Friendship Through Difference and Disagreement

Photo: Snapwire

It should be a given that humans are capable of becoming friends with those they fundamentally disagree with.

For example, I have friends who are registered to vote under political parties other than my own, friends who hold varying theological perspectives, and friends who choose not to align themselves with religion at all. These relationships often come with a degree of tension due to our varying experiences, but I find these friendships to be greatly fulfilling because they help inform my understanding of the world around me, offering me insights that I would never discover alone.

Friendship allows us to cross lanes of difference and disagreement in order to care for one another as people, sharing the gift of friendship that God gave humanity in Creation. We choose to work through these differences and disagreements all the time because we love each other, and when you love someone, you seek to understand them rather than cast them away.

Conflict Over Dignity

These moments of understanding within cross-cultural friendships have the power to inspire us to sacrifice for those who are at a great geographical, emotional, or relational distance from us. At the same time, there seem to be a few misconceptions about what it means to be friends with people who we disagree with or who we are simply different from. These misunderstandings create false expectations around relationships between those who have reached a point of fundamental disagreement or difference with one another.

Many have come to the conclusion that befriending someone you disagree with means forgetting any tension or conflict that are inherently present. Many think of words like “harmony” and “tolerance” when they think of these difficult relationships, but it is not nearly that simple. It becomes vastly more complicated when these disagreements become less about preference and become more about dignity.

For example, opinions on matters such as immigration are not simply matters of preference. These opinions are important because they impact real people who are trying their hardest to protect their families and work to make a living. What we think about the dignity and value of immigrants becomes the way that we treat immigrants. What we think about the value and dignity of immigrants impacts the way that we treat real humans.

Here’s another example: LGBTQ worker’s rights. Views on whether LGBTQ people may be fired for being LGBTQ or even denied service are not simply matters of preference because they impact real people who have been systemically treated like a stain in society.

Views on racial inequality and racial justice are not merely matters of preference because they directly impact real people of color who continue to be discriminated against in a variety of overt, subtle, and systemic ways.

It is possible to become friends with people who may have varying opinions on these matters, but what would that look like, especially for those who seek to prioritize harmony and tolerance? What does it look like to prioritize harmony and tolerance when discussing people?

Prioritizing Harmony

People who prioritize harmony above real people will typically allow bigoted comments to go unchallenged because they want to value all sides of an argument for the sake of discourse. The problem with this is that when someone says something like “LGBTQ people do not face violent discrimination,” they seek to erase the humanity of LGBTQ people by invalidating their experiences, deeming them unworthy of being seen or heard. This same example may be used for any marginalized people group throughout the world, throughout history.

The refusal to acknowledge this kind of pain in marginalized communities has led to well-meaning people choosing not protect vulnerable communities. The intention is harmony and the result is erasure.

Prioritizing Tolerance

When someone prioritizes tolerance, they prioritize a shallowness of love that says, “I do not think that your existence is valid, but I guess I will respect your right to exist in the same general area.” Tolerance says, “It’s okay if you hold unchecked biases, just don’t verbalize those biases.” Tolerance asks people to ignore the issues that people have with each other because it is more polite to smile than to acknowledge someone’s internalized racism, sexism, ableism, etc.

Love does not ignore the obvious, it asks, “I sense that we’re not seeing eye-to-eye. How can we work through this together?” Love doesn’t demand, it asks, “I can tell that I hurt you, how can I make things right?” And then after asking these questions, love actually causes us to make it right.

Tolerance stops at an apology. Love goes above and beyond.

Genuine Friendship is Genuine Love

Genuine friendship across difference and disagreement does not sit on its hands when someone says or does something harmful. Genuine friendship calls people on their actions and holds people accountable to what they have done. In this way, friendship love has much more to do with conflict than it does harmony because harmony assumes that everyone will settle their differences by keeping quiet. Conflict, on the other hand, at least recognizes that two people are coming from different places and that one or both people involved have not yet worked to understand each other.

Being friends across differences must involve a layer of conflict or tension. Otherwise, the friendship is shallow and chooses not to dig beyond what is complicated or messy.

At the same time, I do not think that friendship stops at conflict when the conflict is the dignity of real people. Something has to give. Something has to change.

I have not quite decided what change means, but I do know this: if a friend calls me to greater compassion for those I do not understand, I would be a fool not to listen. I would be like the person who looks at themselves in the mirror only to forget what they look like the minute they step away (James 1: 22-25.)

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