I recently listened to a TED talk in which the speaker asked members of the audience, “Raise your hand if you have a loved one, neighbor, or friend who in the last election cast a vote that you can’t possibly comprehend.” Everyone raised their hands. Next he asked, “Raise your hand if you still have a cordial relationship with that person.” Almost everyone again raised a hand.
What we do instinctively with those we care about, we are failing to do on a broader, societal level. The 2020 election map shows 25 red states arrayed against 25 blue states, and every day the media report alarming signs of our nation’s deep divisions. My own Facebook site illustrates the divide: a totally unrelated post can trigger a heated, name-calling exchange about Biden and Trump, or about maskers and anti-maskers.
Is there another way? Can the United States resurrect the lofty goal enshrined at our founding: that of e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”)—rather than the current trend of one splintering into many? For those willing to pursue the goal of civil conversation with adversaries, I suggest the following steps.
1) Better arguments. I found a helpful website that proposes not fewer arguments, but better ones (https://bit.ly/PYargue). As a starting point, when touchy issues come up in a conversation with someone you know you’ll disagree with, say something like this: “I won’t try to convert you to my way of thinking, and I doubt you’ll convert me either. So let’s take the notion of winning off the table. But I’d really like to understand your point of view.” Then, carefully listen to your opponent, perhaps restating or asking questions to clarify assertions, but without attempting to refute them.
Reading through their examples, it occurred to me that as a journalist I do this naturally. I have interviewed and profiled people with whom I have strong disagreements: a sitting U.S. president, Russian bureaucrats, atheists, outspoken racists, a murderer. If I charge in with objections to everything they say, their defenses immediately go up. I will end up shortchanging my readers because I won’t get the material I need for a good article. Instead, I gently try to coax from my interview subjects an accurate picture of who they are, and present it in a way that lets my readers be the judge.
Sometimes I feel like a professional counselor during those interviews. “Do you have any regrets about that decision? How do you feel now, looking back?” Every counselor knows that direct confrontation rarely helps. Rather, a good counselor leads the one being counseled toward self-understanding, which must precede any lasting change. Similarly, in my role as a journalist, the better I can uncover another person’s perspective, the more accurately I can render them in my profile.
The interviewing techniques I’ve learned don’t easily transfer when, say, I have political discussions with certain family members. Yet, I’ve found that it helps if I shift my focus from convincing them of my point of view to comprehending theirs.
2) True empathy. After a victorious Joe Biden urged Americans “to see each other again, listen to each other again,” the political scientist and Time columnist Ian Bremmer tweeted, “Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump. Empathize with them. Tell them you know how they feel (you do, from 2016). Come up with one issue you can agree on.”
His proposal ignited a twitterstorm of angry responses. People on the right felt patronized by those who had cast them as bigots and fascists, while people on the left wanted nothing to do with Trump supporters. (“The only way to heal this country is to put every Trump voter in the jail,” one person replied.) A well-intentioned call for unity only seemed to widen the divide.
Barely a week later, the entire world was shocked to see a riot mob invade the U.S. Capitol. I watched with dismay as protestors waved crosses and JESUS banners along with Confederate flags and signs denouncing their opponents. Have they ever read the Gospels? I wondered.
Jesus was the ultimate bridge-builder, reaching out to people unlike himself and each other. His twelve disciples included a revolutionary Zealot as well a tax collector who worked for the oppressive Romans. On the same day, he healed an “unclean” social outcast and resurrected the daughter of a synagogue ruler. His parables featured improbable heroes: a diseased beggar, a rebellious son, a despised Samaritan.
Jesus showed such empathy that he, a sinless human, got branded as a friend of sinners. In words so few that they would also fit in a tweet, Jesus gave his own prescription on how to treat adversaries: “Love your enemies…Pray for those who persecute you.” Then he modeled how, by praying empathetically for his murderers—“for they don’t know what they are doing”—and forgiving Peter, the close friend who had betrayed him three times.
In a nation as divided as the U.S. in 2021, Jesus’ words have the ring of absurdity. It’s so much easier to bunker down among people who look and think just like me, rather than take the difficult steps toward empathy and reconciliation. But, then, Jesus never promised it would be easy.
3) Mutual respect. It seems everyone feels disrespected these days: the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump as well as the progressive Democrats who wanted a candidate other than Joe Biden; the Proud Boys and Antifa; blue-collar whites and police-oppressed minorities.
