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The Table Video

Stomping on Jesus: Taking the Perspective of Others in the Argument Culture - Muehlhoff

A professor instructs students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and stomp on it resulting in national outrage and lawsuits against the university. Amidst all the anger and protest no one asks, “Why?” Why would a respected professor do such a thing? Why was Jesus targeted? In today’s vitriolic communication climate differences will be apparent, it will take wisdom to cultivate dialogue, not uncivil debate. The greatest skill needed by Christians entering today’s argument culture will not be the ability to debate, but the ability to take the perspective of those we oppose and foster common ground—even with those who stomp on our deepest convictions.


So we’re in a mess today, everybody recognizes that we’re kind of in a paradox when it comes to communication. On one hand we’re communicating more than we ever have before. If Facebook were its own country, it’d be the third largest country in the world, only lagging behind China and India. Over 200 million tweets are sent everyday, roughly 2,315 per second. But we also realize what Deborah Tannen realized, she’s a Georgetown linguist, that we’re in the argument culture today. That we’re doing communication really poorly when it comes to the most important things that we ought to be talking about, immigration, race, same-sex marriage. We’re losing the ability to talk to each other.

So how do we fix it? Well, we’re not going to fix it in a quick 18 minute talk. But maybe we can identify one of the problems, not all of them, but maybe one of them. Now, before we get to what I think the problem is, I have an assignment for you. And those of you that are multi-taskers, you can do this as I’m describing the problem. You have a piece of paper with you, right? On this piece of paper, Oh, Evan, I need the clicker eventually. On that piece of paper, I want you to draw the flag of your country of origin.

So as I’m speaking to you and describing mostly the argument culture, I want you to feel free to do your best Pictionary drawing of the flag of your country of origin. So what Tannen identified is what we call the argument culture. Now instead of trying to give you an academic definition of it, let me show you the argument culture in action. This is Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo trying to talk about immigration. Let’s watch this.

Bill: That’s the truth. And number two,

That’s true

when you’re caught committing a crime as this man was four times–

Geraldo: He was drunk in public twice

Bill: Four times.

Geraldo: And one time he was a drunk driver with no victims.

Bill: He should’ve been deported the first time, and he was not. And the reason he wasn’t deported–

Geraldo: ‘Cause he didn’t commit a felony.

Bill: Doesn’t make any difference. He committed a crime.

Geraldo: And he didn’t commit a misdemeanor, he didn’t commit a misdemeanor having to do with moral turpitude either.

Bill: So, let me get it straight–

Everyone followed the law. You owe everyone an apology from the governor to the mayor down.

Bill: Not they didn’t. Now I just wanna get this straight. You, Geraldo Rivera, with teenage daughters, are telling me that you are okay with somebody sneaking into the country, becoming drunk, get convicted of a DUI and staying here? You’re all right with that?

My nightmare is my daughters having anything to do with–

Bill: Are you okay with that?

Let me finish my answer. My nightmare is my daughters having anything to do with a person driving drunk. That’s my nightmare. It could be a Jewish drunk. It could be a Polish drunk.

Bill: But this guy didn’t have to be here.

Geraldo: It could be an Irish drunk. It could be an Italian drunk.

American crime–

Geraldo: What the hell difference does it make?

Bill: It makes plenty of difference!

It does not.

He doesn’t have a right to be here!

He didn’t commit a felony.

He doesn’t have a right to be in this country!

But that has nothing to do with the fact–

Yes it does!

Tim: All right, let’s stop it there. Stop it, ’cause then it gets really bad, okay? [audience laughing] I could ask you what you see in it, but I’d really rather ask what you didn’t see in it. No attempt for common ground. No attempt for clarification. No attempt for nuance. See those are seen as weaknesses within the argument culture.

Any type of acknowledgement is seen as condoning. Common ground is seen as giving on your particular stance. Now, three communication scholars got together and said, how bad is the communication culture today? Well, let’s imagine Abraham Lincoln running for president today and what would an attack ad look like against Honest Abe?

Narrator: Has president Lincoln given up? At a speech in Pennsylvania, he even refused to dedicate a battlefield, still fresh with blood of tens of thousands of Union soldiers.

We can not dedicate. We can not consecrate. We can not hallow this ground.

Narrator: Lincoln believes that America will perish from the earth.

Perish from the earth.

Narrator: And that our soldiers have died in vain.

Died, in vain.

