Space for Difference: Learning to Disagree with Integrity & Kindness

Categories: For the Soul, Uncategorized


This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Columbia Contact magazine. It was written by Janet Boldt, who’s been a member of Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Studies faculty for 24 years.  Her courses include Conflict Management, Effective Teaching, and Cultural Anthropology.

The world seems to be falling apart because of difference. Isis seeks to destroy what’s grey and create a world divided into only black and white. South of our border, rhetoric spirals further and further from common humanity. Here in Canada, border guards have started to carry guns. A frightened protester pepper-sprayed Syrian immigrants being welcomed at the Vancouver airport.

With the daily news revealing so much strident language around difference, it’s difficult to envision another way. The world is in conflict over difference no matter which way we turn. It seems impossible to disagree and still get along.

Is there another way? The prophets, evangelists, and apostles believed there was. They looked to Jesus who offered a “third way,” as Walter Wink described it: a response that was neither flight
nor fight, but rather engaging with the difference.

Difference, in fact, is part of the human condition. God created diversity, and loves diversity. The world is a much more colorful place than just black and white.

At Columbia we want to encourage students to welcome this diverse and beautiful world God has made. We would like to teach the value of diversity rather than sameness, that it is normal to disagree, and to learn how to disagree with integrity and kindness. We want to teach more than just what to believe, we want to also teach how to relate to others’ beliefs.

Students who arrive at the college are often surprised at the range of beliefs that are held within evangelical faith. When they’re curious and open, they realize even their fellow students hold a great variety of beliefs. There  is often much grey as students develop their own spiritual muscles, and learn to read and understand Scripture, and experience the love of God in the midst of their lived experience.

Jesus seemed to allow for this. The Pharisees would come to him demanding that he follow the law and say and do the acceptable thing. Jesus’ response often shocked them: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Paul showed his own awareness when he wrote, “Now we see through a glass darkly but then we will see face-to-face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully as I am fully known.” Jesus and Paul suggested our beliefs and understanding are incomplete.

Students will also discover a great deal of difference in how people hold these beliefs. Some hold them tightly and believe that agreement means unity and unity means agreement. Others are comfortable with the idea that we may or may not all agree and that there is room for all at the table. And along this continuum of how we believe what we believe are many minefields, many fears, many questions.

These are risky pursuits. Our beliefs are part of our core identity, and thus there’s a vulnerability to exposing what we believe because of the fear of being judged, misunderstood, dismissed. We never just lightly talk about our differences because just beneath the surface is a core identity. Identity is easily crushed. Relationships are easily fractured.

We know this from Scripture and from church history. Try taking conflict out of the Bible and you wouldn’t have much of a book left. Try taking conflicts out of church history and there wouldn’t even be a textbook. When we look back, we see that disagreements about truth were likely to destroy relationship. Typically a response would be either to avoid or confront, with the outcome of seeing others as the enemy. Church history shows it is very difficult to hold both truth and community together, to hold fast to what one believes and to do so with kindness so as to preserve community.

How might it be possible to disagree and do so without maligning or destroying the other? I’d like to suggest three things.

First, dialogue. Because we can’t eliminate conflict, we must discover the means for transforming potentially divisive conflicts into opportunities for growth. As Christians, we are not called to seek the absence of conflict, but rather, the presence of shalom. The Bible commands us to stand firm in our faith, AND to be gentle and open — to resist evil AND to hold fast to the good. How can
we do this? Through listening to understand (not to find ammunition), and speaking to be understood (not to defend).

The goal of dialogue is not compromise: it is mutual understanding. It’s to see if something new can come from sharing our convictions in a context of love and respect. Dialogue about convictions can give birth to relationship, and can deepen relationship.

Secondly, hospitality. Miroslav Volf in his profound theological challenge, Exclusion & Embrace, writes that exclusion of difference is not acceptable. “I reject exclusion because the prophets,
evangelists, and apostles tell me that this is a wrong way to treat human beings, any human being, anywhere” (68).

We are to receive each other, our struggles and our ideas with openness and care. To be inhospitable to strangers and strange ideas is to be inhospitable to the possibility of growing in truth. Truth cannot happen when people feel threatened or judged. No learning can occur in inhospitable spaces.

Generally most people have a limited ability to tolerate dissent. We want to hurry and “fix things” as quickly as possible. Understanding and relational growth take a lot of time. Conversion takes a lifetime. The Kenyans have a proverb: “Drink more tea.” We need to be committed to long conversations of mutual listening and trust God’s Spirit that in time, clarity will emerge.

Thirdly, humility, humility, humility. This is how Calvin described the three main precepts of Christianity. He knew that as human beings we always want to put the best interpretation on our own motives and beliefs and the worst on our opponents.

In the same section where Paul wrote that we “know only in part” and see only a poor reflection, as in a mirror — he adds that what endures above all else is love. You will recall the description of love — how it is patient and kind, slow to anger, not rude nor keeping account of wrong words or actions, hopeful, trusting and protecting. In the midst of uncertainty and lack of clarity, in all our ‘hermeneutical conundrums,’ we are to show this kind of enduring love.

Schrock-Shenk and Ressler in their book Making Peace with Conflict described this as living with the “grace of uncertainty” (32). Or as Richard Mouw, previously president of Fuller Seminary put it, perhaps when we are tempted to declare “The Bible clearly states…” it would be helpful to apply a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to ourselves and a “hermeneutic of charity” to those we disagree with.

Dialogue, hospitality and humility. Grace grows in uncertain places, and disagreements about theology are one of those holy places of growth. ■