Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Personal attacks leave no room for dialogue

Gratuitous personal attacks are easy. Thoughtful discussion of issues is hard.

A friend and I often discuss political and religious issues. There are times, when he's criticizing the position of some politician or preacher - and, by extension, their followers - he will begin attacking their intelligence, their character, or their motives. Epithets will begin to fly - "that guy's an idiot," he'll proclaim; or "those people are hard-hearted and don't care about the poor"; or "he doesn't really believe that stuff; he's just trying to get votes."

Sometimes maybe he has a point. But the personal attacks make it difficult to have a serious discussion of the issues. I often say something like the following to my friend (and it usually drives him up the wall): "People are more complex than you make them out to be. You don't know all of the factors involved in [so-and-so's] thought process that led to this position, and you don't know the whole of [his or her] life."

I was reminded of that truth again last week. On February 12, I wrote a Texas Baptists Committed blog post about the decision of LifeWay Christian Resources to let Bibles intended for sale to benefit breast cancer victims instead sit in a warehouse, gathering dust, because of differences over certain policy decisions of a partner organization.

In my post, I referred to "an Associated Baptist Press article about criticism leveled by Thom Rainer, head of LifeWay Christian Resources - the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention - at Susan G. Komen for the Cure's announcement that it was reversing its days-old decision to 'disassociate from Planned Parenthood.'"

Thankfully, I was careful not to turn my post into a personal attack on Thom Rainer. You see, I really believe that stuff I tell my friend about considering people as being complex persons rather than being simply the sum of their latest statements or actions. In fact, after my initial reference to Rainer (as quoted above), I never mentioned his name again, instead focusing on the decision and the reasons for my disagreement with that decision. At one point, I even acknowledged that "I respect LifeWay's concerns about abortion." I can't promise I won't slip occasionally and target the person rather than the issue, but - with God's help - I'm trying my best.

We can be respectful - and maybe even find a point or two of common ground - while disagreeing with a particular position, decision, or action.

Last week, I was reading my friend Jim Denison's Cultural Commentary that I receive daily in my email in-box. Jim's commentaries are always heartfelt, but this one was moreso than most, because in it he shared the results of his son Ryan's recent cancer surgery. Jim shared that Ryan's cancer had "spread slightly into the area around the tumor" that had been removed, and that he would be undergoing radiation treatment. Jim went on to write,
We are asking God to give Ryan strength and perseverance. And we are asking him to teach us all we are meant to learn from these hard days, as our Father redeems what he has allowed in our lives. Here's one example: Yesterday I received a remarkable email. A very dear friend who has known Ryan since his birth sent me a prayer for fathers that he found online.
Jim then shared that prayer, which was an adaptation of a prayer written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, "throughout which [MacArthur] repeated the phrase, 'give me a son.'" But the author of the adaptation his friend had sent him, Jim wrote, "realized that he needed to become a godly father before he could ask for godly sons. So he rewrote Gen. MacArthur's prayer, substituting 'make me the father' for 'give me a son.'"

The prayer as rewritten is beautiful and powerful in its wisdom, its depth of spirit, and its humility, most of all in its expression of a deep desire to be a father who will truly be the presence of Christ in his children's lives.

The author of that rewritten prayer? Jim writes, "It was written by Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources."

As I wrote last week, I disagree with the decision that Thom Rainer made to withhold those Bibles from Susan G. Komen for the Cure because of Komen's association with Planned Parenthood. But I'm glad I didn't attack him personally, because - as a father who cares for my children, and as a Christian who believes people need Jesus - I'm sure the things we hold in common are much greater than our differences.

Personal attacks divide us. It's true in our national life, as we turn political disagreements into blood feuds. It's been true in our Baptist life, as disagreements over what should be seen as minor theological points - in relation, that is, to the few that are truly fundamental - have caused some to attack others, destroy reputations, and seek power.

As Baptists, we should be united, but we remain terribly divided. We should be seeking common ground, but too often we would rather strafe any ground walked on by those with whom we disagree.

I pray that God will help us to show each other grace. Disagree? Certainly. We're human, and we're going to differ. But we don't have to attack each other. When we attack, we have nowhere left to go. Attack leaves no room for dialogue or for learning or for growth.

In an article entitled "T. B. Maston: On Christian Spirituality," Gary Farley - a student of Dr. T. B. Maston, the late Baptist ethicist, wrote,
Maston was ever the genuine Christian with every person in every situation. His constant instruction was to "deal with the issue, not personalities." While attacking segregation from a Biblical base, he did not condemn the segregationist. And that is how he lived.
We can do better than we're doing.

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