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Issue 4 Spring 2015


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Disagreement is Like Sex

Gregg Ten Elshof

Exploring the role of disagreement in human flourishing

It’s not a problem—not in and of itself. In fact, it’s a powerful resource with the capacity to make its own unique contribution to the promotion of unity and flourishing.

But it’s often treated like a problem—treated like something the eradication of which would mark a significant improvement in the human condition. It’s treated like a problem because it, like sexual intimacy, is more often than not embodied problematically.

The trick with both disagreement and sexual intimacy is to disentangle them from the twisted array of dysfunctions that routinely accompany them—dysfunctions that distort our view of their beauty and power.

Of One Mind

Recently, I watched the movie Of Gods and Men with a group of undergraduate philosophy majors in my backyard. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a true story about a monastic community in Algeria who decided not to leave the people they’d been serving in response to threats from religious extremists in the area.

The decision was unanimous. But not at first.

At first the group was divided—some thinking that they should stay and continue to minister even if it meant martyrdom. Others thought they should leave. What followed was a beautiful collection of scenes wherein the monks expressed their views, listened to one another, empathized, waited, and prayed. What emerged was a unanimous conviction that God’s call for them was to stay.

But the conviction to stay was richer having come through the fires of disagreement. Compared to the reasons initially given, the post-disagreement reasons for staying were deeper, more nuanced, and better reflective of the very real and personal costs of conviction. The unity achieved by the route of honest and respectful disagreement was somehow bigger—more robust, more stable—than would have been the unity of immediate unanimity. It took in more of the picture.

Embracing Disagreement

Our hope at CCT is that the reflections in this issue of The Table will equip you to pry the beautiful and powerful resource of disagreement from the grip of its accompanying vices. May you come to see it not as something to be expunged or, worse, hidden from view, but as something to be celebrated for its capacity to enhance our understanding of the world and deepen, strengthen, and stabilize our unity.

With any luck, you may even read something in these pages with which you find yourself in disagreement. If you do, please tell us! We’d love to hear from you.

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Case Closed or Mind Open?

James Spiegel

We’re a divided society.

To follow the news is to be constantly bombarded with reports about disagreements, sometimes hostile in nature, about all sorts of issues, including race relations, same-sex marriage, health care, gun control, economic policy, immigration, and environmental issues from fracking to climate change. Tensions and disagreements are not just “in the news.” They are also experienced locally, as friends, family members, and colleagues clash over these and personal issues as well.

How do you cope with the disagreements in your life?

Common Coping Strategies

Whether regarding public or personal issues, most of us don’t relish conflict. So many people deal with the tension by avoiding it. They may do this by consulting only those news programs, pundits, and websites that reinforce their own perspective. Similarly, at the personal level they may stay away from certain people who disagree with them. And to the extent that they engage, it may be from a safe distance, so their convictions remain securely insulated from serious challenge.


Another way of coping with disagreement is to engage others by ruthlessly insisting on the truth of one’s own views. This is a sort of brute dogmatism, where one simply assert her view as “obviously true,” without the aid of evidence or argument. Or the dogmatist might use argumentation but only to create a façade of informedness and to dominate the conversation, which usually looks more like a monologue than a dialogue. Here the game is intimidation and blather. Filibuster rather than true debate.


A less common way of dealing with disagreement is to soar above it all by assuming the posture of the skeptic. It is uncommon because nearly every thinking adult holds views on the issues that divide us today. But there are some who do manage to present a skeptical attitude, tending to various debates but never taking sides. Every argument is greeted with a detached nod and patronizing “perhaps.” But no affirmations are offered in support of a particular perspective.

I believe all of these are unhealthy ways of dealing with disagreement, whether in the public or private sphere. Each is a sort of cowardice in the face of conflict, as each effectively refuses to seriously engage. More importantly, each defaults on the duty to pursue truth and understanding, which Scripture tells us is paramount: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Pr. 4:7). Clearly, we cannot abide by this counsel through avoidance, dogmatism, or skepticism. Genuine pursuit of truth calls for engagement and risk, active encountering of contrary positions and people. It means a willingness to have our views challenged and possibly changed. In short, a key to truth and understanding is open-mindedness. And this is especially true in a context of disagreement.


Open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue, a character trait that makes one better as a thinker and knower. As philosopher Jason Baehr characterizes it, to be open-minded is to be willing to suspend one’s default cognitive standpoint for the sake of considering an alternative standpoint or perspective. An obvious benefit of open-mindedness is that this virtue enables one to gain knowledge and, where necessary, to change one’s mind in order to do so. Open-mindedness also improves relationships, as it demonstrates grace and generosity to those with whom one disagrees.

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When to Be Close-Minded

However, to be open-minded does not mean one should be open to any and all views. For instance, it would be intellectually—and perhaps even morally—vicious to be open to the possibility that, say, slavery or genocide is a good idea, or that rape or pedophilia may be morally permissible. These and many other issues are ones that even the generally open-minded person should be foreclosed on. But where mature and intelligent people disagree, such as regarding the moral and social issues mentioned earlier, absolute foreclosure seems inappropriate. Belief commitment, even firm conviction, may be appropriate on each of these issues. But the open-minded person recognizes that, after all, some of her views may be false or at least to some degree mistaken. So she should be willing to entertain new evidence or give further arguments a serious look.

