Disagreeing Well

by Ben Howard

In a recent episode of his interview-style podcast, Ezra Klein ended with a closing essay about disagreement. Klein had just completed a two-hour interview with the well-known blogger Andrew Sullivan. During the course of the interview, which was occasionally tense, Klein and Sullivan disagreed about a number of hot-button political and social topics. Yet, as he used his final words to speak directly to the listener, Klein insisted that it was valuable to focus on the areas in which we agree or see validity in the position of those with whom we disagree. He argued that even if only 20 or 30 percent of someone’s argument is correct, that 20 or 30 percent can be the most important in helping another person better understand the world.

Disagreement, in particular bad faith disagreement, has become a hallmark of our society. It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to figure out why that’s the case. It’s simply easier to move through life without having to challenge your understanding of the world. Moreover, many of our social institutions reinforce us when we pick apart the thoughts and beliefs of others, especially when we do so in witty or sarcastic ways.

Yet, this isn’t the way we see the Bible talk about disagreement. Instead, we’re shown Paul going into Athens and spending his day walking around the city trying to understand people who think and believe differently than he does. Only when Paul has worked through these differences does he begin to preach to them, and even then he does so using their cultural context and their language to help them understand where he is coming from.

In addition, throughout Jesus’ ministry we see him challenging cultural assumptions, like in the story of the Good Samaritan where Jesus completely inverts the idea of who is behaving like a neighbor to the man who was injured. Jesus doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He doesn’t call us to pick apart others for the entertainment of our side. Instead, he calls for us to question our assumptions in a constant quest to pursue the kingdom of God and to do good in the world. Often that means we will be in conflict with others, but when we’re following Jesus we should handle that conflict with grace and love.

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