Now that we know we disagree
How to tear down the "dividing wall of hostility."
If anything has kept me up at night in my life, it’s unresolved conflict. Lying in bed after a strong disagreement, I find myself wondering how an innocent conversation turned into a stressful debate and then an argument. Have you had nights like that too? Especially lately?
The apostle Paul pictured this painful disagreement as a “dividing wall of hostility.” Have you encountered this wall? Especially lately?
When Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, he dared to address the barrier that ran between two distinctly different groups – Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Gentile Christians. To Jewish believers in Christ, the laws were still important. Their lives were directed and shaped by the practice of male circumcision, ceremonial laws, dietary laws, sacrificial laws and a complex system of clean vs unclean.
To Gentile converts, Jewish believers were a mystery. Much like the mystery that early Dutch immigrant Christians were to Canadian Christians who wondered why these strict new immigrants from the Netherlands would not allow their families to bike, swim or shop on Sundays, not to mention the restrictions against so-called “worldly amusements” like dancing, playing cards, or going to movies. In Paul’s day, Gentile believers were similarly baffled by all the rituals and rules that defined and shaped their fellow Jewish believers in Christ.
In our day, the pandemic, the political climate and any number of polarizing issues have conspired together to build a painful sleep-robbing, shalom-stealing barrier between friends, families, neighbours and church members. We find ourselves thinking: “I can’t believe that you accept that as fact and as truth.” People are keeping their distance and even skipping out on special family gatherings and church services to avoid situations and conversations that only make things worse and keep them up at night.
Faced with a seemingly unbridgeable divide, we can choose to avoid each other. We can normalize insults and put downs. We can get used to empty chairs at family gatherings and missing persons in church services. Like the East Germans 60-some years ago, we can accept the idea of a wall and then make it grow, the way the Berlin Wall began with 50 kilometres of barbed wire in 1961 and then grew to 200 kilometres of impenetrable concrete walls four metres high over the next 20 years. To accomplish this, all we have to do is behave like water and oil, as people are inclined to do.
But I don’t believe that anyone reading this article wants that. Despite our disagreements, I believe that all of us prefer, in Jesus’ name, to tear down existing walls.
How can we lighten the load?
There is lots of good advice for difficult conversations. For example: talk to, rather than about, the person with whom you disagree. Talk sooner than later rather than letting things fester. When things get tense, phone or talk face to face, instead of relying on texts and emails in which tone and content are often misunderstood. Enter a conversation with a desire to listen and understand the other person’s reasons for believing and thinking as they do. Don’t demonize, personalize!
But the best and most hopeful advice comes from the apostle Paul in his letter to the church of Ephesus. In it, he simply reminded the Jewish and Gentile recipients of his letter that, huge differences notwithstanding, they were no longer strangers and foreigners to each other but brothers and sisters in Christ. Where it really mattered, they were not two or three or four, but “one in Christ.”
Apart from Christ, we will move . . . well . . . apart. But together with Christ, we can remain together. There is hope for unity and loving relationship wherever and whenever people remember that they and those with whom they disagree are “one in Christ.”
To be in Christ is to know that we are sons and daughters and image bearers of God, and brothers and sisters who live by grace, not by works. This grace not only saves us but saves our relationships. To be in Christ is to graciously accept the other’s otherness, including not only the other’s perspective and culture, but the other’s positions and perspectives.
Of course there is one caveat. Our acceptance is limited to what Jesus accepts. And we reject what Jesus rejects. Racism is not acceptable. Neither is sexism, homophobia, bullying, injustice, and everything that contributes to food and housing insecurity or harms our planet. In Christ we stand together against these things. I don’t want to cheapen the grace of God by suggesting that we should just go along in order to get along. There are matters that really matter!
What Paul understood, however, is that the big issues that separated Jewish and Gentile believers lose their power to divide if and when they truly understood the power of Christ’s sacrificial and unconditional love.
A Personal Example
In my own life, one relationship in particular was threatened by the divisive issues that are causing so much separation and heartache today. It was a relationship that I could not stand to lose. Thankfully, that relationship is very good today.
My decision? After one more trying conversation, I decided that I could not and would not discuss these issues with that person anymore. I drew a line in the sand and it has proven to be a pleasant boundary. This boundary, like a good, well-enforced truce, is keeping our relationship safe.
My attitude? I realized that I needed to give this person the gift of respect. We agreed to respectfully disagree. Today we can smile about my tendency to lean left and this person’s tendency to lean right.
With respect to the dividing issues and walls of hostility that are threatening our most important relationships, let’s remember the grace and kindness of Christ and the gracious way those very different New Testament Christians were challenged to see each other as one in Christ. Let’s remember that protecting a significant relationship is more important than debating and defending the opinions and viewpoints that all of us are more than welcome to hold as we graciously agree to disagree. Remembering these things, I suspect that we’ll sleep better and enjoy life more.
Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given,
again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think — ‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Don’t be afraid. Fear not. Don’t be afraid.
The contempt for traditional sexual mores is obvious. And it is here that we see an expression of the connection between authenticity and sexual freedom that will become so important in the late twentieth century. As we noted in the introduction, expressive individualism may be the necessary precondition for the sexual revolution and modern identity politics, but it cannot in itself explain why it has taken the sexual form that it has. And here we see that that connection between individual authenticity and sexual liberation is not of recent vintage but has a clear precedent in Shelley some two hundred years ago. Yet far from being unique in this, Shelley is somewhat representative of radical thought at the start of the nineteenth century. Traditional moral though
and practice in the area of sex had undergone dramatic transformation in the previous decades in a number of ways. In his history of sex, Faramerz Dabhoiwala summarizes this shift by pointing to three significant and closely related developments in the 1700s: (1) the increasing importance ascribed to conscience (basically understood as natural instinct) as a reliable guide to moral behavior, (2) a growing public distaste for judicial punishment of consenting heterosexual transgressors (such as adulterers) of standard moral codes, and (3) the rising view that the moral laws based on external authorities such as the Bible might in fact be social constructs and actually stand problematically over against the natural laws governing human nature.47 The first
and third of these tendencies are obviously important for our narrative as they bring together two elements in a way that remains influential today. When healthy sexual activity is considered a matter to be judged by instinct, then inevitably those institutions that disagree with such will be seen as problematic and as hindering human authenticity and freedom. And when the primary culprit historically is religion, this means that religion will be the target of the sexual reformers. In the West, this specifically meant Christianity. This latter point is very clear from the way the critique of traditional sexual mores manifested itself. In its most radical forms, this cultural shift on sex involved a vigorous attack on the institution of marriage and thus on that which constructed andmaintained it, that is, Christianity and the church. Shelley’s father-in-law, William Godwin, is a fine example of such a critic. In book 8 of his Enquiry concerning Political Justice, Godwin dismisses marriage as an evil that checks the independent progress of the mind, that is inconsistent with the natural propensities of human beings, and that dooms people to a lifetime of unnecessary miser