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Engaging in 'Sustained Dialogue'

You don't have to strain your eyes to see them - the cracks that run down racial, gender and doctrinal lines, splintering the Church into a multitude of factions. We're good at conflict. Too good. We build our self-assured walls, oblivious to the tragedy we create by our divisions. At the root of our disunity is closed ears; we aren't hearing each other. In his book Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity, Edward Gilbreath exhorts, "As members of the body of Christ, we should be determined to hear and understand the concerns of our brothers and sisters." That means we need to engage in conversation, and not just any conversation. We need Sustained Dialogue.

I first encountered Sustained Dialogue while serving as a moderator for a small group of Palestinian and Jewish students at the university where I work. Sustained Dialogue "focuses on transforming the relationships that cause problems, create conflict, and block change." It is promoted by The International Institute for Sustained Dialogue (IISD), an organization founded by former U.S. diplomat Dr. Harold Saunders to bring peace to war-torn regions. The goal of Sustained Dialogue is not agreement. Unlike mediation or negotiation, the point is not consensus, but rather improved relationships. It is about developing mutual respect, shared interests and a greater appreciation of our need for one another.

Sustained Dialogue is not for wimps. It is extremely challenging and naturally evokes tremendous emotion. I watched the Palestinian and Jewish students on my campus wrestle with the tension of the Middle East conflict. They struggled to move past anger and stereotypes to see their shared humanity. It was a triumph, if only a small one, when we all sat down together at an Afghani restaurant to share a meal and ask questions like, "What do you like to do on the weekends?" and "What classes are you taking?"

Recently, I had an opportunity to engage in my own difficult and painful dialogue. I was assigned to co-teach a Bible class with "Dave" who, I soon discovered, had disturbing views on his website. Among his gems: "[The Bible indicates] that women who get in trouble are women who didn't have a tendency to stay at home where they belong. The greater social activity outside the home that a woman has, the greater the danger she is going to end up idle and gossiping, or meeting a guy and going to bed with him." His perspectives on women doused salt on wounds from my fundamentalist past. I was so distressed I planned to cancel the class and never speak to him again. Every instinct urged me to flee.

God knows how, but instead of fleeing, I decided to talk to Dave about his views. I wanted to understand what was behind his theology. And, I wanted him to grapple with my grievances. Neither of us changed our opposing positions. But I came to realize Dave is not the villain I projected him to be. He is a man seeking to obey God the best he knows how; he is a father who loves his daughters; he is a fellow believer, albeit flawed like me. In the process, Dave also heard me. He agreed to remove three of the most offensive items from his website, something that never would have happened if I had walked away from dialogue.

Sustained Dialogue is a powerful tool we can use in our churches, communities and ministries. The International Institute for Sustained Dialogue offers resources to assist groups through five steps:

1. Deciding to engage in dialogue

2. Meeting together to name the problems (air grievances).

3. Probing the problems - not just what they are, but why (understanding each other's perspective).

4. Brainstorming positive scenarios (solutions)

5. Acting together to implement solutions.

As Christians, we are being "built together into a dwelling place for God." The travesty of our divisiveness is a fractured home. This, in turn, has global implications. Jesus prayed, "May they all be one . . . so that the world may believe You have sent me." Disagreement is inevitable, but that does not mean we can disown each other. Sustained Dialogue is a way to maintain family ties. Whether I like it or not, Dave is my brother, the son of my Father. And I am called to treat him like one.

January18, 2008 at 2:47 PM

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