Two days ago, we celebrated the birth of the United States of America. Two weeks ago, I was in Milwaukee as a delegate to the General Synod (national gathering) of the United Church of Christ. In both spheres, the political and religious, I again grappled with what it means when persons use the word “united.”
Most of us recognize that “united” does not mean uniformity of thought. My denomination is called the United Church of Christ because due to a 1957 marriage of two distinctly different branches of Protestantism. Local congregations are autonomous and embrace the freedom to accept or reject stances taken by state or national bodies. As a result, as true for many denominations, local congregations reflect a wide spectrum of faith. The congregation I serve in Gloversville embraces the inclusive, progressive, left, liberal, extravagantly welcoming perspective of the Gospel. We echo the words of our national Church President when we affirm that we are open and affirming of all people “not in spite of what scripture teaches us but because of what [we believe] scripture teaches us” about love and grace.
However, while affirming our faith stances, we of the congregation I serve assert the right of anyone who believes differently to hold true to their interpretations. Thus, all of us might be united in the essentials of faiths, while acknowledging areas where we disagree or place different emphasis.
While loud disagreeableness is in political discourse is unsettling, it is more disheartening when some Christians adamantly identify themselves as either right or left as though there is only one way to interpret the mind of God, as if only they know what is true and insist everyone agree. In 1981, The Rev. Billy Graham wrote in Parade Magazine: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form.”
We ought to be suspicious of people who invoke an interpretation of God’s truths as though they possess the only line of communication with the Creator. Susan B. Anthony’s critique was biting: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
Of late, much public discourse is little more than a contest among those competing to be the loudest, the angriest, if not the most disagreeable. Be it squabbling over religious, social, or political issues, it appears as though few people are listening to anyone with an opposing view.
Proverbs 15:1-2 reads: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.”
At times, I try to escape the hubbub of divisive public discourse with reading a good novel. I enjoy Anne Perry’s fictional accounts of nineteenth century London. This week I retreated into Perry’s “Corridors of the Night,” but could not escape the motif of Proverbs 15 and current strident public dialogue. Reflecting on competition among London newspapers as they reported on an upcoming sensational trial, one character in the novel suggested: “Competition is good for some businesses — it makes everyone do their best — but seeing who can shout the loudest only ends in deafening us all.”
I add my voice to those who call for polite, intentional, listening. When I taught the American Political System for Fulton Montgomery Community College and then for Empire State College I began with an invitation to disagree but never be disagreeable or offensive. I am pleased all followed that advice. In one class, it was clear that one young lady and I were poles apart politically, but we never lost focus on what it meant for both of us to be citizens of the United States or that we had the right to disagree.
May all of us, wherever we may find ourselves on political, religious, or social issues, find ways to communicate which show an embrace of the peaceable, loving, accepting, gracious ways of our Creating, Redeeming, Empowering, Still Speaking God — for the sake of all.
May grace and peace prevail …