The Golden Rule

There are also significant moral and theological reasons to be open-minded. For one thing, if I am utterly foreclosed on an issue, then I assume that all those who disagree with me are wrong. And on many issues some of those who disagree are smarter and more informed than I am. To so completely disregard their intelligence and informedness is arrogant, irresponsible, or both. Furthermore, open-mindedness is actually recommended by the Golden Rule. For don’t we all want other people to be open to the views we defend? And don’t we want others to patiently listen to our arguments? Of course. So the Golden Rule entails that we should be just as willing to be challenged by others views and to patiently listen to their arguments.

So open-mindedness is a good trait. We might even call it a Christian virtue. In any case, to be open-minded is crucial to the pursuit of truth, it is a boon to relationships, and it fulfills the Golden Rule. It is also a wise coping strategy for dealing with the disagreements in your life.

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Living Words, Killing Words: The Power of Words in the Argument Culture

Tim Muehlhoff

Words and the way of Jesus

While recently receiving an award for broadcasting, fiery conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck surprised many in the audience by apologizing for his vitriolic style.

Beck acknowledged that the angry communication climate he helped to create makes most Americans approach issues as if they were part of a verbal slugfest and have in turn divided us as a nation. The ancient writers who contributed to the book of Proverbs would agree with Beck’s assessment of the power of words to hurt and divide.

Utilizing vivid metaphors, these ancient writers strive to describe the potentially devastating power of words. “Reckless words” are presented as a “piercing sword” (12:18). A word, spoken in the wrong way, can “break a bone” (25:15). A person’s spirit is easily crushed by a deceitful tongue (15:4). Just as the “north wind” can bring driving rain, so a “sly tongue” evokes an angry response (25:23). In plotting evil, a scoundrel’s speech is like a “scorching fire” (16:27). Not only can negative words separate close friends (16:28), but a whole city can be disrupted by mockery (29:8).

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Jesus on Why Words Are Important

Christ continues this emphasis on language when he declares that we all will be held accountable for every word uttered. At the end of our lives each of us will have to give an account of the millions of words we have spoken (Matthew 12:36). Why are our words so important? Christ explains: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). For the biblical writers the heart represents the center of a person’s personality, emotions, intellect, and volition. It is through our communication with others that we glean a robust picture of a person.

While all of communication exposes our inner person, Christ particularly isolates “careless” words that are spoken with little forethought (Matthew 12:36). The Greek word argos, translated ‘careless’, refers to words we deem insignificant, but can still do great harm to others. When Christ tells us that our words reflect our heart, he was mirroring the attitude of many Roman and Greek philosophers who taught, talis oratio, qualis vita (“as the speech, so the life”).

No Careless Comments

A few years ago my university starting videotaping courses and posting lectures on iTunes University and YouTube. Two of my courses were selected and the effect it had on me was profound. Standing in front of my class and seeing the red light above the camera was a constant reminder that every word, joke, impromptu comment, critique, and response to students would be recorded and posted on the web the next day. Being recorded helped me understand that there are no careless comments—all are recorded and reflect who I am.

Perhaps it would do us well before we send out our next Tweet, stick a caption on Instagram, leave a comment to an online article, engage in a hashtag exchange, post a video for YouTube, shoot off a hasty reply on Facebook, or engage in old-fashioned face-to-face conversations to remember that not only does our communication provide others a window into our heart, but we’ll be held accountable whether our words comfort or hurt others. Or, as the ancient writer suggests: “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose” (Proverbs 18:21, The Message).

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Words Matter: Why I Sometimes Hate the Word “Hate”

Jonathan Merritt

Why "hate" is losing its meaning

Every word is comprised of the same two ingredients: one part definition and one part connotation. The problem with the second component is that it changes all the time. As a result, words take on new meanings as people speak them, often deriving more from the context of their usage than from their actual definitions.

This is certainly true of the word “hate,” a four-letter term that seems to make more public appearances these days than Beyoncé. The voluble Brits who publish the Oxford Dictionary define “hate” as “hostile actions motivated by intense dislike or prejudice.” But alas, like many words, it has become another grammatical casualty as some now use it to describe the positions of those who vary from emerging cultural norms.

The word hate spelled out over images of grenades

The word has become even more diffuse of late as it has been increasingly cast into the seemingly ubiquitous phrase, “hate speech.” Anyone who says something negative about anyone or anything favored by the powers that be is now vulnerable of being accused of this travesty—from workplaces to the television airwaves to college campuses. And in The Harm in Hate Speech, Jeremy Waldron even argues that the loosely defined category of “hate speech” should be outlawed because it undermines the “public good” (yet another diffuse phrase).

Of course, “hate speech” is not the only word or phrase made more potent by the inclusion of the h-word. Organizations are branded “hate groups,” groups of people are labeled “haters,” books that a critical mass find distasteful are “hate literature,” those who break the law in a particular way are guilty of “hate crimes,” and someone who can’t seem to bite their tongue can be called a “hate monger.”

