When the Argument Is Having You

By Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
Published This Week At Plymouth, November 12, 2021

“It is amazing to me that a difference of opinion upon subjects that we know nothing with certainty about, should make us hate, persecute, and despise each other . . . Arguments cannot be answered by personal abuse; there is no logic in slander, and falsehood, in the long run, defeats itself”
— Robert Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses

Before you know it, the conversation has gotten away from you—the anger within brews. You can hear yourself raising your voice, not so much because of your passion, but because the other person is raising their voice. For all involved, everything hinges on winning this test of wills. Soon, nobody can see the other, neither their fear, their pain, nor their suffering. They are an enemy to be defeated with nothing less than total victory. The “debate” has moved from a place of engagement, curiosity, and discovery of truth. You are no longer arguing; the argument has you.

The rancorous polarization on display on social media, at school board meetings, and in the laboratories of democracy revolve primarily around political and religious disagreements. Politics and religion are ripe for unpleasant, disgruntling debates because they are areas of life where fear and power have been wielded with abandon to oppress, dominate, and exploit. And yet, their significance in our lives and the varieties of ways they are practiced among diverse peoples provoke debate and discussion. There is a lot at stake if one’s safety or humanity hinges on the outcome of a political or religious debate. But, if we value freedom and equality, we have no choice but to work it out. How do we hear uncomfortable truths and potentially new wisdom without turning against each other? How do we argue about the big political and religious questions without the argument turning us into liars, abusers, or slanderers?

The way we disagree and argue is particularly important for the church. Given the church arguments down through the years over doctrine, worship, gender, and sexuality, one would think we would have learned how to disagree without hating, persecuting, and despising each other. Sadly, we have not distinguished ourselves admirably at all when confronting and managing our differences. Ironically, the biblical and theological origins of the church are founded on the teachings of Jesus, who urged his disciples to love their enemies, be reconciled to those with whom they are angry, and forego retaliation against those who harm them. And yet, too often, we allow arguments to have their way with us, tearing us apart as a nation and as a people of faith. Perhaps our task should be to spend less time preparing our arguments than preparing how to remain gentle, generous, and loving when we inevitably disagree. Whatever our disagreements, I pray the exchange leads to truth and wisdom and that all involved are fully seen, heard, and affirmed. May it be so.

DeWayne L. Davis