Racial tension, homosexuality and abortion are just a few of the topics where communication can quickly devolve into harmful conflict instead of calm and/or respectful dialogue. In this essay Julie W. Morgan and Richard K. Olsen explore the role of dialogue within a Christian academic community. How does a Christian academic community address subjects that are perceived as taboo? What happens in a Christian community that must confront issues or subjects that are “undiscussable”? While using an example on one campus to deconstruct a controversial incident, this study addresses the critical questions above and others pertaining to the processes that faith communities use to address (or avoid) controversial topics that arise on campus. While issues such as prayer and inspiration that are unique to a faith community should be celebrated and integrated, there is no need to create a uniquely Christian theory of dialogue. The paper concludes by demonstrating the utility of existing models to both analyze and remediate the case that provided the catalyst for the study. Ms. Morgan is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Eastern University and Mr. Olsen is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
In the spring of 2004, two college students at a small, religiously-affiliated university in the northeastern United States, both white males, taped a picture of a KuKlux Klan member burning a cross to the door of their black suitemates – as a joke. The incident was reported to the resident assistant, then to the resident director,and ultimately to the Dean of Students. While the episode was handled confidentially, rumors quickly spread. The only public acknowledgement of the growing racial tension was an article in the student newspaper. The university’s formal response was mandatory diversity training for all residential students consisting of a 30-minute diversity video and small group discussion afterwards. Unfortunately, small group leaders were not trained on how to handle a topic perceived as dangerous or threatening. Students were uncomfortable during the discussion, even with a 30-minute video. Informal communication with students indicated that the students perceived the training session as a form of punishment. They explained that they should not have to sit through a video and waste 30 minutes when they had not done anything wrong. Students expressed their desire to engage in meaningful dialogue with the larger university community, but the university offered no forum to discuss racial tensions as a community. Judged from the perspective of communication theory, this instance could be cited as a relative failure inasmuch as no strategic planning went into improving the culture. The topic (racial relations) remained a taboo topic. The process was flawed; therefore, the outcome was doomed to fail as well.
The focus of this paper is community dialogue within a Christian academic community. How does a Christian academic community address taboo subjects? What happens in a Christian community when we run into issues or subjects that are “undiscussable”? The above example serves as one illustration of a taboo subject: racial tension. Other topics exist, such as homosexuality, politics, and the hierarchical structure of the family (man as head of household). While deconstructing the racial incident on campus, interpersonal relationship conflict will come to light; this paper, however, considers community dialogue around controversial topics—not conflict in interpersonal relationships. This study addresses several critical questions pertaining to the processes that the community uses to address (or avoid) controversial topics that arise on campus: What is the ideal Christian community?What is the ideal Christian academic community? What happens when topics in the community become undiscussable or taboo? The breakdown in communication described in the introduction suggests that one might look to communication theorists for some idea on how to build healthy dialogue. The paper concludes by revisiting the racial incident example and formulates some models that address the breakdown in communication.
Ideal Christian Community
What is the ideal Christian community? According to biblical studies scholar Robert Wall, two foundational convictions contribute to the biblical idea of community: first that we are fallen (“alienated from all that makes for hope and wellbeing”) and that we are called to reconciliation “that makes for peace and freedom; and second, that this redeemed people then responds to God by embodying their experience of God’s salvation in their relations with each other.”1 A community of believers stands on the assumption that believers are saved by grace and are reconciled with God. The response to this reconciliation is reflected in relationships with others. New Testament scholar Walter F. Taylor argues that unity is the sum of the parts. It does not destroy the uniqueness or distinctiveness of others.2 Community does not mean uniformity; rather, community means diverse people working out their faith journeys in dialogue with each other. Wall finds this community of unity filled with tensions because of the differences between people.3
The Apostle Paul also expresses this idea of community in Romans. He sees that humanity was first united in opposition to God: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”4 The only way humanity could be positively unified into one was through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The ideal Christian community assumes that believers are saved by grace and are reconciled with God, and then reconciled with each other. A key tension in community lies within its need to build and maintain unity while respecting and even fostering diversity. This tension can be stimulating and exciting. However, it can also lead to fundamental failure in communication, as the racial incident first cited demonstrates. The goal is to create unity of mind and unity of spirit where the core identity is greater than the diversity.5
Ideal Christian Academic Community
The ideal Christian academic community builds on the ideal of a Christian community. While different faith traditions approach the ideal Christian academic community from their own denominational framework, faith provides the base from which the model of Christian higher education operates.6 Two characteristics of the ideal Christian community include reconciliation with God and reconciliation with each other.
