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Post Script | February 27, 2023
On the—bad habit? spiritual practice?—of disagreeing
One of our twin boys and I were playing Scattergories with my mother last summer, and there was an illuminating moment for me in the middle of the game. The kind of moment they call epiphany. Sudden and dramatic realization.
If you haven’t played in a while, here’s a quick refresher: you choose a category, roll a letter of the alphabet, then brainstorm everything you can think of beginning with that letter in that category. You have one minute.
The category of note on this particular day was bad habits. The letter was n, and I can’t remember now what I might have listed, though here’s a guess.
Nursing a grudge.
Never giving your mother a hug.
I can’t say for sure what I came up for my list, but I do remember what was on my mother’s list for bad habits beginning with n.
Her answer said more than either of us knew.
I am generally not good at disagreeing—and we clearly see at least one reason why. On the one hand, my slowness to disagree has been credited to me as a virtue in many instances. I’ve been called diplomatic and easy to get along with. And for sure, my general agreeableness has helped me in a variety of situations, including mediating between people who can’t find agreement. I can easily listen to two opposing arguments and find kernels of truth in each. I am usually inclined to urge people to moderate their disagreements and move toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity.
But on the other hand, my habit of not agreeing has not always helped me. It has often looked more like vice than virtue. There was, as one example, the scandal of “gate-gate” (as our realtor called it) when we once tried to sell a house. The gate we had paid for, the gate that divided the 48 inches between our neighbors and us, was “seized” without our agreement. Our neighbors had a lock installed, and they informed us that we were not to use it.
Given as we are to niceness, we decided to let it go. We had another way to get into our backyard, and after all, it was just a gate. But the gate, of course, started to matter when it came time to sell the house. The buyers of our house would have every legal right to access the backyard through that gate. What had once looked like diplomacy suddenly seemed like cowardice. We had deferred an argument, not settled one.
This last week, I had another small but glaring example of my cowardly refusal to disagree when it would have been better to be straightforward and honest. It was a small thing, an inconsequential thing in the scheme of eternity, but my “agreeableness” is now going to cost time and money on a construction project I’ve been trusted to manage.
I am embarrassed by this obvious fault of character, but that it’s obvious begs me to seek transformation. To be clear, I am not interested to grow in the character of disagreeableness, which is all too common these days. I’m not talking about belligerence or fault-finding or unnecessary argumentativeness. I’m not talking about nitpicking or nastiness or ranting at the customer service representative behind the Air Canada counter because they’ve lost your luggage. (Hypothetically speaking. . . )
I’m talking about an orientation to God that allows us to speak truth and risk the judgment of others.
I’m talking about a willingness to be seen as mistaken, silly, even stupid for countering the prevailing wisdom of the world.
I’m talking about courage.
It struck me, as I’ve been slowly meditating on Matthew (yes, it’s only February, and I’ve already ditched my normal Bible reading plan) that some of the familiar teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are framed as, if not full disagreement, then strong contention with the commonly held religious wisdom of the day.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not swear falsely.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not take an oath at all.’
You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil.’
You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Jesus’ example causes me to wonder about my task as a Christian and as a Christian writer. How often am I called upon to counter the prevailing “wisdom” of the day? To challenge the “goods” as they’re so defined in the public square? To make “redress,” as Malcolm Guite calls it in his book of Lenten and Easter poems, this repair “of an imbalance in our vision of the world and ourselves”? Again, it’s not disagreeableness for its own sake, but disagreeing for the sake of truth and wisdom, for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.
I was finishing this letter when a feature article for the spring issue of Plough landed in my inbox. It felt apropos to the topic of disagreement as spiritual practice. The article is titled, “Where are the Churches in Canada’s Euthanasia Experiment?”
As quick context, Canada has broadened its permissions around medically-assisted dying very recently. Since MAID was legalized, it is now the sixth leading cause of death in Canada.
“Why are so many Christians silent?”
The Anglican Church of Canada Archbishop Linda Nicholls defends this silence. “The mood in Canada” is not “to consider what churches have to say about this.” Instead of speaking, churches should ensure that dying people “have the support they need to make decisions based on the value of their life.”
This is a profound neglect of Christian witness, as the article’s author argues. It’s an unwillingness to disagree, to stand in opposition against what has long been held as morally suspect, if not morally reprehensible.
I know there are all too many examples of Christians modeling disagreement that is not worthy of imitation: disagreement that is uncharitable, at best; caustic, arrogant, and slanderous at worst.
But let’s not prescribe the right medicine to the wrong patient.
Yes, some of us need to cool our jets.
And some of us need to learn to—wisely, humbly, straightforwardly—disagree.