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Loving Discourse

Now that the election cycle is in full swing and will increasingly dominate our news feeds for the rest of the year, Blog Contributor Jerome Daley shares his thoughts about how we might engage the political conversation as representatives of Christ. His invitation is for us to learn the fine art of loving even if our views about government are diametrically opposed.

By Jerome Daley, Blog Contributor

Politics…what am I thinking? Political posts are the kiss of death!

I have lost Facebook friends over posts I didn’t even know were political but were perceived as such. Seriously, it feels to me like there is nothing more polarizing in our modern culture than the political scene. And as far as I can tell, Christians are little different at this point…yet I think we should be. Profoundly different.

I’m not pretending that I don’t have strong political views (although I will not be talking about them). And sometimes it’s hard for me to appreciate folks—Christians especially—who take the other side. But I’m reaching for a way to talk about how we engage the political conversation as representatives of Christ…especially now that the election is in full swing and will increasingly dominate the news cycles for the rest of the year.

Some months ago Jason mentioned an ESPN program on college football rivalries: how the most bitter rivalries are those where schools are geographically close and the demographics almost identical. In other words, among those who are most similar and have every reason to think alike, the strongest alienations arise. Fans apply war paint and prepare to do battle against their foes. I suspect that you, like me, have seen this escalate from friendly competition to something approaching rage.

Such tribal violence troubles me, whether athletic or political. Why must politics go nuclear? How has political party become “he who must not be named”? And how is it that we can shrug off the biblical command to “love one another,” and even to “love our enemies,” and instead war against our brothers and sisters—at least internally—if we find them on the other side of the political aisle? To borrow from the apostle James, “My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

There must be another way! But honestly, what would it take to get there?

I don’t fully know…but I’d like to offer some thoughts that I’ve been chewing on for the last year. Not unlike the conversation on race, I think it would serve us well as the Body of Christ if we could take baby steps to listen with new openness of heart…and speak with new gentleness of spirit.

See what you think of these ideas:

Reject Over-Identification with a Political Party

The psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps. 121). Our help doesn’t come from the political left or the political right; our hope for national reconciliation and redemption does not rest in Washington! Which is a relief, right?

Jesus modeled this priority by avoiding the political trap about paying taxes to Caesar—redirecting people’s attention to divine authority rather than human authority (Luke 20)—and steadfastly avoiding the political agenda of the Zealots who worked to overthrow Roman rule.

Instead, Jesus identified his mission only with doing the will of the Father (John 6:38)—a heavenly agenda, not an earthly one. To be fair, Jesus challenged political leaders, threatened their power structure, and ultimately died a political death. But he never confused God’s kingdom with human kingdoms.

I don’t think this means we should boycott the political process, but maybe it means we should be wary of the kind of tribalism that aligns identity and loyalty around political power. No political party can ever represent the Kingdom of God; we can’t expect that, and when we do, we inevitably wind up justifying bad behavior.

Movements, both political and religious, generally grow from the seed of a beautiful ideal…yet tend to succumb to the pressures of institutionalism over time. Once that happens, they may still champion an ideal but are predictably subject to unwieldy power differentials. No institution, not even the church, is worthy of unqualified trust—only God.

Be Wise to the Pitfalls of Power

I’m often reminded of the well-known perspective from Lord Acton, a British historian: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton observed that a person's sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases. If this is true, and history would argue in its favor, it’s wise to carry a healthy skepticism when it comes to the rhetoric and agendas of those wielding power in our country and in the world. We need to recognize the corrosive tendencies that power cover over those who hold it.

But this is tricky because it’s also easy to become jaded and cynical. So we’re torn by forces on both sides: on one end, the political system tried to seduce us into becoming true “believers” in their story, and on the other end, we’re tempted to bitterness and disillusionment once we get disappointed.

This reminds me of Jesus’ advice, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16). What does this mean for the election? I think it means that we care and we vote. We champion the issues that matter to us. But we also don’t buy in too far or expect too much.

Give Thanks for What We Have Been Given

One truly reorienting force in this dilemma is the power of authentic gratitude that invites us to be consciously and even verbally thankful for the freedoms we have experienced in our country. They are far from perfect—and never will be.

But we don’t have to look far afield to find other countries reeling in the trauma of totalitarianism or anarchy. We can keep working for justice within a flawed system…while honoring the grace we have received. Criticism without thanksgiving falls short of the Kingdom we represent.

Let Go of the Litmus Test

Not long ago, I was told that a national Christian leader urged believers to identify the one issue that matters most to them—the one non-negotiable, whatever that is—and use that clarity to lock in on a candidate. In my (hopefully humble) opinion, this is bad advice. No single issue can define the full spectrum of governance and justice.

I believe it’s more important to look at the big picture and actually ponder the intricacies of our electoral candidates. The one-issue litmus test is a dumbed-down political strategy. It’s attractive because it keeps us from having to do the harder work of discerning character, which is my next point.

Value Character over Platform

This point might wind up being the most controversial, but I believe it aligns with the ethic of Jesus who told us that a “tree is recognized by its own fruit” (Lk 6:44). We all know that words and actions can speak quite differently: It’s all too easy to use personal charisma to sway a crowd with compelling ideals; it’s quite another to live out actual integrity over decades.

You can’t separate policy from character, dismissing egregious behavior in one’s personal life as irrelevant to the responsibility of executive decision-making. Life doesn’t compartmentalize like that; we are all of a whole. Bad fruit in one’s personal life will show up as bad fruit in one’s public life. Policy issues are one point of reference for character, yet they are far from the whole thing. As challenging as it is to perceive the integrity of a stranger, we must do all we can to discern exactly that.

Discern With Humility

And discernment really is the issue—spiritual discernment that cuts through inflated rhetoric, strength of personality, and party affiliation. We can’t relegate that discernment to another person or group; we must do our own work on this. With humility.

Most of the issues that form the deepest divides in our country are split roughly down the middle. Think about this for a moment:

About 165 million Americans take the opposite view to your strongest convictions on economic, social, and international concerns.

What do you do with that reality? Do you assume they are all idiots, or worse, fiends trying to destroy all that’s good and dear in the world? Or do you wonder what virtues and values lead them to take that posture…and if perhaps you have missed some of the nuances of the conversation?

Humility is perhaps the greatest need of our day when it comes to politics. It’s not a matter of being wishy-washy or soft on justice. It’s a matter of seeking to understand the person who represents another perspective—to listen, to challenge, and ultimately to respect your “enemy.”

The truth probably lies somewhere between CNN and Fox. And the “villain” in your political narrative probably isn’t the other party as much as it is the commoditization of information that feeds off controversy and ideological violence.

Discuss with Kindness and Respect

If we can muster the inner authority to resist tribal warfare on the political front and embrace humility in the national debate, then we have a chance of actually living out the prime directive of our faith: love. And love is always where God is to be found.

From a place of genuine love of our fellow humans—all trying to figure this stuff out best we can—we can then venture into the conversation with kindness and respect. Without sweeping caricatures and ideological gauntlets but with a commitment to relationship above party.

Truth matters…and the plea for relationship is not a request for going soft on truth. But the truth is that we only know the truth in part. And the thing about being human is that we don’t always know which part of the truth we don’t know.

Perhaps the most fitting ending for this post comes in the words of Paul: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:12-13).

My brothers and sisters, let us learn the fine art of loving as we engage in political discourse together.


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