Neighborly Arguments

Abraham Lincoln was pithy. 

Many of his quotes sound like they could have been lifted straight out of Proverbs. Some, in fact, were! 

One stood out to me as I processed this scripture. Lincoln is thought to have said, although evidence is scant, a version of Proverbs 17:28. The quote goes like this: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Every year at Annual Conference, I’m given reason to think of this quote. Inevitably, someone stands up on the floor of the conference and says something cringe-worthy and ridiculous. So much so, that a collective groan across the conference can sometimes be heard. And always, when some speaks and, as Lincoln would say, removes all doubt, hurt and conflict ensue.

We’ve all been in conversations at times where someone says something ridiculous and cringe-worthy, something that does harm. We might want to retort with our own words and, sometimes, we do, giving rise to conflict. This is especially true on social media. The megaphone social media seems to give becomes a temptation to speak poorly, which too often leads to conflict, hurt, and further division. 

It’s to conflict, and specifically to how we speak when there is conflict or the potential for conflict, that we turn today in our sermon series on neighborliness. What does it mean to follow the golden rule when there’s conflict? When that conflict finds its way to you? When you want to lash out or speak the truth but doing so will cause problems? 

This morning, Proverbs speaks to these very questions as it discusses neighborliness. Let’s hear that scripture, beginning at the end of verse 7 in chapter 25. 

Scripture

Conflict is inevitable. 

That’s a truth that comes through in our scripture today. Proverbs has a strength in its timelessness: it’s ability to speak to what’s always been true and what will always be true about human nature. There was conflict in the royal court of the Kings of Israel and Judah, the audience for this book, and there is still conflict in the world today. Disputes arise with neighbors, enemies are incurred, requiring negotiating the relationship in challenging ways. 

So what do we do with that conflict? 

By conflict, Proverbs deals both with the immediate, interpersonal, conflicts we know with our family, friends, and neighbors and to culture wars and other social conflicts. We might like to ignore conflict, but it will keep coming back to our door. 

There’s the old friendship whose conversations often ends in dispute. We call these folks frenemies. 

There’s the family dispute that’s gone on for ages. Perhaps so long that it’s at a stalemate, with all sides accepting that permanent division is the way of life.

There’s the larger societal dispute that affects both friends and family. I’ve heard from some of you that our current political climate has divided your own families, with arguments becoming heated and feelings getting hurt. That’s happened among friends, too. I see it in our community and I see it in our personal life.  

What do we do in those moments? How are we to handle this conflict? 

I’m reading a book right now on Churchill, specifically his first year as Prime Minister during the blitz. The book focuses in large part on his speeches, how he rallied an entire country. Most people didn’t know him personally, most people couldn’t even seen him because he was broadcast over the radio, but he spoke, and he spoke often, and the people listened and were encouraged to bunker down and endure tremendous hardship so they could move toward victory. Churchill’s power, his ability to carry a nation through one of its darkest days, had much to do with his public speaking.

Consider how we remember Abraham Lincoln. In his memorial, a place I love visiting and have visited often, two of his speeches are carved into the stone. On the left and right of his statue, there’s the Gettysburg Address and part of his Second Inaugural, perhaps one of the greatest speeches in American history. 

Consider if I named for you several historical figures. Like Franklin Roosevelt. I bet one of the first things you hear in your head is his voice saying, “we have nothing to fear but, fear itself.” His words ring out more in our collective memory than his policies. Or consider John F. Kennedy. I can imagine in your head you hear his New England accent saying, “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” The other night, I watched the movie First Man about Neil Armstrong. They showed the clip of Kennedy saying, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” The movie implied that it was Kennedy’s speeches that tipped the balance in favor of the space program, over and against the concerns from Congress about its cost.

Speeches are powerful. Indeed, speech is powerful. Words carry vast power, beyond what we usually can imagine. 

Now, these are powerful people who held what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit, the mouthpiece of the nation. It might be tempting to dissociate ourselves from them saying that we are not nearly so powerful. 

