In World War I, the favored combat tactic was trench warfare. Battles were fought from permanent, relatively protected trenches dug into the ground from which the opposing sides would attack and counterattack. A no-man’s-land lay in between the two sides: a hellish sea of shell craters, barbed wire, bodies, and rubble. Frontal assaults on the opposing trench resulted in unimaginable bloodshed, so opposing forces resorted to bombarding the enemy trench with machine gun fire and long-range artillery. As you can imagine, battles ended with tens of thousands of lives lost and very little territory gained to show for it.
In the modern era, this is how we fight. Not on the battlefield, but in the public sphere. Warfare tactics have evolved over the centuries, but our inability as a society to reason with one another and engage in productive conflict resembles primitive trench warfare. Opposing sides are dug in, insults and slander are lobbed at the opposing side from relative safety, and the result of every conflict is a frustrating, albeit unsurprising, stalemate.
We love to make caricatures out of people: wild exaggerations that dehumanize and misrepresent. These are our trenches – the permanent, protective strongholds we build for ourselves. When we enter conflict in this way, we go to war with an imaginary enemy built on slander and misrepresentation, with intent to destroy and dismantle without actually attempting to resolve and progress. Why? Well, probably because it’s easy. When I think of someone who disagrees with me as an enemy to be slain rather than a person to reason with, I feel safe. The path forward is clear; the objective is justifiable. As Eisenhower said as he rallied the United States against Nazi Germany: “We will accept nothing less than full victory!” But dialoguing with those whom we disagree with is much more complicated than that. It requires laying down our arms and wandering into no-man’s-land. And I think that’s why we tend to avoid it. We are reluctant to leave the safety of the trench, and much more content to dig in and blindly fire.
For examples, look no further than current events.
The anticipated decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade has stirred up a veritable storm of public vitriol. Those who are pro-life paint the opposition as a horde of godless, bloodthirsty murderers bent on child sacrifice and dismantling the nuclear family. Those who are pro-choice portray the pro-life movement as a band of sexist, self-righteous religious elites who are content to force women to carry a full-term pregnancy but offer no support for mother or child after the birth.
Or, take for example the ever-present debate over gun control in America. I will confess that I am guilty of holding a sinful view of people who are pro-gun. In the wake of tragedies such as this past week’s horrific school shooting in Texas, I have tended to place the blame on gun owners and gun lobbyists – you know, those violence-loving, xenophobic freedom-fighters who care about their own personal rights at the expense of lives lost. And, obviously, they see me as a weak, idealist social justice warrior who has no appreciation for the personal liberties that my American citizenship grants me.
But none of these caricatures are true. All parties involved know that at some level.
I know for a fact people who are against abortion want the best for both women and children. Countless Christian churches and religious organizations provide money and volunteers in support of pregnancy resource centers, counseling, community advocacy, and justice causes. There are wonderful families who open up their homes to vulnerable foster children who are in desperate need of loving refuge. There are numerous charities devoted to raising money for families who want to adopt but cannot pay the (criminally high) adoption fees. The self-righteous, pro-birth, anti-women despot is not the picture of what it means to be pro-life. I also know that women who have had abortions deserve compassion and human dignity, not public shame. The baby-murdering pagan cultist is not an accurate picture of people who are pro-choice. The truth is that most mothers who are desperate enough to resort to terminating a pregnancy truly feel as if there is no other way forward. It is not a flippant decision. There is no joy in it.
As for gun ownership: I have lived in rural Indiana for close to 10 years now, so naturally, I know more people who own firearms than not. And I know that they are good people. The truth is that majority of gun owners are responsible hobbyists who are no more eager to take the life of another person than I am. They, too, are revolted by innocent people being killed, but they see the solution to the problem differently than I do.
Now, engaging in dialogue does not mean that you need to concede to the opposition. There are certain moral lines that people are unwilling to cross, and that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean conversation cannot happen.
As a Christian, I believe that abortion is against the will of a God who brings life and a Jesus who offers redemption. I cannot and will not compromise on that. For the same reason, I believe that Christians should be peacemakers and advocate for non-violence. But there are people who believe differently than I do. These are good and decent people who also want what I want: the best for everyone. They see a different path forward, and I might even morally disagree with them. But that doesn’t mean I can’t talk to them. That doesn’t mean that I have the right to de-humanize them, to speak falsely against them, or to otherwise sin against them in my heart.
When we acknowledge the humanity of those with whom we disagree, and come to terms with the fact that, the vast majority of the time, they are decent people and not the morally repugnant villains we make them out to be, it is a lot harder to stay in our safe trenches and lob insults. This complicates matters, because we have a natural, sinful inclination to maintain our distance and perpetuate our own narrative that we have written about people in our minds. We need them to remain nameless, faceless enemies so that we are always morally superior, and they are always misguided and misinformed. But true conflict that results in progress has us lay the false narratives aside and venture into dialogue – the proverbial no-man’s-land that requires us to look the opposition in the eyes.
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