Expressing your Christian Beliefs with Deep Conviction, Openness, Gentleness and Respect

Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, points to the rarity of Christians combining deep convictions about their beliefs with gentleness and respect toward those who disagree with them in a fascinating and disturbing reflection on the many sermons he heard during his boyhood days in a Christian Reformed Church in New Jersey on the last two sentences in 1 Peter 3: 15.

 … Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect … (NIV)

Richard’s observation, expressed in a meeting we both attended, was that he had heard many sermons on the first sentence, but he has no recollection of ever hearing a sermon on the second sentence.

This radical example of the penchant of many Christians to tear biblical passages out of their context (within the same verse, mind you) points to the rarity of the combination of commitment and openness. Here is my own elaboration.

The first sentence from 1 Peter 3:15 suggests that Christians should be prepared to state their beliefs with clarity and conviction. That reflects strong commitment to one’s Christian beliefs. So far, so good! But the oft-neglected second sentence suggests how a Christian should state her strong convictions; with “gentleness and respect.” For me this exhortation to be “gentle and respectful” means that at the same time that you state your Christian beliefs with clarity and conviction; you are open to listening to the contrary beliefs of others and then talking respectfully about your agreements and disagreements.

In this day when many Christians succumb to the scourge of tribalism, an us-versus-them mentality that asserts that “me and my people” (e.g., my particular church or Christian tradition) have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but truth about the issue at hand, and “those other folks” possess very little, if any, of that truth, it is all too easy for Christians to embrace commitment, but to eschew “openness.” The rarity of this combination of “commitment” and “openness is the main obstacle to Christians embracing and learning from Christians who worship in “other” churches or Christian traditions.

Before suggesting a strategy for overcoming this obstacle, I will reflect on what I consider to be three root causes of the rarity of effectively combining commitment and openness: a denial of diversity in Christian belief; a desire for prominence and power; and a lack of humility.

Diversity in Christian belief has been prominent since the early days of the Christian church and it is here to stay. Many Christian historians have documented this truth. As Catherine Breckus and Clark Gilpin have cogently pointed out, failure to acknowledge this truth is often driven by a tendency to consider “manyness” a failure and, therefore, to falsely identify your “own part” of the entire Christian tradition “with the whole.”

… Christians usually identify “manyness” as a failure. Christians believe that in the ideal world, the tradition is supposed to be singular, and rather than confronting its plurality, they have usually chosen to identify their own part of it with the whole (American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity, 4)

One major obstacle to combining commitment and openness is the denial of “Christian diversity” that considers “manyness” to be a failure.

A second major obstacle is the tendency for some Christians to submerge or marginalize those from other Christian traditions to maintain prominence and power. It appears to me that some Christians avoid engaging those from other Christian traditions, or those who hold differing beliefs about a given issue, for fear that if they are given a voice, the result could be a diminishment of the current dominance of our tradition, or our particular beliefs about the issue under consideration, or the respectability or prestige or support that our Christian organization has?

In conversations I have had with some prominent Christian leaders related to my focus on giving a voice to everyone and  creating a safe and welcoming space for the expression of disagreement (and from similar conversations that other people have reported to me), I have been saddened by a pattern in responses that in effect asks “What will our constituents or supporters think if that find out we are even talking about such a controversial issue?” Is such a response guided more by adherence to values such as cultural acceptance, admiration, prestige and power than commitment to foundational Christian values like love, courage and the quest for truth? I respectfully suggest that these prominent Christian leaders failed to dig down deep to foundational Christian values?

A third obstacle to combining commitment and openness is a lack of humility. That will take some explanation since the Christian virtue of humility is often misunderstood.

It has been my experience that elements of my biography deeply inform my beliefs, as do other elements of my social location, such as my gender, my race, my sexual orientation and my socio-economic status. The beliefs of someone who disagrees with me about a given issue may be deeply informed by her differing set of particularities that may enable her to see things that I miss; just as my unique particularities may enable me to see things that she misses. And since we are both finite and fallible human beings, we cannot claim that either of our partial glimpses captures the full truth on the matter, as only fully understood by God. In addition, I can be blinded when I succumb to the temptation to sin by thinking “it’s all about me and those who agree with me.” As scripture teaches, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is hubris; a gross failure to exemplify an appropriate attitude of humility for me to assume that I have a God’s eye view of the truth about the issue at hand. It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that the contrary beliefs of another person may help me to refine my beliefs; possibly improving them, and possibly even correcting them.

Note that such humility does not mean being wishy-washy about your beliefs. Rather, it involves you holding in tension that very rare combination of embracing and expressing your beliefs with clarity and deep conviction at the same time that you publicly acknowledge that you may have only a partial, truncated view of the “whole truth” and you may even be “wrong” about some things.

Both Ian Barbour and Richard Mouw have given eloquent expression to the nature of this rare combination. In his book Myths, Models and Paradigms, Barbour proposes the following definition 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 (136).

In his splendid book Uncommon Decency, Richard Mouw draws on Martin Marty in highlighting the importance of “civility” in living out this rare combination of commitment and inquiry, calling for a “convicted civility.” 

One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility … We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a “passionate intensity” about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility (12).

Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs, you have yours; end of conversation). Commitment to your own beliefs without openness to listening to and respectfully discussing the beliefs of others too easily leads to fanaticism, even terrorism. (As C. S. Lewis has observed, to which past and recent world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it.” – Reflections on the Psalms, 28): One of the most pressing needs in our world today, is for all human beings, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments, to embrace, and hold in tension, both commitment and openness; giving living expression to “convicted civility.”

Do we Christians often avoid engaging those from other Christian traditions, or those who hold differing beliefs about a given issue, because we lack that measure of humility required to acknowledge that our finitude and fallibility beg us to engage in conversation with other finite and fallible Christians having differing views of the truth, so that together we may gain a better approximation to the full truth as only understood by God?

Overcoming these three obstacles will be difficult in an age where many Christians have succumbed to the scourge of tribalism. Assuming that by God’s grace these formidable obstacles can be overcome, or at least ameliorated, is there a practical strategy for effectively combining commitment and openness when engaging with those “others” (Christian or otherwise) who disagree with you. I close with a strategy suggested by Richard Mouw

Based on his extensive experience with inter-faith dialogues with Catholic, Jews and Mormons, Mouw has provided excellent advice on how to signal to your conversation partners your openness to listening to their contrary viewpoints as a first step in your conversation. He used to jump right into the fray, telling the other person, in no uncertain terms, why she “is wrong,” which only led to defensiveness. Now he starts by saying to the other person, “help me to understand what it is you believe [about the issue at hand] and your reasons for believing that.”

