(This post is part of the Bridging the Gap Synchroblog which I mentioned previously. I’d encourage all readers to check out other participants’ contributions to this event. Links to appropriate blogs can be found at the BTG blog.)
Almost a decade ago, I joined a Telnet-based BBS(1) called Jungle. It was hosted on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, though the BBS itself and the machine that ran it was privately owned. I first created my account at Jungle when I was still a Christian, but after I came out as a gay man. I made a lot of friends there (a few of which I still have some contact with), and had a rather positive experience as part of that online community — a state of affairs that continued even after I embraced other gods.
Although my experience with Jungle BBS was mostly positive, there were the negative experiences, too. I had — and started — my share of arguments and tense moments there. I particularly remember a lot of arguments with one particular user, a young man (in his late teens, if memory serves) who went by the username Thyle on the site. Almost every time Thyle saw me online, he’d send me an express message(2) and engage me in the same old debate. He’d spend the rest of his time online trying to convince me why homosexuality was a sin and why I should try to become straight. The arguments were endless and repetitive, and I can’t remember how many times we rehashed that same conversation over those early months.
One evening, when he sent me a message to initiate the same old routine, I decided that I wasn’t in the mood for it. As I sat there for a moment, I decided that our conversation was going to be different that night. I decided we were going to talk about something else. So I started steering the conversation in various directions, such as what I had done earlier that day. I also asked him about his day and various other questions. As a result, we had a twenty minute conversation that night that was completely debate-free and even a little pleasant, if somewhat forced. The conversation ended when Thyle said he needed to go and we exchanged pleasant goodbyes.
I can’t remember if Thyle and I ever talked after that evening. If we did, it was only a few times. Effectively, after that night, our debates came to an end. Unfortunately, we never really developed a friendship, either. I have no idea what happened to Thyle or where he is. I hope he is well. But I learned a lot from Thyle and that one evening we had a non-debating conversation. I learned that it takes two people to debate, but often only takes one person to redirect the conversation away from that debate.
I think that often, we like to think of the constant debates as being at least mostly the fault of the other person in the debate. We like to tell ourselves that if only they’d stop — or come to agree with us — the debates could finally end. The truth is, however, that the debates could often end simply if we choose not to engage in them. Granted, that might mean swallowing our pride and even letting it seem like the other person “won” because we’re choosing to bow out. But I personally think that there are times when getting past the debate is far more important than “winning” it. Because what comes after the debate can often be far more interesting and rewarding.
I’d say that’s one of the biggest challenges to dialogue in general and the dialogue between (Side B) Christians and gay people in particular. Too often, we allow the debate to consume the dialogue, choking out everything else that matters — including those things that may be more important. My experience with Thyle that one evening gave me a glimpse of that reality. It let me know that there’s more for gay people and Christians to talk about than whether homosexuality is a sin. And I think it’s important to have those conversations.
Truth be told, like most people, we probably have a lot more in common than we have differences. Finding, acknowledging, and embracing that common ground is an essential part of dialogue. I allows us to see each other as more than debate partners. It allows us to become if not friends, friendly acquaintances.
This isn’t to say that there’s no room for debate, or that we should avoid those hard questions and tense moments. Instead, we simply need to move away from the current model where they take center stage and push everything out into the wings — or out of existence altogether. When we force the debates and disagreements to take a more appropriate place amidst all the positive interactions a group of people can have, there is room for a beautiful picture to emerge and develop over time.
It’s my hope to help make that a reality.
(1) I suspect that these terms might be complete gibberish to some of my readers, especially those who came to the Internet and computing after the World Wide Web all but replaced Telnet, Gopher, FTP, and other services as the preferred method of communicating and getting information on the Internet. To put it simply, Telnet-based BBS’s (and their own predecessors, dial-up BBS’s) were the precursor to message forums. Instead of using a web page and clicking links and filling in forms, BBS’s used a simple terminal interface with a menuing system. You’d press keyboard keys to tell it what you wanted to do and it would respond with the appropriate information and prompts.
(2) Think of it as a type of instant message within the BBS system Jungle used.