Still recovering from the media blitz of midterm elections, you may soon find yourself sharing a holiday meal with someone who cast a vote you cannot fathom. In a poll conducted in 2020 by The Economist, 38 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans reported that they would feel somewhat or very upset at the prospect of their child marrying someone from the opposite party. Other polls have shown that one in six Americans have ended a friendship or cut off contact with a family member over political disagreements.
Grace gets put to the test when we find ourselves confronted with people who are different from us. Do we welcome them and treat them with respect? I think of the people attracted to Jesus: “heretics” (Samaritans), foreigners (a Roman officer), outcasts (prostitutes, tax collectors, the ritually unclean, those with leprosy). Remarkably, Jesus found a way to treat them with dignity and respect without compromising his beliefs or his character.
Contrast Jesus’ spirit with what we see in modern politics. During her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton described half of Donald Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables…They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” Trump responded in kind, calling his opponents “deranged,” “human scum,” and “enemies of the people.”
As the U.S. grows increasingly more pluralistic, followers of Jesus will need to adapt to living with people who don’t share our outlook. Some groups view us with hostility, as cranky obstructionists who want to impose our outdated morality on a progressive culture. Instead of bemoaning these changes, we have the opportunity to model a healthier approach for a divided society. Two basic principles may guide us in that daunting task.
In recent elections most evangelical Christians have voted Republican. Yet a timely article in Christianity Today* reminds us that Bible-believing Christians have influenced both major parties. The Democratic Party has led the way in civil rights legislation, as well as in addressing poverty, racial justice, health care, and earth care. The Republican Party has championed the principles of religious liberty, protection for the unborn, and the importance of marriage and family.
At the same time, both parties support some policies that are hard to square with biblical teaching. And neither party devotes much attention to such problems as greed, dishonesty, marital infidelity, divorce, alcohol abuse, gambling, and pornography. Many concerns of the Kingdom of God don’t easily fit into a political agenda.
Politics thus operates in a limited sphere, and it advances by carving out compromises between opposing lobbies. Christians, driven by ideology, tend to see moral issues in black-and-white. Furthermore, we have little guidance on how to apply our beliefs in a pluralistic society. The New Testament has much to say about the behavior of Jesus followers, but nothing about how to legislate morality in the diverse Roman Empire.
Politics is an adversary sport, and Christians are still learning how to play it. In 1989 I interviewed Dr. C. Everett Koop, the nation’s Surgeon General at the time. His appointment had stirred up bitter controversy, for he was known as a strict opponent of abortion. Once in office, however, Koop had to weigh his own beliefs against what was best for the country, while also considering what would be politically plausible.
He told me, “One of the problems with the pro-life movement is that they are 100-percenters. Historically it is true that if the pro-life movement had sat down in, say, 1970 or 1972 with the pro-choice people, we might have ended up with an agreement on abortion for the life of the mother, defective child, rape and incest, and nothing more. That would have saved ninety-seven percent of the abortions since then. Ninety-seven percent of twenty-five million [abortions] is a lot of babies.”
Koop showed me some of the hate mail he received daily from Christians who saw him as a compromiser for meeting with abortion advocates and for devoting so many resources to AIDS patients.
In more recent days Dr. Francis Collins, a devout Christian, has led the Human Genome Project and directed the National Institutes of Health. Somehow he managed to serve in a way that pleased five different presidents: Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden. His gracious spirit and professional accomplishments won over detractors who had opposed his nomination because of his Christian beliefs. Collins, like Koop, admits that his worst hate mail came from fellow Christians—in his case for promoting the use of masks and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We need to remember the advice of Martin Luther King, Jr. He said that Christians should enter the realm of politics when we have an issue worth fighting for, but we should fight with different weapons, “the weapons of grace.”
Valarie Kaur, an activist who grew up in a Sikh family in California, writes about relating to adversaries in her book See No Stranger. “Deep listening is an act of surrender. We risk being changed by what we hear. The most critical part of listening is asking what is at stake for the other person. I try to understand what matters to them, not what I think matters.”
As I read Valarie’s words, I realized I do this instinctively as a journalist, in an attempt to coax from my interview subjects an accurate picture of who they are. Yet when I engage with a friend or family member, my defenses go up and I want to interrupt or rebut them. I have to force myself to attend to their perspective before presenting my own. Listening to the heartfelt story of, say, a transgender person, or a woman who has undergone an abortion, helps reveal “the other” as a fellow human being rather than a stereotype.
Kaur continues, “How do we listen to someone when their beliefs are disgusting? Or enraging? Or terrifying? …An invisible wall forms between us and them, a chasm that seems impossible to cross.… In these moments, we can choose to remember that the goal of listening is not to feel empathy for our opponents, or validate their ideas, or even change their mind in the moment. Our goal is to understand them.”
Maybe that person will in turn wonder about me, and listen to my point of view. Or, maybe they won’t. Kaur adds, “It doesn’t matter as long as the primary goal of listening is to deepen my own understanding. Listening does not grant the other side legitimacy. It grants them humanity—and preserves our own.”
By deep listening, we lay a path for grace to do its work.
Dr. Diana Pavlac Glyer, a professor at Azusa Pacific University, tells of an occasion when a conversation with a good friend escalated into an argument involving tears, screaming, and rude accusations. After about an hour and a half, the friend looked at her and said, “I completely and utterly disagree with you, but I love the reasons why you believe what you do.”
I can envision a similar conversation in which someone opposed to illegal immigration says to an opponent, “I completely disagree with you about a border wall, but I love the compassion you have for families who leave their home country to give their kids a chance to escape the violence there.” Or, a response from the other side of the political spectrum: “I utterly disagree with you about abortion, but I love your consistency in caring for human lives, even the unborn.”
Although such conversations will rarely change another’s mind, they may in time help build a bridge over a chasm that seems impossible to cross. In a nation as divided as ours, we have to start somewhere.
*Christianity Today article: https://bit.ly/CTNov2022elections
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