The most readily available examples of this derive from the gay marriage debate. Given the personal nature of the issue and the perception among many that the very foundations of our society are at stake, it’s not surprising that the debate conjures tidal waves of emotion. But emotion brings in rhetoric—in this case, the word “hate.”

Consider Blake Mycoksie, founder of TOMS Shoes, who was forced to publicly apologize for speaking at an event hosted by Focus on the Family. The Christian non-profit claims they are “dedicated to helping families thrive,” but is staunchly opposed to gay marriage. A petition hosted by lamented Mycoskie’s association with what they termed an “anti-gay hate-group.”

Mycoskie rushed to offer an “I’m sorry” in fear of also being labeled a hater or his organization sullied as a hate group:

“Had I known the full extent of Focus on the Family’s beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak at their event. It was an oversight on my part and the company’s part and one we regret.”

The move against Focus incited other activists to apply pressure to companies like Apple, Microsoft and Delta Airlines to cease their involvement with the Charity Give Back Group (CGCB). When consumers purchase items through the group from over 600 brand retailers, CCBG encourages them to donate to more than 200,000 charities. But listed among them are socially conservative groups that oppose gay marriage.

Ben Crowther, a student at Western Washington University, collected thousands of signatures on a petition against Apple, prompting the removal of iTunes from CGBG.

“I knew that once this issue was brought to Apple’s attention, they would not want to be a part of CVN because it funds anti-gay hate groups,” Crowther said. Microsoft and Delta subsequently caved to pressure.

Our world glorifies tolerance—a virtue that is often scoffed at, but one I believe is quite valuable. But those who champion this characteristic are often quick to abandon it upon encountering people with whom they intellectually diverge. But tolerance is not Lombard Street; it is bi-directional. Passionate advocates on both sides of contentious issues must avoid extreme rhetoric in attempts to oust their ideological foes.

Quote: The word hate is too potent and carries too much baggage to be thoughtlessly tossed around.

Hate is real, of course, and some people do harbor it against others. This is a point that must be made with clarity. Hate is not a myth or a fable. It is not gold spun from straw. But we’re quickly approaching a moment, if we’ve not already reached it, where true hate is conflated with any opinion we simply don’t care for. We cannot assume that someone who, for example, holds a different view of how marriage should be defined is necessarily “motivated by intense dislike or prejudice” for those who disagree with them.

American Christians and political conservatives must surely wrestle with a sordid history on same-sex issues. In years past, some opposed funding for HIV research and medical aid because they viewed the illness as God’s judgment on sexual immorality. Worse still, the faithful have often employed angry, reactive and, yes, even hateful rhetoric when speaking about LGBTQ persons. But we do a disservice to actual hate and malice when we do not differentiate between hateful actions and differing opinions voiced passionately but civilly.

In fact, it is the fast and loose use of “hate”—or what Slate writer Mark Peters calls “criticism shaming”—that should refocus us on the behaviors and rhetoric that actually qualifies as such. From epithets that demean racial and sexual minorities to calls for violence against others, there is enough actual “hate” in the world to busy the hands of those truly concerned about the problem.

As Jim Daly rightly responded to the TOMS controversy, “‘Hate’ is too big a word to be thrown around with so little discretion. It is a damaging and dangerous thing to hang such an emotional epithet on a person or group because they think differently about some issues than you do.”

The word “hate” is too potent and carries too much baggage to be thoughtlessly tossed around. Those engaged in public discourse must display better judgment in the words they choose. The importance of the issues our society now faces demands our commitment to intelligent, winsome, and precise language.

For if something means anything, then something means nothing at all.

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Wisdom in the Midst of Disagreement

Richard J. Mouw

Thoughts from Richard J. Mouw on cultivating biblical habits of mind and engaging in civil public discourse.

On Honoring Everyone…

I was raised in an evangelical world where we were constantly being told 1 Peter 3: “Always be ready to give to anyone who asks of you a reason for the hope within.” Stand up for the truth. Know what you believe. But seldom did they go on to the next part of the verse: “But do so with gentleness and reverence.” We never focused on the disagreement.

What does it mean to disagree with someone and in that disagreement treat them with gentleness and with reverence? To me, that’s the challenge. It isn’t so much that we have our biblical convictions, and then we should try to be civil. The Bible itself mandates a conviction about civility, and that is the honoring of other human beings.

You can go through Peter’s first epistle, where at another point he says that we ought to fear the Lord, we ought to love the brothers and sisters in the faith—agape love—and we ought to honor the emperor. Then he says, but honor all human beings.

The important thing for thinking about the spiritual dimensions of that is to ask, “How do we bring ourselves to a point where we actually engage in that kind of honoring? That kind of reverence and gentleness toward other human beings?” And that’s a big challenge for us today. A lot of our spirituality has been a spirituality of confrontation and combat. Warfare. And it’s important to think in very different terms, because I think the Bible tells us to.

