How (Not) to Evaluate Complicated Issues

Pretend it’s 1859 and someone just asked you, “What do you think about the anti-slavery movement?”

Here’s the thing: the wider the group, the more likely generalizations are going to be unhelpful. And in this case…it’s a very broad group.

Ten-second history recap! Early on, abolitionists were a few “extremists” who subscribed to the same papers, attended the same rallies, and had a similar ideology. Obviously, even that is covering over a lot of differences, but early on, you could say with a reasonable amount of accuracy things like “anti-slavery advocates believe in the dignity of all people before God regardless of skin color.”

As time went on, more people joined the anti-slavery cause. These included:

  • “Free soilers” who wanted slavery outlawed in new territories because they didn’t want slaves to steal white jobs.
  • Northerners who saw Southerners and their “slave power” economy as a threat.
  • Extremists who advocated violent opposition to slavery.
  • Goodhearted but sometimes condescending white people who saw themselves as patrons and liberators even if they just talked a lot and never did anything.
  • Politicians who wanted to increase the power of the federal government and saw slavery as a threat to the unity of the Union.
  • Actual racists who didn’t want slavery because they wanted all black people to go back to Africa. (You would be surprised how many “free soil” people were anti-slavery because they were anti-black.)

Suddenly, you had a massive collection of folks with different beliefs, values, and solutions who had only one thing in common: they were against slavery.

If everyone in the anti-slavery crowd had marched on Washington, chances are you’d only agree with a third of the signs they hefted into the air. They would range from “There are neither slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” to “Save the Union Through Gradual Emancipation” to “Make America White Again.”

Your answer would depend on a lot of factors: where you lived, which newspapers you read, which issues you cared most about, your political party, your geographical region, to name a few.

So. It’s 1859. Someone asks you what you think of the anti-slavery crowd and their cause. What do you say?

Regardless of your answer, I hope you’d…

  • Ask them to be more specific. Maybe point to just one issue or statement and evaluate it, or take one approach and say whether you think it’s helpful or not.
  • Try to get a sense of what a particular event meant—what happened and why—and acknowledge that there isn’t one story to explain the actions or motives of everyone involved in a cause.
  • Know someone involved with anti-slavery activism so you can ask questions of a person on the front lines, while realizing that one person won’t represent everyone involved.
  • Expose yourself to more than one side if they ask about a particular event, say, John Brown’s raid—reading more than just the flowery poetry idolizing him or the Southern screeds condemning him to inform your opinion.

If by now you’re thinking that I’m not really talking about the anti-slavery movement, you’d be right.

womensmarch

Just a few images of protest you might have seen this weekend.

Just a few images you might have seen from this weekend.

Am I saying that the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s is the same as the anti-Trump protests after the inauguration? Nope. Except in this one, very important way: they were both movements that encompassed a wide range of ideologies and motivations.

Fine. Two ways—they were also both subject to a lot of broad generalizations and caricatures that oversimplified the issues involved (on both sides). And I think that’s extremely unhelpful, if not destructive.

When you try to glorify or demonize a diverse movement, you risk giving a false picture of what’s really going on.

So when talking about politics, please, tell the truth. Fact-check your news sources, be okay with saying, “I’m not sure” and willing to admit when you’re wrong.

Tell the whole truth. It’s okay to have a strong opinion about an issue and still acknowledge its complexity. That might look like: “I realize that X, and I’m obviously not okay with Y, but I still think that the overall impact of Z is positive, and here’s why.” Or: “I appreciate that some people are motivated by X, but here’s the negative impact I think Y has—I’d rather see more Z and here’s why.”

Tell nothing but the truth. Personally, I think that often, sharing memes/cartoons/articles that intend to mock instead of provoke thought are pretty pointless. Sarcasm is a destroyer of gracious conversation. Ask yourself, “Why am I posting this?” and only go ahead if you have a convincing answer.

How you talk about politics matters because it both shows and shapes the kind of person you are. So be the person who does the hard work of overlooking insults and using logic and asking why, who thinks before speaking, who holds convictions graciously and always seeks to learn and understand more. History will thank you (and so will I).

Thoughts on Inauguration Day

My idea of home remodeling is finally remembering to take the Christmas decorations down a few weeks into January, so needless to say, I’m not a huge design/construction TV watcher. That said, I recently had a lot of friends sharing a post from Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper, whether they were fans of the show or not. (Go ahead—read it. It’s short.)

fixer

Many of the comments or captions for re-posts I saw revolved around two short lines: “Listen to me, we do not all have to agree with each other. Disagreement is not the same thing as hate, don’t believe that lie.”

“Yes,” fans responded, “this is what I wish people realized.” “This put into words what I want my family members and friends to understand.” “PREACH.”

