Ephesians 4: 25-27, 29-32, 5:2a
Step 8 — How should we speak to one another?1 Don’t you think it’s interesting when the title poses a question? Yes, how should we speak to one another? According to Karen Armstrong: “Kindly, gently, and with an openness to the possibility of our own minds being changed in the process.”
Having lived in Sedona for 12 years I know people on both sides of the political spectrum and I’ve heard unkind things being said by both of the other. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” is a common assertion made from both sides. I’ve heard such hurtful and unkind descriptions of the other that can only create hurtful and angry and digging-in-one’s heels responses. How quickly things get heated across that great divide with no apparent possibility of civil dialogue. “Bozo Jones is an idiot,” to paraphrase one person I actually did hear say this because Mr. Jones held another opinion. Another person said “that woman is stupid and can’t find her way across the street, and has no business in office.” Whoa — tell us how you really feel.
Demeaning the other publically has continued to be a sport not only within politics but other public venues in our country. Humiliating, berating, and being rude is taken to new levels every day. Everybody seems to have free reign on free speech to criticize anyone they don’t like or don’t agree with. Being top dog at all cost often overrules kindness or yielding to another’s view. Dialogue is broke? Can it be repaired? Do we want it to be repaired? How should we speak to one another? is a great question that Armstrong poses in this step. Maybe humor will help us tackle this issue this summer morning — otherwise we may have a room of people with very high blood pressure.
From a website, tvtropes.org2, I gleaned the following in the segment called “Argument of Contradictions” which says: “Everyone has different opinions. A quarrel between two characters in which neither side really has any valid points to back up their argument, or they just aren’t listening to each other, so for want of trying to win, the argument descents into bickering in the basic format of “Is not!” “Is too!” “Is not!” “Is too!” Another form this argument can take is for two characters to simply shout their opinion loudly and repeatedly at each other — red is the best color to paint the wall! No, blue is the best color to paint the wall! Red! Blue! Red! Blue! Does this bring back memories when you were a kid or when your kids were kids?
“In the Just book ‘Just Disgusting’, the story ‘Shut Up’ Andy and his sister Jen have several quarrels about who should “shut up” that just consist of “Shut up!” “You shut up!” “No, you shut up!”. Sometimes intervened with Andy and Jen’s parents saying, “You both shut up!”. In one instance, Jen says, “You shut up–infinity to the power of ten,” but Andy points out that infinity is infinite and there’s no such thing as infinity to the power of ten. Later, when Andy and Jen’s dad and the neighbours start arguing over whose family should shut up (after a neighbour shouts ‘Why don’t you all shut up in there!?’) and Andy’s dad pulls the “infinity” card, but the neighbours don’t reply” and Andy realizes they are pretty smart.
How many of you remember Bugs Bunny cartoons? The following scene is between Daffy Duck whose Rs are pronounced as Ws — rabbit is wabbit, and Bugs Bunny — who is the smart alec, wascally wabbit. The duck and the rabbit are arguing about hunting season and they are louder and louder and louder as they shout at each other: Which hunting season is this?
Bugs: Duck season!
Daffy: Wabbit season!
Bugs: Duck season!
Daffy: Wabbit season!
Bugs: Duck season!!
Daffy: Wabbit season!!
Bugs: Wabbit season!
Daffy: Duck season!!!
Bugs: Wabbit season!!!
Daffy: I say it’s Duck season, and I say, FIRE!
— Looney Tunes “Rabbit Fire” (1951)
Did you notice how cleverly Bugs Bunny turned things around on Daffy Duck? We can laugh at how ridiculous their argument is because it’s a cartoon. But unfortunately, many arguments today are really out of control and that blam of the gun is all too real. Much of the verbal tension today makes us anxious because it’s explosive and often violent. It’s one thing when it’s between cartoon characters and another when it’s between human characters.
I caught a clip of The Daily Show3 with Trevor Noah that a clergy friend posted on Facebook. Trevor talked about witnessing how his grandfather helped to diffuse a tense situation at a protest in South Africa when he was a young child. His grandfather’s weapon — humor. A policeman on a horse with a baton was trying to disperse the crowd at this protest telling everyone to move along in an official and no-nonsense manner. Trevor’s grandfather got the policeman’s attention by asking if he could ask a question. That question was actually a joke. What astonished Trevor and others was how the joke caught the policeman by surprise and that his laughter brought tears to his eyes, but especially how humor helped to diffuse the situation.
For Trevor it was the first time, while growing up during apartheid, that he witnessed a black man and a policeman laughing together simply as people. It was there and then that Trevor learned the power of comedy to bring people together, and it instilled in him that humor was what he wanted to do as he remembered thinking: “When I grow up, I want to do that thing.” And he does.
