Here in Dayton, I've developed a bit of a reputation for being both a political and theological “liberal,” and have thus found myself in some spirited conversations about everything from Barack Obama’s foreign policy to the eternal destiny of Buddhists and Hindus and, well…Barack Obama himself. The blog has been a fantastic forum for discussing some of these issues, and so far I've enjoyed our conversations immensely.
Over the past few years, as I’ve talked with people with differing viewpoints and opinions, and as I’ve struggled through my own doubts and reconsiderations, I’ve noticed that there are certain phrases that have the ability to bring a good conversation to a screeching halt.
I don’t like these phrases, although I am most certainly guilty of using some of them myself now and then. (I humbly ask that you hold me accountable.)
These are some of the most common conversation enders:
1. “You’ll have to take it up with God, because your argument is with Him, not me.” I really dislike this kind of language, especially when it is used in theological conversations among fellow Christ-followers. Whenever anyone claims that God is on his or her side, any thoughtful objections or alternative perspectives are rendered moot.
I have no problem with people presenting biblical/logical/experiential/traditional support for a certain theological position, and doing so passionately and with conviction. However, it frustrates me when my attempts to use similar methods to support a different position are completely ignored because the person I am talking with is absolutely convinced that his or her theology is somehow God’s theology. I think we have to be very careful of using God’s name in vain, of creating Him in our image and using Him to win arguments. History shows us that assuming God takes sides can not only end discussions, but spark permanent division and, in some cases, literally start wars.
2. “He/she is an idiot.” Calling people names ends conversations. MSNBC political commentator Chris Matthews pointed this out recently. I forget who he was talking to, but the person said something like, “Everyone knows George Bush is an idiot.” Matthews would not accept this line of argumentation, saying, “when you call a person a name, you effectively end the conversation because you imply that the person has absolutely nothing good to offer and should be discounted from the dialog completely.” I thought this was a good point, but then again I love Chris Matthews!
3. “This or that is evil” or “He or she is like Hitler.” As Scott McClellan revealed in his new tell-all memoir about serving as press secretary in the White House, the Bush administration has consistently implemented a policy of “you’re either for us or you’re against us” when it comes to making foreign policy decisions. Enemies are dubbed “evil” (ie: “The Axis of Evil”) and anyone who opposes the administration’s policy for engaging such evil is guilty of enabling it. When officials with the CIA cautioned the administration about going public with non-verified intelligence, they were ignored. When our European allies expressed reluctance to support the Iraq War, we were encouraged to eat “freedom fries” instead of “French fries.” Whenever you frame a decision as being a choice between “good and evil,” as opposed to a choice between “option A vs. option B,” you effectively end a conversation, because who is going to choose the side of evil?
Also, comparing people to Hitler effectively ends a conversation because Hitler is thought to be the embodiment of evil. Such a comparison is only warranted if the person has indeed initiated a genocide and tried to take over the world, (which does happen occasionally).
4. “It’s a conspiracy.” A co-worker of mine is absolutely convinced that the American economy is in excellent shape. He believes that stories about the mortgage crisis, the decreasing value of the dollar, and unemployment figures have been literally invented by the press. “Unemployment is down! The dollar is up!” he insisted. (Of course he had trouble making the same argument for gas prices, as he owns an SUV that has to be filled up weekly.)
Obviously, this ended our discussion about the best way to handle the economy, as he does not believe the economy needs any handling. Conspiracy theories usually end a conversation because the parties involved can’t agree on basic facts.
5. “I don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing which parts of the Bible I take literally.” As I’ve mentioned before, this phrase is one of my pet peeves in life. I’ll believe it when I hear it from someone who sacrifices animals and gives all their money to the poor. We are all selective with Scripture! Admitting this to be true is an important first step to respectful and reasonable dialog.
6. “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” On the flip side, I think sometimes we “Emergers” can over-use the “you interpret your way and I’ll interpret my way” attitude when it comes to discussing the Bible. In acknowledging the existence of various interpretations, we must be careful to avoid apathy as we pursue truth and unity.
Can you think of any others?