Our world is becoming more and more divided with each passing year. Not only does it seem there are more divisions than in times past, it also seems that the distance across chasms is becoming more difficult to bridge.
Such divisions have always been apparent in the world of politics, especially during times of presidential elections. Yet this year the rhetoric is far more inflammatory even as tolerance becomes a relic of ages past. What was once called statesmanship has been replaced by a refusal to take any prisoners and a mentality of winning at all costs.
Whereas politics may be the most visible sign of divisions, we also continue to see the societal ills and prejudices of the past resurface, reminding us we are not as harmonious as we might have thought. It may have been white ignorance, but I had been lulled into believing the races were becoming closer than in the days of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Selma marches. Yet the angry eruptions in our cities, reports of the inequality of justice and the pitting of white against black and black against blue has shattered previous assumptions.
Churches also face some hard realities. With the proliferation of faith options in the cluttered religious marketplace, we are faced with the dilemma of how to remain true to our convictions while seeking to also preach tolerance.
Does being tolerant mean we water down our own beliefs? Can we be civil, whether in the fields of politics or race or religion, and still stand for something? A wise evangelist once told me “you can’t share your faith and be heard until you are willing to listen to the other to the point of being converted yourself.”
I interpreted that to mean I can’t simply speak, but I must also hear. If I want someone to give credence to my words, I should first hear that person with the same open-mindedness I request from them. There is the possibility that in the midst of such conversations I might be changed. When I share my faith, I follow that advice.
There are those things which are closest to our heart. We all perceive the world in our own way. That is not to imply truth is relative. In my personal convictions I don’t believe that is true. Yet there are times in my life I have changed my mind and this has often enhanced my faith and my Christian life. Those things at the core of our being involve our faith, our convictions and our values. These then determine everything from our religion to our politics to our ethics.
When our core convictions are challenged our first response is to become defensive, yet true growth can’t come from argument or conflict, only from discussion and openness. I can’t hope to change the other person if I myself am unwilling to change.
I have used this approach in my evangelistic outreach. My faith in Jesus Christ remains unshaken, although I’ve dared to put it on the line. And I also know there are times I’ve planted seeds in the other person along the way.
When crowds clash over issues close to the heart and people turn to violence, when religions refuse to allow tolerance to remain a virtue, or even when friendships are in danger because of opposing political positions, I have to wonder what would change if we were brave enough to listen.
Walt Rice writes from the Trinity Lutheran Church.