This seems worth departing for a moment from my Lenten fare of reflections on the Gospel of Luke.

There are not many people who have had the opportunity to learn the value of conversation and the rich possibility of reconciliation in as firey a cauldron as Megan Phelps-Roper.

In a recent TED TALK, Phelps-Roper describes in a moving presentation, the painful process of leaving the church in which she grew up and moving out into a bigger, freer world, more diverse and respectful world.

Unlike many people who choose to leave their church, the choice for Megan Phelps-Roper was uniquely costly. For her, leaving her church meant more than just losing a familiar comfortable community of faith; it meant losing her family. Her grandfather, Fred Phelps, was the founder of Westboro Baptist Church.

Megan’s mother Shirley Lynn Phelps-Roper, a lawyer in Kansas, was a prominent spokesperson for the church which has an international reputation for its vicious anti-gay and anti-Jewish protests. For Megan to question these actions was to drive a wedge between herself and the community of true believers in which she had grown up and to be separated from her family. [I wrote about Fred Phelps and our response to his beliefs here: https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/dont-hate-fred-phelps/%5D

In her TED TALK, Phelps-Roper describes the process of her awakening to the painful reality of her church’s actions. She concludes by outlining four principles she learned for moving towards genuine conversation and the possibility of real reconciliation. These principles are deceptively simple but potentially powerful:

  1. don’t assume bad intent

  2. ask questions

  3. stay calm

  4. make the argument

1. It is so easy and tempting in any disagreement to assume that your adversary is driven to their position by some evil intent. To her enormous surprise, Phelps-Roper discovered outside her community of true believers in the world she had been taught to view as irredeemably evil, that there were truly good and kind people. She found that these people she had been trained to disagree with, had good reasons for their beliefs and that their understanding of life had a value she had never been able to see.

2. Questions lie at the root of all good conversation. When I am willing to ask questions, I begin to discover that there are good reasons behind my opponents’ beliefs, even if we may not agree in our conclusions. Of course, the questions need to go both ways. I also need to be willing to respond genuinely and openly to questions about my own beliefs and, ideally come to the place where I am willing myself to question my beliefs.

3. So many conversations run aground because we get caught in the drama of the exchange. We rush to justify or prove our position. Urgency seeps into our voice. We speak more quickly. We feel a pressure to prove our position. We shift from conversation to declaration and soon to badgering our opponent in an attempt to force them to see the obvious superiority of our position. These qualities all stem from our insecurity about our own position. True conviction does not demand agreement. Genuine faith can always embrace the possibility that others may see the world differently and is able to respect the person’s right to hold their view and learn from their position, even while disagreeing.

4. Phelps-Roper’s final dictum, “make the argument” is perhaps the most unexpected of her principles. She suggests that we must never assume that the value of our position is as self-evident to everyone else as it is to us. People with whom we disagree need to be given the opportunity to see the reasoning that brought us to our position. Of course, as we attempt to outline our thought-processes and, as as we are willing to respond to questions about this process, we may discover that the obviousness of our convictions becomes a little less obvious. This is the place where the possibility of reconciliation begins to open up.

Phelps-Roper’s talk should be widely viewed and taken to heart. It can be viewed here:

 

for more on Westboro Baptist see here:

https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/a-book-of-love-or-hatred/

https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/not-the-gospel/

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