04 April 2017

Defusing Division

Last week the Federal government’s proposed amendments to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was defeated in the senate. The act made it illegal to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ anyone on the basis of race and the government wanted to change that wording to ‘harass and intimidate.’

What’s the difference you say? It seems the difference is in how you define racial discrimination. Is it a narrow definition around actions that clearly harass and intimidate people? Or is it broader to including any offensive thought expressed in public, like a cartoon, speech or newspaper column? The difference reveals the dilemma of how to create a society where people have protection from offensive, hateful words and equally, freedom to voice their own views. This is clearly complicated but I’d hope that we want both, yet recognize that no amount of legislation will guarantee either.

The 18C debate grabbed my attention because it reveals the growing diversity of our nation. A nation in which Christians are increasingly becoming a minority group. And this diversity produces, as philosopher John Rawls said ‘a plurality of conflicting conceptions of the meaning, value and purpose of human life.’ In other words, it’s really hard to get along when we all think so differently. Whether it’s over political, racial, religious or ethical issues, it feels like we are more fragmented and factionalised than ever. Am I being too dramatic? What do you think?

So what do we do with our long mental lists of differences? How do we champion peace amid the tension of pluralism? And how does faith become the instrument of peace rather than a path to division? Here are four thoughts that we all could apply in most of life’s situations.

1. Suspend your judgement
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said ‘It is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.’ Jesus went further to say in Matthew 7, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’. When we start with a conclusion about someone, we immediately close ourselves off from truly understanding them, and we take the place of God as their judge. So when judgement rises in us, pause and hold back on drawing conclusions.

2. See your plank
Jesus said, ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ One of our greatest needs is to honestly evaluate our own thoughts and desires and recognize our own failings. When offence begins to rise, pause and think about your own errors and insecurities.

3. Stand in their shoes
Our narrow beliefs form behind what John Rawls called ‘the veil of ignorance.’ Jesus understood our world because he was a part of it rather than apart from it. We have a greater opportunity for peace when we enter into another person’s world and seek to understand the problem through their eyes. This is an antidote to ignorance and enables us to see the person, not just the problem.

4. Choose your Words
After we pause, look at our own world and consider theirs. Then we may be more able to speak to the person with a language and tone that defuses division and promotes peace. Jesus simply said ‘to love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.’ Love doesn’t mean I disregard my convictions, but it does mean I express them with humility and an appreciation of the other viewpoint. Only then, can we begin to build bridges over our differences and see each other as Jesus sees us all.

Who don’t you see eye to eye with?
How might you respond differently?