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July 11, 2013

WEB EXTRA: Courting disagreement

— When the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases involving same-sex marriages they knew that whatever their decision, a large group of people would disagree with them.

Perhaps the justices have come to realize that will always be the outcome and they have learned to not care. But in a culture of polarizing issues, there may be none as explosive as the issue of homosexuality and gay marriages.

A recent Time magazine article opined that however the Supreme Court rules, the issue of same-sex marriage will not be silenced and seems certain to divide Americans and states for many years to come.

There is no question that both of these cases are incredibly important. The decisions the court rendered will carve new paths in the definitions of marriage, relationships, benefits and rights. In nothing short of a Roe v Wade manner, the court understood it was shaping history. There is legacy involved in such a decision.

It is our culture — fueled at least in part by the media — to view the decision as a “win-lose” proposition. Moments after the court released its report, groups on one side were cheering, while on the other side there were feelings of anger and hurt, coupled with a spirit of regrouping for the next battle. Words in the papers and on television included “overwhelming defeat,” “historical win,” “knock-out blow” and “victorious celebration.” The terms themselves cultivate divisiveness and bitterness.

Debates will continue. Speculation about the implications of the decisions will flourish. More courtroom drama will play out. Bur perhaps the most important lesson that should come from this is for us to think about how we communicate when we disagree.

First, disagreements arise when definitions cannot be agreed upon or are indiscriminately used. I remember when a student described the music of a particular rock star as “bad.” At first, I was excited to know that some younger adults had excellent taste in music, until I listened closely and discovered that “bad” meant “good.” Going forward, it will be important that words are chosen carefully and defined clearly.

While Christians understand that the church — through the words of God in the Bible — define the marriage relationship, the truth is in society it is the government that regulates how a marriage, and the dissolution of a marriage, can be justly administered.

In the early days of American history, the Judeo-Christian ethic and culture were accepted by a wide majority of her leaders and her public. Both secular and Christian historians would agree that today America is living at best in a post-Christian era. Christian morality and thought may still be in the majority, but it is such a slim majority that biblical definitions and practices are no longer universally accepted.

It might have been advantageous for a brand new word — other than marriage — be used to capture the meaning of the same-sex union. Rights, privileges and benefits could have been the same, but a different word might have fostered clarity and distinction. The more clearly we define words, the greater the chance for understanding.

Next, not only are the words we choose important, the way we choose to talk is important. A couple of years ago, I approached the main entrance of the convention center in downtown Cincinnati.

On one side of the street, outspoken members of a church in Texas were picketing about preferential treatment given to the homosexual community. On the other side of the street, members of the BLGT community were protesting the oppression of the homosexual community. Both groups were also demonstrating against the people on the other side of the street. If we really have a message that the other side needs to hear, it is imperative that we say it in a way that will help the other side listen and understand.

A church in Ohio used to have the slogan, “People never care how much we know until they know how much we care.”

If we are not able to find a way to communicate, not only are we courting disagreement, we are courting disaster.

  — Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast.

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