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E-mail Dialogue and Family Diversity

The family from which I come and that into which I married both tend toward Christian conservatism in all matters religious and political. Since “9/11”, our differences ideologically have emerged most noticeably in exchanges of e-mail. Mostly these have remained civil between conservative-to-fundamentalist family members and those of us less so.

Usually our e-mail dialogues are initiated by one of the elder relatives who forwards to the whole clan a chain-letter originating from an unknown source. It inevitably offers some ostensibly Christian perspective on one of a half dozen favorite conservative causes, makes claims without citations or warrants, and ends with a passionate and guilt-inducing appeal to “pass this on” to everyone on the recipient’s email list.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
My typical response is to delete these unsolicited “FW:” e-mails. Occasionally, I refer the family forwarder and other recipients to one of several fact-finding websites relative to “urban legends” and hoaxes, or “e-rumors” (e.g., www.truthorfiction.com). Sometimes I respond with a commentary or question of my own. Such was the case recently upon receiving the following forwarded message from an elderly member of my family-in-law:
 
“Subject: You Bet, I agree!!!
 
“I was asked to send this on if I agree or delete if I don’t. What do you think about this? It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a mess about having ‘In God We Trust’ on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don’t we just tell the 14% to Sit Down and BE QUIET!!! If you agree, pass this on, if not delete…. I AGREE!!!!”
 
As a Baptist ethicist, I could hardly not respond to this one. However, since most of my in-laws are Lutherans, a merely Baptistic defense of separation of church and state would seem less than compelling. I made an attempt along other lines:
 
“Hmm. I’m not sure I like that part about ‘the 14%’ (or whatever the percentage might be), particularly given our increasingly desperate need to foster dialogue and understanding between folk who disagree, within and outside this nation–rather than a ‘sit down and be quiet’ approach. Not so?”
 
Replies to my own are uncommon from the original sender. Dialogue takes place more often between siblings, and most often with one of the young adult nephews or nieces. It is so again this time. A bright and right-leaning nephew responds:
 
“What do you point to as evidence of the ‘increasingly desperate need to foster dialogue?’ Not trying to argue it; you just made a statement that I would be interested in understanding better. Thanks for the discussion! – <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Chad”
 
My uncle/ethicist’s heart beats faster as I read this open invitation to continue the dialogue.
 
“Good morning, Chad! And thanks for your response to mine, which was response to whomever wrote the chain letter that Auntie forwarded, and response also to her and to each extended-family member who received it. I think we’re engaged in ‘dialogue!’ And probably this is because we don’t all agree on everything that the e-letter expressed.”
 
I go on to assure my nephew-in-law that I don’t see dialogue as an end in itself. Rather, it is perhaps the best means we humans have for getting to some sort of mutual “understanding between folk who disagree.”
 
Understanding one another isn’t the ultimate goal either, of course, since just understanding a Hitler or a Saddam Hussein would not necessarily change his bad behavior one bit. However, most of us aren’t Hitlers or Husseins; we’re just people with differing perspectives on what’s going on in our lives individually, corporately and internationally. When we talk to and (especially) listen to one another, even our enemies, we often find much more common ground than we would have assumed otherwise. Then, too, we don’t cut off relationships with one another or come to blows so quickly instead.
 
This begins to get to Chad’s question about what I would point to as “an increasingly desperate need to foster dialogue and understanding.” Civil exchanges of the sort we’re engaged in seem not to be the norm.
 
Especially post-9/11, I note that the conservative-liberal divide grows ever wider and more vociferous. Instead of dialogue leading to understanding and tolerance of diversity, a “conquer and defeat” approach is increasingly evident within some Christian denominations, including my own.
 
I note in particular what appears to be an escalating distrust and lack of understanding between Christians in this country and Muslim people everywhere. Muslim acquaintances tell me this. Email chain letters received from Christians confirm it, if the daily news stories were not enough.
 
I note also a rise in email that disparages immigrants and aliens. I receive even from Christians messages denigrating the poor and other vulnerable groups within our society—or outside it, maybe just across the border—the very people for whom Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles were most concerned.
 
There appears to be a growing appetite in our society for violent resolution of problems, rather than advocating the more patient, mature—dare I say, Christian—means of diplomacy via dialogue. It’s not that we might never cut off relationships or even come to blows so as to thwart evil, but that we surely more often could avoid that means of resolving differences.
 
I see evidence of dialogical disparity in the ongoing wars in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. It is evident in the preponderant violence of feature films, television shows, popular literature, computerized gaming, and recent political commentary here at home.
 
I wrote Chad that I can not imagine Jesus using the language of “hunt down and kill”—which was all too prevalent on the tongues of both major presidential candidates during fall campaign debates about terrorists and homeland security. That was a sort of dialogue, however. So despite the sometimes violent rhetoric, political campaigning wasn’t all bad.
 
E-mail passed between family members isn’t all bad either.
 
The ubiquitous “forwards” are annoying and a workplace distraction. Many e-rumors induce great harms on persons and corporate bodies innocent of outlandish and unsubstantiated charges. Ideologies inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ are fostered at lightning speed by senders claiming Christ’s name.
 
Yet e-mail technology also has opened possibilities for communication between far-flung family members and others whose perspectives may be as diverse as their locations. May the dialogue continue, with understanding and peace in its wake.

Tarris Rosell is a program associate at the Center for Practical Bioethics and associate professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, both in metro Kansas City.