New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, found impetus for his doctoral thesis in an intriguing question posed by his adviser, George B. Caird.

Borg recalls: “As we were talking about possible topics, he said to me, ‘Let’s assume that the Pharisees were not hypocrites – that they were not bad people, but good people, virtuous and devout. What then was the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees about?'”

Caird’s question encouraged Borg to set aside the always pejorative and often erroneous characterization of the Pharisees in order to approach them as good, devote and virtuous persons.

This, Caird felt, would allow for a more careful and accurate analysis of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

Borg’s efforts to determine the cause of this conflict became his dissertation, in which he concluded that Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees resulted from conflicting visions of how Israel was to live as the people of God.

While important, Borg’s conclusion need not be recounted in detail here, as they can be found in the later republication, “Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus.”

What I want to focus on is the question that prompted Borg’s work because it offers us a helpful approach for engaging those with whom we disagree.

“Let’s assume the Pharisees were not hypocrites,” Caird suggested, “that they were not bad people, but good people, virtuous and devout.”

How many of us view our opponents with such a positive attitude? How often do we engage those with whom we disagree with such a charitable presupposition?

Far too often, opposing individuals, groups or organizations engage in unhealthy dialogue due to unhelpful presuppositions about one another. In fact, constructive dialogue is a near impossibility if each side brings negative presuppositions and attitudes toward the other.

Due to pejorative presuppositions, we either dismiss our opponents by refusing to put forth any effort to understand their views and reasons for holding them, or we engage our opponents in an unhealthy, unhelpful manner that only seeks to denigrate their perspectives.

Without a generous spirit, we are prone to talk “at” rather than “with,” and to engage in ad hominem attacks, denigrating the person or group with whom we disagree, rather than addressing the reason for our disagreement.

Though difficult, it is possible for individuals and groups to disagree passionately about important issues and still engage in constructive conversation.

Here are a few suggestions:

First, we need to set aside presuppositions about our opponents.

Granting others a fresh start, as best we are able, will allow our adversaries the opportunity to share their views without feeling defensive.

Second, we should listen to our opponents share their perspectives and the reasons for them and ensure that we accurately understand their position.

Listening to and seeking to understand our opponents prevents us from criticizing them based on a misrepresentation and misappropriation of their views.

Third, we should share our views and the reasons for holding them and ensure that our opponents accurately understand our position.

Sharing our views allows us to feel that our position is adequately and accurately understood and will not be misrepresented or misappropriated.

Fourth, we should search for shared ground on which compromise and collaboration toward the common good can be enacted.

Focusing on what we hold in common prevents us from seeing our opponents as wholly different than and, thus, wholly contrary to ourselves.

Finally, we should discuss and, yes, even debate, our differences in a manner that presents our opponents’ views fairly and accurately, even when we are critiquing their position.

Turning to debate only after we adequately and accurately understand one another and have identified common ground will ensure a discussion more civil and constructive than would have been possible before.

These steps offer a practical, albeit challenging, way to engage in constructive conversation about divisive issues.

Yet, this will not, and cannot, happen unless we are willing to approach our opponents, at least initially, as Caird suggested Borg approach the Pharisees.

It will not be easy, especially with those groups toward which we have long held negative presuppositions.

But it might reveal previously unrecognized common ground on which shared action toward the common good can be enacted.

It also might result in a better understanding of one another and in the ability to disagree agreeably.

If the latter is all that happens, it will be well worth the effort.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for

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