Narrator: Honestly Abe, died in vain?

In vain, in vain, in vain, in vain.

Narrator: Abraham Lincoln, wrong on the war. Wrong for the Union.

George: Hi, I’m George B. McClellan and I approve this message. So in the argument culture, I don’t seek to understand, I seek to defeat you. I don’t seek to find common ground, I seek to listen to you but only to use that later against you as I marshal these facts. So, how do we step into the argument culture? First we have to identify what the problem is which we haven’t yet, as you’re finishing your drawing. But let’s talk about, based on my research, why is it that people don’t have difficult conversations?

Matter of fact, let me ask you this question. How many of you know that right now you need to have a difficult conversation with a person but you have yet to have it? Show of hands. Yeah, interesting. But to ask you, why? There are three different answers that emerge. One is I actually do have this conversation with this person, I imagine it, it always goes poorly. Second, I’ve actually had it and it went poorly and made a note to self, never bring up this topic again.

But number one on the list was, I don’t have a strategy by which to do it. I don’t know how to bring it up, and I don’t know how to bring it up in such a way that it will be productive not destructive. I got encouragement from the Book of Proverbs. Trying to integrate the scriptures with communication theory. Interesting proverb. The writer says, When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him. I love the realism of that verse. We’re going to have enemies, but it’s still possible, says the ancient writer, that we can live in harmony with each other. We still could have peace, even though we have these very deep and divisive disagreements. So what I did was go to the Book of Proverbs and kind of categorize them using communication principles and I came up with a strategy. Four essential questions that we need to ask as we try to structure a conversation.

Now, each one of these questions need to be asked in sequence. So the very first, and again, these aren’t earth-shattering by any means. Question number one, What does this person believe? I may know what you believe, I may think I know what you believe, but I’m gonna let you tell me what you believe. Proverbs 18:13 says, It is folly and shame to speak before listening. Both are interesting.

Folly, because I don’t know your position, yet I’m going to respond to it. This is probably my wife’s biggest complaint. I was on the debate team in college. So my wife will start to say something and I’ll launch into a rebuttal. I’ll just start to disagree with her. And she’ll say, “That’s not even what I was saying.” And my response to her is, “But if it was, right, that’d be a good response.” So it’s folly. But I think it’s interesting that the writer adds shame to it. It is shameful, degrading for you to speak before listening to a person.

Question number two I think it the most important. Why does this person believe it, why? Harvard Negotiation Project says we make one big mistake when we negotiate with each other. We only share conclusions, we don’t share how we arrived at the conclusion. Question number three, Where do we agree with each other? We don’t like that as Christians. Agreeing with the Quran is condoning the Quran. Question number four, based on all this information, how should I proceed? Now what I like about this is it’s a strategy, John Gottman, one of the top marital researchers says, the most important thing about any conversation is the first minute. He calls it the Critical Startup. Often we have harsh startups.

I’m so frustrated with you I’m just gonna tell you exactly what I believe. So, no no, we start by not focusing on me, focusing on you. I wanna hear what you have to say. And then I want to know why you believe these things are incredibly important. Does that make sense? So, you have your pictures, they’re done? This is your country, this is a flag of the country of origin? Show ’em to me really quick. Just show ’em to me. Awesome. What different countries do we have? What country is that?

Audience: India

India, awesome. United States. What’s that right there? Peru, awesome. Now what if I asked you to take that, put it on the ground and step on it? Ooh, got some reaction from people. Who wouldn’t do it? Why wouldn’t you do it? What’s your name?

Heather: My name’s Heather.

Heather, why wouldn’t you do it?

Heather: I take pride in my flag.

Oh, no doubt, I do too. Can you show me your picture? Okay, is that your flag? Or is that a folded piece of paper with a symbol on it?

Heather: Both.

Both? Oh, okay, good. So how many of you wouldn’t step on it? Okay, now let’s do a different thing. Now what if I had you write Jesus on it? Jesus on this piece of paper? Then, I ask you as your professor, to put it on the ground and have you step on it. How many of you absolutely would not step on Jesus? Show of hands. But why?

See, here’s what happened to Deandre Poole at Florida Atlantic University. He had his students do this assignment. Write Jesus on a piece of paper, put it on the ground, now step on it. And you know what the result was? Death threats. He had to be put on leave of absence. People were threatening to sue him, particularly Christians. But nobody did question number two. With him, nobody stopped and said, but why? Why were you doing this assignment? What’s behind it?

