I Know I’m Right, But What About You?

No sooner had the vice presidential debate ended, but the networks immediately had snap polls telling us who had won. Interestingly, and perhaps predictably, the polls varied wildly from network to network. I had my own opinion, of course. But as I thought about who truly won the debate, the obvious question came to mind: what exactly is the scoring criteria? Are we voting on who won on substance? On style? On veracity? Or simply on who best met their debate and/or campaign objective? My completely meaningless take (as an Obama/Biden partisan): The debate was a draw on substance, a clear Ryan victory on style, a Biden victory on veracity and a marginal Biden victory on meeting objectives of the debate and/or campaign. That was my take, but my wife, and other people I respect a great deal, came up with completely opposite conclusions. But arguments are like that.

Sometimes, it’s hard to define victory in an argument or, perhaps more accurately, sometimes there are many possible definitions of victory (and loss) in arguments such that it is hard to tell who really won. There is what I would call a complete win (a/k/a win +1 on google; like on facebook, win with an * old school). In a complete win, you win on things like substance, merit and style so decisively that you not only win the argument, but you actually change the mind of the other person. A complete win is a pretty rare thing.  Down a bit from there is what I would call just a plain win. In a plain win, you win the argument on either style or substance or both and, as a result, you ultimately get your way, but you’ve done nothing to persuade the other person.  A plain win is more common than a complete win but not quite a satisfying.  Then there’s the win/loss — those times when you win the argument, but impair or destroy the relationship.  A very unsatisfying kind of win.   And then there’s the compromise — neither one of you really wins the argument and neither of you changes your perspectives, but, in the end, you agree to disagree peacefully.  The sort of result most commonly associated with the feeling of “kissing your sister”.  And then there’s plain old lose/lose. You lose the argument and you impair or destroy the relationship.  And you feel like crap when it’s over.

For most of us, our first experience with arguing came from listening to our parents. For some, this was a really traumatic thing — either because of the intensity or frequency of the arguments or because the arguments turned out to be a harbinger of irreparable harm to the relationship of two people who are very important to us. Even for those of us who experienced more benign types of arguments between our parents, the memories of those arguments are still a bit uncomfortable. At a minimum, we remember the temporary disruption in the harmony of our family or because the arguments were simply annoying, particularly when our parents were arguing over things that seemed so trivial.  But, for many of us, the arguments we witnessed may very well have been a somewhat choreographed performance — our parents arguing in front of us to model conflict resolution and to let us know that people who love each other can still disagree (sometimes vehemently)and yet stay together and still love each other when it’s over.

Perhaps more insidious and more dangerous than parents (or spouses, or siblings or boyfriends/girlfriends) arguing, are those relationships where there are no arguments — where one or more parties to the relationship stops arguing. Either because they have capitulated and given their will over to the other person in an effort to buy peace on the cheap or because one party has fought for so long that they no longer care whether the relationship lives or dies — they are now controlled not by anger or a desire to be right but by apathy, which is, ominously enough, the opposite of love.

There are plenty of good things that can come from arguing. Arguing with someone who is about to do something profoundly stupid, particularly if life threatening, is always worth the time and effort. Sometimes we are successful with our arguments and sometimes people change their mind. And sometimes that is a very good thing.

Sometimes arguing reveals the truth. Sometimes two people can hold opinions that are genuine and arrived at in good faith. And though those differing opinions sometimes collide, a thoughtful argument can oftentimes expose the weakness or weaknesses of one side or the other. Sometimes that leads to changed hearts and changed minds. Sometimes it simply leads to a different perspective. And sometimes that is a good thing.

Proverbs says that “iron sharpens iron”. Sometimes arguing sharpens our arguments, even if we were right to begin with. Even if we were right, arguments can expose our weaknesses, show us what we have not yet considered, or show us what might require additional investigation on our part. The result may be a shored up argument that can withstand even greater, and perhaps less well intentioned, assault. And that may prove to be a good thing.

While it is true that the enormity of the issues at stake in an argument might define the tactics used to win the argument, it seems to me that some tactics ought to be declared off limits in most, if not all, circumstances. Violence is not a legitimate tactic to win an argument. Why? Because if one of the goals of an argument is to get at the truth, or that conclusion that ought prevail, violence artificially distorts that process. A person who is bigger, stronger and more vicious and who resorts to violence when arguing, is likely to win most arguments. But that won’t mean he or she was right.

Other forms of coercion, like blackmail, extortion, or humiliation ought to similarly be declared off limits. So too name calling or other forms of verbal violence. Bringing up the past, when not relevant to the present, strikes me as “out of bounds”. Interjecting irrelevant issues, even if in the present, ought not be allowed. Lastly, walking out or walking away, ought to be a tactic of last resort. Certainly, walking away, if used as a last resort to avoid other less desirable tactics such as violence, coercion, or verbal abuse, may be an appropriate thing to do in limited circumstances. But generally, parties to an argument ought to stay and see the argument to a peaceful conclusion.

