Five Minutes for the Imago Dei
I can be a sarcastic and (somewhat) quick-witted man at times.
Unfortunately, that has been a dangerous combination, which has caused needless animosity between me and fellow Christians when in disagreement on political and theological issues.
Thankfully, in recent months I have been learning to rely more on the wisdom I've found in other Christians and in Scripture rather than my wit when in disagreement.
I listened to a fascinating book this year by Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program Professor at Baylor University. The book, How to Think: A Survival Guide to a World at Odds, details the way we think or, more accurately, the way we don’t. Early in the book he relays an epiphany, the content of which offers a model all Christians should use during disagreements and arguments.
The “give it five minutes” rule, as Jacobs calls it, is simply stated: when you see someone presenting an argument you disagree with, give it five minutes to see how or why you disagree with it before you respond. Those five minutes usually give you enough time to listen to what the other person said, then allow your emotions to die down before you say something you wish you could take back. Christ said words matter (Matthew 12:36), so we should be intentional when we speak – especially in disagreement.
The late literary critic Wayne C. Booth in his 2004 “manifesto” The Rhetoric of Rhetoric distinguished what he called “win rhetoric” (the kind I’m keen to use in a nasty display of wit) from “listening rhetoric,” in which people engage in the “systematic probing for ‘common ground.’” In biblical terms, James 1:19-21 summarizes the essence of the rule:
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
I have the nasty habit of formulating counter-arguments in my mind as I listen to or read the writing of a person with whom I disagree. I’ve noticed also the difficulty to be quick to hear when I’m thinking of how to respond while they’re talking. When I start thinking while they are speaking, I’m no longer listening to what they have to say. Watch any disagreement or debate and you’ll see this on display. Political debates today offer a show less of formal debate than of rude interruption. It’s unlikely they considered each other’s arguments instead of responded with prepared jabs and retorts. Such is with most political debates these days, unfortunately (And unfortunate that political debate is the locus communis of what not to do in a debate).
If I am quick to hear, it means I am treating each person – no matter how much I disagree with them on any given issue – as who they are: a bearer of the imago Dei. It shows I care more about them as a person than doing “win rhetoric,” attempting to “dismantle” their argument in war-like terms.
If I am slow to speak, it means I have carefully considered their argument(s) and can begin to respond in wisdom, not in raw emotion. It means that just because I have the perfect retort I know will garner “likes” or “laugh reacts” on Facebook, doesn’t mean it is a wise, edifying response. If, after five minutes’ reflection I still disagree, I can present a reasoned response. It also means that, after they present their arguments, I might agree with them but that I simply might not have heard my own views presented in the manner offered by the other person. Either way, I have given thought to what they said and responded wisely, which gives glory to God.
If I am slow to anger, I will not respond in a way I will regret. A sarcastic quip toward another man or woman who is passionately presenting their argument does no one any good. I get annoyed when I hear that in debate. One person is presenting their argument, and then the other interrupts with a snide remark. You can see them pause a moment after the retort, waiting for “their side” of the audience to applaud. Those types of emotional and sarcastic retorts edify none. The anger of man will not produce the righteousness of God. That’s a guarantee.
If I do those three things: be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, I am putting away all filthiness and rampant wickedness when it comes to arguments. Instead of trading jabs with canned retorts, I am responding to arguments with measured thought, tempering my emotion with logic, reason, and an air of prayerfulness. As a Christian, I am to act in this way even and especially when my opponent does not.
This rule is an abiding principle in the church, one which should not be thrown away in favor of rhetoric that promotes ill speech and provokes the quick-tempered. The good cook takes time to test the seasoning of his confection before serving it; our own speech, said St. Paul, deserves the same care—because we are serving it to others.
This, I think, reveals the better way.
Joseph Hamrick serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3) in Commerce, Texas. He lives in Commerce and writes a weekly column, “Something to Consider,” for the Greenville Herald-Banner newspaper.