Mouw found that this way to start the conversation “softens the heart.” As the writer of Proverbs says (15:1), “A soft answer turns away wrath.” I have some first-hand experience that testifies to the wisdom of this way to start a conversation in my many recent attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about hot-button issues. It is wise because when the other person realizes that you are genuinely interested in understanding what she believes and why she holds to those beliefs, she will often reciprocate, leading to the quest for mutual understanding; which, hopefully, can lead to the trust needed to begin sorting through disagreements in the hope of finding some common ground, or, if that doesn’t happen, at least illuminating remaining disagreements sufficient to enable ongoing conversation.

Sitting with Others and Listening

In my recent book Reforming American Politics, I propose 12 steps toward reforming American politics that flow from my commitment to stated Christian values. My first proposal is that before you begin talking about disagreements regarding hot-button political issues, you first need to lay a strong foundation by developing personal relationships of mutual understanding (hopefully leading to trust) with the person with whom you disagree. But how do you do that?

Two persons who have in-depth of experiences respectfully engaging others who do not share their own faith commitments tell us about the way to start in their stellar contributions to the book My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories on Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (Orbis Books, 2012).

Najeeba Syed-Miller, a Muslim practitioner of conflict resolution among communities of ethnic and religious diversity, shares a “basic precept she lives by.”

I must sit with others and listen to them in order to get to know them (p. 110).

Richard Mouw, a Protestant Christian practitioner of respectful engagement with members of the Catholic, Jewish and Mormon faith communities strikes a similar chord.

I have tried to understand people with whom I disagree about important issues, listening carefully to them (p. 116).

My own attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations among those who have strong disagreements comport well with the suggestions of Syed-Miller and Mouw.

I have failed miserably when I have allowed those who disagree to prematurely “jump into the fray” (“Here is why you are wrong”).

I have had a modicum of success when I have provided those who disagree with one another a safe space to eventually express and discuss their disagreements by first allowing them to “sit down together” (figuratively in electronic conversations and literally in face-to-face conversations) to listen to one another and openly share their beliefs about the issue at hand and the respective reasons they have for holding to those beliefs.

I have found that by first “sitting with the other and listening well,” the other person’s tendency to be defensive can be overcome (it “softens the heart,” so to speak): “Wow! She actually wants to understand me.” This encourages reciprocity (“I should also seek to understand her”). Hopefully, this reciprocity will establish that level of mutual understanding and trust that must be attained before fruitfully laying bare and discussing disagreements.

A First Step Beyond Postmodernism and Tribalism: A Soft Answer Turns Away Wrath

THE DIFFERING CHALLENGES FROM POSTMODERNISM AND TRIBALISM

Postmodernism is a complex movement that defies an easy description. But one discernible aspect of the movement is to call into question the “universality of Truth.” As the argument goes, we all have our socially constructed views about the “Truth” relative to the matter at hand; but there is no “Truth” (with a capital “T”) that transcends our individual or group “truths” (with a lower-case “t”). This leads to an easy relativism; you have “your truth,” I have “my truth”; there is no point in talking about our “differing truths.”

I spent 40 years serving in the academy, where the merits and demerits of Postmodernism are hotly debated. But since my “retirement” (of sorts), in my attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations regarding contentious hot-button issues, especially political issues, with men and women on main street and the men and women sitting in church pews, my primary challenge has not been postmodernism; it has been quite the opposite.

In brief, most persons outside the halls of institutions of higher education are not conversant with the academic debates regarding postmodernism. And in my many conversations with them, not once have I heard anyone call into question the “universality of truth” that is called into question in Postmodernism.

Quite to the contrary, most of the people I have engaged with in  northwest Iowa hold to the “universality of truth” with a vengeance, by which I mean that whatever hot button issue is being discussed, they believe, with great emotion and passion that there is “Truth”  relative to that issue, and, furthermore, if you want to know what that Truth is, just ask them.

In brief, the challenge I have experienced again and again in engaging such persons is their belief that relative to the hot button issue they and those who agree with them have the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth and “those other folks” who disagree with them do not possess one iota of that Truth, and in its most pernicious form they believe that because those “other folks” are completely wrong, they are evil and need to be demonized. Those “other folks” can be those who attend another church, or those who worship in another religious tradition. those who claim no religious commitment, or, in the political realm, those who belong to that other political party.

Therefore, my experience in the trenches of political conversations in northwest Iowa, especially in numerous conversations I have had about the need for comprehensive immigration  reform, the main challenge has been “tribalism,” an emotionally based “us-versus-them” mentality that believes that me and my group (our tribe) has the complete Truth about the issue at hand, and, therefore, there is nothing to be gained from engaging  “those other folks” in respectful conversations about our disagreements. (the same conclusion reached in Postmodernism, but for a different reason).

The lesson to be learned from this first segment (of three) of my Musing is the need to know your audience. The challenges you may face when attempting to orchestrate respectful conversations about strong disagreements in the academy will differ from those you face on main street or in your church (although, as I will only hint at in my third segment, the “place to start” in addressing these differing challenges may be similar).

A GOOD POSTMODERN INSIGHT

I would like to “put in a good word” for a “soft version” of postmodernism (a friend of mine once called me a “soft postmodernist”). That begs for some explanation.

Whereas I reject a “strong postmodernism” that says that “Truth is a myth,” I believe there is truth in the postmodern assertion that our claims to knowing that Truth are socially conditioned., what has been called “perspectivalism.” Let me briefly elaborate.

As a finite, fallible human being, I do not have the mind of God that gives me access to “Truth” (with a capital “T”) about the issue at hand that may only be known to God  All of us human beings have only partial, fallible glimpses to that Truth, for as is taught in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we all “see through a glass darkly.” So, my partial glimpse of the Truth may differ from yours, reflecting my particular social location. Because of my personal pilgrimage, including my upbringing in a particular religious tradition, my socio-economic class, my gender, my unique experiences in life, I may see things that you miss. And, likewise, because of the unique elements of your personal pilgrimage you may see things that I miss.

Therefore, as we collectively seek to gain a better approximation to the Truth (as only God fully understands it) we need to listen to and talk respectfully to each other, so that we can learn from the particular insights into that Truth that emerge from our respective pilgrimages.

If I am right about that, this has potential implications for one element of how Christian scholars in the academy can engage non-Christin scholars regarding postmodernism (what I called the “Postmodern Opportunity” for “Christians in the Academy” in an article I published in the Winter 1996 issue of the Christian Scholar’s Review)

Briefly put, no one comes from nowhere. Every scholar, whatever his/her religious or secular worldview, has a set of beliefs about the nature of reality and his/her place in that reality, including a set of value commitments. The idea that Christian scholars and other religious scholars bring their value commitments to the academy while secular scholars are “neutral” is nonsense.

If I am right about that, then simple logic demands that all perspectives, religious or secular, should be “out on the table” for discussion on an “even playing field” in the academy.  In their conversations about postmodernism in the academy, Christian scholars should hold their colleagues to that logic.