In one of his last interviews, the late Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the U.K., observed that Western democracies are moving from guilt-based to shame-based societies. Guilt at least holds out the potential for reconciliation, after the steps of repentance and forgiveness. A shame-based culture rejects the person, not just their behavior, and has no path toward reconciliation or a redemptive outcome. Cross a line, and you’re blackballed for life.
In today’s “cancel culture,” we refuse even to listen to people we disapprove of. In its milder form, universities ban speakers who don’t share their views on gender issues or abortion. More ominously, white supremacists and Black Lives Matter advocates scream at each other across the picket lines, often inciting violence.
Daryl Davis, an imposing figure both in size and in courage, demonstrates another way of confronting adversaries. In a Veritas Forum available on YouTube, he spells out a fascinating odyssey in which he, an African American, has managed to persuade more than 200 racists to leave the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazi movements. (The full story is available at https://bit.ly/PYddavis, or you can view an 18-minute version at https://bit.ly/PYddavis18.)
Davis began his career as a musician, playing boogie-woogie piano backup for the likes of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Over time, he felt called to understand white supremacists and neo-Nazis, whom most people avoided like a virus. He befriended KKK leaders, sometimes attending rallies at which he was the only person not wearing a hood, and definitely the only non-white person. After winning the right to be heard, he helped correct their false perceptions of Black people. Davis mastered the art of listening with respect. In time he challenged their beliefs, often using the very Bible they claimed to believe in.
Few of us have the chutzpah to show up in the nest of our extremist opponents, but we can at least find ways to join in common cause with people who are unlike us. Davis recommends seeking out service projects that attract people of different political persuasions, such as ministering to prisoners or the homeless or immigrants.
It’s possible to understand and respect another person without condoning their beliefs or compromising your own. In the process, you just may change their outlook—or expand yours.
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I love you, Philip Yancey. Sometimes I cry out for death rather than having to deal with so much anti-biblical rhetoric coming from people regarded as well-respected Christians. People are so impassioned for the cause of Caesar…
Then there’s a voice like yours. I thank God for you. My husband and I would love to meet you… before eternity!
Are you ever in Northern Indiana?
Thank you, Philip.
I used to be there all the time, as a Chicago resident. But we saw the light in 1992 and moved to Colorado.
Did you watch January 6 for yourself? Or did you just parrot what the media told you? You misrepresented the facts and lumped people together into one monolithic religious sentiment, besmirching Trump supporters (as you reflexively do without fail).
I hope you just goofed or were feeling lazy when you wrote that. ‘Cause, the only other explanation is that you lied. Given your bent toward all things communist, I’m going with the inconvenient, uncomfortable option.
If you have read me at all, you would know of my implacable opposition to communism, one of the great scourges of human history.
I think too many times I need to really engage in this kind of conversation. But what I am realizing now at a much later stage in life that we must ask for the Holy Spirit to be present in our conversation because too often we may feel that we have personally failed.
Thank you Phillip for your kind words. This is truly inspiring.
America is supposed to be the shining light of democracy and race relations, but I live in South Africa and am very glad we don’t have leaders like you former president. We do have problems but I believe we are making progress. Most often social media is so far removed from the truth and mainstream media is difficult to believe because of which side they are on. Christians can make a difference but even then depending on how well their world view has been constructed will determine how good an influence they will be. I enjoyed your article it needs to be read and digested by all.
When I think of our sociopolitical divisions, I often recall your thoughts on small vs. megachurches (Christianity Today, 5/20/1996) from years ago, which you posted more recently on your blogsite (philipyancey.com/small-is-large). As a longtime pastor of smaller churches in smaller communities, your message rang true with my experience, and was succinctly stated in your quote from G. K. Chesterton: “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world….The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.”
However, the problem (since you originally shared this message) is that there are no more “small communities.” Technology has now ensured that no one with an internet connection is limited to the people at hand. At a tiny table in a quaint café, we can easily grumble with like-minded folks thousands of miles away, and snivel and whine in social media “communities,” crowded with kindred spirits.
With our techno-wizardry, we’ve created a world where we no longer have to listen to (or even live with) those around us, but rather cluster with cultural clones, never challenged to understand or even acknowledge those who think differently. And frankly, I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m sure part of it is to keep pleading with folks to look up from their smart phones to recognize and appreciate those at the next table.
