a consistent ethic of non-violence

My father-in-law, Greg, has volunteered one of the most poignant statements I’ve ever heard about non-violence. After encountering a young would-be robber outside their property, Greg was asked if he’d ever considered keeping a gun. His response was as sharp as it was brief: “No. I’d rather be robbed than kill someone.”

Non-violence is hardest in situations where violence feels justified. The Christchurch mosque shooter (who we should continue not to name) brutally murdered and injured many victims. Many people, fueled by a sense of righteous justice, would have shot him if they’d had the chance. The dutiful New Zealand police, however, apprehended him without taking his life. Or consider Mohamed Jauber’s forgiveness offered to the shooter, who killed a family friend.

I take it as an evidence-based observation that violence will naturally lead to more violence. We have to restrain ourselves from the tendency to escalate or avenge. Justice is one thing – mercy and grace are another.

There are many levels of violence. Let us not think that we can be violent at one level without encouraging violence at another.

In what follows, I want to focus on non-violence at the level of political discourse. We have – rightly – been reminded many times to challenge harmful ideas whenever we encounter them. I want to suggest strongly that we must do this challenging with a spirit of non-violence.

I am concerned that political discourse could become even more violent. For example (far too soon after the tragic events, long before the bodies of the victims were in the ground), I’ve seen people weaponising the Christchurch tragedy. It is used as confirmation that they were right all along, and that those they disagree with were always contributing to the problem.

In the name of “challenging white supremacy”, we must not engage in social violence (online or in person) that shames, labels, mocks, ridicules, ostracizes, or otherwise pushes into isolation those we see as holding wrong views.

Let us assume, for the moment, that your view is right and helpful, and that the other person’s view is wrong and harmful. I believe that if we push the person to the dark margins of society, the view is free to grow and spread. Evil grows in the dark. But light dispels darkness.

So you have an acquaintance who is racist? Do you want them to be able to enjoy their racist views without any challenge? Be as nice to them as you can. Socialise with them. Include them. If and when you have (or have built) a relationship with them, and when it is appropriate to respectfully challenge their views, do so without mockery, labels, blame or arrogance. If your view is strong enough, you won’t need to get mean or loud to make your point. Publicly shaming or rejecting them may feel good for you, but it won’t make a hint of difference to them – in fact it could only strengthen their views.

Try to understand why they might have come to have the view they have before asserting your view. Spend the necessary time looking for even the smallest superficial points of common ground. (For example, a left-leaning person could agree with a right-leaning person that benefit fraud is wrong. Or a right-leaning person could agree with a left-leaning person that not every person on the benefit is just lazy and could be working.)

The opposite is ugly, violent politics. Where frustrated people feel not listened to – and aren’t listened to. Where their belief that dialogue and talking are pointless – because all they’ve ever experienced is being labeled and ignored. Where they feel more and more isolated from society. Where this isolation breeds resentment, rage and an intensification of their beliefs. Where their mental health suffers. Where they eventually do horrible things.

In the way I engage with those I disagree with, I have to model the kind of ethics I am trying to promote. It won’t do to talk acceptance of people in a way that rejects people. It won’t do to talk of understanding people when I won’t give their view a hearing. It won’t do to talk of embracing difference if I unfriend those I disagree with. It won’t do to promote kindness when I act like a jerk.

If I want to see less violence in the world, I have to live non-violence at every level.

cultural enmity

In this post, I want to reflect on what I take to be one of the most serious and urgent issues in modern society: that of social division.

It seems that in the area of political discourse, we are getting poorer at relating to one another. I often feel that the internet in general and social media in particular has partially delivered on the promise to spread information and unite us, and majorly delivered on the outcome of spreading misinformation and dividing us. Aside from whatever unity that has resulted, the internet allows people to find other like-minded people who agree with them, who share the same admiration (or frustration) about the same people, and they reinforce one another by sharing their ideas, videos, articles, webpages, memes, etc.

Whenever there is engagement between the divided camps, too often it descends sooner or later (usually sooner) into cheap and easy labeling of the other. “You are such a ______.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, much too soon after the horrific violence of the Mosque shootings, the issue was weaponized into a way for those in opposing camps to blame the shootings on those on the other side. Righty folk had the nerve to suggest it was immigration’s fault. Lefty folk blamed and banned public figures who they don’t like. Both used the tragic events to demonstrate that they were right all along.

There are two reflections I have on all this. First of all, Jesus teaches us, not to never judge the other, but rather to do the hard work of judging ourselves first. In Matthew 7, we read that when we take the ‘log’ out of our eye, we will then see more clearly and be better able to take the ‘speck’ out of our neighbour’s eye. Political division will only grow as long as we focus only on how wrong we think the other side is.

Second, there is also another piece of wisdom that I think is relevant. It is not a biblical quote, but it is consonant with biblical wisdom, I suggest. It is the adage, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I think the relevance for our current divided sociopolitical situation is that we need to stop labeling those we disagree with and start listening to them. Labeling is a conversation stopper. “You’re only saying that because you are a… (‘snowflake’, ‘millennial’, ‘racist’, or ‘xenophobe’).” It is utterly dis-empowering for discourse.

