Healthy Debate

When 2 armies met on the battlefield in ancient Greek culture, the dispute was not always decided by an all-out melee brawl. As you see in Homer’s Iliad (or as depicted in the film Troy), each side would often select their own champion - the most elite of all their warriors - to fight their opponent’s champion in a one-on-one-winner-take-all-showdown. Goliath’s challenge to the Israelites in 1 Samuel 17 falls in line with this pattern, which makes sense when you realize that the Philistines were migrant Greek people who had settled along the coast of Canaan. Goliath stands tall as the champion warrior of the Philistines and wants Israel to send out one person to fight him in a duel in which both Goliath and the Israelite champion (who ends up being a shepherd-boy) are representatives of their camp…their nation…their people.

And this picture of Achilles vs. Hector or Goliath vs. David is exactly what I see with most modern “debate.” And I don’t think it’s healthy. 

Whether it’s between 2 people on social media (of which I plead guilty in a couple of instances in the past)….or how news networks often try to put 2 polarizing figures on a split screen to yell at each other over the ridiculousness of the other person’s position…..or even in the oft-parodied political debates….we have a tendency to turn what could have been a productive discussion into “I must slay my opponent without mercy, and then I will be celebrated among my camp as the victor over that entire army over there.” When’s the last time you actually heard in a televised debate the words: “You are right,” “I agree,” “That’s a valid concern,” or “I sympathize with your perspective”? Someone may say this in response to an audience member asking a question. But to an “opponent”?

"What?! And cave in to the enemy?! What would my camp think of me then? No, I will not concede any ground. If I cannot logically refute the other’s words, I will attack his/her character! Or I’ll change the issue back to our points of contention!"

And so we evade questions, we resort to ad hominem tactics, we make false assumptions and set up straw men in the positions of the other, we play to those on our side whether we think these are compelling arguments or not…..and both sides return home thinking they’ve slain the other on the battlefield but very few people if any have been persuaded either way by what they’ve observed. 

And all the while, we could actually approach people with a willingness to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:18). We could find points of agreement…areas where we can affirm their views (as Paul does in Acts 17) before trying to persuade them on points of contention. We could try to “reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) rather than staying on the attack. After all, the goal is not to slay this person and intimidate his whole army so that they will back away and never engage. You’ve lost them if that happens. The goal is to win souls, not arguments. Don’t engage for the sake of the applause of your camp when you’ve declared victory. Engage because you care about this person (and all others in his camp) deeply and sincerely.   


To His Glory,

Caleb Cochran

Photo credit: OregonDOT via / CC BY