By Susan R. Garrett
I serve as a volunteer judge for high school debate tournaments. In a great Lincoln-Douglas style debate, each side identifies its value premises, presents and defends its case, and hears and engages the opponent’s case. But especially with first-year debaters, it often happens that there is no genuine engagement. The affirmative and the negative sides present their respective cases—but they fail to hear or react to what the other is saying, and so talk past one another. In debaters’ terms, there was no real clash.
The controversy over same-sex sexual relationships is one of the high-stakes debates for the church in our day, threatening to split entire denominations. Perhaps because so much is at risk, people are often reluctant or unable to engage those with whom they disagree. Interestingly, the “affirmative” and the “negative” sides both draw on the Bible as a key warrant for their respective views. But they argue about which parts of it count as evidence, and how that evidence should be interpreted. Everyone delivers a pre-written case; no one really hears what the other is saying. There is plenty of yelling and gesturing, but no real clash.
I believe that in the church’s debate over same-sex sexual relationships we need to strive for more clash. Paradoxically, doing so may offer our only hope of preserving the peace and unity of the church. We need to start listening to one another, rather than talking loudly and self-righteously past one another. For clash to happen we cannot assume that our opponents are idiots, or un-Christian, or hypocritical—rather, we have to presuppose that they are persons of faith and integrity, with well-reasoned arguments based on respectable value premises. We have to hear their analysis and their evidence, and try genuinely to understand. We have to engage.
In the two-session adult study on The Thoughtful Christian “The Bible and Homosexuality,” I offer an invitation to hear the other side’s point of view. I lay out the two main viewpoints on this contentious issue, which I designate the affirming and prohibitionist perspectives. I try to describe each viewpoint accurately and empathetically. I tease out the underlying interpretive moves that each side makes when it claims the Bible as warrant for its arguments. I do not simply identify each side’s favorite proof texts, but aim to discern the underlying rules by which people decide which biblical passages count as evidence and how they are to be understood. My intention is that by offering a play-by-play as each side builds its case, I can help all participants in the debate to listen better and to understand more fully. Perhaps then true engagement can occur.
Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. I am asking for something less: that we listen to one another, remembering that we are not enemies at all, but brothers and sisters in Christ. Perhaps heightened attentiveness to what each other is saying will enlarge our mutual understanding and strengthen our commitment to loving and living with one another. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul: “Brothers and sisters, so far as it depends on us, let us live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18 NRSV).