A generation or two ago, “polite society” generally observed a hard-fast rule of conversation: Nice people don’t talk about politics. Today, we seem to have swung to an opposite, dangerous extreme: We can’t talk if you disagree with me about politics! In far too many instances, it seems like political alignment has become the sine qua non of community. That is sad, for a lot of reasons. Let me list a few:
- We have forgotten that disagreement is not dismissal. It seems like an increasing number of people receive disagreement as a kind of verbal attack. When someone takes the other side of a political issue, rather than becoming an occasion for discussion, understanding and, perhaps, persuasion, it becomes a license to unfriend them from life!
- We are forgetting how to listen. When someone’s convictions about important issues become summarized like a bumper sticker that can be affirmed or denied, they are easily dismissed. Rather than leaning in and asking them to share, it sometimes feels easier to write them off.
- We are forgetting that it is good to wrestle. Increasingly, we are organizing ourselves into special interest groups where everyone shares the same opinion and perspective on the world. In other words, we seek groups that only affirm us and our beliefs. Of course, it is great to have friends with whom we share common convictions. The danger is that we can simply seek out people who confirm our biases. When our friendships are open to varying perspectives, we are challenged to grow, to step forward, to be open to the fact that we do not really know it all. That is a very healthy thing.
- We are forgetting how to love through conflict. True love is really only tried when it is tested by conflict. Our fractured society is in danger of becoming a collection of special interest groups that find it easy to dehumanize and dismiss “the other.” That is never a good thing in culture. It is something that Christians can never embrace.
This is only a partial list of some of the dangers of living in a politicized and polarized culture. As Christians, we need to ask ourselves: Is it possible to discuss politics without getting political? The truth is, we are positioned to be a force for preservation in an era of disintegration. We can push back against the tide of dismissal, division and discord. To do so, we need to keep a few things in mind:
- Be personal before being political. In every single case, there is a person holding on to particular political beliefs. And that person is not simply a political party or set of ideological slogans. That person is someone who thinks, feels, values, reasons. When we find ourselves disagreeing with a person’s politics, or they vehemently disagree with something we have said, do not give into the temptation simply to debate political alignment. Instead, lean in and ask a question, “Why does this issue matter to you?” This removes the topic from the realm of win-lose political debate and into the sphere of personal convictions and values.
- Discover areas of common ground. Because every human is made in the image of God, we can be sure that there are common desires and aspirations in each person’s heart. Without exception, each person we meet, at their deepest level of being, has a hunger for truth, goodness and beauty. They might be seeking to fulfill these deep desires in entirely misguided ways. But we need to understand what these things are. Very often, we see political debate as a fundamental difference of opinion. Sometimes, maybe much of the time, we are people who care very deeply about some of the very same things. We simply are divided by the ways we seek to safeguard or promote those things.
- Ask. This is perhaps the most important thing we can do. I mentioned it already in the first point. But a series of important questions opens up conversation rather than shutting it down. Greg Koukl, author of Tactics and a guest on the Organic Outreach Podcast, calls these questions “The Columbo Tactic.” He lists them as: “What do you mean by that?” And “How did you come to that conclusion?”
- Be a loyal citizen. Before we are citizens of any country, Christians are called to citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. Within this Kingdom, human political parties will come and go. In the end, every vestige of this world-system will disintegrate. What will matter most is very simple: Have we been loyal to our King? If that is the case, we should care much more about a person’s eternal destiny than whether they voted like us in the last election.
Of course, I am making it sound way too easy. Inevitably, if we engage people with opinions different from our own, there will be moments of tension, confusion and even frustration. These are the moments we are called to remember the most important thing: Love. Yes, there it is. I said it. Maybe I sound like a John Lennon song. But whether he knew it or not, Jesus beat Lennon to the center of it all. We are called to faithful, courageous, uncompromising, self-sacrificial love in every situation. That means we want what is best for another person. Sometimes, that just might be a person willing to ask good questions and lend a listening ear.
Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House. Adam is also a contributing writer and adjunct teacher on the Organic Outreach International team, serving as the Director of Cultural Apologetics and hosting our Organic Outreach Podcast.