Bishop David A. Bard reflects on the scriptural value of listening to each other with respect.
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with – even when it seems they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently…. Each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience. (Romans 14: 1, 5b, The Message)
When I was the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota, my congregation was gracious in giving me the opportunity to engage in some teaching at the College of St. Scholastica. A number of congregation members were faculty at the college, and the academic dean was a member when I arrived as pastor (she later moved away). She was the one who told me of the need at the school for someone to teach a course in health care ethics, and wondered if I would be interested. My doctoral degree happens to be in religious ethics, and though that was not my area of specialization, I was interested. The school, my congregation and my district superintendent all said “yes.”
For ten years I taught a course on religious perspectives in health care ethics. We read about and discussed fascinating and controversial topics such as abortion, physician-assisted suicide, end-of-life care and the distribution of health care resources. It was not uncommon for a student, in the midst of a discussion, to say, “well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”
Everyone is entitled to her or his own opinion. This is true enough, and to the extent that the statement represents a willingness to listen to others respectfully, it is helpful. The statement also has limits. Sometimes it is simply used as a way to end conversation, and there are times when conversation needs to end, or at least, take a break. Sometimes people realize that at that moment nothing further is to be gained by continuing to talk.
For the statement, “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” to be the final word in a conversation is not helpful. It fails to recognize that some opinions, some points of view, are more well-supported, more well-considered, more well-argued, than others. An important goal in teaching is to help students understand what a more well-considered, well-supported, well-argued opinion looks like. Given the level of discussion in our wider society, it might do us some good to think again about what a well-considered, well-supported and well-argued opinion looks like.
At the same time, while most of us like to think of the opinions we hold as well-supported, well-considered and well-argued, we would also do well to acknowledge that in many of the most important things we think about, there is always room for growth and new learning. Often well-considered, well-supported and well-argued opinions become so through shared conversation and dialogue. We should, then, be people who are open to new ideas, to new ways of looking at our lives and our faith, open to conversation and dialogue. From the very earliest days of the community of those who follow Jesus until now, there have been debates and differences of opinion. In Romans 14, Paul identifies the controversial issues as what to eat and when to worship. He encourages openness, kindness, gentleness – in short, humility.
During Lent this year, I read Sister Joan Chittister’s book Radical Spirit. I read it devotionally, that is, slowing, a little at a time, meditating and pondering along the way. Radical Spirit is Joan’s reflection on the seventh chapter of The Rule of St. Benedict, a chapter about humility. Benedict offers 12 steps of humility, here is the eleventh: “The eleventh step of humility is that we speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising our voices.”
In her book, Joan writes about this step: “The eleventh step of humility, then, was far ahead of its time, far more about being humane than about merely being proper. This was a function of humility meant to bring people together in mutual respect” (p. 186). She goes on to reflect, “Speech in a Benedictine monastery, we’re told here, is expected to be gentle, kind, serious, modest, brief, reasonable, calm, and emotionally controlled…. We are to be direct but kind. Always kind.” (186-187)
Later this month we gather for Annual Conference. We will continue the long tradition of the church of debating and discussing issues that are important for our life together and for what it means to be in ministry with and for Jesus Christ in our day and time. It is my hope and prayer that we will come together to present our best-considered and supported ideas. Even more, it is my hope that we will gather with a sense of humility, that sense that we can all learn and grow. If we come with humility, we will seek to speak gently, kindly, reasonably, and calmly. If we come with humility we will then also treat one another gently and kindly.
One final note. As this essay is being made public, I will be meeting with the United Methodist Council of Bishops to discuss the report of the Commission on a Way Forward. I will do my best to be present at that meeting with humility – to speak gently, kindly, reasonably, and calmly, to listen knowing I have things to learn, and to treat others gently and with kindness, always kindness. Your prayers for our gathering are appreciated.