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Graceful Conversations

Updated: Dec 24, 2022

As someone who has worked with social media for nonprofits and churches, I've had a fleeting curiosity about TikTok. The controversy of privacy and the role of the Chinese Communist Party aside, I've been fascinated by its rise and how many Christians are using it. After watching a video about churches and Tik Tok, I decided to use the suggested hashtag, #progressiveclergy.

I shouldn't have been surprised with what I saw, but I was this plethora of videos all screaming how progressive they were. There were videos about LGBTQ issues, especially about being trans. Others were about being pro-choice. All of them were kind of in-your-face and telling you how it's okay to be progressive and how they weren't like those conservative Christians.

There is a conservative version of this as well, though I see it more on Twitter. There is a group of male pastors (usually called "theobros") that don't have a problem saying the most misogynistic comments out there, all the while trying to show this is what it means to be a god-fearing Christian. I feel for the wives of these men.

Social media Christianity tends to be a place where people shout their positions, but frankly there isn't a whole lot of thinking going on.

This isn’t just happening in religious circles. As someone that’s been active in Never Trump conservative circles, I’ve been surprised to see so many estranged and former Republicans just give up any hope of swinging the party away from the dangerous machinations of former President Donald Trump. Too often the talk I hear is that the base beyond redemption and it’s a waste of time trying to persuade them. So there is no effort within the party to provide a counter voice, instead hoping that the Democrats can simply defeat MAGA Republicans at the ballot box.

What’s interesting in both experiences is how progressive clergy and theobros alike don’t really engage the other side. Yes they respond to the other side, but there’s more talking about people instead of to other people. It’s less about sharing viewpoints and more about creating “safe spaces” not in order to protect people from violence, but to not have to hear the other side at all. As Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith notes, “What’s important is that we preach loud enough to be sure everyone in our choir hears us.”

It’s common these days to blame social media for, well, everything, but the rise of social media has meant that we can create experiences where we really don’t have to encounter the other side. People will blame the algorithms for this, but in many cases those algorithms are simply learning from us. If we seek out articles that says that Republicans are fascists, well we are going to get a ton of stuff on Republican fascists.

Why are we so focused on talking to the other side and not reaching out and trying to persuade? Let’s put the accusastion that tech is the culprit aside for now. I think there are three reasons: the first is a lack of charity. The second is a lack of curiosity. Finally there is a lack of humility.

Let’s start off with charity. That word can mean love, but in Hebrew it also meant fairness or justice. In the editorial by James KA Smith he talks about persuasion as convicted charity, which means meeting them where they are while also hoping to change their mind. If you take the Hebrew understanding seriously then it means looking at the Other and having a sense of treating them fairly even though you want them to change their minds. Most of our discussion today is with one another and not with someone who is different from us. If we think of the other, more often than not it is not with a sense of fairness or justice but with contempt. We might be convicted, but it is the conviction of a zealot that thinks there is the true view and all other views are not simply wrong, but possibly evil.

Next is curiosity. Psychologist Adam Grant tweeted about curiosity as an underutilized tool of persuasion. “A natural response to disagreement is to attack what people think,” Grant wrote. “A more inviting alternative is to be genuinely fascinated by how they think.”

A few months back I interviewed an Episcopal priest that is a “side B Christian.” Side B Christians are people who consider themselves attracted to someone of the same sex, but believe sexual relations are evil. Do I agree with his approach? No, but I also want to know why he thinks the way he thinks. I am curious as to why someone might think the way he does.

Shortly after I posted the interview, I got a response from a fellow LGBTQ person that was laced with hatred towards my Side B guest and anger that I would even give him a listen. It angered me because I wasn’t trying to hurt the LGBTQ community, and my podcast isn’t about supporting just a viewpoint; it was about being curious about someone who has a different view on something. Curiosity, that sense of wanting to understand someone leads to understanding that you don't know everything, it leads to humility.

Humility is often defined as having a modest view of one’s ability. One could also say that humility is about not taking yourself so seriously. You can laugh at yourself knowing that you don’t have all the answers. You aren’t more enlightened or endowed with special abilities, but you are just as human as the other person and you are open that you night be wrong.

I’ve noticed as of late every time someone talks about having some humility and even civility towards the other side someone has to bring up slavery or Jim Crow. This “concern” is always a tell, in that it shows that the person bringing up this concern is afraid of the other side. They have already surmised that they are akin to an appeaser for slavery or Jim Crow. Of course, there were people who offered peans to civility that did support unjust structures like slavery. But for the most part, the political differences we have today are not equivalent to a century ago. There are differences, but I don't think they are irreconcilable. If the difference we face are truly irreconcilable, then our nation is in worst shape than we think.

Humility says that I don't have all the answers. I'm not the gatekeeper of all wisdom and knowledge. It also says that I need other people in order to really be complete. This is the opposite of what we see so often on social media where we become guardians of whatever position we hold. When I think back on all the videos I've seen on TikTok there is a lot of shouting of positions and we might think we are welcoming people, but I do wonder: is it really about people? Do we care about people, not just the ones that agree with us, but those people who don't agree with us? Do we see them as someone created by God even if they hold opinions and beliefs that I oppose? I don't think this is the fault of social media, but I do think that what social media makes it easy for us is to flatten our experiences. We can have fulfilling social media experiences, but if we want something that is more flat, then social media makes it easy. And far too many of us want flat experiences, where anything that is different from us is not seen in its complexity, but in a flat and one-dimensional way.

In many cases our ideology, be it liberal or conservative is what grounds us these days, not theology. We might talk about God, but whether its progressive clergy on TikTok or thebros on Twitter, what matters is our ideology. People don't matter, except in being in service to a larger ideology.

But in doing that, I wonder if we lose sight of humanity in all of its quirkiness and brokenness. When we lose sight of messy humans that don't fit neatly into the boxes we've created to sort people into this place or that place I wonder if we also lose sight of grace as well.

I have another interview that is sure to upset some people. Paul VanderKlay is a Christian Reformed minister that has some intriguing insights on LGBTQ issues. While I'm pretty sure we disagree on some key points concerning LGBTQ roles in the church, he also seems to have a spirit about him that is ready and willing to enter into dialogue with people he might not agree with. His charity, curiosity and humility make him someone I want to be in conversation. But I also know there are those who will dismiss him because he is not considered affirming and some will say he isn't "safe." And maybe not everyone should seek to be in conversation with people they don't see eye to eye on issues.

But I think our culture and our faith is the poorer if we don't at least try to engage. As a happily married gay man, I'm not changing my viewpoint, but I do want to understand and I do want to be graceful to others.

Our world is in need of God's grace. I can only hope to be a witness to that grace that so many of us desire.

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