Learning from Someone Who Disagrees with you: Immigration Reform and Beyond

It is a challenge for those who hold to their beliefs with deep conviction to acknowledge that they may be wrong about some things and could learn from someone who disagrees with them about the issue at hand.

The root problem is all-or-nothing thinking: I have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and everything the other person believes about the issue is false.

As recorded in Acts 15, the early Christian church modeled a way to get beyond such all-or-nothing thinking by means of conversation. Some Christian Jews believed that Gentiles who wished to embrace the Christian faith needed to be circumcised and keep all other aspects of the “law of Moses” (v. 5). But at the Jerusalem Conference, “all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done though them among the Gentiles” (v. 12).

It appears that the authenticity of the Christian commitment of these Gentiles could not be questioned. So, a compromise was reached: Gentile believers did not have to be circumcised; but they should adhere to some other tenets of the “law of Moses”: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (vs. 28-29).

In this example from many years ago, those who disagreed learned from each other. By means of respectful conversation, they were able to forge a position that reflected some, but not all, of their respective deep convictions. This conversational approach to dealing with disagreements has long since gone out of style, both within the Christian church and the broader culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in our current hyper-partisan political environment.

Political discourse these days is plagued by all-or-nothing thinking. It’s “either my way or the highway.” Little thought is given to the possibility that “both-and” thinking is preferable to “either-or” thinking when it comes to “governing” (rather than just getting elected). The surest way for politicians to be relegated to political oblivion is to suggest that those in “our party” should reach across the aisle to those in “that other party” to talk about their agreements and disagreements, with the goal of agreeing on a legislative position that synthesizes each party’s best thinking about the issue at hand.

Lest this seem like an abstract critique, I will be concrete by considering the hotly debated issue of immigration reform, an issue about which I have been heavily involved in recent years in northwest Iowa (I currently serve as Co-Director of CASA of Sioux County. The vision of the Center for Assistance, Service, and Advocacy is for “transformed northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower and celebrate people from all cultures”). The report that follows is based on face-to-face conversations I have had with three Iowa State legislators as well as with U. S. Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa and U. S. House Representative Steve King from Iowa.

Those politicians and citizens on one side of the aisle typically take a strong “law and order” position regarding undocumented immigrants: They have broken the law by entering the U. S. illegally and should be punished by means of deportation. Christians taking this position appeal to the teaching in Romans 13: 1-7 that governmental authority has been instituted by God and if you “do what is wrong,” government should punish you for your wrongdoing.

Many on the other side of the aisle argue that undocumented immigrants should be provided a “pathway to citizenship.” Christians taking this position appeal to the admonition to “love the stranger” in Deuteronomy 10:18 and the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 to “welcome the stranger” and to care for the vulnerable and marginalized in our midst.

There is obvious tension between these two positions, which would appear to be irreconcilable if those on both sides of the aisle are not willing to talk. But imagine along with me the following possible snippets of conversation.

Yes, those who have broken the law by entering the U. S. illegally should be punished. But should that punishment be deportation? Is there no middle ground between “no punishment” and the severe punishment of deportation that is decimating many immigrant families? Shouldn’t account be taken of the fact that many of our undocumented immigrant neighbors entered our country illegally to flee horrific living conditions in their home countries and/or to provide their families with the necessities of life that most of us take for granted, like food on the table?

Politicians on the same side of the aisle disagree in their responses to these questions. Steve King takes the position that anything short of deportation is “amnesty.” But amnesty means “no punishment.” So, those who argue for a means of punishment short of deportation are not arguing for amnesty. 

Senator Grassley seems to disagree with Congressman King’s view that any punishment short of deportation is amnesty. My understanding of Grassley’s position is that he could be persuaded to support an eventual “pathway to citizenship” provided strong “law and order” measures that have proven to be effective come first. For Grassley, it appears to be a matter of sequencing: first secure the borders and institute appropriate forms of punishment for undocumented immigrants who have broken the law. Then, when that has been accomplished, let’s talk about the possibility of a pathway to citizenship. I know from face-to-face conversation that Grassley’s vote against the comprehensive immigration bill that the U. S. Senate passed in 2013 (more about that later) was primarily because of his lack of trust that President Obama would actually enforce the law and order measures contained in that bill.

