Friday, September 25, 2009

Reconcilable Differences (5Cs)

‘Separation.’ ‘Divorce.’ ‘Breakups.’ ‘Splits.’ ‘Agree to Disagree.’ These words are often the result of failed attempts to come together in unity. The term ‘irreconcilable differences’ has been used widely when filing divorce papers. The statistics are grim. Even Christians contribute to the increase in divorce numbers. For the Church, since the infamous 16th Century divorce of Western Christendom into Protestant and Roman Catholic groups, the recent 400 years have also been littered with splits and schisms. The remarkable thing is that despite multiple common creeds, many differences are still classified irreconcilable. How do we prevent or minimize irreconcilable differences? I believe that one method is maintaining healthy and constructive discussions, while we are still in a healthy state. Medication used preventatively reaps better dividends than one used curatively. In other words, a healthy body responds better to medication. When a body is too sick, sometimes even amputation may not help. This is the same for healthy discussions. Having discussions that edify will unite. Having discussions that degenerate into name-calling or stone-throwing will divide. How do we ensure debates of all kinds be done in a civil and conciliatory manner? As we know, knowledge is good on the one hand, but it can also puff up. Care needed to be exercised when we debate views in the name of knowledge. Above all, let our speech, our words and actions be that of grace through reconciliatory attitudes.

Reconciliation is not stopping any one person from voicing his views. It is learning to voice one’s opinions honestly, and to paraphrase the other respectfully without humiliating either. Reconciliation is not cheap. It costs deeply. Reconciliation is not shaking the dissenting hand grudgingly. It is learning to embrace the brother/sister graciously, warts and all. Reconciliation is accepting one another on the basis of Christ’s love, not humanistic contracts or agreements. It is a process, not simply the end product. It cannot be forced though it can be reinforced. After traveling the rugged countryside of controversies, reconciliation is like a regular oil change, to lubricate the engines with love so that all passengers can travel further and more purposefully in their faith journeys. Without the lubricant of love, each cranking of the debate engine dangerously wears out the prime mover of the vehicle. A debate that ends without reconciliation is like the car heading toward self-inflicted implosion. On the other hand, debates that end with reconcilable differences not only prevent the Body from self-destruction, it is constructive enough for the car to run many more miles to spread the gospel of peace. It is with this intent, that I write this article, entitled ‘Reconcilable Differences’ covering the 5 Cs of debates. Aim at the 5Cs of debates. Civility in arguments. Charity in disagreements. Aim to cascade arguments up or down, and not castrate fellow believers. Context is important. Community is the fruit of the Spirit. We need debates, but more importantly, we need the skills and the humility for reconciliation of differences at all times.

1) Civility

When anyone disagrees, he will need to support his views with simple and clear explanations. It is not helpful to take potshots at a person with words like: “You are muddle-headed,” or “What a stupid argument.” Be specific to keep your arguments at the ‘what’ that has been said, rather than ‘who’ has said it. It is to be done with humble civility, not hostility. In other words, instead of saying:
“I take offence at your stupid statement,” why not try: “Your statement is unhelpful. Allow me to elaborate why I disagree with Point A, B or C…..” The former shoots down an argument. The latter develops a perspective without getting personal.
It is also unhelpful to simply quote a part of Scripture and then stay silent, leaving others to draw their own conclusions. Whenever Scriptures are used like a bullet, it can hurt, not heal. If it is made to sound like a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ scenario, it is like sucking away all the oxygen of discussion out of a room.

Be reverent when using Scriptures, especially when using it against one another. Remember, it works both ways. For instance, ‘judge not’ when quoted, does not just apply to the receiver(s). It applies equally to the sender.

2) Charity

We are encouraged to use Scriptures to correct one another. However, it has to be done with two simultaneous attitudes: in Truth and in Love. Truth is not the domain of any one person, except our Lord Jesus himself (John 14:6). Love is the elixir of living. The popular chapter ‘1 Corinthians 13’ is often used in marriages and romantic celebrations. Do we know that it is written to unite the Church at Corinth that is on the verge of a bitter split-up?

Charity comes across also in terms of fairness. For example, each time we quote Paul and Barnabas going their separate ways (Acts 15:39) because of disagreements, do not forget that they came back together in the Lord (Gal 2).

For some of us, may I encourage you to start afresh. Differences will exist, for we are all created differently. Having being involved in businesses and church work, I have seen a fair number of people cast their “Agree to Disagree” card without much thought or hesitation. Is this due to an effort to protect one’s fragile bigotry, or a missed opportunity at reconciliation? Without charity, can such an attitude promote ‘reconcilable differences’ or ‘irreconcilable differences?’

3) Controversies: To Cascade or To Castrate?

Those who misunderstand the purpose of the wind scorns it. Those who understand it will learn to harness its potential. This is the same with controversies. Some can be used as opportunities to unite, like a mediator doing a summation. Others divide carelessly. It is in the former that I am writing for. In other words, the way we approach controversies should be one that CASCADE into a fuller picture, to learn to see multiple views and ‘cascade’ or develop them upward or downward if necessary. If our views are wrong, we need not discard them totally. Why not cascade it a level down and see if it is a more reasonable view? If it is a good view, cascade a level up to strengthen the benefit for all. If it is not, learn to cascade a level down and recognize that one need not be completely wrong. Just a correction helps. Learning to cascade UP right views helps us humbly accept that there are more to learn. Cascading DOWN erroneous views preserves the good intentions, and allows gentle corrections. Cascading up preserves the good arguments and checks any pride that diverts attention away from God. We should not castrate the opposing view to the point of discrediting the individual or ridiculing the other so much that the aftertaste is bitter and hurtful.