And something in me said, “Wait.”

Before you freak out on me, I completely agree with that part of Chip and Joanna’s blog post. But here’s my question: who is this message preaching to? Who should understand this and put it into action? Who needs this revelation to land on their soul and let it sink in deep?

Me. Not everyone else out there who is intolerant of my opinions. I am the one those lines are addressing.

I’m reading through Proverbs right now, and I realized that, while occasionally one will hit me and make me think, “Yeah, I need to work on that,” most of the time, I see other people and their problems in the lines. I take a bit of wisdom and think, “Oh, totally. I wish everyone I knew lived like this” or “Yes, I know so many people who don’t seem to get that even though it’s so obvious.”

This is 100% the wrong approach. Also 100% arrogant, in a weird way. Isn’t it funny how the whole world revolves around us…until it comes to pointing out sin? Then, it’s about anyone but us.

Not convinced? Here are other examples: I listen to sermons and glance around to make sure so-and-so is listening. I read books and see myself as the hero, not the villain. I write my workplace evaluation or a critique of our culture and think of the problems others are causing, but not how I contribute or respond badly.

Back to Chip and Joanna’s post. So many people resonated with: “Disagreement is not the same thing as hate, don’t believe that lie.”

And yet…when someone disagrees strongly with you, isn’t your first instinct to be just a little bit defensive?

Isn’t it nice to have a circle of friends where everyone has similar beliefs and values?

Don’t you get annoyed and feel the need to fight back when someone makes a critical comment on something you post on social media?

I know those are all true for me.

In my head, I agree that disagreement is not the same thing as hate. But I believe that lie in practice every time I avoid certain subjects out of fear, insult other people behind their back, and wish I could go through life without my beliefs and opinions being challenged by people smarter than me.

Bottom line? I am willing to disagree boldly, but not graciously. I am willing to fight hate everywhere but inside myself. And this is not okay.

Change is hard. Disagreement is tricky. Other people are both the best and the worst at different times.

But that doesn’t give us an excuse to preach grace without practicing it. So here’s my challenge, especially on an Inauguration Day at the end of a controversial election season: have convictions, but remember that if you want civil dialogue, you can’t just demand it from others. You have to create it.

How, you ask? Here are some thoughts:

  • Assume the person talking to you is not a terrible person.* Or stupid, or intentionally cruel, or just regurgitating information from fake news sites and talk radio. They may be some of those things in part. But when you have respect for the person you’re talking to, it shows, and it makes the conversation significantly more helpful.
  • Make your goal to love others better. If that’s too abstract for you, make your goal to learn about the other person and to help them learn about you, instead of winning an argument. Pretend you’re trying to find the strongest reasoning for the other side, or that you really need to understand why others disagree with you on this.
  • Talk to people in person when you can. Seriously, blog/YouTube/Facebook comments seem to be the place where kindness and decency go to die. When you feel you need to, intervene in those spaces to bring a bit of grace. But there are other times when the best medium is a nice chat over coffee.
  • Choose to remember that people are astonishingly complex even when their statements are painfully shallow. By that I mean that each and every person is a masterpiece of God, even when they are making generalizations, using bad logic, or venting their emotions. If you can graciously point out what troubles you, do it. If you can graciously overlook an offense, DO IT—I think there are significantly more times where this is the best thing to do.

Let’s continue speaking out about issues that matter to us, using good logic (while not being afraid of emotion…but that’s a different post), and engaging in politics and other tricky conversations. That’s what Jesus’ command to be “in the world” involves. The “not of it” part talks about how we treat others and represent Christ while doing those things…and that’s the area I think the church has neglected recently.

What would you add to a list of tips for starting and engaging in civil dialogue?

*Stuffy Theological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: I also think it can be helpful to assume that the person talking to you is a terrible person—and so are you. I didn’t say that it’s confusing and not as obviously practical when it comes to political discussions. However, I’ve found that understanding that we are broken people in a broken world gives me a ton of compassion when discussing difficult topics. Just a few examples: I can refuse to be offended even when someone is being offensive because I know I’ve done the same thing many times. I can understand why someone might desperately cling to a wrong idea, because if proven wrong, they’d lose a lot of their worldview. I never assume that I’m right about everything because I’ve been wrong so often (or right with the wrong motives). A healthy view of depravity (the Fall) can be just as helpful as a healthy view of the dignity of others before God (the Image) when interacting with others.

Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr.

Let’s start with this: I think Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr. are both great. (For very different reasons, of course.)

But I think the new Star Wars movie and the holiday celebrating a civil rights hero might have something else in common. So let’s see if I can explain this without sounding a few shots short of a Stormtrooper.

