“Only by pride cometh contention” (Proverbs 13:10).
Research is clear. We humans are not objective. We gather data very selectively. We ignore or discard truths we don’t like. We see bias in others without seeing our own. We judge those we disagree with to be illogical. When we disagree substantially, we attack their integrity and character. We excuse ourselves and our friends for our weaknesses while emphasizing and exaggerating the (similar) weaknesses of our enemies.
Each of these failings is a well-attested tendency in human nature. They are a part of the human condition. They might be considered pride because, at their root, they lead each of us to believe that we have a privileged and superior view of truth. These tendencies cause us to diminish others’ views while trumpeting our own. Perhaps we suffer the highest form of pride when we imagine we are immune to these trappings of our fallenness.
The Natural Man is an Enemy to Other Men
Our narrow-mindedness and judging do not paint a pretty picture of humans. It is clear that, in the long history of this burdened orb, it is rare for groups of people to coexist peacefully. Resentment, bias, and misunderstanding are the norm. We humans are afflicted with terminal hardening of the categories–we draw lines that exclude people who are not like us dispositionally, religiously, politically, racially, philosophically, etc. while we show compassion to those we like and who agree with us.
The Book of Mormon provides a magnificent case study of this painful truth. When righteous Captain Moroni did not get the supplies and reinforcements that he needed, he jumped to malicious conclusions. He filled his innocent ignorance with vile supposition. He accused Pahoran of sitting on his throne in a thoughtless stupor (v. 7), and repeatedly suggested that he was negligent and wicked. He even hypothesizes that Pahoran might be a traitor. He accused him of idleness and iniquity and threatened to smite him (v. 30).
Wow! If this is the way the righteous deal with differences and difficulties, what hope is there for those of us who are less righteous?
As we know from our vantage point, at the time of Moroni’s tirade, Pahoran was back home dealing with an impossible insurrection in the best way he knew how. He was displaced and overwhelmed. His remarkable response broke the usual human cycle of recrimination. “And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (Alma 61:9). It is not easy to rejoice in the greatness of the heart of one who is attacking us. But Pahoran was not a common man.
Is this frank story included in the great Book of Mormon record in order to invite us of the latter days to be wiser than Captain Moroni? Did the Book of Mormon editor know that division and contention would be particular challenges in the last days? I don’t know. Yet I’m confident that God wants us to learn from the story.
Bringing Peace to Our Dialogues
King Benjamin’s warning applies to today’s world: “beware lest there shall arise contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit” (Mosiah 2:32). What Jesus said about doctrinal disputations must surely apply more broadly:
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away. (3 Nephi 11:29-30)
Imagine a world where contention was indeed done away! What an extraordinary thought! And what an extraordinary time it was when the influence of Jesus filled the people and changed their natures for most of two centuries: “And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people” (4 Nephi 1:15).
I worry about the contention that seems to define our time. Not only do we grouch in traffic but we scowl in our families. And our professional discourse seems to be reaching new levels of coarseness. The media are filled with hatemongering. E-mails flood our inboxes with accusation and harsh judgments of our political opponents.
Is this the way God would have us get to Truth? Is this how a Christian nation is supposed to settle its differences?
It seems that President Benson’s invitation is timely: “Think of what pride has cost us in the past and what it is now costing us in our own lives, our families, and the Church. . . . We can choose to humble ourselves by conquering enmity toward our brothers and sisters, esteeming them as ourselves, and lifting them as high or higher than we are” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 4).
Jesus Himself set the lofty standard: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). When we are true disciples, we respond to attacks with love, blessings, and service. I’m afraid that true disciples are rare.
Examples of Modern Contention
In our families we often interpret misunderstandings as insults and harbor grudges—or we forgive and love. We choose between opposites. In our wards and workplaces we commonly chafe at the presumption and inconsideration of others—or we choose to be grateful for the good. In the political arena, we choose to vilify our enemies—and even impugn their motives—or we learn to listen more appreciatively to the views of others.
