Can the UMC model a healthy form of debate?

At our campus ministry, we play fantasy football the same way we play any sport. Which is to say, we’re all talk.

“Dude, did your girlfriend set your lineup this week?”

“Don’t insult his girlfriend like that. She actually understands a thing or two about football.”

“Lay off. I don’t even have a girlfriend.”

“No wonder, as bad as your team is.”

This is the way college guys talk. It’s mostly harmless banter, good-natured insults about things we silently agree are trivial.

Eric Van Meter

In mid-October, however, I walked in on a conversation that was more than banter and anything but harmless. Tyler and Danny were arguing loudly and angrily. Pete sat motionless on the couch, trying to hide behind a box of chicken nuggets.

The problem, I learned, was politics. Tyler was an unwavering Obama man. Danny was not only in the Romney camp, but thought a vote for the other party constituted something akin to a moral failing. Pete, caught in the crossfire, didn’t have enough faith in the political process to care, but was annoyed that he couldn’t hear SportsCenter over the noise.

Here in microcosm were the primary responses to politics that I see on campus: zealotry, fear and exasperation.

Sound familiar?

The content of the debate didn’t bother me. Good, thoughtful people disagree all the time. That’s a healthy part of sharing life together. The passion of the argument also seemed acceptable. Important things should generate strong emotions. To refuse that would be to deny a vital part of our human experience.

What troubled me about the exchange I witnessed was how these normally amiable young people so quickly adopted the poisonous tenor of contemporary American politics. Rather than adapt the topic to their typical ways of interacting, they adapted their style to the usual tone of the conversation—meaning there was no real conversation at all.

Tyler wanted to defend his turf. Danny wanted to convert Tyler. Pete simply refused to engage. Two agendas, one abstention.

Zero listeners.

That problem is not unique to campus ministry, of course. Nor is it difficult to diagnose. Most of us would agree that we would all be better off if people listened more.

Still, there is something particularly disheartening about hearing college students—whose lives are lived out in an atmosphere that encourages the free exchange of ideas—approaching political dialogue with guns blazing. It creates an incongruous feeling for observers, akin to hearing swear words from children.

As a parent, I know that when a child uses inappropriate language, they’ve heard those words somewhere. The same dynamic is at work with my students. They have plenty of models for political venom, from news channels to radio shows to hateful debates at county forums. Political talk, they learn, always means having a winner and a loser, and fair play has no bearing on the outcome.

I wonder, however, at the converse of that assumption. Have these young adults seen profound differences discussed in an environment of respectful listening? Have they witnessed debate that, while passionate, still allowed for trust between the opponents?

Most importantly for my own vocation, have they seen such dialogue modeled within the church?

Again, the easy answer is to say no. Our denominational divisions over the power structure have turned ugly in recent years at both the General and Annual Conference levels. Churches are ripped apart over silly things—the position of chairs, the frequency of communion—leaving clergy and laity alike frustrated at our inability to get along.

But when we look closer, I think we can find plenty of examples of people who value openness and fairness, even in the face of disagreement. They weigh the importance of the matter before digging in for a fight. They speak the truth without apology, but also without violence. Above all, they take Jesus seriously when he tells them to love their enemies.

Not surprisingly, these are not the loudest voices among us. But they are among the most important—not because they have all the answers, but because they encourage us to arrive at answers through a respectful and God-honoring process.

The divisions that face us about polity and sexuality and finances are not enough to derail God’s work in either the sacred or secular realm. Every generation faces its own difficulties, and even wrong decisions have a way of unmaking themselves over time.

But if we continue to adopt the venomous practices that we see in the political arena, we lose an opportunity to model a better way of dialogue for the world around us. Worse, we leave our young people with the impression that villainizing those that disagree with us is not only acceptable, but necessary.

We know that there is a better way. The college students I work with sense it too.

One of my primary tasks as a campus minister is to coach young adults through difficult human interactions. I help them think about their approach to conflict with friends, roommates and professors in light of the gospel, and I try to model healthy approaches for them.

None of this is enough to change the tone of American politics, of course. But it does open doors. Tending to the manner of disagreement helps me recognize teachable moments. My students, aware that I do this, give me opportunities to help them think about the way they treat conflict, whether it involves classmates or football or politics.

We as a church can model a better way of relating to one another. Over time, that will make a difference. A more Christ-like political world may not be imminent, but it is far more than a mere fantasy.

 

Endgraf: The Rev. Van Meter directs the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University. Contact him at eric@astatewesley.org.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

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