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How to walk hand in hand when you don’t see eye to eye

Last year I wrote in my blog peaceroads.com about Faith and politics at the dinner table. When recently asked by the ELLC conveners to write for this month’s Media Wise topic, I scrolled through my posts and realised that in February 2020 I had already written some of the things I would still say today. Except for the practice of sitting around a table, sharing a meal in the fellowship of friends has taken on a deeper meaning during the Covid pandemic and the way our lives have been affected.

I will continue the same metaphor by extending it to include our churches, our YWAM teams, and any community of followers of Jesus. The table we share has moved to virtual reality which we have learned not without impacts – both positive and negative – on many of our social dynamics. On one hand the table has significantly enlarged, becoming more inclusive and accessible because there are no physical boundaries. On another hand, our table manners have worsened to such a degree that many are ready to get up and simply walk out, choosing to eat by themselves or find another company of like-minded people.

The following reflection is an edited version of my original blog post:
When my husband and I visit the United States every year, many of our friends who know my interest in history, politics, and theology, ask for my point of view. Not because I am some kind of expert with lots of data and the best analysis but because I am a European, therefore an outsider, and I’m their foreign friend. Most importantly though, these friends like and value me, I like and value them in return and we trust each other to respect one other’s views. Even if we see things very differently.

We all know the old truth – polite table conversation among friends, family, and especially, strangers should avoid politics, religion and other “divisive” topics. We don’t want to stir up strong opinions, disagreements and reactions, nor to experience unpleasant, embarrassing or awkward moments. I think of the scenes where finally the host or, usually, the hostess tries to change the subject or reminds everyone to simply enjoy being together as “family”.

This is not an original idea, but I want to strongly challenge this notion. In the current climate of polarisation, mistrust, exclusion, enmity and “win-lose” thinking we need to bring hard topics to our places of fellowship and gatherings between friends. My argument is very simple. Where else can we learn to practice robust, open and honest conversations with respect and love?

These days there is a flood of articles, books, research papers, and whatnot about all the negative side effects of our digital lives. One much-discussed is the danger of “echo chambers” where we only chat with people who think like us. Then there is the obvious problem with the so-called ‘tyranny of the correct opinion’ and also the ‘erosion between fact and fiction.’ More alarming is how often we miss basic civility and simple kindness to another human being. No wonder people start such initiatives as, for example, Kindness Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Our cultures are experiencing a deep crisis amid fast changes and insecurities about the future so, in our need for understanding and control, we construct and weaponise our “truth” (Rich Nathan, Vineyard Columbus, USA). Miroslav Volf, a well-known Croatian theologian, writes: “Our cosyness with the surrounding culture has made us so blind to many of its evils that, instead of calling them into question, we offer our own versions of them – in God’s name and with a good conscience.”

Let me say that I have a personal fear of sharp arguments and usually avoid “hot” discussions or comment threads on social media. A few times I have written ‘my two cents worth’ only to delete it seconds later. I am careful not to add fuel to the fire. Plus, we know from experience that it is almost impossible to have a deep, nuanced conversation in virtual reality because many of the important elements of respectful dialogue are missing, for example attentive listening and commitment to the relationship. But we also know from experience that where conflict is not acknowledged, where we fear conflict is wrong, the situation can lead to explosions of anger, broken relationships and splits in community.

We have another big problem – the lack of trust. We already know the general public mistrust of most institutions – whether it is government, mainstream media, educators, even the Church and religious organisations. In discussions on divisive and polarising issues, I get the question of what are my “sources” and who is my authority. If we have opposing views, we are often not even interested in the answer because ‘your sources’ have no authority in my eyes. We have already made up our minds that to see things differently is narrow-minded, ignorant, or even dangerous. Then we can rationalise the unkind, disrespectful treatment of others as the right, just or even loving, thing to do.

This is where the image of a dinner table in the company of family or close friends comes in again. Family or friends discussing sensitive and difficult issues is important. We all need spaces where we can practice disagreements with respect and love for each other. Avoiding the ‘elephant in the room’ is like saying “peace, peace” where there is no peace. We don’t need to force debates simply for argument’s sake, but we need to cultivate a culture of peace and ethos of embrace.

Experts on peacebuilding and conflict transformation define certain essential attitudes of peacemakers, such as vulnerability, humility, commitment to others and hope. In an open relationship, we take risks, we don’t know what will happen but we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable. We know that we cannot learn God’s truth and follow the way of Jesus without others. Conflict transformation cannot happen without constructive dialogue where we take seriously and humbly both the divisive issue and the relationship. Also, people need to know our commitment and need to feel safe in expressing their views. In all of this, we must refuse cynicism because we believe in God’s vision for the world and have hope in ultimate redemption.

When the person with whom I disagree is someone I am committed to, things are different. Communication is more personal, the desire to listen is greater. I am more interested in understanding the other person’s point of view, not automatically dismissing his or her ‘sources’ and am more ready to learn from another perspective. I know that I want this relationship to flourish. If we will not do the hard and slow work of cultivating shalom/peace in the community of brothers and sisters in Christ, friends and colleagues, what makes us think that we will be able to cultivate it in the public spaces?

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