The times are changing but also changing rapidly. The Christian community is already a small one. Why should anyone shrink it by creating and emphasizing differences? What has the Church to gain when one’s winning the argument leads to another person’s loss? Now, I am not talking about the secular win-win scenario where wins need to be sought at all cost. I am referring to the nature of debates. Debates are NOT healthy if its primary purpose is to defeat the opponent. Instead, its objective is to highlight ‘missing’ points of relevance to strengthen the overall picture. In other words, learn to cascade rather than to castrate. In theological circles, a popular word used is ‘polemical’ which we actively debate controversial topics. An example is the polemics of Martin Luther.

One thing commonly misunderstood is the Reformation, dramatized by the 95 theses of Martin Luther, nailed at the door of Wittenberg. Some people may think that Luther used this to start the Protestant movement. No. Luther remained a monk within the Roman Catholic Church, until his forced expulsion in 1521. Luther had at least 2 goals behind his 95 polemics. Firstly, Luther is fighting the rich establishment’s abuses. The 95 theses were ‘invitations’ for debate, not declarations of independence. This reminds us that each time we debate, let it not be an attitude of ‘declaring’ we-are-right-and-others-are-wrong. Let it be an invitation to treat views respectfully and openly.

Secondly, Luther is fighting for the poor people. The rise of the Protestant movement is not simply Luther. Luther is merely the ‘tipping point’ for Reform. In other words, many poor villages then have become so impoverished by the rich Church’s constant request for money using money to justify the use of ‘indulgences’ that Luther felt enough is enough. One example is the Church’s ‘fund-raisers’ who sing advertising tunes to get ordinary people to give more. Tunes such as:
“The moment a coin in the coinbox rings, a soul from Purgatory will spring.”
Such abuses of the Church infuriated Luther. By making ordinary people hopeful that money given buys the souls of loved ones, how can the people, especially the poor not ‘want’ to pay? This is one context in which Luther develops his ‘sola gracia’ (only by grace) doctrine now famous throughout Christian history. This reminds us that our discussions or debates, let them have an honorable goal, whether it be for social justice in the world or some charitable goals. In debates, let us learn the art of cascading down when wrong, cascading up when heading the right direction. Do not castrate one another to entertain the world.

4) Context is Important

The convictions in Luther’s writings however did the Church at large a disfavor as well. Some people have used his writings out of context to promote an anti-Semitic stance. One tract that modern Lutherans wish Luther had never written was one that urges people to ‘expel Jews and burn their synagogues’ (Martin Luther, Jews and Their Lies, 1597). In fact, this piece of tract has been used as part of the Nazi propaganda against Jews. The context of Luther’s tract is basically more of a religious nature rather than racial. He was actually lamenting the ‘good old days’ of Jewish agricultural innocence having been replaced by the ‘bad new ways’ of Jewish commercial enterprise which includes unscrupulous money lending. Understanding the context is critical to knowing where and why a particular person is coming from. I shared with a few people on the short mini-clip a few days ago about acceptance which zeroes in on this aspect of context. Quite a number of people have found it helpful. You may watch it here.

5) Community is Necessary

Whatever we do, remember that community is essential. When Jesus left the earth, his disciples looked up to Peter, who was on the verge of giving up, and going back to fishing. It was only when he was reinstated by Jesus three times that he was able to step out of his shame-filled cocoon. In the movie “St Peter,” which chronicles the life of the Apostle Peter, there was a very touching scene not captured by the New Testament. It was a scene where Peter, greatly respected by the rest of the disciples, were re-affirmed and encouraged through community and brotherhood. Repeatedly, each disciple stepped forward saying to Peter three basic words: “I trust you.” All of the disciples, even Matthias who had a few tiffs with Peter, was able to say: “I trust you.” The rest is history. Peter became emboldened to preach the gospel and to lead the Church through a very difficult period in Church history.

My brothers. This is the Church that Peter fought for. He was able to do this when his fellow believers say to him: “I trust you.” For us to grow our respective churches, remember to affirm your leaders. Speak to them in love. Correct them gently if necessary. Tell them: “I trust you.” Clergymen are not perfect people. I can personally testify to it. While we need not make angels out of them, we should also not demonize them.

So what are reconcilable differences?

It is summed up in 5Cs. Be civil in our use of arguments, keeping a respectful composure at all times. Exercise charity with much grace when dealing with disagreements. Remember that the way to develop perspectives through cascading down a step when wrong, or cascading up a step when right. Note the importance of context. There is always a reason behind why people say something. If necessary, give that person the benefit of the doubt. Finally, see debates as part of a living community. I offer these 5Cs for all to contemplate, reflect and act upon. For the glory of God and the edification of the Body of Christ.
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
(John 13:34-35)


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