[Updated 1/14/05 to add some rule-breaking phrasings encountered on other blogs, and some words to avoid, and 6/28/05 to include an "executive summary" at the beginning.] The worldwide debate about the future of the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada is sure to intensify in the coming weeks. In a few days, the ECUSA House of Bishops will meet to consider the Windsor Report. Next month the primates of the Anglican Communion will meet for the same purpose.
Unfortuately, tempers will rise in many segments of the church, not least in the blogsphere. High horses will be climbed. Anathemas will fly. Feelings will be hurt. People will talk about casting out their adversaries, or about pulling up stakes and moving on. (Sometimes I'm as guilty as anyone.)
Ultimately, it may well turn out that way; we may not be able to stay together as one church. But if we claim to want to try to remain unified, then let's act like it. Let's not let the emotions of the debate cause us to say things we might later regret.
Toward that end, I propose the following rules of engagement for the coming battles:
- Take the hit
- Don't get personal, even indirectly
- Take the trouble to signal your friendliness
- Let the facts argue for themselves
- Be careful about categorical statements
- Watch your phrasing
- No-no's: Some things not to say
Take the Hit
"Take the hit" is novelist Nevada Barr's recasting of Jesus' command, "turn the other cheek." If some jerk posts a comment that outrages you, don't immediately leap to your keyboard to bang out a snarling response. Others likely will recognize him for a jerk too. You'll score far more points with the others -- or at least lose fewer points -- by remaining kind.
Don't Get Personal, Even Indirectly
In the coming debates, by all means (calmly) state your opinion of a particular viewpoint. Feel free to (charitably) point out flaws in someone else's argument.
But don't get personal, even indirectly. Every "personal" comment chips away just a bit more at whatever chances we do have of staying together.
It's perfectly OK to think that homosexual conduct is prohibited by Scripture and therefore is a sin. It's equally OK to think that it's a sin against charity to deny homosexuals the benefits of same-sex marriage.
But don't attack someone because s/he disagrees with you. Don't pin a derogatory label on a group, even if they engage in conduct that you regard as reprehensible.
If you're convinced that someone is stupid, or even evil, you don't need to be the one to say it. Let the facts speak for themselves, no matter how hard that may be.
EXAMPLE: You may think conservatives are uneducated, mean-spirited louts who ought not be allowed in any position of responsibility in the church. Stifle the urge to tell them so. EXAMPLE: You may think liberals are heretical, satanically-inspired hedonists who recognize no higher authority than themselves. Keep it to yourself.
Take the Trouble to Signal Your Friendliness
Signals of friendliness and good intentions are important to maintaining community. Suppose someone of the opposite persuasion makes a really dumb argument. You immediately recognize its stupidity and prepare to expose its flaws for all to see.
Don't assume that the proponent of the dumb argument will understand that you're not attacking her personally. In drafting your witty, incisive response, say something to acknowledge the proponent as a sister in Christ; to thank her for contributing, to praise whatever you can about what she had to say.
Diplomats and parliamentarians use elaborately courteous language, especially with opponents they may despise. Follow their example.
Let the Facts Argue for Themselves
We can take a lesson -- a counterintuitive one -- from the legal profession. A great legal brief often has no trace of slashing attacks or florid, dramatic phrasing. Judges usually don't react well to such rhetoric.
Instead, a great legal brief often starts with a sober, dispassionate recounting of the underlying story in a factual way. It lays out the facts of the story in such a way that the argument fairly leaps off the page. A truly great legal brief leads the reader to the desired conclusion before it even gets to the "argument" part.
We can aspire to do likewise in our own interactions.
Be Careful About Categorical Statements
Closely related to sweeping generalizations, categorical statements are those that insist that X is always true, or that it's never true. Be very careful about making such statements. (All categorical statements are bad, including this one.)
Watch Your Phrasing
Don't surrender to the impulse to blast an adversary. You won't impress anyone, except perhaps people who already agree with you. Readers who disagree will be put off by your tone, and will be that much less willing to engage with you. Is that what you really want? (Ask yourself: Would I phrase it this way if it were my grandmother who disagreed with me?)
Here are some examples, harvested from recent comments in the blogosphere. Feel free to add others in the comments section of this posting.
DON'T SAY: Bishop X is a heretical [or fundamentalist] so-and-so. INSTEAD, TRY: It seems to me that Bishop X is misguided. [Comment: It's hard to overuse the phrase "it seems to me" and phrases like it.]
DON'T SAY: Your argument is sophomoric. INSTEAD, TRY: I have a hard time accepting your argument.
DON'T SAY: Obviously you haven't read Aquinas' treatise on peanut butter sandwiches. INSTEAD, TRY: Have you considered how Aquinas' treatise affects your argument?
DON'T SAY: Don't you know the Bible says X? INSTEAD, TRY: The Bible teaches X, which is pretty important to many of us.
DON'T SAY: The Bible makes it clear that X is true. INSTEAD, TRY: It seems to me the Bible makes it clear that X is true.
DON'T SAY: If this keeps up, I'm out of here. INSTEAD, TRY: I don't believe Scripture allows me in good conscience to remain in fellowship with people who espouse the beliefs you do. [This is long and stilted, but it gets the job done, courteously.]
DON'T SAY: Her argument is dishonest. INSTEAD, TRY: Her argument seems inconsistent with some other things she previously said.
DON'T SAY: Since when has the church ever done anything like that? INSTEAD, TRY: Historically, the church has been reluctant to do X because ....
DON'T SAY: You're not a real Christian. INSTEAD, TRY: As I understand the term Christian, it's difficult for me to regard your views as truly Christian.
DON'T SAY: You obviously need to read up on this topic, as I have done. INSTEAD TRY: I've found some helpful materials in [book title, etc.] (Added 1/14/05)
[UPDATE:] And here's a list of some words and phrases best left unsaid (added 1/14/05 from some of the blogosphere commentary in the wake of the House of Bishops statement on the Windsor Report):
- babble (as a noun)
- simpering excuse
- utter nonsense
- yahoos (in reference to people)
Sure, it's more work to phrase things courteously. But it's worth it.
No-No's: Some Things Not to Say
Comments such as the following are out of bounds; feel free to add more examples in the comments section:
"You [liberals / conservatives] should start your own church and leave the rest of us alone." Don't say this. Those who want to go elsewhere, will. Sarcasm merely poisons the atmosphere and makes others reluctant to express their opinions for fear of attack. That's not how you build a church.
"If you don't like the faith of the universal church as it has always been received [OR, if you don't like the new insights that God has been revealing to his church], then you don't really belong here." Don't say this. Jesus broke bread with sinners and tax collectors; is that something he would have said?
We Are the Body of Christ
Remember what the apostle Paul had to say in 1 Cor. 12:21, 27:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don't need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don't need you!” ... Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
No matter what lies ahead, we are the body of Christ. In our dealings with each other, let's act like it.