In the ideal Christian academic community, we are called to create an environment that develops character, encourages selfless service, and fosters intellectual curiosity. Scholars remind us that the Christian university ought to prepare young men and women to pursue God’s calling in their vocation and in their life.7 At the heart of this preparation is the need to train young scholars to lead in efforts of restoration and reconciliation of God’s people and God’s world. In speaking of Christian scholarship, Rodney Sawatsky argues that Christian scholarship seeks to reconcile us with one another and with God, and that is to be part of the restoring and transforming work.8 For many religiously-affiliated institutions, intellectual curiosity reflects one of the greatest challenges.
Some might argue that it is impossible to have academic freedom at a religiously-affiliated institution because the institution itself is unable to question certain possibilities of truth. Religion scholar Richard Hughes argues, on the contrary, that religiously-affiliated institutions are required to engage in serious intellectual inquiry because of the serious faith commitments; the search for truth reflects our faith.9 Philosopher Arthur Holmes similarly argues that academic freedom is critical and must intentionally be part of the institution: “It is of the essence of Christianity because true freedom, the liberty we have in Christ, mediates between the extremes of license and legalism. It is of the essence of learning because the true learner is a humble, teachable person, free from the dictatorship of all but the truth.”10 Therefore, a Christian scholar is obligated by his or her faith to seek truth; academic freedom is required in order to meet that obligation. To maintain credibility as an institution of higher education, Christian universities should fully embrace academic freedom. Yet such a commitment must exist within the equally important commitment to truth if we are to maintain a Christian distinctive. While this is an ideal, it may not be the norm at any given institution. Any resolution of controversies at such institutions must be sensitive to varying commitments to academic freedom as an institutional value and practice.
The function of the university differs from the church community (or local church) and must be more comfortable with difference of perspective than the local church community. The job of the academic community is to raise questions, even questions that would be inappropriate for a local church. Noted historian of religion Nathan Hatch concurs with Holmes in that Christian higher education must be committed to both a Christian worldview and to serious learning without “slipping into secularism.”11 Intellectual curiosity cultivates a search for truth not based on a pastor ’s interpretation of scripture or a particular local tradition, but on critical thinking. It is both the pursuit of intellectual challenge and humility in learning.12
Biblical wisdom provides a model for the difference between the local church and the university. Providing practical wisdom, Proverbs instructs the young person and provides a standard for living in community. As the beginning of wisdom it offers a useful model for the church. However, wisdom literature also reflects more serious questions. In Ecclesiastes, radical questions, including questions related to the meaning of life, are considered. The book of Job examines a righteous life subjected to a test of faith that includes the loss of loved ones and possessions. Both Ecclesiastes and Job reflect the perspective of mature believers and reflective thinkers. Augustine warns us not to bring the problems of theology before the church.13 The local church is not the best place to question theological assumptions or to ask radical questions. These matters must be addressed in small groups with adequately equipped leaders, such as those found in Christian universities and seminaries. While a need exists to raise important questions (as seen in Ecclesiastes and Job), the university community must engage in and live with more conflict than the local church. Nevertheless, because of the well-equipped community of believers, the academic Christian university is an ideal forum to engage in difficult questions.
In the ideal Christian academic community, a commitment to both Christian values and to academic freedom exists. Difficult questions are raised and a healthy dialogue exists between community members. However, this requires a certain level of skill, and maturity, and tolerance. This is particularly problematic when the topics are perceived to violate closely held values of faith or stand in the way of exploring freely for truth. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff adds that none of the models for education “responds adequately to the wounds of humanity – in particular, the moral mounds; none gives adequate answer to our cries and tears.”14 He argues that we should adopt God’s vision for human creatures as the education model for the university, that is, a vision of shalom – a vision of peace. He says “Shalom incorporates right relationships in general, whether or not those are required by justice: right relationships to God, to one’s fellow human beings, to nature, and to oneself. The shalom community is not merely the just community but is the responsible community, in which God’s laws for our multifaceted existence are obeyed.”15
Susan Handelman reminds us that we are not teaching our students to be spiritual; our students are already spiritual.16 The question, therefore, is how we create an environment where our students develop character and a heart for reconciliation in the midst of unrest.
