Race. Gender. Sexuality. Politics. Theology. Parenting. Vaccines. Mask wearing.
All potential conversational landmines.

What happens when you not only disagree with a person, but feel at odds with their deepest values?  In today’s combative communication climate, is it possible to critique that which is sacred to another person with gentleness and humility? The sacred, notes sociologist James Davidson Hunter, “expresses that which is non-negotiable and defines the limits” of what a person or community will tolerate.1 Violating a sacred core typically evokes defensiveness and a harsh response. How might we critique the non-negotiable beliefs of another without it devolving into an argument?

Peter gives us a clue when he admonishes believers that when presenting our perspective, we should do so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). For Peter, gentleness carries with it a sense of tenderness.2 As fellow Christ Animated Learning Blog contributor Perry Glanzer deftly points out in a previous post the word gentleness is at its lowest point in terms of usage in the last 300 years and is vanishing from our collective vocabulary. Can a concept of gentleness be restored amidst all the vitriol?

Before laying out a strategy for tenderly addressing another person’s deepest commitments, let’s consider what gentleness does not look like. Simply put, gentleness does not mean dispassionately addressing others.

In his seminal work on communication climates, Jack Gibb noted that if you want to provoke anger from a person, respond to his or her convictions with detached neutrality. In other words, I treat your conviction or sacred core indifferently as merely a point being made in a debate. Rather than acknowledging the deep emotions that accompany your view, I simply offer my counter-argument. Regardless of how persuasive our argument is, we will undoubtedly come across as detached, unfeeling, and harsh.

What might gentleness look like when addressing a person’s or group’s sacred core?  My answer in part comes from an unlikely source. David Roman is a unique theatre critic who focuses on what has been labeled AIDS theatre. AIDS theatre is comprised not only of formal staged productions, but short one-act plays, improvisational sketches, and even impromptu performances done outside a theatre. The purpose of these performances is to draw attention to the AIDS crisis, challenge misconceptions of those with AIDS, and call people to action. The cast is often comprised of those afflicted with AIDS who are in various stages of treatment. Some are investing their last years, months, or even days to be part of the production. Now, how would you like to be a theatre critic tasked with evaluating these heroic productions?

Welcome to David Roman’s world. How do you critique sick or dying cast members who are often too fatigued to produce what is traditionally called good theatre?  Roman’s response is to enact critical generosity which he defines as “a new mode of criticism appropriate to the demands of the historical conditions.”3 While as a theatre critic he does critique the actual performance, he never loses sight of the deep passion and sacrifices of performers. Only after acknowledging a performer’s passion, commitment, and courage does he gently offer his opinion.

Sadly, Christian communicators are frequently not known for our gentleness when approaching delicate topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement, transgender athletes, the value of critical race theory, or President Biden’s newly launched Equality Act. “We are seen as the pit bulls of the culture wars—small brains, big teeth, strong jaws, and no interest in compromise,” notes Christian author Daniel Taylor.4 Regardless if this perception is fair, we are seen by others as aggressors in today’s culture war. As an outspoken atheist provocatively attacking the sacred core of the Christian community Sam Harris expected pushback. Yet, the personal attacks and death threats surprised him. “The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.”5

How might adopting a form of critical generosity help us change this perception? Such an approach will entail several steps. First, we must communicate to others that we are fully aware we are treading on their deepest convictions and do not do so lightly. Roman understands that AIDS theatre is literally a life and death enterprise for those participating. Before judging, he acknowledges he is entering sacred territory. As Christians, we know well what it feels like to have our most cherished beliefs trampled on. “Everyone who has eyes to see can see that if the God of Abraham exists, He is an utter psychopath” is a popular and eminently tweetable line from Harris’s book.6 To be clear, Harris has every right to critique what he thinks is a problematic view of God and the role religion has played in our country. However, to be so glib or disrespectful toward a faith that is life-giving to many is not only harsh, but deeply hurtful. Yet, how glib are we toward the sacred views of those we find equally unacceptable?  As Christian communicators we surely must address perspectives that run counter to our worldview. Yet, let us do so with a sensitivity and tenderness knowing that those with whom we disagree are equally committed to their sacred core.

Second, central to critical generosity is putting a face on the debate.  While those of us in the academy see value in debating ideas on a theoretical level, for those we engage outside the classroom issues can be deeply personal. As I write this, laws are being adopted by several states that require schools and universities to have athletes compete according to their sex assigned at birth (proven by birth certificate) rather than preferred gender identity. Specifically, the bills isolate transgender women attempting to compete in women’s sports. While this topic is important to many Christian parents and should be discussed with school administrators, we must never forget transgender athletes are real people who are often bullied and susceptible to suicidal ideation. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that over half of male transgender youth and 30% of female transgender youth attempted suicide at least once.7 Many parents of trans kids may simply want them to enjoy the mental health benefits of organized sports8Testifying before the Missouri House of Representatives, a father of a transgendered athlete told the legislators that “My child was miserable. I cannot overstate that. Especially at school. No confidence, no friends, no laughter. I can honestly say this: I had a child who did not smile.”  Only through participating in her school’s volleyball and tennis team did the smile return. “I now have a confident, a smiling, a happy daughter.”9 

Before writing his review, Roman would attend rehearsals and get to know the actors, stage hands, and director. When offering his critique, he’d refer to actors by name and acknowledge the physical challenges each faced. The ancient writers who comprise the book of Proverbs assert that our words are like thrusts of a sword (12:18). Putting a face on the debate keeps us from recklessly cutting others as we disagree.  

Third, if possible acknowledge what is admirable about a person’s dedication to their core—even if we ultimately disagree with it. Years ago, I participated in a debate with a noted atheist. The event was co-sponsored by both Christian and atheist student groups. During a lunch with organizers, I learned that leaders from the atheist group tirelessly organized student reading groups, an annual lecture series, faculty dialogues, and the debate in which I was participating. “That’s a lot to do as students,” I commented. They explained that while we may wildly disagree on the answer, the question of God was paramount and needed to be addressed. I commended them on their passion and commitment.

Last, be honest in your critique. In an odd piece of advice, ancient writers state that an honest answer is like a kiss on the lips (Prov. 24:26) suggesting that honesty—in contrast to speaking of a person disparagingly in private—is as much a sign of respect and intimacy as a kiss. Critical generosity does not mean we only empathize or be gentle. It necessarily entails what Roman eventually did—comment on the positives and negatives of a particular performance. As God’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20) we must certainly strive to find the same balance. To honestly, respectfully, and gently address the core of another group could surprisingly cultivate begrudging respect even as we disagree. I close with the hope of the ancients: “When people’s lives please the LORD, even their enemies are at peace with them” (Prov. 16:7).

 

Footnotes

  1. James Davidson Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 322.
  2. Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 89.
  3. David Roman, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), xxiv.
  4. Daniel Taylor, “Deconstructing the Gospel of Tolerance.” Christianity Today: Jan. 11, 1999, 28.
  5.  Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), vii.
  6. Ibid, 114.
  7. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/142/4/e20174218
  8. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2734743
  9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/03/18/missouri-father-transgender-bill-video/

Tim Muehlhoff

Biola University
Tim is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA and is the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce humility, civility, and compassion back into our public disagreements.  His most recent book is Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church (IVP).

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