As I write this our nation is going through a time of uncertainty, unprecedented in peacetime. Over the coming month we may see a final decision on Brexit or another postponement of that decision. Maybe an election will be called or perhaps a further referendum proposed. Despite the torrent of words from commentators, right now no-one really knows.
This is not the place to discuss possible outcomes but the tone of the interminable Brexit debate should not pass without comment. Decent people with sincere and strongly-held views have failed to recognise that others who hold equally strong but very different opinions may also be sincere people of goodwill, with views based on thoughtful reflection. We seem to have become frightened or affronted by disagreement and are in danger of losing the ability to disagree respectfully. It is particularly disappointing to see this in a mature democracy.
Before we criticise others, those of us who profess the Christian faith need to recall with some humility our own history of disagreement and intolerance. Sadly it still resurfaces periodically over sensitive issues, and has prompted the wise Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, to challenge the church to learn to “disagree Christianly”. But what does “disagreeing Christianly” mean and how far could this be applied to secular controversies?
Here are some guidelines I came across recently:
- Listen carefully to what the other person has to say without interrupting.
- Don’t jump to assumptions about what people think.
- Make sure you are disagreeing about the right things.
- Consider the motivation of the person with whom you disagree. Appreciate the right motivation even if you disagree with the conclusions.
- If disagreement remains, so must respect.
- Be careful about communication.If you write something about someone’s ideas, let them see what you have written first.
- Pursue peace.
They were written by a missionary organisation in the context of engaging respectfully with those of another faith but actually they are no more than universal principles of common politeness and courtesy. How is it then that we find it so difficult to apply such simple and obvious rules? When could they not be appropriate?
The seven points listed above are not uniquely Christian but the final one, pursue peace, has a particular meaning to Christians and Jews. Peace in the sense of the Hebrew word “shalom”is a broad concept not restricted to issues of war. It is wider and more positive than the absence of any form of discord. It embodies the idea of wholeness. It is living well, that is, living in the right relationship to both God and man.
When Jesus was challenged to name the greatest commandment he quoted two texts:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ and‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
If we aim to follow those commands we will be living well. And when we love our neighbour as ourself we will approach disagreement in a radically different way. In this month, the month of Remembrance, may our contribution to peace start with the small step of learning to disagree with respect and dignity even on the things we feel passionate about.