When is it hardest to do this? When we have strong ideas. If we’re unsure of our opinion on something, we listen much better; but when we’re convinced, we sigh, groan, label, and unfriend when we encounter the other view.

People fear that giving too much time to an extreme or harmful idea will strengthen it. But I say that if we don’t listen to it and don’t offer respectful engagement and challenge to it, it will grow cancerous growth. When people feel that nobody will listen to them, they give up on trying and retreat into their like-minded enclaves. As has been said, we were told not to talk about religion or politics, but we should have been taught to talk respectfully and constructively about them. I believe that if we do this, it will help put the brakes on growing extremism and enmity.

Engaging patiently with views that you disagree with means at least a few things: not using labels, not presenting the other view in its worst form (called ‘straw-manning’) paying attention to your facial expression, tone of voice, and not interrupting the moment you hear something you disagree with. It means holding your own ideas for the time being (if they are good ideas, they aren’t going anywhere), and making sure you understand what the other person means. If you cannot describe the other person’s view in a form that they will recognize and agree with, then you will never be able to dialogue with them.

This all may sound very clear, but in my experience it is incredibly difficult. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying.

For many of us, it is a real jolt of self-righteous pleasure to make a good point in a debate or discussion. In this way, patient dialogue has a sacrificial character, in that we sacrifice our own pleasure of feeling smart or right, and instead conduct ourselves in a way that awards respect to the other person and gives them the pleasure of at least being heard.

To hear someone, to listen to them, to give their side a hearing, is not to agree with them. It is simply to seek to understand them. Here’s to us re-learning the art of listening. May we be given the courage we need to do so.

fruitful engagement with ‘other’ beliefs

I’ve had various interactions with various ‘non-orthodox’ (a.k.a. heretical) religious movements, and I grew up within one.  In my earlier, younger and sadly more arrogant stages, these interactions could easily become more heated, longer, and less productive than they should have been.  I just had another much more positive interaction with three young, polite Mormons.  There are two ways at least that I’m learning to make those interactions fruitful.

  1. Patient Intent.  My aim is to strike a middle ground between sending them away or trying to ‘convert’ them in one fell swoop.  I want, instead, to have a respectful conversation that gives them, and me, something to think about afterward.
  2. Respectful Engagement.  Instead of using whatever understandings I (think) I have as weapons to win a debate, I use those understandings as points of discussion.  This looks more like asking questions than making declarations.  For example, instead of saying (effectively) “You guys are wrong because you don’t believe in the Trinity”, I ask the question, “Could you tell me what you believe about God… you know… Father, Son and Spirit?”  This way they get to say what they believe in their own words, instead of having their beliefs described in worst form and then disregarded.

Having said that, here are a couple of those ‘discussion points’ for Mormons.

  1. The nature of God.  Mormons believe that ‘God’ was once a human, and that we humans can become ‘God’.  This relates to their belief that God the Father has a physical body.  They will use the language of “image of God” to support this, implying that to be made in God’s image includes being made in his physical form.  Here, it may be useful to point out the Christian distinction between the attributes of God that are God’s own unique attributes (Creator, divine), and those that we are meant to share as image-bearers (beauty, wisdom, justice, mercy, grace, etc.).
  2. Revelation.  Mormons believe that God is still revealing truth to humanity.  Significantly, this underlies their understanding of the Book of Mormon as an equal-level text to the Old and New Testaments.  Here, it is useful to point out the Christian conviction that whilst God is indeed still active in revealing truth to humans through Scripture and the Holy Spirit, Revelation has met its ‘finished’ point in the person of Jesus Christ.  No more is needed to reveal God to humanity.  And for Christians, the New Testament documents form together a sufficient and complete witness to that full revelation of God.  Other texts (at best) compliment that witness, or (at worst) confuse and conflict with it.

naturalistic dualist?

I knew I’d have to blog about this one. I just got back from the latest TANSA (Theology and the Natural Sciences in Aotearoa) meeting at Laidlaw College.

The Speaker was Dr. Peter Wills, who, it turns out, is a naturalist (I also met and had a nice talk with a lady who shared that she no longer professed faith, so this was no Christians-only affair). Nicola, the chairperson for TANSA, opened with a lovely quote from theologian Michael Welker to give expression to the ‘T’ in TANSA, as Peter would handle the ‘N’ (couldn’t help but smile to myself seeing boxes of ‘Hell’ pizza behind this ‘godless’ scientist ;D ). Continue reading “naturalistic dualist?”

dialogue

Had another really enjoyable discussion forum today at the Shore Campus of AUT, where I was one of three faith leaders (Christian, Muslim and Buddhist) who presented on the subject of an ‘after-life’.

Not only do I enjoy there discussions for the respectful tone they maintain (normally!  One meeting with some humanists had a little bit of heat in it!?), but also the opportunity to compare and contrast belief systems and understandings, finding – as always – points of agreement and points of disagreement.  There was significant overlap between the Christian and Muslim (both, broadly speaking, Abrahamic religions) perspectives, and even some common points across all three – and of course, there were some very distinct points for each perspective as well.  Very enjoyable, and proof that holding firmly/passionately to a belief or truth-claim does not mean not being able to listen and discuss with differing points of view.