Not long ago, I read a friend’s commentary about a heated topic on social media. It began as a discussion between her and a gentleman I didn’t know. As an observer, it appeared they both had valid points, though they were missing an opportunity to connect. It didn’t seem so much that their views differed but that they were on the same side and just couldn’t see past their own deeply held convictions.
Unfortunately, the initially friendly discussion quickly turned into an emotionally driven argument. As I read their comments back and forth, it seemed they both intended to prove their points rather than reach a place of authentic compassion. I felt it was a tragedy to see an intelligent conversation dissolve because of a lack of charity and humility when it had so much potential to reach both parties in mutual understanding.
Acknowledging the Dignity of the Other Person
Respectable dialogue is impossible to achieve without recognizing the dignity of the other and their intrinsic value as a reflection of God’s image. It also means accepting one’s own limitations, of seeing that we are both human, both made of dust and earth, and therefore neither of us has a right to claim the higher road.
If the beatitude of peacemaking should begin with me, then I set aside my prejudices and presumptions when engaging in difficult or painful conversations. I listen first, with the heart open to truly accept another’s experience or opinion or presentation of logic. I do this without cringing at their rage or even refutation of my counterpoints. I sit with my discomfort and my own. This is the beginning of ecumenism.
Entering Discussions With Self-Awareness
Everyone enters relationships with the weight of their past. We all speak from our wounds. Some of us have never been given the opportunity to form, hold, or express ourselves. Others have been shamed by name-calling, oppression, or intimidation. Such experiences shape the ways in which we engage in debate or even lively banter. We must, therefore, learn how to recognize our personal triggers before choosing to fuel or fan the flame of disagreement.
When we grow in self-awareness, God is working on tenderizing our hearts so that we shed our preconceptions and stereotypes of who we think people are. We can’t presume to know what it is in another person’s heart or even what disordered thinking may have led to disordered behavior. Instead, we can try to love through the disorder and darkness. It is love alone that heals.
Speaking With Charity and Empathy
Charity implies strong empathy. Both parties, before speaking, should do so from a place of openness and humility. These days, moralists emphasize truth but exhibit little compassion. Secularists focus on tolerance without the receptivity of hearing truth. It is possible, by way of attunement (the psychological term for aligning your internal state of thought and emotions with the other person’s).
This means both worldviews should be heard, listened to, and validated. The people engaging in dialogue should interact with respect and harmony in mind. This is not to say that either will change his or her perspective, only that each can learn to connect with someone quite different from them.
Connection and attunement happen when both people truly desire Christian unity and are seeking that by entering into honest conversation with one another. They want to find some kernel of goodness in both the other person and his or her perspective.
God’s love operating in the Holy Spirit through us is what brings us to a spiritually mature ability to greet others who are different from us with the message, “I see you. I hear you. You are worthy of love.” This is the way in which we might begin to heal the chasms of pain that others have created, the way in which we can be modern missionaries of light, hope, and healing in an otherwise divisive world.