How To Discuss Hard Topics

By Pastor Josh Bundy

 

“If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Romans 12:18

 

Understatement warning: we live in a time of eroded civility. People have trouble talking about hard things. You see this, don’t you? I bet you see toxic communication daily. Anger and dismissive talk are everywhere, but also, people do not spend as much time talking face to face with friends, colleagues, or strangers, and they are out of practice. When everyone is on a device, strangers are surprised if you say anything at all and meaningful exchange is unlikely to occur.

 

Has there been more divisive news in recent years than ever before? Or have we been conditioned away from the needed skills to handle hard topics well? I lean toward thinking the second one, that we have been de-formed in such a way that we don’t handle disagreement well. Maybe both are true, and maybe these are too reductionist, but whatever the reasons, it seems evident we could benefit from a little thinking on how to improve our approaches to discussing hard topics.

 

The last two sermons at Covenant have both referred to Paul’s instruction, “If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” He goes on to say that the right way to treat your enemies is to have dinner with them, so, he certainly does not mean keep a shallow peace by avoiding everyone. It’s easy to label people you avoid (since they can’t answer for themselves), and it’s easy to avoid people you stereotype. This cycle must be interrupted it if we are to improve our interactions with others on hard topics. Paul was engaged with people whose beliefs departed sharply from his own. The good news he shared was also hard news: Jesus is Lord, which means you and I are not, and Jesus will be firm on some things you were soft on and soft on some things you were firm on. There will be a departure. Paul believed his beliefs, but he also worked hard to engage with others actively and peacefully. So, how can we approach this?

 

I’ll share three points that I’ve been processing with friends as we think about how to talk about Roe v. Wade, SCOTUS, and abortion. We’ve been trying to distill the points so that they would be helpful with other hard conversations as well.

 

  1. Listening to a person’s story with patience and empathy benefits everyone. Knowing this is not the same as mastering it. It is hard to listen to people without interrupting. It is hard to resist employing absolutes. It is hard to listen with empathy. People are less likely to listen or read to the end of a social media post (especially in comments), somewhat more likely to complete long format interviews or books, and much more likely in person. But it takes practice and determination to listen to someone and end with “thank you,” or a further question, instead of speaking over them or dismissing them. If you are like me, this is something I need prayer for every day.
  2. Conversations do not always have to appeal directly to theology or the Bible to be faithful and beneficial. This may be counterintuitive, but it is ok to have conversations about deep matters of belief without attributing the position to God or scripture. For some people, appealing to scripture is a non-starter. We are looking to extend conversations and understanding, not abruptly end them. So, a great question for my own self-reflection is, “Can I talk reasonably about this belief if I don’t have a verse for it?” An example is contemporary Christian thinking on owning other human beings, aka, slavery. Although there is no clear Bible verse that condemns slavery in all its iterations, it is in fact possible to logically ground the belief that slavery is always evil. Secular people do it all the time. No one needs a Bible verse to make the case. I try to integrate the Bible in all my thinking and encourage everyone to do the same, but there are many reminders in history that being too quick to appeal to the Bible on hard topics can lead to shallow thinking and dangerous application. It can even dismiss conversation. Again, look at ante-bellum Christian reasoning that used verses to support and defend slavery. Appealing to scripture is not always automatically helpful.
  3. Everyone grows when we seek to identify and clarify our deepest values and beliefs in conversation with each other. Building off the previous point: one reason to wait before appealing to Bible verses is so everyone can do the hard work of thinking about and clarifying which beliefs they hold most deeply. We all have beliefs, and our beliefs are of varying depth and importance. I believe individual bodily autonomy is essential for a free society. I also believe personhood begins at conception. I also believe the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I also believe in protecting the powerless. I also believe in non-violence. I believe many, many things. Hard topics are hard because they bring two or more of my beliefs into conflict or tension. Hard conversations often instruct me in how my many beliefs overlap and intersect for me in different ways in different situations.

 

Now, having said all of that, let me be clear: as a Christian I have chosen to place my deepest and most important belief on the man Jesus of Nazareth. Because Jesus worked out his beliefs with full confidence in scripture, I do too, but I trust Jesus far more than I trust my understanding of scripture. I don’t hide this from people or deceive them by pretending I don’t trust and follow the Bible: I do. But I also want to avoid shutting down conversations before we have had them: all of us learn a lot when we enter hard topics with listening, curiosity, patience, and civility. I wonder if you have been thinking about how to have these conversations too. What have you found leads to greater civility, longer duration in conversation, lessened or slower heat, and enduring contemplation?