Friday, November 20, 2009

Let's Learn instead of Being Defensive

It is hard not to be defensive. When one's ideas or, even more, when one's personhood is being attacked or criticized it is hard not to be defensive. But being defensive rarely produces positive results, and it often keeps us from learning valuable lessons.

June and I have been married for more than fifty-two years, and like most married couples we have had our disagreements from time to time. Because of those tensions, we have read and discussed several books about marital relationships. One of the most helpful books we have read is Do I Have to Give Up Me to Be Loved by You? (1983; second edition, 2002) by a married couple, Dr. Jordan Paul and Dr. Margaret Paul.

One of the most helpful suggestions in the Pauls' book, and one of the hardest to put into practice, is that of substituting exploration for defensiveness. Whether between marriage partners or between other persons with whom we engage in serious interaction, they suggest that when criticisms are made, the person being criticized should seek to use that as a means of exploring what lay behind the criticism and what could be learned from it rather than seeking to defend himself or herself from the criticism being leveled.

Let's relate this matter to my posting on November 13. I have heard considerable defensiveness with regard to what Dr. Cone has written in the past and to what he said publicly at William Jewell College last week. No doubt some, or perhaps even much, of what the "defenders," of whom to some degree I have to include myself, have said is correct.

But rather than being defensive, our most natural reaction to harsh criticism, is it possible for us to use Dr. Cone's sharp words to explore more about the pain that he and generations of African-Americans have experienced? And is it possible to examine ourselves to see whether we are not still doing less than we might to help relieve some of that pain?

Whenever I hear criticism, as a spouse, as a white person, or in some other role, I want more and more to use such criticism as a springboard for exploration and learning instead of reacting defensively. Do you need to make the same resolve?

1 comment:

  1. Yes, indeed, Leroy. Exploration over defensiveness every time. It's good in adult relationships of every sort, especially those of married folk. And, learning and teaching how to do it is surely one of the outcomes of my own notion of religious education.

    But part of the difficulty in doing it boils down to an assessment of the stakes (this might be more meaningful if we were talking about steaks!) involved. To be open to others' views is at least to acknowledge plurality. Plurality leads to relativizing of views once held absolutely (note: I have avoided the "isms" in both cases). And frankly, many folk, are in no mood to live with any mode of relativizing (although I think it to be unavoidable at certain levels).

    What are the stakes of such plurality for church identities? Monumental, it seems, unless we understand Jesus' message as one that embraces plurality in such a way that by doing so relativizes relativizing. And, that can go positively or negatively, it seems to me. If it goes in a positive way, institutions serve people (and establish criteria for doing so); if it goes in a negative way, people serve institutions (and measure success not by the health of persons but by the health of the institutional authority).