Listen Humbly, Argue Lovingly

‘Charitable Writing’
Benedetto Luti, ‘Christ and the Woman of Samaria,’ 1715–20 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

How should Christians argue? Leave aside, for now, the question of how Christians have argued in the past. Leave aside the many times throughout history—or throughout this morning—that those of us who call ourselves Christians have failed to live up to Christian ideals in our disagreements. How should our ideals animate our arguments? And, more specifically, how should we make arguments as writers? Whether we’re writing a tweet or a term paper, a text message or a dissertation, which Christian virtues should guide our approach?

Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III explore these questions in their insightful new book, Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words. English professors and colleagues at Wheaton College, Gibson and Beitler note that the book began with an “unsettling realization”: there was nothing particularly Christian about the way they taught writing at their Evangelical Christian liberal-arts institution. On the heels of this realization came another: “We had never given much thought to our own writing practices. Did they reflect our Christian commitments?” These insights, they decided, required a change. “Our classrooms didn’t just need work; we did, too.”

Charitable Writing is the authors’ attempt to envision a particularly Christian approach to teaching and practicing writing, one ultimately rooted in the Gospels’ “great ‘double commandment’ to love God and our neighbors.” The book beautifully and bracingly challenges the assumption that our writing lives—and our professional and academic lives more generally—are somehow exempted from our moral and spiritual lives, noting that “Jesus frames the commandment so that it admits no exceptions: there is no activity, however mundane, to which the ‘law of love’ does not apply.”

Gibson and Beitler offer a wide range of illuminating models for a writing practice rooted in love, from Augustine and Aquinas to Maya Angelou and Simone Weil, as well as lesser known but equally inspiring figures like Pandita Ramabai and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. They also draw frequently on Scripture, on essential scholarship in the field of writing studies, and on the work of religious-minded scholars like Alan Jacobs and James K. A. Smith. Surprisingly, the book provides some visual inspiration as well, reproducing images from ancient and contemporary Christian art that Gibson and Beitler use to further unpack their central argument: that “charitable writers listen humbly, argue lovingly, and keep the time of writing hopefully.”

The sections on humility and humble listening are especially insightful. These chapters seek to recover humility as a central Christian virtue, perhaps the central virtue. For Gibson and Beitler, humility means a willingness to learn from others, particularly those who may seem, in our minds, to have nothing to teach us: “Humility is the virtue that allows us to see not only our finitude and fallenness but also the goods of our communities. It allows us to recognize that we don’t have all the answers.... Humility, in short, makes us teachable.” Thus, humility doesn’t simply mean acknowledging our own shortcomings; it also means avoiding the secret condescension of finding some people’s perspectives unworthy of our full consideration. True humility “resists our knee-jerk reactions. It forestalls the rush to judgment. It requires listening.” These insights expose the limits of my own humility, especially when it comes to political debate. In some ways, knee-jerk reactions and the rush to judgment have been among my favorite pastimes over the last four years.

But even if we manage to truly listen to others and approach our own writing tasks humbly, is it actually possible to argue lovingly?

As Gibson and Beitler see it, humility is also a crucial virtue for any writing task. It influences our willingness to learn from others in the writing process, and it also can shape the tone and substance of our words. It “frees us from excessive self-regard” and allows us to “let the moment be about someone else.” They model such writing themselves throughout the book, frequently letting their many excellent sources take center stage and acknowledging their own imperfect knowledge and struggles to be charitable. This is a refreshing change from the style of so many contemporary arguments, religious or otherwise, where the default tone is often the infallible voice. (Twitter, in particular, seems to encourage this omniscient, self-righteous style.)

But even if we manage to truly listen to others and approach our own writing tasks humbly, is it actually possible to argue lovingly? Gibson and Beitler acknowledge the “seemingly obvious tension” between love and argument. Part of the problem, they believe, is that far too often we think of argument as high-stakes combat, a battle to be won, all-out war. Another problem is that many Christians “have an impoverished understanding of our tradition’s distinctive notion of love.” The book’s middle chapters seek to unpack both the harmful metaphors that guide our arguments and the “distinctive” elements of Christian love that might lead to more charitable disagreements.         

Building on Alan Jacobs’s enlightening observations about argument-as-war from his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Gibson and Beitler describe the human consequences of approaching our arguments with a combat mentality: “Those with whom we disagree become less than people: they become mere types rather than distinct, complicated individuals. We fail to see them as creatures formed, like us, in the image of God. At the same time, we dehumanize ourselves, since we sacrifice our unique human capacity to empathize, to ‘understand people’s desires, principles, fears.’”

It’s easy to read a passage like this one, nod in agreement, and then say the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” Personally, I probably react this way more than I even realize. But I have to admit that Gibson and Beitler’s words describe my own default mindset all too well, even when I’m merely an audience to other people’s political or religious arguments. In such cases, I’m always mentally turning the people I disagree with—actual unique human beings—into “mere types.”

One of this book’s many gifts is that it offers readers a chance to recognize and reflect on the disconnect between our conception of Christian love and our combative and dehumanizing approach to disagreement. When we conceive of our arguments this way, Gibson and Beitler suggest, we “rob ourselves of opportunities to grow in the virtues that Christ models and commands.”

