Dialogue Lessons from Westboro

I was watching a TED Talk of Megan Phelps-Roper. Image result for westboro baptistShe was raised up in Westboro Baptist Church, a small church in the United States known for its “hate speech.” Now I know sometimes people use the term “hate speech” pretty loosely, but I think most anyone would say that Westboro’s words and actions would fit the term “hate speech.”

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the church, part of the Phelps clan that founded and dominate the membership of that church. She actively supported the activities of the church but in her Twitter conversations with people who were part of groups that she was trained to hate, she gradually saw things differently. Today she supports open dialogue between different religious and politcal groups. I found two interesting things in her short presentation.

First, she noted the possible value of Social Media to break down barriers. She noted how social media helped her to see others differently. I found that surprising. Years ago I spent time on the religion forum of Compuserve (yes 30 years ago). We did talk to each other– people of other faiths. But we had people who maintained “decorum on the forum.” That was because there were people who loved to “flame.” They loved to attack other people. Seems strange that people who are interested in religion would want to attack each other— but history doesn’t lie. I actually got reprimanded once on the forum for using the weird and childish term “royally pissed.”  But over the years, and especially with most social media having little enforcement of standards of any sort, the situation has gotten worse. Trolls abound, and the comment section of many sites are just filled with mindless rage, vulgarity, filth, and generally ‘trollery.’ Why would they do this. I don’t know for sure, but as my youngest daughter said just tonight, “It is hard for people to see others as people behind a wall of text.” I find it strange that social media, a realm dominated by confirmation bias and pushback, could be a place to find acceptance from others. But as Megan noted, some responded differently than she expected. Some that she expressed hate against, responded in like manner reinforcing what she already thought about them (no surprise there). But some responded differently. That different response gradually led her to question what she believed.

Second, she listed four simple guidelines for cyber-dialogue. I like collecting lists for interreligious dialoge. This 4-point list has merit, and has the advantage of being pretty simple. I will list them with my own spin as commentary.

  • Don’t Assume Bad Intent. In fact, even in the case of Westboro, they believe they are right and that in spreading their message they are helping to make the world more moral— a better place. People rarely share their deeply held beliefs because they want to ruin people and make the world worse (although sometimes it is quite easy to wonder).
  • Ask Questions. People often want to talk but not listen. But asking helps you learn. It also makes the other person more likely to try to understand you. Counterintuitively, we best get people to trust us by our asking favors from them. When we go to others with honest questions and a willingness to learn, we build trust.
  • Stay Calm.  It is tempting to get angry and lash out. Fear and anger are responses to threats. We commonly aren’t that good at training our emotional response. We allow a hippocampus takeover based on words put on a computer screen in much the way of a direct physical threat to our family. In case of physical threat, such a response may be useful. In cyber-dialogue it is almost always counterproductive. Megan actually noted a strength of social media because it is easier to pause or disconnect than it is in a direct face-to-face encounter. People often revel in a lack of calmness on the Web, but the medium actually makes calmness easier.
  • Make the Argument. If you truly believe something is true and you have good intent that the world would be a better place if they agree, than explain it so others can understand. Often, we think our views are so awesome that we don’t take the time to think about it as others would. We have bumpersticker phrases that support our views even though others may not see it that way. Often those who do try to make the argument aren’t thoughtful in their explanation, but focus more on ad hominem arguments or logical “face moves.” Creating effective arguments may not only change others’ minds, they may lead to changing our own.

Megan Phelps-Roper is not a practicing Christian, and she would not now describe herself as a Christian. She saw Christianity (in the broadest sense of the term) at its worst. I can hardly condemn her for turning away. Condemnation has little value anyway, as has been shown over and over at Westboro Baptist Church.

You can see the short video by CLICKING HERE.

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Mutuality and Dialogue

A section of my book “Dialogue in Diversity.” The first very rough draft is basically complete and will be reviewed by my students in “Interreligious Dialogue class.

