When is the last time you heard someone say the following about a controversial issue: “This is what I believe, but I may be wrong”?
We are often quick to say “this is what I believe.” But the qualification “I may be wrong” is a rarity. Why is that? Rather than dealing in abstractions, I will set the stage for my answer by considering a concrete example with which I have had some direct experience.
Faithful and Fallible
Consider the controversial issue of “immigration reform” in the political realm1. Some citizens and their political representatives or candidates focus on the need to maintain law and order. What they believe is: We need to tighten border security to keep undocumented immigrants out of our country, possibly by building a “higher wall” between the USA and Mexico. We also need to punish those who have broken our laws by entering our country illegally. Christians taking these positions appeal to Romans 13:1-7, which calls for government to maintain order and punish those who break the law.
“It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity.” —Ian Barbour
Other citizens and politicians focus on a need to promote the stability, unity and flourishing of immigrant families in our midst, documented or undocumented. What they believe is: We need to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. We also need to create better Guest Worker programs for those in other countries who can no longer support their families. Christians taking these positions appeal to Deuteronomy 10:18 and the exhortation of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-40 to “welcome the stranger.”
“Humility need not translate into wishy washy beliefs. I hold my beliefs with deep conviction, and am happy to articulate my deeply held beliefs in public discourse.”
Unfortunately, there is virtually no meaningful conversation between these two sets of citizens/politicians because of the prevalence of either/or thinking in the political realm: It’s my way or the highway. Few have any desire to entertain both/and thinking.
Imagining a Both/And Way
What would both/and thinking look like in regards to immigration reform? Imagine along with me a few possible snippets from the kind of “yes/but” conversation that could take place if Christians on both sides of the “immigration reform” issue were willing to say: “While I believe that my position is ‘true,’ I “may be wrong” in believing it is the “whole truth.”
A: In light of Romans 13, Christians should support measures that promote law and order, including punishment of those who have broken the law.
B: Yes, but shouldn’t the punishment “fit the crime?” Is there no middle ground between no punishment for undocumented immigrants and the severe punishment of deportation that is decimating some immigrant families?
If the conversation started above leads both A & B toward serious consideration of a both/and approach toward immigration reform, I can imagine the following further exchange.
A: If we agree on an approach that includes both tighter border security and a pathway to citizenship, can’t politicians legislate that sequentially; tightening up border security first and then providing a pathway to citizenship?
B: Yes, that is a logical possibility, but is it politically feasible? Once the proponents of tighter border security get the legislation they want passed, would there be any political motivation for them to then even consider legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship? It appears to me that legislators must pass comprehensive legislation that provides for both needs, although the legislation could be written in a way that calls for sequential implementation in which a pathway to citizenship is implemented only after there is evidence that measures to tighten border security have succeeded. What do you think?
“… those politicians who desire to reach across the aisle to find both/and solutions to societal problems often get punished on Election Day.”
Such “yes/but” conversations must have taken place in 2013 when a bipartisan “gang of eight” Senators passed a both/and type of comprehensive immigration reform bill that included both the strengthening of border security and an arduous pathway to citizenship that included punishment of undocumented immigrants by means of significant fines. But the bill died in a House of Representatives dominated by hyper-partisan either/or thinking. And no progress toward comprehensive immigration reform has been made since then because the obstacles to both/and thinking in politics are formidable.
Possibly the most formidable obstacle is that politics has often become more about “getting elected” than about “governing well,” and those politicians who desire to reach across the aisle to find both/and solutions to societal problems often get punished on Election Day.2
What Is Christian Political Engagement?
So, what is a Christian who senses a call to engage in politics to do? Surely, slow and laborious steps can be taken to attempt to overcome these obstacles to both/and thinking in politics. But our broken political system will not change easily or quickly since the vested interests in maintaining the status quo are enormous. In that light, I decided a few years ago that instead of just writing essays (like this one), I would help Christians to “just do it” (to borrow a phrase from Nike) by creating a forum for Christians to model a better way to do politics.
“Much of public discourse reflects disdain, demonization and vitriolic name-calling of those who disagree with you.”
I did this by hosting an extended “Alternative Political Conversation” at the website, www.respectfulconversation.net. The conversation included six evangelical Christians who situated themselves all along the political spectrum, from the Heritage Foundation to Sojourners, and addressed twelve contentious societal issues, including the Federal Budget Deficit, Immigration, Poverty, Marriage, Abortion and Gun Control. In order to participate in this electronic conversation (eCircle), each participant had to pledge to abide by the following “guidelines for conversation.”
Guidelines for Respectful Conversation
- I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand.
- I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective.
- I will express my perspective, and my reasons for holding that perspective, with commitment and conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me.
- In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground that can further the conversation. But, if we cannot find common ground, I will conclude that “we can only agree to disagree;” yet I will do so in a way that demonstrates respect for the other and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.
- In aspiring to these ideals for conversation, I will also aspire to be characterized by humility, courage, patience and love.