I thought a script of conversation from TV’s All in the Family4 would be fun. Has everyone heard of Archie Bunker and Edith? This was the show that came to mind when I was thinking of escalating conversations into the “can’t win” argument zone. Archie — narrow-minded and his son-in-law, Michael, — liberal, always had a tendency to get into it — whatever the topic, they always seemed to be on the opposite side. The argument would escalate, both would raise their voice, neither would win the argument, although Archie always thought he did. As you watch this brief clip try to catch what’s different in this dialogue. (Michael doesn’t react to Archie’s name calling.)
Humor, not taking the bait, walking away, not responding, listening, lowering your voice — are all ways to help diffuse a tense and potentially violent situation.
Armstrong turns to Socrates as a role model that she feels will help us in our present day. She notes that “in the democratic assemblies of Athens, citizens learned to debate competitively, and to argue their case against one another to win. The object was to defeat one’s opponent: nobody was expected to be converted to the other side, or enter empathetically into the rival viewpoint. Like all Athenians, Socrates had taken part in these debates, and he didn’t like them.”
Armstrong continues, “In true dialogue, participants ‘must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion.’ The Socratic dialogue was a spiritual exercise designed to produce a profound psychological change in the participants, and because its purpose was that each person should understand the depth of his ignorance, there was no way that anybody could win.
Plato also described the dialogue as a communal mediation but insisted that it be conducted in a kindly, compassionate manner. It would not bring transcendent insight unless ‘questions and answers are exchanged in good faith and without malice. Each participant should make a ‘place for the other’ in his mind, – allowing their minds to be informed and changed by the contribution.”
“Both Buddha and Confucius seem to have conducted discussion in a similar manner. Confucius always developed his insights in conversation with other people because these friendly interactions helped him achieve maturity.” Armstrong notes that “Confucius would probably have appreciated the ritual of the Socratic dialogue, which demanded that participants ‘yield’ to one another instead of holding rigidly to their own opinions. The Buddha too taught his monks to converse kindly and courteously with one another. Perhaps we need to be reminded today that kindness is not weakness. Yielding is not weakness.
In The Book of Joy5, on loan to me by Joy, comes the following about a relationship with a difficult neighbor. This book is a sharing of joyfulness by the Dalai Lama — a Buddhist, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African Anglican cleric. “Imagine you are living next to a difficult neighbor. You can judge and criticize them. You can live in anxiety and despair that you will never have a good relationship with them. You can deny the problem or pretend that you do not have a difficult relationship with your neighbor. None of these is very helpful.
Instead, the Dalai Lama explained, you can accept that your relationship with your neighbor is difficult and that you would like to improve it. You may or may not succeed, but all you can do is try. You cannot control your neighbor, but you do have some control over your thoughts and feelings. Instead of anger, instead of hatred, instead of fear, you can cultivate compassion for them, you can cultivate kindness toward them, you can cultivate warm-heartedness toward them. This is the only chance to improve the relationship. In time, maybe they will become less difficult. Maybe not. This you cannot control, but you will have your peace of mind. You will be able to be joyful and happy whether your neighbor becomes less difficult or not.”
“The kind of acceptance that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop were advocating is not passive. It is powerful. It does not deny the importance of taking life seriously and working hard to change what needs changing, to redeem what needs redemption. ‘You must not hate those who do harmful thing,’ the Dalai Lama has explained. ‘The compassionate thing is to do what you can to stop them — for they are harming themselves as well as those who suffer from their actions’.”
Armstrong suggests that in our highly contentious world, we need to develop a twenty-first-century form of Socrates’ compassionate discourse. Listening with the ears and heart to understand what is being said below the words — the truth that can be found there. She noted, “Gandhi left us a fine example of compassionate assertiveness: advocating nonviolent resistance, he frequently asked people to consider whether they fought to change things or to punish.
When Jesus told his followers to turn the other cheek, Gandhi believed, he was urging them to show courage in the face of hostility. This was the way to transform hatred and contempt into respect. But nonviolence did not mean compliance with injustice: his opponents could have his dead body, Gandhi would insist, but not his obedience.”
According to Timothy Keller, “Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.”6 Tolerance is not weakness. (Clergy Coaching Network; 8-4-18)
Before we close I encourage each of us to take today’s scripture insert and place it somewhere we can see it daily — on the fridge, by the TV, by the door used when we leave home, or on the bathroom mirror. And don’t forget to take a daily dose of humor with you!
- Karen Armstrong: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.
- The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
- You Tube: All in the Family.
- The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World; His Holiness the Dalai Lama; Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, 2016.
- Clergy Coaching Network: Timothy Keller, 8-4-18.
Copyright DMC 2018