According to Martin Buber:

The presupposition of genuine dialogue is not that the partners agree beforehand to relativize their own convictions, but that they accept each other as persons.”
Mutuality is not as commonly promoted as a Biblical virtue as some others. Yet, it is a strongly supported virtue, especially in the New Testament. Mutuality describes equal support. It implies two different aspects: Equal as position, and equal in interdependence.
Consider the figure below. The figure shows two people– A and B. In the top part of the figure is A and B in unequal positions. If they are communicating, A is “talking down” to B, The middle part of the figure shows the two in equal position, but not equal in interdependence. If they are in conversation, A is “talking at” B, with little communication back from B to A. The bottom one shows equalness in role and in interdependence. They have mutuality in conversation. A and B are “talking with” each other.
Mutuality applies to many things beyond talking.Figure x
The church has often struggled with battle between seemingly competing virtues of submission and mutuality. Typically, the church has tended to focus more on submission— submission to authorities, to parents, to husbands. Yet built into each of these is a mutuality. Jesus modeled and taught a form of leadership built on serving, not being served. Wives may be told to submit to their husbands, but husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church. And that form of love involves self-sacrifice and serving. It is hardly surprising then, that the most well-known passage in the Bible, Ephesians 5:21ff, opens with an overarching call to mutuality, “Submit one to another, out of reverence to Christ,” and then returns to the theme of mutuality with the body metaphor of Christ and the church.
The book of Philemon can be read as a book of Christian mutuality. Paul appeals to Philemon no to punish Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Rather to accept him back, and even give him his freedom, and treat him as a full brother in Christ. Paul doesn’t actually order him to do that, for to do so would be to place himself as an authority. Rather Paul appeals to him as a fellow partner. The book sometimes is seen as a half-hearted rejection of slavery. However, it may better be seen as how Christian love and Jesus’ form of leadership is applied to a difficult situation, rather than law and hierarchy.
Many of the verses on mutuality are found as “one another passages.” There are dozens of these. A few of them include:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” (Romans 12:10)
  • …Honor one another above yourselves. (Romans 12:10)
  • Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16)
  • …Love one another…” (Romans 13:8)
  • …Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Romans 14:13)
  • Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…” (Romans 15:7)
  • …Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
  • Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16)
  • …When you come together to eat, wait for each other.” (I Cor. 11:33)
  • …Have equal concern for each other. (I Cor. 12:25)
  • …Serve one another in love.” (Galatians 5:13)
  • Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2)
  • …Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
  • Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32)
  • …Forgiving each other…” (Ephesians 4:32)

These principles apply to Christians within the church. Some other statements of the same order were given by Jesus to His disciples– most famously, John 15:12, “Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

Love each other as I have loved you.” But to what extent does mutuality apply to dealing with non-Christians, those outside of the church?

On a strict, rather legalistic, level one could say that since these statement are given to the church for behavior within the church, it doesn’t apply to a Christian’s relationship with those outside of the church.

HOWEVER, mutuality could be understood as a logical application of the Great Commandment. If I love my Christian neighbor as myself, as Jesus so instructed and modeled, and my Christian neighbor does the same, then we relate to each other in a state of mutual love for each other. And if we do that then the other characteristics of mutuality must then also apply (we bear each other’s burdens, we encourage each other, we forgive each other, etc.).

But… the Great Commandment was not given to believers only to relate to other believers (‘love your friends, hate your enemies’). Rather it is for all followers of Christ to all peoples. We may love our families different than we love members of our church, and we may love members of our church differently than we love members of other church, and all of these different than we love strangers or enemies. Regardless, if our behavior to any group is unloving, then clearly we have failed to follow Christ. In like manner, we serve, forgive, encourage, and show hospitality, in a manner that is Christlike even for those outside the faith.

It is interesting to note that over the years mutuality has grown outside of the church, commonly influenced by the church. Sometimes they caught on and even went ahead of the church. Human rights grew out of Judeo-Christian principles where each person has basic rights that are not based on race, gender, nationality, status or achievement. The movement against slavery began largely in the church, and grew beyond the church as some churches sought to defend the practice. Servant-Leadership has now become popularized in business and governance, even while some churches defend unilateral submission.

Dialogue works best from a position of mutuality. We treat each others with respect and with equality. We are there to teach and there to learn. We are there to encourage and be encouraged. We are there to help the other grow, and grow oneself. There is no guarantee that the other will accept those terms. The other may draw away, or may seek to assume a position of authority. We have no control over the other, we only have control over ourselves.

A Leading Cause of Atheism? Not Allowing Dialogue and Disagreements | Jackson Wu

Please click on the link at the bottom of this post for an article from Jackson Wu that then links to the related article in Relevant Magazine. It is an interesting case study of a Christian who gradually moved to atheism. The seeming cause was a lack of openness in his church to dialogue and range of thought.

