Asking the Wrong Questions

September 30, 2007

A few months ago I wrote a column about "Say Something Nice Sunday," which was an effort in Charleston, South Carolina to get Christians to be more Christ-like and civil with their words by saying only nice things about each other. I argued that although it was a good idea, what we really need is more than just one day a year. Mitch Carnell, the man who came up with the idea of the day, offered a positive review of my book (For God's Sake, Shut Up!) as it echoed his call for more civil discourse.

I assumed that the idea of "Say Something Nice Sunday" would not be controversial. Apparently, however, I was wrong. Donald Hank, a columnist who writes columns at Alan Keyes's RenewAmerica and elsewhere, attacked the "Say Something Nice Sunday" effort and Carnell (Hank made this attack in two columns found here and here). Hank throws out wild examples like Hitler to justify his attack of being nice. As I argue in my book, using the "Hitler card" generally shows that someone is not really wanting to engage in true dialogue. Carnell was not talking about being nice to Hitler but about the person that sits in the pew in front of you or in the pew in the church next door. Hank then goes on a guilt-by-association hunt in order to find something about which he can attack Carnell and his church. That is another sign that he is unwilling to engage in real dialogue.

I have since discovered first-hand Hank's inability to have a conversation. I emailed him about his second column because he referenced Carnell's review of my book. Hank wrote in his column:

Read: accept gay marriage, abortion, apostasy and moral relativism. In other words, shut up and let us liberals define your beliefs (I'm not exaggerating about the "shut up" part. Mitch's web site contains a favorable book review of "For God's Sake, Shut Up!").
Actually, he was exaggerating about the "shut up" part, which is why I emailed him. I am not wanting conservative Christians to shut up so liberals can define their beliefs. Actually, I want all Christians to learn to speak up effectively (which is the whole point of the book), but I also argue that it is better to shut up than say something that hurts your cause. I emailed Hank to let him know that he clearly had not read my book or else he would not (mis)use it like he did to attack Carnell. I made a few points to him and wrote about a 150 word response to his statement. His response, however, ignored everything I wrote and instead demonstrated that he was not going to engage me in meaningful discussion. He wrote:

Where do you stand on gay marriage?
I wrote him back about 275 words explaining why his email was problematic. Here is part of what I wrote:

Is that your idea of "discussion"? Are you going to pelt me with litmus test questions until you find something we disagree on? There is no indication that you have even considered what I have offered. Instead it seems that you are just trying to trap me with questions so you can attack me. If I have misread you, please correct me and accept my apology.

If, however, I have correctly read your strategy, then it is representative of the problems in Christian discourse today. It is sad that Christian discourse seems much more like the Pharisees and Sadducees with their trick questions about paying taxes or marriage in Heaven (for the record: I pay my taxes and wish there would be marriage in Heaven because I really love my wife!). We need to treat each other more like neighbors and less like accused criminals being interrogated.
He sent another two emails in reply asking me to answer the question and ignoring everything I had written him. At that point I quit responding because it was clear that meaningful dialogue would not occur. In all he wrote less than 50 words in three emails. He was either unwilling or unable to figure out how to carry on a conversation. Instead, he just wanted to attack. If I had passed the test of his first question he probably would have just given another question (likely the abortion one).

Jesus taught us by example how to deal with such trick questions--avoid them. When people asked sincere questions, Jesus asked them. When, however, they were just trying to attack him, Jesus often avoided giving a clear answer. If someone asks these types of questions, they have shown that they are not willing to truly listen to you. They do not care what you say. They are not really listening but just trying to nitpick your comments until they can find something on which they can attack you. It is time to not only say nice something nice about our Christian brothers and sisters, but to also work on being open to true dialogue. We need to really listen to each other and stop asking the wrong questions.