Have we forgotten how to argue?

Eugene Shelestov Photo: Eugene Shelestov, Pexels.

Burning the innocent paper is easy. But to identify aberrance and refute it with Scripture, this is art.
— Balthasar Hubmaier, 1524

This quote by an early Anabaptist leader could be translated in modern terms as follows:

Arguing with people through hateful messages in social media, or trying to discredit them by spreading fake news, is easy. But to penetrate the depths of their thoughts, to understand their motives — this requires more brainpower.

Don’t Christians too often burn the paper, if only figuratively?
For example, in current debates about coronavirus measures, some want to continue church services in person; others demand a suspension of meeting as a group. Battle trenches are forming in our congregations.

All of a sudden Rom. 13:1 (“be subject to the governing authorities”) and Acts 5:29 (“we must obey God rather than any human authority”) are fighting against each other again.

A form of book burning is to ignore others’ beliefs and interpretations of the Bible. Or to silence conflicts. Or censor songs. We substitute words or omit verses that do not fit our own theology. And we forget there may be people sitting in the same pew who would have no problem with the parts we’ve omitted, or at least want to reflect on them.

We undermine our vaunted diversity and thus are quite intolerant.

Condemning others and using hateful language is deadly to a community. So is concealing conflict.

Positive energy comes from friction — a healthy give and take about our differences.

Have we forgotten how to argue properly? Are we afraid of vigorous discussion because it seems not to befit a peace church?

We hear people say they would “leave” the other person with his or her opinion. At first glance, this seems appropriate and sounds tolerant.

But to “leave” someone with his or her opinion can mean to ignore that person or to draw a veil of silence between us. We don’t have to share each other’s opinions, but we should get involved with each other.

If we take a look at history, we see Anabaptists gathered for disputations. They negotiated their faith, doctrine and relationship to society. They debated vigorously; the people of the 16th century were not squeamish about polemical language.

Every now and then we have to learn to argue again: maturely, constructively, productively, creatively — as a sign of a culture of community and a climate that can tolerate conflict.

In the multiyear international commemoration of Anabaptist history and celebration of contemporary witness, 2021 is dedicated to the motto “Daring to Live Together.”

Yet we face mighty tasks in 2021: Our community life is undergoing drastic change, becoming liquid, more flexible. Spiritual life is suddenly no longer anchored only in the local congregation but in Zoom or YouTube — congregations beyond the limits of the church as we have known it.

How Mennonite churches move into this future of a reimagined community will depend partly on how capable we are of speaking and debating constructively.

In view of today’s radicalized politics, we should take a closer look at how Christians deal with each other verbally. There is hate speech even among Christians. Can Mennonites set an example of a civil culture of debate? One would expect it from us.

But first we have to do our homework. How do we deal with conflicting political opinions within our own congregations? How do we talk with opponents of a tolerant refugee policy, supporters of neo-nationalist parties or deniers of climate change?

Perhaps it can help to first come together through common action. I read about a positive example in Anabaptist World in December. At Menno Village in Hokkaido, the first Japanese community-supported agriculture program has been established. Members hope that many Christian-Mennonite farmers will participate and develop an alternative food economy. They’re daring to live together.

Astrid von Schlachta

Astrid von Schlachta

Astrid von Schlachta of Weierhof, Germany, is head of the Mennonite Research Center and lecturer at the University of Regensburg. Read More

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