The Pendulum of Controversial Debates

Last weekend marked the 50th Anniversary of the events of “Bloody Sunday,” in Selma, Alabama. The historic civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge helped create an environment in which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was able to pass. Even on their own, those events needed to be remembered and commemorated. What made the weekend even more poignant was that it comes at a time when race has once again dominated the headlines.

Issues of race and racism are never gone from the headlines long in America, but the series of recent events and our reactions to those events have brought these issues front and center again. While these stories dominate the news, social media responds with two very different responses. Click here if you are outraged by… Sign this petition to call for a complete investigation of… Share this to show your support for… Stand up for free speech even if you don’t agree with…

The issue of race may not drive everyone to one extreme or the other, but there is usually at least one issue that will cause the people in your church or circle of friends or sphere of influence to hold so tightly to one perspective that they cannot even acknowledge another.

Controversial debates are controversial because they, as the dictionary puts it, “are likely to give rise to public disagreement.” People and organizations would not invest this much emotion and energy into things in which they did not believe strongly. It is also important to acknowledge that having differences of opinion is not inherently bad, and in some cases the middle ground of compromise between two extremes may not actually hold the best or right answer.

The problem comes when our perspective, beliefs, or experiences make us unable to see the humanity in people who believe or experience things in other ways. Experience is not and cannot be the sole source of how we understand issues and form or change beliefs. However, if we can no longer see those we disagree with as being made in the image of God, or we try to tell them what they do or do not experience, we have strayed into dangerous territory.

When President Obama stood to speak in front of the iconic bridge in Selma, no doubt there were people listening who either believe that racism is a thing of the past or believe that it is as bad as ever with no hope in sight. Each of these perspectives denies the humanity and experiences of the other. That is why the following passage from the speech is so impactful–he frames this hot button issue with humanity:

We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.

When we approach controversial issues, especially as they dominate the news and national conversation, we have an important job to do as preachers, teachers, small group leaders, and people of faith in general to set a tone for discussion and debate. This may mean trying to help people see that even those who act inhumanely, like ISIS, are still people of sacred worth and are unconditionally loved by God.

We need the humility to say that our experience, perspective, and understanding of an issue is not the only one and may not even ultimately be the right one–just the one we hold right now. If we encounter an issue in which the community we serve is particularly one-sided (especially when we agree with that side too), it is not our job to argue for the other side, but it is our responsibility to preserve the ability to see the image of God in one another.

Image by Flickr user temporalata. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited from Original.

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