By: Brian Harris
We all know how shrill public discourse has been these last few years.
I’m old enough to remember a time when if you disagreed with someone you thought: “That’s so interesting. It will be good to chat this through with them to see what we both can learn.” That doesn’t happen much today. There is very little nuance in the public space, and suggesting it is required is often seen as a sign of weakness or lack of conviction. The model is adversarial, and we often exaggerate and catastrophize to score cheap but dishonest points off opponents.
It is sad when we see this amongst politicians, but even more tragic when we see it happening amongst those who follow Jesus the Christ. After all, the Jesus we follow stated that he is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) – and it is hard to see how we are following the one who is truth if we care so little about the validity of what we say, or the harm false claims can do.
However, it’s not just about what we say. Posture really matters. Have you noticed that some people can say hard things, but people are able to receive it constructively and even to grow from it? Others alienate, and quickly provoke defensive or aggressive stances.
How is it that some remain winsome even in difficult situations, while others quickly degenerate into unappealing boors?
Four Postures for Disagreement
In this post I’d like us to think about four stances or postures that we can adopt when we don’t necessarily agree with what is being proposed or put forward. Naturally others can be added (and feel free to suggest them in the comments) but here are four I’ve often noticed – punchers, blockers, embracers and pioneers. Each has its place, depending on the circumstances, though I hope we can find a way to speak special words of encouragement to pioneers.
Punchers are those who quickly lash out at those they disagree with. They are often finely attuned to sniff out anything that sounds or looks a little different, and quickly proclaim the new to be a threat. They focus on what they can’t (or won’t) affirm rather than what they can, and are quick to oppose. They tend to be emotive in their opposition, and aren’t too fussed by the rules they do or don’t adhere to. Reasoning that the ends justify the means they don’t agonise that too often the means become the ends – victory is seen as the only satisfactory outcome.
While there is a time for punchers (sometimes there are deep evils that need to be stridently opposed) they often do great damage. When a religious leader is a puncher it is almost always deeply distasteful. There is something horribly unsettling about someone who is supposed to represent the way of Jesus resorting to half truths and gutter politics.
Punchers are usually motivated by fear (if I don’t stop this, imagine what will happen), and fear is a terrible motivator for it distorts our vision and sees us compromising our values. Fear also prevents us from seeing that this is God’s world, and that ultimately is doesn’t all depend upon us, but upon God.
Blockers are not as aggressive as punchers, but they quietly find a way to get things shut down. You often don’t know where you stand with a blocker. You think they are saying yes, but as time goes by you realise that they are slowing everything down, raising yet one more question, then pointing to another obstacle.
Of course there are times when blocking is right. There is a valid reason for the adage, “decide in haste, regret at leisure” and slowing down a process sometimes sees something far better emerge, but you know you are with a blocker when there are always a few more boxes to be ticked (and yet a few more when they are done). It can be unbelievably frustrating – a journey of getting no-where, very, very slowly.
Blockers are more common than punchers. They appear respectable and are usually pleasant as they put another obstacle in the path. They often love talking, for talking endlessly is an effective way to delay action.
What motivates blockers? Usually their love of the status quo and their distrust of anything new. They often feel vulnerable, wondering if they will hold the same status in a changed social setting. While they will find a way to justify their approach, when the rationalisations are stripped away, their fear is usually about loss of power, influence and the familiar. Facing deep change is difficult, and often effective blocking seems a better option.
Embracers go to the opposite extreme of punchers and blockers. Deeply concerned about the place of the church in the wider world, their instinct is to come on board and to support most new ideas. The reasoning is often along the lines, “Even if this seems a bit odd to me, it’s hard to see how things can get worse. Simply keeping on doing what we have always done is a formula for failure. Trying anything is a better option to doing nothing.” As someone with a bias towards action, I am not unsympathetic to this. Indeed, if change is inevitable, why not step into it and be part of the process, rather than being left behind with an increasingly bitter set of resisters? Embracing ensures you stay up with the play.
Not all embracers are deeply concerned about the current situation. Some simply like the novel and the new. Change can be deeply refreshing, and even if it turns out to be misguided, embracers are confident that they will be able to pivot again, and find a new way ahead. But sometimes embracers have not thought deeply enough about what really matters. They give too much away, and the consequences are only felt a lot further down the road.
Pioneers adopt the stance I’m most sympathetic towards. Rather than uncritically accept or reject new ideas, they note that all new ideas are working their way out in a significantly altered context. No one knows for certain which changes will work well, and which will be regretted. But you can approach issues like a pioneer, holding on to things lightly, evaluating along the way, and knowing that in later chapters, things will be done differently.
We live in a liminal season – we know some of the things we are leaving behind, but are not fully certain about what will be adopted. Pioneers are comfortable with this. They look out for God’s surprises, and indeed, often find them through walking unplanned paths. It’s like Jesus walking through Jericho, suddenly spotting Zacchaeus sitting in a fig tree, and realising that this hated tax collector would soon be a loyal follower.
Pioneers look for the fingerprints of God, and are quietly confident that they are often found in unexpected places. Rather than face challenge with aggression, they wonder if God might be appearing in a different guise, and so lean in to the flow of life with hopefulness and openness. It’s not an uncritical embrace, just a curious questioning, “could this be God.” And they discover that often it is…
What is your stance towards change, or new things, or different ways of seeing things? While there is a time and season for everything – a time to punch, and a time not to punch; a time to block, and a time not to block; a time to embrace, and not to embrace – I think most times it’s time to pioneer – to be willing to go where we have not been before, confident that Jesus gets there long before us.
Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.
About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.