Although I genuinely enjoyed Rogue One for the great acting and payoff on plot promises, after I walked out of the theaters, I asked myself two questions:

Why can’t I remember any of the characters’ names except Jyn?

And why am I only mildly sad?

(Spoiler Alert: Bail out here if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.)

rogueonetwo

These are not the protagonists you’re looking for.

The movie’s suicide mission was, in a surprising twist of realism, actually a suicide mission. Our heroes got the Death Star plans, but died in the process. And yet, while Rogue One is darker than Star Wars IV-VII (those are the only other movies in the franchise I acknowledge), it didn’t feel like a tragedy.

Why not?

Maybe because Princess Leia calls the plans “hope” to save the galaxy…and we cheer when she shows up. We know her. That’s our heroine, the one who gets the happy ending, the guy, the glory. It’ll all work out in the end, we are reminded, and all those tragic deaths are a part of the bigger picture.

And maybe also because the movie pulled punches with character development. Meaning, all the characters are essentially orphans, or at least that’s the conclusion we’re supposed to draw since their backstories (except Jyn’s) are only vaguely hinted at. Their only goals are entirely contained in the success of the mission.

We’re hopeful at the end of Rogue One because our one-shot characters sacrificed to achieve victory for the real protagonist: the Rebellion. They got what they wanted, and so did the audience.

Again, let me say: this is not bad or lazy writing in my opinion, although I know some people who disagree. To me, it’s what you do if you want to create a standalone war movie where everyone dies and the audience feels sad but triumphant in the end (and you want to spend time on cool action scenes).

As I thought about the movie, the next thing that came to mind as was that Rogue One reminds me of African American History Month. Which led me to ask two other questions:

Why do I only remember the names of a few headliners like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.?

And why am I only mildly sad when they fight and live and die without seeing their dreams of justice realized? (more…)

Seventeen Life Lessons

A friend of mine asked me to sum up what the past several years have taught me. Kind of a New Year’s reflection sort of thing. It was a fun exercise, so I thought I’d put a few of them on the blog, phrased like I’m giving advice to my past self.

(Side note: have you ever wondered if Present You would be friends with Past You if they were able to meet?)

I will let you imagine the circumstances that prompted each lesson. Here’s a hint: most of them involve me being a jerk, then having someone point that out to me. And to be honest, I still fail at almost everything mentioned below. The difference is…now I know the problems I have, and I’m trying to work on them.

And bonus! You get them for free, without having to learn the hard way.

And so what we have learned applies to our lives today...

And so what we have learned applies to our lives today…

One: There is a difference between listening and waiting to talk. (You mostly wait to talk. Stop that.)

Two: Loving others is more important than being proven right.

Three: Watch for the person at the party who offers to help the host or cleans up afterward. Talk to that person. He or she will almost always be pretty cool.

Four: Also, watch for the person who is gracious to the incredibly annoying person at the party/class/Bible study. Same logic.

Five: If you have to choose between your personal ambition and the people you love, always choose the people you love.

Six: Don’t be afraid to tell people specifically what you appreciate about them, even though that intimidates you.

Seven: Uncertainty is okay. Don’t stay there when there are steps you can take, but there will be some answers you never get and some issues you will never have a strong position on.

Eight: People are hard—they will hurt you, betray you, anger you, and generally make your life much more difficult. But if you avoid difficult relationships, if you only spend time with people who are easy to get along with, you will miss so much. You will learn more about God and grace through those relationships than any other means so far.

Nine: Learn to accept compliments and offers of help graciously. It’s encouragement, not a grenade that you feel like you have to drop instantly.

Ten: While you’re at it, learn to apologize. Whether or not it repairs the damage you’ve done, whether or not you’re the only one at fault, it cultivates humility. And trust me, you need that and probably always will.

Eleven: You know that difficult, broken situation where you actually said, “I don’t think anything redemptive can come from this?” It will. Because that’s who God is and what he does. Wait for it, and don’t forget to be thankful (and a little shocked).

Twelve: Serving others is a great way to show love for God, but it can’t be the basis of your entire relationship with God. At some point, you’ll have to stop and ask: what does my relationship with God look like outside of the things I do in the church?

Thirteen: In a generation that leaves too quickly, stay. Bear with others’ faults and flaws. Commit instead of wandering. Don’t settle for shallow connections. And refuse to write people off as lost causes.

Fourteen: Don’t look at the world in general and the church specifically as vending machines to meet your needs. Come to serve.

Fifteen: Contentment is nearly impossible you if you are constantly missing the opportunities and people you left behind or dreaming of the mythical opportunities and people you’ll meet in the future. The circumstances and people around you right now are not perfect, but they are here and they matter.

