The courage of sharing ideas


Our nation has always been rather rough and tumble when it comes to ideas. We have been split down the middle twice so badly that we took up arms against each other on a national scale.

The first we call the American Revolution. The second we call the Civil War. But violence never seems that far away, be it based on race, moral scruples (Prohibition), labor, corruption, or famine (Dust Bowl), political systems, or particular ideas about justice. Every few years there is a riot somewhere.

Read this from a professor explaining why he resigned from Columbia: "On April 21 of that year I delivered an address before the National Conference of Community Centers in which I advocated the use of the schools as centers for discussion of public questions. A few weeks before, a speaker at one of the school forums was alleged to have said, 'To hell with the flag,' and for that reason a number of persons had urged the closing of school centers altogether. Indeed, some of the speakers at the above-mentioned conference advocated a sort of censorship for all school forums."

In his speech, the professor argued that one person should not cause the closing of the forums to others. Then, one sensationalized headline accused the professor of assenting to the views of the controversial speaker. He was then summoned to a hearing and accused of the same. This was one of seven similar incidents concerning either censorship or taking a view contrary to the majority view of the other faculty. The quote above was from a document by Charles Beard written in 1917.

I am fascinated by such documents and speeches from the past. What always strikes me is how little we have changed. The criticisms, crises, and chatter sound very contemporary.

It's worth remembering that at that time the nation was in a fierce discussion concerning World War I. It was the days when the song "Over There" was written. It was when the justification for sending troops was famously expressed by Theodore Roosevelt: "The professional pacifists have, during the last three years, proved themselves to be enemies of their country. â ¦ When we fight for America abroad we save our children from fighting for America at home beside their own ruined hearthstones."

He thus laid the groundwork for justification of American intervention in future wars (still with us today) and Eisenhower's eventual warning against the military-industrial complex.

It is not that these discussions are not worth having, they are. But we must continue to have them and understand that a correct decision in one instance may not work in another setting. All we can do is keep trying. There are certainly people whose views I would rather not hear, and there are people whose views I consider destructive to others. But I must learn to listen and hear what they are saying. There will be extreme views that must be countered by action, but I fear that we are slipping away from the first step of listening. Violence and disrespect seem to be the first choice of many. We have lost the ability to hear arguments to the end and absorb nuance, intent, and context.

We know that there is a time for everything. The words of "The Preacher" in Ecclesiastes, put to music by The Byrds in the 1960s: "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace." (Eccles. 3:1-8).

We will keep arguing. We will keep disagreeing.

We will keep making the same kinds of decisions. We will not change, but that does not mean that we are without hope. It does not mean that things are not going to get better. I believe we are better off than we were 100 years ago. The progress will not be a straight line, but as long as we keep arguing and don't kill each other, we will move forward. It is sometimes frightening living in this world, but the courage of ideas and the clashes it causes make us stronger -- eventually.

While we have these discussions, keep this in mind, "Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God." (James 1:19, RSV).

Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at