Monday, November 17, 2008

Dialogue and Discussion vs. Debate and Dispute

On Wednesday, November 5th I received numerous phone calls from a variety of people. The first ring came just before 5am, and the exchanges continued throughout the day. Why so many calls, you might wonder? I was contacted repeatedly that Wednesday because people simply had to ask, “Well, it’s over. How do you feel? Did your person win? Are you celebrating? Are you sad?" Most of my friends here in South Africa already knew which United States Presidential Candidate I voted for (…Kristen and I had to mail our absentee ballots weeks before), so they knew how I was feeling that particular post-election day. Yet, for those who did not already know, they were anxious to hear who I did vote for and what my reaction was to the announced results.

The recent United States Presidential Elections reminded me of how many here in South Africa are willing to openly discuss topics that many in the United States often try to avoid. For example, while many Americans often shy away from discussion of “hard” and “controversial” topics such as politics and religion (…especially around election season!), it would seem that here in South Africa those two subjects are often the most popular subjects to discuss! Amazingly, it seems like each day someone wants to discuss what is taking place in local, national, and global politics, and also, to consider what is happening in their Church, or how God has touched their life in a certain way. After growing up in the Midwestern United States where certain subjects always seemed to be “off limits”, the open discussion of politics and religion is a huge change of pace.

I recently spoke with a local Lutheran pastor about the topic of “open discussion”, and I asked why it is that many South Africans appear to be more comfortable than Americans when it comes to discussion surrounding “hard subjects” like politics and religion. What he shared with me was quite informative. He told me that he believes people in South Africa disagree with each other just as much as Americans, and people in South Africa often hold strong views about their political and religious beliefs. Yet, according to the pastor, what makes many South Africans different from Americans is that people here seem to be more comfortable to disagree with one another. As the old saying goes, “We can agree to disagree." Even if two people hold opposing views, and even if they disagree strongly about those particular viewpoints, more often than not it does not break the relationship, and people are able to move forward “agreeing to disagree” with respect for one another left intact. Discussion and dialogue is encouraged, for even if people disagree, the sharing of views allows the relationship to grow stronger.

I will be the first to admit that it is a difficult to discuss “hard topics” with people I disagree with. When someone supports a political candidate that I resist, when someone holds to a theological understanding which I find confusing or inaccurate, or when someone considers various points on climate change, poverty, global economics, human sexuality, etc., I fully realize how challenging it is to listen with a genuine open ear. However, what I have found is that, even if I feel passionate about a particular point of view, when I am able to open up and genuinely listen to others offer their thoughts, great things take place throughout the exchange. Through honest and open interaction, an increase in mutual respect and understanding is achieved, we learn to understand why things are perceived the way they are, and the overall strength of the relationship grows.

A friend of mine once said, “…a true and genuine dialogue only takes place when each person is willing to be ‘converted’ to the other side of the argument.” At first I was skeptical of this remark, for I wondered how I could ever open myself up to being “converted” on certain topics I felt strongly about. However, now I am beginning to see the wisdom in such a statement. When we discus “tough topics” such as politics, religion, etc., the temptation is to not truly listen, but to only look for “holes” and/or “gaps” and “cracks” in the other person’s argument, so that we can “charge back” with a strong opinion and thus show the other how they are holding an inaccurate view. In my opinion, this is not “dialogue” or “discussion”, but “debate” or “dispute”, and it ends up being more of an emotional fight that tears apart relationships than anything that resembles something constructive. When it comes to debate, people are not truly “listening” as the other person speaks, but simply using those precious moments to formulate their next statement. On the other hand, if we put our guards down, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and consider for a moment that the other person might have something worthwhile to offer (…and thus, there is something valuable we can learn), instead of “loading up” for our next argument, we offer a genuine ear, and true dialogue and discussion takes place.

There are many topics in our world today that cause a great deal of division. People disagree about abortion, the death penalty, human sexuality, political affiliations, global economic policies, and of course – in a pluralistic world, many disagree upon the nature of who Jesus is and what God does in and through the human race. And to make matters worse, all too many television programs and radio broadcasts cash-in on providing a platform for people to argue about these types of topics. My hope is that, instead of debating and fighting over who is “right” and who is “wrong”, we could open ourselves in order to gather around tables of true and genuine dialogue and discussion. Instead of demonizing those who think and believe differently, and instead of refusing to consider something new, why not value those who are unlike us and actually listen to what they have to say? I believe that to surround ourselves only with people who think the same as we do is an easy temptation to fall into, yet it is a dangerous thing. And on the other hand, while it takes boldness and courage to intentionally engage and listen to those who think differently, it is a true blessing to us all. Respectful discussion allows us to see the world through different eyes, and in the end, I believe God is able to do amazing things in and through the positive interactions. People may be different from one another, but through conversation, we are able to see our commonalities, value each other’s humanity, and work toward common progress.

As Kristen and I served in Guyana and now here among the people of South Africa, we have come across a variety of views and behaviors that strike us as “different” from what we were once accustomed to. Sometimes people do things that do not make sense to us, or say something we simply do not agree with. Nevertheless, we continue to remind ourselves that “different is not equal to wrong”, and instead of immediately judging those who think and act differently, it is important to sit, listen, and engage in genuine discussion in order to learn more about “why” people think and act they way they do (…and of course, re-think why it is we think and act the way we do!). Of course, not every discussion leads to a dramatic change of view or alteration of actions on either side, but the process does create increased understanding as all parties consider why things are the way they are, and how we can all strive together for the collective good.

And so, as the Earth continues to get “smaller” through the Internet, population growth, global travel, and other forms of globalization, whether we like it or not, we all will be faced with an increasing amount of people who think, look, and act differently from that which we have always known. From inner city New York to the farmlands of central Wisconsin, we find ourselves in a “salad bowl” of amazing diversity. And so, instead of pointing fingers and immediately trying to get people to “act like us”, “talk like us”, and “look like us”, and keep things “the way they always were”, my hope is that we would first learn to listen to others in a genuine manner, celebrate our diversity, and allow true and honest discussion to take place around tables of fellowship. We should not shy away from the “tough topics” that too often divide us, but rather, reconsider how to discuss them, and more forward together. While we may not always agree, hopefully we may learn more about others, learn more about ourselves, and together consider how it is that we can live and serve alongside another.