Sixteen: Even when you feel uncomfortable in a social situation and do not know what to do, do not make it into a rerun of the Amy Green Show (where you are the host, star, and celebrity guest). This show always gets poor ratings, even from you, so it’s probably time to cancel it.

Seventeen: Other women are not competition. You need to stop comparing yourself to them, and especially subtly bringing them down while in the presence of men. They are your sisters, and it’s critical that you love and support each other.

Your turn! Name one bit of advice (or several) you’d pass on to yourself five years ago.

(And to the dedicated readers who hold me to every word I write here: I know, I said this week’s post was going to be about Rogue One. But I have some more thinking to do on that one, so it’ll wait till later this month. And I know: “What about a blockbuster franchise film could possibly need more thinking?” But just trust me.)

The Best of 2016

It’s The Monday Heretic’s third birthday! To celebrate that and the end of a very long and sometimes exhausting 2016, I’ve complied some of my favorite posts from the past year.

Hope your holidays were a time of rest and refreshment. Regular posts will resume next week! (Probably something related to Rogue One.)

2016

Most Popular Posts

Gold Medal: Lord of the Rings Valentines

Just like last year, my punny valentines climbed to the top. I find this hilarious, and plan to continue the series, though I haven’t settled on this year’s theme yet. I do have plenty of ideas, so we’ll see how long this keeps up.

Summary Quote: I think these you just have to see for yourself.

Silver Medal: Hamilton and the Danger of the Single Story

I’m glad this one did so well, because it links to a TED talk that I hope profoundly shapes the way I interact with people for the rest of my life. Also, a political post that wasn’t too terribly controversial, yay!

Summary Quote: “We will only be able to move forward as a nation if we learn to have civil dialogue on tough issues, if we speak with both grace and conviction. On a smaller scale, our relationships with those around us will benefit if we listen well, if we allow others to be complex and not defined by a handful of tweets, positions, and stereotypes.”

Bronze Medal: Of Course All Lives Matter. But…

I love it when I find an obscure historical scenario that relates to current events (we tend to repeat ourselves a lot, so it’s not surprising). This post is, in a way, the starting thoughts of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about and will continue to think about, because there are no easy answers.

Summary Quote: “It’s not a matter of pinning blame or parsing statistics. It’s realizing that power can corrupt, injustice breaks God’s heart, and our black brothers and sisters live with fears and struggles we’ll never have to deal with. We affirm that all lives matter when we take the time to defend the lives of others and hear their stories.” (more…)

Advent Stories: The Angel

Fear not!

I figured I should get that out of the way. It’s not the best opening line, but when humans are constantly fainting or having near heart failure every time they see you, you learn to do a little advance damage control.

I realize an angelic appearance can be a little startling at first, but every single time? Come on. When faced with something you don’t understand, you always reach for fear. It’s your way of protecting yourself from the unknown, I guess, but it seems strange to me.

I’ve had more chances to terrify people these past few months since the days of the patriarchs. Not that that’s my goal—although, okay, I’ll admit, it is fun.

No, the point, the whole focus of my existence, is being a messenger of the glory of God.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s your purpose too. It’s just you humans get so caught up in the tiny externals of your little lives that you forget why you’re here.

I’m doing it again. That condescending thing. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, we’re not that different: me, an ancient, heaven-dwelling, genderless, warrior-messenger and you, a weak, mortal human born to live on Earth for a hundred years at most and doomed to fall and fail a thousand times before then.

See? Practically the same.

For example, we both…ah…we’re almost….

Nope. I got nothing. But I’ll think of it, I promise. (more…)

Advent Stories: The Scribe

Some of my best friends have been dead for hundreds of years. It sounds strange, I know, but when your sole occupation is reading and re-reading the sacred texts, you begin to empathize with the writers. There are days when I feel as if I could turn to Jeremiah and say, “At what point does lament become sinful bitterness?” or debate politics with Elijah.

But they never answer. It’s probably for the best. If I really started hearing voices, well…maybe what the others say of me would be true after all.

You see, the prophets, they understand loneliness. They understand captivity. Theirs was Babylon or Assyria, mine is Rome.

Here in Jerusalem, Herod keeps us, scribes of the Hebrews, in his collection of soothsayers and pagan priests, to bring out when the whim strikes to advise him on the will of the gods. As if there could ever be more than one.

These visitors from the East upset him. It was all the court could talk about for days, their magnificent procession into Jerusalem, the city of kings, looking for the ruler of the Jews. Not Herod the Pretender, but our Messiah, the deliverer the prophets speak of.

They saw a star, of all things. Very strange, it seems to me, but what do I know of how God chooses to work? He lit a bush on fire to get Moses’ attention. Why not a star?

“Where is he?” Herod demanded of us. “Where do your holy texts say your king will be born?” (more…)