How to Have a Civil Conversation: An Interview with Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers
More than ever, modern cultural conversation seems driven by conflict and anger. People sitting together in pews every Sunday have started to feel like strangers, loved ones at the dinner table like enemies. What is the biblical way to have a civilized dialogue?
Bible Gateway interviewed Sarah Stewart Holland (@bluegrassred) and Beth Silvers (@nkybeth), two friends on opposite sides of the aisle who provide a practical guide to grace-filled conversation while challenging readers to put relationship before policy and understanding before argument in their book, I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations (Thomas Nelson, 2019).
How does Colossians 3:12 pertain to people wanting to have a civilized conversation with each other when they each have opposing viewpoints?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: This verse is such a beautiful entry point for talking about conflict. First, it implicitly presumes conflict among God’s people. There would be no need for meekness, humility, patience, and compassion if we all agreed on everything all the time. Second, Paul counsels us to prioritize our relationships during this disagreement. We’re reminded in the initial words that we’re connected by God, that we’re “dearly loved.” And finally, we’re told to engage with one another through a lens of sharing that love. We’re to treat one another with tenderness, even when we have opposing viewpoints. We can hold the tension of our disagreement while being gentle with each other. It’s advice that, if followed, would revolutionize our capacity for discussions with each other.
How does the Bible characterize conflict?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: Frequent references to conflict in the Bible lead us to believe that God understands conflict as part of the human condition and also a pathway to loving each other more fully. Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). This indicates to us that being part of God’s family is recognizing that we will disagree, and that our work is to overcome that disagreement.
How can people engage each other with respect and empathy?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: During his life, Jesus spoke kindly with people regardless of physical ailment, ethnicity, sex, or socio-economic status. There are no examples of Jesus being condescending or trying to win an argument. He sat alongside people, even when he shared very difficult truths with them. Jesus—the divine in human flesh—told stories and asked questions. This is how we see engaging with respect and empathy. Let’s tell stories and ask questions.
What does the biblical mandate to “love one another” mean when people are disagreeable and unlovable?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: The Bible doesn’t describe love as an emotion. It describes it as a verb. We aren’t given the luxury of loving only the agreeable and lovable. Instead, we’re told to love each other as we’re loved by Christ (John 13:34). We both try to be nice people, but we can be extremely disagreeable and unlovable sometimes. God loves us anyway. That’s our work. We don’t see “loving” as meaning “agree to disagree.” We’ve never had spiritual experiences where God agrees to disagree with us. We also don’t see loving as “let’s having one very intense argument and give up.” Loving is a long-term exercise in patience, listening, suggesting, questioning, looking for opportunities to uplift and affirm, guiding when it’s appropriate, meeting needs, and showing up.
Ephesians 4:25-26 says “we are all members of one body” and that we should “not let the sun go down while [we] are still angry.” What are practical ways to accomplish that?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: Again, the Bible makes our priorities clear. We can be angry, but first, we’re members of one body. And last, we’re members of one body. Our anger, our need to be right, our passions are always subordinated to our connection. Practically speaking, this means we need to cultivate multi-dimensional relationships. When we disagree, we need places to go outside that disagreement to remind us of our connection. We can have conversations about the things we share to help pull us back in each other’s directions. It also means that we need to reflect on what we take personally. If we’re living based on Christ’s example, then we’ll take more responsibility for loving our friends than for being right about an issue.
What do you mean when you ask in the book, “are we building or wrecking?”
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: The work we do and the relationships we create in our lives matter. When we think about building, we envision a contribution to a more just, kind, peaceful world. When we think about wrecking, we envision dividing the world into categories, sowing distrust and animosity. It’s much like the instruction in Hebrews 12:14-15. We want to make every effort to live in peace so that people can see holiness (building). We don’t want to deprive people of the experience of grace and create “bitter roots…[that] cause trouble” (wrecking).
What does it mean to be gracious in conversation?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: “Gracious” is one of our favorite words! We think graciousness sums up the list of loving characteristics from 1 Corinthians 13 pretty well. When we think about graciousness in conflict, we’d share that it means being generous: concede when the person you’re talking to makes a good point. It means being humble: admit what you don’t know or what you might be getting wrong. It means being kind: even when you adamantly disagree, don’t belittle the person you’re speaking with. It means keeping a conversation in perspective: this disagreement is one piece of your relationship, not its defining characteristic. It means being open and knowing you could be missing things: “for now we see only as a reflection in a mirror…” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
How can the principles in your book be used when sharing the gospel with an unbeliever?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: Our book talks about the importance of meeting people where they are in the context of disagreements. In the context of sharing God’s love, Jesus counseled the same thing. He fed people before asking them to listen to a message. He healed sickness. He washed his disciples feet. And he said, clearly, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
When we meet people where they are, we prioritize their needs over our own desires to have them see the world our way. Moving through conflict gracefully is not about winning debates; it’s about earning the other person’s interest in your thoughts. We think the same applies to sharing our faith: it’s not about winning a person over by shouting them down or refusing to engage from their perspective; it’s about living the gospel in a way that inspires others and helps them to see the characteristics of Christ in us.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: We love the story of Jesus drawing in the sand and refusing to condemn a woman accused of adultery told in John 8:1-11. Jesus didn’t desire to be right or to validate the righteousness of others. He didn’t even need to say much. He just invited everyone to be aware of their own humanity. If Jesus refuses to condemn others, if Jesus says, essentially, that love and forgiveness are more important than the rules, surely we can, too.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: Bible Gateway offers us tremendous resources that we use often. It’s so helpful to be able to seek out biblical wisdom by topic, to see different versions of texts, and to draw on thoughtful devotionals and reading plans.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers: We see listening as a spiritual exercise. We hope I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations is an invitation for people who might avoid conflict to see it instead as a way to deepen their relationships.
I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening) is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Sarah Stewart Holland (from the left) is a former Hillary Clinton campaign worker and Capitol Hill staffer who left her life in DC behind to move back to her hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, to raise a family. In 2016, she went back to politics in a big way with the launch of Pantsuit Politics and her decision to run for the Paducah City Commission. After knocking on 5,523 doors, Sarah was elected in November and is serving her first term on the City Commission.
Beth Silvers (from the right) is a business coach, speaker, and yoga teacher. After law school, Beth joined a prestigious Cincinnati-based law firm, where she worked in business restructuring during the worst financial crisis of our generation and eventually became an HR executive. Beth now helps businesses and individuals realize their potential. She is a graduate of Leadership Northern Kentucky and has been named an HR GameChanger by Workforce Magazine and one of Cincinnati’s Forty Under 40. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Union, Kentucky.
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July 20, 2019