On the Family as School for Civility…

I think disagreeing well has a lot to do with family relations. Aristotle pointed out that the earliest ways in which we learn to be polite is with kinship. And then we extend it to friendship, and then ultimately to the public square, where we take another person as human simply because they’re human and not because they’re kinfolk or because we know them well. Then we recognize their humanity. But that first stage of kinship is so important.

When I’m arguing with my wife, we disagree about things. But that’s not battle. It’s a conversation. It’s a desire to better understand each other, a desire to come to some kind of peaceful accord, where there are things that are causing tension or friction. Or when you’re arguing with your kids, it’s not warfare. Although, there can be very deep disagreements about things.

In kinship… in familial relations… and in close friendships, we do encounter those disagreements, and I think one of the big problems today is that we’ve so weakened family relations and friendship relations that we haven’t been to school for civility yet. And that, to me, is a real problem.

On Surrendering the Impulse to Dominate Discourse…

A wonderful model of civil discourse in the Bible is in Psalm 139, where the psalmist says at a certain point, “Lord, I hate your enemies with a perfect hatred. You know, God, you can count on me. I’m on your side. You and me…” And then immediately, it’s like he stops and says, “Uh-oh.” And then he says, “Search me and know my thoughts and see if there be any wicked way in me. And lead me in the way everlasting.” Before God, we need to be saying, “See if there’s any wicked way in me.” And then that can transfer to our neighbors—people with whom we disagree.

One of my desires in talking about some of the most controversial issues of sexuality is to lower the rhetoric and just say to my friends in the gay and lesbian movement, “What is it about me that scares you so much?” And really to listen to that. And I hope they would listen to me when I say, “What is it about what you stand for that troubles me?”

But I think it’s that level of wanting to learn from the other person because we’ve been humbled before God. And we realize that we have no business telling God, “Oh, we’re on your side. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got it all straightened out.”

So a lot of it goes right back to our fundamental relationship with God. And I think once we say that to God, we’re free to say that to other people.

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From Hostility to Humility to Healing

Christena Cleveland

In a sense, all reconcilers are social psychologists.

Interview by Evan C. Rosa

To play a role in healing broken-down communication, it helps to have an idea about our relational brains. Listen to the words of fierce conflict. Note the non-verbals. Admit the facts. Explore where the pain comes from. Remember that we are complex creatures, full of bad communication habits and psychological trauma. But see that we can rise above our vices, our pain, and many other barriers to understand, forgive, and love one another.

Well, Christena Cleveland is a reconciler. And she’s a social psychologist. She’s also hilarious, full of intensity, and willing to speak unfashionable truth when the situation calls for it. Here’s a snippet of a recent conversation we had with Christena about finding resources in social psychology and reconciliation theory for understanding disagreement, group and individual identity, defensiveness, and growing in intellectual virtue.

The Table: Given your work in psychology and brain science—thinking about the social-brain—what does a social–psychological perspective offer to our understanding and practice of reconciliation? 

Christena Cleveland: What psychology has to offer—particularly to work in reconciliation, or understanding cultural divisions and overcoming them—is a game changer. It’s not that the psychological perspective is more important than any of the other perspectives. But within the church and other communities of faith, there is a long tradition of theological, sociological, and historical perspectives on reconciliation. Psychology really helps people see why just having the theological perspective and believing that reconciliation is important doesn’t necessarily materialize into closure or healing. Psychology and neuroscience allows us to look at some of our non‑conscious biases and how those are playing a huge role in what sort of emotions we experience in reconciliation situations. Why is it that group conflict automatically dovetails into actual hostility? Why is it that it’s very difficult for us to distance our personal identity from our group identities, and how do those play a role in ways that we interact with other groups?

Can we talk about that in the context of disagreement?


Graphic of a knight

Those biases, the ones we’re not aware of… they play a big role in the psychological aspects of disagreement. Conflict is sort of a neutral fact… It just is. But then that conflict develops into hostility. It goes from neutral to charged. It doesn’t have to, but it often does. Why is that?

Oftentimes we think of conflict as neutral, and it is. But unfortunately, conflict is about groups, and groups are about people, and people have identities. If you think about it, I have an identity as an individual, but my identity as part of the different group memberships that I participate in is just as powerful. And that informs my individual identity.

If someone is interacting with me as Christena, they’re also interacting with me as Christena-the-black-woman, Christena-the-professor, Christena-the-person-who-lives-in-North-Minneapolis. All of a sudden the conflict becomes about my identity.

My identity is closely related to my self-esteem.  I want to feel good about me. I want to feel good about my identity. And so at this point, I’m mad at anybody who dares to disrupt how good I feel about my identity! That’s what conflict is all about. Conflict is saying, “Our way is better.” “Our goals are better.” “Our approach is better than yours.” But it’s not just an individual thing.

All of a sudden, it’s an entire group with all these identities that are backed up in it. If you apply this to the church, for example, people’s identities are rooted in their theological perspectives. Someone who might be pro-life versus pro-choice, you’re not just talking about a neutral conflict where people disagree in a pure, rational way.

People will feel like their actual identities—their theological orientation, the church groups in which they are rooted—are coming under attack. And we think it’s okay to be hostile when we think we’re being attacked, when we think our identities are being attacked.

