Have you ever noticed that when a controversial subject is brought up, people begin to shout at one another? Emotions take over and reason disappears.

When I was young, the controversial subject was segregation vs. integration. I grew up in the North, but I did spend the sixth grade in a racially segregated public school in the South. I have had personal experience with this subject.

Nevertheless, upon returning to the North, I learned that many Northerners were as much for segregation as my friends in the South. Unlike them, I was in agreement with those who advocated integration.

In the church high school youth group I attended many years ago, we had students from Yale Divinity School for our leaders.

I remember one Sunday night when one of our leaders opened the discussion with a story that went like this:

“One man said, ‘I would never sit down and eat at the same table with a dirty ….’ His friend replied, ‘And I would never sit down and eat at the same table with a dirty white man. Now, which would you like to discuss, race relations or hygiene?”‘

Somehow that story defused the tension, and a reasonable discussion followed.

Today there are other controversial subjects. The people in favor often give their opponents derogatory names. Those who are not in favor insult their opponents with their own uncomplimentary replies. They battle each other, shouting at each other. There is no discussion and reason flies out the window.

I wonder if the time has come for another story: “One side calls the other a bad name, and the other replies with another bad name. Now, which would you like to discuss, the issue or name-calling?”

Often the issues contradict the Bible. For several years I traveled throughout this state as executive director of the Bible Society of Maine. I visited churches of many denominations, encouraging the reading and studying of the Bible.

I learned from them that many churches have statements of faith which include words like these: “The Bible contains everything that defines our faith, our doctrine, and our morals, that is, what we believe, think, and do.”

Lately I notice that some pastors, some denominational leaders, and many parishioners ignore what the Bible says. All this results in the splitting of churches and denominations, and many members leave their churches. Do we wonder why some churches die?

In any intelligent discussion of a controversial subject, all participants, both those in favor and those opposed, must learn to treat each other with respect. Is it possible to have a discussion without losing our tempers? Can we learn to honor the right of others to express their opinions?

If we do, we can have an intelligent discussion of a controversial subject where reason and respect will prevail.


The Rev. Richard H. Petersen is a retired pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church.