Extremely perceptive comment. Thank you! Philip
Good job, Philip. But the biggest problem with your approach is that such conversations with our opponents are drowned out by the divided media houses that propagates not the facts but only what their audience want to hear on an hourly basis, 24/7. The very important fourth estate media houses are cheerleading the division for ratings and profit. This compounded by the social media that help to spread misinformation and galvanize support for division for political and social power. Power is very attractive and death to conversation
I couldn’t agree more. When there’s no agreement on basic facts, it’s hard to have real conversation.
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall see God”…an expected view and full of a predictable set of “to do” Christian principles. But I believe you may have a few misconceptions about what just occurred over the last few weeks (perhaps over the last year, even over the last 3 decades.) Our nation acquired a split personality, a nation divided against itself. If differences of opinion were the only thing dividing us, then why the violence over the last 4 years? Someone not turning the other cheek? Yes, peace is a noble and lofty goal and worthy of best efforts by Christians everywhere–a universally “good thing”. But what if the differences of opinion go much deeper and involve a depth of depravity hard to reconcile with “just listen and empathize” suggestions? Peace at all costs does not resound at all from scripture. Discernment alludes me at times, but I squirm at the insistence of others to stop the irritating behavior of patriotic calls for action and “misguided” chafing at the bit when told to just accept injustice and lies as a done deal. When a bully is faced that’s when sparks fly. And, no, the bully was not Trump. He stood up to the monster beneath, and a doozy of a fight ensued. And I can’t seem to connect the ultra-docile image of Jesus many would prefer to consider, with the angry and violent Jesus who stood up to the depravity of those who defiled the temple of God. When told to “sit down and shut up,” of course I bristle. But in that tiny instant in time a great consequential question tickles my conscience, and I must make a decision that challenges my fence-straddling abilities. In that same instant somewhere in my brain I recall the lines of a hymn “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus, Ye soldiers of the cross…” and I determine that God’s hand on America often is God’s hand on Americans, and that He takes my hand and squeezes it and urges me to stand up and say No. That I want to be a part of the resistance to my countries pagan descent into oblivion is really just a reaction to the reality that peace without truth is as vile as anything Jesus erupted against in his fit of violence. Hate is a uniquely human trait that will run rampant if not beaten back by what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.” Those angels never materialized then; a doozy of a fight ensued. What did prove true then was that “the Judgements of the Lord are True and righteous, altogether.”
I went on your website. Stunning photography!
Hey Philip, have you checked out Jordan Peterson yet?
Not in any detail. It’s on my list.
Attitude, a little thing that makes a big difference. I will seek to apply this to myself and my own attitudes. It’s a huge shift to approach a fellow countryman with “I want to understand you” over “I am right, you are wrong.” Thank you!
Well said, Mr. Yancey, and so thought provoking. At least two of my ladies in my Bible Study have said that they voted differently from the way I voted, yet, we had a civil conversation following the lesson. For that, I was tremendously encouraged. I’ve longed for conversation with someone who thinks differently on political issues while claiming to be a Christ-follower.
Your article gives sound advice and suggestions.
Praying for our country, our church, one another – to calm down and listen to one another in love.
Oh, Father, it’s not too late. Church, wake up and practicing listening and loving, especially to those whose views are different from yours.
I appreciate this blog and the common sense it involks especially if one wishes to live in harmony with others. I too was ashamed of the large Jesus banner I saw during the assault on the Capital. I am a Canadian and we have our own struggles with listening to those who disagree with us and often seem on another planet! However your advice is right on and can be put into immediate practice. My wife and I pray for healing in the US of A regularly.
Very helpful. Thanks
Davis and Kelly and their friendship amazed me.
Even Jesus on one occasion kicked over tables and drove recalcitrant money changers out of the temple.
Thanks so much Philip. Very wise counsel! I also think that we’ve come to this place in Western politics (not just the USA) in part because of the loss of a Christian consensus around the very behaviors you reference. But why did we need to practise those behaviors in the last 40 years, as the homogenous unit principle (birds of a feather flock together) held sway in much of protestantism. If we (the church) understand that “God’s mission has an interracial church,” we’d get a lot more practise dealing with difference!
So glad to have your views! We have been following from France all that has been going on with much horror and praying for your country. I so look forward to your blogs! Keep writing! Kindest regards to you both.
