Stay in Your Seat

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What do you do when you’re upset? When you find yourself in sharp disagreement with someone? When your voice doesn’t seem to be heard?

Here’s one suggestion: stay in your seat.

By now you’ve probably heard about the Notre Dame graduates who walked out on Vice President Mike Pence during his commencement address a few weeks ago. And if you’re like most Americans, you probably have strong opinions about it one way or another.

I don’t want to ruffle anyone’s political feathers here, but from my point of view, the students were perfectly justified in walking out. It was their commencement, and they had the right to participate (or not) as they wished. That’s one of the many privileges of living in a free country.

But if any of those young men or women who walked out would have asked me for advice beforehand (which unsurprisingly they didn’t), here’s what I would have told them: “Sure, you can walk out. That’s one way to make sure your disapproval of the current administration is made known. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Perhaps there’s a better way. Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to stay seated, to listen to a leader you don’t support, and to entertain the possibility that when people who don’t see eye-to-eye give each other the time of day, good things might happen.”

The reality is that none of us can get very far in life before we cross paths with those we don’t agree with. Or don’t support. Or frankly don’t like. And when that happens, we’ll have a choice to make. How will we respond? Will we show our disapproval by refusing to engage? Will we turn around and walk out the door?

As followers of Christ, we’re guaranteed to face opposition. And there’s certainly a time to respond to that opposition by shaking the dust off our feet and moving along. I recognize that.

But more often than not, I think we’ll find that long before we get to that point, there’s an opportunity for us to stay seated. To listen. To question. To dialogue. To learn. To engage.

This past quarter I enjoyed leading a “Theology Round-Table” class (although technically, there were several round tables involved) during our Sunday morning Connection Hour. Each week, we found ourselves disagreeing about things—from the logistics of divine election to the how’s and when’s of creation to the complex interworking of law and grace.

And do you know what? We survived! Although many of us disagreed with points that other people in the class made, we listened, we asked questions, we made counterpoints, and we managed to make it through 12 weeks without becoming lifelong enemies. The whole experience was actually halfway fun.

In retrospect, I can’t help but observe that this spirit of respectful, patient, honest engagement is increasingly countercultural these days. And it has left me wondering: What if the church could set an example for the world in this area? What if we could lead others on a middle path between passive acquiescence and hysterical outrage? What if we could show that disagreement need not entail disengagement?

I believe we can. And I believe it can happen as simply as you and I deciding to stay in our seats.

When a pair of identically dressed young men with name tags show up at your front door to share with you from the Book of Mormon…stay in your seat. Invite them in and have a discussion with them. Ask questions. Offer some counterpoints. Talk candidly and respectfully about your differences.

When an adult son or daughter joins a church you wouldn’t approve of…stay in your seat. Figure out what it is about that church that is so attractive. Learn what theological convictions may have led to the decision. Express love for your child in spite of denominational differences.

When a neighbor puts out a yard sign for a political candidate you find deplorable…stay in your seat. Don’t vandalize the sign in the dark of night. Don’t cast dirty looks at your neighbor from across the fence. Get to know each other. Build a friendship. Loan out a cup of sugar.

We’ll always live with the temptation to walk away from people on the other side of the issues we care most deeply about. But just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

Your seat may not always be comfortable. But don’t leave it too quickly.

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