That’s an interesting human response. Maybe people wouldn’t even admit it right away, but it’s about being willing to say, “I’m feeling personally attacked when someone disagrees with me.”

Yeah, not just my ideas are being attacked, but my identity—who I am—is being attacked.

And that’s because our identities and our ideas get so closely knit. Tell us how to manage those conflicts. When conflict begins to spiral negatively toward hostility, toward real attack, toward exclusion, how can we keep the conversation civil and move toward reconciliation?

That’s a big question. Managing conflict, once it’s already spiraled out of control, is close to impossible. The only thing that can make a difference is if, all of a sudden, you had a turn towards humility. Usually when you’re in defensive mode, you’re not open to being humble.

When this comes up with my students, I try to help them step back and see how their ideas are informing their identities and vice versa. We often come up with what I call a “culture map.”

We tend to hang out with people who think and act the way that we do. So we’re looking to see how “normalized interactions”—everyday things we’re a part of—might be informed by our ideas and how they affect the way we perceive situations.

It’s difficult to deal once emotions are high. If you can help people see how that’s happening beforehand, or in anticipation of a conflict, then people can choose to see it in a more detached, rational way. It’s still not going to be perfectly rational, because we’re humans. But I think people can start to separate their identity from their ideas if they’re looking out for these things.

Quote: It's difficult to deal once emotions are high.

How should we balance our emotional side and our rational side? Are those two things in tension?

I would argue that emotions are powerful and informative. We should pay attention to them. I certainly think emotions are helpful in the sense that they bind groups together, especially if you are in a conflict situation.

So far, we’ve been mostly talking about conflicts that, perhaps, aren’t actually threatening. But a lot of conflicts are—particularly conflicts across power lines. So I think in that sense, emotion can be very powerful.

What would I say about this rationality piece? Well, I think it’s a myth that we can be rational. It’s often a tool that more powerful people use to oppress less powerful people.

So oftentimes, you might hear some people say, “We’re taking this in a more rational way. We’re evaluating this in a more intelligent way than they are. They’re just angry protesters.”

You think it’s a power move.

Yeah. It’s totally a power move. To say, “We’re seeing things clearly, but they’re playing identity politics, or they’re angry.” Or it’s a way to silence. I would argue that more powerful people should engage the emotions of the other side, and that less powerful people should shoot for rationality.

Earlier you suggested humility was key in preventing a negative communication spiral. That’s something that probably all of us know, deep down. But in the heat of disagreement, pride can gets in the way and becomes a defense mechanism. What about being defensive prevents us from being humble? Being willing to admit that we could be wrong?

Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists would say, “Defensiveness is a completely normal, healthy way to respond to situations where you do feel like you’re in danger.” Our body’s stress response was designed to help us be vigilant, to see threat, and to make sure that we can physically survive. Now, unfortunately, our body’s stress response also responds whenever we’re psychologically threatened. It’s designed for the physical threats. It’s designed for me to be on the savanna somewhere, when a lion jumps out and tries to attack me.

All of a sudden, I’m defensive. I’m vigilant. I’m looking for threat. I’m sensitive, and that’s all great. That, hopefully, will save my life. And when someone attacks my ideas, on my blog, I automatically jump into the exact same response where I’m vigilant. I’m sensitive. I’m looking for threats. I’m trying to maintain what I have.

I’m not trying to build something new or be creative. I’m trying to maintain what I have, because I’m trying to save myself. The fact that we naturally confuse physical threats with psychological threats makes it very difficult for us not to be defensive in intellectual arguments.

The good thing about that though, is that these processes mostly happen outside of our awareness. As soon as we become aware, “Okay, wait: I’m just getting defensive, because my stress response has kicked in gear. There’s no actual lion out there. It’s just a person asking an honest question.” [Laughs] Then you can usually calm down pretty easily and respond.

What can help us foster more intellectual humility, so that when it comes to a moment of perceived attack, we can become aware?

Self‑affirmation theory is huge on this. All of the research suggests that people are trying to maintain the integrity of their sense of self—the integrity of their identity. They don’t like it when any aspect of their identity is attacked or questioned.

However, if an aspect of your identity is attacked or questioned, you can actually affirm another aspect of your identity, because your self just wants to be affirmed. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be affirmed in the same domain in which it’s being attacked.

If that happens, if that self‑affirmation occurs, then you’re much more likely to lower your defenses. Now you don’t feel like, “Oh no, my integrity is under attack,” and you can actually be a little bit more open‑minded.

What would you say is the courage that the church needs now when it comes to tough questions and things that go really deep?

The church needs the courage to just wake up to the reality of the world. It takes courage to empathize. It takes courage for us to say, “I’m going to put myself in this person’s shoes and walk in them for as long as it takes, even up to the cross,” which is what Jesus did.

A lot of us know that if we start that journey, it will end at the cross, so we don’t even want to start it. But that’s what it is. It’s the courage to say, “I’m going to find out what your life is like.” Even if that ruins my perception of life; if it ruins the way that I think about my group and my identity; even if it topples my understanding of the way the world works, who deserves good things, who doesn’t deserve good things. These are all things that shake our intellectual foundations.

