I would hope that anyone who has experienced any significant measure of the grace of God would be able to agree that the phrase “fight fire with fire” isn’t really the sort of thing we hear Jesus saying. I would hope that we’d be more inclined to fight fire with fire extinguishers. To pour oil on troubled water. But, I wonder, is this enough? Might it be that one person’s “fire extinguisher” is another’s “fire” or, at the very least, the other’s “water cannon”? Might one person’s oil on “troubled waters” be another’s oil on a “raging blaze”. Recent escalations in the disagreement between a number of prominent (on social media) Christians seem to suggest so.
I want to make two observations about this conversation. First, we are not being careful enough in our use of language and actions. Second, we’re descending into tribalism.
Language and actions
I try (and sometimes fail) to make it a rule in discourse to adopt the most charitable interpretation of what other people say and do1This principle is sometimes referred to as “Hanlon’s Razor“, whilst simultaneously attempting to hear the least charitable interpretation of my own words and actions. It is not good enough to attempt to meet the other half-way because both I and they are looking from different perspectives and, quite likely, both of us are underestimating just how far away half-way is. I have to do my best to meet the other well beyond half-way and I ask the other person to attempt the same. At least then, we have some chance that our conversation might have some fertile ground in the middle in which to take place. The alternative is that we simply talk and act past each other in round after round of ever increasing frustration, anger and hostility.
Let me illustrate, using the disagreement between Adrian and Jayne as my example and taking, as a starting point, Vicky Beeching‘s response to +Nicholas Chamberlain’s coming out as gay in the Guardian.
I think it perfectly reasonable one might respond, as Adrian did, to Vicky’s article and that, particularly, one might discuss questions raised by Vicky’s comments about how the calling to ordination is discerned in the church of England. But if it had been me writing Adrian’s blog post, applying the policy I mention above, I would have wanted to change a number of things.
- I think I would not have begun the title of my blog post with Vicky’s name: to do so makes it appear that the post is about Vicky rather than about an idea Vicky mentioned.
- I would have been extremely careful about my use of the word “selfish”, being very deliberate only to speak of my own selfishness and then wondering whether this might be a problem we all share and from which we all need redemption. Specifically, I would not use the word in the same context as the word “you” or in a context where I was clearly talking about something Vicky had said or done. What I am saying is that, whilst under charitable assumptions, it may well be understood that Adrian’s final paragraph is not a personal attack on Vicky, under non-charitable assumptions it is very easy to gain the impression that it contains a personal accusation that Vicky is selfish. And I would try to apply non-charitable assumptions to my own words and actions.
- More generally, I’d also avoid the word “you”. As in “if you imagine you are, you may be deceiving yourself”. Charitably, of course, this may just the the general “you”. Uncharitably, though, it could easily be a very specific, targeted “you”. A better word would be “one”. Even better, “I” or “we”.
- I hope I’d have tried to reword the paragraph that speaks of the “shallowness” of Vicky’s article and which describes Vicky’s action as “obliterating” socio-theological intricacy and raising “crass” questions. It does make for very clever, beautifully crafted prose, but just like a beautifully crafted sword, I would be very reluctant to actually deploy it.
- Having said all this, I like how Adrian, at the outset, pleads with us not to attack Vicky personally. I’d want to say the same kind of thing. But I would want, also, to be very sure this couldn’t just be interpreted as a fig leaf intended to veil my own attack.
I’d quibble a little over some aspects of Adrian’s reasoning but, on the whole, I think, on a charitable reading, he makes some powerful points. And, on a sufficiently charitable reading, he could be said not to be attempting to attack Vicky personally. All of this becomes irrelevant if, on a non-charitable reading, the post sounds like a pointed diatribe against Vicky. If I had been the author, I would hope to have been able to navigate the same waters in a way that was very hard to read as a personal attack.
Jayne’s response to Adrian’s post was to report him to the police for hate speech. Once again, if I had been the person acting, I would have wanted to ask myself whether Adrian’s post really was hate speech. And the standard I hope I would have adopted would be to use the most charitable reading of the post. How might I do this? I suppose I’d probably have started by asking questions. Maybe a tweet to Adrian or a comment on his blog saying “this sounds to me a bit like a personal attack on Vicky – is that what you intended?”. If answered in the affirmative, then involving the police might be right. Although, even then, I suppose I would ask myself how this might look under an uncharitable reading. Jayne does, helpfully, point out in a different tweet that she has recently been subjected to physical attack. This casts a charitable light on involving the police and I think I’d want to get any comment about the police in the same context as a comment on the physical attack.
I think I’ve said enough. Adrian goes on to make a further rebuttal, but I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to consider how the principles of most/least charitable reading might be displayed/not display in this post.
My second point is short. The entire conversation about sexuality and the church has become extremely tribal. This is further magnified by social networking where tribalism is deeply endemic. Just look at the comments on Adrian’s blog or in Jayne and Adrian’s twitter streams. If anyone thought Jayne or Adrian’s words and actions were inflammatory, the tribes lining up behind them are capable of far, far worse. Indeed, many of the comments (from both sides) have no charitable reading I can discern at all.
Not everyone commenting would call themselves a Christian. But to those who do, all I can say is this kind of behaviour is not for us. We are an “us”. We are not a “them” vs “us”. We are to share each other’s bewilderment and pain, rather than cause it. We are to journey together towards the truth, evaluating everything anyone says on its own merits with no other attitude to the speaker than love.
One day people will look with bewilderment at the things we’ve said about each other, much as many people these days comment on how bizarre it is that Catholics and Protestants have hated each other so much in the past.
Those looking on are not supposed to say “see how these Christians vilify each other” but “see how these Christians love each other”!