"It would not be a bad idea if the UN General Assembly turned into a massive sensitivity group for a while. If talk about 'what I think I hear you saying' or how 'I'm feeling threatened right now' could become the officially required language for international discussion, some deeply felt grievances might actually be aired in a way that could promote healing rather than further alienation.
"I wish the Christian churches could offer some guidance for this kind of organizational therapy. After all, we are supposed to be a model community in which other people can see how God intends diverse individuals and groups to get along.
"Unfortunately, that is not very often how it works. The accusatory rhetoric at the United Nations is not all that different in tone from the way Christians argue with each other. Here is an example from the seventeenth century, when the Puritans and the Quakers were engaged in angry debates: The great Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote a pamphlet in which he lumped the Quakers with 'drunkards, swearers, whore mongers, and sensual wretches' and other 'miserable creatures.' And then — just in case he had not yet insulted them enough — he insisted that Quakers are no better than 'Papists.'
"The Quaker leader James Naylor announced that he was compelled 'by the Spirit of Jesus Christ' to respond to these harsh accusations. He proceeded to characterize his Puritan opponent as a 'Serpent,' a 'Liar,' a 'Child of the Devil,' a 'Cursed Hypocrite,' and a 'Dumb Dog.'
"This is strong stuff. What makes it especially sad is that the angry talk often makes it difficult to get to the real issues. The debate between the Puritans and the Quakers was actually a rather interesting and helpful one. Both parties engaged in some serious biblical exposition; if the heavy rhetoric were removed, the discussion could easily appear to have been a friendly argument between Christians who have some important things to talk about. But I doubt that either group heard the helpful things the other side was saying. Too much angry rhetoric was in the air.
"In the Israeli-PLO debates, both sides raise significant issues, ones that are not easily resolved — questions about ethnicity and nationhood, religious pluralism, national borders and so on. But they set up the conversation in such a way that these important matters were extremely difficult to discuss.
"Let me be very clear. I am not advocating the naïve optimism that says all our problems would go away if only we could learn to communicate better. Taking strong convictions seriously means refusing to romanticize away our serious disagreements. In some cases, when we come to understand better what the other side really means to say we will find out that their view point is even worse than we thought at the outset.
"But that is no reason for refusing to make the effort. If we end up disagreeing after all is said and done, then at least our disagreement will be an honest one."