You can decide for yourself. But as for me, I think it is on the mark. A lack of dialogue, and the lack of freedom to disagree leads to FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). I will leave uncertainty and doubt to Wu’s posting, but let me give an example of fear.

Fear.  Consider this story– Years ago I was leading a Bible study, and some of the members wanted to study the Book of Revelation. Sure. Why not. But one of the members was very nervous about it. I asked him why. He stated that there were so many different viewpoints out there that he was worried about the group breaking down into a big fight. He was also afraid that the group may push only one orthodox view. (More recently I was in a group discussing prophecy and when I expressed my doubt, not rejection, of the future narrative provided in the materials, I was offered yet more materials to “help me.”) Anyway, I told my friend that when we go through Revelation, we will focus on what we can say with confidence (it is a book of comfort, hope, and warnings after all) and then give freedom  for diverse opinions on the rest. It was good I did this. One family, who were American missions who serve in Africa expressed belief in the interpretation of a Kenyan Theologian regarding Revelation that is rather allegorical and places the United States as the Antichrist. I was wondering at the time whether I had made a mistake in establishing such a “freedom of thought” zone. Looking back, I was glad I did. And surprisingly, although I still do not think that Kenyan Theologian is correct, I do rather see the interpretation as probably being stronger than the “Left Behind” narrative.

Being in a church environment where a forced orthodoxy does not allow for honest questions and disagreements creates an atmosphere of fear. That certainly does not aid faith.

via A Leading Cause of Atheism? Not Allowing Dialogue and Disagreements | Jackson Wu

Meriting Dialogue. Kärkkäinen Quote

““Dialogue has to be about the question of truth, evenImage result for veli karkkainen if no agreement about the truth can be reached. For consensus is not the goal of the dialogue. . . . If two people say the same thing, one of them is superfluous. In the interfaith dialogue which has to do with what is of vital and absolute concern to men and women—with the things in which they place the whole trust of their hearts—the way is already part of the goal.” Moltmann rightly says that only those people are capable of dialogue—“merit dialogue,” as he puts it—who “have arrived at a firm standpoint in their own religion, and who enter into dialogue with the resulting self-confidence.” Thus, Moltmann continues, “it is only if we are at home in our own religion that we shall be able to encounter the religion of someone else. The person who falls victim to the relativism of the multicultural society may be capable of dialogue, but that person does not merit dialogue.””

     –by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, in “Christ and Reconciliation,” p. 28.  Quoting Jurgen Moltmann in “Experiences in Theology”

 

 

 

Truth and Dialogue– Bringing Them Together

David Hesselgrave, in his book “Communicating Christ Cross-culturally,” has an interesting figure in Chapter 9 called “The Contextualization Continuum.”

Here is a version of it.

Hesselgrave Chapter 9

I find the figure interesting in some ways, and even useful. However, there are some aspects of it I disagree with.

1.  One part of the figure I disagreed with so strongly that I removed it from the figure here. Associated with “Orthodoxy” is something called “Apostolic Contextualization.” Associated with “Neo-Orthodoxy” and “Neo-Liberalism” is something called “Prophetic Contextualization.” Associated with “Liberalism” is “Syncretistic Contextualization.” I somewhat disagree with the last one, “Syncretistic Contextualization,” but to me the terms Apostolic and Prophetic Contextualizations are used randomly. I can see no linke between the terms and the concepts. In fact, if I did feel like I had to use the terms, I would probably switch Apostolic and Prophetic. The NT Apostles (I am thinking primarily of Paul, Barnabas, Peter and John) actively promoted and/or applied the idea that Eternal truths in Scripture are laden with cultural/temporal truths. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter recognized that Greeks do not/should not embrace Jewish culture to be Christian. John, did considerable work, especially in the Gospel of John, to express Christian teachings in with Greek concepts. To me that effort is more than simply a translation process.  Since OT Prophets, at least, generally deemphasize such an openness to other cultures, it seems like Apostolic Contextualization comes closest to relating to Neo-Orthodoxy and Prophetic to Orthodoxy (at least as the figure presents them).