Thanks, this is so good and useful also here in the Netherlands.
I can appreciate the wisdom of Mr. Yancey to engage in the hard work of seeking out mutual ground and certainly Jesus’ instruction to love enemies. However, what we have witnessed has been so extreme and entirely absurd and vile…love no longer compells me to engage supporters and promoters of lies and injustice. I have earnestly tried to have those “better arguments” and have only been attacked and riduculed, even by those laying claim to the same faith that is foundational to my life. I am deeply disheartened and confused so instead of trying to understand, I’m choosing to “stand-under” and look up to the Father asking the true judge to sort it out.
Thank you for your encouragement, Philip. The Daryl Davis message is incredible. I am deeply troubled about some of my friendships that go back over four decades. The range of topics we can now safely discuss is becoming increasingly narrow, and our relationship seems to be more and more shallow. Sometimes I wonder “what is the point of this friendship if all we can discuss is the weather?” My approach has been to focus on common ground rather than what the rest of the world is discussing. However, as you and Daryl suggest, listening-to-understand sounds like it would be more effective. Although I consider brotherly love a cord not easily broken, some of my relationships have become rather frayed over the last few years. Thank you for offering tools to help this ongoing dilemma about “what to do” to help regenerate these strained connections.
For Linda today at 8:59 am, this Linda has added your Mom to her daily prayer list.
May His loving arms surround you both!
Thanks for this post. I have been struggling with this very topic of trying have conversations with friends and family. It is an enormous challenge.
Our battle is indeed not with flesh and blood. But we are indeed in a battle. To turn our passions together in unity (as Christ prayed for us) in battle against the real enemy, and do so as shrewd as that serpent, yet gentle as a dove, is the most difficult test of love and integrity. Love never fails, but it can be so incredibly difficult to put into action. If He can hang on the cross for me as an innocent and plead “Father, forgive them …”, how much more then should I do the same in my love for for Him? So easy to say … God help us, help me.
This essay calls to mind Abraham Lincoln’s final inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, three years after the death of his son, Willie, and a little more than a month before his assassination. How easily Lincoln’s war-weary wisdom applies to our nation today: “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Thank you, Philip! Yes, how can we obey the (thankfully) clear command of Christ to “Love our enemies” –and pray for them–if we do not intentionally listen to them and try to understand their world?
Thanks for this. Your objective journalistic approach and irenic style is much needed and appreciated.
This is a recent FB post. I wrote, “Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I have been doing some weeping recently for the body of Christ (the church, followers of Jesus) and would like to apologize and ask forgiveness for misrepresenting Christ to you and for not seeing and taking time to understand your heart. There is no excuse or justification for any actions which have been done without love and sharing your pain especially any pain we may have caused. I am not apologizing for the behavior of demonized who are worshipping a false Jesus and blaspheming his name. I am not condemning Christians or non-Christians. Jesus loves each one of us.”
Wise and loving counsel !! Thanks Philip.
Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Brice would be proud to have known you.
My mom turned 94 in September. She battles severe physical pain 24/7. She had to move out of her home that she raised 8 kids in, lost her husband, cared for her 102 yr old father who died in my arms, in the home.
She moved to an apartment, lived there a year, moved in with me for a year, then to an assisted living.
She had shingles in her eye. Screamed at the pain a few times, but didn’t cry.
She has lived through isolation for months in quarantine in one room in the assisted living. ( I have physical issues and can’t care for her). She has been near abandoned by most of her kids. Her church dropped off contact even though at age 90 she was president of the mission committee. Out of sight, out of mind. I never heard her cry.
When we buried my 5 year old daughter, so many years ago, I saw no tears.
The day she saw the news of the attack in the Capital, she cried. She didn’t hide it. Mom cried. She wants to go home, to Jesus. She is broken over the divide.
I ask anyone reading this to get down on your knees. Pray. Pray for truth and understanding. For grace, oh, how we need grace.
And pray for mom, oh please pray for mom.
Thank you for writing this, Philip. It is true that we are now in a shame based society so any word or action perceived as not OK puts that person in social jail. I think your suggestion to find ways of serving together with others in prison, homeless or other ministries earns each of us enough credibility to both ask about someone’s views and to possibly share ours. When a person who holds a different belief system sees our heart through shared acts of love then they can see that our belief systems stems from a desire to love. Time reveals the fruit of any decision or belief system and time will show the fruit of our political choices and in time our views and perspectives and understanding will shift accordingly. But we have only just set sail in a new direction and time has not shown us yet if we are headed toward better or worse. For those of us who are optimistic about the political changes, we must humble ourselves to remember that God is in control and doesn’t take sides. For those of us who oppose the new changes and see danger ahead, we must remind ourselves that God is sovereign over all rulers and principalities and He is still on His throne accomplishing His purposes.
