“If you don’t like what they’re asking you, don’t accept the premise of the question.” (The West Wing)
I love this line. It’s sharp and pretty useful advice when it comes to escaping tricky situations….
‘Did you leave the toilet seat up again?’
‘Well it’s more like this darling; I don’t accept the premise in your question that the default position of the toilet seat is down.’
Premise isn’t a word we use too often but essentially it’s our starting point from which we go on to think, speak, act and ask questions. Jesus was brilliant at challenging premises and reframing situations. Not because he was a spin-doctor or couldn’t answer difficult questions. No, he used his words and actions to consistently challenge the hearts of those around him. He had a different agenda, different priorities, a completely different premise:
Remember when the rich young man came to Jesus asking what he needed to do to inherit eternal life? Jesus flipped the situation from the accepted premise of simply observing the law to one of costly relationship with him and others.
When the woman was caught in the act of adultery, he changed the narrative from impending judgement and death to repentance, forgivness and new life.
When the woman was annointing Jesus’s feet, the group-think was ‘what a waste of expensive perfume’ and ‘how could he let a woman like her touch him?’ Jesus saw beauty and redemption where others saw shame and failure.
Or what about when Jesus challenged the Pharisees calling them “whitewashed tombs”? He challenged the culture of superficiality, keeping up holy appearances while the inside was rotting.
In one sense this isn’t rocket science but too often I’m so preoccupied with answering the latest question posed by an individual/society/government/media/church that I simply accept flawed premises. We’re called to redeem and re-frame the conversation; moving from the immediate issue to the important.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we question every single remark, or remark on every single question. We must be careful not to twist words or become slippery, conceited or pedantic. It’s not about having all the answers, but graciously challenging some of the assumptions behind the questions. Also this is not like the toilet seat example, using our words to avoid awkward conversations. It’s the opposite. It’s about getting right to the heart of the matter.
On one level this is slightly abstract but it quickly becomes very practical. Challenging the premises of our culture is pure salt and light stuff. If we care deeply about the gospel, the poor, mercy and holiness, we simply can’t accept some of the premises we encounter every day. The command of the Christ-follower to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” sits in stark contrast to the ‘seek first the empire of self, and your own pleasure’ of capitalism. With such different worldviews we need to continually reframe the conversation back around God’s priorities.
So let’s simulteanously cut to the practical and to the end of this piece. Can we pray for wisdom and insight to discern the premises of each situation and conversation we find ourselves in?
Can we be bolder and more creative in our conversations. Instead of adding our voices to the noisy drivel of social commentary and religious punditary, can we bring silence by whispering subversive words of truth?
Can we be conversational architects, co-workers with Christ who rebuild the premises and priorities of the culture around us?