I remember that summer day when I was travelling with some friends in the US. I was the only Canadian in the car and, as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot, my friend proceeded to give me a short list of conversation topics to avoid during the meal.
You see my friend and his wife had pre-decided that they were going to avoid any topics that were sure to spark debate and highlight the presence of entrenched ideological divisions within the group.
I assured my companions that I was quite naive about America’s hot button topics and so would not knowingly threaten the delicate balance that was trying to be maintained. I then proceeded to rave about how Canadians did not find themselves so polarized about such issues. “In general,” I boasted, “we Canadians are able to agree to disagree over a warm cup of Timmies and with a maple syrup smile.”
Alright, so that’s not exactly what I said, but you get the gist.
When I reflect back on that experience, I am embarrassed about how naive I was. There were, in fact, Canadian specific issues that were creating deep-seated divisions among Canada’s citizens/nations. I just was not aware of them.
I think it’s now safe to say that Canadians are not immune to the social and political issues that are polarizing groups in the United States. There is a prevailing climate of division around justice issues surrounding refugee settlement in Canada, Islamophobia, and oil pipeline expansion.
The question is, how do people who are called to love their neighbours [and enemies] (see Matthew 5:44) engage in matters of difference, as opposed to avoiding them? How do we create safe spaces in our church communities for dialogue to flourish with the hope that the division gap will become smaller?
Jeanette Romkema, Partner and Senior Trainer at Global Learning Partners offers the following fantastic tips in her blog, “Tips for Entering and Staying with Tough Dialogue.”
- Be genuinely curious.
- Don’t enter to “win.”
- Talk less, listen more.
- Use good questions for understanding.
- Ask head and heart questions.
- Be gentle.
- Prepare yourself.
- Stay humble.
I encourage you to read the whole article, so you can obtain practical ways to enter one-to-one dialogue with those whom you may be in disagreement with.
One-on-one dialogues are helpful, but I think the health of our church communities is at risk if we don’t consider how we will create space for polarizing issues to be discussed.
The Quakers have the time-worn tradition of engaging in a community dialoguing technique that they call scrupling. This was and still is a way for Quakers to engage with a difficult problem or issue as a community. “Scrupling is not an argument, a debate or a panel discussion – but a serious conversation to seek a way forward,” (Read more here). It was the method used in 2010 to discuss the erosion of democracy in Canada by the Harper government and the method used a century prior when discussing slaveholding.
As a facilitator who regularly convenes people in learning spaces to discuss topics and issues that make most people cringe and uncomfortable, I know it is crucial to the health of a community for people to feel that they have a safe way and space to process the difficult issues No matter how divisive those issues have the potential to be. Not speaking about them can lead to the adoption of entrenched positions that over time fray our bonds to each other and encourage the dehumanization of “the other.”
Paul’s warning to the Galatians is timely for the North American church today: “but if you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out, or you will be consumed by each other” (5:15, ESV). The remedy is love (see 5:14), and it is through speaking the truth in love, that the Body of Christ grows in maturity (see Ephesians 4:15).
To make a commitment to stay at the communication line and speak the truth in love, whether we find ourselves intimately connected to the issues or distant from them, is just one of the ways that we live as ministers of reconciliation and work towards authentic unity in our communities. It is this authentic, gritty, non-conforming, diversity loving unity that Christ says will demonstrate to the world that He was sent from the Father (see John 17:21).
So in 2017, it is clear as day to me that Canadians do not agree to disagree with a maple syrup smile. What is not yet clear is whether Canadians and more specifically the CRC church, will respond to this growing climate of polarization with the age-old “nothing’s wrong here, everything’s fine,” or with compassion and a commitment to lean into the tough spaces.
Questions to Consider:
- How might not creating space for tough dialogue harm your congregation’s health, impact the wider community?
- What healthy and robust communication practices does your local congregation have for dealing with the difficult issues of the day?
- What can you do to encourage spaces for healthy dialogue in your church community?
- What resources/tools/support would you need to accomplish the above
– Bernadette Arthur, CRC Race Relations Coordinator