Polite Conversation



by Ryan Mahoney

Just recently I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. As he sat across the table from me I was struck with the sense that we are talking about one thing, but just beneath the surface, we are really talking about something else.

It’s that moment when you are asking questions about a “friend of yours” but the whole time you are just trying to cover up that you are really talking about yourself.

There’s the conversation, the words that people say, but then there is the real conversation, which is what is really being discussed. It is as though the words that we say have almost nothing to do with the conversation we are trying to have. Words are simply the thin covering that we use to dress up our motivations and insecurities about the things that we’re really wondering about.

In the culture I live in there are a few heated “ethical” discussions that have dominated the national conversation and polarized nearly everyone I know. These issues are so engrained in the DNA of the world I live in that saying that I am affiliated with one group or another seems to also entail a decision on one, or both of these issues.

I am talking, of course, about gay marriage and abortion.

I wonder, as I wondered at the beginning, what if gay marriage and abortion are really just the content of the conversations that people are having, while the real conversation is happening just beneath the surface. If this is true, I wonder what the real conversation is…


I frequently listen to a podcast called WTF, which stands for exactly what you think it stands for. The structure of the podcast is simple: comedian Marc Maron shares some stream of consciousness thoughts and then interviews a fellow comedian for about an hour. This podcast has been wildly successful, because the interviews are not celebrities sharing about their latest project; they are human beings sharing their souls. One episode featured an interview with Conan O’Brien. In the interview O’Brien points out that in the culture of constant talking heads and twitter, there is so much static that the only thing that cuts through the noise is a strong opinion. He points out that movie critics rate movies as either the greatest cinematic achievement of all time, or the worst piece of trash ever made. It’s a strong opinion that cuts through the static.

Strong opinions, vitriolic statements, negative campaign ads, wagon circling sermons are the order of the day it seems…but why?

I would argue that the “why” behind the strong opinions, the hate speech, fundamentalism, and terrorism is fear.

Fear is driving the ship these days.

This fear is deeper than just beefing up airport security. This fear is about something deep, deep inside the human condition.

The word “insecurity” seems to shallow and incomplete to encompass the primal anxiety that is driving much of what we talk about.

Here’s a small example. Recently an evangelical pastor published a book that offered some different views on hell. The Internet was a storm of blogs and opinions, and then blogs and opinions about the initial blogs and opinions. Why? All of a sudden did God become less secure because someone asked a question? Did God cease to exist because someone had a different idea?

The reason why this was such a big deal is that it touched a nerve. The nerve of fundamentalist Christianity. The nerve of identity. Christians, as some would claim, are the people not going to hell, thus if someone questions hell, then the whole tribal construct of a group of people is in question.

Entire conversations were filled with the content of theology and hell in particular, but just below the surface a whole groups phobia that they are wrong was bubbling and spilling over.

This example is only the snowflake on the tip of the iceberg.

Several times in the Bible, angels and even God himself address people. The constant refrain at the beginning of these dialogues that the messenger has to share with the individual or group that is being addressed is, “do not be afraid…”

What is in us, that our first thought upon having an experience with the divine is fear and judgment?

It’s as though we live in a perpetual state of fear of attack. It’s the “world is out to get me” mentality run amuck.  Again and again and again in the Psalms the writers talk about fear and worry.

I wonder if the Good News about God as seen in Jesus is that we do not have to be afraid anymore. I wonder if Jesus breaking bread and eating with his disciples and whoever else was around was a way of saying, “let’s share a meal together and you can see what God is really like.” People are invited to trust Jesus, to lay aside their fears and trust. Jesus is God’s love incarnate, walking among humanity: teaching, healing, feeding, challenging, provoking, and ultimately redeeming.

The invitation of the Gospel is to accept that God really loves us, ALL OF US! It seems like a logical move from this loving encounter with God to share this love with other people, which fulfills the commands that Jesus said were the greatest: love God, and love people.

Interestingly enough, the writer of 1 John says that love actually drives out fear. This makes complete sense to me. Like everyone else, my favorite scene in the horror film The Silence of the Lambs is when everyone gives Hannibal a big hug at the end of the film. NOT. The reason why this would be such a bizarre scene is that it is impossible to love something that you are afraid of. Love and fear* are like oil and water.

I think this is why all of the belligerent dialogue and angry sentiments and the manipulation of scripture to marginalize people and rob them of the God given humanity should make Christians, and everyone for that matter, sick.

Why do we hate each other and pick groups to marginalize and oppress? The reason is two-fold. The first is that we are scared about our own security and struggle to accept the security of the love that God has extended to us, and because of this we find it easy to pick a group that is different and decide that if God really loves us it’s because we are not like those people.

Perhaps we are afraid that the Good News is not really that good of news. And so we buy in to the perpetual “us and them” categories.

If you look at the history of the Western church, as well as American and it’s adaptation of Christianity, the power base has been fairly constant: white heterosexual men. If what I have stated above is at all true, then it makes perfect sense that everything that is not white, heterosexual, or male would feel like an attack on the apparent “in-ness” of the power base of America and western Christianity.

All of the debates I can think of seem to have this common link. Perhaps this is why discussions about contextualization are dicey. Perhaps this is why racial reconciliation is not a mainstream conversation, and why human sexuality is a hot-button issue (homophobia has been the status-quo) despite the fact that way more harm has been done to the world by heterosexuality than homosexuality (see the battle of Troy). Perhaps this is why women have been second-class citizens, or why any non-western culture is treated as exotic and illegitimate, and why colonialism seemed like such a good idea.

So when I hear that the church in America is under attack, I have to wonder, is there really an attack going on, or is it that people are feeling threatened by people who are different than them? Is the church under attack, or is our world finally waking up to the beautiful diversity that God created and said, “it is good”?


My prayer for myself is that I can trust God enough with my fears and trust that he really loves me enough to begin to love other people. I think the world would be better off with one less stone thrower, and one more grace giver.

*Fear is also talked about in the Bible with respect to God. People are told to fear God. This is quite obviously a different use of the word, as it is not the kind of fear that leads to a hateful relationship like the ones I’m discussing in this blog post. As with everything this use of the world fear is a much larger conversation, but for now this footnote will have to suffice.


One Comment on “Polite Conversation

  1. Its fantastic as your other articles : D, thanks for posting . “There’s no Walter Cronkite to give you the final word each evening.” by William Weld.

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