But consider in your memory when someone’s words have hurt you. That old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a lie. And we all know it.

Consider in your memory when someone’s words have hurt you.

Consider in your memory when your words have hurt someone else. 

Consider in your memory when a kind word has turned your day around. 

Consider in your memory when a kind word you spoke has turned someone else’s day around. 

Our words may not impact an entire nation, nor the world, but they still carry tremendous power. Even when not spoken through a speech or from a pulpit or lectern. Speech is powerful.

And that’s just the point Proverbs wants to make for us today. The first several verses we read speak to how words are powerful. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver…like the cold of snow in the time of harvest are faithful messengers to those who send them…” Then, the scripture moves for several verses to tell us of the problems of speaking poorly or wrongly, “Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of a gift never given…like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow is one who bears false witness against a neighbor…” 

Proverbs speaks these truths in the midst of talking about conflict: not going to court quickly during a dispute, handling a neighbor who takes advantage of you, dealing with enemies who are constant sources of conflict. There are many ways to deal with conflict but Proverbs wants to speak to the primary way conflict plays itself out: through speech. 

And what does Proverbs say? What is the message about how to speak in conflict?

Be strategic. Be patient. Be dispassionate.

Proverbs is great for giving very grounded, very applicable, wisdom. Sometimes, it’s tempting to just lift out individual verses because they contain much truth in and of themselves. But when we take sections together, we receive a larger concept of wisdom. And that’s exactly what this passage here does for us today. 

It speaks to handling conflict dispassionately. That means not responding, not speaking, out of anger nor any other emotion. It means, when we are feeling emotional and want to speak because of something someone has done to us or some way in which our societal moment has us feeling some sort of way, we must wait until the emotion subsides before speaking. 

For conflict is an opportunity for change. Conflict creates opportunity for there to be real change, real justice, real peace, if we handle it properly. 

In counseling, I learned about how to speak in a way that the other person could hear. That’s something I find implied by these verses. So often, when emotion clouds our judgment, we want to speak to be heard, we want to speak to let the other person know how we feel, we want to speak to give voice to the depths of us, and we don’t so much care if we can be heard. We just want to speak! We just want to be angry and let everyone know it. We just want to be righteous, even self-righteous, and make sure others know how right we are. We might even, sometimes, want to inflict harm on others.

But it’s in those moments, on social media, one on one, in our families, with our friends, that we live into the second part of that apocryphal Lincoln quote: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt..” When we speak to relieve ourselves of our emotions, we tend to do harm, damage, and cause trouble. 

Which is tough. Speech is powerful. One of the ways it’s powerful is in venting our emotions. But Proverbs says, counseling says, and if we’re honest, our own lived experience says, that using speech to vent our emotions does more harm than good. That fact comes through loudly and clearly on social media. Societal ills can get us riled up. So can politics. Giving vent to how society makes us feel online might feel good for a moment but, we know, we do harm in the end. 

We must realize, we must accept, that speech is powerful. That when we open our mouths or go to our keyboards, no matter how powerful or powerless we may feel, our words carry tremendous power. If we’re willing to admit to that, we can move forward into the wisdom that Proverbs provides. 

And that wisdom comes through in the famous verses found at the end, verses 21-22, that speak to what will happen if we speak rightly, “you will heap coals of fire on [the heads of your enemies] and the LORD will reward you.” 

This comes from an ancient Egyptian custom. When someone had repented, coal ash was put on their head. Not sure why, but the metaphor is clear: if we will speak rightly, repentance will be the result.

And what does Proverbs mean by speak rightly? First, what we’ve already examined, to speak dispassionately. To wait to speak until emotions have subsided long enough to give us clarity. To consider the hearer’s point of view and figure out how to say what needs to be said in a way the other person can hear. Real change comes when we show that kind of respect to another person. I’ve experienced that many times, for as you can imagine, being a pastor has its share of conflictual moments. For example, I’ve received harsh and nasty emails and let them sit until I can respond in a way I think the other person can hear. 

Or respond in a way that we think many others can hear if we’re talking about social media or other ways we’re present online. Can we speak online in a way that those on opposite sides of the issue can hear what we have to say? In a way that folks who might be enemies of our perspective can hear? Maybe not agree, but can feel respected and heard? That’s to speak dispassionately online, to practice loving your neighbor as yourself when handling societal ills.

This is simply following the golden rule. In conflict, I want others to treat me with respect and speak the truth in a way that I can hear it. And so it’s my task to do the same for others. When we do so, we love our neighbors as ourselves. 

But Proverbs doesn’t just leave it there. When there’s conflict, when we’re feeling passionate, when we’re riled up, we must speak. Speaking is powerful, speaking allows for venting what’s deepest within us because it gives voice to our emotions. The trick is to learn when and how to speak in conflict. 

When I have deep and challenging emotions that give rise to voice, I go first to my journal and to Dana. Those are safe places for me to say whatever I have to say however I have to say it, to give voice to my emotion and allow that emotion to vent itself. When I have done that, I am usually ready to go and speak publicly or directly to my neighbor or enemy, whether in person or online.

For some of you, coming to talk to me has that effect. Because of the significant confidentiality I hold, when you have a dispute with someone else, I am a safe place to come and vent emotions, to give voice to deep and difficult things, and then to be able to strategize about how to speak to your neighbor or enemy. 

Safe relationships, journals, and yelling at the steering wheel in the car, are all effective ways to get out what’s within us. Proverbs tells us that we must speak, for speech is powerful. Our emotions, whether related to a particular conflict with a friend or family member or related to larger societal problems, require that we speak to them. But we must choose the right place, and the right people, to give that voice. Otherwise, because of how powerful speech is, we will do harm. 

Proverbs calls for dispassionate conflict. That doesn’t mean conflict without passion. It means conflict free of each party using the conflict to vent their emotions. It means being strategic in how we approach conflict. 

For the scripture is clear: when we choose to go about conflict this way, properly venting our emotions first before going to settle the conflict, real and lasting change can occur. That’s because strategic, well-thought out, dispassionate, conflict can lead to repentance. 

In other words, when we love our neighbor as ourselves in conflict, in speech, repentance is often the result. 

So here’s where we begin. Consider conflicts in the past where you have said words that did harm. Today, even right now, tell that person you’re sorry. Apologize and repent. Set the example you wish to see from your neighbor. That’s the place to begin; that’s loving your neighbor as yourself. 

Then, when conflicts arise or within current conflicts, go to safe places like a close relationship or a journal, get your emotions out, give voice to what’s deepest inside of you. Then, once the passion of the emotion has subsided, figure out how to go and speak. Frame your conversation with love, not trying to force change,  but confident that doing so will cause change. God is the change agent; we merely pave the way.

And let me say, it may also be that you choose to say nothing. Sometimes, the best course of action after we have vented our emotions responsibly is to simply remain silent and allow the conflict to pass. I think this is usually the best course of action online. Social media is such an echo chamber. To be heard is extremely difficult. So, perhaps, best to give voice to how politics and society make us mad and offend us to our spouse, a close friend, our journal, in prayer, or to the steering wheel of the car, and then leave it be. Speech is powerful and makes us feel powerful, thinking that we can affect some sort of change. But all too often, rather than affecting change, we look like that Lincoln quote: the fool who opened his mouth. 

Conflicts can be opportunities for positive change, for growth, for repentance. If, if, we will handle them responsibly; if we will handle them by loving our neighbor as ourselves. 

So go and repent, apologize, to neighbors you’ve hurt with your words. And then, when there’s conflict in the future, whether with a neighbor or with society at large, listen to this paraphrase of Lincoln, which is a paraphrase of Proverbs, and hold it close:

“Better to remain silent until the emotion has subsided and be thought a fool then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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