Making Dissent Meaningful

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Guest column by Quentin P. Kinnison, Ph.D., associate professor of Christian ministry, biblical & religious studies division chairperson

It seems we live in a time filled with dissent. Often protest and dissent seems unruly, disrespectful, even chaotic. Many of us at Fresno Pacific experience dissent in different ways that are not nearly as spectacular as recent national events, but which may be just as unsettling. Such dissent comes in a variety of forms: a student who aggressively pushes against course content; a faculty member who belligerently complains about department or university changes; an administrator who forcefully rejects a proposal put forward by a colleague; an employee who strongly dismisses a particular plan of action; constituents who threaten to withhold support or at least loudly make their displeasure known. Sometimes, dissent is refusing to engage at all. In each of these moments dissent might be perceived as disloyalty or the response of a particularly disagreeable person. But what if we thought differently of dissent?

In my book, Transforming Pastoral Leadership, I suggest that humility allows us to see two alternate possibilities as to what dissent might mean: 1) dissent might present alternate options that must be considered, and 2) dissent might allow us to recognize an ill-informed opinion that can be reshaped (either our own or theirs). Ultimately this leads us to a moment of discernment, which for Christian people means a moment to listen for and to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance. For those of us with leadership responsibilities, whether that be in churches, the classroom or the boardroom, or with influence enough to be asked to lead a group of colleagues, I offer these words of warning:

“Assuming every voice of dissent is only ill-informed opinion denies the leader of his or her opportunity to find another way in which God might be leading God’s people to a desired goal. It also robs the people of the character shaping activity in discernment, which God might be attempting to do in helping them to identify the values and beliefs underlying each particular action plan. Dissent does not necessarily offer a better option, any more so than it automatically offers a worse option. The process of discernment is the opportunity to learn again and discover afresh the presence of the Spirit-mediated Christ and the direction in which the Spirit of Christ leads” (pg. 109).

In a Christian institution like Fresno Pacific University, we are uniquely gifted the opportunity to allow moments and seasons of dissent to become shaping experiences and opportunities to discover meaning that guides our work. We ought to experience these moments so that the community might be transformed into the image of Christ, allowing us to do our work of educating students with a fidelity to Jesus that is reflected in our actions—how we treat them and how we treat one another. In the process, we embody our Fresno Pacific Idea, which calls FPU, and by definition its members, to be prophetic and reflect on “personal, institutional and societal values.”

In this way, we both honor the prophetic nature of community members to speak truth in love to the community of learners, and demonstrate prophetically to the world how transformation is worked out by the renewing of our communal/institutional mind and our minds individually.

  • Dr. Lisa Keith

    Wise words. Conflict, or dissent, is a natural part of life in community. As Dr. Ron Claassen puts it, conflict represents both danger and opportunity, depending on how we react or perceive it. It is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of one another and to deepen our relationships with one another as well.

  • Mike Spinelli

    Thanks for these good words. This helps put dissent in the church into another perspective. It certainly calls us not to pit people against people or ideas against ideas. Rather, we might seek to consider others better than ourselves and see to their interests as well as our own.