By the way, Deandre Poole, self-confessed Christian. Teaches a Sunday school class. It’s not an original assignment. It’s an assignment that’s been around for those studying intercultural communications for the last thirty years. I did the flag assignment when I was teaching a class with Ted Striphas at UNC Chapel Hill, we did the flag assignment. And engaged students to say you know what the point of it is? That symbols are really important.

Symbols, we go to war over symbols. We have a culture war over symbols. Marriage, what does it mean to have a family? That was the point. But in the argument culture we just go into attack mode. Again, because I even justify it in saying what reason could you have for stepping on Jesus? For stomping on Jesus? You could have no justifiable reason for doing that thus, I get to violate the first three steps of the model.

There’s absolutely no common ground in stomping on Jesus ’cause you’d never stomp on Mohammad would you? We immediately think of rebuttals. So what I want to argue, I think, from my perspective, is one of the biggest problems we have today is that we just trade conclusions. We never stop to say, why would a self-identified Christian who teaches Sunday school, have students in his intercultural class write the word Jesus, put it on the ground and then have them step on it? We never stop to do that in the culture war.

That’s seen as compromise. Hey, I don’t need to know why the terrorists do what they do. I don’t need to know why racist police officers do what they do. I just say it’s wrong and I jump right to question number four. This is how you should fix your world view. And I think that’s a big problem today. Now my students, god bless ’em, are just resistant to come around to this. There are certain things, they just go into attack mode because they’ve been primed to do it. But here’s the value of doing what I’m doing. Why does this person believe?

Question number two. So here’s Steve Jobs, right? Interesting, if you were to work with Steve Jobs it would not have been a pleasant experience. What we know about him is that he was absolutely brilliant. Really hard to work with. He even got fired from the company he created. So here you have a man that is most likely a narcissist, this is how some have described him. He was a perfectionist to the point that he could not listen to other people.

Nothing was done right. No doubt working with him would be very difficult. Until Jeff Goodall did an interview with him in Rolling Stone’s magazine and came up with this very interesting conclusion. This is what he says. The central trauma of his life, after all, was being given up for adoption by his parents, and now he was being kicked out of his second family, Apple, the company he founded. A close friend once speculated to me that Steve’s drive came from a deep seated desire to prove that his parents were wrong to give him up. A desire, in short, to be loved. Or more precisely, a desire to prove that he was somebody worth loving.

Now, you still have to work with Steve Jobs the next day. But how did that help? Or did it? By the way, don’t confuse empathy and sympathy. Two totally different concepts. Empathy, I project myself into your situation. Sympathy, you actually have an emotional reaction from me. I can look at you and say, you came from a broken family. Tough luck. I can project myself into it but evoke no sympathy whatsoever. So we need to be both empathetic and sympathetic.

I think it’d maybe make us a little more tender-hearted towards Steve Jobs. Not that we wouldn’t question his perfectionism But maybe from a place of compassion. See I love what’s been said this entire weekend. I love that we need to do critique with our hearts. We need to be compassionate. Paul says in Galatians 6:1, You catch a person in a trespass, he’s wrong. It’s undeniable, Paul says in Chapter six. He’s wrong, he’s in a trespass.

You who are spiritual, ouch, convict such a person with gentleness. See I think we’ve become very ungentle communicators. We’ve become very harsh. Now I love what we’re saying this weekend, but it’s going to be a hard sell to actually pull it off. To have a stop before we go into attack mode. ‘Cause we’ve been conditioned to do it.

So I show ’em, instead of trying to convince my students of that, I just give them assignments that trigger their buttons. That’s all I do. So here’s one of them. Okay, Michael Hart wrote a book sure to offend everybody. He wrote a book called The Top 100. He wanted to identify the top 100 most influential people in human history. By the way, from a gender standpoint, ladies, apparently you weren’t doing anything.

You didn’t make much of that top 100. I don’t know what you were doing, but he didn’t identify it, right? So the top 100, he ranks ’em 100 to number one. I show my students his top ten out of order. I don’t rank his top ten, I just show my students the top ten. Here’s his top ten. Albert Einstein, Buddha, Columbus, Isaac Newton, Gutenburg, Ts’ai Lun, the creator of paper, those of you who’ve taken notes will appreciate that. St. Paul, Muhammad, Jesus Christ and Confucius. Now I have them rank ’em. They sit down they go from ten to one. Let me show you his top list with the top three omitted. Number ten, Albert Einstein. Number nine, Christopher Columbus. Eight, Gutenberg. Seven, Ts’ai Lun. Six, Saint Paul. Five, Confucius. Four, Buddha.

