How to Disagree Respectfully in the World of Politics
- Darrell L. Bock
- 2016 17 May
Love: Seeking Solutions beyond Myself
Love is about more than tolerance; it relates and engages. Love appreciates the complexity of juggling love and self-interest, and it realizes that disagreement can be sincere. Those who call for civility in our social discourse must do more than appeal for its need. Civil discourse only happens when we appreciate and are concerned for our fellow citizens. Patriotism is not seen in the political position I hold, but in how I view my fellow citizens, even in a context of disagreement. One of the reasons our public discourse has broken down is that we have lost this deep sense of love and any sense of mutual respect.
What often happens is that we call others to love and respect when we propose our view, yet call the one who disagrees with us an enemy. Jesus’ call to love our enemies is one of his most discussed teachings. It is a perspective that is not only uncommon, but that represents a challenge to all our instincts to be self-focused. In the exhortations surrounding this teaching, Jesus explains this kind of love through acts of service to his enemies. Love also pursues the biblical virtue of justice. Justice is grounded in an appreciation for the sacredness of life and the willingness to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated. Love functions out of a shared human concern and sensitivity toward others.
Justice is grounded in an appreciation for the sacredness of life.
Pursuit of justice and the common good is most effective in a context of actually loving others. Love argues for principles it considers best for people as a whole, and must seek solutions that extend beyond the self. Ultimately, real love is others-directed. Truth does not always reside in one corner. Because no one is omniscient, blind spots exist. Points of view cover the map. Since love is often mixed with self-interest, sometimes our view is as much about ourselves as about others. Profound love engages with the opposition, but does so respectfully, keeping to the issue and avoiding personal attack.
It is possible for us to contend earnestly for a point of view without getting personal. Yet much of our public discussion and media niches undercut genuine discussion. However, loving regard understands that pursuing the common good also means pushing against our tendency to tar our opponent. Love provides hope of genuine dialogue and listens to what others in the room are saying. Love feeds into justice and a sense of fairness toward my neighbor. Love is willing to grant others the consideration we ask for ourselves. Without love and respect, we will not pursue justice.
Accountability: A Check on Total Liberty
Before the American Revolution, Thomas Paine made this observation about government in his work "The Rights of Man": “A body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody.” He understood the dangers of unchecked freedom and unchecked power. Os Guinness titled a recent book "A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future." His thesis was that Americans love freedom, but freedom without constraints and accountability is suicidal for a society. He went as far as to say, “The greatest enemy of freedom is freedom.”
Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanack said this: “Nothing brings more pain than too much pleasure; nothing more bondage than too much liberty.” Accountability is essential for a sustained society—whether that accountability is based on standards received from God or rooted in a reasoned sense of nobility about how humans should live. Without accountability, freedom becomes license. Knowing the difference between responsible freedom and unrestrained freedom is important to a society’s well-being and its pursuit of the common good.
Accountability is a sustaining starting point in the pursuit of the common good. Accountability doesn’t ask if something is permissible but if it is beneficial. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:23–24, “Everything is permitted, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permitted, but not everything edifies. Do not seek your own good, but the good of the other person.” (Author’s Translation) This kind of accountability reinforces love and leads to good stewardship, and it sets the stage for meaningful dialogue, even healthy disputation.
But What about Conviction?
Being willing to engage with those we disagree with does not mean that positions and convictions don’t matter. They do matter. But the point of loving engagement is to consider compromise, to be willing to back off. Being willing to engage with those we disagree with does not mean that positions and convictions don’t matter.
Full engagement from all sides means coming to the table and vigorously making your case, but it also means being open to the possibility—no matter how slight you think it is—that the other person may have something valuable to say. Full engagement means listening to opposing views with some level of respect, rather than only trumpeting your approach. As Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (NIV)
My email inbox is full of political material both from the right and the left. I’m not sure how I got identified with both wings, but somehow I am perceived as a supporter of both sides. These emails serve to build walls and call on me to dig in and advocate for their position. But my role as a citizen is to thoughtfully assess the proposed positions rather than blindly affirming and supporting them. Of course, we may come to an impasse on some issues, where bridging the divide is not possible. But on many issues the divide can be bridged or at least ameliorated in ways that allow us to function better side by side.
Many differences remain at impasse because we lack actual engagement and there is a dearth of creativity and genuine effort to find a third way. Is our advocacy about our convictions so set in concrete that we cannot seek options that may work for a larger group? More importantly, should we be so immovable? And on topics that are not directly addressed in Scripture, is it right for people of faith to propound their political views as biblical truths?
So when it comes to convictions, all sides should make their case. Our society needs vigorous discussion and the freedom to express opposing views. But all of us need to be in the assessment mode—no one is right about everything. Be willing to listen and hear, not just advocate. Be willing to assess what matters and what can be discussed. Come to the table, and let us reason together. Practicing good stewardship, engaging love, and a sense of mutual accountability helps set relational parameters for difficult dialogues about differences.
These starting points pave a way out of gridlock—not as matters of ideology but as matters of relational citizenship. Without such reference points and commitments, little will change about how we do our political business.
Darrell L. Bock is Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas. He also serves as Professor for Spiritual Development and Culture for the Seminary’s Center for Christian Leadership. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Breaking the Da Vinci Code. His special fields include the historical Jesus, gospel studies, and the integration of theology and culture. He is a graduate of the University of Texas (BA), Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM), and the University of Aberdeen (PhD).
Publication date: May 17, 2016