THE FIRST STEP IN A WAY FORWARD ON MAIN STREET AND IN YOUR CHURCH

I believe that the logic behind my call (immediately above) for an “even playing field” in the academy, where all perspectives regarding postmodernism and its implication for having respectful conversations about strong disagreements can gain a “fair hearing,” is impeccable. But the reality in many institutions of higher education is that this logic is generally ignored; perspectives informed by explicitly religious convictions are generally not welcome. I will leave it to those serving at such institutions of higher education to struggle with how best to address that obstacle. But in the remainder of this Musing, I will outline a “starting point” that I have found, without exception, to be effective in my attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about strong disagreements among persons on main street and sitting in church pews, just hinting at the possibility that this strategy could also be effective as a “starting point” amongst academics who disagree about whether perspectives informed by explicitly religious convictions should be given a hearing in the academy.

My proposed “starting point” for embarking on respectful conversations about any controversial issue is the first of 12 steps that I propose as a “Way Forward” in my recent book Reforming American Politics: develop personal relationships of mutual understanding with those with whom you disagree.

The priority of this proposal flows from something that Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, once said about a radical change that he made in approaching someone who disagrees with him. He used to jump right into the fray, telling that person why he/she was wrong, which only led to defensiveness. Now he starts by saying to the other person “help me to understand what it is you believe about this issue and your reasons for believing that.”

Richard found that this way to start the conversation “softens the heart.” As the writer of Proverbs says (15:1), “A soft answer turns away wrath.” I have first-hand experience of the wisdom of this way to start a conversation in my many attempts to orchestrate respectful conversations about hot-button issues. It is wise because when the other person realizes that you are genuinely interested in understanding what he/she believes and why he/she holds to those beliefs, the other person will often reciprocate, leading to the quest for mutual understanding; which, hopefully, can lead to the trust needed to begin sorting through disagreements in the hope of finding some common ground, or, if that doesn’t happen, at least illuminating remaining disagreements sufficient to enable ongoing conversation.

To take this proposal beyond the level of abstraction, let me cite a concrete case where my educated guess is that this quest for mutual understanding once yielded common ground in the U. S. Senate relative to the hot-button issue of immigration. The year was 2013, and a “gang of eight” senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, crafted a bill for comprehensive immigration reform that included BOTH a pathway to citizenship (likely proposed primarily by the Democrats) AND appropriate fines along that pathway as punishment (hence this was not “amnesty”) for those who had entered the country illegally (likely proposed primarily by the Republicans).

The Senate passed this bill, but it died in the house. Is it possible that this bill died in the House primarily because the intransigence to the Tea Party members of the House precluded the strategy of gathering a similar “gang of eight” members of the House to reach bipartisan agreement based on first having achieved mutual understanding?

This failure is an example of what I believe is the primary dysfunction in current American politics: a severe hyper-partisanship that has succumbed to the “tribalism” of believing that my party has the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth about the issue at hand and “those folks” in the “other party” are totally devoid of any aspect of the Truth about the matter.

This raises a critical question: What is the primary cause of such political tribalism that fuels hyper-partisanship? My response is that it reflects a lack of “humility.” Let me briefly explain.

When was the last time you heard a politician or political pundit say “I may be wrong?” That is almost unheard of because it is considered a sign of weakness (when it is actually a sign of immense strength). It reflects a failure to practice “humility.

It is important for me to note what I do NOT mean by “humility.” I do not mean that you should be wishy-washy about your beliefs. No! You should be willing to express your beliefs with clarity and deep conviction, even passion, True humility means that at the same time that you express your beliefs with deep conviction, you are open to the possibility that you could be wrong about some of your beliefs and, therefore, respectfully listening to and talking to someone who disagrees with you could help you to refine your beliefs; possibly even “correcting” some of them. That combination of commitment and openness is a rare commodity these days.

By now you may have detected what some would consider to be a fatal flaw in my proposal: You cannot legislate humility. Harold, you are living in la-la land, totally out of touch with political reality, if you think that all of a sudden a large number of politicians and their supporters are going to exemplify the humility that is needed to even begin the conversation that is necessary to first attain mutual understanding on  the path to seeking some common ground.

I cannot ignore the force of that objection. It is because of that objection that I decided about 7 or 8 years ago to initiate a Respectful Conversation project on my website, www.respectfulconversation.net, the main focus of which would NOT be to talk or write, in the abstract, about the need for respectful conversation (as I am doing at this very moment), but rather to “just do it” (to borrow a phrase from Nike).

But, how best to just do it? You will recall the old joke: What are the three most important things about selling real estate – location, location, location. I decided that the best way to promote a “better way” (a “Christian way”) for public discourse was to model, model, model.

So, to make a 7 or 8 year old story short, The electronic conversations (eCircles) that I have hosted on my website, which featured conversation partners (usually two in number) who I knew to have strong disagreements about the given hot button issue, talking respectfully to each other about their disagreements and the subsequent  books I have published that attempt to capture the highlights of these eCircles are intended to “model” the respectful conversations that I call for.

Now, readers of this Musing will have to read the many electronic postings on some hot-button issues that appear on my website, or less onerously, read the resulting books to judge whether they model respectful conversations about hot-button issues. My opinion, no doubt biased, is that they do model respectful conversation to an admirable degree, with an amazing by-product, the actual uncovering of some common ground, which in my latest book meant uncovering some common ground relative to such hot-button political issues as  the role of money in politics, immigration, the disparity between the rich and poor in America and healthcare.

You may ask whether my attempts at “modeling” respectful conversations about hot-button issues will be “successful” in inspiring others to do likewise. That is not my first question. My first question is whether I am being “faithful” to my understanding of my commitment to being a follower of Jesus. By God’s grace, I am at least aspiring to be “faithful” to my understanding that, given the call of Jesus for his followers to love others, to provide someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love (which is the underlying premise behind my Respectful Conversation project).

As to the possibility of my Respectful Conversation project being “successful” in inspiring others to do likewise, I hope and pray that all who profess to be followers of Jesus will “do likewise” because to do so is a deep expression of the love for others, to which Jesus calls his followers. But there are many persons who hold to other religious or secular faiths who are also committed to loving others. I hope and pray that they will also “do likewise.”

Having said that, however, I leave the issue of “success” in God’s hands. Claiming the truth of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, as recorded in Matthew 13: 31-32, I believe I am called to “partner with God” as God works to foster the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, by planting tiny seeds of redemption. I view my Respectful Conversation project as a tiny seed of redemption that God has gifted to me. I can only envision a fruitful harvest through the eyes of faith. I entrust that harvest to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving From Self-Centered to Other-Centered: Reflections from a “Wandering Jew and a Very Confused Christian”

In his insightful and provocative book The Second Mountain, David Brooks proposes that in searching for a “moral life,” one should move from climbing a “first mountain,” characterized by the phrase “I’m Free to be Myself,” to climbing a “second mountain” where life moves from self-centered to other-centered, as captured by the phrase “Where All in This Together.” He explores the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose on the second mountain: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. Particularly provocative is his description of his own religious pilgrimage, ending with his assertion that he is a “wandering Jew and a very confused Christian.”