What happens when the tension between unity and diversity, between academic freedom and commitment to the Christian faith escalates? What happens when the topic becomes dangerous and threatening? More specifically, topics like race relations, homosexuality, and presidential politics often have attained a kind of taboo status in the Christian community. Informal communication with faculty indicates that the cost of discussing “hot issues” is not worth the benefit. Professors fear for their jobs, they fear making someone angry who will be responsible for tenure and promotion decisions, and they fear someone will hold a grudge. These tangible risks are especially significant since experience has shown these professors that there is no resolution for these conflicts. Silence, therefore, is less destructive and less dangerous than dialogue.
What is the consequence of opting for silence rather than engaging each other? Proverbs teaches that “iron sharpens iron;”17 that is, constructive dialogue helps to bring about positive changes in people and communities. In dialogue with one another, one has the opportunity to test his or her worldview by learning more about how or why “the other” has drawn particular conclusions on a topic. So long as dialogue in the community is perceived as dangerous, the community will forego again and again the opportunity to learn from one another and to heal the differences and relational fractures that quietly separates them.
Obviously, a real dilemma exists within the community. On the one hand, if faculty members engage in dialogue about certain topics, they run the risk of being ostracized. On the other hand, if faculty members avoid certain topics, they live in a state of deceptive “harmony.” The result is neither unity nor diversity. When faculty members are afraid to speak openly about their religious, social, political, ethical, and personal convictions, the community has failed to embrace academic freedom, and arguably, failed to live out reconciliation based on faith. In certain situations, community members simply lack the communication competence necessary to engage in safe, meaningful dialogue. At times when it comes to the most difficult, the most explosive topics, community members fail to communicate competently. The solution, therefore, lies in the ability to increase competence in communication and to increase opportunities for competent dialogue.
The discipline of communication studies has historically been concerned with the role communication can play in fostering community and in the search for truth. This legacy still informs contemporary scholarship in the discipline. This section focuses the discussion on conceptual and strategic elements that provide the basis for, or help to enhance, healthy communication in academic communities.
Historically, communication scholars approached communication and conflict from three areas. One approach centered on the idea of integrative (win-win solutions) and distributive (win-lose solutions) negotiations. The study led scholars to conclude that strategies and tactics played multiple roles in negotiation. While a tactic in one instance was integrative, in another instance it was distributive. Research revealed the complexity and dynamic role of communication in conflict. Another area of scholarship focused on mediation. One conclusion drawn from the research concentrated on the competence needed by the mediator. Breaking down the conflict into micro-processes, some scholars have moved to recognizing the importance of empowerment for the disputants. Research in the area of transformational mediation offers the perspective of conflict as an opportunity for growth. At a deeper level, this builds on the idea that “iron sharpens iron;”18 that is, that conflict can be positive in terms of developing character, refining ideas, and adding skill. The third area of research, and the focus of this article, is on the dual concern model. Scholarship in this area focuses on the idea that concomitant concerns for both individual goals (effectiveness) and relationship rules (appropriateness) are interdependent.19 The discussion centers on three areas of communication competence: knowledge, motivation, and skill. As each area is examined, reflections will include theological implications.
First, it is important to understand the nature and benefit of communication competence. One must have the ability to understand the complexities of diverse situations and also have the ability to craft an appropriate message for a particular audience in that moment. Thus, communication competence refers not only to the characteristics and behaviors of the communicator but also to the communicator’s ability to adjust behaviors to meet specific contexts. Communication competence means the ability to say the right thing, at the right moment, to the right person. Communication scholar Brian Spitzberg believes that “competence plays a central role in the success and failure of all significant human relationships.”20
The dual standard of effectiveness and appropriateness provides a useful construct that appreciates the complexity of the communication process.21 Communication competence is a function of the management of messages through an understanding of effectiveness and appropriateness. Management of messages refers to interpreting, sorting, and sending all nonverbal and verbal communication within a context. Effectiveness refers to the achievement of an individual’s goals. Appropriateness refers to the degree to which communication takes into account the expectations of others. Knowing one’s communication goal in an interpersonal interaction represents only a portion of the interaction. In order to be competent, heor she must understand reasonably well the “other” in terms of behaviors, attitudes, values, and beliefs.22
Personal communication goals motivate one to know others. Knowing others means that one’s communication goals are more likely to succeed. Knowing others in order to be known helps one to craft messages for the best possible “hearing.” Christ commands humanity to “love your neighbor as yourself.”23 As John writes, “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”24 Understanding appropriateness from a theological perspective helps to illuminate the transformational aspect of the relationship when communication is not dependent solely on the reciprocity of actions between two people, but on loving and understanding the other person because God has loved humanity first.
