This issue: Summer 2021

Uncivil Discourse

How to Make the Most of Conflict

By Ron Mock, Professor of Politics Emeritus; Director, George Fox Civility Project

God did not design us to agree. It would have been simple: make us all clones or automatons. Or, as Satan tempted Jesus, provide everyone with bread made from stones, unite the world under one divine king, and remove all spiritual doubt.

Instead, God loves us, so he designed us to disagree. We are born with different genes, in different cultures, into different families. None of this is accidental. It’s part of the providential love God poured into creation and into each specially created person. Disagreement makes us human. A loving God chose this path, so it must be good for each of us, and especially for all of us.

In God’s intent, disagreement is an invitation to improve our navigation toward his truth.

Humans, as usual, tend to spoil this gift. Modern technology mixes with our fallen natures to create the current pandemic of toxic disagreement. American political views are as polarized as they have been since the Civil War. Relations across party lines have been fraying for two generations. Members of Congress not only vote less often with members of the opposite party, they are less likely to have social contacts across party lines. And we the people are copying these trends in our personal lives.

Harsh division spreads even to our churches and families. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed that America was most segregated on Sunday mornings. Today, some studies show politics is more likely than race or religion to divide families and congregations.

The problem isn’t that we disagree. The problem is how we disagree.

I know all this, and yet I still tend to respond to disagreement as if it’s a threat. And while sometimes disagreement comes with threats, the disagreement itself is not a threat. In God’s intent, it’s an invitation to improve our navigation toward his truth. You, from where you stand, see truth over there. From where I stand I see truth over here. Each of us should be aware by now we are not perfect. We are prone to errors in our grasp of truth. We should be eager to navigate better together.

I am not saying every pair of disagreeing people is equally in tune with God’s truth. Some errors are clearly greater than others, and a few are extremely damaging. I must speak truth as clearly as I can so it can be heard by those who disagree. But few minds are changed with arrogance, or name calling, or dehumanization and dismissal. And even the worst hater has something to teach me – about hatred, at least, and possibly about something true I never considered.

With that in mind, here are seven suggestions for making the most out of conflict:

  1. Recognize the disagreement as a gift

    “That woman over there thinks I am wrong. She is serious. Woo-hoo! God is giving me another present! God intended for me to encounter her and for us to learn from the encounter. I wonder what’s in the present! I wonder what we are going to learn!”
  2. Listen until the other knows you’ve heard them

    Listen until you can summarize the other’s position back to them and they can say, “Yes, that’s what I mean.”
  3. Listen empathetically

    Listen until you can understand why the other’s position is so precious. Do they see it as the key to a hopeful future? Are they responding to some key experience? Are they defending their family, values or identity?
  4. Find where you connect

    Is there some common overarching value important to both of you? Or maybe some shared opinion, or a project you both wish could be completed – even if it’s just getting the dishes done? Or maybe you share an interest: baseball, botany or barbecue. Finding these commonalities gives you a fixed point from which to understand more clearly where (and why) you differ.
  5. Create a list of areas where you agree.

    Then create a list of disagreements. Be as specific as possible.
  6. See if you can get to the same side of the table on something

    Perhaps you can’t agree on whether America was founded in 1619 with the first slaves, or in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. Can you still agree to work together on how schools can be more welcoming to all kids in the community? I bet you can agree on 90 percent of what should be done.
  7. See if you can agree to be a team

    Together, you can help your family, church or park board build its capacity to disagree without breaking trust or destroying relationships.

By comparing our understandings – listening to God’s voice in each other – we can adjust for the limits on our own perspective and navigate a truer course toward the truth God has for us.

What is the Civility Project?

The George Fox Civility Project was launched in the 2020-21 academic year. It grew out of concern about polarization and alienation in our political culture at every level (national, state and local) and even beyond the political realm. The project sponsors events, publishes a weekly e-newsletter, and maintains a website with information about civility. Next year, the group will help citizens hold political leaders accountable for their civility during the 2022 elections.

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