as evil and unclean. We see this today most prominently in the way political parties deal with one another. Party leadership declares that the people must not only defeat the opposition, they must crush it. Dominance is the goal because the opposition is portrayed as bankrupt in morals, spirituality, intelligence, or ideas. We who live in the Southern part of the United States live with this kind of division on a daily basis. The Democratic Party has been virtually eliminated as a part of the decision making process. In many of these states, Democrats hold no statewide elected offices. These are one party states. In the religious culture a fundamentalism of Christianity expressed most prominently through dispensationalism and Arminianism dominates. Those who hold contrary views are vulnerable to attack, ridicule, and rejection as un-Christian. The minority is no better. They attack the dominant culture with demeaning terms and intellectual discredit. Hostility to difference means that the opposition must be rendered impotent.
The second way we deal with difference is through tolerance. We tolerate the existence of the other and no longer seek its destruction. Instead we keep it at a distance. We don’t want to be made unclean by associating with it. The pollution system of the Pharisees took this approach by declaring certain physical conditions as evidence of spiritual corruption. These people were kept out of the temple, and in the case of lepers, confined to colonies of infected people. Today this takes the form of an unwillingness to engage the other in real conversation or dialogue for fear of being stained as impure. Our truth is absolute, so what is the purpose of talking about it? We have no real interest in the other because they have nothing to contribute to our life, so we refuse to have anything to do with them.
Acceptance is the third way we handle disagreement. We will keep a relationship going through common interests, work, church, social organization, or family, but we realize that certain subjects are off limits. We aren’t going to change the other’s mind, so we avoid dealing with them on certain subjects. We prefer associating with like-minded people, rather than the disagreeable ones. We can’t really carry on a civil conversation, so we “agree to disagree.” A part of another’s life is cut off from us and ours from them. We may love the person, but we grieve for lack of agreement on important subjects like religion, politics, or social movements. I believe it was Reinhold Niebuhr who advised preachers to avoid certain subjects: the edibility of Jonah, the virginity of Mary, the furniture of heaven, or the temperature of hell. We accept the presence and inevitability of difference and disagreement, even fractures in the Body of Christ, even though we may admit this is not God’s will for the crown of creation.
I am dismayed by those who seem to accept the fractures in church and society as inevitable consequences of human sin. Aren’t we called to resist the inevitable consequences of evil and love the good (Romans 12)? I believe that God wants human beings to live in harmonious relationships that appreciate the unique, special, and critical contribution of everyone to this broken world. Appreciation
is the fourth way we can deal with difference. This is by far the hardest. Paul calls Christian disciples to this kind of life in 1 Corinthians 12-13. All parts of the body need to work well together to be an effective and faithful witness for Christ. A philosophy professor at the University of Oklahoma used to tell us that if we are just alike, one of us is redundant. Diversity and variety is the way of creation. Working together in appreciative relationship is the secret to a God blessed life. Accepting disagreement as the norm condemns us to alienation, division, war, and destruction. It cycles us back to domination over the other. Appreciation leads us to learn from the other, to engage the other in appreciative inquiry. One of my wedding services includes some advice from a marriage counselor in which he says that a married couple needs to “listen to each other … listen to understand rather than listening to argue.”
When I moved to Graham more than 10 years ago, I heard about this very popular and successful minister at the Assembly of God church. People told me that I needed to get to know him. I saw him as a competitor, so I avoided any contact with him. He resigned a few years ago to begin a family ministry in Graham. One day he and his wife showed up in our sanctuary for worship. I thought this was curious, but he and his wife were so affirming after worship, I invited the two of them to lunch the next week. This has led to a new friendship with two people I not only greatly admire, but give thanks to God for their remarkable spirit and ministry.
This needs to happen all over the PCUSA and our country. I believe the church must take the lead in creating a new spirit of appreciation for one another. In the Broadway musical rendition of Huckleberry Finn, The Big River, Huck and Jim sing, “I see the same stars through my window … but we are worlds apart. … Two worlds together are better than one.” That’s what I’m talking about. I know it can happen. Let’s do it.