Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before—and who was one of the Pharisees—asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” The Pharisees replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” (John 7:50-52)
If you think the state of civil discourse has reached an all-time low, this story may surprise you.
Allow me to introduce the cast. Jesus was from Galilee (hence the reference in the passage above). The Pharisees, a Jewish sect, emphasized rigorous adherence to the law that God had given to Moses, as well as to the traditions that sprang from it. Nicodemus, a Pharisee himself, had visited Jesus early in the gospel of John to hear what he had to say.
Previously, the Pharisees—who were offended by Jesus and worried about civil unrest among his followers—had sent guards to arrest him. It backfired: the guards came back awestruck, saying, “Never has anyone spoken like this!”
From here the story could go one of two ways. Hearing the guards’ new perspective could inspire curiosity. Maybe, the Pharisees could think, it’s worthwhile to talk with Jesus. They could see if his ideas shed a new light on their beliefs. Perhaps, through dialogue, an exchange of views might draw them both closer to God.
That’s one way. The other, alas, is all too familiar to us: dig in, protect our position by insulting the other side, reduce thoughtful positions to bromides that obscure more than they clarify. This is what happens, for instance, when pro-life adherents call their adversaries “baby killers,” or when pro-choice advocates incessantly trumpet “a woman’s right to choose.”
That’s the way the Pharisees go in the gospel account. To the guards, they say, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?…the crowd [of believers in Jesus], who do not know the law—they are accursed.” When Nicodemus tries to put the idea of a fair hearing before them, they insult him too, dismissing him with a one-liner.
As always, let me offer a caveat. Any of these positions may hold truth. “A woman’s right to choose” is a factor worth considering in the abortion debate. Maybe the fetus is a baby. Perhaps there is no mention of a Galilean prophet in the Hebrew scriptures.
The problem is that the advocates of these positions assert their position and stop there. That cuts off the possibility of exploring for a deeper truth. If the fetus is a baby, does it too have a right to choose? If we can’t determine when babyhood begins, what then? If the scriptures are silent about a prophet from Galilee, does that mean it can’t happen?
Questions like these—when we ask them of each other—help us probe deeper, uncover more truth, and become more empathic with those who disagree. Insults and repetition block our way.
Even two millennia ago, the dynamics of dialogue and polarization were at work. Ultimately, I think, this is encouraging news. It means our divides never go away—but neither does our desire to reach across them.