Don’t confuse being valuable with being right
By Bishop Paul V. Marshall
[This is Bishop Paul Marshall's August 2009 column for secular newspapers throughout our 14 counties. It is published by The Morning Call, Allentown, on the first Saturday of every month. It usually appears also in ten additional papers. The combined circulation of papers that publish the column regularly is more than 400,000. More than 130 columns have been published over the past 13 years. If your paper does not publish the column and you would consider bringing it to the attention of the editor, please email Bill Lewellis, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Have you ever tried to discuss an idea and, when mentioning that you disagree with what someone has proposed, you are told that they are a good person? This emotional blackmail is meant to end the discussion rather than risk a conversation.
All religious groups I know about all seem to have many people who are afraid of conflict. They cannot distinguish in their minds between disagreement and condemnation. Afraid to say "no," they live with things they cannot agree with or do jobs they do not really want to do. One day they explode. Then the situation often cannot be repaired, and the group has a problem that may take years to overcome, if it can be overcome.
Because people are afraid of conflict, religious institutions and community groups often tolerate behavior that would be unacceptable at any other level of society.
I have been aware of people storming out of meetings after committing atrocious behavior, and the rest of the group then nervously wondering how they could get the offender back. Such groups operate with the unspoken belief that if they stand up against bad behavior and for their basic principles, they will not survive. The opposite, in fact, is true. One compromise leads to another, and their major goals are missed altogether, because there is no backbone in the organism.
There is no law against conflict in either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. Rather than encouraging silence, the New Testament urges readers to "speak the truth in love." The prophets in Israel pulled no punches. Jesus is not remembered as just going along with things for the sake of apparent peace. In fact, the gospels have him on one occasion more or less "disowning" his mother and brothers and sisters when they tried to stop him from disturbing the public mind.
There is nothing wrong with saying, "I think you did the wrong thing," or "Where I disagree with you is…" (It is often helpful to ask a question first, however!)
There is everything wrong with saying, "Because you did such and such, you are ignorant, worthless, etc." My complaint about most talk show hosts I hear on the radio, whether liberal or conservative, is that they poison the American mind. Rather than just disagreeing about facts and their interpretation, they dismiss the intelligence or emotional stability of the other side. This is entertaining, but destructive of conversation.
Why does no one criticize political spending in terms of the number of mouths it could feed? I dread every major election year because political parties spend fortunes to keep the American public from discussing basic issues objectively. To do so would be to admit that each party has some truth behind its platform, and that nobody operates without self-interest of one kind or another.
Conflict – disagreement discussed thoroughly and fairly – is the primary means of advancing the truth. Careful listening and thoughtful response advance common understanding and progress. Conflict that is kept on the level of ideas but does not discuss personalities is a sign of health, of thinking.
That some political and religious movements teach people not to think is a burden that diminishes every culture. Even in an age when it seems that "sensitivity" remains the highest virtue, it is no sin to disagree vigorously with an idea or someone's perception of events.
On the other hand, perhaps it is a sin to confuse being valuable with being right. Surely, no one is always right! The first sign of healthy humility is the ability to be taught. Conflict without nastiness, then, may be the most caring path of all.
[The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall is bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem, 14 counties of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania. His recently published book, Messages in the Mall: Looking at Life in 600 Words or Less (Seabury), is a collection of ten years of his monthly columns for newspapers. Additional columns and sermons by Bishop Marshall are available at www.diobeth.org.]