2.  There is no way that one should describe the Method associated with Liberalism as Dialogic. Dialogue in no way expresses an opinion about truth. Perhaps the term was chosen because of the novel tendency of Evangelicals back in 1978 (when Hesselgrave’s book was written) to understand dialogue in line with John Hick and Raimon Panikkar. Their understanding of dialogue could arguably be seen as linked to a Liberal or Pluralistic perspective. On the other hand, perhaps the terms were chosen to be clever. Aliteration sounds nice (Didactic, Dialectic, Dialogic) even when it (perhaps) misinforms.

3.  The figure could be interpreted to mean that the more supra-cultural one interprets the Bible, the more orthodox one is. In my understanding, Orthodoxy has always questioned normalizing (blessing) one’s own culture, as well as any particular Biblical culture. As such, there should be a category further to the left on the figure for Schismatic or perhaps Particularistic groups.

This figure reminds me of the figure I use for dialogue:

Dialogue spectrum

One can bring these two figures together– relating Strategies of Contextualization and Strategies of Dialogue.

Strategies

Interpretation: 

The red line shows the theoretical spectrum of theology from more conservative to more liberal. The Green region would be the more normative strategies associated with the theological perspective. The Yellow region would be less normative, and Orange quite unlikely.  Of course, the redline as shown doesn’t truly exist. The range of theological perspectives do not fit comfortably onto  a single thin line.

The more conservative theologically, the more likely that the contextualization strategy is Didactic (focusing on how to translate the Bible and Christian teachings into the language and thought patterns of a target people). There is also a greater likelihood to utilize an Apologetic strategy of dialogue, emphasizing argument as a way to share the Christian message.

Of course, that is not always true. For example, many Conservatives may choose a Clarification strategy for Dialogue believing that it could be a more successful strategy. It would, however, be quite unlikely for Conservatives to utilize a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue or a “Dialogic” strategy for Contextualization since both tend to minimize the uniqueness of Christian revelation.

At the other end, being more theologically liberal, a “Dialogic” strategy of Contextualization and a Relativistic strategy for Dialogue would be more likely because of the tendency not to see Christian revelation as unique. That, however, is not automatic.

For me, I strongly support a Clarification strategy for Dialogue. For Contextualization, since I tend towards a “Counter-cultural approach” of contextualization, on this chart I suppose it is in the area close to where Didactic and Dialectic meet. That means I am not on the Red Line, but still in the Green Zone.

 

 

Seven Things Evangelicals Say to Atheists and Why They Shouldn’t Say Them

This is a redirect to a great post by Bruce Gerenscer. He was an Evangelical Pastor for decades, but left the church and faith in God some time back. He now writes from an Atheistic/Humanistic perspective that has been informed by his Evangelical Christian background.  The article can be found by clicking here.  SEVEN THINGS EVANGELICALS SAY TO ATHEISTS AND WHY THEY SHOULDN’T SAY THEM.

I would definitely recommend people reading his posts. They are well-written and well-thought out. You may ask why, as a Christian, I would recommend reading one who has “left the fold,” so to speak. But his perspective is priceless. He has that etic (outsider) and emic (insider) perspective of Evangelical Christianity that Christians need. We need to look hard at ourselves sometimes.  (American Evangelical obsession with rather creepy politics of late certainly deserves some informed critique.)

Many Christians seem to have a lot ofImage result for atheism trouble with Atheists. I am not entirely sure why. As a committed Christian, one should be far more concerned by people who call themselves Christians but who live in a manner that mocks what we claim to believe. Here in the Philippines, I have heard atheists/freethinkers say that people here think they are Satanists. While some Satanists are Atheists (rejecting an actual Satan or God, but embracing a Satanic “philosophy of living”) the labeling has no value but to insult and drive (further) away.

I had an uncle much like Mr. Genescer above. He was a devout Christian who went to Bible School, but later became an Atheist. At a funeral of my grandmother, the pastor who was speaking started giving all sorts of “scientific” reasons for believing in God. While I do believe that there is a good reasoned basis for supporting Intelligent Design, this pastor knew none of that. Rather, his mini-sermon showed how little he knew about Science. I was rather embarrassed by it. My uncle never mentioned how stupid the arguments were (perhaps he expected nothing better than that anyway). However, believing that the message was targeting him, he felt that it was highly inappropriate for a funeral. I have say he was correct on both counts— I am sure he was being targeted, and it was highly inappropriate.

Sometimes we need to see an outside perspective to see what we should really be able to see.

Another good article of his is on the similarity between Multi-level Marketing (MLM) and many Evangelistic Programs.  It is HERE.