Although I do not have the competence to sort through the theological challenges of fully understanding the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, I will draw on the understanding of David Brooks (who is also not a theologian) as to central aspects of the “Jewish story” and the “Jesus story” and his comparison of these two stories. I will then conclude, perhaps provocatively, that he makes too much of the “differences” because of a “false choice” that he presents to the reader; which will lead me to conclude with reflections on how my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus does, or does not, fit with Brooks’ understanding.

I start with Brooks’ report on the “Jewish ethos” of his childhood.

This was the Jewish ethos of my childhood. Imagine a better future; build a better future. Don’t let them destroy us. Make it in the promised land. It was a worldly ethos, but it grew out of a deeper and more eternal one. We are commanded to co-create the world. We are commanded to finish what God has begun. Our common salvation comes through works and good deeds. Salvation though work. Survival through intelligence. Righteousness is something you achieve together, collectively as a people. And then you argue about it over a dinner table (p. 217).

Brooks first hints at the difference he sees between the Jewish and Christian stories in his description of Jesus as a “scapegoat.”

Jesus is the classic scapegoat, the innocent outsider that all the groups could rally around in their bloodlust, and dump their hatreds on. The only thing that is different about the Jesus story – and it is a big difference – is that in this story Jesus came to earth precisely to be the scapegoat. He volunteered for this job, forgave those who executed him, and willingly carries the sins of the world on his shoulders. He came precisely to bow down, to suffer, and to redeem the world (p. 219).

Based on these views of the Jewish and Jesus stories, Brooks suggests a stark difference regarding the role of “worldly accomplishment.”

In my semi-secular world of Jewish New York, we put peoplehood before faith. We were living in the shadow of the holocaust, so survival was not taken for granted. We celebrated effort, work, smarts, discipline, accomplishment, achievement. In the rabbinic tradition, the Messiah was associated with poverty, righteousness associated with the poor and the miserable. But that is not how Judaism is lived out in American culture. We were pointing toward accomplishment.

But the Jesus story was not about worldly accomplishment. It was nearly about its opposite. Jesus bowed down in order to rise up; he died so others might live. Christians are not saved by works but by faith. In fact, you can’t earn the prize of salvation, because it has already been given to you by grace (p. 219).

There is so much to unpack here. I have no reason to question Brooks’ description of the Jewish ethos and story. In fact, his descriptions of the Jewish focus on “accomplishment,” “works and good deeds” and “loving-kindness” comport well with my experience with my Jewish schoolmates in Brooklyn. But his “confusion” about those aspects of his faith informed by the Christian story may reflect a misunderstanding of the Christian story, at least as I have come to understand and embrace that story.

Although certain sectors of those committed to the Christian story create a bifurcation between “faith” and “works,” which informs Brooks’ understanding of Christianity, I reject that bifurcation based on the teaching in James 2:17 that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” I believe that Brooks presents us with a “false choice.”

“Faith” and “works” are two sides of the same coin. And the Christian story does not teach that we earn salvation by our works. Rather, it teaches that our “good works” (our “accomplishments.” If you please) are an expression of gratitude for the free “grace” that God has bestowed on us.

My understanding of the symbiotic relationship between “faith” and “good works” in the Christian story leaves room for a healthy focus on “accomplishments” that flow from Christian faith, here on earth, contrary to the view of some Christians that our faith is just other-worldly. As I often stated elsewhere, here is my understanding of the role of “accomplishments” in the Christian story.

Jesus did indeed inaugurate the “Kingdom of God” on earth, an inauguration that will only be fully consummated at the end times (in ways that go beyond my comprehension). In the meantime, those who claim to be followers of Jesus are called to “partner with God” by planting tiny “seeds of redemption” in their daily activities in this world (see Matthew 13:31-32). The harvest that results from such “tiny plantings” can indeed be viewed as important “accomplishments,” and this view comports well with Brooks’ understanding that God calls Jews (and Christians) to “finish what God has begun.”

But it is important to note that the “accomplishments” I refer to are not the “individualistic” attainments found at the top of Brook’s “first mountain,” such as autonomy and unencumbered freedom, which reflect the hyper-individualism of much of American culture. Rather, while not discounting the importance of the individual, the “second mountain” accomplishments that Brooks points us toward focus on being more “other-centered”; which comports well with the teaching of Jesus as to who will one day enter the “kingdom of heaven.”

Then the King will say to those at his right hand “Come, O blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Matthew 25: 34-36).

But there is an important caution when talking about “accomplishments” in seeking to foster God’s Kingdom purposes on earth. Will our planting of tiny “seeds of redemption” yield any harvest at all? Will there be any such “accomplishments” in our broken world? At first glance, the story of Jesus is not promising; for his own work led to his crucifixion; he appeared to be an abject failure.

But, of course, that appearance of failure was illusory. Jesus climbed that second mountain like no one before or after him, being “other-centered” throughout his earthly ministry. And, despite many mis-steps, many followers of Jesus since his crucifixion have seen “redemptive harvests” emerge from their planting of tiny seeds of redemption (e.g., witness the “accomplishments” of Martin Luther King Jr., although that also led to his death).

But despite these many redemptive accomplishments, planting tiny seeds of redemption is, at best, an uphill battle in a world largely characterized by self-centeredness. Why should Christians and Jews keep trying? Because the message of the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Matthew 13: 31-32 is that Christians and Jews are called to be “faithful” in the planting of seeds of redemption. We can dare to entrust the issue of “success” to God. 

A Just and Fair Society

As every reader of my website knows by now, since I never tire of saying it, in one way or another, the premise that underlies my Respectful Conversation project since its inception about eight years ago is that providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then talking respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love.

I generally add that this is much easier said than done. I recently read the following words of truth, which are also easy to say but extremely difficult to live by.

In a just and fair society, the healthy should care for the sick; the rich should care for the poor; the mighty should care for the weak; and the prosecutor should care about the prisoner.

These words were written by Preet Bharara in his insightful and compelling book Doing Justice (pp. 303-304), published about eighteen months after President Trump fired him from his position as U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Let me share why I find both this book and this particular quotation so compelling.

This book is compelling because it reveals the many ways in which the difficult work of a criminal prosecutor in trying to maintain the rule of law can be deeply informed by values such as the quest for truth, the desire to do what is just and restorative for both the perpetrator and the victim, the commitment to resolve disagreements by means of reason and an appeal to evidence rather than taunts and character assassination, and the humble admission that criminal cases are generally so complex that the prosecutor, who is only human, can sometimes get it all wrong.

Although I know that Mr. Bharara’s father was Sikh and his mother was Hindu, I don’t know anything about his own religious or secular worldview commitments. But I do know that these values that suffuse his narrative about his work at the SDNY comport beautifully with my commitment to the Christian values of love, humility, courage, respect, truth, justice, patience and hope.

