understanding, communication, and being wrong


“It would just be so much easier if I was just mad at him. But I’m not– I mean, I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. It hurts so badly, but I get it. I really do.”
“No, you misunderstood. That’s not what I meant.”
“Wait! Please, just let me explain!”


I was talking about this concept with a friend of mine the other day, and a few things I read today solidified it all for me. I don’t think that what I’m about to talk about is a particularly Christian problem, but I think that Christian rhetoric surrounding ideas like community, harmony, and forgiveness all exacerbate this problem.

It’s this rather basic notion that if we understand where the other person is coming from, if we understand what that person said or even why they said it, then… we shouldn’t be upset. If actions, or words, are capable of being understood, then there’s no place for anger. And, frequently, we tend to portray an emotional reaction as one not based on understanding. We only get angry when we don’t understand.

We can see this in all of the tragedies we’ve experience recently. Why would anyone want to bomb an event like the Boston Marathon? It just seems so… so incomprehensible. Why in the world would someone walk into a crowded movie theater and gun people down? That’s insane.

And, we see it on a smaller scale. A Cry For Justice talked about this in a post today:

The typical goal of those called upon to “help,” [in church disagreements] is the preservation of unity, the reconciliation of relationships, the extending of forgiveness, and the attainment of true understanding of the other by each of the previously estranged parties. Peace. Harmony. Unity = Success. That is the mindset . . . the philosophy embraced by such “helpers” is not going to be one of doing justice for the wronged, calling evil for what it is, and justifying the good and righteous. Indeed, such people don’t really even acknowledge evil. They assume that everyone in the matter surely has a good intention, but there has merely been a breakdown in understanding. So the answer is to facilitate communication.

This concept has also reared its head in the comment thread on my post at NLQ. A new commenter, who goes by “Patricia” is sympathizing with David Cuff, who had this to say about how the purity culture told me that I was responsible for my rape:

“While many of us have fallen from the Biblical standard for sexuality, if we repent and turn back to His guidance we can walk in the Light of His love for ourselves and our spouse.”

Patricia stressed, in the seven comments she left, that we were all being so emotional, and if we “humbled” ourselves and “objectively” examined what David said, we would realize that we’d just “misunderstood” him:

David, You have been misunderstood. I find your posts kind and compasionate [sic], while also agreeing and being able to relate to Samantha’s original post. This is all a sad misunderstanding. What makes it even sadder is the fact that no-one is willing to humbly renounce to their “emotion” for the sake of doing justice in this matter.

Here’s the problem.

None of us misunderstood David Cuff. We were all extremely well-versed in the kinds of terminology David was using, we all understood that he was representing the purity culture, we knew what he meant by trying to explain biblical redemption to us. None of us missed his main point, and the general tone and thrust of his comments. One of my readers here, Anne,  had an amazing way of phrasing the tension:

Repentance and redemption, in general, are important concepts to discuss, sure. But this wasn’t a general “type whatever’s on your mind today and feel free to change the subject” blog post, it’s on a very specific, very sensitive topic. He lost me at “repent.” No matter what little niceties about grace and forgiveness follow it up, that was a conversation-changing choice of words . . .

Person A: The culture I was raised in made me especially vulnerable to abuse and I was raped.
Pastor B: I’d like to reiterate the importance of sexual purity, and that it doesn’t change if you’ve been abused.

Anne understood David’s point. She acknowledged that his goal had been to communicate a message concerning “biblical redemption,” and she even acknowledged the importance of such a message. What she is referring to, and what we were all objecting to, wasn’t based on a misunderstanding— we were pointing out the inappropriateness of how and where he decided to communicate this message.

This happens in so many areas of our lives, however, and isn’t limited to rants on the internet. I can understand all kinds of evil things. I can understand why people do evil things. One of the reasons why Iago is my favorite character in Shakespeare is that he’s evil, to his very core, but he’s still an understandable and relatable character.

This even happened in my relationship with Handsome. At one point during our engagement, he decided to take a course of action that involved me without asking what I thought about it first. When he told me, I became distressed, and my first reaction was why would you do that? We spent a long time talking about it, and, eventually, I did understand why he’d thought it was a good idea. His decision-making process and his motivations made sense. But they were still wrong, and he agreed with me. It took a while for me to explain to him how his actions had hurt me, because, after all– he’d had a very good reason for doing it. But, eventually, he also understood that just because he had a very good reason didn’t make it ok.

Very often we conflate how incomprehensible something is with how wrong or evil it must be. Just because we can understand something doesn’t make it right.

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