“How Red State and Blue State People can be more Agreeable”
October 9, 2005
Dr. Jimmy R. Watson, St. Mark UCC
A cartoon once showed the foreman of a jury at the door of the jury room giving the lunch order to the bailiff. You know the jury is in for a long time when you hear the order: “Eleven cheeseburgers and one hot dog. Eleven coffees and one hot chocolate. Eleven fruit pies and one prune Danish.” Some people in this world are just flat out not very agreeable are they? There is a sign on the desk of an airline executive in Chicago that reads: “Don’t bother to agree with me, I’ve already changed my mind.”
Of course, what makes matters even worse is when two disagreeable people come in contact with one another. When that happens there is the problem of irresistible force meets immovable object. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Apostle Paul had to referee between two such people. In his letter to the Philippians (4:2), Paul writes, “I entreat (or urge) Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.” The Greek word here is phroneo, which means to be like-minded or of the same mind. Paul was obviously very concerned about people being agreeable with one another.
We see this concern all throughout his letter to the Philippians. In 2:2 he writes, “Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” A few verses later he says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (vs. 5). In 3:15 he says, “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind.” Paul was frustrated with what was going on in the small Christian community in Philippi. What made matters worse is that he couldn’t be there in person to referee because he wrote this letter from prison. So he directs a statement to a loyal friend telling him to “help these women,” presumably to get over their differences for the sake of the Christian community in Philippi.
We don’t know what the conflict was between Euodia and Syntyche. (I’m pretty sure they weren’t arguing about the war in Iraq or gay marriage, although one never can tell.) But for the sake of argument let’s assume that one of these ladies was a first century version of a liberal and one was a first century version of a conservative. Doesn’t it make sense to think that one lady had liberal leanings and the other one had conservative leanings? Why else would Paul tell them “to be of the same mind in the Lord”? We rarely have to tell two conservatives or two liberals to be of the same mind or be agreeable with one another. We only have to tell people who disagree with one another to be of the same mind.
But is this even possible? To put this in our context, is it possible that red state people and blue state people can ever be of the same mind? Is it possible, for example, that someone who thinks abortion is murder will ever be agreeable with someone who believes in a woman’s right to choose, and vice-versa? Again, we don’t really know why Euodia and Syntyche were so disagreeable with one another, but isn’t Paul being a little too idealistic to think that human beings can be of the same mind on important issues?
One reason these kinds of questions interest me so much is because in a few weeks I have to give a presentation at a United Campus Ministries luncheon. The theme of the luncheon series, which runs every Wednesday in October, is “Moral Values in the 21st Century.” My talk is the last in the series and it is entitled, “How to find a Common Ground.” When I was asked to speak on this topic my initial response was, “Americans in the 21st century can find common ground only if we are literally talking about the ground we walk on. But if we are metaphorically talking about finding common ground on moral values, then we might as well be on different planets.”
Human beings will never be of the same mind on every issue—never have, never will. We will never agree about everything. If we did then we wouldn’t be human, we would be divine! But somehow I don’t think Paul is saying we have to agree about everything. Rather, I think he’s saying we should be agreeable. Agreeing and being agreeable is not exactly the same thing. Granted we will never agree about everything, but how can we still be agreeable? In Philippians 4, Paul gives some great advice.
First, we can be agreeable by rejoicing. When human beings are in conflict with one another the last thing anyone wants to do is rejoice. Conflict produces bitterness rather than joyfulness. But Paul tells us to “rejoice in the Lord,” that is, rejoice in the goodness of life. Rejoice in all the ways you believe you have been blessed and see if this doesn’t produce an agreeable demeanor in you. We should even rejoice in the mundane. For example, someone once said, “I know it’s going to be a good day when all the wheels on my shopping cart turn the same way.” That sounds trivial, but rejoicing about the little things in life will make us more agreeable to others.
Second, we can be agreeable by being gentle. Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” A gentle reputation in your community can go a long way in “disarming” those with whom you might disagree. Our human tendency in the midst of conflict, of course, is to become more and more aggressive toward people with whom we disagree, but Paul tells us to practice being gentle. Can you imagine how the discourse in this country about, for example, the war in Iraq would be if both the war protesters and the war supporters would show gentleness toward one another? We don’t have to agree; we just need to be agreeable.
Third, Paul tells us to have an attitude of prayer. He writes, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything (conflicts included) by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words, when you are in the midst of a disagreeable situation with someone else, rather than sit around and worry about it, turn it over to God in prayer. If your enemy knows that you are actually praying about the situation with which the two of you disagree, you may find yourself on common ground with your enemy. You may wind up praying together.
Paul’s fourth piece of advice is to think good thoughts: “Whatever is true . . . honorable . . . just . . . pure . . . pleasing . . . and commendable.” Look for the positive side, for example, of your opponent’s argument. Again, in times of conflict the natural tendency is to think negative thoughts about your opponent, which, of course, is usually reciprocated by your opponent. Before too long your opponent becomes the face of pure evil, a feeling that is always returned in spades. In America today there exists this escalation of negative thoughts about one’s political, religious, and moral foes. Blue state people see red state people as narrow-minded, bigoted and greedy. Red state people see blue state people as completely immoral and without values. We have come to this point in our national discourse because we are too willing to think bad thoughts rather than good thoughts about those with whom we disagree. We are a nation of disagreeable people.
How do we break this impasse? Other than follow Paul’s advice of rejoicing in the Lord, being gentle, being prayerful, and thinking good thoughts, one way to break out of our disagreeable habits is to see God as the God of our opponent as well as our God. This is illustrated in a story told by an American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. I’ll close with this story without offering an explanation. In good Buddhist fashion I’ll let it speak for itself:
There was a god who knew how men and women love to believe things to be true and make clubs and religions and political systems with the people who agree with them. They just love to make something out of nothing and then write its name on a big banner and march down the street waving it and yelling and screaming, only to have people who believe the opposite come toward them with their banner, yelling and screaming. (Does this sound familiar?) This god decided to try to prove a point about the human condition so that people might, in seeing the absurdity of it, have a good laugh. He constructed a big hat divided right down the middle, the left side of which was brilliant blue and the right side flaming red. Then he went to a place where many people were working in the fields on the left side of a road and many other people were working in the fields on the right side of the road.
There the god manifested in all his glory; no one could miss him. Big and radiant, wearing his hat, he walked straight down the road. All the people on the right side of the road dropped their hoes and looked up at this god; all the people on the left side of the road did the same. Everybody was amazed. Then he disappeared. Everyone shouted, “We saw God! We saw God!” They were all full of joy, until someone on the left said, “There he was in all his radiance and in his blue hat!” And people on the right said, “No, he had on a red hat.” This disagreement escalated until the people built walls and began to throw stones at each other.
Then the god appeared again. This time he walked in the other direction and then disappeared. Now all the people looked at each other and the ones on the right said, “Ah, you were right, he did have on a blue hat. We’re so sorry, we just saw incorrectly. You were right and we were wrong.” The ones on the other side said, “No, no. You were right. We were wrong.” At this point they didn’t know whether to fight or to make friends. Most of them were completely puzzled by the situation. Then the god appeared again. This time he stood in the middle and he turned to the left and then he turned around to the right, and everyone started to laugh.