But what about “extraordinary” values such as “mercy, redemption and forgiveness?” Bharara points out that  such extraordinary values transcend the “legal concepts” in “formal notions of criminal justice” (p. 323; noting especially that “The law is not in the business of forgiveness or redemption” (p. 327); at the same time telling the story of  how a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh not only forgave a man who brutally attacked him and killed two others but also “began a campaign [which was unsuccessful] to spare the attacker from the death penalty” (p. 325). Although the extraordinary value of forgiveness goes beyond what the law dictates, it is what Jesus calls his followers to, and Bharara closes his book with the recognition that it is possible for “brave and strong and extraordinary people” (p. 327).

In addition to these ways in which I resonate, as a Christian, with Bharara’s entire book, I also find particularly compelling his view on what it takes to foster a “just and fair society,” quoted above. His perspective comports beautifully with the teachings of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 25, about who will enter the Kingdom of God.

Come , you that are blessed by my Father [God], inherit the kingdom prepared for you  from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick and in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (vs. 34-40).

So, what do I conclude from the above reflections? 

First, there is a striking synergy between Bharara’s view of a “just and fair society” and the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 that Christians should care for the “least of these in society”: the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and those who are strangers and in prison.

Equally striking is the sharp contrast between the hyper-individualism and self-centeredness that pervades our society and this call to give of yourself in caring for others, particularly the marginalized in our midst (for those readers interested in reading more about this sharp contrast, I highly recommend David Brook’s recent book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life).

My observation, with deep regret, is that many who claim to be followers of Jesus have happily embraced the hyper-individualism and self-centeredness that is rampant in American society; choosing an “other-worldly” view of the Christian faith (God will eventually rescue us from this broken world) rather than embracing the call from Jesus to “partner with God” by fostering God’s redemptive purposes here on earth (see the Lord’s prayer that God’s will may be done “on earth as it is in heaven,” as well as the following books: Written to be Heard: Recovering the Messages of the Gospel by Paul Borgman and Kelly James Clark and Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright). 

I am particularly grieved that many who claim to be “evangelical” Christians, as I do, have jumped on board this cultural hyper-individualistic bandwagon that violates the centrality of “community values” that pervade the teachings of the Bible (For the interested reader, I have proposed an alternative “evangelical vision” in my book A Future for American Evangelicalism that embraces and holds in tension the values of “commitment, openness, and conversation”).

Where does all of this leave me? It leads me to conclude that Christians who wish to take seriously the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25 need to rethink who their “collaborators” may be in seeking to heal our broken world in accordance with God’s redemptive purposes. It is the likes of Preet Bharara and David Brooks, whatever their religious or secular worldview commitments, who are more in tune with the teachings of Jesus than many who claim to be followers of Jesus. Those Christians who embrace the teachings of Matthew 25 should be willing to work together with those whose visions for the future of America comport with the teachings of Matthew 25, even if we do not share all aspects of our respective worldviews.

 

How the Christian Value of Truthfulness Could Inform The Aftermath to the Mueller Report

In my forthcoming book Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation, I propose that one “Way Forward” for Christians to work toward such reformation is to eschew the hyper-partisanship that is evident when the first question that is asked about any public policy issue is “What does my political party say?”.

Rather, Christians should substitute their “Christian lenses” for their “partisan political lenses,” by “digging deep down” to uncover the “Christian values” that should inform their position on the particular issue, values such as love, humility, courage, truth, justice, patience and hope.

In this musing, I will propose a possible aftermath to the Mueller report that could emerge if Christians took seriously the Christian value of “truthfulness,” as called for in the biblical exhortation for Christians to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4: 15) and the biblical teaching that “love … rejoices in the truth” (I Corinthians 13: 4,6).

But my proposal is not just intended for consideration by Christians. The value of truthfulness is a “human value” that should be shared by all persons of good will, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments. Therefore, my proposal calls for a collaborative effort on the part of all who embrace the value of truthfulness.

It should be obvious to any American citizen who has not been living under a rock that the value of truthfulness is notably absent in most of the current debate about how to process the Mueller report. Consider, for example, the debate as to how to process Mueller’s letter of response to Attorney General Barr’s four-page response to the full report that emerged from his extensive investigation. Mueller expresses his dissatisfaction with Barr’s response to his report as follows:

[The Barr memo] did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of the investigation … this threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the department [of Justice] appointed the special counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigation … There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation.

It is obvious that Mueller is questioning whether Barr’s four-page report adequately captures the “truth” relative to the matters that were investigated. Therefore, anyone who is committed to the value of truthfulness should want to provide Mueller with an opportunity to explain how he believes the truth was compromised. Whether President Trump committed an impeachable offense cannot be discerned until Congress hears Mueller’s reasons for his dissatisfaction with  Barr’s report. Any claims to “transparency” are nullified by attempts to prevent Mueller from testifying before Congress. And asking for such testimony from Mueller is not a “do-over” since it is covering new ground; the reasons Mueller has for his rejection of the Barr report.

The quest for “truth” also requires that Congress hear from other persons, such as Don McGahn, whose testimonies can shed further light on the question of whether President Trump obstructed justice. 

Orchestrating such Congressional hearings is not an instance of “politicizing” the issue in a partisan manner. Rather, it is required by the Constitutionally mandated responsibility of the legislative branch of government to provide “oversight” of the executive branch, Carrying out that mandate can be viewed as a commitment to be “true” to the U. S. Constitution. 

Of course, President Trump is strenuously resisting all such attempts at Congressional oversight. That should not thwart Congress in carrying out its Constitutional responsibility. If Congress does so, the outcome of this current deadlock will likely be settled in the Courts, which is another legitimate expression of the separation of powers that America’s Founding Fathers had the wisdom to establish.

At what point in time, if any, in this “messy” process are impeachment proceedings called for? My view is that it will be only after the Congressional hearings that I call for above have been completed that the House of Representatives will have sufficient clarity as to the “truth” regarding whether President Trump has committed offenses that warrant impeachment proceedings. And if such impeachment proceeding are initiated, that is NOT an expression of partisan politicizing. Rather, it is another instance of Congress carrying out its constitutional responsibility.

Of course, many Democrats are concerned that the House initiating impeachment proceedings will be “political suicide,” since there is little to no chance that the Senate will impeach the President and any attempt to do so will simply reinforce President Trump’s very effective political strategy of painting himself as a victim of a giant hoax.

My response to that concern is that it is another instance of the hyper-partisan politicizing that is eating away at the foundations of American Democracy. Impeachment proceedings ought to be initiated only because Congress judges that it is the “right thing to do” in light of the mandates of the U. S. Constitution. But deciding on impeachment proceedings on that basis, will require commitment to another “Christian value (and “human value”) beyond truthfulness that is also sadly lacking in the political realm: Courage.