Philosopher Philip Cary argues that it is violent to read into the other person’s verbal and nonverbal communication in order to penetrate the inner core of the other person.25 He suggests that Christian theological tradition brings to light another way of knowing others. In the same way that we desire to know God, we learn to know others. For example, rather than looking for hidden knowledge of the other person in order to manipulate him or her to one side of an argument or manipulate another to act in a certain way, there is a requirement of respect; I must respect the other person. This requirement of respect is also present in relationship to God. One must respect God and trust that He guides in Truth.
Communication scholars move from the two areas of communication competence (appropriateness and effectiveness) to examine three key factors at play with competence: knowledge, motivation, and performance.26 These three categories provide the framework from which to examine appropriate and effective communication. In the next section of this paper, each factor is defined and examined in light of its theological implications.
In the context of communication competence, knowledge reflects the degree to which the communicator understands and is aware of his or her communication goals. A certain level of emotional intelligence is needed in order to recognize and acknowledge that he or she is in a conflict situation.
At the same time, one must also have knowledge of the external-to-self environment. One must have knowledge of the expectations of others, including the social environment, social norms, and social rules. A communicator must recognize which behaviors are most likely to result in success (in terms of meeting the communicator ’s goals) and know the intended and unintended consequences for various behaviors. This includes elements of emotional or social intelligence; that is, the ability to know what motivates people, understand what different verbal and nonverbal behaviors mean, and predict fairly well what behaviors produce what consequences with what probabilities, under what circumstances.
Scripture is not a book of communication theory and so does not offer this sort of straightforward, descriptive knowledge regarding theories of dialogue. However, Scripture goes well beyond the communication theorists when it comes to the importance and nature of the people involved in dialogues and their relationships. In Proverbs, wisdom is associated with prudence, knowledge, and discretion.27Likewise, the area of knowledge in communication competence is an expression of biblical wisdom. Biblical wisdom teaches humanity to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Proverbs teaches that “the lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked what is perverse.”28 And, “with their mouths the godless would destroy their neighbours, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.”29 From these scriptures, one learns that knowledge is linked to wisdom. Obtaining knowledge in order to do justly reflects the importance of knowledge in communication competence.30 Biblical wisdom addresses the knowledge element and counsels the righteous to use it to communicate competently.
Motivation refers to the degree to which the communicator wants to be effective and/or appropriate. Motivation links knowledge with intent or actual behavior. Lack of motivation indicates that one may choose to be incompetent. In other words, a person may choose to win the immediate conflict (personal goals, i.e., effectiveness) regardless of the rules of social etiquette or tact (ignoring appropriateness) because of his or her anger or defensiveness.
Biblical wisdom supports the idea of knowing the other well enough to know when not to speak. What, according to biblical wisdom, is the motivation in dialogue and in relationships? Scripture tells us that the Lord requires us to show persistent love for others.31 To show this love, faithful followers need to communicate effectively, showing concern for the other’s needs. For example, biblical wisdom admonishes the fool for his lack of silence. Proverbs says, “when words aremany, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.”32 By defining “personal ineffectiveness” as those times when one chooses not to pursue personal goals, one is unable to differentiate the motivations of the wise from that of the fools. Biblical wisdom warns us not to respond to a fool according to his folly. Proverbs also says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”33We are not to respond in kind. We are not to offer a personal attack in response to one or to offer some argumentative fallacy or sarcastic remark in response to one offered by a “fool.” We are to show more discernment than that. We are to answer in a way that does not allow him to seem wise in his own eyes. Presumably, there is some way to know how to answer this fool, and it is situational rather than universal. Those who are wise are motivated not to pursue their individual goals; they are motivated to fear God and pursue righteousness. In other words, in light of competing goals – goals of the individual (that is, to “win” a debate and gain face), goals of the individual as a member of the community, goals of the individual as a Christian – the wise person maintains an individual goal to pursue righteousness.
Another aspect of motivation is self-efficacy. What happens when one has the knowledge and the motivation needed to be competent in communication, but fears failure? Self-efficacy is related to the belief that one has the capabilities to perform.34 Diminished self-efficacy, therefore, impacts motivation. If one believes that, regardless of effective and appropriate behavior, failure is the predestined outcome, and then he or she may lack the self-efficacy to engage in competent communication.
