A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Wisdom Amid Acrimony
January 30, 2020
During last week’s Senate trial, Chief Justice John Roberts reprimanded Democrat accusers and Republican defenders of President Trump by asking them to remember where they were. Their acrimony demeaned the institution in which their proceedings were taking place.
I must confess that I have had a hard time listening at length to Capitol Hill impeachment hearings when repetitive tirades against opponents displaces reasoned deliberation. I find the steady stream of vitriol both noxious and unseemly. The heated recapitulation of the same core arguments clarifies nothing. It only raises everyone’s temperature. Sometimes it seems that is the point, to jack up anxiety levels high enough to replace sober judgment with visceral reaction.
It is a shame when political leaders engage in take-no-prisoners polemics rather than substantive, clear-headed, constructive interchange. At least nothing like that happens in the church, right?
Alas, as Ira Gershwin lamented, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
I faced my first major church conflict very early in my work in ministry. I had taken a teaching position at my alma mater, a Christian college, where half of the faculty were staging a revolt against the administration over something that seemed momentous at the time. I respected people on both sides of the disagreement, many of whom had been my own teachers. The administration’s antagonists marshaled compelling reasons supporting their position. As a brand-new faculty member, I was torn between two sides whose narratives were utterly at odds.
I prayed for wisdom to discern which side was right, and found myself drawn to James 3:17 – “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” I noticed that the voices on one side of the debate were far more strident, and that they refused to grant legitimacy to any view other than their own. I cast my lot with those who spoke softly and humbly, who showed a willingness to yield. That decision forever altered the course of my future for the good.
I have discovered consistently over subsequent years that true, reliable, godly wisdom speaks softly rather than with shouts. It speaks humbly rather than with arrogance. It is willing to yield, rather than unwilling to budge. I once addressed this in my sermon to our presbytery on this text, I May Be Wrong. I have found that trusting quieter, kinder, more entreatable voices inevitably lands me on the right side of divisive issues.
I wonder whether this might also help us navigate the political divides currently among us. A first step we can all take is to lay down our arguments for a moment and truly listen to others. We need to create safe space for this, where we covenant not to attack each other, even when disagreements persist. We are discussing what living together like this might look like at the West Branch meeting tonight and through the remainder of this election year, reading together a book to instruct us in that quest, I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations. Authors Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers, who come from opposing political sides, address issues that are dividing our nation, our families, and our houses of worship. They contend that the key to navigating these disagreements faithfully as Christians is “putting relationship before policy and understanding before argument.”
One way I suggest living into this whenever Presbyterians debate something (yes, we occasionally have been known to air differences of opinion!) is to adopt a rule that before anyone has a right to express their rebuttal to someone, they first must recap their point in a way that the person who made it can affirm, “Yes, that’s what I was trying to say.” Our capacity to engage in graceful, constructive dialogue requires us first truly to hear each other, and only then to speak.
Paul urges those who belong to Christ to keep their minds on things that are true, honorable, pure, pleasing, commendable, and praiseworthy. (Philippians 4:8) To that list James adds “willingness to yield” as a marker of godly wisdom. These are faithful and reliable guidelines to how we think of and speak with others with whom we may disagree. Let us be true to our calling as Christ-followers, to love one another as he has loved us.
Listening to you and with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister