Belittling. Mocking. Ignoring. Threats. Lies. Abuse. This was the environment that characterized Joseph’s upbringing.
After more than 18 months of intense immersion in a pandemic, many people in our time and space can arguably relate to Joseph—experiencing similar dynamics, even within the family of God. The current COVID-19 pandemic has not only taken a toll on lives and livelihood around the world. In some cases it has negatively affected our local churches, dividing our faith communities.
Many years ago Adventist churches would sing, “You will notice we say ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ ’round here. It’s because we’re a family and these are so near.” It’s an old song that has perhaps gone out of style, but more unfortunate is that, to varying degrees, those sentiments may no longer be our dominant experience.
How did we get here? How did sincere believers lose so much genuine love and respect for one another? Almost any string of comments on social media about the pandemic, masks, vaccines, and so on is a sad indication that many conversations have devolved into arguments and value judgments. How did we get to a place where, in general, it is difficult to have calm, enjoyable, and mutually respectful conversations, even about challenging topics like a pandemic?
Among other factors, this moment is very much defined by our increasingly polarized political climate.1 More and more people are holding hard and fast to political views without a willingness to consider another point of view. Enter a pandemic that affects all aspects of our society, and fairly or otherwise, people tend to view the pandemic—and all its effects—through the lens of political ideology.
This moment also aligns with many geopolitical theories of behind-the-scenes intrigue. Collusion and conspiracy are no longer limited to Hollywood-style dramas, but are seen as largely driving world events of today. In that context, consider a mysterious virus that is so infectious that it seems tailored for the human body, that may or may not have escaped a lab in a tightly closed country, a vaccine that is funded by governments, and so on. Conspiracy theories abound and have become a filter through which many are viewing the pandemic.
Finally, this moment is extremely challenging because some are viewing this pandemic and vaccination through the lens of eschatology—the theological word for last-day events. Jesus has told us that in the last days of earth’s history, society will split over its allegiance to God or to a counterfeit system of belief. That we do know. What we don’t know with any certainty is if this pandemic has anything to do with actual last-day events. Even so, some in our community of faith have turned this into an eschatological crisis—including claims that COVID-19 vaccination is the biblical mark of the beast.
With those factors in mind, how do we effectively engage with others about sensitive topics in general, but more specifically, about COVID, vaccination, and related topics? And what insights can we gather from Joseph’s story, which also took place in the midst of a widespread crisis?
LISTEN.The challenge with most human communication is that we come to conversations with preconceived ideas. Listening is only a polite exercise while we wait to educate someone with our thoughts. Looking back to Joseph, consider the model he leaves us as he engages with his brothers, unrecognized, as the governor of Egypt. Joseph asks them a number of questions, allowing them to tell their story while he carefully listens. “Joseph, listening, could not control his emotions, and he went out and wept.”2 Notice the contrast to Reuben’s confession: “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen!” (Gen. 42:22, NIV).
LEARN.The next commitment to make is to learn from the other person. This is difficult, because our default mode is to want to share our viewpoint. But healthy relationships require us to recognize and admit that we don’t know it all. They require us to have a posture of learning from the other person. Indicating this to the other person (either overtly or through questions or nonverbal clues) will make an enormous difference in lowering defensive walls that lead to poor communication.
LEAD.The next step is to lead the conversation. Point the conversation in ways that are healthy and effective. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1, NIV). “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (verse 4, NLT).3 Ask open-ended questions, such as “Help me understand that better”; or, perhaps, turn to a less-sensitive topic.
LINK. Try to link your thoughts and perspectives with those of the other person. What are the points of commonality or shared experiences? As governor of Egypt, Joseph had the power to put his brothers to death immediately. But instead he asked about their father and brother. He brought to their minds a common link between them, even though the brothers were still unaware of it.
LEAVE. Last, leave the conversation assuring the other person you are still friends, family members, and brothers and sisters in Christ. Commit to maintaining the friendship and to not disparaging each other—even if you vehemently disagree.
Of course, LOVE should underscore every part of these conversations. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1, ESV).4 Despite being cruelly treated, Joseph had an abiding love for his brothers. And that love was manifested in his actions.
It certainly wasn’t easy, but consider that it was during the crisis of the day that Jacob’s sons were restored and reconciled. In the end, the sum total of all those experiences has been expressed as follows: “God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today” (Gen. 50:20, CEB).5
Costin Jordache is vice president for public relations and marketing of Adventist HealthCare; Angeline David Brauer is director, Department of Health Ministries, North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.