When respect is greater than conflict

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Dr. David Field, Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, shares thoughts on how we, as Christians, might follow the complex command to love – and respect – all people, even those with whom we vehemently disagree.

Discover how respect for others can help you keep your spirit in shape.

David is the Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for The United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops. Originally from South Africa, David lives in Basel, Switzerland, where he is a member of the Kleinbasel congregation of The UMC.

Dr. David Field

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This episode posted on January 21, 2022.

Transcript

Crystal Caviness, host: In a culture where we often are quick to make enemies out of those with opposing views, how do we respond as a Christian? How do we show respect to all people, even those with whom we vehemently disagree. We tackle this complex topic with today’s guest, David Field. David reminds us that a good place to start is to remember that we are all made in God’s image, redeemed by Christ and designed for God’s kingdom. On a lighter note David also shares with us how he’s turned walking his dog into a spiritual practice.

Crystal: David, we are delighted to have you join us today for “Get Your Spirit in Shape.” Welcome.

David: Thank you, Crystal. It’s great to be here with you.

Crystal: I am really anxious to dive into the topic for today’s episode. But first I’d like to hear more about your story—where you’re from, where you live today and what you’re doing for The United Methodist Church.

David: Well, I originally come from Cape Town, South Africa. I was born there, spent around the first fifty-odd years of my life doing various things, eventually completing a PhD in Theology at the University of Cape Town. I then moved and taught in a small university in the east coast of South Africa called University of Transkei, and later at Africa University in Zimbabwe. I happen to marry a German woman which means we had to decide where we were going to live and ended up moving to Germany originally, and for the past 15 years I’ve been in Basel, Switzerland where my wife is a pastor. And I work for the United Methodist Church in different capacities for about 13 or 14 years running something called Methodist e-Academy which is an online theological education project. I did that part-time and I was raising our children. I have 2 sons. And more recently I’ve been appointed as the Ecumenical Staff Officer of Faith & Order and Theological Dialogueue, one of two ecumenical staff officers working for the Council of Bishops. Officially based in Washington, D.C., but I work from home in Basel, Switzerland.

Crystal: Wow. The Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue. That is quite a mouthful. What does that entail?

David: Two functions. The theological dialogue first. That is, be responsible for organizing and resourcing dialogues for primarily The United Methodist Church and other key denominations. So we have dialogue relationships with Catholic Bishops Conference, the Episcopal Church, with the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Moravian Church. And I also will be in the future coordinating our relationship with the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the concordant Methodist churches. Each of these dialogues is different. In some of the cases we have a full-communion agreement with the church. Others we’re working towards that, absent the case of the Catholic Bishops Conference. That’s a long-term…that’s even an eschatological goal. However, it’s how do we relate to each other, what are the theological practices that keep us apart, are these resolvable, can we work together even more closely with each other? It’s a goal of really how can the United Methodist Church really embody or work towards being one church embodying the body of Christ in our context. The faith and order dynamic part of the work is the Faith and Order Committee of the United Methodist Church which is the committee responsible for looking at key theological questions facing the church. And again, my task is resourcing that committee which is made up of bishops or clergy persons of lay people from around the world. I’m still new at this. But in the past I looked at various issues, produced documents on communion, on baptism, and more recent document on the understanding of the church. And they’re… you’re responsible to the Council of Bishops when the key theological issues that they would like to be discussed. Then I’m tasked by the Committee on Faith and Order to look at those issues. It’s new. I’ve just been in this since August and obviously with Covid and the present situation means that I’m just really finding my feet in the little bit of situation which is difficult ??? to organize at this stage.

Crystal: Well, it’s certainly some important work. And as I heard you talk about your role with the specific theological dialogue piece, what a great Segway that is into talking about the topic today which is respect and mutual respect, which is something that in that role particularly you just have to, I’m sure, be so attuned and sensitive to the differences and the nuances of the other denominations, another reason I’m just so happy that you’re here because of the work that you’re doing for the church on that level. David, you were a guest in November of 2020 on the Connectional Table’s weekly series titled ‘Tuesdays at the Table.’ And on that episode you were discussing the topic of holiness. And I’m sure you recall during that conversation you talked about how we can love, respect and communicate with people with different ideas, different personalities, different beliefs. As I heard you talk about that, it’s just so essential that the church learns how to do this well. I’d love to just kind of continue…part 2 maybe…of that conversation because I just feel like, you know, a lot of times as a church, as a people, as a culture, we’re not doing it well. We’re not getting it right.

David: I think maybe this is because of my background growing up in an often complex situation. Growing up in South Africa in the 1970s and ‘80s, grabbling with racism, with issues of justice, how our Christian faith relates to justice and how to treat people with respect. I grew up in a racist culture where people were classified in various groups and those of us who were classified white were on the top. And the attitude to do was you pitch those who were classified as other racial groups often with little respect. And so one of the things I think I learned from my parents at an early age was to treat everybody with respect regardless of how they were classified in the apartheid system—of people we having different backgrounds, different situations, different socio-economic context. I had opportunities as a teenager to interact with different people and discovering that despite the way the apartheid policies had attempted to separate us and to treat others in this kind of hierarchical …racial hierarchy, that actually these teenagers were exactly the same as me. Despite living with the same issues of (as all teenagers do) we had the same interest in sports. And they were just people like me. And then I happen to think, you know, often in situations where our society, our culture, teaches us to disrespect certain people that when you actually get to know people, as people and not just as images or as stereotypes, you discover a lot of mutuality and can respect people for that. I think often, you know, going on and studying and learning one of the things that struck me of how much I’ve learned from people with whom I disagree with. I remember one of my professors I had who I had major theological disagreements with. And then looking back discovered that they were probably the people I learned the most from even though in some cases I still disagree with them. But I learned from them and I respected their integrity as people in grappling some issues. That’s what I find important. Once you begin to understand a person who has integrity in what they’re doing, you can respect them even when you disagree with them. It’s easy to separate the person and their ideas or a person and their positions…that was… I have an extreme example. Can you respect a racist even though you disagree with racism, or you find racism deeply, deeply offensive? That’s the struggle. How do you respect people when it’s not just about ideas, but more about…you have to respect his world views which are deeply hurtful, deeply cause pain and stuff. That’s more tricky.

Crystal:  Oh, it’s really tricky because I think we make decisions that we don’t want to be with people like that, who with we have these deep, you know, divisions in philosophies or in moral…. You know, I think we can even use the term ‘morality,’ and those are people we may be choose not to be with. But what I’m hearing you say is that relationship is how you navigate that.

David: I think that relationship is one area. I think another area is having your own sense of self-respect and self-confidence of who you are. Again, perhaps a prime example of my South African experience is the life of Nelson Mandela. And if you read his book, A Long Walk to Freedom, where he describes his experience in prison and how he came to interact with the prison warden, the prison guards who were…how they denigrated him, how he responded and treated them as people, as equals, which was, you know, this amazing situation of the prisoner treating the prison guard as an equal with such respect, but not subservience and not bowing to their ideas. So he stood up to them when he figured they were doing what was wrong. At the same time he insisted treating them as people and not…you know, trouble denigrating and rejecting them even though they were denigrating and treating him with…were abusing him. And that’s been a kind of model for me. How can I…when I’m treating with people, how can I treat a person with respect as a person, but also making clear that I disagree with them, or I find their ideas offensive, in some cases deeply painful. So how do I put those two things together? And that always, I think, a balancing act, I think. Perhaps particularly when it’s not just abstract ideas, but perhaps when it’s people who with personal relationships, people who…with whom maybe have hurt you badly, who…from whom you’ve experienced some kind of misuse. How do you respect such people? Is it possible to respect such people, I think is for me the really difficult issues, that kind of context.

Crystal: You know, David, I’m hearing you talk about this. And it just occurs to me that there’s a really high level of maturity that you have to bring to the conversation. But also, what if it is not a two-way conversation? What if you really want to have those…you want to understand better, you want to have a relationship, but you want to express yourself, and you’re just not getting it reciprocated. How do we live in that space?

David: That’s the most difficult space to live in. I mean, I’ve been in situations where…. Well, let me give you an example. I addressed a particular meeting and of course there was a report on what I had said on the website, which totally distorted everything I had said. And it seemed to me to be a deliberate distortion. It wasn’t just a kind of misunderstanding, but the way the particular author presented it. And for me it was very difficult to respect this person because I can respect somebody who disagrees with me honestly and says, I understand you; I disagree with you. And these are the reasons I disagree with you for. But it’s difficult to respect somebody who then takes what you say and distorts it so badly that you don’t even recognize yourself in what’s being said. And when that’s been put on a website and made public and kind of ??? So that’s my struggle. I struggle and think how can I respect this person as, you know, from a Christian, from a theological respective, as a person created in the image of God, as a person loved by God. That’s not always easy.  There’s also a completely different situation, I think, where somebody’s perhaps been abused or misused. And there I think, maybe the best, with all due respect, is actually to resist. And respect doesn’t mean subservience. Respect doesn’t mean just taking it from somebody, but to resist. I respect you as a person and because I respect you as a person created in the image of God, loved by God, I must resist what you are doing. And I must point out what you are doing is wrong. But I think resistance and respect are not two different things. People in different and complex power relationship situations, maybe a spouse who’s been abused in the marriage context, often that is not possible. It doesn’t become an issue of respect, even in the kind of issue of resisting or leaving or finding a way in that situation. And so I think there are situations where one says I’ve been abused, I’ve been misused, respect isn’t what is expected. Either one must resist or one must get out of that situation in order for one’s own self-respect because you can’t respect another unless you have that own self-respect, you know, that inner strength. With the inner strength you can perhaps confront somebody. But unless you have that inner strength you can’t do it. And to have that inner strength sometimes means withdrawing, rejecting, getting out of a situation.

Crystal: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, this conversation is certainly not about staying in a situation where you’re not safe, where you’re emotionally not safe, you’re physically not safe. It’s really about how do you engage with people who have ideas that are different than yours and sometimes those ideas are very… You know, especially within the church right now. We’re having conversations where every…across the spectrum usually people feel really strongly because it is the church. They love this church and they feel strongly about what they believe in it. You know, we sometimes find ourselves at different places, at different ends. David, you told a really…. I thought it was a really beautiful story about a colleague of yours in the British Methodist Church who felt differently about…I believe it was on the topic of homosexuality that you guys saw differently, how you came to a place of respect. Do you mind sharing that story with us?

David: That wasn’t from the British Methodist Church. It was one of United Methodist Church’s colleagues. As I said, I once ran and continue to lead this program called Methodist e-Academy which is primarily young folks from the ministry across Europe. And we have a wide diversity of opinions on many issues, including quite obviously in our present context the debate around homosexuality and inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ folk in the church. I think what struck me as I’ve worked with people in this context and often very strongly disagree with them, is where do I find what I have in common with the person? So my students, as I listen to them, I can tell a student who…this happens to be a country from one of the Balkan states, working very difficult circumstances, economically really not good, struggling to survive on a minimal salary, and engaging in real, what I call Methodist ministry—engaging with the poor, with the oppressed, with refugees coming into the country, which was not a popular kind of work and very counter-cultural. And I could just self-respect this guy for what he was doing. It was just amazing when I saw the self-sacrificial way he was ministering to people in real need. And then we got into a talk around sexually, and he just had such conservative views on sexuality. And I struggled with that. How do I relate this to.... On the one hand I respect him deeply for aspects of what he was doing. His views around sexuality I found deeply problematic. And how do I disagree with him on one issue and respect him on the other. And I think for me it was helpful to understand that, yes, we come from different backgrounds. We come from different socio-cultural contexts. We’ve been brought up ion very different situations, and differently respond to issues differently. And where I could see the depth of his genuine commitment to working with people in very difficult situations in a very self-sacrificial way, I could not but admire and respect him. And then when I looked at how the other issues where we disagreed with I understand where you’re coming from, why you hold those viewpoints, I disagree with you; I think you are wrong. But I can still find ways to respect you and to discuss this with you. It’s different… we have a person who I feel I can’t respect because I can’t find a common ground. I can’t find a place where I say, you demonstrate to me something of the love of Christ that is just so amazing that I must respect you. I often think of it this way, I mean, I live a very privileged existence. I live in Switzerland, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. I have a very comfortable…. I have a good salary. I have a very comfortable existence, and to be quite honest, my Christianity doesn’t cost me very much. I can be very comfortable. And then when I encounter people for whom Christianity is a really costly self-sacrificial lifestyle of service to others, even when I disagree with them on some issues I can think, Well, they’re doing something which models to me the aspect of what it means to be a Christian, for me to be…you know, the categories when we talk of being holy. And I have friends on the other side of this debate, or other side… I have gay and lesbian friends who, the other ways have modeled to me Christian life and Christian commitment. …a friend in the British Church who I’ve just seen interact and in such a Christ-like manner with people who disagree with him, even when they are really obnoxious and nasty and denigrating. And he was just full so much with the love of Christ that I have the deepest respect…. I tend to agree with him around issues of sexuality, but not because of that, but because he just models to me the love of Christ to other people even when they are abusive and nasty and just really unpleasant. So that’s where I find that I have difficulty…. And I go back to the South African context, one of the things I struggle with even as a South african so-called ex-patriot living in Europe is often encountering other white South Africans who still take with them many of the racist attitudes of the past. And mostly I tend to avoid, I must be honest, because I struggle to find that point of respect. When I meet them so much of what I hear and feel is an expression of racism, an expression of what I just find obnoxious. And I’m struggling to find where is that point where I can connect with the person and respect them. And I think that’s where the difficulty is, is how do you find a point of connection and a basic level as human beings, people created in the image of God, people loved by God. That’s not easy.

Crystal:   I read this and wrote it down actually. And so I’m going bring it today because I want to talk to David about this. I apologize that I have no idea who wrote this, but it says: the true mark of discipleship is living in love. And it just occurred to me as I was thinking about that is like disrespect it just always needs to be through the lens of love. And I hear you…. you know, as you’re talking, particularly about your friend in the British Church, I mean, that person is modeling that, through this lens of love. And that’s even as people being rude to him or being disrespectful even, he still responds in love, which is very Christ-like, of course.

David: But not easy. That’s perhaps why I admire some of these people because I don’t know how I would react if I was in a similar situation. As I said, I live a reasonably privileged existence in a country where I don’t feel disrespected, in a context where I don’t feel disrespected, in a white male culture, you’re always the top dog. You don’t experience the disrespect that others often do. And so I don’t know how I would react in a situation I was put under such pressure. I hope I would act in love. And that comes back to, you know, Jesus said love others as you love yourself. And I think it does come back that loving yourself is very key because it’s that sense of not just be loving yourself but also being aware of God’s love for you as a person. God’s valuing you as a person. But after that sense of security in God’s love, secure and be able to love yourself because God loves you. So you can respect those and love those who are unlovable or unlovely. But if you’re not secure in that own sense of being love by God, of being a person of worth and dignity, then I think it’s very difficult to love others. Jesus didn’t say love your neighbor as yourself for nothing. ‘As yourself’ is important. And I’ve come to see that more deeply as I’ve kind of progressed. By such problems when Christians spoke about loving God and loving their neighbor and loving yourself. Well, what does this loving yourself mean? But to me that’s become a more crucial because I can’t love others unless I first love myself. And taking the example I talked about earlier about Nelson Mandela, he spoke…he could stand with dignity because he had a deep sense of his own worth and his own value. And therefore he could handle others, you know. If you don’t have that sense of your own worth, your own value, of your own strength, then I think it’s very difficult to respect and act in love towards others who are difficult.

Crystal:  I love this whole conversation about respecting others which really needs to start with respecting yourself. And that’s how you can learn to respect others, is when you have self-respect.

David: And I think the debate is…. Sometimes we talk about love. We emphasize the self-sacrificial nature. We emphasize almost subservience to the needs of others. And I think that’s almost legitimizing hierarchies where some people are at the top and other people are down below. And we really are ??? when you talk about race, whether you’re talking about gender, whether you’re talking about many other things. It’s often said, you know, we have this traditional understanding in our…of marriage where a woman must submit to her husband, and must respect your husband. And that’s often with abuse, with misuse, where people take that respect for granted. You must respect me; I am…I am your boss…I am a teacher…I am your husband…I am this. Therefore you must respect me. And I think that doesn’t work. If the person is self-confident of their own ability they can then respect the other. And that also means the people where we have kind quasi-hierarchical structures, those who are higher up in the hierarchy need to enable the others or enable the others to sense their own worth and own value. I can’t expect my children to respect me unless I enable them, value them, show them love and worth and value that they all have dignity as people. Then the respectful relationship becomes a mutual respect/relationship. Because I respect somebody, they respect me. If there’s not that mutuality then I think it becomes somewhat problematic.

Crystal: And who modeled the showing dignity to other people better than Jesus?

David: Right. Finding Jesus a model of treating others who the society disrespected and denigrated as people with dignity and value. And that really, I think for me as a person of…as I say, a well-off white male, straight, you know, I have all the advantages. How do I treat the people next to me? How do I treat the person who’s begging in the street? One of the things I often grapple with, you know, you have somebody walking past and they’re begging. And how do I treat this person with respect? I could just, you know, drop a coin in their bag or whatever they’re using, container. But I can look them in the eyes and greet them, treat them as a person and not just as somebody who I drop a coin in the cup or whatever they use to gather in. Making eye contact or saying good morning, good afternoon. And just make a point of not just doing something for somebody in a way which is kind of charity, but it’s not respect. It’s not treating another person as a person. ?? wonderful comment in one of his words I think it’s in I Peter when Peter talks about honoring all people and where he says, you know, that means you honor the person who’s made in the image of God, bought by God’s son and designed for God’s kingdom. And made in the image of God, redeemed by Christ, designed for God’s kingdom. And as I walk through the streets and see somebody begging, do I see that person as made in the image of God, redeemed by the son, designed for God’s kingdom. And if I do that, how do I respond. And I think that applies also when we come to these debates and discussion with people with whom we disagree. I disagree with you. I think you’re wrong. I think you have a problem. But you are made in the image of God. You have been redeemed by Christ. You are designed for God’s kingdom. And that’s preaching differently and not as somebody I disagree with. It’s not easy to turn somebody into an enemy. We ought not to be doing that.

Crystal:  Those are just, man, I feel like I have homework…I have some homework now, for the rest of my life. That is such great wisdom. And, yes, absolutely, to call ourselves Christians we really must treat one another…. We’re all God’s children. Before we go I have one question, and it’s a question that we ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape. How do you, David, keep your own spirit in shape.

David: I do spiritual dog walking.

Crystal:  Okay. We haven’t heard that before. Tell us more.

David: Well, we have a dog about 14 years old. One of the things I’ve struggled with particularly earlier on when my wife was a fulltime pastor and I was looking after the family and it was walking, journey around the house and it’s very difficult to find time for yourself. And I was working part-time which meant in the evenings, once the kids went to bed, then I would open my computer and start my work so that, you know, it’s 10-12 at night and then you do to bed and you’re exhausted. Where do you find the spiritual nourishment? And somewhere along the line we bought a dog mainly for our one son because he was very good with animals. And as these things happen it’s usually the father who ends up taking the responsibilities. So I admit I took the dog for a walk every day, and several times a day. And I discovered that this was a really good time to meditate, to be with myself, just me and the dog. And really time to spend time with myself and with God. And that grew… More recently we lived in another town in Switzerland, but since have moved to Basel we actually live near the banks of the Rhine River. And so every morning I take the dog out for a walk around the bank, along the river, its nice walkways. Maybe half an hour, three-quarters of an hour, sometimes longer. And it’s a time for me to meditate, to spend time in prayer. These days it’s quite interesting. Before you sort of saw somebody you saw them mumbling to themselves. You thought they were crazy, but now they’re usually talking on their phone. I’m usually not talking on my phone, but I’m kind of reflecting, meditating and praying. And then just sort of reflecting on what I’ve gotta do for the day and how does this really work in with what God is doing in the world. And so that gives me a time, a good three-quarters of an hour, sometimes longer, to be with myself, not to be with others, be out of the family situation, out of the work situation and to meditate. And I found that a very renewing experience. And so I miss that when I’m not at home, either on vacation or traveling with work, that I don’t have that time, that three-quarters of an hour in the morning of being alone with me and the dog and with God in meditation.

Crystal:I love that, spiritual dog walking. You possibly have just transformed dog walking for all of our listeners going forward. What a great way to use that time for yourself. That is wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. David, I thank you for joining us as a guest on "Get Your Spirit in Shape." I enjoyed our conversation so much on this important topic. And I appreciate your thoughts and your wisdom that you gave all of us to keep pondering.

David: Thank you, Crystal. It’s great to be with you.

Crystal: That was David Field, Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops. To learn more about David, his work and our conversation today go to UMC.org/podcast and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us to today’s episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.