You don’t have to be an astute observer to recognize the intense political discord in our nation. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are merely dramatic examples of that phenomenon.
Long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, however, Americans were becoming less and less capable of even talking with those who disagree with them strongly. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons in their book Good Faith state: “Our research shows that having meaningful conversations is increasingly difficult for many of us. This is true not only on an individual level but also society-wide” (Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016], 17. Check out the book to see their research on this point. For one example, they report that 87% of evangelicals don’t feel comfortable having a religious conversation with a Muslim!).
Social media has only made this worse. In a recent interview, NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggested that with social media present, there is little hope of healing our political discord: “So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side, I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again” (read the whole interview here.)
Strong ideological opinions and religious views always seem to lead to conflict.
This is not surprising. If someone believes that their viewpoint is absolute, then shouldn’t they seek to give it political prominence? Wouldn’t it lead to an attempt to dominate all others in the name of one’s absolute?
Some suggest that we can deal with this is to abandon our strong religious and ideological perspectives. At the least, we should just not talk about them. This is just what many people have chosen to do. As Kinnaman and Lyons explain, “An uncomfortably large segment of Christians would rather agree with people around them than experience even the mildest conflict” (Good Faith, 18).
But there are significant problems with this. First, pride and not the views themselves are the real problem, and pride is just as likely to assert itself in other areas. Rejecting strong ideological and religious views could simply lead people to fight over their own economic interests or preferences without any recourse to values that could connect opposing parties.
Second, it leaves some of what makes us most human out of our political discourse. To be human is to think of bigger things: God, beauty, morality, and a vision for things being better than they are.
Third, how can we ask people to embrace views that are simply contradictory? As John Dickson in his insightful book Humilitas puts it, “Can we seriously ask Buddhists to accept as valid the Hindu doctrine of ‘atman’ or eternal soul when the Buddha himself rejected the idea and taught that there is no soul, and ultimatley, not even a self?” (Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011], 165).
Is there a way that people of strongly divergent views can come together in a democracy in a way that is productive and provides helpful discourse?
Yes, there is. The answer is humility. Humility is a healing balm for our political discord.
Humility means taking a “sober” view of ourselves. Though the truth is absolute, we are not. Our apprehension of the truth is often obscure and sometimes wrong. Thus, we need to have humility about our current view of things and a willingness to listen to others.
But humility is not primarily thinking less of ourselves. Humility is primarily about valuing others (see my article on this here).
This means that we recognize that people are valuable, creative, and have a great potential for good. Consequently, we desire to learn from them and listen to them.
This does not mean we give up our convictions. It simply means that even when we disagree with others, we value them and what they have to contribute. When we communicate with them, we always seek to give them a place that is safe to express their opinion without condemnation and shows them respect. We can give people space and be patient as they work through things.
As John Dickson, in Humilitas, writes:
A humble Buddhist, on my understanding, can reject the Hindu doctrine of the soul but demonstrate sincere compassion to Hindus no less than to fellow Buddhists. The humble Christian, too, can think Muslims are wrong to deny Jesus’ status as divine and his role as Saviour but still work to welcome and honour Muslims as fellow members of the human family. (168)
He goes on to suggest that “there is a failure of ethical imagination in our culture. . . . We have forgotten how to flex two mental muscles at the same time: the muscle of moral conviction and the muscle of compassion to all regardless of their morality” (169).
Humility and strong convictions can go together. Humility added into the mix of our strong convictions can provide a healing balm for our political discord.
This is an old solution. The Bible is a book that fully advocates for strong positions and convictions; however, it accompanies calls to take a firm stand with calls for humility.
Note for example 1 Peter 3:15, a classic text about giving an intellectual defense of the Christian faith. It says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” But notice that immediately after Peter adds, “But do this with gentleness and respect . . .”
How does this work itself out practically?
First, let differences of viewpoint produce curiosity rather than a desire to win. When you find out that someone thinks different than you on any topic, let your first response be to value that person and be curious to understand their thinking.
Second, listen to understand than rather to respond. The Apostle James says, “Let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.” We show we value others by listening to them. When people feel listened to, they are more open for dialogue.
Third, get to know personally people on the opposite sides of an issue or political divide. One way to get past the social media impasse is to have face to face discussions with someone who is intelligent and holds very different views from your own. Talking in person creates a whole different dynamic than Facebook.
Let me warn up front that this might be challenging. When you meet someone who strongly asserts something with which you disagree, it may make your blood boil. You are going to be inclined to enter into competition with that person. Resist the temptation. Let the person talk. I have found that people generally moderate their conversation after the initial blows. You have to take the hit in order to bridge the gap.
If you don’t have the opportunity to get to know someone who is on the opposite side of an issue, a less perfect but still better method is to read books that come from a different perspective sympathetically, to understand rather than just refute.
Finally, lead with humility. Be ready to apologize. Be ready to think the best of others. Recognize the imperfection of your own side of things.
For the Christian, I think there are so many reasons why we should take the lead in modeling and initiating humble discourse: we believe each person is valuable and created in the image of God, that we are all finite and limited, that we have all fallen into sin, that it is God’s grace alone that lifts us out of sin, that God loved us and continues to love us in spite of our sin, that He created us all for a relationship with Christ, and that each person we meet is potentially redeemed in Christ.
In light of that, don’t we have great reason to lead with humility and love those with whom we disagree, even if we don’t and shouldn’t discard our convictions?
Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if Christians were known for humility and listening in the midst of our political discord? If they took the lead in demonstrating the way forward in using social media responsibly? If we were known as the people to whom anyone could come and receive a sympathetic hearing? Wouldn’t our interest and value of others make our position much more attractive, tenable, and compelling?
Let’s dream and pray for that day.