People have always disagreed about politics and they always will. After all, we’re dealing with complex, nuanced ideas that require much wisdom to apply to everyday life. But what if the problem isn’t merely the political ideas about which we differ? What if the problem (or at least, a large part of it) is that we’ve lost the ability to dialogue with people that we disagree with?
This is exactly what has happened in our society today. Social media and podcasts transform our opinions into convictions and then offer an assortment of tribalistic communities. With the help of algorithms and echo chambers, our convictions then become moral absolutes and we distance ourselves from those on “the other side.” Whole communities form around our irritations and we assume that anyone who doesn’t see things the way we do is either evil or an imbecile.
Fortunately, there’s a better way forward. If we approach conversations with a sense of tolerance, empathy, and love, we can reshape the political climate around us.
Tolerance is one of the highest virtues in our society today, made clear by the fact “intolerant” is one of the worst names to be called. But what do we mean by “tolerance”? The way the word is used commonly today, “tolerance” means that all beliefs are equally valid so you’re not allowed to say anyone is wrong. If you think your belief is “the truth,” then you’re being intolerant to everyone else. This approach, however, is vastly different from the traditional understanding of the virtue of tolerance. Historically, tolerance means treating someone with respect even when you disagree with their beliefs. Of course people have different beliefs, especially in the realm of politics. True tolerance is based not on the equality of ideas but on the equality of people. It sees the dignity in the person on the other side of the conversation before it sees the position they hold.
Recognizing the dignity in others applies to social media as well. The internet is not a sealed-off area where the commands of Christ don’t apply. Slander on Facebook is still slander. Being divisive on Twitter is still being divisive. Crude talk online is still crude talk.
If you value relationships as much as you value being right, then your political discussions should take place face to face. During the pandemic, video chats and telephone calls are a good option. Make the conversation personal, don’t hide behind memes, tweets, and posts.
If it sounds hard to have a face-to-face conversation with someone who holds opinions you look down on, guess what? It is. You can’t treat someone with dignity if you look down on them. You have to understand someone from their own frame of reference. You need empathy.
It’s easy to demonize people on the other side of the aisle when you don’t know how they arrived there. That won’t change until we are able to ask questions and listen well enough to put ourselves in their position.
If your friend sits on the other end of the political spectrum and the only explanation you have is, “He’s just dumb” or “she was brainwashed at college,” then you lack empathy and you don’t actually know your friend. What’s worse, those comments only add to the animosity and cruelty plaguing our political discourse. There is enough of that already. We need something else.
Hatred is one of the most powerful forces in our culture right now. When moral outrage is coupled with the dehumanization of our opponents, there aren’t many other options. But the problem is that hate induces a response of hate and leads to a never-ending cycle of animosity.
Think about it: If you respond to hate with hate then you end up becoming what you hate.
Martin Luther King Jr. rightly diagnoses the problem and points to the remedy.
“Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”
Only love can break the cycle of hate.
Of course, Dr. King was drawing from the very Scriptures he so often preached from:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who
rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:14-17, 21)
Imagine what it would be like if Christians were known for their love, especially during political campaigns.
Look to Jesus
The way we talk about politics is just as important as what we believe about politics. And if Christians are going to have a different way of engaging in such difficult topics, we have to keep our eyes fixed on Christ.
In his book A Gentle Answer, Scott Sauls shows how Jesus is the way forward:
“Because Jesus Christ has loved us at our worst, we can love others at their worst.
Because Jesus Christ has forgiven us for all our wrongs, we can forgive others who have wronged us. Because Jesus Christ offered a gentle answer instead of pouring out punishment and rejection for our offensive and sinful ways, we can offer gentle answer to those who behave offensively and sinfully toward us.”
It is possible to have firm convictions and be respectful with people who disagree with you on political matters. Even more, it’s necessary.