An experiment at nonviolent communication

Asbury seminary president Timothy Tennent writes about why evangelicals spend so much time and energy talking about homosexual sex.

In one sense, you won’t read anything new here. But I do find the post and the comments thread an interesting case study in the way we talk past each other. For all the times we use terms like “Christian conferencing” and take classes on nonviolent communication and speak of hearing the other person before speaking, we do not practice that very well, at least not on the Internet. This is probably due as much to the nature of the medium as it is to our intentions. The Internet is not nearly as interactive or “social” as we claim it is.

What we tend to do in “conversations” about hard issues is lob arguments at each other. Often, these arguments include all manner of statements about the thoughts, motivations, and emotions of other people. Almost always as they go back and forth they lose all contact with the point the other person was trying to express or discuss. We seek to get our point across rather than listen to the other side. We don’t want to let anything with which we disagree go unchallenged. Or at least I know that is what I do when in a difficult conversation.

So, I want to try an exercise in listening on my blog. I’m going to try to write what I hear Tennent writing in his post. My goal here is not to offer my reactions or analysis, but to say accurately, without using a lot of direct quotation, what he would recognize as the point he is trying to make. I invite you to help me listen better by pointing out where and how my summary might miss important things.

Here is what I hear him writing:

Evangelical Christians feel the need to spend so much time and energy talking about and organizing actions with regard to homosexuality because they feel that harm is done to the church when something sinful is treated as if it were holy.

I’m not sure this is a fair statement of what he wrote. In a real conversation, I could ask him. (I have posted a version of this on his blog to try to do just that.) Before I react or respond, I would want to be certain I am hearing him as he intends to be heard.

What do you think? Is this close to what he is trying to say?

24 thoughts on “An experiment at nonviolent communication

  1. Hi John,

    Great and needed approach to this sort of dialogue. I might modify your summary in one way and qualify it in another…

    Modifiy: I think it’s better to say, “when something sinful is treated as if it were normative.” Tennent mentions a movement from “sin” category to “sacrament” category, but I think that could lead us astray from his more basic concern about moving something from the “sin” category to the “normative, celebrated” category.

    Qualify: Tennent begins by saying, “I want to make a point of clarification about those who may agree that homosexual practice is wrong, but wonder why the church seems to be focused on this particular sin and not others.” So his argument here seems directed toward those who aren’t debating whether homosexual practice is sinful. I think his post would have had to take a different focus if it weren’t addressed to that crowd.

  2. I feel like Satan has found the perfect intractable conflict with this issue because there are two completely different paradigms which are both legitimately Christian that are encountering one another in parallel. I don’t think anyone on the progressive side would use the word “holy” to describe homosexuality any more than they would call blonde hair “holy.” It is rather the question of whether someone who is born a certain way and gets bullied their whole life and tries to be “normal” until it becomes too exhausting should then get bullied by the church too. To a progressive, it looks like a cripple getting yelled at by a bunch of Pharisees for daring to get healed on the Sabbath since that’s against Torah. It’s going to be hard for progressives to shake their paradigm because of how they map Jesus, Pharisees, and the “unclean” whom Jesus consistently defended against the Pharisees onto the present reality. The holiness Jesus seems to exude and command is not the abstract correctness of the Pharisees but the disposition of worship (loving God) that makes one perfectly hospitable (loving neighbor).

    1. As I mentioned above, Tennent’s stated target audience in the referenced post is “those who agree that homosexual practice is wrong.” If you move past that target audience to the larger debate that Morgan is addressing between “progressives” and “conservatives,” I think Morgan has properly framed the “progressive” starting point of the debate…

      Progressives are framing this debate in terms of love and hospitality. How is it loving and hospitable to exclude people who are “born a certain way”? This also means they frame the debate in terms of sexual orientation.

      Conservatives are framing this debate in terms of sin and holiness. How is it okay to take a sinful behavior and allow it to be called normative, or even celebrated? This also means they frame the debate in terms of sexual behavior.