By now you may have surmised that the snippets of conversation outlined above are not hypothetical. They were surely part of the conversation between the eight U. S. Senators, representing both sides of the aisle. who passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013; a bill that included BOTH punishment of undocumented immigrants in the form of significant fines AND a lengthy and arduous pathway to citizenship. That bill is an excellent example of the both-and thinking that is sorely needed in the halls of Congress. Unfortunately, that bill died in the U. S. House of Representatives because of the prevalence of either-or thinking in that chamber.

It is not just relative to immigration reform that politicians need to exercise a BOTH/AND approach. As I have elaborated in my book Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation, there are a number of other public policy areas where an either-or approach will be a dead end.

Solving the federal budget deficit problem will require BOTH cuts in expenditures AND increased revenues.

An adequate health care system will require BOTH health insurance coverage for the many who are uninsured AND reducing the spiraling costs of health care.

Adequate K-12 education will require BOTH freedom for entrepreneurial innovation AND regulations that will avoid expressions of such freedom that will harm certain segments of our society.

Adequate gun control will require BOTH addressing the mental health and “culture of violence” problems that beset our nation AND legislatively enacting some common sense gun control measures. 

If I am right about the need for BOTH/AND approaches to most public policy issues, this  

suggests to me a greater need for what some pundits have called “governing from the middle,” not being beholden to the extremists in either major party. Of course, this is much easier said than done since enormous amounts of money are expended on promoting the election of those with extreme views and thwarting the political aspirations of those who wish to engage in “principled compromise” with members of the other party toward balanced BOTH/AND solutions to our most pressing societal problems.

But another major obstacle to BOTH/AND thinking in politics and all other areas of life is a lack of humility, properly understood, a shortcoming that militates against being open to the possibility of learning from someone who disagrees with you.

For me, humility does not mean that one is wishy-washy about his/her 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 (Myths, Models and Paradigms, p. 138).

My ideal for politicians to carefully listen to one another for the purpose of learning from each other’s best insights does not only have “instrumental value”; opening up the possibility of breaking out of our current political gridlock. From my perspective as a Christian, it also has “intrinsic value;” it is the right thing to do whether or not it  “works.” I close with an explanation, which will not be a surprise to those readers who have been following my web site.

Jesus calls those who aspire to be his followers to “love others” (Mark 12: 31). I believe that a deep expression of my love for a person who disagrees with me is to give that person a “voice”; to create a safe and welcoming space for that person to express her point of view and the reasons for her position. It stretches credulity for you to claim that you love someone you have rendered voiceless.

Here is an ideal scenario that could emerge if you create a safe, welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you by first listening carefully with an “empathetic ear” that seeks to “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” As you listen you will get to understand better the particularities of her social location that inform the reasons for her position on the issue at hand, such as her life experiences, the tradition in which she is embedded, her gender and her social and economic status. You may begin to understand that because of her particular social location, she is seeing things that you have missed Hopefully, if she reciprocates by listening to you, she will also come to understand better your reasons for the position you are taking; open to the possibility that you are seeing things that she has missed.

Such mutual understanding has the potential to lead to mutual trust. Rather than you thinking she is some kind of “crazy” (or any other name that we too often ascribe to those we don’t know well who disagree with us), you may see that her she is seeking the same good “end” that you are seeking; your disagreement is about the best “means” toward a shared good end. For example, if you are discussing the problem of poverty in the U. S., you may agree that steps need to be taken to alleviate extreme poverty, but one of you gravitates toward free market mechanisms and the other gravitates toward governmental intervention. But if you trust that you share the same good end, a door is open to the possibility of rejecting either-or thinking. Based on a growing level of mutual understanding and trust, both of you are poised to genuinely learn from one another, thereby forging a BOTH/AND position by means of ongoing conversation.