Watch your convictions. They shape your thoughts.
Watch your thoughts: They shape your words.
Watch your words: They shape your actions.
Watch your actions: They shape your habits.
Watch your habits: They shape your character.
Watch your character: It shapes your destiny.
I added the first line to this famous old poem because I want to explore the connection between convictions and communication. The first piece in the series looks at the power of convictions. The next question is- how do you communicate it in a way that is true to who you are, AND keeps conversations alive?
Some beliefs, convictions or worldviews tend to close down conversation rather than opening it up. Seeing as Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday, a little football story might be in order-
Three players, Eli Manning, Tim Tebow, and Tom Brady, stand before the throne of God. They are all vying for the MVS, most valuable saint award which will decide who sits next to God.
God asks Eli Manning first: “What do you believe?” Eli thinks long and hard, looks God in the eye, and says, “I believe in God, family and country, I believe in hard work, and I like to give back where I can.”
God likes his answer, and offers Eli a seat to the left.
Then God turns to Tim Tebow and says, “What do you believe?”
Tim says, “I believe in Jesus as my Lord and savior. Jesus is the reason I play football. I play for Jesus. I win for Jesus. I live for Jesus.” Then he kneels with his fist on his forehead, the trademark Tebow mark of respect.
God is moved by his sincerity. God tebows back and offers him a seat to the right.
Finally, God turns to Tom Brady: “And you, Tom, what do you believe?”
Tom fixes his hair and replies, “God, I believe you’re in my seat.”
God must really like sports, based on the number of times God’s name is mentioned. But which team is God supporting? God seems to keep a foot in each camp, depending on who wins. Just once, I would like to hear a losing player give a post match speech and blame God. “So, can you tell us what went wrong out there?”
“Well, actually, I blame God for this one. Every time I threw the ball, God kept pushing my guys out of the way. God was making them fumble all over the field. It was God’s fault. And Jesus too. I blame God and Jesus; the pair of them.”
I don’t expect to hear that any time soon. It’s an interesting worldview. When things go well, it’s all credit to God. When things don’t go well, God is off the hook. And it’s not just sports. Whether it’s after a Super bowl triumph, an American Idol performance, the end of a President’s speech or while receiving an Academy Award, it’s not surprising to hear God mentioned in some form. (read on for more about convictions and communication)
It seems harmless enough from one perspective. We all know vaguely what people mean, and I suspect people are trying to be humble, which is an admirable quality. But God is also used to justify more significant things, such as divisive political opinions, personal prejudices and even violence and hatred towards “the enemy”. As Anne Lamott said, “You know you’ve created God in your image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”
Have you ever had people try and manipulate you with phrases like “God told me…..God wants this…..God expects that.” As the prominent atheist Sam Harris said, “Faith is a conversation stopper.” He may have borrowed the phrase from American philosopher Richard Rorty who wrote a paper called “Religion As a Conversation Stopper.”
“God said it. I believe it. That settles it” is the classic conversation stopper. As a communication technique, it’s akin to a parent saying “Because I said so.” Unfortunately we hear this style of communication on both sides of the liberal/ conservative divide. Conservatives use this line of reasoning to argue that things such as abortion and same sex marriage are against God’s will. Some leaders even go so far as to justify war, or genocide, on the basis that God told them to do it. It’s a conversation stopper, not because it’s convincing, but rather because it removes human responsibility from the equation. This is like the game changing order that came down the pipeline from corporate, only corporate took their orders from an unnamed and silent authority above and there is no paper trail other than questionable religious texts. “Just do what you are told” is the basic message.
Religious liberals have their own counter conversation stoppers. President Obama did it this past week. In a speech, Obama claimed that Jesus would support his desire to raise taxes on the rich. He quoted from the Bible, “from those to whom much has been given, much will be demanded.” It’s a bit of a stretch to apply this ancient text to modern day economic policy but as a general principle I can see the connection. Don’t get me wrong. I support the ending of the Bush tax cuts. And if I had to guess at what Jesus would think if he was around today, my hunch is that he would support the end of tax cuts for the wealthy too. But that’s just a guess, and as a communication devise it’s another conversation stopper. How do you have a rational conversation about what Jesus would or wouldn’t do or think? Is it really fair to claim to have the son of God in your corner?
I don’t think it is. I think it’s the other side of a coin that should be taken out of circulation. Decisions and opinions should be formed with all the best tools available to us, our minds and our democratic processes. The point is that you don’t NEED to back your opinion up with divine evidence. Be boldly yourself, and hold opinions that sit well with your own common sense. Be authentic to who you are, and be prepared to take a stand for what you value because it’s important to you.
There is an old story about four Rabbis who had a series of theological arguments, and three were always in agreement against the fourth.
One day, the odd Rabbi out, decides to appeal to a higher authority. “Oh, G-d!” he cries. “I know in my heart that I am right and they are wrong! Please give me a sign to prove it to them!”
Keep in mind that it’s a beautiful, sunny day. As soon as the Rabbi finishes his prayer, a storm cloud moves across the sky above the four. It rumbles once and dissolves. “A sign from G-d! See, I’m right, I knew it!” But the other three disagree, pointing out that it’s possible for storm clouds to form on hot days.
So the Rabbi prays again: “Oh, G-d, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, G-d, give them a bigger sign!”
This time four storm clouds suddenly roll in and sit right above them, and a bolt of lightning slams into a tree on a nearby hill.
“I told you I was right!” cries the Rabbi, but his friends insist that nothing has happened that could not be explained by natural causes.
The Rabbi is getting ready to ask for a “very big” sign, but just as he says “Oh G-d…” the sky turns pitch black, the earth shakes, and a deep, booming voice intones, “HEEEEEEEE’S RIIIIIIIGHT!”
The Rabbi puts his hands on his hips, turns to the other three, and says, “Well?”
“So,” shrugs one of the other Rabbis, “now it’s 3 to 2!”
That sounds like what you might hear in many church, and political, meetings. It’s a manipulative form of communication. It’s far healthier to have the conviction of your own opinions without any need to add divine reinforcements to your argument.
By the way, in case I need to say it, feel free to disagree with me. Just don’t tell me you disagree because of something you think God said and don’t gang up on me by putting God in your corner. That should be added to Robert’s Rules of healthy dialogue; God has no vote at the table and no voice in the conversation. If you really feel convicted about something, you don’t need to add any divine authority to your opinion.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating the end of faith in the way that Sam Harris does. I’m advocating the end of faith as a conversation stopper. If your faith is part of your convictions, then believe it boldly and don’t be afraid to express it. Just express it in a way that is true for you, without belittling or manipulating others and without closing down conversation. If it makes sense to you, God may even be another name for convictions; the still, small voice within that guides your life, motivates your actions, carves your character and shapes your destiny.
Bob Dylan wrote a song about using God to justify war. Seems fitting to end with some lyrics-
Oh the First World War, boys
It closed out its fate
The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.
When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.
But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side.
In a many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.
So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war.