Living Together Faithfully in Community While Disagreeing

[1] I have great appreciation for the work that the Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality did as they wrestled with some of the most excruciatingly difficult issues of our time. I particularly like their recommendation that we concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements. And so it was that when the editor of this journal asked if I would write an article exploring ways of living together faithfully while disagreeing, I readily agreed to do so.

[2] I took the liberty of expanding the topic a bit. While the task force report makes specific reference to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and quite appropriately directs its recommendations toward the ELCA, the challenge of living together faithfully in community while disagreeing is one that extends to our entire society in an era in which there is sharp disagreement about all sorts of controversial matters. Hence, I have chosen to focus on living together faithfully in communities in general, rather than simply on the ELCA. The observations that follow, however, apply to the ELCA as well as to other communities.

[3] There are several key elements in learning how to live together faithfully in community while disagreeing. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

Coming to a realistic understanding of the nature of ethics;

Seeing the person behind what we perceive to be their faults;

Improving our listening skills; and

Looking beyond differences to find areas of disagreement.

Coming to a Realistic Understanding of the Nature of Ethics
[5] When we think about ethics, our first inclination is often to make judgments about what others should or should not be doing. Like Archimedes of old, we long for a place on which to stand and move the whole world. Such is the nature of the vanity with which we are afflicted.

[6] The reality, however, is that there is no place to be found on which we can stand and judge the whole world. Moreover, as the twentieth-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty warns us, operating on the assumption that we have a God’s-eye view of the truth and have all the answers is inherently dangerous. He observes that if I believe that I can rejoin the absolute principle of all thought . . . the suffering I create turns into happiness, ruse becomes reason, and I piously cause my adversaries to perish.1

[7] When all things are considered, all that we can do is proceed on the basis of faith, a realization that of necessity must begin with a confession of humility with the acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers.2

[8] The practical impact of this realization is that it shifts the locus of ethical decision making from the vertical to the horizontal, from mountaintop morality, where we make all sorts of pronouncements and judgments about other people, to morality in the valley below, where we are challenged to understand and respond to the humanity of those whose lives intersect with ours. The pronounced pastoral tone of the ELCA task force report is an excellent example of an ethic of responsiveness ethics on the horizontal, rather than mountaintop morality.

[9] This does not mean that anything and everything that others say and do should go unchallenged. As Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently understood, sometimes the faiths that we affirm compel us to stand with those who are threatened and do what we can to ensure their well-being.3

[10] At the same time, even as we acknowledge that there are times that faith compels action, we must begin by seeking to understand, rather that rush prematurely to judgment. The reality is that to varying degrees, we are all too quick to judge and too slow to understand.

Seeing the Person behind What We Perceive to Be Their Faults
[11] One of the most insightful (and least noted) Biblical passages tells of Jesus having dinner with tax collectors and other sinners:

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9.10-13 NRSV).
[12] The tax collectors of Jesus’ day were notorious crooks who cheated taxpayers by charging them more than they owed and cheated the government by skimming off part of the take. Yet, here was Jesus having dinner with them! The religious types were aghast! Didn’t Jesus realize what he was doing?

[13] Jesus, of course, was in no way condoning cheating or any of the other terrible things the crooked tax collectors were doing. And when it came time for Jesus to pay whatever taxes carpenters and itinerant teachers paid in those days, I seriously doubt that Jesus said, “I don’t mind being cheated. Help yourself. Take whatever you want.”

[14] That, however, is not the point of the story. Rather, the story serves to remind us that Jesus was able to see something most of us fail to see the person behind the faults. While in no way excusing their conduct, Jesus realized that even crooked tax collectors are human beings worthy of our compassion and understanding.

[15] The people most of us meet in day-to-day life have flaws of character of far lesser magnitude than those of the crooked tax collectors of Jesus’ time. Yet we often magnify what we perceive to be their faults, making mountains of things that are trivial. By so doing, we block out any possibility of seeing the humanity of others. When we start criticizing other people for this and that, for wrongs that we perceive or imagine, it is very easy to overlook the fact that those whose lives intersect with ours are real people just like ourselves. People who have hopes and fears, moments of joy and moments of sorrow, times of success and times of failure. Moreover, what we perceive to be faults are often not faults at all-just differences of opinion that diminish in significance as we become more aware of the humanity of those with whom we disagree.

Improving Our Listening Skills
[16] If we are to gain increased awareness of the humanity of those whose lives intersect with our, it is essential that we improve our listening skills. Unfortunately, most of us are far better at taking other people apart than listening to what they have to say.

[17] If listening is to be a mode of discovery, we must be open-minded about what others have to say, particularly when they give expression to views at odds with those we hold. When we filter everything through our own beliefs and preconceptions, we miss much of what is being said. And we risk significantly misconstruing what we do hear. Preconceptions often result in misperceptions.

[18] Being open-minded listeners, it should be added, in no way means that we ought to suspend all judgment about what others say and do, thereby opting for an over-simplified “I’m okay, you’re okay” mindset that in effect says that whatever anyone is inclined to say or do is just fine. No does it suggest that we should never give expression to our own views when engaged in conversations with others or in any way disagree with what they say. Rather, being open-minded simply means that when we are in the listening phase of the communication process, we need to set aside temporarily our own beliefs and views so that we can better hear what is being said. It also means that when others say and do things at odds with values we hold dear, we ought to do our best to see the person behind what we perceive to be their faults, rather than simply focus on the things that we believe they are doing wrong.

