Engaging with those we disagree with – Part 1: Posture

All people have dignity and worth. I believe this because my faith teaches me that every human is made in the image of God. This means truly every human–no matter what socioeconomic status, level of influence, political party, ethnicity, age, religion or gender.  I can say I value everyone until I am blue in the face, but it doesn’t mean much if my life choices, words and actions don’t reflect that value. Beliefs are intricately and inextricably bound up with actions. If that were not true, we would not have the word “hypocrite” in our language.

So beliefs are not very meaningful if they don’t affect how you think and live in the world. If I say I care about the poor, but never actually use my money or time to bless those in need, then maybe my heart isn’t really engaged in that belief. Maybe it is one of those “I assent to the fact that is likely true” type beliefs, just not one that actually changes me. That type of belief doesn’t tend to stick around when the pressure is on.

But where can this go wrong, even with meaningful beliefs? Functionally, people sometimes think that allowing strong beliefs to affect how they think and live means that they are then justified in being mean to anyone who thinks differently. It sure seems like that is how many people have been functioning in the political realm lately—on both sides.

That is where Christianity (though maybe not reflected in certain cultural threads of it) does point to a different way. It calls us to a posture of humility and love!  The Bible teaches both to love and follow God with your whole heart and to love your neighbor as yourself (and very specifically not just the neighbor who thinks like you). These admonitions are not in conflict, and we see them lived out in Jesus’ life. He taught uncompromised truth clearly and strongly, calling people into a life-changing relationship with God, yet he showed love and compassion and hospitality to all. To put it simply, he spoke with both grace and truth.

The Bible calls Christians to do the same. Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be gracious…” Our posture should communicate a goal of peaceful engagement, not arm twisting; not an “I am smarter or better than you” attitude. Rather, I want to have the posture of “I would love to hear your story. We are fellow imperfect travelers in this world. Let’s share where our journeys have taken us and what hope we have for the path before us…” I love talking about the hope I have!

We don’t have to think of the goal as perfect unity or agreement. After all, unity can only come when we humbly address what is preventing it from happening. So if we try to gloss over difference in order to force unity, we will find that ignoring the deeper issues underlying the disagreement leaves us at a surface level that doesn’t take much to destabilize again.  That is not real resolution.  It is better to acknowledge difference openly, recognize we do have some common ground, and have enough humility to listen and expect that we each have more to learn.

The Bible also shares the relational wisdom, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19). When we truly listen to others, we are seeking to understand them—their experiences, their perspectives, their pain, their desires.  A true listener does not have to goal of gathering just enough information to launch a comeback, label and dismiss the other. Pursuing relationships with people who think differently than me should be more like scuba diving than snorkeling. I don’t want to stay on the surface and just look down, thinking I can understand while staying distant and “safe.” I want to dive in, really seeking to see from their perspective, taking the risk of leaving behind my place of safety to enter in more deeply. There is some fear and discomfort, and the way forward is not always simple and clear when we face differences we don’t know an easy way through.

I am convinced that the most growth in relationships really does happen when we are willing to dive in, and love enough to knowingly step into some discomfort, believing that more full life and joy and hope will be on the other side.