Now, we’re to the top three. And then, I show them what the three is. And they’ve already ranked it. Here’s third on this list. Immediately, we have problems. [audience laughing] God just got bronze. And, and, and, Muhammad better not be first. He had better not be– Jesus doesn’t get beat by Muhammad like that. So he better not get first. So let me show you number two. Isaac Newton. [audience gasping] Go ahead. Boom! Muhammad. Now what happens at Biola? My students go into attack mode. That’s ridiculous. Oh that’s stupid.

What do you expect from blah, blah, blah– And I just go stop, stop, what are we missing? What are we missing? Finally somebody says, I don’t know his criteria. Yeah. Hey how about that? What’s his criteria. Here’s what Michael Hart says, he says this, listen. Life can be broken up into two broad categories, science, religion, but both are equally important, right? Imagine being at this conference without a microphone, lights, right?

So science is really important. So my top two are always going to be, somebody representing religion, somebody representing science. It’s always going to be that. I’m not gonna have two science, and I’m not gonna have two religion in the top spots. So just get ready for that, that’s what I’m doing. Obviously, religion is important to me. Six of my top ten are religious figures. Hello, Christianity, you got Jesus and you got Saint Paul at number six. But it’s just like American Idol, Saint Paul siphons votes away from Jesus. So, so, we now come to the top two. It’s either gonna be Jesus or it’s going to be Muhammad.

How would you ever distinguish between the two? Well, I’ll let Jesus distinguish it. Jesus said, I am just a religious leader. I am not a military leader and I am not a political leader. Muhammad was a political leader and a religious leader and a military leader. He was more diversified. So I’m gonna give a nod to religion, put it number one. I’m putting Isaac Newton number two, was always going to be a science person. Number three is going to be Jesus. Dead silence in my class. Dead silence. Finally, one person raises his hand, says, “I don’t know if I can say this, “But I don’t have a problem with that.” Excuse me, this is the Biblical Institute of Los Angeles. What? So notice what he did. He said one, I kinda sorta got it. It kinda sorta made sense.

And I can find common ground with him. By the way, what is the one thing Michael Hart is omitting that would absolutely shoot Jesus to number one. He’s not admitting Jesus was God. I just assumed God would get the top spot. But that’s a conversation I want to have later with Michael Hart. By the way, if I meet and have lunch with him, a professor from the Biblical Institute of Los Angeles, what do you think he’s already geared for?

Dude, there’s not way Jesus gets bronze, get out of here. He’s ready for it. He’s ready for it. So, I first sit down with him, I first say, hey what a great book. By the way, did you read it? Yeah I did, I read it. Didn’t read a Christian critique of it. I read it. And I really liked it. You gotta be one brave person. Yeah, I’ve gotten a lot of criticism. I can only imagine the criticism you got publishing that in North America. Second, I think your criteria is really interesting and there’s a ton of it I agree with, I really do.

Well, you know, Jesus was the– I know he’s third but based on your world view that makes total sense to me, I get that. Later, I might want to say one thing to him. By the way, it’s based on the relational impact. I might not want to say anything to Michael Hart, challenging anything, because I have contact with him, I have access to him. He’s expecting a rebuttal. Now sometimes abnormal communication is just bypassing that.

And I don’t want to offend Michael more. Book of Proverbs says an offended brother is like a fortified city. Now, eventually, after I build his trust, I show that I understand his perspective, then maybe I can enter into this dialogue with him. So let me close with– Oh we don’t have time for that. It’ll probably change your life, we didn’t have time for it. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I love this, this is my favorite Longfellow quote, and I’ll be honest with ya, it’s my only Longfellow quote. That’s it, this is all I got from Longfellow. This is what he says, If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

To know the pain of a Michael more, or the pain of racist police officers. To know the pain of that. Because that’s what God did in the Incarnation. He understood our follyness and our pain and then redeemed us. So what I’m trying to say, for us Christians, let’s have a little bit of a speed bump here. Where James says, I want to be quick to hear, slow to anger, listen. Evan, thank you. [suspenseful music]