Will you come home for the holidays if Donald Trump wins the election? the mother asked her grown daughter. Of course! she replied, though later she found herself wondering whether the question implied a disinvitation to the family Christmas gathering given the outcome. These are the kinds of strange and tense conversations many of us have found ourselves in these days. Some have likely found relief in the renewed stay-at-home orders; not only to keep coronavirus numbers down, but also to avoid awkward conversation around the turkey and sweet potatoes. Yet that relief is likely to be short-lived.
If you’re like me, you’ve had more than a few conversations with people you care for—friends, family members, church members—who are grappling with the damage these politically-destructive days have done to relationships with people they love. Or you are feeling these tensions and cracks strongly in your own relationships as the holidays approach. How can we withstand the weight of this nation’s partisan ideologies and offer wise counsel to those we pastor and lead who are similarly burdened?
Before attempting an answer, we should be clear about the nature of the problem. After all, there’s nothing unique about family, friends, and members of the same church splitting over political perspectives. We have a history of dividing violently over ideological differences, each side thrusting the Bible at the other to justify its own position. And, in fact, many do interpret this moment as a simple matter of differing political opinions. But in this case, there is an important nuance: many of us are grieving how loved ones who share our faith can still so completely support a political movement that wraps itself in deception and corruption while dehumanizing our vulnerable neighbors. The reality that this movement also cloaks itself in Christian garb makes the pain even more pronounced. The grief is not provoked by someone’s commitment to one political party over the other. No, we are grieving how this political ideology has co-opted the language of our faith even as it threatens vulnerable people who share this same faith.We are grieving how this political ideology has co-opted the language of our faith even as it threatens vulnerable people who share this same faith. Click To Tweet
Is there hope for our fraying relationships? How do we respond to those we love deeply who themselves love Christ sincerely but who see no contradiction between following Jesus and eagerly supporting a political movement that has done so much damage? Every situation is different, but as Christians, we can’t give up on the possibility of reconciliation. We are compelled by an ethic of love that does not shrink from conflict or difference. With that said, it won’t be easy, and we’ll need some direction along the way. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as we pursue reconciliation amidst divided loyalties.
Resist Walking Away
A pastor I know describes racial privilege as having the ability to walk away. For example, as a white man, I get to choose whether to concern myself with racial injustice. But now, given the racialized nature of our country’s politics, much of the interpersonal turmoil we’re feeling is occurring in white families and relational networks. Our experience of privilege has equipped us poorly for this moment. (In contrast, many of my friends of color do not benefit from this same privilege; their engagement has been chosen for them.)
For white Christians, our formation into privilege means we often have had the option to lean away from conflict, but with reconciliation as our goal, we can forsake that de-formation and instead lean into it. So take time to think ahead about situations that you might encounter, such as responding to a friend or family member who might accuse you by saying, Are you calling me a racist for supporting the president?! Or, How can you say that Black lives matter? Don’t you know that’s a Marxist, anti-Christian movement? We can prepare ourselves for difficult conversations, responding to anxious accusations with curiosity and empathy without sacrificing the truth.
Expect Costly Discipleship
Listening as people describe the hostility they’re facing from friends and family members, I think about Jesus’ painful words in Matthew 10:34-36:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”
Choosing to lean into challenging truths with those we care about does not mean that they will stay connected with us. Some of us may have already experienced severed relationships resulting from our confession of faith. But our embodied discipleship can be equally disorienting to those around us. As we align ourselves with the presence of Jesus among the oppressed, we simultaneously reject the status quo which has long been embraced by majority-culture Christianity. Relational conflict with those who are not similarly aligned is inevitable.
During these conflicted times, we should prepare ourselves for this painful possibility. We may never willingly choose or desire relational disharmony, but we can expect that there will be some people we love who cannot accept the way we are living out our solitary allegiance to Jesus. This is lamentable, but anticipating the possibility keeps us from running from it.
Uphold Truth, not Comfort
As we lean into difficult conversations, we will experience moments when we want to make the people we love feel comfortable, even as we disagree with them. And while there’s nothing wrong with comfort, too often it comes at the expense of the truth. So, for example, we might be tempted to nod along silently when a friend complains about rampant election fraud. The truth, of course, is that powerful people are trying to disenfranchise countless voters, many whom are people of color, in violation of Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
In our desire for reconciled relationships, we cannot tolerate half-truths. Can the truth be reconciled with a lie? This can get murky in the heat of a discussion, so I’ve come up with a question I ask myself: Does anything that is being said or left unsaid dishonor the people of color I love? It’s a way of reminding myself in the moment that a half-truth told for someone’s comfort is also a lie against someone else’s humanity.
Express the God who Is Love
How do we love those friends and family members who choose not to see the vulnerability and suffering that has been exacerbated by the political movement they eagerly support? How do we love those who cut us off? How do we love those who see in the concern for our neighbors not an expression of discipleship but partisan loyalty?
I get overwhelmed by these questions and my own inability to love across difference until I remember that God is love. God already loves the people who’ve walked away, who’ve elevated partisan allegiance over neighbor love. Whether or not I feel love for them at any given moment, I can choose to express the love that God has for them. What this looks like will vary greatly for each of us. At times, for our own wellbeing, this love will be expressed from a distance. Other times it will mean pressing in, looking for tangible ways to demonstrate God’s love.
As we express the love of God to our antagonists, we show how allegiance to Jesus disrupts our enemy-making culture. Yes, we choose to prioritize God’s presence among those who’ve been marginalized in this unjust world. Yet by extending love even to our relational adversaries, we leave open the possibility of genuine reconciliation.As we express the love of God to our antagonists, we show how allegiance to Jesus disrupts our enemy-making culture. Click To Tweet
All of this might sound impossible. The power of partisan ideologies seems to overwhelm any attempt to nurture fraught relationships. And yet we are not without examples. I think especially of African American Christians who have told the truth about the racism with which their white sisters and brothers were complicit while remaining open to genuine reconciliation. As difficult and complicated as these days are, they are no more so than what these previous generations of faithful women and men faced. If they could chart the course toward reconciled relationships, then so can we.