We’ve spent so much time building these intellectual houses of cards based on perceptions and beliefs about who deserves what and who is actually better than other people, even if these aren’t conscious beliefs.

To say, “I’m going to try to empathize with my immigrant neighbor and find out what life is like in her shoes on a daily basis”—that scares me. Because then I might have to think twice about how am I spending my money, what kind of church I am going to, what I am talking to my students about, how I am spending my time…

It takes courage.

How does intellectual character make us more unified or address problems of disunity?

If we’re going to address problems of disagreement, we need to be really careful about how we perceive credentials, how we give some people credentials and deny others. We’re often more likely to be willing to hear truth from someone who has the credentials that we value—the credentials we think are important.

So we often miss out on truth from people who don’t have the credentials that we’re looking for. If someone doesn’t have the degrees that we think are important or isn’t affiliated with a church organization that we think it is important or comes from the wrong part of town… kind of like Jesus: “Could anything good possibly come out of Nazareth?” We too often have that attitude along racial, class, gender, and theological lines. If we want to work towards unity and truth, then we have to be really careful about credentials.

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A Curious Confidence

Gabe Lyons

Why are we afraid to disagree?

“Achieving disagreement.” That’s a curious phrase. Is disagreement really something to achieve? It’s intriguing because it implies you can’t safely assume that all ideological conflict counts as legitimate disagreement. And it’s provocative because it seems to suggest that disagreement is something to seek after, to embrace.

We don’t always achieve disagreement. We often fail. When we don’t truly understand the other—if we can’t articulate their view charitably—we fail genuinely to disagree. So what’s the difference between really, actually disagreeing—entering into a shared conversation—as opposed to a competition of monologues? Gabe Lyons is used to achieving disagreement. (That’s a compliment, remember.) As founder of Q Ideas, he’s spent the last 10 years dreaming of a different Christian presence in the public sphere—a presence filled with confidence, curiosity, and a willingness to learn from everyone.

The Table: People are often afraid to disagree. We either surrender thinking for ourselves in the face of differing opinions, or the fear overwhelms us to the point of defensiveness and hostility. Why do you think that is?

Gabe Lyons: I think we’re many times afraid to disagree because it creates conflict and many of us just aren’t comfortable with conflict. We’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be polite. But being polite isn’t necessarily going to accomplish us learning to think better together. In many cases, we need to be more clear, and of course, sensitive in how we communicate ideas, but we need to be okay realizing that in a world with 7 billion people, there’s going to be disagreement.

There’s going to be different points of view. There’s going to be different ways we’ve each been raised. The worldviews that we’ve developed and experiences that we’ve taken in or been a part of are going to shape the way we see the world, and to own that up front and say, “I realize I come into this conversation with a lot of bias because of all those experiences. And if you can acknowledge that you also come to this conversation with a lot of bias, maybe we can have some progress together because we recognize that neither of us think purely about probably much of anything.” It’s all informed by multiple experiences and ideas and things we’ve read and conversations we’ve had.

Let’s now bring our best thinking to the table and be okay that we might come out of this conversation disagreeing. But it doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable types of people.

In some sense, everyone comes at the world and everyone sees the world in a different way. How can we search for commonalities knowing that we all see things differently?

I think for the Christian, we do have an objective truth that we believe in, and that guides us. It’s not just left up to our thoughts and our thinking and our processes and our experiences to determine what’s true or how things ought to be.

We have this fixed point outside of ourselves—God. That gives us directives for how we ought to think about things. Certainly, there are minor points to be debated about what we can know God is clear about and what other things God seems to just never speak to.

But for the most part, we can catch a pretty general rhythm and a sense of what is true. That objective truth guides the Christian into a conversation or into a discussion or into a way of life that’s based on something much more than just their experiences. I think that’s important to point out.

Then I would say as you try to have conversations with those who come from a different point of view, to own the fact about where you’re finding your objective truth. That’s just intellectually honest. And many times it’s important simply because it allows the person you’re having a conversation with to know what’s driving your thinking, versus them trying to guess at that.

Many Christians don’t recognize or acknowledge that the way they think is a commitment to this fixed‑point reality that exists outside of us, apart from our existence. This truth exists objectively—whether we like it or not, believe it or not. Whether or not we want to abide by what we think it’s telling us to do with our lives, it still is.

Objective truth. A lot of Christians are wary about giving away any ground—to be willing to budge on their theological or moral positions. Sometimes that reference to the fixed standard outside of us can be mixed up or confused with a justification for stubbornness or dogmatism—not being willing to be open to new evidence, open to new arguments, open to another person’s perspective. Can you talk a little bit about objectivity in light of the virtue of open‑mindedness and the vice of close‑mindedness What’s going on there?

It could be easy to assume that, if a Christian has beliefs based on objective truth, that somehow gives the Christian the right to browbeat others into believing the same thing, or assume that they’ve got it all right.

