Category: Pondering Peace

Embracing Disagreement and Difference

Recently on NPR’s All Things Considered I heard Ari Shapiro interview a couple of journalists.  Right near the beginning of the interview, he asked a question that elicited a firm “No” response from one interviewee and an equally adamant ‘yes’ from the other. Ari Shapiro laughed and said, “We love disagreement.”  The first person then put forward his views.  In good time, Ari intervened and invited the other person to speak saying, “I can see you want to jump in” and gave her space to do so.  As they proceeded to clarify their views by articulating their differences but also speaking of their commonalities, a deeper and more nuanced perspective emerged than would ever have been possible if they had felt constrained to not disagree.

In all honesty, I don’t love disagreement. Disagreement tends to raise tension in the room, and I prefer for everyone to just get along.  However, disagreement between people is inherent in our being human, with our diverse experiences, unique ways of viewing the world, and differing values and cultures.  By respecting each other, listening to one another with humble minds and open hearts, and engaging in conversation to find commonalities and a fuller understanding of differences, richer insights are gained and often a way forward in solving the disagreement and maintaining the relationship can emerge.  What short circuits such possibilities are an arrogant assumption that one is completely right and an unwillingness to consider otherwise, along with accusatory anger, threats, and especially violence.

Memorial Day will soon be here.  For many, its main significance may be that it signals the end of the school year, the beginning of the summer months, and the possibilities of an extended long weekend.  However, remembering its origins invites somber reflection.  Originally known as Decoration Day, it began in the years after the Civil War when communities in different parts of the country began spontaneous memorials and decorated the graves of those who had died in the war.  Around 620,000 people were killed in the Civil War, as fellow Americans turned against each other.  Later it was renamed Memorial Day and made a national holiday to honor all men and women who have died serving in the U.S. military during the many wars in which the United States has engaged itself since then.  Each has entailed tremendous loss of life and destruction.

Memorial Day is therefore a day for mourning the tragic loss of life from war throughout much of American history.  It is a day to reflect on the terrible consequences of choosing violence as a means of responding to disagreements.  While American soldiers are not directly involved in the current wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the extensive media coverage of both these wars have given us day by day insights into life where war is occurring and the tremendous suffering, death, and devastation involved.  As these wars drag on in battle after battle, the cost and ineffectiveness of using violence as a means of resolving disputes becomes ever more evident.

This past weekend Central Seminary held its Commencement service and celebrated the hard work and achievements of those who were graduating.  It was also a time to appreciate and celebrate the significant diversity of our national, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. By offering online courses, Central Seminary draws together students from across the United States and three other continents into communities of learning.  Programs are offered in Korean, English, and a couple of Burmese languages.  Gathered together in one place for Commencement from our diverse locations, the mix of languages and of Asian Americans, African Americans, and Americans of European background reminded me just a bit of that joyous image found in Revelation 7 of a great multitude of people from all tribes, peoples, and languages delighting in God’s salvation.  I know that my own life and understandings have been greatly enriched by the blessing of interacting with this diversity of colleagues and students at Central.

Our seminary also embraces significant diversity of theological perspectives and religious backgrounds.  This offers another opportunity for students and professors to interact with and learn from people who are different from themselves. It requires them to respect those who hold different theological and social views and develop skills for meaningful dialogue with those with whom one does not agree.  In the process, I believe students are better prepared for ministry and for being nurturers of peace in our diverse world than if their learning occurred within a religious bubble where everyone was expected to think the same way.  All of us are humbler and wiser for such an experience.

As is often mentioned, there is currently deep political and cultural polarization in our country.  There is a tendency to confine our relationships to those who think similarly to ourselves rather than engage with those with whom we disagree.  With such a divide and with different media sources of information, it is easy for negative characterizations of others to develop, for misinformation and political propaganda to be accepted, for prejudice and suspicion to grow, and for even a demonization of those with different views to take root.  More than ever, it is important for communities of faith and learning to intentionally seek to nurture goodwill and truth through respectful engagement with those with whom we disagree, seeking to understand their fears and concerns, finding our common needs and hopes, and holding out the desire to work together to make our communities and our nation places in which all our lives can flourish together.

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.