As a biblical community, what is the motivation to be competent in communication? What can be done to address the lack of self-efficacy? Typically, motivation helps one to get what he or she wants through communication competence. Matthew 18 says that to love God is to forgive and restore one with his or her neighbors. Wall goes on to say concerning this text:
In fact, [Jesus’s] understanding of a merciful God is disclosed in his forgiveness of and fellowship with sinners and in his healing of outcasts; his faithfulness to a righteous God is disclosed in his obedient life as God’s servant-Son; his economics and politics reflect his commitment to God’s vocation, for him more than a self-conscious response to the conditions of this Palestinian world; and in his execution as an innocent man, he makes clear the costs of following God in a world more ordered by ethical casuistry and religious customs than by the norms and values of God’s kingdom.35
Motivated by his understanding of a merciful God, Jesus loves others. Motivation should stem from an individual’s desire (goals) to love and be reconciled with “the other” through communication competence.
In order to be competent, one must be motivated, possess knowledge, and have the ability to perform. Communication scholars William Cupach and Danial Canary label this third area as skill, referring to the enactment of knowledge and motivation.36 Communication scholars include interaction management, composure, other orientation, and expressiveness as some of the important skills needed for competent communication. In his landmark study, John Wiemann found positive correlations between competence and interaction management, empathy, affiliation/support, behavioral flexibility, and social relaxation with interaction management playing a central role.37 Ann Frymier found positive association between students’ self-reported communication effectiveness and positive student outcomes. “Students who reported being more effective communicators in terms of involvement, responsiveness, assertiveness, and [out-of-class communication] generally reported greater affective learning, learning indicators, state motivation to study, and greater satisfaction with communication with their instructor.”38
According to communication scholar Richard Duran, adaptability ranks as one of the most important interpersonal skills. Skills in adaptability allow the communicator to tailor messages to a specific person in a specific situation. It allows flexibility rather than reliance on rigid communication patterns. Adaptability allows a communicator to evaluate effectively all strategies and tactics for interaction and choose the behaviors for the right moment in the right context. Practice leads to better performance. Thus, the more one uses and practices communication skills, the more skillful one becomes at performing competent communication.39
Additionally, conflict can have positive outcomes. Rather than the typical perspective that all conflict is negative, scholars in communication argue that conflict can also produce positive outcomes. First, the conflict incident can serve as impetus to solve a problem. Second, conflict can energize relationships. Third, overcoming conflict can produce feelings of mutual accomplishment. Fourth, conflict canprovide opportunity for self-reflection.40
Self-reflection that results from conflict interaction illuminates a Christian’s responsibility to serve God and love others. Proverbial wisdom provides insight into how Christians should fear God and act in obedience to Him. James Crenshaw notes that the book of Proverbs offers insight into both good and bad behavior. Some of these include “the power of speech to beget good or ill (15:1), the allure of gossip (18:8), and the underlying sadness that laughter obscures (14:13).”41 Christians are commanded, therefore, to do the law. Of the seven things that the Lord hates, five of the seven relate to communication. He hates “haughty eyes” (nonverbal communication), “a lying tongue”, “a lying witness who testifies falsely”, “and one who sows discord in a family.”42 From these Scriptures, one learns that God requires us to behave in a way that reflects His commands. Scripture commands us “to do justice.”43 Skill in communication competence is the result of motivation and knowledge; praxis is a requirement for competence.
This section of the paper examines the university example provided at the beginning of the paper where two white males taped a picture of a Ku Klux Klan member burning a cross to the door of their black suitemates – as a joke. Clearly their behavior was incompetent. Their incompetence contributed to the conflict in their interpersonal relationships with their suitemates. Because of the interdependence in dorm life, the incompetent behavior impacted the greater community. How did the community respond? Did the response model that of an ideal Christian academic community?
The community responded in two official forms. First, it required all residents to see a diversity-sensitivity video and discuss it in small groups for 30 minutes. The video and small group discussion limited the scope of the formal university-sponsored dialogue. Only the residential community took part in the dialogue; however, the incident impacted the larger university community. No training wasprovided to lead the group discussion. As neither group leaders nor participants were trained. Expectations of the session and goals of the activity were not made clear to the students. While some students saw the incident as typical – where racial tension always exists, especially in a predominately white suburban campus– others saw the incident as shocking, especially at a university with a strong commitment to justice. The diversity of perspectives led to more conflict within the community without any follow up forum or other mechanisms to address it. The university failed to recognize the scope of the conflict situation and failed to provide a forum to address a critically important topic.