I had lunch recently with a fella who, like me, is a lawyer. In other words, he, like me, gets paid to argue. And after just a few minutes, it was clear that both of us enjoyed arguing, particularly with each other. And we had a good bit to argue about. Mainly, by his own description, he was a conservative republican and I am a left leaning democrat. And though we are both Presbyterian, he belongs to the conservative Presbyterian Church in town, and I am a member at a decidedly more liberal Presbyterian Church.

But he proved himself to be very bright, very knowledgeable, and a very fair debater. We “argued” about many things political and many things theological. I don’t think either of us changed our minds on any thing, but I will speak for myself and say that I certainly gained a different and valuable perspective on a number of issues and I certainly learned that there are smart, respectful and well intentioned people on the other side of issues that are important to me.

So much of the arguing that goes on today is over completely trivial matters. If we were to list the five most pressing issues facing this country, I suspect they are not the same things that we hear argued in our public discourse.  Same for our most valued relationships. The things that are most critical to the health of our relationships are usually not the things we argue about. We argue not about where each member of the family will spend eternity but why the trash hasn’t been taken out since Tuesday; not about how we express our love to each other, but about why people insist on throwing their dirty clothes on the bathroom floor. That sort of thing.

Individually, and collectively, we have lost the ability to argue civilly in a way that add value to public discourse. We argue about the irrelevant, we result to name calling and demonization, we begin each argument with a settled opinion and we guard that opinion zealously until one side or the other relents. We enter arguments ready to talk and convince, not listen and learn. This, unfortunately, is our culture.

And, of course, every Sunday, it is that culture that fills the pews of our church. People who have lost the ability to engage in reasonable debate in a civil society, do not suddenly regain that ability because they enter the church. And so, quite expectedly, we debate the irrelevant, we refuse to listen, we resort to name calling, we engage in verbal abuse and we irreversibly impair relationships.  And leave denominations.

As discussed in this previous post, one of the major theme’s of Paul’s writings, was the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul believed that Jesus Christ was to be the Lord of everything. Absolutely everything. And that God’s people should be unified in following Jesus Christ as Lord of everything.

In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul encourages us as believers to be humble.  And gentle.  And patient.  And to bear with each other in love.  And to work for unity.  In an effort to keep peace among believers.

Paul spoke often about the Church and he used metaphors that emphasized the importance of church unity. In I Corinthians 10, verse 17, Paul refers to “one loaf” and says that though there are many of us, we all eat of the same bread.  In Romans, Paul refers frequently to “one body” and the need for each of us to perform our roles in harmony and synchronicity with the rest of the body; in I Corinthians and again in Ephesians, Paul refers to “one building” and reminds us that Jesus is the foundation and chief cornerstone of the house of God and that the purpose of Christian ministry is to build up the body of Christ.  And in 2 Corinthians, Paul refers to the church as “one bride”.  Just as a husband cleaves to his wife and literally the two become one flesh — that no one should dare tear asunder — so too the church is the bride of Christ — all of us cleaved together and bound to Jesus as one in the flesh. It comes as no surprise, then, that no one should tear the bride apart nor tear her from her groom.

I think Paul and I would generally agree on the importance of the unity of the church. Those of us in the church have our share of disagreements, just as any parties to a long term relationship would. Sometimes we argue about the trivial. Sometimes we bring up the past or maybe the irrelevant present. Sometimes, we resort to name calling, verbal abuse, coercion or, worst of all, violence to solve our disputes. And sometimes we grow apathetic and just walk away.

But sometimes I feel like we’re called to compromise, which can feel strange. Two parties, both following the same God but hearing different messages, compromising on an article of faith. That’s a bit strange and not easy to handle. Apostacy exists, but probably far less than we think.  As to the rest, I think we are called to compromise.  In the words of Demitri Kornegay, in his book Man Up!  No Excuses – Do the Work!:

What actions do you choose when confronted with those who don’t see things as you do?  Do you fight?  Do you argue?  Do you negotiate?  Do you surrender?  Let me tell you something right now.  If you live more than a few days you will find conflict is inevitable but combat is optional.  You don’t have to fight about everything.  Even the Marines have a saying, “Choose the Hill you want to die on.”
If you must fight about something, if there must be that thing that will make you raise your voice, grind your teeth and pound your fist on a desk, let it be something that has to do with respect, dignity and integrity; or someone’s attempt to deny another of one or all three of those things.

I agree.  And I do think it is somewhat ironic that Paul, who wrote so much about the importance of church unity, is the one who also gave us so many of those doctrinal things that seem to stand in the way of the church actually being unified.  And I question whether we are supposed to die on those hills.  At the end of the day, I think Jesus cares more about his bride than he does about any of the relatively small minded things that we argue about.  I think we are called to be peacemakers and to protect the unity of the church.  Shoot, I find myself agreeing with Paul so often now that I think we are well on our way to a full out detente.  And I’m ok with that.


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