In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul says (in Eugene Peterson's translation The Message):
"I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I'll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common." (I Corinthians 1:10)
I share the same concern for our Indiana state legislature, for our U.S. Congress, for our United Methodist Church, and for many of our congregations here in Indiana. We live in a time when there are too many conflicts, too little cooperation, and too few people who are willing to get along. Simple courtesy, the ability to compromise, and the willingness to think of the larger good – those things seem to be in short supply. We are reaching the point where the very social fabric is coming unraveled.
This inability to cultivate what Paul calls "a life in common" is on the rise. In its most extreme versions, it leads to shootings here in Indianapolis and to "stand your ground" violence in other states. In less extreme versions, it leads to angry postings on social media. And in its church manifestation it leads to people labeling others with whom they disagree. I see terms like "heretic" and "Nazi" and "unbeliever" thrown around by persons who claim to be followers of Christ. I receive notes and e-mails from persons wanting me to take sides and settle their rather petty disputes with one another (and you can bet that if the Bishop did intervene and judge the worthiness of their position, they would accuse me of being an "autocrat").
I don't have factual proof that my concern is accurate or that disharmony is on the rise, but I think anyone who follows the news is aware that we are becoming a less harmonious people – even in our churches.
How can we turn this around? I suggest the following steps for each of us and all of us to take:
- Start by saying "I could be wrong" when expressing your opinions. That simple caveat allows room for the other person to have a different opinion. And it is also the truth – we may well be wrong, even when we have a strong opinion.
- Practice stating opposing opinions without labeling or cynicism. The ability to explain positions with which we disagree means that we have truly listened and learned. It also makes it more likely that we will convince others to consider our opinions.
- Agree to disagree without becoming disagreeable. There is nothing which says we must always agree, but our disagreeing can be civil and polite.
- Don't go thermo-nuclear on every issue. Most issues are not ultimate, so don't ramp up the rhetoric on every little thing.
- Allow God to speak for himself and don't presume God agrees with you on every one of your opinions.
Will these five steps eliminate all of the divisions and violence in our society and all the divisions in our churches? Of course not. But we must start somewhere. As the Apostle Paul says, "We must get along with each other." We must.