So, are you sick of the arguments yet? You know the arguments – Romney vs Obama. “Job Creators” vs Inequality. Creationism vs Evolution. Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life. Old Fashioned vs New Fangled. Text Speak vs Grammar Nazi’s. Toilet Seat Up vs Toilet Seat Down. Whatever it is, if we can figure out two ways of looking at an issue to divide ourselves into, we do it. And then we argue and argue and argue. We refine our arguments and wonder what the hell is wrong with the people who don’t agree with us. But aren’t you sick of it?
I remember years ago an older, wiser friend told me, “arguments don’t work. You never change someone’s mind through arguments.” At the time I was a bit flabbergasted. If we didn’t argue, how would the other person know they were wrong? And if we can’t get everyone pretty much on board, how do we keep the world from going to hell in a hand basket? I mean, what was the alternative?
Of course, today we have reams of research and endless gigabytes of internet conversations to prove that what my friend told me was true: arguments don’t work. They rarely change anyone’s mind. And I think all but the most die-hard believers are starting to get sick of them.
So what is the alternative to argument? Do we just agree to disagree – you have your opinions and I’ll have mine? And what about truth? Aren’t some things just true and shouldn’t we stand up for and advocate for them? If we can’t argue and persuade our way into some consensus about what’s true how can we function together to get anything done? The live and let live concept sounds fine until we need policies to get the economy going or fix serious social problems. Then what?
In the old days we didn’t have these problems. We pretty much agreed on things. But the reality was that we agreed not because we had given serious consideration to matters and come to the same conclusions. We agreed mostly because we didn’t give serious consideration to matters and come to our own conclusions. There were just things that were true which we learned from proper authority figures – the church, our parents, schools, social norms, etc. Only those days are long gone.
Now we’re all free to think what we want. Authority has mostly discredited itself. And we can’t convince each other of our own point of view. So are we doomed to live in perpetual conflict, chafing at the places where our beliefs haven’t won the day? Just put right and wrong up for a popular vote and let the chips fall where they may? Do we give up our putative search for truth? Well, no. I don’t think so. But I do think we’re going to have to shift our thinking. Let go of our attachment to the idea of right and wrong.
Whoops – I bet I lost some of you there. That’s a very post-modern idea, isn’t it? Let go of the idea of right and wrong. It’s not that I don’t believe in right and wrong. It’s not even that I don’t think we’re capable of knowing right and wrong. It’s just that I don’t think battling over right and wrong is ever going to get us anywhere.
The problems with the old “this is what’s right and what’s wrong, now get in line with it” way of dealing with issues are many. First of all, we’re all really, really good at coming up with reasons to continue believing that we’re right. Look at political arguments. If your guy does something it’s justified and acceptable, but if the other guy does essentially the same thing, well, you can always think of some reason that it’s not actually the same thing at all but something totally different. And of course, your opponent is busy weighting the scales in favor of their opponent the exact same way. We’re complete geniuses that way, in fact.
It’s not that we’re just idiots. We keep hitting stalemates because there are many plausible ways of looking at anything. Life can be like an optical illusion – is it a vase or two faces in the picture? You see this a lot with arguments among Christians. I can make a killer argument for equality between men and women based on scripture or I can use some rather explicit bible verses to make the case that there’s a God ordained hierarchy which puts men on top. Both arguments have legitimate evidence to back them up, so how do we know which one is “right”? Well, pretty much we just argue back and forth until we win or die out. Or we could make a choice. Believe it or not, we’re allowed to do that.
I think that we Christians in particular have this idea that there is a “right” way for everything to function which has been predetermined (or ordained) by God and our only part is to chose to get in line with that or not. But look back at the creation story. God allowed Adam to name the animals. That’s a fair amount of control for Adam to have over God’s creation. Words are powerful. And God allowed Adam not just to name the animals but to come to his own conclusion that none of them was a suitable mate for him. In other words, God quite deliberately gave Adam a say and allowed him to learn things himself. Surely God knew that none of the animals was going to be a suitable mate for Adam. He could have just said, “none of the animals is right for you” and expected Adam to accept that. But he didn’t. I really believe that it is God’s desire and has always been God’s desire for us to be much more empowered than we normally think of ourselves as being.*
So what if instead of arguments, we offered invitations: I want to live in a world of love, so I’m willing to suffer if that’s what it takes to be a loving person. Want to join me? I choose to see each person as made in the image of God and treat them as such. Would you like to do that? I want to live in a world where the broken get a chance to heal rather than suffering a life of poverty or imprisonment, so I’ve made friends with and tend to someone in prison or poverty or scandal. But there are so many. Can you help out as well? When things go really wrong, I want someone to come to my aid, so I try to offer what I have to help when things go really wrong for someone else. Wouldn’t you want someone to help you out if your world was coming apart? Do you think that if we Christians stopped arguing for what we believe is right and simply started making choices that reflect what we believe is right it might make a difference? Do you think that maybe if we did that our invitation might carry more weight than our arguments ever could?
We have more freedom today than at any time in known human history. And freedom is good. Jesus said that he came to set us free. But now that we’re free, we don’t know what to do with it. So we argue. But what if instead of arguing over what is right or wrong or what’s going to work, we started choosing: this is the sort of world I want to live in. This is the sort of life I want to have. These are the ways I want to relate with other people. This is how I’m going to view myself.
Of course, even if we say, “yes! I’m going to be the change I want to see in the world” (to steal a phrase from Gandhi), we’re still going to disagree. The unity which Jesus prayed for us to have isn’t just going to appear. After all, we are starting from a place marred by intense disagreements. But that’s fine. Remember? God allows us to figure things out for ourselves and learn. Which means mistakes will be made. Some of what we do won’t work. Some of it might even be a disaster. For all we know, Adam made a few mistakes himself on the way to deciding that none of the animals was a suitable mate for him. Or maybe not. But we’re clearly post-fall here anyways. Mistakes are inevitable. So we learn. Once we stop worrying so much about being wrong and more about making right choices, it almost certainly won’t be so hard to do. Besides, as much as we have enjoyed fighting over tax policy and abortion laws and welfare, there’s not much any of us can do about those anyways. Pretty much out of necessity most of us will have to start small. Choosing how to deal with our families. Choosing how to spend our money. How many resources to consume. How to spend our time. Who to associate with. Just working through these choices deliberately ought to be enough to keep most people plenty busy.
Of course, this all sounds rather naive. More than a little foolish even. We argue so much in part because there are huge forces at play with enormous power. Governments, economies, legal systems, schools. If we’re busy tending to the small details, aren’t we ceding power? I mean, how many people are really going to stop arguing and just start doing? And how many of them will d o it the Christian way? Don’t we need to get people on board first? Start a movement? Maybe get a facebook page going? Well, here’s the thing; we’ve been trying to influence governments and economies and policies and the rest. And we keep losing. And even corrupting ourselves and our witness in the process. So maybe it’s time to do it like Jesus did – step outside the power structures. Build relationships with a few close friends. Deal directly with people. And yes, it could be that you can do very little and no one else seems to be joining you. But remember, Jesus called us salt, light and yeast. It only takes a little salt to season the dish. One lamp to light the table. A little yeast to make the whole loaf rise.
Besides, I’d rather not argue with you over it. Either you’ll choose to join in or you won’t. It’s up to you.
* If you haven’t yet checked out my study on The Book of Job, you should go read it. This issue of human empowerment shows up there as well, believe it or not. Don’t worry – I skipped the boring parts.