      I think a lot of the talking past each other stems from “progressives” upset because they don’t think “conservatives” are being hospitable to homosexually-oriented people, while “conservatives” are upset because they think “progressives” are fighting to make a sinful behavior be accepted as normative. One side emphasizes identity and God’s love. The other side emphasizes behavior and God’s holiness. We’re not talking about the same issues.

      1. The only contention I would make with that characterization is that I would define holiness insofar as it applies to our behavior as worship (love God) and hospitality (love neighbor). I just always get the heebie-jeebies when love and holiness are dichotomized because love cannot be love if it’s unholy and holiness cannot be holy if it’s unloving. But maybe that’s just me, the Biblically conservative socially left-wing evangelical, rather than the “progressive” position.

        1. That’s interesting, Morgan. So if I understand you correctly, you want to define holiness purely based on loving God in worship and loving neighbor in hospitality?

          By this definition, any acts or thoughts that can’t be proven to damage others (e.g. illicit drug use, viewing pornography, one-night stands, lust, envy…) wouldn’t be called “unholy”?

        2. Nope. Those things destroy our capacity to love God which destroys our capacity to love our neighbor. Worship precludes idolatry. Drugs and pornography are idolatry not to mention the exploitation and damage done to other people through the industries they represent.

          My account of holiness is no different than Wesley’s Christian perfection. I just don’t believe that holiness is about following rules that are entirely abstracted from the Great Commandment which Jesus said is the sum of the Law and the Prophets. To me, it’s Pharisaic to conceptualize holiness as abstract, proof-texted rule following. Augustine said that if you can’t explain how a Biblical passage supports loving God or loving neighbor, then you don’t understand it well enough to apply it.

        3. Hmmm… Honestly, I have a hard time going along with this, Morgan. You can call illicit drugs, viewing pornography and one-night stands unholy because they destroy people’s capacity to love God. Yet you won’t allow the same argument regarding homosexual behavior. I think you’ll have to get into a lot of justification that turns into personal opinion or rationalizing to explain why you’re certain one-night stands destroy the capacity to love God, but homosexual behavior doesn’t.

        4. Brother, the burden is on you to explain to me why homosexuality destroys one’s capacity to worship God, independent of promiscuity and other factors. That’s the burden that a responsible Biblical hermeneutic accepts. To simply do a word search and marshal out proof-texts is bad hermeneutics regardless of what the issue is.

          You need to grapple with whether Paul’s “against nature” in Romans 1 has the full force of a “Thou shalt not” or if Paul is providing a visceral image that captures the filth of the Roman orgy lifestyle but does not comment on monogamous same sex relations in a completely different social context. Is Paul’s purpose in Romans 1 to illustrate how the wrath of God has covered Roman society or to provide a set of commandments? Rhetorical purpose makes a difference.

          In Leviticus, you need to ask what function the sexual boundaries have other than just “God said so.” I happen to believe that a patriarchal order in which sexual violence is common ) and there is no distinction between consensual and non-consensual sex (Gen 19, Judges 19, the rape of Dinah and Tamar, etc) depends upon the household patriarch not being compromised by being made into a “woman” by another man which would mean that the women in his household were fair game for the other men of the city. So within patriarchy, it’s unloving to your neighbor to sleep with other men. But we don’t live in a nomadic tribe in the desert in which women could be gang-raped without the patriarchal sexual boundary system.

          As for 1 Corinthians 6, Timothy, and the Collossians (?) passage, we have a generalized list of behaviors from a man who also said “Nothing is unclean in itself, but is unclean for the one who thinks it unclean” and “All things are permissible but all things are not beneficial” which, to me, indicates an ethics that is a pragmatic, relativistic asceticism. It’s not any less stringent than Torah but actually puts more of a burden on the individual believer to discern for him/herself what is sowing to the flesh and what is sowing to the spirit (Galatians 6:8). Some people shouldn’t touch alcohol at all; some shouldn’t touch dessert. We don’t have to be radical ascetics, though I can tell you from experience that the more I fast, the more richly I worship God. Every time we succumb to the flesh, we’re spraying mud on the window through which the light of God is supposed to shine. To say that different people are susceptible to the flesh differently is not to take a liberal position; it’s to take a Pauline position rather than a Galatian one.