It appears that I have succumbed once again to my penchant for “outlandish naivete” in light of current political realities, especially in my call for processing the Mueller report on the basis of a commitment to the value of “truthfulness.” I close with a reflection on the cause of that possible “fatal flaw” in my proposal, with a reminder of how I have chosen to address that cause.

The rampant problem with current American politics is NOT that politicians and their supporters do not believe in the “truth” of their political positions. The problem is that they typically hold to their truth-claims with a vengeance, believing that they have captured the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the political issue at hand and the positions taken by their political opponents are absolutely devoid of any elements of truth.

As I report in my forthcoming book, this dogmatism that my beliefs about what is true are unassailable, (“I can’t possibly be wrong”), which too easily morphs into fanaticism, is a symptom of the “tribalism” that increasingly infects every area of discourse, not just politics. The tell-tale sign of such tribalism is an “us-versus-them” mentality that effectively silences “them” (They are wrong, “me and my group” are right, so why should we even listen to them?). If one takes the position, as I do, that “political equality” involves everyone having an equal stake in the political system by having their voices heard on “an even playing field,” then such silencing of the “other” is pernicious and certainly does not contribute to the quest for truth about the matter at hand.

The increasing pattern of tribalism in our culture does not bode well for my proposal that the doing of politics should be informed by the quest for truth, and my further argument (in my forthcoming book) that bipartisan “respectful conversation” about political disagreements is the best way to gain a better approximation of that truth. 

So, because of the prominence of tribalism in our culture, I hold out slim hope of convincing a large number of Christians, and others, in the abstract, that they should pursue the truth by means of respectful conversations about disagreements. So, what to do?

About eight years ago, I decided that the only way to combat such tribalism was not to complain in writing, but to model a “better way”; a “Christian way.” Hence I initiated my Respectful Conversation project on my website, informed by the primary premise that providing a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with me to express that disagreement and then to talk respectful about that disagreement is a deep expression of love (which is too often neglected or violated by many who claim to be followers of Jesus, who commanded his followers to love others). It is my hope and prayer that those who follow my website will go and do likewise, entrusting the results to God.

Healing and Bridging Divisions by Getting to Know One Another

In her insightful book Political Tribes, Amy Chua points out the truth that all human beings have a need to “belong,” which causes us to value our associations with one or more “groups.”

But, as professor Chua then goes on to elaborate, many of our group identities too easily morph into an “us-versus-them” tribal mentality that demonizes other groups that disagree with our group. Relative to political issues, this conflict often emerges from a belief that “me and my group” have the “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” relative to the public policy being discussed and those in “that other group” are “all wrong.” This tribal mentality becomes particularly pernicious when an unwarranted extrapolation is then made from “they are wrong” to “they are evil” and not to be trusted.

One tempting solution to this rampant problem of destructive divisions among us is to suggest that all of us need to submerge our various group identities. We need to become a homogenous culture in which our differences are downplayed. That is a terrible idea for a number of reasons. 

Most obviously, that suggestion asks you to deny “who you are”; to turn your back on the valuable aspects of your personal pilgrimage that have shaped you.

Secondly, eliminating group differences nullifies the great potential that our differences have to enrich all of us. The rich diversity of beliefs and practices of different groups in contemporary American culture can be navigated in a way that is mutually beneficial for all of us. I will begin  to elaborate on this bold claim by sharing with you a part of “my story,” which includes my commitment to a number of “groups” that I highly value.

I am a Norwegian American (the twin son of immigrants from Norway who learned to eat lutefisk every Christmas eve; surely an acquired taste).

I am also a St. Louis Cardinal baseball fan (although I was born and raised in Brooklyn when the LA Dodgers were the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Cardinal great Stan “The Man” Musial was my boyhood hero – I remember being dumbfounded when a friend of mine had the audacity to suggest that Gil Hodges, Dodger first baseman at the time, was a better all-around baseball player that Stan The Man. How wrong-headed is that?).

I am also a professing Christian, having made a commitment to be a follower of Jesus at the tender age of 13, without having a clue as to the many surprising twists and turns I would experience over a lifetime based on that aspiration.

I am also now a registered Democrat (although my first presidential vote in 1956 was for Republican Dwight Eisenhower). 

That is just a part of who I am; just enough to introduce you to how I think all of us should navigate the disagreements that emerge from our differing group identities: We should get to know those who disagree with us on a personal level. Developing such personal relationships will open up the possibility of the emergence of a sufficient level of mutual understanding and, hopefully, mutual trust, to enable us to then talk respectfully about our disagreements, thereby providing an entre into fostering the “healing” and “bridging” that is sorely needed among groups that are presently demonizing one another. I further propose that the best way for us to get to know each other on this personal level is for each of us to listen carefully to the other’s story because many of our disagreements may be deeply informed by the unique aspects of our respective personal pilgrimages.

Rather than arguing in the abstract for my proposed strategy for addressing disagreements, I will illustrate with a few examples from my experience, after mentioning, in a lame attempt at a bit of humor, that one of my current best friends is a Chicago Cubs fan (bridging a divide that I once thought was beyond reconciliation).

When Pat and I retired (sort of) in Orange City, Iowa in 2003, members of the local Latino population were just faceless statistics; we didn’t know any of our Latino neighbors personally. That changed when I had the opportunity to provide leadership for an Adult Discipleship class on “immigration issues” in my home church. Right from the start, we decided to avoid the common inadequate practice of talking “about” our Latino neighbors; choosing rather to get to know them by listening to their stories and  talking “with” them.

One story I heard broke my heart. A Latino mother told us that every morning before her daughter went off to school, she would cry because she feared that when she returned home, mommy would be gone; taken away for deportation. That story changed my life. I could no longer sit around ignoring the pleas for help from my new Latino friends. I became heavily involved with a local advocacy group, CASA of Sioux County (Center for Assistance, Service and Advocacy) whose vision is for “transformed northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower and celebrate people from all cultures.” 

Our efforts at CASA include hosting an annual Latino Festival that celebrates the riches of local Latino culture and builds bridges between our Anglo and Latino populations. On the “advocacy” front, we had the opportunity to meet with our congressional representative Steve King in an attempt to curb his viscous demonization of our Latino neighbors and advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. As far as I can tell, we didn’t change King’s perspective, possibly because he hadn’t taken the time to get to know our Latino neighbors.

The moral of this story is that by taking the time to get to know our Latino neighbors, we Anglos have been able to take some modest steps to heal the wounds of division and build bridges between our two communities. We wish congressman King would do likewise.

It is much harder to get to know someone on the internet. But, against all odds, I have been able to see a measure of  mutual understanding and trust emerging by means of electronic conversations (eCircles) on my website, as reported in three of my most recent books, with a fourth book (Reforming American Politics) soon to be released. In each case, my strategy has been to identify conversation partners who I know to have significant disagreements about contentious issues, asking them to abide by my proposed “guidelines for respectful conversation” as they exchange electronic responses to “Leading Questions” I posed designed to draw out their areas of agreement and disagreement.