The second response was to write an original play called “Between the Lines” and perform it on campus. The plot was loosely based on the incidents which had recently occurred. The development of the script involved interviews with the university’s college students. This allowed the production to address salient community issues such as the perception that there could be no racism on a Christian university campus. According to an interview in the school newspaper, the director hopes that production of the new play will begin dialogue in the community.44 The problem is that no place currently exists to have that sort of dialogue. Although an audience gathers to watch the play, the audience cannot stop the play to interact with the characters. And while one can hope that the play is a catalyst for dialogue there is no assurance of the actuality or quality of such dialogue.
Competent communicators are motivated to know others because it is both effective and appropriate. A look at the three factors of communication competence (knowledge, motivation, and skill) illuminates the communication problems in this context. In terms of knowledge, the administration and larger community did not fully recognize the conflict situation. Without an appropriate forum for the entire community to engage, faculty and students were unable to be effective and/or appropriate in the conflict situation. Knowledge was deficient in two key areas: knowledge of the complexity of taboo issues and knowledge of the communication processes that might facilitate healthier resolution of the conflict. For example, the lack of awareness that resolution of complex taboo topics would require an iterative process rather than a “one–shot” forum resulted in raising rather than diffusing dissatisfaction and unrest.
Motivations are obviously difficult to discern. It is unclear whether those in the community were deeply motivated to engage the conflict situation. Certainly, some individual members of the community (both faculty and students) expressed a desire to participate in dialogue. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that motivation to engage in some sort of process was present. Some administrators and community members seemed to have a genuine desire to seek resolution and restore some sense of unity. While there was certainly an impulse to “get through” and “get over” this issue, there was also a concern to heal wounds and restore community and become a better community because of it. The degree to which this motivation was felt and expressed could have actually contributed to the poor outcomes. The relative purity and intensity of motive may have obscured the lack that existed in both knowledge and skills.
In terms of skill, adaptability is a critical component of competent communication. The ability to adapt a message to a specific person in a specific situation shows a certain level of maturity. When it comes to taboo discourse, adaptability is even more crucial. It stands in contrast to a formulaic approach to communicating with others. Popular magazines advertise easy formulas – based on simplistic notions of communication. Articles such as “ten easy steps to communicating with your roommate” or “three easy steps to avoid conflict” offer superficial guidance not appropriate for the sort of biblical wisdom Solomon directs mature believers to desire.
The administration and many in the community simply lacked the skills to enact appropriate choices despite their motivation to do so. The administration also seemed to underestimate the very need for specialized skills in facilitating dialogue about taboo issues. We might borrow from the line in the play noted above: “Difficulty coming to peaceful resolutions about complex issues? Huh uh! We’re all Christians. We can talk about anything.” Obviously, that is not true—even if a person has been in small group Bible studies for years. For example, greater knowledge by community leaders would have manifested a greater awareness of the need for specific skill sets for discussion leaders.
A Model for Community Dialogue
Biblical wisdom clearly directs the righteous to fear God and love each another. The importance of interacting with others and forgiving one another are themes throughout scripture. God calls the righteous to be reconciled and live in community with one another. While there are some proverbs and a few specific passages about taming the tongue, Scripture does not provide the communication theory that teaches how one might use communication more effectively.
The theoretical construct of communication competence, which illuminates dual concerns for oneself and for others, can in some ways be seen in the call to fear God and love each other. The quality of my life is preserved to the extent that I do right by God. The quality of my relationship to others is shaped, in part, by the extent that I show love and concern for them. Knowledge, skill, and motivation competencies allow a communicator to engage in difficult dialogue. Competence in these areas is needed to manage everyday conflict. However, when the conversation turns to racial tension, gay and lesbian issues, stem cell research or other moral issues, communication competence is critical.