I think that’s where in the virtues of the mind, for instance the idea of humility, become a critical piece of how any one of us should move forward in these kinds of conversations. We shouldn’t assume we have it all figured out—that we are as God. I mean, that’s the mistake that Adam and Eve made early on, thinking they could be as wise as God.

I think as we’re coming to know God better, know his ways better, we’re always going to find a sense of humility and a sense of being able to still learn more, to discover more, to explore more, to be open to new ways of seeing things and different perspectives that maybe you hadn’t considered before.

When we’re intellectually honest, those new ways of seeing things just add more beauty and more color and more shape to our conversations than you first thought.

What are some of the personal habits that you try to institute when you’re in a conversation with someone that you might find yourself even vehemently disagreeing with?

For me, I’ve found myself wanting to have a true curiosity, to really believe the best about another person. To recognize this truth—that they’re made in the image of God—so they have God’s breath in them and he has created them as a beautiful human being with a beautiful mind.

I want to come into that conversation and say, “I’m really curious about what you think,” and it’s genuine—not false flattery or false humility. To truly say, “I want to understand how you’ve come to this place,” to be able to sit and listen, without every sentence trying to confront what I intellectually disagree with or emotionally want to respond to. And that takes a great deal of discipline and it puts your curiosity into practice.

I believe we can learn from every single person on this earth. I don’t think there’s anybody in this world that—in hearing their story, listening to their experiences, even if we disagree with their conclusions—we couldn’t learn from.

I think we should lead as learners and listeners—especially as people of faith—because that’s how our Savior led. There was a lot of listening and understanding going on in the midst of his conversations with people. He had the divine ability to understand context better than most of us do, so if we could just take a little extra time as flawed human beings to try to understand people’s stories and their context and where they’re coming from, we actually learn a lot.

And many times, that helps us find common ground, because we can discard some of the assumptions we came into the conversation with, realizing those weren’t true. We can actually deal with the substance of the disagreement.

When we can have a conversation not out of defensiveness, but out of curiosity to learn more about the other, I think we both come away from that conversation feeling more human, feeling closer in relationship, and feeling like we’ve demonstrated a minor miracle: to find that common ground that many people in our world never get to experience, because it’s not what’s rewarded in our current media context.

It sounds like you’re talking about personalizing the other. Personalizing the person sitting across from you. Noticing their dignity and being open and willing to be surprised about what’s really there. It’s almost like you’re restoring their humanity in your mind, for the sake of listening to them.

Right. We live in a world where labeling has become second nature, with sound bites and attempts to categorize people into certain positions, whether it’s political or theological, we’re quick to identify conservative and liberal.

As human beings, we’re quick to want to control the other versus actually learn from the other. So we tend to write people off. And that’s not humility. That’s not the way of Jesus. That’s not the way we’re called as followers to engage this beautiful world of wonderful people made in his image.

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Finding a Language of Love

An Interview with John M. Perkins

How we are talking past each other

John M. Perkins was born in 1930 on a Mississippi cotton plantation, a son of a sharecropping family. When John was 17, a police officer shot and killed his older brother Clyde, a World War II hero who received a Purple Heart.

In the wake of the shooting, John fled New Hebron, Mississippi for California, where he became a follower of Jesus and a vocal community organizer. After 10 years of civil rights activism back in Mississippi—working for desegregation, the right to vote, and economic justice—Perkins was arrested in 1970 after a protest march, and then jailed, tortured, and beaten to within an inch of his life. His response was forgiveness. A forgiveness that included a determination to see the conversation around race and injustice improve. His life’s work speaks for itself. And it speaks a language of love.

The Table: Dr. Perkins, you’ve been thinking about race relations for a long time. In your opinion, is the current conversation about race a constructive dialogue? And if not, what can we do to think—and speak—differently about race?

Perkins: We could think biblically. Think, with the Declaration of Independence, that all humankind—saved or unsaved—is created in the image of God and has inherent dignity. That all human beings bear the face of God, and then to treat them with dignity.

But we don’t have that conversation.

That would be a language of love. A language of respect. And I think our language in reconciliation is not a good language. Our conversation is not a good conversation.

Racism as we know it now—especially for Christians—never should have been. That’s what the gospel was designed to do. That’s the experience we get at Pentecost and in the early church. It’s very clear that God had made from one race, from one blood, all the nations that dwell upon the earth. It was their dispersing that created the language differences and ethnicities, which are now taken as race. So our language gets confused when we make the assumption of race.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all human beings were created equal…” That seems to me—a third-grade drop out—pretty simple. So we are not doing well, because we are talking past one another. We can’t have that conversation that we want to have. And we’re fearful of each other. Our language is so violent, you understand; so we have to then be so careful, in order to have that difficult conversation.

What are the consequences of talking past one another? What’s the result?

We’re missing each other. In Ferguson, in New York… we’re missing each other. People don’t feel like they have been affirmed. Those who have so long been held in captivity because our nation, our people, our church won’t truly acknowledge that racism was hideous. It was damaging. We often create inferiority in our very methods, in our behaviors.

We have to find a language of love. A language of affirmation.

So we’re missing it. We’re missing it. We’re just fighting fire in our society.

