Winsome Persuasion

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Foreword to Winsome Persuasion

Quentin J. Schultze

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is an amazing statement about the importance of democratic discourse.  It says, in short, that citizens should be free to get together (freedom of assembly). As people gather, they should be free to talk (freedom of speech). And as they talk they also are free to write about and distribute their conversations (freedom of the press).

Then comes the zinger: no one should be excluded from such assembly, speech, and press because of their religious convictions. Religion is the only such category specifically mentioned in the First Amendment. Why? Because religion can be so divisive. In fact, nothing was more contentious in the early colonies. People were even murdered over conflicting views of faith.

Finally, says the Constitution, if anyone believes that they have been prohibited from such discourse, they have the right to take their grievance to the government. They have the right to petition the government. Petitioning is one of the great democratic means of persuasion. A petition gathers voices and presents them as one voice.

Democratic life is founded on open dialogue, including dialogue animated by people’s deepest convictions—their faith commitments.  Learning how to navigate such potentially explosive discourse is nothing short of learning how to be a productive and responsible citizen. Religion has been and will continue to be one of democracy’s lightning rods.

It seems that differences of perception and opinion are built into humankind. People see reality differently. Life in a broken world—a fallen world—is invariably complicated, confusing, and counter-intuitive.  When we arise each morning we might wonder what kinds of conversations we will face. How will we navigate them? How should we address conflict without folding our cards and walking away?

Faith moves forward, too. Religions morph, but they rarely disappear altogether. The stunning number of Christian denominations just in the United States should convince us all that even the most faithful followers of Jesus Christ will invariably disagree on at least some of the ways to relate their common faith to cultural changes.

Moreover, as culture and society change new issues confront churches. Formerly taboo or at least private ideas emerge all around us. After a while we cannot ignore them. Slavery dogged American society leading up to the Civil War. Eventually Christians helped end slavery, but new issues arose. Today’s news tracks topics that churches end up having to address whether they want to or not. Many young people are leaving churches that lack the courage to discuss faith-challenging contemporary issues.  Thanks to the Internet, especially social media, we all are confronted with differences of opinion on potentially divisive topics. Even family meals become venues for learning how to practice challenging democratic discourse with kindness and respect.

This book is about how we all might navigate ever-evolving public discourse. It’s about the kinds of discourse that challenges us because we are unprepared, even wary. The authors locate us in the types of social and cultural conflicts that we cannot and should not ignore. None of us can be hermits, untouched by the social-rhetorical conflicts that energize and sometimes inflame daily discourse.

There is no turning back. The new media world engulfs us in cultural discoveries and disputes not of our making. New ideas, identities, and religious as well as secular movements appear on our radar; people we know start talking about them. Conflicts arise.

This book also is important to read because it locates Christian discourse in the age-old context of the Fall—the fall from grace. We all are born into a broken world of sin. Nothing and no one is unblemished. We cannot simply look outside of ourselves for sin. We have to look inside of ourselves as well.

The fault line of sin runs through every social institution and every human heart. We dwell in local, national, and global webs of injustice, exploitation, and utter self-interestedness. We all, down deep in our hearts, would like to refashion the world into our own visions of goodness—into our own images and likenesses. We are broken but ambitious control freaks. We assume that we own our tongues and keyboards. We are right and others are wrong. We know better than others. Do we?

St. Francis’ famous prayer offers biblical wisdom as we approach a broken world: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That prayer should inform our discourse. It should set the scene for our daily persuasion. It should make us humble—slow to speak and quick to listen. It should also call us to engage others courageously when we honestly believe that we might be salt and light to the world.

In our counter-publics, we build Towers of Babel, rhetorical monuments to our clever thinking and efficient organizing. Evangelical Christians, for instance, have created special-interest groups that demonize opponents and create names for their own, seemingly venerated leaders. Evangelicals are too quick to hop on board the latest campaigns to fix one or another social or cultural problem. In a sense, evangelicals can be quick to sign up and speak, and slow to listen to and understand others. Of course this is not merely an evangelical issue; it is a human issue. It is a root problem, evidence for the fall from grace and the worship of false gods.

During Augustine’s time—about 350 years after Jesus Christ walked the Middle East—people trained as public speakers bought into the fall from grace. Rhetoricians of that era were essentially word vendors. Today we might say they were unprincipled public relations artists who knew how to use language to advance a cause without regard for truth and virtue. So when God called Augustine to follow Jesus, and Augustine then decided to follow his Lord and Savior, Augustine also felt that it was time to give up his career as a rhetorician. Simply put, he believed that no one could be both a public persuader and a follower of Jesus Christ.

But after considerable biblical study, prayer, fellowship, and worship, Augustine changed his mind. He plotted a new course in the broken world. He would persuade for Jesus. He would persuade with truth. He would do it ethically as well as effectively. He would not hide his faith in the public arena. In fact, he reluctantly went on to become a priest and bishop in Northern Africa. He arguably became the greatest Christian theologian from the Apostle Paul to the present. He became what I would like to be: a servant speaker, dedicated to using the gift of language to love God, neighbor, and self.

What Augustine did is exactly what we are called to do—and what this book helps us to do: to use the gift of language to be faithful agents for truth and justice in a broken but still redeemable world. Persuasion is critically important because of the gap in the world and in our own lives between the way that things are and the ways that they should be.

We are called to address this gap with our whole lives. We become witnesses to truth by how we live, not just by what we say. Our lives speak. We live with integrity when what we profess and how we live both point to the reality of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh, killed on the Cross, stored cold in a grave, and raised to be alive and communicating with the Father and Holy Spirit.

This kind of living discourse—being alive with Christ, regenerated for service of God and neighbor—is nothing short of an astonishing adventure. Every day we live in the gap between heavenly and hellish public discourse. New ideas and issues emerge all around us. New publics and counter-publics become voices in the gap. Churches split over some issues. Denominations rise and fall—like some of their leaders. Christian family members argue about public issues while sitting around the Thanksgiving table. Young people give up on “the church,” sensing a lot of hypocrisy or just a derogatory spirit among Christian leaders.

This book helps facilitate the kind of conversation that we all need to be having about our own discourse. There are times in the book when I disagree with the authors. But that’s not the point of the book or of the life of faith. The book is not about the outcomes of our democratic discourse. It’s about the essential process of how to address each other wisely and well in the gap between God’s original Creation and the promised new heaven and new earth.

Following Jesus is at least about following Him faithfully into the kinds of public venues where believers and nonbelievers alike conduct their conversations about things that matter. That’s what Jesus did. He was a persuader who used all of the means at his disposable. He took risks. But he did so wisely. He knew what he was talking about. He knew his audience. He knew the truth. He was the truth. As Jesus’ followers, we depend on his partner, the Holy Spirit, to grant us sufficient knowledge and wise counsel.

For me, this book is a hospitable invitation to such participation in Jesus’ program of public engagement. I am grateful that Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer were willing to put their personal thoughts and lives in the book for us to discuss.

We seem to be living in an age similar to Augustine’s. It appears that we can barely trust anyone. Public rhetoric seems hollow and self-serving. Maybe, too, this is a ripe time for forming counter-publics that listen well, speak the truth, and live out what they profess. I think so. I sense that it is the right time for a book like Winsome Persuasion. I’m grateful for an opportunity to invite you to the democratic conversation in its pages, where no one is excluded because of their faith.