In this particular instance, the various members of the university lacked communication competence. Community members at every level seemed unable to communicate in a way that was both appropriate and effective. Competent communicators are capable of assessing situations and crafting appropriate messages. Because even university leaders failed to model effective responses, they did not generate a context that encouraged competent responses among other members. Jurgen Habermas is one of the many scholars who highlight the importance of context in shaping the creation and interpretation of messages. His concept of a context that fosters productive exchanges on complex ideas is commonly called the ideal speech situation.45 Communication ethicist Richard Johanessen efficiently summarizes its four characteristics. First, participants must have equal opportunity to initiate and continue communicative acts. Second, participants must have equal opportunity to present arguments, explanations, interpretations, and justifications; no significant opinions should go unexamined. Third, participants must have equal opportunity to honestly express personal intentions, feelings and attitudes. Fourth, participants must have equal opportunity to present directive statements that forbid, permit, command, etc.46
What Habermas is concerned with is an explicit or implicit censorship of ideas based on the controversy of a given statement or the status of a given communicator. One can think of the ideal speech situation as the communal context brought about by competent participants. But it also makes competence easier to achieve. The leaders within every circle (administrators, faculty, staff, and students) would be the most influential participants to co-create this ideal situation. Clearly the context is a critical factor. But there are others as well.
Another way to look at the conflict is suggested by Peter Coleman. He describes certain kinds of conflict as intractable because they appear impossible to resolve.47 Community dialogue breaks down when “I” do not understand those who do not think just like “me.” This emphasis on the topic and perceptions of others exacerbates the tension and contributes to the taboo nature of the topic. These kinds of conflicts lead to breakdowns among normally reasonable people and such breakdowns can then reinforce why each side often suspects the other. The larger cultural dynamics regarding race as a hot button issue in the United States clearly was a dominant factor in explaining the difficulties and breakdowns analyzed above. In this university community, the taboo nature of the topic rendered normally effective communicators incompetent. The community needed away to engage with each other in meaningful dialogue.
The video and small group discussions sponsored by the university did not promote dialogue within the community. The basics of these responses were not necessarily faulty. However, the details of their content and execution undermined their effectiveness. An alternative model for the community needs to be more intentional in engaging all members of the community in dialogue. Before the community is invited into the conversation, several things needed to be put in place. First, common procedures should be outlined. These procedures need to include rules regarding respect for each other. Through the establishment of common procedures and ground rules, creating a safe environment and building trust will be easier. Efforts must be made to intentionally invite a diversity of opinion. The process should be developed in such a way that “encourages constructive conversation” and “maintains ends-in-view and think about possibilities for outcomes of the conversation.”48
Moving from the development of common procedures, the focus of the discussions should be done in small groups led by community members who have been trained to facilitate these groups. Training of facilitators is critical to the success of the dialogue. Some of the procedures for facilitators include making sure they—in their role as facilitators—remain neutral in order to create an environment of trust and respect. This can be a particular challenge for people in faith communities for whom “diversity of ideas” is clearly subordinate to “alignment with God’s Truth” on the matter. That is why it is all the more critical to cling strongly to a process and set of commitments to listen and respect all participants. Their allegiance when acting as a facilitator is to a process and not a position or an outcome.
The ability to facilitate such a process does not typically come naturally. Training facilitators leverages the opportunities for success. Some of this training should include how the facilitators can frame the event as unusual for the community. Trainers/facilitators should learn to help all participants to tell their own stories and to participate in the co-construction of new stories. Even the lowest people onthe hierarchical ladder or the newest employees must have opportunities to express their stories. Trainers/facilitators need to learn skills in asking questions and active listening. They need to remain curious (not judgmental) and they need to “enable people to tell even better stories through appreciative reframing and the weaving together of diverse stories, and provide ‘in-the-moment’ coaching and interventions.”49
With training, dialogue leads to engagement. While building an environment of trust and respect, participants are more likely to listen fully to the “other’s” legitimate concerns. According to W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen Littlejohn, when public dialogue works best, “the participants no longer view opponents as crazy, ignorant, uneducated, misguided, or immoral but will see one another as concerned citizens with good reasons for believing what they believe.”50
Is there a uniquely “Christian” way to dialogue as a community about difficult issues and taboo topics? The answer is not as easy as it seems. The model above can be reworked to reflect more explicitly a Judeo-Christian worldview. However, that is not critical to its use. Augustine, who incorporated volumes of secular insights on rhetoric into his own work on preaching found that the message of the Gospel and higher purpose of preaching did much of the redemptive work necessary when using “pagan” ideas. We would argue that a similar dynamic can occur within secular theories of dialogue. In addition, within Christian communities the fundamental calls to love and prefer one another and operate in unity are significant enough that incorporating secular models and principles that facilitate such community is a wonderful step forward. But we can go further.