Let’s consider an example. Many people have been concerned about previous federal legislation related to healthcare. I admit that I have serious concerns about both the legislation and the process that got us the legislation. But, that aside, there is a true principle connected to the new law. That principle is the oft-repeated heavenly mandate to care for the poor.
God is clear: Our spiritual well-being depends upon our care for those who are hungry, sick, and poorly housed (see, for example, Mosiah 4:26). So if we have concerns about this legislation we can choose to focus solely on our disagreements or we can remember that in spite of those disagreements, we share an end-goal in common—to provide care for those in need—and be willing to build on that shared interest.
True principles should be honored in any solution. Yet one of the chronic human problems is that we narrow our vision before we begin our discussions. We cannot get to good solutions when we start a discussion with our positions already staked out and a defend-ourselves-at-all-costs attitude.
One of my favorite sayings is that it is a pretty thin pancake that does not have two sides. Thin indeed. The human danger is that we may identify those who disagree with us as enemies rather than identifying contention and judgment as the enemies. When we’re sure we’re right, we’re not very good listeners or learners.
Let’s consider another example involving four individuals who received the 2010 Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
“In February 2009, amid one of the worst budget crises in California’s history, an imploding economy, and potentially catastrophic partisan deadlock, the state’s Republican and Democratic party leaders came together to address the financial emergency. After weeks of grueling negotiation, the legislative leaders and Gov. Schwarzenegger reached an agreement on a comprehensive deal to close most of a $42 billion shortfall, putting an end to years of government inaction and sidestepping of the difficult decisions necessary to address California’s increasingly dire fiscal crisis. The deal was objectionable to almost everyone; it contained tax increases, which the Republicans had long pledged to oppose, and draconian spending cuts, which brought intense criticism to the Democrats.” (News Release, May 24, 2010, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation)
In the process of attempting to come up with a bi-partisan solution, these officials had to withstand extraordinary constituent and party pressure. Reportedly they were attacked by the media and received a flood of angry e-mails including death threats. The two Republicans were ousted from their party leadership positions. Their proposal was not adopted and California continues to struggle with budget deficits that threaten to prolong the state’s financial crisis.
I am not a citizen of California and I do not know the worthiness of their proposal. But I am saddened that the efforts of leaders of both political parties to come together and problem solve in spite of their differences apparently ended in public anger and death threats instead of encouragement towards a fruitful dialogue and productive action.
Without Charity We are Nothing
When Jesus asked us to love one another, He did not provide an exception for those whose viewpoints do not align with ours. In fact, if we look to Him as an example, He made a point of befriending those like the tax collector whose politics were widely detested.
The scriptures tell us that even if we have all knowledge, if we do not combine it with charity it negates our knowledge. “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Without charity the position we are taking becomes worthless no matter how much we believe we are right—or may even be right!
As we interact with viewpoints that disagree with ours—whether in our family, our ward, or on the national political stage—do we make charity central to our approach?
• Are we willing to listen respectfully and openly to opinions that are different than ours?
• Do we desire to understand the perspective of others whether or not we agree with them?
• Do we avoid speaking in insulting or inflammatory ways about people or positions that we disagree with so that we promote thoughtful and diplomatic discussion?
• Do we exhibit charity in all that we do and say?
As an aside, I believe it is a mistake for policymakers to undertake major social experiments based only on their own best guesses about the effects of their policies. Rather than policymakers fussing and grandstanding in the process of creating their best guess of a good strategy, why not invite the test of various policy options in several states before settling on a national policy? This would take more time but we would be less likely to end up with unwise and untested policies riddled with holes and patches.
But this is not my central point. I return to the beginning of this article: we humans are all biased and limited. I believe God deliberately designed us so that we can never get to sensible choices unless we listen to those who believe differently from us. God wants us to learn from each other—especially those who can bring different viewpoints to our deliberations. Charity is God’s mandate for fruitful discussions. We who belong to His Church should strive to be examples to the world of this principle. When facing the important issues of our day, may we always choose an approach based on charity over contention.
By H. Wallace Goddard and Barbara Keil
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