“I believe the difficulty with being wrong reflects our unwillingness to embrace our humanity, which includes our finitude and fallibility.”
My six contributors abided by these guidelines in an exemplary manner. A book that emerged from this eCircle3 summarized areas of agreement and illuminated disagreements in a manner that can be a springboard for ongoing conversation. A recurring theme that emerged from these twelve conversations was the need for “balance” between competing views on public policy issues,4 which can only emerge from both/and thinking. For example, the consensus of our six contributors was that the only way to solve the federal budget deficit problem is to both cut expenditures and increase revenues; seeking an appropriate “balance” between these two strategies.
Humility: Coming to Terms with Ourselves
Neither my actual “Alternative Political Conversation” nor my imagined “yes/but” conversation about immigration reform could be possible if participants were not willing to qualify their truth claims by saying “I may be wrong.” Why, then, is it so hard for a human being to say “I may be wrong”?
Ultimately I believe the difficulty with being wrong reflects our unwillingness to embrace our humanity, which includes our finitude and fallibility. Because I am a finite and fallible human being, I do not have a “God’s eye” view of the “Truth” about controversial issues. I only have my partial understanding of that “Truth,” which reflects aspects of my particular social location such as my biography, the tradition of thought in which I am embedded, my gender and my social and economic status. In biblical terms, I only “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is this realization of my finitude that calls for “humility,” properly understood.
Humility need not translate into wishy washy beliefs. I hold my beliefs with deep conviction, and am happy to articulate my deeply held beliefs in public discourse. But I aspire to exemplify that rare combination of deep commitment to what I believe to be “True” with openness to the possibility that I may be wrong and can, therefore, learn from engaging in respectful conversation with someone who disagrees with me. The late renowned Christian scholar Ian Barbour has suggested that exemplifying this rare combination is a sign of “religious maturity.”
It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity.5
Love: Making Space for the Other
But humility is not the only prerequisite for respectful conversations about disagreements. Another prerequisite is a commitment to love someone who disagrees with you, in the following way.
No Christian I know of would deny that a “follower of Jesus” is called to “love others” (Mark 12:28-31). But there is an expression of such love for others that is too often neglected: A deep expression of love for a person who disagrees with you is to create a safe, welcoming space for her to express her disagreements and then engage her in respectful conversation about those disagreements. This expression of love for others is the foundation for all my respectful conversation projects, the most recent of which was an extended conversation on my website dealing with nine contentious LGBT topics, informed by the same “guidelines for conversation” noted above.6
The Other-Worldly Strength of Humility and Love
I am guessing that by now a number of my readers are thinking the following: All of the above is totally out of touch with reality; the real, brutish world of public discourse doesn’t work that way and never will.
To be sure, there is a huge chasm between the current state of public discourse and what would appear to be an impossible utopian dream of public discourse informed by humility and love. Much of public discourse reflects disdain, demonization and vitriolic name-calling of those who disagree with you rather than the love that creates a safe, welcoming space for respectful conversation about disagreements. Furthermore, to humbly state that “I may be wrong” is too often taken as a sign of “weakness.”
My attempt to navigate this chasm is informed by a marvelous insight from a recent Palm Sunday sermon given by Elizabeth Hardeman, the co-pastor of the church where I worship,7 about the “collision of two worlds” that took place during Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter.
This is the week in Jesus’ journey and ours that two worlds collide. This is the week that a festive entrance into the city and a foot-washing mingle. This is the week it becomes clear that a hoped-for King and a sacrificial Savior are the same person. This is the week in which shouts of ‘Save us!’ and shrills of ‘Crucify him!’ coexist. This is Palm to Passion Week and Jesus could not be clearer in this week about who he is and what it means to follow him.
To these stark Palm to Passion Week juxtapositions I will add the juxtaposition of the present world of combative public discourse and the potential world of civil discourse that is characterized by humility and love. Elizabeth’s insight teaches me that “following Jesus” requires that I reject the prevailing view of what it means to be “strong” relative to public discourse. To give public expression to humility and love may be considered a sign of weakness in our current world. But, it is a sign of strength in the “colliding world” proclaimed by Jesus.
Tiny Seeds and Big Hopes
In biblical terms the “colliding world” proclaimed by Jesus is called the “Kingdom of God.” And the teaching of Jesus about the “kingdom of God” that drives my passion for humble, loving public discourse is the Parable of the Mustard Seed recorded in Matthew 13:31-32.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches
One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that despite all appearances to the contrary, this Kingdom of God was inaugurated by Jesus and will one day be fully realized “on earth as it is in heaven.”8 This parable of Jesus teaches me that in the meantime I am called, as a follower of Jesus, to plant tiny “seeds of redemption,” entrusting the harvest to God. Planting such tiny seeds may seem like utopian foolishness. But, much like the sight of an early morning sunrise on the horizon provides only a “mere intimation” of the eventual bright light of noonday, so planting tiny seeds of redemption in public discourse, by “modeling” humility and love, provides an intimation of a glorious future to come that can only be seen through the eyes of faith.