Although my conversation partners only got to know and understand each other from a distance, I believe it is fair for me to say that they effectively modeled the building of bridges between persons having differing stories that reflect, among other things, membership in different groups. Some past wounds may also have been healed.

Emboldened by these experiences of seeing some healing and bridging of divisions when persons commit to getting  to know one another, starting in April, I will be moderating a face-to-face conversation on the theme “President Trump and Visons for America” that will feature four local residents who describe themselves as “general Trump supporters” and  four local residents who consider themselves to “generally” be “non-Trump supporters.” Before anyone presents his/her vision for the future of America and an assessment of the extent to which President Trump is fostering that vision, or not, we will start by getting to know one another by listening to each other’s stories, with a focus on those aspects of personal pilgrimages that have shaped their visons for America and their assessments of President Trump.

I will be developing a way to report on this round of face-to-face conversations on my website (possibly by means of audio podcasts). It is my hope the results will lend further support for my thesis that we can all work for healing and bridging of divisions by getting to know one another, especially if we start by sharing our stories with one another (for a marvelous read that focuses on the importance of storytelling for bridging divides, I highly recommend Justin Lee’s book Talking Across the Divide: How to Communicate with People You Disagree With and Maybe Even  Change the World). 

Disagreement is Easy; Agreement Takes Time

In his book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Protestant Christianity, Kevin Vanhoozer shares the following insightful reflection on why “disagreement is easy” for Christians while uncovering agreements is much more challenging.

“[I]t is easier to disagree than to agree. Agreement requires patient listening, and time. It is more convenient simply to categorize others as “wrong’ Christians. Such mental shortcuts enable able us to make snap judgments, but labeling fails to do justice to others” (207-208).

This reflection adds another important dimension to a primary obstacle to hosting “respectful conversations” about contentious issues that I noted in my last Musing (“My Books May Make Most Readers Mad”). In that musing, I pointed to the primary obstacle of the difficulty in our culture that is plagued by tribalism of finding persons who embrace the rare combination of holding to their beliefs with deep conviction while remaining open to the possibility of learning something from someone who disagrees with them.

As if this obstacle was not big enough, Vanhoozer points us to another significant obstacle: the addiction within our culture to “speed”; wanting quick answers to complex problems; choosing the “easy” path of dismissing out of hand those who disagree with you rather than making the significant commitment of time needed to patiently listen, talk about, and possibly even learn from the contrary views of others. 

If you dig beneath the surface of this additional obstacle, you will see that for Christians it reflects a lack of genuine commitment to some Christian virtues to which we quickly give lip service but too often fail to exemplify: humility and patience. As Vanhoozer goes on to say.

“Dialogue requires us to become the kind of people who can accept correction: humble and patient interlocutors” (208).

So, the obstacles to my dreams for more “respectful conversations” among Christians regarding contentious issues proliferate. But, as I concluded in my last Musing, I am not deterred. I am convinced, more now than ever, that engaging in respectful conversations is the “Christian way” to engage those who disagree with you, based on the foundational premise that providing a safe and welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreement is a deep expression of love for the other, to which Jesus calls all who claim to be his followers. I am called to be “faithful” in pursuing and modeling that goal, leaving the possibility of “success” in the hands of God.

 

Will my Books Make Most Readers Mad?

I recently completed a seven-session small group face-to-face conversation, involving nine persons, in my local Orange City (IA) community about my book Respectful LGBT Conversations. Attendees fell into the following three categories regarding their beliefs about same-sex marriage: affirming; opposing; undecided.

The reactions of attendees to my book depended on which of these three positions a given attendee embraced. I will briefly elaborate, hoping that my reflections will be of help to any of my website readers who may be contemplating hosting small face-to-face conversations about   human sexuality or any other contentious issue.

An “undecided” member of our group expressed deep appreciation for my book because it presented cogent arguments on both sides of the sub-topics that were addressed. She found that to be very helpful as she attempts to evaluate the relative merits, or not, of the “affirming” and “opposing” positions.

But a member of our group who situates himself in the “opposing” category stated quite bluntly that he didn’t have the slightest interest in reading my book (a bit strange since my class was advertised as a discussion of my book).

Furthermore, a member of our group in the “affirming” category reported that in a brief conversation about my book that he had with a gay friend, his friend was not interested in what my book had to say.

Why did these latter two persons have no interest in my book? Hopefully it is not because they have reason to believe that it is poorly written. I didn’t have the chance to pose this question to the gay friend of one of my group members. But from the comments made in our conversations by the group member in the “opposing” category (who, by the way, dropped out after attending two sessions), I surmise that his mind was made up about the status of same-sex marriage and, therefore, he saw no potential benefit in engaging with the arguments presented by those who disagreed with him. After all, if one already knows the “truth” about the issue at hand, there is no point in engaging with those whose views are “false” (other than trying to “convert” them to your point of view – I have insufficient evidence to judge whether this group member had that purpose in mind).

Given my perception of the appalling current state of public discourse about contentious contemporary issues, the lack of interest of these two persons in talking about views they do not embrace does not surprise me in the least. This reflects the scourge of the dominant tribalistic “us-versus-them” mentality, where “me and my group” have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue at hand and there is not one iota of truth in the contrary positions taken by “those other people.”

But I will go out on the limb even further. I suspect that not only will the majority in our tribalistic culture have a lack of interest in listening to and talking about beliefs they do not hold; the very suggestion that they should engage those who disagree with them in this respectful way may make them downright mad. My suspicion is based on some hard-earned experience. For example, when I recruited as a conversation partner for my eCircle on “Reforming Political Discourse” a Christian who declared himself as an “anarcho-communist,” I was asked, in effect,  “how dare you give equal time to a Christian who has such wrong-headed views?”; “how can he even claim to be a Christian?” I invited him because you don’t love someone who you have silenced. He accepted my invitation. But that made at least one of my critics mad.

Another way of looking at this problem brought about by rampant tribalism is that it is increasingly hard to find persons who embrace that rare combination of holding to their beliefs with deep conviction while remaining open to the possibility of learning from someone who disagrees with them, as expressed by the following definition of “religious maturity” proposed by Ian Barbour (which I quote every chance I get):

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, 136).

But I have found a reasonable number of Christians who embrace this rare combination of commitment and openness; those conversation partners featured in the four eCircles that I have hosted on my web site. And it is my hope and prayer that their effective modeling of this rare combination in the three books that have emerged from these eCircles, and the fourth book (Reforming American Politics) that will soon be released, will inspire many other Christians, and others, to orchestrate “respectful conversation” projects in their spheres of influence.

That hope is difficult to sustain in our tribalistic day. But I persevere because I believe it is the right thing to do; the “Christian way” to engage someone who disagrees with you, and I entrust the potential harvest of my planting such “tiny seeds of redemption” into the hands of God (Matthew 13: 31-32).