 

I was halfway through reading Charitable Writing—only a few pages past the part I just quoted—when a mob stormed the Capitol. Of course, I don’t need to describe the images I watched that day on TV, the forceful disruption of our democracy, the brutality and chaos that left a police officer and four others dead, and the Christian imagery, slogans, and prayers that accompanied it all. Later, I received an email from a student in one of my writing classes, who was back home in the D.C. area for the winter break. She’s an EMT and was called to the Capitol after the attack. “By the time we got there,” she wrote to me, “all the rioters had been cleared out and the serious injuries had been taken care of, but just seeing the aftermath was surreal. We treated a few injured police officers who'd been hit with fire extinguishers and bike racks, and you could see bloodstains on the floor from the violence a few hours before.”

For a while, I found it impossible to keep reading Gibson and Beitler’s book. In the section I’d been reading before the attack, they were offering alternatives to the combat metaphor: think of argument instead as dance, as barn-raising, as breadmaking, or simply as a good conversation. But it’s very hard to think of disagreement as a dance when there are bloodstains on the floor. It’s very hard to think of argument as breadmaking when the people you oppose are using bike racks as weapons. How can we argue charitably with someone who brings zip ties to the Senate floor? How can we listen humbly to a person who wants to execute the vice president as a traitor? And, much more fundamentally: Should we?

After a while, I did pick up the book again. Gibson and Beitler continued to offer meaningful insights about practicing writing in a more charitable, communal way. The final sections advocating for “slow writing” and revision as an act of love were particularly perceptive, helpful for any aspiring writer or teacher of writing. But finishing the book in the aftermath of the attack was a disconcerting experience: the book’s arguments seemed both more important and more deeply incomplete.

The book doesn’t address the violent, malicious rhetoric that accompanies so much political and religious debate in our country. Instead, Charitable Writing seems to be written for and about people of good will. That’s not a bad thing; there are people of good will all over the place, on our streets, at our jobs, and in our classrooms, from all ends of the political and religious spectrum. But what about the others, the ones who respond to disagreement with threats and violent language? What about those who think of argument as literal warfare? And what do we make of the fact that so many of these self-designated combatants invoke the name of Jesus? 

Such people make a mockery of Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor. Their words and actions can make the idea of charitable argument seem hopelessly naive, if not simply hopeless. And yet the people who stormed the Capitol are our neighbors. They came from all over the country. They live in our communities. If we don’t want to ignore or dismiss Christ’s command ourselves, we are obligated to love them. But does that also mean we’re obligated to “humbly listen” to those who threaten and perpetrate violence? Would such listening be an act of love or an act of complicity?

“One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

After the attack, I recalled something James Baldwin wrote in No Name in the Street in the wake of Martin Luther King’s death. Near the beginning of the book, he beautifully describes a newborn child: “Here it is, this breathing miracle who could not live an instant without you, with a skull more fragile than an egg, a miracle of eyes, legs, toenails, and (especially) lungs.” A few pages later, however, reflecting on King’s murder, he writes that the “manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make.” Reiterating that “every human being is an unprecedented miracle,” he makes this unforgettable statement: “One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

Baldwin, who famously left the church as an adolescent, was writing specifically about the physical threats and terrors of racism against African Americans. But, as with so much of his work, his perspective here seems shaped by Christian ideas. The “unprecedented miracle” of human life is a core principle of Christianity, of course, one that leads directly to Christ’s call to love all of our neighbors. But what about the second part of Baldwin’s statement? Is it unloving and thus un-Christian to consider some of our neighbors “disasters” from whom we must protect ourselves?

This question reflects the eternal earthly tension between attempting radical Christian love and wanting to protect ourselves from very real dangers. Answering it—and finding the right balance between these opposing inclinations—often feels impossible. But I do know one thing: many of the people who stormed the Capitol believed that they were protecting themselves from very real dangers. “Self-protection” all too often becomes a rationale for unnecessary violence.

This, ultimately, is why Charitable Writing matters. Although Gibson and Beitler mostly ignore the violence in word and action that often stems from political and religious arguments—and the role that Christians themselves often play in such violence—their book offers a deeply important reminder: being Christian means that no debate ever gives us an excuse to abandon the commandment to love, no matter how much we may disagree with someone. To take the commandment seriously is to never rationalize our own cruelty. The book’s thoughtful and hopeful exploration of “writing as a discipline of love” always makes this implicitly clear.

A more charitable form of debate, Gibson and Beitler note, depends on Christians’ “willingness to evaluate themselves” against the standards of their communities and, more importantly, the standards of Christ. Ultimately, they acknowledge, we have to commit to this difficult practice as individuals. Our malicious public debates—and the violence that they can bring—won’t end anytime soon. But I’m grateful for this book’s reminder that our responsibility is simply to hold ourselves to this standard, as impossible as it may seem, and as often as we might fail. As the authors suggest, the commandment to love “is a burden that we carry with us throughout our days and into all the spheres in which we move.”

Burke Nixon is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a course called Fiction and Empathy.

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