As part of an English unit in junior high, I was assigned to debate a fellow classmate on the issue of abortion. Relieved that I was able to take the “pro-life” side, I delved into reading and research and pulled up the science that supported life inside the womb.
A good exercise would have been to add a second part to the assignment: How does it affect women who have abortions? With such strong scientific evidence of an unborn child’s responses, reactions, and even emotions, why is abortion common in the United States? What makes it a choice for so many women?
That would have been a hefty (and possibly prohibited) assignment for a sheltered 13-year-old, but it would have offered the chance to see different sides of an issue on a personal level. It might have provided a jumpstart on realizing that just because I dislike something and believe it to be wrong, it doesn’t mean those who feel differently deserve my disdain. It might have forced me to look at an issue from more than one perspective—one that involved people more and science less.
I still believe abortion takes a life. What has changed is that I realize people who are pro-choice and people who are pro-life are coming from different perspectives on the issue (not necessarily firsthand experience). When I discovered, as an adult, that many who are pro-choice also believe abortion to be tragic, I gained a new perspective and learned how to debate and discuss intelligently, without giving up my grace-dependent Christian witness with unbelievers.
When I choose to get involved in a dialogue on difficult issues, on social media or in person, I try to take a respectful tone, especially with non-Christians: a tone that doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether I believe the issue is right or wrong—but one that says, I’ve listened to what you and others are saying. And I hear you. I try to use language that doesn’t default to condescension and judgment—language that articulates I’m not 13 anymore; I am an adult.
What to Remember When Engaged in Debate
The first step in respectfully acknowledging other people’s perspectives is admitting we only have our own. Acknowledgment of others’ opinions and experiences that we don’t have does not come naturally, but we can use life seasons, circumstances, community, and culture (not just our own) to extend and inform our viewpoint. We should use Christ’s humility when we decide to discuss controversies and point out sins. Jesus had the harshest words for those who proclaimed their religiosity, mincing no words in publicly calling out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Jesus listened and acknowledged and talked to unbelievers before speaking of their problems or sins. He ate with them and offered them help: the woman at the well, the tax collectors with whom Jesus had dinner, Zacchaeus, and so on.
We can reject the pressure to take an “all-or-nothing” stance on issues. Such pressure is neither logical nor kind, and unfortunately the analogies our political system uses to support holding a position in this way are used to shape public opinion.
For example, the analogy of straddling a fence is often used for those who don’t ascribe wholly to one political leaning. I’ve straddled a fence; it’s not at all comfortable. But why is that the analogy? Rowing on only one side of a canoe won’t get us very far. How about using one hand to get through a day’s work when we have two capable hands? How do we get from the common sense of pulling the good and bad on issues to being completely yanked to one side?
Scripture is not for political gain and power grabs. What has happened when people support gun control and then get called out for being anti-American and anti-God? How is that line drawn? It’s the same faint line sketched when it is suggested that someone who collects guns must also be a murderer.
A person’s perspective on an issue addressed in Scripture doesn’t change what Scripture says about it. A husband or wife might feel justified and at peace participating in an extramarital affair, but all that emotion and justification won’t change the fact that it is wrong. Also wrong: deriding someone who has had an affair—judging with our big stones when we’ve saved none for tossing back at ourselves, and likely forgetting how Jesus made the definition of adultery much stricter in his Sermon on the Mount than it ever was as the seventh commandment.
The United States Constitution and the Bible are not one and the same. One is secular and imperfect and holds the rules and regulations for governing a country. The other is truth to be used as a moral compass. At best, aligning the two creates confusion. At worst, it encourages blasphemy. The list of things that are constitutional, but not biblical will take a little time to sort out.
And about those values our nation’s founding fathers so tediously documented? The ones this “Christian nation” didn’t adhere to?
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Of course, even though this same text uses “mankind,” a term that refers collectively to the human race, these rights were only granted by the government to men. White men. Property-owning white men. Not the men whose tribes were massacred or the men enslaved in chains, taken from their families, wives beaten and raped and families separated. These are the kinds of evils from which nations and cultures do not heal. The tone we take when we suggest that such a past should no longer affect our country in the present matters when we discuss these atrocities.
Being a Christ-follower is not synonymous with any particular political party. To say otherwise is a bully tactic, one that shows a lack of respect and the inability to understand that the sins generally ascribed to one political party are not greater than the sins generally ascribed to another. It also demeans and acutely disrespects the Word of God.
Using derogatory terms and phrases to name-call others because of their beliefs does not demonstrate signs of intelligent or kind debate. Racist language, bigoted language, use of the word, “baby-killer,” and pejorative use of the word, “homophobic”—we lose people when we talk, or type, this way. We also lose the testimony of who we are in Christ.
We might have to change our language depending on the audience. The same way that writers write for a particular audience and businesses market toward a specific demographic, applying wisdom in our words is a must. Talking to likeminded people might mean presenting ideas in a different way than having a lively discussion with others who are on the opposite side of an issue.
Before posting (or preaching), pull up Scripture:
(All Scripture from NIV)
Colossians 4:6: Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know to answer everyone.
Colossians 3:12: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Galatians 5:26: Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying one another.
Many, many Proverbs.
Allegiance to Christ and love for others supersedes pronouncements of patriotism. May our graciousness in agreement, and humility in disagreement, be more important than our desire to be right. May we remember that behind current events and controversial topics, real people are affected. And may our discourse reflect an understanding that the perspective of others is essential and valuable for us as a community, a culture, and a church.