Quote: We can't communicate when we don't affirm. We're still operating out of an environment of superiority and inferiority, instead of operating out of a deep respect for humanity.

How can we recover a language of love and reconciliation?

One model would be to take that Chronicles verse very seriously. “If my people that are called by my name would humble and pray and seek my face…” God said he would hear from heaven, forgive us our sins, and heal our land. But our society has benefited from segregation and slavery. And black folks don’t feel like white folks have repented sufficiently.

So you get young folks who are angry, who seek freedom at any cost. And we see the damage of that. But which is more important? Stealing the cigar? Reaching for the gun? Or killing those kids? Now, none of those should have been. You know?

But the idea is that we can’t communicate when we don’t affirm. We’re still operating out of an environment of superiority and inferiority, instead of operating out of a deep respect for humanity.

I think that people like you and me want to do something about it. But the only way we can do it is to have dialogue, and to have dialogue in an affirming way in our society.

How do you encourage people to listen? And how do you teach people to speak in a language of love?

Can we have a conversation? Come now. Let us reason together.

The very thought of “reasoning together” assumes that we’ve got some major disagreement. So we’re going to reason together so that we might come up and heal that disagreement. So we need to be affirming of the humanity. Not cursing or violent as we make our approach.

As we listen to each other and share our differences—not in a violent way—looking for and believing that our mutual understanding comes first.

Asking, “Where does our pain come from? Why are you hurting?” And I give you your pain. And I say that you’re hurting. And you give me my pain. And we say that we’re hurting.

Frantz Fanon, who was a mid-20th-century Algerian psychiatrist, said the oppressed would have to come to the place in a way that they can tell the oppressor, “You’re oppressing me.” And the oppressor is open and hears that person. That’s the language—the dialogue—you’ve got to create. You’ve got to create a language where we really hear each other. Where we feel each other’s pain.

And I think Jesus would say that’s a language of love.

That would mean that we would have to sit down and reason together. That we must have this conversation. That we must listen to each other.

We’ve got to be close enough to the situation that we can listen to the pain. So Christians have to be present. Be there. I’m hoping and praying that this will create a deeper conversation.

So it’s a loving, genuine conversation we need at this moment. That’s no small task.

It’s a conversation. It’s a holistic conversation that we need. But we start with the affirmation of human dignity, and then an understanding of justice. Because if we don’t have justice, we don’t know where to go. We won’t have balance.

That’s why the prophet says, “He has shown thee O Man what the Lord requires of you.” To do justice, and love mercy, and then to walk equally—humbly, respectfully—before both God and the world, our society. “Give none offense: neither to the Jew, not to the Gentile, not to the church of God.” Be respectful. It’s that respectful conversation and that listening that we’ve got to get a hold of and I pray that what comes out of this moment is a language of love.

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Quote - Issue #4

Biola CCT / The Table Admin

By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer.

With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!

My friends, this can’t go on.

As this quote points out, taming the tongue is nearly impossible. For some advice on how to do it practically, see this discussion between Robert George and Cornell West. 

John Hendrix


JOHN HENDRIX loves to draw. In fact, he would much rather be drawing than writing this self-aggrandising bio.

John’s work has appeared in numerous publications, such as Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times, and Time Magazine among many others. He has also drawn book jackets for the likes of Roaring Brook, Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Greenwillow Books, Knopf, Penguin, Abrams Books and St. Martin’s Press. His images also appeared in advertising campaigns for ESPN/ABC, AT&T, and Travelocity. John’s drawings have won numerous awards, including the Society of Illustrator’s Silver Medal in 2006 and 2008, the 2009 3×3 Gold Medal in sequential illustration and the SILA Silver Best of Show Award. His images have also appeared in the annual award publications American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Society for Publication Design, Communication Arts, AIGA 50 Books 50 Covers Show and Print’s Regional Design Annual.

In addition to his illustration work, John is teaching illustration and typography in the Communication Design program at Washington University in St. Louis. John was elected President of ICON7- The Illustration Conference, a biennial global summit for the illustration community, in 2012. In that same year, John chaired The Society of Illustrators 55th Annual Show.

His first picture book “Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek,” was named and ALA Notable book of 2008 and won the Comstock Award for read aloud books. John’s book, “John Brown: His Fight for Freedom” the first he has both written and illustrated, won the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal and was named one of the “Best Books of 2009” by Publisher’s Weekly. His 2012 book, “A Boy Called Dickens” was described as “touching and believable” by The New York Times.

Born in the gritty midwestern suburbs of St. Louis, John attended The University of Kansas to study graphic design and illustration. He graduated with a degree in Rock Chalk and Visual Communication in 1999. After working for a few years as a designer, John moved from Kansas to New York City. John attended The School of Visual Arts MFA “Illustration as Visual Essay” program and graduated in 2003 with some honors and some debt. During his time living and working in New York, John taught at Parsons School of Design and worked at The New York Times as Assistant Art Director of the Op-Ed page for several years. John lives in the St. Louis neighborhood of University City, with his beautiful bride Andrea, son Jack and daughter Annie.