[19] None of this is easy to accomplish. It is far easier to lead with our own views and preconceptions – to judge first and then try to make it appear as if we are listening, even though the reality is otherwise. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that temporarily setting aside our own views and judgments is precisely what must be done if we are to be careful, open-minded listeners. If we are to prevent preconceptions from becoming misperceptions. If we are to understand, rather than merely be judgmental.

[20] A few years ago while working on a volume on intergenerational issues, I interviewed individuals from different age-groups and from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, making every effort to be as open-minded as possible as I listened to their life stories. Some were people I had known for years – or at least thought I had known for years, though I must confess that when I sat down and listened to what they had to say, I discovered that I hadn’t always been tuned in to where they were coming from. Others were individuals I met at various events or individuals friends and colleagues who knew that I was working on the project brought to my attention.4

[21] It was an eye-opening experience! Among those I interviewed was a graduate student who was grieving the ending of a long-term same-sex relationship. While I have never been among those hurling words of condemnation at gays and lesbians, prior to interviewing this student, gay and lesbian issues weren’t on my radar screen. That changed when I heard first-hand how genuine her grief was and how deep her pain was – grief and pain that were every bit as genuine as that of those experiencing the ending of long-term heterosexual relationships. Anyone who has strongly-held views on gay and lesbian issues or any other matters of controversy would do well to take the time to listen in an open-minded, non-judgmental manner to those with differing views.

[22] To be sure, listening to others in an open-minded, non-judgmental manner is not risk-free. Listening to others in a non-judgmental manner can expose our own vulnerabilities. And we, rather than they, might end up being the ones who change. Such being the case, it is not surprising that some find attacking preferable to listening; attacking others is one of the most common of all defense mechanisms.

[23] There is a certain practical sense in which becoming aware of the humanity of others changes the sort of person that we are, even if our own views on matters of controversy remain unchanged. The widely-read Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) was aware of this transformation of the self when he distinguished the “I-Thou ” relationship from the “I-It” relationship, the former being an interpersonal relationship while the latter is essentially nothing more than that of a subject acting on an object. He suggested that “the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.5 (Buber referred to I-Thou and I-It as “primary words” that are “not isolated words, but combined words.6 ) There’s something to that. The experience of intersubjectivity, i.e., the experience of relating to others as persons, not simply as objects, brings with it a different type of consciousness and awareness.

[24] When the humanity of others registers on our consciousness, the ethical framework within which we operate is redefined and restructured. And in the process, we become different sorts of persons. Might not this be the very essence of agape? The experience of living in caring community characterized the affirmation of the humanity of all persons? The experience of love transforming interpersonal relationships? The experience of God touching our lives through the lives of other people? The experience of discovering what it is to keep faith with other people even when disagreeing with them?

Looking beyond Differences to Find Areas of Agreement
[25] As noted above, listening to others in an open-minded, non-judgmental manner doesn’t by implication mean that we should abandon our own views on matters of controversy. Yes, we should examine them in the light of new insights gained, but that doesn’t necessarily mean changing them. Respecting the views of other people can-and often does-entail respectfully disagreeing with them.7

[26] But even when differences of opinion persist after open, non-judgmental conversation, there is often common ground in other areas. The practical problem is that all-too-often we focus on that which divides us while completely overlooking that which unites us. In a caring, faithful community, it is essential that even as differences are acknowledged, efforts be made to find areas of agreement. Whether the issue is same-sex marriage or any other matter of controversy, it is absolutely essential that we look beyond the differences to note and affirm the common values that are the fabric that binds the community together–values such as respect for persons, integrity and compassion. If there is any type of community that should be able to do this, it is churches. Yet rather sadly many parishioners allow differences of opinion to overshadow that which they have in common with others.

Some Concluding Considerations
[27] The report and recommendations of the Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality has the potential of marking a new beginning in the life of the church. Yes, I know that some have responded to it critically and have marshaled their favorite Biblical passages or other arguments in an effort to disprove the views of those who disagree with them (a response that is by no means unique to any side of the debate). And I am realistic enough to know that at least some of this type of contentiousness is likely to continue.

[28] However, if we can rise above contentiousness and instead dedicate ourselves to better understanding where those who disagree with us are coming from, the report can be the catalyst for the rediscovery and reaffirmation of community–community that enables living together faithfully even while respectfully disagreeing.

End Notes

1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Metaphysical in Man,” in Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia A. Dreyfus (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 95.

2 I develop this theme and some of the themes that follow in greater detail in Navigating Right and Wrong: Ethical Decision Making in a Pluralistic Age (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 47-76, 96-138.

3 The question of when, if at all, it is appropriate to intervene in the lives of other people is one of the most difficult challenges of our time, a matter that I discuss in my most recent book, Freedom vs. Intervention: Six Tough Cases (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), passim.

4 Daniel E. Lee, Generations and the Challenge of Justice (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996), 37-51, 64-83, 97-119, 128-50, 158-70.

5 Martin Buber, I and Thou, 2nd ed., tr. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner&=javascript:goNote(39s Sons, 1958), 3. The German title of I and Thou (the volume was first published in Germany in 1923) is Ich and Du. As those familiar with the German language know, du is the familiar form of second person singular pronoun. The use of du in the title, rather than the more formal Sie, serves to underscore the personal dimension of the I-Thou relationship.

6 Buber, I and Thou, 3.

7 This is not to suggest that all views should be respected. There are some views that are so pernicious-for example, those of the child pornographer-that they cannot be given any credibility or respect in a community committed to respecting and affirming the dignity of all persons.

Daniel E. Lee

Daniel E. Lee teaches ethics at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, where he is the chair of the Department of Religion.