Facebook and blogs have put into sharp relief an old but troubling American tradition.
Political discourse in this country has never been polite.
The anonymity and instant interactions of the internet have only exacerbated the old American tradition of coarse political discourse. For all their benefits–and I think there are many–the comments sections appended to the conclusion of any article or blog post on the internet reveals the worst of our tendencies.
We demonize those with whom we disagree. We lack generosity when describing the positions of our political opponents. We simply assume the worst of others.
Political commentator Patrick Appel recently observed, “After wading though political opinion online for a couple years, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t ever really ‘win’ an argument online. No matter how sound your logic or forceful your writing someone, somewhere will continue to disagree. But you can arm your fellow travelers and opponents with better or worse argumentative ammunition… If someone wants to actually engage with the opposing side and try to change minds, blunt, hyperbolic labels are among the flimsiest of rhetorical weapons.”
Of course, sharp, contentious divisions are not unique to politics. Theological disputes are rending many of our churches apart. These too frequently destructive arguments force a difficult question upon us. Can we have discussions any more that do not degenerate to the taking of mutually exclusive positions? Can we talk in a way that does not simply devolve into the taking of sides but demands that differences be heard and respected? Can we talk in a way that makes us all equally vulnerable to being corrected?
Preachers need to ask an even more fundamental question. What role does the proclamation of the gospel play in these disputes? How can preaching model charity and grace when disagreements rage all around us? How can preachers make passionate stands that invite discussion and thought, not bitterness and kneejerk reactions?
Faithful preaching should model persuasive argumentation but also empathic listening.
In order to be persuasive, effective, and faithful to the ministerial call, preaching must make bold claims. There are times when the preacher must seek to cause her audience to question or even leave behind long held beliefs. Powerful preaching so often will demand a change in the way we have always done things.
At the same time, preachers ought to treat their interlocutors with respect and an empathic ear. The Golden Rule is surely in effect in such situations. Those who disagree with us are children of God, and we certainly want our perspectives to be understood. Should we not then strive to represent those with whom we disagree as fairly as possible? In fact, I think that fully understanding positions with which we disagree should precede any critique. That is, we earn our right to be critical by expressing the other’s views so fairly that those with whom we disagree would recognize and embrace our summary of their positions.
Moreover, if we are so bold as to confront our hearers, we must be willing to put our own beliefs on the line. We must be willing to hear–truly hear–arguments that diverge from ours. If we expect to persuade others, we ought to be equally willing to be persuaded. Discussions are true exchanges only if both sides enter them with a willingness to be changed. Otherwise, we are talking past each other and not with each other.
We have unfortunately become adept as a culture at talking at people and far less capable of talking to or with people. The pulpit is uniquely positioned to model the latter as a place where the concerns of the community and bold calls to change can meet. Preaching can and must be not a unilateral exposition of an individual’s perspective but a living conversation between the preacher, the texts of scripture, local and ecclesial traditions, and the community that gathers week-by-week in search of God’s guidance.
Perhaps our pulpits could serve as a model for our politics, demonstrating that passionate views and respect for those with whom we disagree are not mutually exclusive.