Augustine seems to offer two key characteristics that a Christian communicator might bring to the use of any secular model. First he notes a need for biblical wisdom. “For a man speaks more or less wisely to the extent that he has become more or less proficient in the Holy Scriptures. I do not speak of the man who has read widely and memorized much, but of the man who has well understood and has diligently sought out the sense of the scriptures.”51 A second key addition forAugustine is the necessity of prayer:
Thus this orator of ours, when he speaks of the just and holy and good—nor should he speak of anything else—so acts when he speaks that he may be understood and that he may be willingly and obediently heard. And he should not doubt that he is able to do these things, if he is at all able and to the extent that he is able, more through the piety of his prayers than through the skill of his oratory, so that, praying for himself and those whom he is to address, he is a petitioner before he is a speaker.52
In this passage one can see the full commitment to the standards of the secular model to appeal to the intellect and emotions while also noting the centrality of prayer as the ultimate key to success.
After noting these important distinctives, Augustine does not propose a new model of rhetoric. Rather he compares rhetoric with medicine (as did Plato before him) and concludes, “the benefits of teaching profit the mind when they are applied by men, when assistance is granted by God, who could have given the gospel to man even though it came not from men nor through a man.”53 Classics scholarGeorge Kennedy sums it up more bluntly: “Augustine does not set out all the rules of rhetoric. They are useful he says, but should be learned elsewhere.”54
We share his position. There is no need for a completely distinct “Christian” theory of dialogue and conflict resolution. There are numerous texts that elaborate on specific approaches and techniques. There is no need to sanitize them here. The key is to apply such models within the humble but unapologetic larger frame of a Christian world view. For example, taking as a starting point that we are fallen, but loved by God anyway. That we are finite in our knowledge but can at anytime be inspired with God’s wisdom and insights on the matter at hand. The list goes on, but these assumptions do not call us to alter radically the models offered by various communication experts. Rather it is a subtle synthesis aided by personal, spiritual, and theological maturity along with a strong commitment to the skill sets identified above.
Implications for Future Research
We have broken this section into two clear sub sections. First, consistent with our analysis above, we offer some brief recommendations to the institution as a model for other institutions to consider. Next we offer suggestions for researchers in this area. For this institution or ones in similar circumstances, we recommend that the university modify a public dialogue event. Because community ownership is important to the process, we recommend that the faculty senate appoint an ad hoc committee to develop and implement the program. We also recommend that at the end of the academic year of implementation that the program be evaluated and modified as needed. It is not feasible to expect that all conflicts will dissolve as a result of this program. However, the goal of the program is to have each participant see the other as concerned members of the community with good reasons for believing what they believe.
Christian scholars interested in advancing the study of how Christian communities deal with taboo issues could certainly challenge our statement above and explore whether there is a distinct process unique to communities of faith. It is also important to continue to offer analyses of additional cases to see if larger or deeper patterns begin to emerge among those cases brought to light.
Maintaining community among people of faith has always been hard. Cain killed Abel. A generation of Jews miraculously liberated from slavery in Egypt died in the desert over disagreement, doubt and division. The perceived camaraderie that led to an ill-fated attempt at humor was toxic because the KKK is still just as real as it ever was. However, scholars who hope to be salt and light in such controversies can learn from the analysis above and apply the principles of dialogue to facilitate reconciliation between persons in community just as Augustine used the principles of rhetoric to help preachers facilitate reconciliation between humankind and God centuries ago.
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- Ibid., “Unity/Unity of Humanity.”
- Ibid., “New Testament.”
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- Prv. 10:32.
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- Prv. 26:4-5 NAS.
- Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (EnglewoodCliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1986).
- The Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Old Testament.”
- Cupach and Canary, Competence in Interpersonal Conflict.
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- Mi. 6:8.
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- Jurgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Bos-ton: Beacon, 1979).
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- Peter Coleman, “Intractable Conflict,” in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory andPractice, ed. Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2006),533-559.
- Stephen Littlejohn, “Moral Conflict,” in Oetzel and Ting-Toomey, The Sage Handbook, 395-418.
- W. Barnett Pearce and Kimberly A. Pearce, “Extending the Theory of the Coordinated Man-agement of Meaning (CMM) Through a Community Dialogue Process,” Communication Theory10 (2000): 405-423.
- W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen Littlejohn, Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds Collide (Thou-sand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997), 206.
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 122.
- George Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition, 2nd ed. (ChapelHill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 177.