Friday, February 13, 2009

Battle of Words

The following is an article I originally wrote for Relevant Magazine.

My friend Max used to work at a small kitchen supply store that hardly had any business, so I would often visit him. He’s a very smart guy who has a lot of well thought out ideas about politics, art and life. I may not always agree with him, but I’m always fascinated to hear what he has to say, and end up thinking about things I had never thought of before.

One afternoon while we were chatting, the cleaning lady came in to pick up a key. Before she left she mentioned to us that she was having trouble finding a second job for the summer. “It’s because all the good jobs are going to those daggone Mexicans,” she said.

“Well,” Max said, “if you were living in extreme poverty, wouldn’t you take any job you could to feed your family?”

“But I pay my taxes,” stated the cleaning lady. “I can’t get a break like these Mexicans who are sneaking over here and stealing our jobs.”

The debate went on like this until it started getting personal. At one point, the cleaning lady accused Max’s construction worker father of hiring illegal immigrants. Max calmly tried to explain that, since his dad was just a foreman, he had no say in the hiring process. The cleaning lady rolled her eyes as if Max was talking nonsense. After what felt like an hour, the cleaning lady finally left. Max could not have been happier.

I don’t want to start any debates about immigration. I mention this only because it reminds me of how much people want to prove that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Perhaps it comes from the natural drive for self-preservation. As you might remember from biology, all creatures have a fight-or-flight defense mechanism. When danger arises— such as a hungry tiger looking for dinner—the animal puffs up and gets ready to either fight or run away. Without this inherent trait, defeat would be all too easy.

But in his comfortable suburban existence, modern man doesn’t have as much to worry about as wild animals. We still face threats, of course: neighborhood violence, robbers and overdevelopment, to name a few. But nothing as immediate and threatening as, say, a jaguar about to eat you. So what do we do with this natural defense mechanism?

Use it for other situations, like debates.

We humans like to define ourselves by our beliefs. Whether they are political, religious or social, our beliefs shape our personality and view of the world. When someone challenges our beliefs, everything that defines who we are is threatened. That’s when the old fight-or-flight kicks in.

Nowhere have I seen this more than in online Christian forums. When I first became a Christian, I was excited to learn from fellow believers all over the web and share my walk with them. Over the years, however, I’ve been seeing more and more arguments, debates and name-calling. It’s either one side accusing another of being “fundamentalist Pharisees” or someone being called a “liberal heathen.” And I, unfortunately, have participated in such arguments. So much for One God, One Faith, One Baptism.

I remember one person in particular, who used to frequent a Christian community on LiveJournal. Her posts were always of the fundamentalist persuasion. She claimed that gays were ruining families, Democrats were enemies of God and the Catholic Church distorted the Gospel. Whenever someone disagreed with her, she accused them of not reading their Bible enough or being “liberal heathens.” This was a person who was not happy until she had proven that she was right and everyone else was wrong. (This is also someone who recently wrote a blog entry suggesting that Barack Obama might be the Antichrist.)

But is all this arguing really worth it? Are we really teaching and correcting one another, or are we just tearing each other apart? The Bible says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). I don’t know about you, but to me arguing and name-calling are not very helpful.

All of us come from different backgrounds and experiences. What if we took the time to hear each other’s stories to see where we all come from? To really serve someone, you have to put yourself in their proverbial shoes. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “To the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so as to win those under the law” (9:20). We don’t have to agree with each other, but we can definitely understand each other better. The more we get to know each other, the better we can serve one another.

I pray for a great sense of unity within the Body of Christ. May we realize that we are all learning how all of this works, and that no one is perfect. And I’m praying for myself as much as I am praying for the Church.

1 comment: