The spiritual discipline of backing down

"Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore 3," Wikimedia Commons C.C.
“Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore 3,” Wikimedia Commons C.C.

As I write this, the world has been taken hostage by a high-stakes game of chicken between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, two men whose insecurities and cults of personality depend upon projecting increasing levels of fierceness to each other. Neither of them can back down without losing face. The entire authoritarian edifice of North Korea is built upon the myth of the national hero who defends his people against the nation that carpet bombed their villages in the 1950’s. Donald Trump desperately needs a foreign policy victory in order to change the subject. So basically the world is at the mercy of the Chinese to be the global adults who create a face-saving situation for Trump and Kim.

I don’t have any expertise in the complicated chess match of global foreign policy. But as a Christian, I want to believe that at least some of the virtues of Christian discipleship are applicable on a global scale and that foreign policy is not entirely Machiavellian. What’s most relevant to me in my work is how Trump and Kim’s standoff is exemplary of the many standoffs each of us encounters in our personal conflicts during an age of ideological rigidity.

We live in a time when the one thing you’re not allowed to do is back down. It’s not simply that there’s an epidemic of self-righteousness. We feel a moral obligation to stand up for our ideological causes. To back down in an argument is to betray your principles and the people on your side. It’s the same thing as selling out. Because in the age of social media, identity and platform are the same thing. Our online arguments are the entirety of our activism. To update Descartes’ famous formula: I argue; therefore I am.

Other people probably don’t experience life the way I do as a blogger with a prophetic vocation. But figuring out how to speak online is a continual ethical struggle for me. There are times when my judgment is legitimately impaired because I’m lashing out impulsively rather than being intentional and contemplative. Other times, I am genuinely confused about how I’m supposed to speak as one whom Jesus has called to take up my cross in solidarity with marginalized people. Other times, I know that I need to say something people aren’t going to like, and even though they pummel me for doing so, their criticisms simply don’t convict me.

So what do I do when I’m locked into an exchange with someone that’s getting uglier and uglier and they keep on saying things I feel obligated to correct? I don’t think I’ve ever verbally jousted with anyone who has conceded my point and said, “You know, I was being a complete asshole just now and I didn’t see it until you eviscerated my character and obliterated my logic.” As long as I’m criticizing them, they dig their heels in deeper and I become Satan to them as they become Satan to me. And we satan each other back and forth until somebody blocks the other one. Thankfully, this hasn’t happened too often.

Something happened to me recently that was kind of cool. I was going back and forth with a guy on Twitter who’s on the other side. I had decided that he was the epitome of fundamentalist awfulness. Just seeing his grinning face on my Twitter feed would make me gnash my teeth in rage. I think it’s because he looks like one of the preppy kids who was mean to me in high school. Anyway, we were sassing each other back and forth. And then he gave me an unexpected response. He complimented something I said or something. So my anger had nothing to grab hold of. And the conversation shifted. It became a matter of curiosity rather than a verbal artillery exchange. Since that time, we’ve been sharing our writings with each other not to prove the other one wrong but to try to understand the other side better.

The most effective way to defeat me in an argument is to back down. It completely throws me for a loop. As long as you’re attacking me, my anger will feed my mind with brilliant comebacks and demolitions of your argument. But if you say something conciliatory and complimentary, it takes all the wind out of my sails. The whole purpose of the conversation shifts. It’s no longer a battlefield. It gives me space to say I’m sorry for whatever ugliness I might have spouted off when I was worked up. Reconciliation becomes more important to me than victory. I start to feel warm and fuzzy instead of hot and bothered.

Knowing this about myself, I’ve decided to experiment with backing down as a spiritual discipline. If I see that I’m entering into a spirited argument with somebody, I’m going to try saying something empathetic or apologetic if necessary. I’ve done this before, and usually the other person presumes I’m being sarcastic or patronizing. I think this might be because we’re invested in our bogeymen. I need douchy white men to define myself against just like other people need shrill social justice warriors to define themselves against. So when I’m arguing with someone who happens to be a white man, I’m not just arguing with that person; I’m arguing with The Douchy White Man. And if you somehow prove that you’re not The Douchy White Man but an unpredictable, good-natured human being, then you’ve robbed me of my universe’s villain.

So it might not work to be kind and Christlike and all that if somebody else’s universe depends on me being the shrill social justice warrior they define themselves against. But I’m still going to try backing down in arguments as a spiritual practice. Because I think my soul will grow bigger if I can learn how to let things go, even when someone else desperately needs to be corrected by me.

I continue to believe that self-justification is our greatest enemy as humans. The greatest gift Christians can offer a culture where self-righteousness is an obligatory duty is to model how to be wrong and lose arguments. This isn’t to say that there are no truths worth standing up for. It’s just that no one is ever argued into believing them. It’s better to stumble across the truth without feeling like you’ve been bullied into accepting it.

So we should definitely put our truths out there. But if somebody wants to spew lava at us in response, one option is to confuse and disarm them by affirming their humanity and appreciating their perspective. Somehow it seems like being a Christian means betting your life on the ridiculous proposition that losing arguments is the way to win life. I’m going to give it a try and see what happens.

Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us!

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