by: Rev. Allen V. Harris
I’m not sure if it was part of a class project or a separate club, but while I was in middle school (Mountain View Middle School, Roswell, New Mexico, 1975-1977 yes and thank you) I had a brief stint with debating. I don’t remember a lot about it, as I don’t remember a lot of detail about most of my early life, but I do remember the excitement of trying to build and present an argument for something about which I was passionate. I also remember quite well the shock of learning that there were others who would be looking for cracks, if not gaping holes, in my argument and then try just as zealously to dissuade our listeners from believing me. Up until that point in my young life the only opposition to my ideas was my mother’s kind “No, that’s not quite right, Allen” or my brother’s snarky “Shut up, that’s stupid!” (Love them both, by the way.) Whatever the case was, I must have been somewhat good at making a water-tight argument as I came away with a trophy for it! Or was it a participation ribbon… hmm, not remembering clearly.
Anyway, fast forward to my first few weeks at college (Phillips University, Enid, Oklahoma, 1981-1985 yes and thank you). New students were put into cohort small groups (although we certainly didn’t use the now trendy phrase “cohort” in 1981!). We did lots of things together the first semester, like go over the student manual together and tour the campus. But built into the program was meeting with our group in more casual settings. I’m sure this was to help us bond with others in our similar situation as ours and to have a place to ask honest questions about this new life in the college world. It worked, by the way. Many members of that group became my dearest, even best friends.
What I remember the most is gathering with members of my cohort in the small apartment of our advisor who lived close to campus (Linda Walling Burd do you remember this?!?) sitting on every available piece of furniture in her living room, and even on the floor if we needed. We would get into some pretty intense discussion about life… that always led to the verboten topics of religion (it was a church-related school, after all) and the dreaded arena of POLITICS! I have a particularly powerful memory seared into my heart, mind, and soul from at least one of those conversations. I have not a clue what the topic was, or who said what to whom, but after I had been offering only a few flippant sound bites (which unfortunately had become the norm for me as I had begun to be aware of my sexual orientation and had built a wall around my deeper feelings) someone confronted me. “Yeah, yeah, Allen. But what do you reallythink about that?” The questioner had clearly picked up on my insincerity. The entire room looked at me for an answer, or at least if felt that way.
For the first time since debate club I had someone who really wanted me to defend my beliefs with something more than pablum. Perhaps it was the first time in my entire life that I felt someone(s) wanted to know what Allen V. Harris thought/believed/cared about/was dedicated to. While I was scared to death about knowing what to say, I was equally if not more electrified by the thought that what I believed mattered, and to articulate my viewpoints was a very good thing that others wanted and appreciated. God only knows what reply I was able to fumble through in responding to my colleague that night, but a switch had been turned on: I needed to understand my unique perspectives, beliefs, assessments, and takes on the world and I needed to find ways to communicate those. But what was even more important was the realization that the very best way to do that was in conversation– nay, even debate – with others!
In just a few days many of us will gather again to attend the 2019 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ) in the United States and Canada. We come together for worship, fellowship, education, networking, and, yes, the business of the Church. General Assemblies have become somewhat of a second home ever since I attended my first one in St. Louis, Missouri in 1979 as a nominee for the General Youth Council. I haven’t missed one since. At each Assembly I would marvel (okay, by that I mean get angry as a wet hen/slash/get thrilled beyond belief/get bored to tears and everything in-between) by the General Assembly Resolutions, Study Documents, and even Reports that were offered and debated. I had the added wisdom and perspective that came from attending a number of United Church of Christ General Synods with my husband, Craig Hoffman, as well as being on the General Board of the Christian Church back in the late 1990’s-early 2000’s and now in my role as a Regional Minister. The process of getting my voting credentials, reading and dissecting the documents, talking to others about their angles on the business items, writing what I would say on the assembly floor should I wish to speak or helping others with their words, even standing in line sweating at the thought that I would have only a minute or two to get my point across to thousands of people, with a camera pointed on me. That is if I got to the microphone at all with the time allotted to that particular business item. I usually did okay (although there was that infamous “Mr. Microphone” incident at the 2015 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio!)
I have come to deeply appreciate the power and place of resolutions and debate in the church. Perhaps based on things I learned early in life, from debate club in middle school to my new student cohort at college, but also in myriad other ways as I grew into a fully mature and well-rounded adult I learned that the very best wisdom can come only in the midst of the careful research and honest dialogue that happens in and around debate and deliberation. Every time that I have spoken on the floor of the Assembly, whether at a green microphone (in favor of the business item), at a red microphone (in opposition to the business item), or at a white microphone (for a point of order or clarification), I have had to examine myself and my thoughts especially carefully, have prayed to God to guide me in my thoughts and words, and have been open (mostly) to hearing the thoughts, experiences, and perspectives of others who spoke either affirming my perspective, offering added information, or in contradiction of my viewpoint. (If you want to read up on the business items for next week’s General Assembly, they are all online here: https://ga.disciples.org/business/)
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve also witnessed some pretty awful behavior on the floor of the Assembly, from forcing people those assembled to pray the Lord’s Prayer after a particularly traumatizing vote to name calling and outright lying. But I learned from the very beginning of my debate career that argumentation and deliberation are not for the faint of heart, especially when people care about the issues enough to want to speak in front of others to try to pursued their thinking. It is powerful to realize how many people do end up doing the diligent work ahead of time to get the facts for their position and even more powerful to witness some debaters be open to listening to the viewpoints of the others and even changing their position! That is God at work in the Church! One of the worst things I have ever been told is when delegates from churches are told how to vote on this or that issue by their church boards or pastors, thus completely ignoring/disrespecting the possibility and importance of the debate time. There is no room for the Holy Spirit if we come to General Assembly with our votes set in stone and if we refuse to listen to the richness of the debate.
As a lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ), one of the three legs (at least) of the Stone-Campbell movement in North America, we come naturally to the art of debate. Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of our movement, was well known as a debater. Simply do an internet search on the phrase “Alexander Campbell Debate” and you get numerous references to his debates. I’ve inserted a famous drawing of his debate with Robert Owens on the “Evidences Of Christianity.” (1) Now I won’t attest to the skill of Campbell’s work, nor whether or not his tactics and techniques were always honorable. (My only witnessing of Alexander Campbell’s debate skills was through the eyes of Hollywood when the movie “Wrestling With God” came out in 1990). I will let scholars work with that. My point is that lively debate, thorough argumentation, and persistent discussion around matters of importance to the faith are central to our history and, I would maintain, our theology as Disciples Of Christ. If, in fact, we are going to eschew dogmatism and question hierarchical authority over matters of our faith as individuals and communities, then lifelong education and ongoing dialogue simply must be integral to our Christian life.
That is why I was horrified by what happened at the 2017 General Assembly in Indianapolis, Indiana. No, there were no knock-down, drag-out debates over hot-button resolutions. No there was no cat calling or booing of speakers from red, green, or white microphones (that I witnessed, at least). In fact, my disappointment came from the exact opposite: there was very little to no opposition to most of the resolutions. Many of the resolutions on behalf of positions of social justice and progressive faith causes went virtually unopposed. In fact, this phenomenon was so evident I’ve heard many people ponder it’s causation since then. It wasn’t just my imagination: real and substantial debate was absent from the floor of the 2015 General Assembly in a way that I haven’t witnessed since I began attending the meetings in 1979.
I don’t think anyone has a real answer to what happened in 2017. Some wonder if it was just an off year for debate and others wonder if the cost of attending Assemblies (time, money, energy) has become so great that too few people go to get a diversity of opinion (although that seems incredulous given the maxim “Where two or three Disciples are, there are four or five opinions!). ;-) I’ve heard other speculation, and this makes me sad and even angry, that perhaps we are living in an age where debate and dialogue are devalued so much that persons from a particular perspective won’t go up to a microphone (or even attend an Assembly) because they might be seen as supporting compromise or giving in on their position. Another take on this is that conservatives in the denomination feel so frustrated by the general progressive shift of the Disciples of Christ over the last few decades that they have likewise chosen to divest themselves from the official business/debate of the church. The worst scenario I’ve heard put forth surmises that since the most important item of business on the agenda was the election of our new General Minister & President, who would then become our first (and the first in any mainline Protestant denomination) African American woman, that some stayed home completely out of protest. If that was the case, to any degree, I would, quite frankly, name that as racism and misogyny which has no place in our lives as people of faith.
My plea – and this is to myself as well as to all who read this blog – is that we intentionally and diligently reclaim the importance of healthy debate, honest and deep dialogue, and genuine openness to new insights and growth regardless of where we are on the liberal-moderate-conservative scale. Whether it is through actually engaging in real and sustained debate and dialogue on the floor of the General Assembly or our local church Board Rooms, whether it is by using one of many wonderful discussion techniques such as Eric Law’s “Mutual Invitation” group discussion process (2), or whether it is simply in reading a variety of viewpoints on any critical or controversial topic in our society by looking at a variety of news sources, talking to a diversity of friends and colleagues (especially those whose viewpoints differ from our own!)
Finally, I want to invite you to join in on the debates at the 2019 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ). You can find the business items online here: https://ga.disciples.org/business/ Perhaps you can take a few of the items that interest you most and lead a Sunday School class or youth/young adult group on them (or both!) Maybe you can determine if any are worthy for your congregation to offer to the next Regional Assembly in your Region. Certainly I invite you to follow our Capital Area Twitter account (@cccadisciples) where I will be sharing as much of the business for which I will be present for (there are lots of things that draw Regional Ministers away from the plenary sessions!) and dialogue real-time your thoughts on the business at hand!
And let us all recommit ourselves to a new day of debate and a new passion for dialogue, beginning with matters of faith, but extending to politics, society, family, medicine, education, you name it! Wouldn’t it be a wonderful legacy for the Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ) to ignite a new fervor in North America for rich honest discussion about life’s most complex and vexing questions? May it be so!
(1) The debates are in Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen, Debate on the Evidences of Christianity, 2 vols (Cincinnati: 1829). Frances E. Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 2 vols. (London: 1832), 1:206-12. The debates are described in Martin Marty, The Infidel, 124–29.
(2) For a really quick reference for this, go online to the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Practices For Leading Congregation’s website: https://www.ecfvp.org/uploads/tools/files/Resources_from_Eric_Law.docor, better yet, read his book from Chalice Press, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb, found online at: https://www.chalicepress.com/The-Wolf-Shall-Dwell-with-the-Lamb-P321.aspx