          Given Pauline morality in general, I interpret the “people who do these things won’t inherit the kingdom” lists being filled with descriptions that indicate disgusting behaviors (sleaze, filth, debauchery, trash, etc) that shouldn’t be analyzed too technically. Regardless, the words malakoi and arsenokoites have only recently been translated to refer to generic same-gender relation as such, which seems like a politicized translation to me, when the uses of these words in ancient Greek literature outside of the Bible always referred to temple prostitution.

          I totally respect standing up for the Bible. What is intolerable to me is to do so at the expense of a group of people when we have used clumsy hermeneutics in making this stand. It’s hard to take seriously Christians who haven’t really studied this issue and are just using it as sort of a personal identity-marker (I’m “Biblical” because I oppose homosexuality). The cost is too high to do that. Too many millennials are rejecting Christianity because of the homosexuality issue for us not to take responsibility for really studying what the Bible actually says and either coming up with an explanation for why monogamous homosexuality detracts from worshiping God (more than just proof-texting) or abandoning our stance if we’re unable to articulate an explanation in our own words. That’s the depth with which we would hold ourselves responsible for any other issue. Look at the social principles. They are written as a combination of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. None of them are Biblical proof-texts given without rationale. So good luck with your explanation and please it share it with me when you put it together because I am open to whatever God has to teach me through you.

        5. Thanks Morgan. Believe it or not, that large piece actually finally brings us to agreement about the real need in this discussion: to talk about whether homosexual behavior is sin.

          For what it’s worth, I haven’t argued a case either way about homosexual behavior here. I’ve only contended that your suggested criteria don’t work as a starting point. We can’t simply ask if something causes obvious harm to our worship of God or neighbor, as you previously suggested. If we do, you’ll have the same difficulty proving a problem with promiscuity as anyone else will have a problem with discussing homosexual behavior. Instead, we must do the hard exegetical and hermeneutical work and ask if this is sin.

          As for burden of proof, it seems that people on every side of every argument always claim that the burden of proof is on the other side. I think you can make a pretty good “burden of proof” argument on either side of this debate. That’s probably not a helpful side-debate.

        6. “We can’t simply ask if something causes obvious harm to our worship of God or neighbor, as you previously suggested.” Take out the word “obvious” here because I didn’t say that. It’s absolutely the case that some sins are subtle in their damage to loving God and loving neighbor but there is no sin that does not concern a violation of one or both of those two commandments if we believe how Jesus and all the church fathers and of course John Wesley himself understood the Great Commandment. Sin is doing anything that poses an obstacle to Christian perfection.

        7. I agree with you, Morgan. Taking that as a starting point, those who believe homosexual behavior is a sin do believe that it poses an obstacle to Christian perfection – and is harmful to one’s relationship with God. So again the debate must turn to the issue of whether or not this behavior is sin – not to matters of hospitality, etc., which I think become red herrings.

        8. Ah, to clarify, I was using “hospitality” in the sense of whether my personal sanctification makes me absolutely loving to other people, not in the sense of whether my having moral standards that include disapproving of other peoples’ behavior is something that they can call “inhospitable,” which I think is illegitimate.

      2. ” We’re not talking about the same issues.”
        So what and who can end the in-fighting……..
        Leadership will end the war.
        The position of the church is stated and has been upheld many times.
        What has not been done is consistent enforcement of the position of the church.
        The latest article I read charged the right with not wanting to minister to the GLBT.
        That is false.
        Ministering to and acceptance of are two different issues.

        Sorry John…I too am guilty of going off course.

    2. But in reading what Tennent wrote, do you think that is what (modified by Teddy) he is trying to say?

      The point of the communication is not to jump ahead to force agreement, but to observe, to identify feelings and needs, and to make requests of the other person. So, I am trying to observe what I hear Tennent saying as a ground work for trying to identify the feelings and needs that are behind the words.

