First you have to say I understand before you can say I disagree.

We took our family to Disneyland over Christmas break and on the way in I saw a large rear window sticker on a truck parked next to our car that said, “America!  Love it or LEAVE it!”  Next to that was a sticker that said, “#MERICA”.  You typically see lots of interesting things during a trip to Disneyland, but this stood out to me and lodged itself in my memory.

A sticker like this communicates some basic assumptions about its owner:

1- There is only one perspective in American society.

2- The “only right” perspective is obviously the sticker owner’s.

3- If someone does not agree with that perspective they are clearly wrong.

4- Not only is the one who disagrees wrong, but they also have to leave “my country.”

5- The details of this “only right” perspective have not been objectively communicated in any way, but are seemingly implied to be associated with the sticker owner’s current self, feelings, preferences, and perspective.

This little sticker jumped out to me as a microcosm of how we are disagreeing as a society right now.  There is not one America.  There are at least two (as the latest election cycle painfully demonstrated) and some writers believe there are as many as six.  We live in a time and place of large scale polarization and disagreement.

When we disagree like this, it turns everyone not like you into “the other” and allows for a subtle dehumanization that leads to the objectification and demonization of “those people.”

And rather than seeking to understand the differences among us, this kind of disagreement creates a heated division that quickly escalates into hatred, which leaves us ripe for all kinds of violence.  The truth is, we just don’t know how to disagree and we need to learn how.

First you have to say I understand before you can say I disagree.

I went to the Holy Land a few months ago and had the opportunity to meet some people who are trying to live as peacemakers in the midst of one of the world’s most heated conflicts: Israel and Palestine.  There I spent time with Sami Awad, one of the most profound individuals I have met.  He is known as the Martin Luther King Jr. of Palestine and has practiced non-violent resistance against the Israeli military occupation his entire life.

His work began as a young child when he was carried in the arms of his grandmother and uncle in peaceful protest demonstrations.  Although he had great success and global recognition as a non-violent protestor and movement leader being interviewed by networks like FOX and CNN, Sami said his greatest challenge and turning point in his life was when he recognized the call of Jesus to love your enemies.

Sami is a Palestinian Christian and he said he realized that he had resisted out of hatred to expose the inhumanity of the other his whole life.  Then, an Israeli friend invited him to go on a trip to the Auschawitz death camp.  The Israeli government sponsors trips for many high school students every year to go to Auschawitz to experience the terrible reality of what happened in the Holocaust.  He heard the teachers tell the young students that the Holocaust never ended, that if their Arab neighbors get the chance they will kill them as well.  The students were given the names of their own family members who died in the Holocaust- many in that very camp.

He heard the teachers say, “This is why you must join the Defense Force.  This is why you can not trust again; you can never let down your guard.  If you don’t protect us, who will?”

For the first time Sami discovered his oppressor.  Sami discovered the true narrative of fear, trauma, and the lack of healing and closure that was caused by the Holocaust.  He put himself in their place and understood.  He said it changed everything about his relationship with the Israeli people and his resistance as a result.  Rather than attempting to resist them out of anger, he began to resist the military occupation out of love, compassion, and empathy of the other.  Sami started asking the question, “If every human is made in the image of God, how do we disagree and work for peace in different ways?”  He said it changed his entire life and the nature of his work.  (Check out his work here.)

First you have to say I understand before you can say I disagree.

What this means is that you have to be willing to listen and hear someone else’s story.

You have to be able to put yourself in their shoes and enter into their narrative.

You have to be able to enter into their experience to the degree that you know where they came from, how it feels, and why they are are where they are.

You have to be able to say that you understand where they are coming from and why they believe what they do and truly mean it.

If you can do that, then you can say I disagree.  But, when you disagree after understanding, it doesn’t make them “the other.”  It makes them very human, just like you, and still very connected.

When you humanize the other and see them as people just like you, it changes things.  When you understand and feel what they have been through- why they believe what they believe, stand where they stand, do what they do-  and you can put yourself in their shoes and feel their experience, it allows for conversation and grace and perspective.  It allows for dialogue and friendship across uncrossable lines.

This path leads to peace, not violence.

This path leads to collaboration rather than stalemates.

This path allows for creative peacemaking efforts and change.

And while it won’t make everyone think and feel the same, it will allow us to all live in the same place and perhaps not try to kill each other or run everyone not like you out of the nation, or the denomination, or the family, or the ____________.  You fill in the blank.

Whose story do you need to enter into and experience in your life right now?

Phil Wood

Author Phil Wood

Phil enjoys being active and is a serious hobbiest, which means he obsesses on new interests constantly- currently it’s surfing, reading, crossfit, coffee, and blogging. He and Jen live in Southern California with their three boys: Kaleb, Brady, and Carter.

More posts by Phil Wood

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Tina Eaton says:

    Definitely a good message to read and try to put into practice in today’s society. It’s a tough one for me personally, because I am strong and unmoving, even rigid at times with my beliefs. After reading this, I can look back at certain situations and know that I did not fully understand certain things, people and even situations before I disagreed with them. This is a message I am looking forward to challenging myself on in the future.
    Great read, Phil!

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