Starting with Foundational Christian Values

What follows is a response to an inaugural posting by Jim Skillen, founder and retired President of the Center for Public Justice, for an electronic conversation he is hosting on “Reformational Explorations.”

In his inaugural posting, Jim Skillen proposes three tasks for our collective consideration, the first of which is to “clarify the norms or standards by which we make judgments about what is positive or negative, constructive or destructive” relative to the “quality of public governance.” He asks specifically whether there are “criteria” for making such judgements.

I will share my initial reflections on this first task, starting with a painful story of what transpired in an Adult Discipleship class that I was facilitating at my home church in Orange City, Iowa.

In this class titled “Christian Perspectives on News Headlines,” we were discussing President Trump’s proposal to limit “chain migration” (or “family reunification,” depending on which side of the political aisle you sit). I asked the attendees what they thought the teachings of the Christian faith had to say about this contentious issue. The attendees invariably shared the perspective of their respective political parties about this issue. “TIME OUT,” I pleaded: “I didn’t ask you what your political party said about chain migration; I asked you what your understanding of the Christian faith might say about this issue,” 

By quickly politicizing this issue, my class attendees failed to dig deep down beneath the surface of political rhetoric to uncover the “values” that were at stake; the values that they would consider to be “Christian values” (not necessarily the values embraced by either major political party).

In order to avoid making that same mistake, and inching toward my initial reflections on the “criteria” that Jim wants us to explore, I will briefly outline some “Christian values” that I try to  start with when making any decision as to what to do or say, in the political realm or anywhere else. 

First, I embrace the broad Kuyperian view of God’s redemptive purposes for the world that includes not only personal redemption but also the redemption of all aspects of creation: Marginalized minority groups that suffer injustice groan for redemption; those ravaged by war, sickness and poverty groan for redemption, as do broken personal relationships, unjust political and social structures, and a polluted environment. Implicit in this understanding of God’s redemptive purposes are certain Christian values such as justice, health, peace, shalom (positive relationships with other persons and all aspects of God’s Creation) and a flourishing environment (which, for later purposes, I will hereafter refer to as my “outcome” Christian values). 

But I am also committed to another set of Christian values that are attitudinal (enduring dispositions that I aspire to exhibit), often referred to as “Christian virtues.” These include the Fruit of the Spirit enumerated in Galatians 5 as well as humility, courage, hope and an insatiable aspiration to understand the “truth” as God fully understands that truth (because this set of Christian values deeply informs my beliefs about how I should “engage” others, I will hereafter refer to these as my “engagement” Christian values).

There is an obvious interplay between what I have called “outcome” values and “engagement” values. For example, I seek to foster the “outcome” of peace among those in conflict, while my mode of “engagement” with others as I seek that outcome should be informed by an enduring disposition of being“peaceable.” Nevertheless, this distinction between “outcome” and “engagement” Christian values is essential to my attempt to answer Jim’s call for “criteria” for judging the “quality of public governance.” That will take some explanation.

In a nutshell, I am making a distinction between the “outcomes” I believe I should pursue, in the political realm and elsewhere, as I attempt to “partner with God” toward the realization of God’s redemptive purposes and “how” I should go about carrying out those endeavors; my mode of “engagement” with others in the public square who may not share my desired outcomes. 

To get beyond abstractions, I will illustrate with a concrete example from my own experience as co-director of an organization in Sioux County, Iowa (CASA of Sioux County – Center for Assistance, Service and Advocacy) whose vision is the “transformation of Northwest Iowa communities that welcome, empower and celebrate people from all cultures.” In particular, we have been advocating for a number of years for greater justice for our increasing numbers of Latino neighbors, many of whom have been marginalized.

One of CASA’s recent initiatives has been to advocate with our local and state political representatives for legislation that would enable all immigrants to our area, documented or undocumented, to obtain drivers licenses. We view this as a win-win-win opportunity – good for immigrant families; good for those who employ immigrant workers; and good for public safety (since obtaining such a driver’s license would require passing driving tests).

How have we gone about advocating for such legislation? By having some face-to-face respectful conversations with political representatives who disagree with us about this issue. Have we been successful? Not yet! Ironically, the greatest opposition has come from the law enforcement community whose purpose is to promote public safety. But we have not given up since working for any kind of immigration reform is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to exhibit a significant measure of the “engagement” Christian values of patience and hope, and “love,” the Fruit of the Spirit that is central to my understanding of how Christians should engage those who disagree with them about public policy issues. Let me elaborate a bit.

There is universal agreement among Christians that we are called to “love our neighbors” (Mark 12:31). But there is much disagreement about “how” that love should be expressed. My efforts to be an agent for God’s redemptive over the past eight years have focused on an oft-neglected expression of such love, as captured by the following premise (which succinctly captures the central aspect of my “engagement” Christian values):

Providing someone who disagrees with you a safe and welcoming space to express that disagreement and then to talk respectfully about your disagreements is a deep expression of love.

A corollary to this premise is that “you don’t love someone who you have silenced.”

As an aside for readers who may be interested, the major vehicle for my attempts to put this premise into practice in recent years has been my “Respectful Conversation Project” on my website www.respectfulconversation.net, in which I have attempted to model “respectful conversations” among Christians who have strong disagreements about some contentious issues, including the nature of political discourse, with this latter project soon leading to a book titled Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation (please excuse this self-serving plug). 

So, at long last, what are the “criteria” that I would like to propose for your consideration for making judgements about “what is positive or negative, constructive or destructive” relative to the “quality of public governance?”

In brief, the major criterion for me when evaluating any proposal for public policy is whether the proposal fosters the accomplishment God’s redemptive purposes such as the “outcome” Christian values that I have suggested above. And the major criterion for evaluating the manner in which those who disagree about the merits, or not, of any given public policy proposal is whether the mode of public engagement about the issue exemplifies the “engagement” Christian values that I have suggested above, with special emphasis on the oft-neglected deep expression  of love that I have proposed.

I conclude by anticipating a possible disagreement that readers may have with the above reflections: My proposed criteria for both the content and mode of engagement relative to any public policy issue reflects my understanding of Christian values; but those Christian values are not necessarily shared by others in our pluralistic society. Is that not a fatal flaw in my proposal? 

No, it is not a fatal flaw, but it presents a considerable challenge. In brief, I draw on my understanding of Roy Clouser’s cogent argument about the “myth of religious neutrality” in his fine book having that title. 

No one comes from nowhere! Everyone comes to the public square to discuss public policy proposals with a set of value commitments. My value commitments are informed by my Christian faith commitment. Others come to the public square with value commitments that are informed by their particular religious or secular worldviews.

But these sets of value commitments are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Therefore, the public conversation that I call for should  start with each “conversation partner” laying bare his/her value commitments, on an “even playing field,” in an attempt to find some common ground about underlying values that  can then  inform the ongoing conversation.