Why ‘Making Space’ Isn’t Enough

An important goal, then, in our engagement with the views of others should be getting clear about what they actually believe and care about.

The world today feels as divisive as ever. Abortion, refugee resettlement, immigration, gun control, and freedom of religion are just a few topics that have pitted neighbor against neighbor and even Christian against Christian as many cling to their tribes no matter the cost while others find themselves without a political home. Where does that leave us as Christians? What is our duty to each other and to God? How can we move forward connected, with respect for one another, and united in our mission for Christ? The Banner has teamed up with the Center for Public Justice to release a series of articles exploring these topics. This is the third of six.

How do we engage people with whom we have deep disagreements about important matters of religious convictions, political commitments, or moral lifestyles? One approach is the angry confrontation that we see so much of these days in the viral videos—angry public encounters between people who call each other insulting names. At the other extreme is the toleration approach: We let those other folks believe and do what they want, as long as they do not keep us from believing and doing what we want.

Angrily shouting at folks we disagree with is clearly not what the Bible expects of us. The Apostle Peter makes this clear in his first epistle. In chapter 2 he tells us that we are to treat our fellow human beings with “proper respect” (I Peter 2:17), a point he repeats a chapter later when he says that in responding to those who ask us about “the reason for the hope” that is ours in Christ, we should “do this with gentleness and respect,” even when we know that they want to “slander” us (I Peter 3: 15-16).

What about the toleration option, which some Christians see as a workable alternative to angry confrontation? We should just “live and let live.” We agree to make space in our world for others in exchange for their making space for us.

Not only is the toleration approach increasingly difficult to sustain when we are daily made aware of societal polarization, but for Christians, it treats loving our neighbors as much too passive a thing. Christine Pohl makes this clear in her wonderful book on hospitality, with the title Making Room. From a biblical perspective, she argues, we have to engage our neighbors. Showing hospitality toward those who are different from ourselves means making room in our lives for their genuine human needs, their questions.

Pohl points out that Jesus made room for people whose lifestyles and ideas he strongly opposed. This is what got him into trouble with the religious leaders of his own day: “The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’“ (Luke 5:30). We can certainly understand something of the concerns of those religious leaders. There is a genuine vulnerability that often comes with a hospitable spirit, especially when it requires a willingness to be hospitable for the ideas and experiences of those with whom we disagree on serious matters. But we need to take the risks.

When the Apostle John tells us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1), he is assigning us an important task. “Testing” is more than simply accepting or simply condemning. We need to heed the biblical warning against calling “evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

Thinking carefully about the ideas of those with whom we disagree means being willing to learn true things that they have to teach us. John Calvin recognized this. As a student of law, when he was not yet a Christian, Calvin had become especially fond of the writings of ancient Roman thinkers, particularly Seneca, Cicero, and Aristotle. After his conversion he continued to like these pagan writers. In his Institutes, Calvin testified that he found in these thinkers an “admirable light of truth shining.” This should not be a surprise to us, he said, because “the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness,” can still be “clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.” To refuse to accept, then, the truth produced by such minds is “to dishonor the Spirit of God.” And Calvin goes on to make an even stronger theological point: we need to accept truth from non-Christians as due to a “peculiar grace of God.”

Calvinist theologians have taken this emphasis as an endorsement of the theology of “common grace,” a theological idea that has played an important part in Christian Reformed history. In addition to the saving grace of God, there is also a non-saving divine favor that God shows to persons outside the boundaries of the redeemed community, that produces truth, goodness and beauty that can bless our lives as Christians.

An important goal, then, in our engagement with the views of others should be getting clear about what they actually believe and care about. This often takes work, but it is necessary work. We are all aware as Christians that the Lord does not want us to bear false witness against our neighbors, and this certainly means not mischaracterizing their actual beliefs and motives.

There are also important societal issues at stake here. We live in a pluralistic society, in the midst of competing world views and moral systems. In this context, Christians should affirm the right to live by our deepest convictions while also pleading for the same rights of folks of other perspectives, religious or non-religious.

We Christians are compelled to share with others what the gospel means to us. In many cases, though, we have to earn the right to be heard by them. In my own dialogues with Jewish leaders, for example, I have been deeply moved by the pain they express regarding 2,000 years of being treated harshly by Christians: forced “conversions” and wickedly violent anti-Semitic practices. Muslim mothers have told me about their children being bullied in school yards. LGBT individuals have told me of inexcusable cruelty by Evangelicals. We need to learn from these cries of pain.

By repenting of our own sins against others, and by advocating justice for those with whom we disagree, we can hope for genuine opportunities to engage others in dialogue about the matters we care about. We may well earn the right to be heard by those with whom we disagree by defending their rights. To do this is not compromise. It is an important element in being faithful to the gospel of love and justice that Jesus came to earth to proclaim.

One of my cherished theological lessons comes in a line from a Christmas carol: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We need to discern the hopes and fears that are being played out in our highly polarized culture. This requires the cultivation of the kinds of spiritual qualities—humility, patience, empathy—that  equip us to point our neighbors, our fellow citizens, to the One who alone can satisfy the deepest longings of the human spirit.

About the Author

Richard J. Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary, is newly appointed Senior Research Fellow at Calvin University's Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics.
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