As I mentioned on yesterday's commentary about Peter Wood's new book, A Bee in the Mouth, anger has become the new norm for public discourse today. Just think about any arguments you have had—or heard—lately about the war in Iraq, global warming, gay "marriage," or abortion.
Clearly, our nation and our culture are polarized. Discussion and debate have been replaced with yelling and demonizing. We Christians cannot retreat from the public square. We are called to speak the truth in love. But how do we engage others in a world where sound bytes compete and angry rhetoric is the order of the day?
As I have thought about this cultural trend, I have been reminded of a famous speech by Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning," presented at Oxford in 1947. In it, she discusses the three pillars of a classical education: fact-gathering (or "grammar" as it is referred to), logic, and rhetoric.
We can apply this classical way of learning to our own discourse: Gather facts, apply logic, and then use effective principles of communication. Thankfully, there are a number of Christian classical schools across the country teaching kids exactly this.
But this does not get us quite far enough in this postmodern world. How do we engage with others who may have tossed logic to the curb long ago?
For starters, we might look to Jesus Himself as a model. Throughout His ministry, Jesus engages in conversation by probing people so that they examine themselves. How does He do it? He asks them questions of His own: Why do you call me good? Whose image and word are stamped on this coin? Who was the neighbor to this man? Some 82 questions of Jesus are recorded in the book of Matthew alone.
Take a look, for instance, at the story of the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees come dragging a woman before Jesus to put Him between the rock of the Mosaic Law and the hard place of a public bloodbath. Stewing in their anger against Jesus, the Pharisees asked Him what they should do with the woman. Jesus could have responded in anger. Instead, He stoops and scribbles in the sand, creating a silent moment in a volatile situation.
Then, knowing that this teachable moment has more to do with exposing the Pharisees' hearts than the heart of this already-exposed woman, Jesus says, "If anyone is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." It's an implicit question: Who among you is sinless?
Jesus was not merely trying to win an argument, nor was His main goal even diffusing anger. He was trying to win the hearts and minds of those who might listen.
The Pharisees had come with an agenda, and their anger, like the anger of so many around us today, was merely a symptom of a deeper problem. Of all people, Jesus could have shown a judgmental attitude. Unlike us, He is, after all, a righteous judge. But instead through a humble heart, and an implicit question, Jesus gently exposes the real issue.
You know, if our priority is winning over our opponents, instead of merely beating them in an argument, God can give us grace to do the same as Jesus did.
This commentary first appeared on April 17, 2007. It is part two in a two-part series.
From BreakPoint®, August 21, 2007, Copyright 2007, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship