“Can We Agree to Disagree?”

I’m beginning to think this is a lost form of discourse. Some think it’s a cop out. Some think it is a compromise that compromises too much of their beliefs or hoped for outcomes. Others think it’s just an easy way to end a difficult conversation. Maybe it is those things at times. Maybe it’s more.

While it might not be the best or desired outcome of every difficult conversation I wonder if it’s not still a valuable crucible to do the difficult work of conflict resolution. If our only acceptable outcome is to change the other person’s opinion then the whole tone of the conversation shifts. And it sets us up for disappointment, failure, and often more conflict. If our only acceptable outcome is “I am right and you are wrong” then we continue to operate in a binary system of winners and losers.

Sadly, we are surrounded by a binary culture of winners and losers. Our political and social climate is dominated by “My way or the highway” thinking. You are either with me or against me and demonizing anyone who is not 100% with me. It hasn’t always been that way.

Theologically, we have a full spectrum of religious beliefs and when you look at the origins of this country that diversity of beliefs was respected. People came to America just so they could practice their particular theological understanding or polity in peace. What the heck happened? What happened to seeing ourselves as a diverse group of people who work together for a greater good but who don’t always see eye to eye? What happened to being able to agree to disagree with those we have significant differences? What happened to “IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY” where everything we believe doesn’t fall under the “essentials” category. (Author unknown in spite of the frequent credit given to John Wesley or St. Augustine.)

I know, there are lots of reasons explaining our polarized context. That’s not really the purpose of this reflection. What I long for is the return of the art of creating space for differences of opinions to be shared, flexed, challenged, defended, respected, considered, and fine-tuned. I long for the goal to be listening to one another in the freedom of knowing that no one is going to demand or attempt to change the other’s opinion. That instead, vigorous debate and hearing different ideas is the point. And maybe someone’s opinion gets changed. Maybe it doesn’t. But we can agree to disagree and respect that not everyone sees the world the way we do.

In the “agree to disagree” space, we create an environment in which new ideas can be presented that challenge our way of thinking and give us time and space to process those changes. This space creates a learning environment. It allows us to build relationships with others, especially others that are different from us in some way. It allows people to change their minds, of their own free will. Or it causes them to believe more strongly in their point of view, but not because someone told them to believe it. But because they have considered the other possibilities and chosen their own perspective. And while we may disagree with that perspective with every fiber in our being, we can at least honor that it is their belief.

Admittedly there are some necessary elements that must be present for this to work. There must be respect of the other even in the most bitter of disagreements. To belittle, bully, condemn, dominate or dismiss is not agreeing to disagree. When an impasse is met, then what both sides hold in common is that which they disagree on. Both sides recognize that the other person has the right to hold a different opinion or understanding. And sometimes, especially on difficult and complex topics, agreeing to disagree is a healthy, ok place to land while trying to understand where others are coming from.

And that is the path to peace.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,”   

– James 1:9

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.   

-Matthew 5:44-48 (CEB)

How can we model in healthy, Christ-centered ways how to agree to disagree with one another? How can we model non-binary ways of being with those who think differently than we do? How can we listen more deeply to one another? This is not easy work. This is not an easy environment currently in which to do this difficult work. I think there is a reason we saw Jesus angry only a couple of times in his life. That was never a winning strategy in the long run. How might your life energy flow a little differently if you could enter, in a healthy way, that “agree to disagree” space in your most significant conflicts?

A lot to chew on. I hope you will ponder with me. I hope you will explore this path to peace with me.

Grace and Peace,

Lory Beth

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