The other week I attended an event at the Houses of Parliament on the thorny issue of poverty. Iain Duncan Smith was the key note speaker and there was a room packed full of experienced people who knew a lot about the subject.
I thought IDS spoke well, but despite the auspicious surroundings and a great turn out the event was very frustrating. Why? Because in the two hours of the meeting there was not one word of proper disagreement, contradiction or meaningful debate.
It was due to the way that the meeting was structured. As is often the case the amount of speeches should have been halved and the time for questions and answers doubled. But also, with a subject like poverty you need to line up people who are prepared to disagree and contradict each other. This is an issue which matters and we should not be shy of passionate debate. It should be controversial. But instead of provocation, we heard platitudes and everyone nodding their heads in meaningless agreement.
The energy of real debate
It was an example of the importance of disagreement to provide energy in a discussion. This is true in both political and theological debate where everyone needs their views challenged and shaken if they want to truly grow. This is why people enjoy speeches or sermons which challenge them – because they produce an energy for change – especially when you don’t agree with 100% of what you are hearing. It’s so important to avoid the deadening conformity of getting stuck in a circle of people where everyone agrees.
‘Negativity is essential, for if the positive remains alone, it is unchanged, stable and inert… for example, an unchallenged society, a force without counterforce, a person engaged in no dialogue, an unstimulated professor, a church without heretics, a sole party without rivals, is enclosed within the permanent repetition of its own image.
It will be satisfied with what it has done thus far and will see no reason to change…the only thing that can bring about change or evolution is contradiction, challenge…this factor carries with it the transformation of the situation.’
I think this principle is true across all walks of life. A healthy culture in workplaces, churches, political parties, clubs, conferences – and even in families and between couples – depends on those involved being able to disagree well. Positive growth and change simply do not come through everyone agreeing all the time.
Sadly, a cocktail of our national temperament, niceness and soppy theology means that churches and Christian charities in the UK are often riddled by a brittle, unassertive culture where people are afraid of proper debate. It’s not healthy. Its essential that we learnt to discuss issues assertively without rupturing relationships – but we need to remember that Jesus was never afraid to disagree. He knew you can’t cleanse a temple without turning over some tables.
PS: Let’s have some comments which contradict me!