Uncivil tongues

By Lauren R. Stanley

What does it say about the state of dialogue in the Episcopal Church when it takes the president of the United States to remind us how to engage in civil discourse?

President Obama, speaking at the University of Notre Dame, asked, “As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?”

The president spoke about the failure of both sides in the debate over abortion to use “fair-minded words,” and said that he had learned through his own hard experience to “extend the same presumption of good faith to others” that had been extended to him. “Because when we do that,” he said, “that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”

We in the Episcopal Church, and indeed throughout the Anglican Communion, need to take the president’s words to heart. For in our disagreements – about the proposed Anglican Covenant, about sexuality, about diocesan border crossings, about interpretation of the Scriptures – we have lost the ability to be civil toward each other, or, to put it in theological terms, to give grace just as much as we demand it. We far too often forget – or decide not to – extend the presumption of good faith to others.

And in doing so, we lost the possibility of common ground.

Any scientist, any social scientist, any doctor will admit readily that there are more questions than answers in the universe. We understand so little about the human body, the universe, diseases; we are baffled by economics; we cannot explain the workings of the mind fully. We admit that we do not know so very much, and we pursue greater understanding every single minute of every single day.

In theology, we boldly proclaim the same thing: God, Anselm of Bec taught us, is that which nothing greater can be conceived. The Apostle Paul proclaimed that now we see only dimly. Jesus said we cannot know the mind of God. We know that God is unknowable to us in all of God’s godliness, because God is so much bigger than we are. This is core to our beliefs about God, because to know God fully in this life is to reduce God to our size, which theologically is illogical.

Then one side or the other in a debate turns right around and proclaims to know the mind of Christ. In our eagerness to be more right than someone else, we proclaim that we know – that we KNOW – what God wants of us, what God thinks of us, what God demands of us. And no matter what we are debating, we throw around our beliefs as though they were written in stone, and in doing so demonize those who disagree with us, claiming that they are, quite simply, WRONG!

In listening to various debates on various subjects over the last 17 years, ever since I became an Episcopalian, I have been appalled at the abject level to which much discourse descends on a regular basis. The name-calling, the demonization, the decided lack of grace toward anyone who disagrees … it is shameful, really, how low we will go in order to try to “win.”

On the worst days of our debates, when we truly are demonizing each other, I wait, trembling in fear rather like Job, for God’s thundering response to our arrogance in proclaiming that we have all the answers. I hear God’s voice raging from the whirlwind:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its waddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed?’ Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?”

The Lord God thundered on and on at poor Job and his companions, reminding them repeatedly that it was God, not them, who made the universe and everything in it.

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” God asked. “He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

God alone has all the answers. We, on the other hand, are mere creatures of God, unable to understand all that God plans or all that God wants of us.

And it is clear to me that God, who does have all the answers, is not pleased when we demonize each other. We are all created in the image of God; there are no “us’s” and “thems” in God’s very good creation. All of us are God’s beloved children. The only way for us to live into the love in which and for which God created us is to literally do what Jesus commanded us to do, as he stood on the edge of eternity, at the omega of his earthly life so that we could enter the alphas of our eternal lives: Love one another as he loved us. We do not love one another when we denigrate each other simply because we disagree on topics for which we truly do not know the ultimate answers.

As we go into General Convention in July, perhaps it would behoove us to be a tad more humble, a tad more willing to admit that we do not have all the answers, a tad more generous toward those who disagree with us. If we were to give more grace, and be much less boastful of our so-called knowledge of God, particularly on the points where we are most certain (and least knowledgeable), we might find more of the common ground of which President Obama spoke the other day.

Admitting that God alone has all the answers, and that we are but mere creatures stumbling about in the dark, would be a good first step toward a more gracious, a more grace-filled, discussion.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church from the Diocese of Virginia. She is a temporarily serving in the United States.

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