CHURCH CORNER: The world’s in need of healthy dialogue

By Dan Oliva

Calvary Presbyterian

One of the things I enjoy doing after church on Sunday (after taking off my tie as fast as possible) is reading the Sunday paper. One of the sections I always turn to is the “Rant & Rave” section – do you read this, too? It is the part of the paper where people can write in a positive or negative comment about, well, pretty much anything.

There are always a few raves mixed in: “Rave to the person who found my wallet and returned it with most of the money left” or “Rave to the nice man who rescued my cat Fluffy from the pack of wild dogs.” But the bulk of this section is made up of rants, rants and more rants. “Rant to my neighbor who played his stereo past midnight!” “Rant to the waiter who laughed when I requested a senior discount!” “Rant to the driver in the midnight blue Honda Civic on Monday, Jan. 2, at 3:22 p.m. at milepost 261 on I-5, you cut me off!” You think I exaggerate.

While I laugh as I read this section, it usually leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Public ranting like this is symptomatic of a greater problem in our culture right now: the inability to engage in healthy dialogue with others, especially people who are different than us. Have you noticed this? Whether it is a talk radio host, a famous TV personality or a “letters to the editor” section of a newspaper, there does not seem to be a lot of healthy discussion going on – a lot of heat, but very little light.

Why is this the case? Why are our conversations, editorials, letters and news reports filled with polarizing language? One reason is that it often just feels good – it feels good to draw those lines. Who is in, who is out, who is “us” and who is “them.” Very clear, very black and white – it is easier to live with this kind of view of the people around us.

Another reason (a more telling one) is that our polarizing language reveals our desire to feel superior over others. All of the rhetorical tools we employ – vilification, name-calling, misquoting, half-truth-telling, stereotyping – aim at achieving one goal: to dehumanize the other, to alienate the perceived “enemy” and to make ourselves look superior. This happens when we talk in public about issues like politics, social justice, education and ethics. The church is not immune, either; it also happens when Christians talk about things like sanctuary carpet color or worship music styles.

So this article is my call – my plea – for a return to civil discourse, a return to healthy dialogue. What does that look like? It means that we do away with unhelpful tools like name-calling and denigration. It does not mean censorship, but maybe it means self-censorship – knowing that we have the freedom to say anything we want but the words we use may not be beneficial to our community, our city or to our church.

Healthy dialogue means that being listened to and being heard are two very different things. To be sure, it takes some skill to express a coherent opinion, whether about politics, religion, or your favorite movie of 2009. But it takes a much higher level of skill and maturity to express that opinion so you are actually heard by people on the other side of things. Sharing your view while keeping your opponents engaged – that takes hard work, but it is a goal toward which we should all strive.

Finally, civil discourse – meaningful, society-changing discourse – means that we do the hard work of trying to see things from another person’s perspective. One of my favorite authors and pastors, Rob Bell, recently said in a sermon about other world views: “There is some rightness in their wrongness, and there is some wrongness in our rightness.” Maybe this is a good starting point when it comes to all our conversations and public speech: recognizing the limits of our own viewpoint, recognizing our shared humanity with others and allowing humility and empathy to guide our responses.

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