Thanks Philip, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think the biggest challenge is when the other person has an alternative reality and is either unwilling or unable to accept facts. A bit like trying to counsel someone with a drinking problem when they are drunk… you really have to wait for them to sober up and only then can any real dialogue take place ( and yes we love them whether they are drunk or sober)
Great analogy! And we also have to make sure that we are not the ones who need sobering up…
Thank you Philip,
I have tried some of these methods and have not always met with success. But they are the only way to try. If we want to carry the banner of Christ we have to try to find some common ground. Bless you and keep reminding us that a soft answer turns away wrath
Yes, Philip. I agree 100%!!
In Germany we have debates in the news about the election and new start of togetherness every day now.
Very well said. We need more people in the world saying what you are saying. I will try to be one of them and will also share this with all my friends. Thank you for this much needed work that you are doing.
Thank you again for sharing your perspective and knowledge on a difficult matter. How can I reach this level of communication while remaining authentic in conversations when woundeness is prevalent and healing not in view? How do I maintain willingness to continue conversation when my attempt to share is minimize or considered non existence with “move on?” I believe the political divide is rooted in our country’s inability and unwillingness to have candid conversations about race matters. How can we reach reconciliation when we’re unable to acknowledge, name our “evil elephants” that exist? Again, thank you for your applicable input. You’re always a beacon of light.
Thank you for offering this suggestion on how to begin healing. The last for years of cruelty and inflammatory rhetoric have been painful to endure, however I want to have a role now in healing and peacemaking and your suggestions are taken to heart.
Thank you for this sorely-needed counsel! I am 84 years old, and never before have I seen a time when so much hatred of the “other” has been evident. Divisions run right through families and for the first time I am beginning to understand how families can be fractured. I am going to send this to all my family members and hope we can practice the methods you have suggested.
Thank you for getting to the heart of the matter. Much food for thought.
Exactly! And thank you for the Daryl Davis reference. Examples like this from “both sides” would lead us in the right direction. God bless! ❤️
I have tried , Philip. A man whom I have a high level of respect for his Christian faith and his intelligence responds with anger; belittling any sources that I use calling them propaganda sites, speaks in demeaning terms about the people I support and the ideas I present, and to put it mildly, is just plain rude toward my beliefs (other than my Christian beliefs). I am saddened by his lack of openness and have resolved to save the friendship by limiting contact with him. And this makes me profoundly sad.
As always you encourage us to take the higher ground thank you.
Well said. The problem like in marriage counseling is that both sides need to want to make the situation (or the marriage) better which is rarely where things begin. So someone has to take the initiative to start this process despite likely and immediate resistance. If I may switch metaphors, your suggested steps are a great place to start but like seeds they need to find some fertile ground of receptivity in order to germinate. Sadly there is a lot of thorny soil of disinformation and fear that I have found can quickly choke shoots of growth. But I agree with you and hope that an abundant sowing of these seeds of intellectual, spiritual and relational integrity will indeed prove to be fruitful. Thanks!
Excellent and practical, Philip! Thanks!
Thank you Philip!
Thank you for this. I have believed this for a long time and tried to practice it on FB and have been blasted from both sides/
It sounds so simple. So many I believe are lonely and afraid and challenging belief systems means that we would have to look inward, and find that there is not much there. We hold on to traditions because we think they are the only solid thing We possess. If we changed our views, friends and loved ones might treat us as if we were not sophisticated, not able to think for ourselves. I’m afraid I speak from experience. It takes courage to be open to truth and what ‘loving the enemy‘ really looks like. I can only pray that the senseless hate we see will motivate us to change
Thank you for this write up
Thank you Philip for this heart felt essay. “Listening”, the truest form of “listening” is my prayer for today. Starting with me.
Thanks for this. I’m one person who really needed to read this message.
A truly insightful and challenging article Philip.
Divisions would be healed if we all adopted this response .
It starts with me…….
Wise and, of course, timely. Thank you, Philip.