April 6, 2011

Achieving Disagreement

The late Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things and author of the IRD founding statement “Christianity and Democracy,” used to speak in praise of “achieving disagreement.” It seems an odd phrase, but let me explain Neuhaus’s meaning. Then I would like to tell about a recent instance in which I am proud to say that disagreement was achieved. 

First, why would one want to “achieve disagreement”? Don’t we have enough disagreements already in our churches and society? Actually, we don’t. What we have, most of the time, are competing public monologues. Different groups broadcast their poll-tested slogans. Few listen to what the other side is saying. Few acknowledge that the other side has any legitimate concerns. If the disputants pay any attention at all to the other side, it is to denounce a caricature of the other side’s beliefs. Neither side recognizes itself in the caricature drawn by its opponents. This is not real disagreement; this is a shouting match. 

Real disagreement would mean listening to the other side. It would mean stating the other side’s position in a way that the other side recognizes as accurate. Real disagreement would mean distinguishing between the points on which the two sides concurred and the points on which they parted ways. It would mean explaining how one reached a different judgment on those disputed points. It would mean acknowledging and answering the other side’s strongest arguments. 

Granted that we ignorant, sinful humans will always have disagreements in this life, “achieving disagreement” is a step forward in most situations. It helps people understand one another better. It moves disputants to see the strengths of the other side as well as its weaknesses. It makes them face their own weaknesses alongside their strengths. “Achieving disagreement” enables everyone to focus on the points of differing judgment that lie at the heart of the question. 

Two weeks ago I experienced a gratifying instance of “achieving disagreement.” The topic was the amendment proposing that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopt the Belhar Confession as the twelfth document in its Book of Confessions. I had written a Presbyterian Action briefing paper setting forth the arguments against adopting this liberation theology manifesto from 1980s’ South Africa. Perhaps because my briefing paper had been widely distributed, I received an invitation to participate in a presbytery debate on the issue. 

So on Tuesday, March 22, I took the train up to Elizabeth Presbytery in New Jersey. I was to be the “con” speaker in Elizabeth’s debate on Belhar. Opposite me, arguing “pro,” was the Rev. Dr. Gregg Mast, President of the Reformed Church in America’s flagship New Brunswick Seminary. It was an honor for me to be on the same podium with such a scholar, discussing such an important topic. 

My totally biased assessment is that I held my own in the debate. You can judge for yourself if you wish to read my speech, which is posted on the IRD website. More important, however, than whether I “won” or “lost” the debate was that it was a good debate in which we achieved disagreement. 

Dr. Mast gave six reasons why the Belhar Confession appealed to the Reformed Church in America (which adopted it last year), and why it might be a beneficial addition to the PCUSA Book of Confessions. But he also addressed three major objections to Belhar and gave thoughtful responses to each. 

For my part, I acknowledged the value of Belhar in its time: “The Belhar Confession, as adopted by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in 1986, was a good, a brave, a crucial statement amidst a critical situation. It named the unjust system of apartheid as a contradiction to the Gospel of reconciliation in Jesus Christ…. Belhar, by appealing to the Christian faith of the ruling Afrikaner minority, contributed to the process by which the apartheid system was dismantled peacefully.” 

Yet I raised concerns about “a number of sweeping assertions that made perfect sense in the South Africa of the 1980s, but could easily be misinterpreted in the PCUSA of 2011.” I noted how “Belhar prioritizes the unity of the church above all else,” how it declares that “true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church,” how it discounts “any human or social factor” as a consideration for church membership, how it rejects “any doctrine which absolutizes natural diversity,” how it borrows liberation theology language that divides society starkly between “the wronged” and “the powerful and privileged,” and how it seems to promise endless church crusades against “any form of injustice.” I also stated some of the reasons offered “why we might need Belhar” and explained why these “are not sufficiently convincing, in my view.” 

At the end of my speech I posed the question to the ministers and elders of Elizabeth Presbytery: “Belhar was a good statement for its time and place, but does it pass the higher bar that we set for a confession to enter the PCUSA constitution? That is the judgment that you, sisters and brothers, will have to make this evening.” 

The Elizabeth presbyters were hospitable and attentive. They asked lots of perceptive questions, particularly directed at me. Clearly, they had heard my arguments and they wanted to test those arguments. I welcomed their challenges as a sign of respect. I commended the presbytery for taking the time to engage the issue so seriously. Many other presbyteries, sadly, have had only cursory debates before voting on major constitutional amendments. Even where their votes may have been divided, these other presbyteries did not truly “achieve disagreement.” Elizabeth did, to its credit. 

After Dr. Mast’s and my speeches, the questions and answers, and the debate among the presbyters, Elizabeth Presbytery voted 56-36 to approve Belhar. This result was not surprising, as Elizabeth has a reputation as a mostly liberal presbytery. In fact, I was pleased that the “no” votes were more numerous than I had expected. I think my speech, and the respectful debate of which it was a part, gave “permission” for those who had qualms about Belhar to vote their consciences. 

Other presbyteries will vote differently than Elizabeth. (The latest count, according to the Presbyterian Outlook, is 63-39. Belhar is falling somewhat short of the 2/3 majority required for adoption.) But the most important thing is that those presbyteries have full, open, healthy debates that “achieve disagreement.” I offer my speech as an aid to other friends seeking to encourage that quality of debate. I am confident that if we can achieve that kind of disagreement, the church is more likely to make the right choices on Belhar and many other matters.

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