      Jumping ahead shifts us into distributive bargaining where we are fighting over limited and zero-sum outcomes to an impasse. I’m trying to explore how we might communicate in less inherently competitive and conflicting ways.

      I could start — as you have done — with someone else. But for better or worse this is where I am trying to start.

      1. I don’t think I was trying to critique what you’re trying to do with my comment, but perhaps provide the “progressive” complement to your post. What kills me is that I don’t see any way that either side is not going to keep digging their heels deeper because both sides are rooted in very powerful, Biblically derived convictions.

      2. In my opinion you heard Tennent right.
        And you are also correct in saying everyone wants to make their side known on the issue rather than answer the question you asked.

  3. Answering your question- tempted as I am to reiterate the arguments against Tennent’s view:

    I think that “strikes at the heart of the Gospel itself” is stronger than “does harm to the Church”. Possibly, now is not the time for non-violent communication. If he merely stated that we are wrong, on the Liberal side, we could worship together, but what he says is much stronger.

    Possibly a separation for a time is necessary. ECUSA has consecrated gay bishops and blessed gay relationships. Once its internal dialogue is complete- some dioceses have refused to give such blessings- if it is firm in continuing with acceptance, one can apply “by their fruits shall ye know them”. It is harder to state that ECUSA is striking at the heart of the Gospel if its witness is empowered.

  4. With Clare, I find “strikes at the heart of the gospel itself” something I’d want to hear Dr Tennent say more about before I tried to summarize this as “does harm to the Church.” I think those MAY be two entirely different things. But I don’t know.

    Part of good listening in this process is asking clarifying questions about what is said. I really don’t get (without some further unpacking, at least) what Dr Tennent means by those words, and I take them as being important enough to his argument that before I’d be ready to try to say I can summarize his argument, I’d want to be sure we understood (if not agreed) on what he meant by them.

  5. I would agree with those who say that the paraphrase “harm is done to the church when something sinful is treated as if it were holy” is a bit mild. As someone who teaches, James 3:1 is a text that always scares me. If my teachings lead anyone into sin, then I am accountable before the Lord. If I affirm sin, do I not fall into the category of one who “causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin” (Matthew 18:6)? If son then Jesus says it “would be better for [me] to have a great millstone fastened around [my] neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Even teaching the relaxation of one of the least of the commandments subjects me to judgment (See Matthew 5:19). Perhaps I am selfish, but my first concern in that situation is for my own soul; not whether the church is harmed. I don’t know whether that is what Timothy Tennent is thinking about or not; but it strikes me as serious business.

  6. The comments on Dr. Tennant’s and this blog clearly illustrate your point. Most of them argue whether homosexuality is a sin, rather than why it is being so hotly debated. The two issues are related but not congruent. People focus on their strongly held beliefs rather than the issue. I think the issue is church leaders defying the rulings of General Conference. Lobbying for change is within our system. Advocating and practicing defiance while continuing to draw a salary is not.

    1. Sometimes friends and family can not live under the same roof.
      Arguing about the origin of GLBT will not settle the division.
      What is written ,the authority of scripture and the role the Word of God plays will still be an issue.
      When people have a strongly held conviction that is no longer in agreement with the church or origination they have vowed to serve it may be time to move on.

  7. Wow. Go away for a day and look what happens.

    Thanks for all the conversation. I fear my hunch proved correct, though, that blogging and the Internet is not a good way to do this sort of thing. I has to be face-to-face and a real conversation. They dynamics just do not work, otherwise.

    I do think there is something important in the principles of nonviolent communication, even if some of theological assumptions beneath it are problematic for me. I want to continue to listen without judging and speaking without condemning as much as possible.

    Thank you, all.

    1. Without consistent (and often trained) moderation good listening is unlikely to happen on difficult issues. This was a fatal flaw of the “holy conferencing” attempted at GC2012.

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